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Ghost BustingA cynic’s-eye view

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At the risk of selling Missoula short, I’ve always thought that the hauntedness of a place should be proportional to its age. You’d expect a thousand year-old Romanian castle to be haunted, likewise an English church that was already old by European standards when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. But a Montana city barely a century old? A mere stripling, a rookie in the ghost game!

The relative youthfulness of Missoula as a community is reflected to some extent in both the quality and quantity of its ghost lore. And this is not to discount the testimonials of people who have reported supernatural encounters here—it’s just that, with the exception of the Zakos house, most of what passes for ghost activity in Missoula would hardly merit a footnote alongside the bleeding walls and rock-throwing poltergeists of settlements that have been around long enough to draw from a larger body of unexplained phenomena.

Take, for example, Borley Rectory in a remote valley of England’s Essex region. It was built in the 1860s on a piece of ground already rumored to be rife with restless spirits. Between October 1930 and October 1935, over 2000 instances of paranormal activity were reported at the rectory, ranging from the usual ghostly footsteps and strange noises to floating bricks, glass objects appearing out of nowhere and people being bodily thrown out of bed by unseen forces. Not exactly the stuff of Ghostbusters, but getting there.

Better yet, consider the main attraction of Dorset’s Bettiscombe Manor: a skull that hollers and carries on every time someone tries to remove it from the premises. Bettiscombe’s Screaming Skull reportedly belonged to a 17th-century black slave who swore that a curse would descend on the manor if his remains were not returned to Africa after his death. When the man finally did shuffle off, his skinflint master Azariah Pinney buried him in the local churchyard, and all hell started to break loose. Locals heard screams and roars coming from the tomb and eventually insisted that Pinney exhume the remains and keep them in his attic. Which he did, and all was well until successive owners tried to remove the skull from the manor. Once the skull was thrown in a pond and put up such a fuss that it had to be fished out again and returned to its loft. Another time it was buried in a hole nine feet deep and actually chewed its way to the surface, where the owners found it waiting to be picked up and brought back inside.

Now, true or not, that is la muchachita sexy compared to Missoula’s—sorry to say it—rather ho-hum hauntings. How, having heard about a screaming, burrowing skull, can anyone expect to get excited about something like the Haunted Radiator of University Hall, which supposedly clanks every now and again even though it hasn’t contained any water in 40 years? That’s supposed to be scary? Come on, now. Get me a headless nobleman to ride a fire-breathing steed up the steps with a pack of baying hellhounds in his wake and clank on the radiator with the femur of a martyred saint—then we’ll talk.

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