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Blogtober | Ableism in the paranormal community?: A meander

***General disclaimer: Not an expert on psychology***

I can’t believe we’re reaching the end of October already. Although I have plans for Halloween, I do feel that the month has somewhat passed me by. I plan on stretching the spooky mood into November before everything gets Christmassy although, admittedly, I’m spooky all the year round.

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I finished my dissertation for my Masters last month and have been adjusting to a full-time work / sleep cycle. It’s been so strange mentally, having no obligation to research since it ended. I think I am healthy, but I plan on blogging more to force myself to have that alone time. As soon as I handed in that wad of paper I grasped back all the free time I had lost over the last year and made plans for every spare moment. I said yes to everything because I enjoyed feeling like I had friends again after having to shut myself away with my own thoughts… I got burnout as a result. I’ve learned to enjoy my own company a great deal, but there’s only so much you can take before you get cabin fever, so I guess I jumped to the other extreme. Well, I’ve had my month of being too busy to breathe, so it’s  time to get back to some kind of normality.

I’ve been thinking about Elisa Lam lately. I’ve been thinking about Marilyn Monroe. I’ve been thinking about how easy it is to call a woman crazy. How easy it is to simplify an inconclusive case by considering a mental illness a major factor, and other evidence as circumstantial.

In February 2013, a young Canadian tourist was found dead in a water tank on the roof of the Cecil Hotel, following complaints that the water was running black and had an odd taste. She had been decomposing for up to 19 days. As anyone with basic knowledge of the case will know, the LAPD released this video, which is surveillance footage of an elevator in the hotel where Elisa was seen behaving seemingly bizarrely before her death. If you are easily shaken, I wouldn’t advise watching it late at night. The footage has been the subject of much controversy, namely because a whole minute has been removed, the timestamp is obscured and other parts are slowed down or otherwise corrupted. It is unclear why the video was tampered with and, furthermore, why other footage of Elisa seen with two strange men prior to the elevator video has not been released to the public.

The subject of most controversy, however, is how and why Elisa Lam died the way she did, considering the strange anomalies in the case, and her odd behaviour in the elevator. The police first marked the case as ‘suspicious’, then concluded accidental death, which was then changed because of error to inconclusive, and later changed back to accidental death. The coroner’s report considered Elisa’s bipolar disorder as an important factor in the case, which has been much disputed, and it has been identified that one of the coroners working on the case was sued for his mishandling of an autopsy in another case. In a hotel with a grizzly history on which a long-term resident remarked, “So many things have happened in this place that nothing surprises me”, Elisa Lam’s death could easily have been brushed under the carpet over time; however, in 2017, we don’t want to let it go. There is a divide in the paranormal community in this tenacious grip on the case; some are out there to prove that Elisa was suffering from a manic episode and hallucinating, and others refuse to believe that her mental illness could have contributed to her death. Some believe she was playing a terrifying, ritualistic ‘elevator game’ and was trying to get back from another dimension called the ‘Otherworld’.

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Image: CNN

There is unfortunately little middle-ground upon which a humanised view of Elisa the Person rather than Elisa the Bipolar Sufferer or Elisa the Murder Victim can lie. Because she acted bizarrely in the elevator footage and because her illness was pounced on as a contributing factor in the case, it is all too easy for us to play our own discursive elevator game and a door has opened to a theoretical Otherworld – the world of the ‘mad’. Because madness is typically classed as outside of logic, when madness is a factor, the subject becomes a tabula rasa on which to inscribe symptoms, attitudes, behaviours, and a societal picture of mental illness. The truth is that whilst categorization is helpful to an extent in a treatment context, no two mentally ill people are the same because no two people are the same. Whilst it is a positive thing that the case has garnered so much attention because we won’t let it go, it has also contributed to a problem I consider quite harmful in the paranormal community, which is the exoticism of the mentally ill. Possible hallucination is ‘creepy’, it’s ‘fascinating’. If Elisa Lam was not on four different medications for bipolar disorder, it may not be as easy to dismiss the possibility that she is interacting with somebody else in that video, perhaps someone down the hall.

I enjoy and love Buzzfeed Unsolved, but a thing that struck me about the Lam episode was the person accompanying Ryan on the Cecil trip (it wasn’t Shane, so I don’t mind who it is) instinctively interjected with, “Yeah, but if she’s bipolar, just right there, that could explain why she was doing that.” Sadly, we have a history of having a “just right there” attitude to Bipolar Disorder, as if the illness speaks for itself. One of the points supporting the suicide theory of Kurt Cobain’s death was, “he was bipolar, so…”

It is true that bipolar suicides are common, but there is nothing inevitable about a bipolar suicide. Perhaps the point of the case now isn’t what happened, but the way we think about mentally ill people who have died suspiciously. In paranormal/unsolved mystery discussion, as it stands we are treating mental illness as something inherently threatening or horrifying in relation to the person and, in this case, a convenient solution to a complicated question. Before you share a picture of an abandoned mental asylum, ask yourself why you are sharing it. Are you truly sharing it purely for the romantic image of the derelict place itself, regardless of the institution that used to inhabit its walls? Do you think it’s haunted? If you think it’s haunted, do you think it’s haunted by the people who were committed there, or by the ill-treatment of these people throughout history? The definition of ‘asylum’ is ‘shelter or protection from danger’. When discussing mental illness in a paranormal or unsolved mystery context, shouldn’t we protect individuals with mental illness from being lumped into a general category outside of logic along with ghosts?

Anyone familiar with the ableistic work of Tumblr user Sixpenceee will know that fascination with mental illness for fascination’s sake only leads to discursive exploitation and Othering. A Kickstarter-funded documentary is being released next year which, with 3 years worth of research behind it, promises to paint Elisa Lam in a more humanised light and educate more on her life as well as her death. I have high hopes that this will help to round discussion on the topic and we will no longer think of her merely as a psychomotor-agitated or decomposing body.

Until then, let’s not cease to answer questions. The epigraph on Elisa Lam’s blog is a quote by Chuck Palahniuk, “You’re always haunted by the idea that you’re wasting your life”. When one strips the intrigue of Elisa’s case away, the supernatural possibilities regarding her death are not necessarily central. Central to her death is that it’s a tragedy but, cliché as it sounds, her life doesn’t have to be a waste. We could learn so much more by talking about her life and the circumstances surrounding it than by stagnating ourselves, continuing to thirstily drink the remains her sensational and unsavory death left behind. (Too much?)

Sleep Paralysis

What if you couldn’t jolt awake to escape from the demons and goblins in your dreams? What if they were there in your room, skulking, waiting for you to wake up?

When I younger, around 16, there was a period of time in which I had nightmares almost every night. It was an occurrence that seemed to beget and beget; after a few times, I would go to sleep wondering what the next nightmare would be, so of course, I had one. A fair portion of these experiences included sleep paralysis.

It wasn’t the first time I had experienced anxiety surrounding sleep. As a child, I got into the habit of sleeping as close to my wall as possible to avoid the view of my window, because I was paranoid that a strange man-ghost was staring at me through my window and if I couldn’t see him, he couldn’t see me. I imagined that soldiers were going to climb through my window and brutally murder me, but as long as I didn’t look at that bedroom window, their reality didn’t exist; they couldn’t cross the threshold, they couldn’t “get” me. With time, these fancies moved to the interior of my house; over and over I had a vision of a shadow figure moving slowly up my stairs and soon, soon, it would appear at my door.

I grew up in a Christian school and tried and failed to be religious – agnosticism is in my bones – but still, the only thing that calmed me down during these nocturnal attacks was repeating the Lord’s Prayer over, over, over again. It was so much engrained in me that it was the first mantra my mind jumped to, just something I knew off by heart. I repeated it to try to keep the terror at bay until I finally fell asleep. It was like counting sheep.

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There were, of course, phases where I slept like a baby, as I mostly do now. Sometimes, though, in unfamiliar places, it would get worse. During my first without-family holiday with my friends, I woke up in the middle of the night and every object around me took a human shape – I had to wake my unfortunate friend to ask her to turn the light on because I was so scared I didn’t want to leave my covers. Needless to say, it was embarrassing.

But I never imagined that one day I would wake up and physically not be able to move.

If you are unfamiliar with the condition, Wikipedia is your friend:

Sleep paralysis is when, during awakening or falling asleep, one is aware but unable to move. During an episode, one may hear, feel, or see things that are not there. It often results in fear. Episodes generally last less than a couple of minutes. It may occur as a single episode or be recurrent. […] The central symptoms of sleep paralysis is during awakening being aware but being unable to move.

Humming, hissing, static, zapping and buzzing noises are reported during sleep paralysis. Imagined sounds (voices, whispers and roars) are also experienced. These symptoms are usually accompanied by intense emotions: such as fear, and panic. People also have sensations of being dragged out of bed or of flying, and feelings of electric tingles or vibrations running through their body.

Sleep paralysis may include hallucinations, such as a supernatural creature suffocating or terrifying the individual, accompanied by a feeling of pressure on one’s chest and difficulty breathing. Another example of a hallucination involves a menacing shadowy figure entering one’s room or lurking outside one’s window, while the subject is paralysed.’

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I don’t know why it suddenly picked on me when I was in my teenage years. I woke up to the sensation of tingling in the tips of my fingers, like pins and needles, which spread like a violent shudder through my whole body, and then I couldn’t move. The only movement I could make was with my eyes; in their childish instinct, they moved toward the door. I only saw darkness, but I felt strongly that there was a presence. I felt like it was suffocating me, and my heart was racing. It was like a dark, oppressive shadow in my periphery that I knew was there but I could never see directly. Because I didn’t know what it was, I struggled against it, which makes it worse, like thrashing around in quicksand. This must have only happened for a couple of minutes, but it seemed like an age, and eventually, it became so distressing that I blacked out.

This happened a few times in a short period and a couple of times throughout the years, but the other main event I remember is when I was asleep on the couch in my living room. I woke up with the similar pins-and-needles sensation – by now, it was a familiar indicator of what was about to happen. I looked at the living room around me, one of the most familiar sights in the world, but… I can’t even explain it… it was almost like I wasn’t looking at it from my body. It was too still, a perfect camera pan like I was dreaming it but I knew I was awake. The most familiar room to me became strangely alien and uncanny to me and I knew I couldn’t move, and in the safest space, I didn’t feel safe. When I look back on this since watching Twin Peaks a year or so after the event, it reminds me of the ominous shots of the ceiling fan in the Palmer residence.

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I liked to think I’d changed, grown out of it. Last night, I thought my sleep paralysis was going to come back. Luckily, I bolted awake from my bad dream (which involved some kind of demonic figure) and didn’t get stuck in that liminal space. But I knew if tried to go straight back to sleep it would occur. I just knew it by instinct. In fact, my paranoia had shot up so high after that bad dream that I was convinced the demon in my dream had woken me up just to make me see or feel them in the waking world. I was terrified to go back to sleep. Childhood fears came flooding back, “I’m a bad person, they know I’m a bad person, demons exist and they want to take me, they want to scare me and punish me.” I still don’t follow a religion and yet I felt sin weighing on my chest. I tucked all of my limbs into my covers. I looked at the clock and of course it was 3 am which, if like me you’re interested in the paranormal or have watched one episode of Most Haunted, you’ll know is the “Witching Hour”. I resigned myself to stay awake for a bit, mentally poking a bit of fun at myself. Something was bugging me about my dream and I was trying to think of where I got the word ‘Hepzibah’ from in it, which I now remember is the name of a character in Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables. I heard dogs howling outside and chuckled at my immediate thought that this was classic confirmation that there was something afoot, as clearly I have watched too much Hammer Horror.

Finally, I closed my eyes, sighed and, from my heathen lips, uttered the Lord’s Prayer. Our Father, who art in Heaven…

Once.

Twice.

Out like a light.

— Laura

Today’s Study Spot: Presuming Ed Coffeehouse, Brighton

Before meeting a friend today, I was looking for a café outside of the chains but also slightly away from the hubbub of the wonderful North Laine to get some studying done. This place did not disappoint, and I will certainly be returning. If you like the unusual interior of Atomic Burger / Pizza in Oxford, you will love Presuming Ed, too. Toward the back, though, it has a distinctly bookish feel (without being oppressive), and a laptop counter with plug sockets, perfect for knuckling down. Equally, there is plenty of art, graffitied doodles or otherwise, to look at in idle moments… much like being at your school desk, but on your own terms!

The baristas are warm and chatty, and their filter coffee is reasonably priced and packs a serious punch.

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★★★★★

— Laura