Recently I toured one of the most haunted places in the world, the old Waverly Hills Tuberculosis Sanitarium in southwest Louisville. It’s been featured on many “ghost hunt” TV pseudo-documentaries on cable TV, in fact, you can watch one on a giant screen while you’re queuing up for your tour and finishing your purchases at the gift shop.
The place has fascinating architecture and terrazzo and marble floors still in perfect condition. Otherwise, it’s an empty shell with no windows or many doors. The place is enormous – 135,000 square feet. They’ve been talking for years about remodeling it into a hotel.
But it seems to be doing pretty well as a mecca for ghost hunters. Apparitions, it is said, are frequent there. Like the nurse who hanged herself outside room 502, the little child with the ball, and the dark-haired woman in the white nightgown. For the most part, it’s pretty mild stuff. My wife took picture after picture of black rooms, hoping to grab a picture of a ghost. There is a photo of me and a woman, and behind her peeks out a ghostly face, but it turned out to be a reflection of the back of my head. One young woman took a photo and got excited when she saw what appears to be a ghostly face peeking out from behind her butt, until we figured out that it was only her hand.
“That’s the last time I drink margaritas before doing something like this,” she said forlornly. Her ‘I felt so stupid’ story is the best one to come out of the evening.
The sanitarium was opened in 1928 and operated until 1960 and the development of streptomycin. It struggled on for a few more years as a nursing home, then began to decay. They say that at its peak of operation, someone died there every hour, twenty-four hours a day, seven days week. The treatment for TB at the time was rest, nutrition, and fresh air.
I sensed the presence of nothing supernatural there, but there were a few wacky folks in our group who picked up on some things. One woman said she felt a ghost dog brush against her leg.
“Oh, yes,” said the tour guide, “I’ve seen that dog.”
They do run an awesome haunted house on the weekends before Halloween.
I thought for a moment: what if I had experienced something supernatural there? What if I’d seen a ghost, or felt a deathly chill run through my body? What if I’d gotten the willies? Since I am so seriously anti-delusion and anti-metaphysics, not to mention anti-fear, what if I did encounter the supernatural?
Would that seriously shred my view that God is a delusion and that there is nothing after death, and if you can cozy up to your own certain mortality, then you are free of fear itself? You experience the void, (emptiness) and there is great comfort in the void. I don’t have to shiver like a mouse and profess belief in the mysteries of God’s ways on the chance I could go to heaven and abide for eternity. As a matter of fact, I can think of nothing more horrifying than heaven. I don’t want to live forever. At my age, all things considered, I’m on borrowed time as it is.
But I am very comfortable with the idea of ceasing to exist. Even if traditional Buddhist notions of rebirth are true, death is still the end of you. There is no soul to transmigrate anywhere. When it’s over, it’s over.
There is a word for people like that: enlightened. You’re not part of the disease, the mental disease of cowardice that compels people to believe in deities and life after death, and spooks, and goblins, and the Republican Party. You’re part of the cure. Nibbana (Nirvana) is the snuffing out of your flame. The Buddha tells us that life is grim at the end, but you don’t have to suffer, if you’ve got a strong mind.
George Carlin was right when he said that religion – the belief in God – is the cause of all the evil in the world. Just look around you. Anybody who professes belief in something religious see themselves as superior to people who don’t believe what they do. That’s the way it works. That’s why they exist. The promise of paradise is religion’s cynical way of supporting the political status quo. People are timid, and will believe anything. They’re easy to sway to conventional wisdom. Just look at all the religiously-tainted crap going on in the world today, from evangelical Christianity’s influence in conservative American politics to the absurd turmoil between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, ostensibly about a disagreement about what happened 1500 years ago – and heads have been rolling ever since.
So, nobody tours Waverly Hills in the winter because it’s too damn cold. I wonder what it would take to negotiate something out so that I could spend the night alone there? Wrapped up in my old Holubar Arctic sleeping bag, sipping bean soup and coffee out of thermos bottles, and no light source, of course. I never built fires back in my backpacking days, so that I could emerge from the dome of light and sound and appreciate the night for what it was, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to take a hissing Coleman lantern for this gig. Meditate all night and try to leave myself as open to new experience as I possibly can. Maybe they’ll find me frozen to death with a hideous look of terror on my face.
Then, along about 3:35 a.m., I can see a whitish blob way down the end of the hallway that sort of floats slowly toward me, and soon I see the apparition of a small woman with dark hair walking toward me. I ain’t afraid of no ghosts, in fact, I feel an initial disappointment at seeing her: so much more now to learn, at such an advanced age. She sits cross-legged right in front of me, puts her elbows on her knees, and her chin in her hands, looking into my eyes. And I look into hers, squinting because she’s kind of hard to see. She tells me without words that there is more to heaven and earth than I can possibly fathom. And then she dissipates like steam.
Horrified by living a foolish life of disbelief and self-delusion, I hurl myself to death off the balustrade where so many TB patients went for fresh air.
The Dalai Lama said that if any empirical evidence came along to refute something that Buddhism holds true, that Buddhism would have to change. I said that I would undertake such a spooky night with a mind that’s open – bring it on ghosts! Convince me that the supernatural exists, because if you’re real, then the possibility that God exists is real. And then if God is real, then my opinion of humankind as a quivering mass of cowardice would be wrong, and I am in denial.
But until I see a ghost, or the hand of God in the world, I’m gonna kinda freaking doubt it.