12 November 2011

Elaine Mercado's "Grave's End"

The 2001 cover.
So...it's 11pm and I am writing this blog essay one hour before it's due. I totally suck! I've been in a mode for the past few weeks where I've become easily distracted and have waited until the last minute to complete any and all tasks. Bad dog! I need to break this habit fast!

The good news is that a lot of my brain's wanderlust has been devoted to the novel I'm working on, but unfortunately at the expense of other things. And I read Grave's End last weekend and had plenty of time to draft a sound, critical essay. But, no. I've been overly ponderous. And instead of being a good student, today I devoted eight hours to my good friend Drew, where we discussed the mysteries of the cosmos. Of course, this was all for the sake of my novel (which becomes more and more esoteric and mystical as I plot the rest of it) and I've got the gears working, so I'm confident it'll be a while before I smash into another dreaded writer's block.

Because I spent the last eight hours asking all of those BIG QUESTIONS with Drew, my brain is still in epic ponderous philosophical mode. So I'm going to spin this into my reading of Grave's End and focus on Elaine Mercado's own BIG QUESTIONS.

When we try to uncover the truth, there are several ways of looking at it. Elaine Mercado dealt with a long, consistent haunting that spanned many years, experienced by her own family and witnessed occasionally by people outside of it. This story is labeled as a "true ghost story."

There's truth, and then TRUTH! This story could be false because there are no such things as ghosts, or a spiritual realm, or unseen sentient forces we cannot control (no proof anyway). There's never been consistent evidence to validate things of this nature; but they live on and are discussed because it is the beliefs of others (their faith, or perceptions) that makes these things real.

Elaine's story sounds real. I don't know if every single thing happened exactly as she wrote it down (memory distorts actual events; word choice and syntax can change the meaning of her sentences; she still has to tell a story even though it's a recounting of actual occurrences), but I do think she truly experienced these strange events. Because she believes, 100%, that they did happen.

This story is ELAINE'S TRUTH. But is it THE TRUTH?  There's a difference between the two, and the key is perception.

The biggest reason why I think Elaine's story is more believable than something like, oh, I don't know, the Amityville Horror, is that she really seems to struggle with her belief systems and comprehension of the events. She seeks THE TRUTH throughout the entire story, by enrolling in college courses about parapsychology and the paranormal, by asking for help and validation by people outside the tight family unit, and most importantly, by asking THE BIG QUESTION (right after the house is "cleaned" of its spirits):

"[Was]...the phenomena [...] really gone, or [did] ...we just perceive it as gone?" (Mercado 164). A few pages later, and after some exploration and reflection on the haunting, Elaine dives in a little bit more: "What if our ability to perceive the paranormal had been impaired? What if everything was still going on, but we couldn't see it, hear it, or feel it?"

Of course I can start right off the bat and go, "What if you perceived your house to be haunted and it actually wasn't?" But we'll skip over that. The house is pretty consistent with its manifestations, and exhibits some "common" symptoms of hauntings. Even the "suffocating dreams" Elaine and her family has is a documented phenomena (look up the Night Hag in Great Britain. Freaky). The things that happened in the house were weird and random, but they didn't seem like things someone plucked out of the air, or from 30 different B-horror films (ahem, Amityville and your green slime marching band demon pig madness). You've got the bad dreams, the feeling of being watched, the balls of light, the Mist, audible voices, etc. Classic haunted house stuff.

Even if Elaine decided to research classic haunted houses and then spin a "true story" that exhibited classic haunted house behavior, the fact that it went on for YEARS (versus 28 days), and the number of people who experienced strange things to corroborate the events, and the fact that she didn't right away attribute the hauntings to god or the devil--the faith struggle came AFTER the house was cleaned....it just seems more plausible. And you can't fake that type of emotional response. Especially because Elaine spends so much time trying to process what actually happened once they're free and clear.

The point is she expresses doubt for a lot of these events. She questions her perceptions, if the "cleansing" was actually a type of paranormal placebo, if there is a logical explanation, if these hauntings are TRUTH that there is something beyond life and the world we live in now.

She's a lot more endearing and sympathetic to me because she isn't sure exactly about everything that's going on or what it all means. She has her truth, which she can verify because these things actually happened to her, she perceived these things while they happened and experienced the outcome of the each paranormal event. She's content with her truth, and doesn't need to understand TRUTH itself.

This really spoke to me because it falls under the issue of perception creating truth, but not necessarily the actual truth. My research paper for this class focuses on this idea, as well as my novel itself!

You've got one end of the spectrum, where perceptions can manifest the haunting. This is in the form of preknowledge...a classic case where people know the history of the haunted house, and then they go into the haunted house and the paranormal events happen to perfectly coincide with the backstory.

The human mind wants to establish connections to everything it perceives.

If I go into a house, and I'm told that for a fact an axe murderer chopped up seven people and it's "haunted," you bet I'm going to be looking for axes in the corners, and pieces of people in the fridge. The idea has been planted. I perceive the story I've just been told as fact, and even if strange phenomena occurs that doesn't seem linked to the axe murderer story, my brain will find a way to establish a logical connection to it anyway just to keep me from going insane. Hooray defense mechanisms!

But what if I go into that same house, still confirmed haunted, and I don't know what's waiting there for me?  Will I perceive the strange occurrences just for what they are--strange occurrences? What if someone just says, "that house is spooky?" and that's all I've got before I go inside? Will I see weapons and dead bodies? Will I hear noises? Will I see "orbs" because I've watched too many paranormal investigations shows? What will I try to do to rationalize all of this?

My character Lily in my novel, The Name and the Key, asks these same questions when she experiences some bizarre events. She is told not to look in mirrors after someone dies, because it's a window to evil spirits. She looks into a mirror and wham, evil spirit. Her friend Andresh tells her not to keep anything that belonged to her dead mother, because if she holds onto it, she actually carries the dead with her. So guess who follows her around because she "hasn't let go?"

But the interesting thing is that Lily has never encountered this belief system (based on Roma and how they deal with death, mulo, and the unclean) before until she met Andresh. Andresh tells her what will happen if she doesn't do X, she doesn't do X and it happens exactly as Andresh says it will. Would she have come up with any of these manifestations if Andresh hadn't planted the seed in her brain?

In Grave's End, this swings in the other direction for Elaine when she questions whether or not the house is still haunted after the "cleansing" is done. Is the house clean because these experts told her they cleaned it, and went through a time-consuming series of "rituals" to purge the house and "redirect" the spirits? If the paranormal investigators kicked them out of the house, did the cleansing on their own, and then let the family back in without a single word, would Elaine still perceive the house as haunted because she didn't witness the cleansing (she has to take their word for it)?

It reminds me of a shamanic healing ceremony I went to in the spring. I'd never gone to anything like it before and I was invited to go because my sister is badass, has trained to be a healer, and this is part of her belief system. I'm still struggling with my belief system, but I was game for it anyway because I thought it was all really neat. My brother refused to go because he is skeptical of many, many things and thought the whole thing was kinda crazy sounding. I think he and my sister are both right and true.

When I left the healing ceremony, I did feel lighter and better about myself and I tried to explain it logically to my brother. I said, "I don't know if what they did literally helped me; if these healers saw the things they said they saw; or if it's just random images that popped in their heads that they perceived as real...the point is, I went into a room full of people who just wanted to help me, to make me a better, stronger person, and for nothing in return. Just that alone was enough to make me feel healthier after all was said and done. Of course I left the room happy; I was with a group of people who really loved what they did, believed it with all their hearts, and believed that they were there to help me."

Sometimes that's really all you need to know. It's okay to ask the big questions....I walked out of that shamanic ceremony with my truth, but not necessarily THE TRUTH. And in the end, I felt better, and that was the point of the ceremony.

It doesn't matter if Elaine's house is still haunted or not, and if they can still perceive spirits or not. The point is, they're no longer afraid or trying to fight their experiences. It happened to them, they perceived it as really happening, so who's to say it isn't true (even if it's not TRUE)? Elaine met people who spent hours of their time (granted, for $250) with the intent to help not only the house's residents, but to help the spirits who were for whatever reason stuck there. She doesn't need to know the answers to her questions about perception, because the end result is what matters. She perceived the house to be clean, and it's what she wanted, and she met good people. So...the house is clean.

I enjoyed reading this book precisely because all of the connections I made to it on many personal levels. And I like the idea of asking questions, and experiencing doubt, and wondering about the nature of things...but sometimes, you don't need all of that. You can still get a positive outcome without having solved life's mysteries.

As I continue writing my novel I'll bear all that in mind. Good stuff to think about! yeah!

Mercado, Elaine. Grave's End: A True Ghost Story. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2001. Print.


  1. I like how you tied this post into the process of writing your novel. Very cool. A couple of us seem to be taking a beating because we didn't necessarily believe everything Elaine said. So I agree with you that this is absolutely Elaine's truth, but whether it's the actual truth is anyone's guess. I've dealt with people (*cough*mother*cough*) who believe wholeheartedly that they experienced something which never happened, which is why I can't just unquestioningly swallow what Elaine says. She and my mother have a great deal in common, actually, and that's why I felt that Elaine has unresolved psychological issues--because my mother absolutely does. I wanted to put that in my blog, but my mother reads it. To anyone who thinks I was being an ass toward Elaine, that's why. Been there, done that.

  2. I agree with you about this story seeming more real than others. Of course, there's always the non-believers when it comes to the topics of ghosts, hauntings, etc., but I like how you said Mercado struggled with coming to terms over what happened in her house. She makes you believe not only because the events that took place seem more real and believable, but because we feel that sense of her believing it herself. She's consistently telling us that she honestly felt that her house was hautned during this time and although some may think she's validating the events for us, I think she's telling herself that the stuff really happened. Nice post!

  3. Thank you, Kristina, for doing a blog on my book, Grave's End. You comments are quite insightful and right on the money. It has been many years since the haunting, and I can tell you honestly that I remain a skeptic and often wonder just what it was that happened to us in that house. My daughters are grown, happy, in good careers and marriages, and I have a lovely granddaughter. But once in a while during our busy lives, we begin talking about what happened. My husband, Matthew and my brother, Joe, still argue about what it might have been. Matthew is a nearly complete believer, Joe is not, and I still read about and wonder about what the paranormal really is. My daughters are more skeptical than myself and married totally skeptical men. Your analysis of Grave's End was briliant. Yes, it was my truth, and that was the only truth I could tell. Was it THE truth? I still don't know. Thanks again for your blog post. Best regards. Elaine Mercado

  4. Elaine! I'm glad you and your family are well. You honor me by commenting on this post, and thank you for your kind words about my analysis.

    Even after everything that's happened to you and your family, I appreciate that there's still a healthy appetite for wonder there. As Charles Sheffield said, “An easy question can have an easy answer. But a hard question must have a hard answer. And for the hardest questions of all, there may be no answer - except faith.”

    Thank you for stopping by and reading my post. I really appreciate it, and wish you well.

  5. You are very welcome. Please excuse the few typos in my reply, especially the spelling of "brilliant." Thanks again for your comments on Grave's End. I like the Sheffield quote so much I think I'll use it in my new blog, elainemercadoparanormal.blogspot.com, where I try to address some of the questions about Grave's End that I've received through the years.
    Very best regards, Elaine


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