As I write this, I’m hard at work on my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt, which tells the story of an observatory haunted by the ghost of its founder. Much of the novel is inspired by my own experiences at observatories. Last month, I put out a call for haunted observatory stories and I’ve heard some interesting tales.
Author and editor David B. Riley tells me he heard stories of shadow entities at Chabot Observatory in Oakland, California. He had a roommate many years ago who worked for Oakland Park Police and swore people were seeing entities around there. Shadow entities are also known as black ghosts.
So far, my most convincing ghost encounter was with one of these shadow entities on the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. I was in the changing rooms of the First Class swimming pool and took a photo. I thought I saw a person reflected in the flash, but when I walked in that direction, no one was there. When I looked at the photo on my computer and adjusted the contrast and brightness, I saw a figure standing there, apparently in an old-fashioned bathing suit. For some reason, this “being” was not illuminated in my flash! You can read the full story here: “Queen Mary Ghost”
Dr. Don Terndrup of Ohio State University told me a story about an observatory where visiting astronomers were cautioned about the woman in white. She would appear in the morning, not long before sunrise, holding a tea kettle. Sure enough, the observers would be working late into the evening when the door to the observing room would slowly creek open. They’d turn around and there would be a woman in white robes holding a kettle.
It turns out the woman was the observatory director’s wife, who would get up early to make tea for the astronomers visiting the observatory. Apparently she never understood why the astronomers always seemed so frightened when she would appear!
In last month’s post, I told the story of James Lick, who is buried under the pier of the 36-inch Telescope at Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton in California. Dr. Elinor Gates who works at the observatory tells me astronomers routinely tell tourists who come to public night at the 36-inch that Lick’s ghost will appear and snatch a visitor from the group. Of course, the astronomers guiding those sessions are just joking.
All jokes aside, it’s said that several people have seen the ghost of James Lick in the Director’s Cottage at Lick Observatory. Dr. Gates lives in the cottage and says she hasn’t seen a ghost . . . yet. That said, a previous resident claims to have had several encounters with the ghost and won’t be convinced the house isn’t haunted.
As you can tell from both of these stories, there’s a common thread of astronomers joking about ghosts. We work in dark, quiet buildings late at night. Often our minds do play tricks on us. I definitely pull an element of dark humor into The Astronomer’s Crypt. As it turns out, astronomers don’t always joke about ghosts. Sometimes we joke about vampires as well. I work as a telescope operator and that means I’m rarely seen at the observatory except between sunset and sunrise. One of my co-workers used to say we were the vampires of the mountain.
This particular co-worker was a fan of vampire novels and convinced me to sit down and read Dracula by Bram Stoker. I’ll never forget the night I read the scene in the novel where the ship carrying the vampire blows into Whitby Harbor. The townspeople find the crew of the Demeter missing. The ship’s captain is dead, lashed to the ship’s wheel. The only living creature is a massive dog or wolf that leaps from the ship and runs off into the storm. The night I read this, a particularly fierce storm blew over Kitt Peak. My duties required that I go outside to check on the buildings periodically . . . in the howling wind, pouring rain, and cracking lightning. Every time a bush rustled or a wind howled through a tree, I was convinced a wolf was going to leap out at me. I’ve been a fan of Dracula and horror novels ever since!
A few years later, I had occasion to write a vampire story. I pulled from what I knew. I told the story of a vampire who operated telescopes. He only appeared between sunset and sunrise and never complained about the hours. He never told ghost stories to scare his observers because he wanted them unwary, not suspecting he might attack at any minute. This story went on to become a central chapter in my novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order.
Although I won’t admit to being a vampire and I can’t honestly say I’ve seen a ghost at the observatory, I’ve certainly been able to channel those spooky experiences into my writing. Through them, I get to explore the stories of people rising to meet impossible challenges, which in turn tells me much about what makes us noble as human beings.
Here’s wishing you and yours a very Happy and Spooky Halloween!