Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Scary Words Every Lighthouse Keeper Knows!

For Halloween week, I’ve been posting blogs about lighthouse ghosts and the overall scariness of lighthouses. Fortunately, our vocabulary is rich in words to describe this haunted milieu; the possibilities are numerous.  And, of course, I love words. All writers do. We are logophiles!

Just for fun this Halloween week, here’s a roundup of words that might be categorized as “scary,” in the right context, and some anecdotes about lighthouses to go with them. Would-be lighthouse keepers beware! This All Hallows Eve lexicon could apply to you!

Nyctophobia: If you suffer from this anxiety, don’t even consider being a lighthouse keeper. Nyctophobia is “fear of the dark!” Yes, a lighthouse is supposed to banish the dark with its bright beacon, but you’ll be up all night communing with it…walking back and forth from your house to the tower to check the light, climbing dark stairs, chasing moths away from the beacon. Before electricity was introduced at lighthouses, the interior of light towers was dark, very dark…..except for the hand-held lantern a lightkeeper carried. It didn’t provide much light—not like modern-day LED flashlights—and it made curious shadows on the wall and stairs. You couldn’t see very far ahead of you or behind you. You were boxed into a small space of lamp light. I suppose people who lived before electric lights were accustomed to this limited sight distance. Maybe they didn’t mind the darkness as much as we do today. Our world is full of light and, frankly, our night isn’t very dark.

 Stygian: This is another great word for Halloween, as it describes the worst sort of darkness, truly black. Lighthouses stand in some of the most remote places, devoid of artificial light. So, if the beacon in the light tower went out on a cloudy, moonless night, you’d find yourself in stygian darkness. You’d have to wade through unimaginable blackness to relight the beacon. The human eye takes fully ten minutes, on average, to adjust to darkness, and even then the rods in our eyes—the light receptive cells—aren’t very efficient.  You know how scary it is when the power goes off in your house and you stumble in the darkness to find a flashlight. It was much worse at isolated lighthouses. Keepers carried a small house lantern to find their way and hoped the wind didn’t blow out the flame.

Murk: Few lighthouses are without fog, at least for part of the year. It’s creepy stuff. (Creepy! There’s another nice Halloween word!) You can’t see far into the fog, and as objects emerge from it, they appear ghostly. (Another nice Halloween word!) Several lighthouses in the United States hold records for hours of fog. The sentinels at Saddleback Ledge and Petit Manan in Maine and Point Reyes, California are sometimes socked in with fog a third of the year. Point Reyes had a loooooonnnnng stairway down to the light tower and fog signal building. On foggy nights, it was a long, murky walk for the lightkeepers. Such an unsettling experience it must have been for them to make their way through the murk on that seaside stairway several hundred feet above the waves. One errant footstep, and they could easily tumble onto the rocks and into the sea! Add to this, the strange appearance of a lighthouse beacon in the fog, and it will surely raise the hair on your neck.

 Photo by Tyler Wescott
Eerie: Lighthouse are eerie! I’ve been inside hundreds of them, many at night, and they are truly eerie—like an attic and a basement rolled into one. Air moves up and down inside the hollow tower, and it’s clammy. You get goose bumps from the moist cold air. As drafts of air move up and down inside the tower they softly sigh, as if some sad unseen presence is with you. This air movement is necessary for the health of the lighthouse, to keep it dry inside. Lighthouses are said to “breathe” when air moves through them correctly. Yikes! A breathing lighthouse??!! Shadows lurk all around you and any type of noise is amplified by the confined space and the reverberation of sound off the walls. The echo of your footsteps makes you think someone is following you. You’ve got to keep your wits about you, or you’ll swear you’re surrounded by ghosts.

Moan and Groan: These are classic Halloween words. Wooooo! Every tour I’ve given of a lighthouse has someone saying Woooo! as we climb the stairs to the top. It’s irresistible. But did you know some lighthouses moan and groan on their own? The tall, iron screwpile lighthouses of the Florida Reef are known for this phenomenon. Tall masonry lighthouses with iron stairways moan too. How do they do it? It’s a property of the metal, which expands in the heat of the day and contracts when the air cools. As metal expands and contracts it makes noise—moans, groans, shrieks, screeches, bangs. If you grew up years ago when we had metal radiators in our homes, then you remember the clanking and banking of the radiators as they heated up and cooled down. Carysfort Reef Lighthouse, standing with its iron legs screwed into the coral of the Florida Reef, is famous for this noise. Lightkeepers knew the cause, but they loved to initiate a new keeper or frighten a visitor by telling the story of the ghost of an old lightkeeper named Capt. Johnson. He was a great sinner—a drinker and womanizer who sometimes let his light go out. When he died, his punishment was eternal purgatory as a lighthouse ghost. At night and at dawn, he is often heard groaning, moaning, and generally clanking and banging about in Carysfort Reef Lighthouse.

 Photo courtesy of NOAA
Gruesome: It’s a horrible word, enshrouded in blood, injury, and violent death. Lighthouse history is replete with gruesome events.  Shipwrecks, drowning, falls, fires, earthquakes, tsunamis, suicides, murders—these are but a sampling of the horrors lightkeepers experienced. And such ghastly events often spawned ghost tales.
At St. Simons Lighthouse in Georgia, one lightkeeper went berserk (berserk—a wonderful Halloween in itself!) and shot and killed another keeper. Not long afterward, the dead keeper’s ghost was heard walking up and down the tower—a lighthouse poletergeist!
Another lighthouse ghost is in the person of Blackbeard the pirate, who was killed by beheading near Ocracoke Lighthouse, North Carolina, so naturally we hear of his headless specter seen in the area searching for his head.
A phantom ship, lost off New Haven, Connecticut centuries ago, sometimes appears in the misty harbor sailing above the water, just off the breakwater lighthouse. Similarly, the Palatine Lights are seen off Rhode Island’s Block Island Southeast Lighthouse, the place where the ship Palatine burned at sea.
A woman who drowned off Point Vicente Lighthouse, California walks the grounds of the light station nightly, her luminous hourglass form moving in a circle around the lighthouse. (The Coast Guard has identified the source of the ghost as a reflection off the tower’s huge lens.)
And so it goes, story upon story of lurid events at lighthouses that gave rise to their famous ghost tales.

 Photo by Studio 950
Macabre: And then there’s that spectral cat I told you about in an earlier blog, the one that haunts the upstairs of the keeper’s residence at Fairport Lighthouse in Ohio. The reputation of the little feline ghost was given a boost when workers found the desiccated skeleton of a cat in the walls of the house. The little corpse is, itself, a fright to see; it’s on display in the lighthouse museum. Cats are so much associated with Halloween! Considered the familiars of witches, their mysterious eyes and silent paws can give us a fright. I’m the first to admit I jolt when one of my felines jumps on my bed in the middle of the night. Read “Things that Go Bump in the Lighthouse” to learn more about this ghost cat of Fairport Lighthouse—a very macabre story!

I could go on, but your timbers are likely shivering enough by now. Chilling, shocking, mysterious, macabre, terrifying, creepy, supernatural tales about lighthouses abound!

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