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The Hidden Haunted History of 7 American Landmarks

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The stories of presidential ghosts in the White House are pretty well known. But plenty of other landmarks have their own ghost stories.

1. The Ghostly Curators of the Smithsonian Institution

With so many items and artifacts – let alone mummies and skeletons – it should come as no surprise that many consider the Smithsonian Institution to be haunted. Aside from the typical ghostly footsteps and shadowy figures, many night watchmen in the early part of the 20th century claimed to have seen members of the Institute long after their demise. Some of these ghostly curators and researchers include Emil Bessels, an arctic explorer; Fielding Meek, a paleontologist who lived and worked at the Institute; Joseph Henry, the Institute’s first Secretary; Spencer Baird, the first curator; and even founder James Smithson, who died long before the museum was even built.

If phantoms really existed, Smithson would be the most likely candidate. His remains have been kept at the museum since 1904. In fact, his body was disinterred in 1973 because of what James Goode, former curator of Castle Collections, called ghost sightings. Officially, though, the Institute just did a complete study of the contents of Smithson’s casket, including his skeleton, which was still inside, not out wandering the halls scaring people.

2. The Haunted Hollywood Sign

Peg Entwhistle was an up-and-coming actress on Broadway in the mid-1920s. However, when she tried to make the transition to Hollywood in 1932, she found that she was just another pretty face. After a single film role, her prospects dried up and she was out of work.

Around September 16, 1932, Entwhistle told her family she was going for a walk; it would be the last time anyone saw her alive. She traveled to the Hollywood Hills landmark, the Hollywoodland sign, where she took off her purse, coat, and shoes, before climbing a maintenance ladder to the top of the H (other reports say it was the last letter, “D”). There, she plummeted some 50 feet to the ground below. Her body and belongings – including a suicide note - were discovered two days later.

Since then, “LAND” has been removed from the sign, but the spirit of Peg Entwhistle still lingers. Park ranger John Arbogast claimed to have seen her ghost many times, usually in the middle of very foggy nights. He also claimed to smell gardenias in the area, Entwhistle’s favorite scent, even during winter when there are no flowers in bloom.

In 1990, a man and his girlfriend were hiking near the sign when their dog suddenly began whining and backing away from the trail ahead. The couple soon saw a blond woman in a white 1930s-style dress walking towards them. She looked confused and disoriented, so the couple tried to steer clear of her, but then she suddenly vanished before their eyes. They claim to have been unaware of Entwhistle’s suicide at the time of the sighting.

3. The Demon Pirate of Liberty Island

Since 1886, Liberty Island has been the home of the Statue of Liberty. But earlier in its history it was known as Bedloe’s Island, and was reportedly a favorite spot for notorious pirate Captain Kidd to bury his ill-gotten treasure.

As reported by the New York Times in 1892, two soldiers named Gibbs and Carpenter were stationed at Fort Wood, the military installation on Bedloe’s Island that would later form the pedestal for Lady Liberty. Hoping to get rich quick, the duo sneaked out of their bunks to dig for the treasure at a location that had been foretold to them by a psychic. Then, sometime after midnight, the entire fort was woken up by a blood-curdling scream. As guards headed in the direction of the noise, they encountered a hysteric Carpenter, who led them to the dig site, where Gibbs was found unconscious.

The men said they had only dug a few feet down when they found a wooden box. But just as they were about to claim their fortune, an otherworldly creature appeared. Gibbs described it as a typical depiction of a demon – black skin, horns on its head, giant wings, and a barbed tail. Carpenter, though, said it was red, didn’t have wings, and moved about without any visible form of locomotion. Carpenter ran, but Gibbs stood frozen in terror. He claimed that it was the spirit of Captain Kidd, who breathed sulfur in his face before throwing him into the bay. The guards saw no wooden box or demon pirate, so apparently Kidd took his treasure with him when he disappeared into the ether.

4. The Ghosts of the Rock

WPPilot, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 

Thousands of inmates passed through Alcatraz in its 100-year history, first as a Civil War-era military stockade and later a federal prison that housed some of America’s most dangerous criminals. Thanks to the isolation of the island, as well as the sometimes brutal treatment of prisoners, many men committed suicide, while others were killed by inmates who'd been driven insane. With so much blood staining the Rock, it should come as no surprise that ghosts are said to roam the halls today.

One allegedly haunted area is Cell 14D, one of the solitary confinement cells known as a “hole.” There, prisoners were stripped naked, thrown into a small, dark room, and were kept completely isolated for up to 19 days. By the time they came out, many suffered permanent psychological damage. In the 1940s, an inmate confined to Cell 14D screamed throughout the night that something with glowing red eyes was in there with him. The next morning, the cell was finally quiet, so the guards unlocked 14D to check on the prisoner. Inside, they found his body, strangled to death. An autopsy later revealed that his wounds could not have been self-inflicted.

It’s been said that one of The Rock’s most famous guests – Al “Scarface” Capone – never really left. Driven insane by syphilis, Capone feared that other inmates might kill him during the prisoners’ weekly recreation period in the prison yard. So Capone asked for and received special permission to practice playing his banjo in the prison’s shower room instead. Since the island became a national park in 1972, many park rangers have reported hearing the distinct sound of a banjo coming from the room, often near the end of the workday after all the tourists have gone.

5. The Widow at the Empire State Building

As one of the tallest buildings in the world, the Empire State Building has been the scene of over two dozen suicides in its 80-year history. There are many stories of people who have seen ghostly figures recreating their fateful plunge from the skyscraper’s 86th floor observation deck, but one story stands above the rest.

The story was first told in 1985, when a tourist went to the observation deck to get a bird's-eye view of the Big Apple. While there she met a woman dressed in 1940s-style clothes, crying into her handkerchief. When asked what was wrong, the woman said that her husband died in the war in Germany. Obviously distraught, she said she couldn’t live without her beau, so she walked through the suicide prevention fence that surrounds the deck, and disappeared over the edge.

Shaken by what she'd seen, the tourist went into the bathroom to splash water on her face. Suddenly, the same woman appeared next to her at the sink, touching up her makeup in the mirror, before heading to the observation deck to replay her final moments again…and again…and again.

6. The Haunted Confines of Wrigley Field

According to Mickey Bradley and Dan Gordon, authors of Haunted Baseball and Field of Screams, the most haunted ballpark in the country is Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs.

One of the most well-known ghost stories is retold by security guards who have heard the telephone in the bullpen ring in the middle of the night. But it’s not a wrong number, because the phone is a direct line to the dugout, which they say is haunted by the spirit of Charlie Grimm, a Cubs manager in the 1930s and 40s. Some guards have even claimed they’ve seen Grimm in the hallways, but as soon as they speak to him he disappears. But why would Grimm still be haunting Wrigley after all these years? Perhaps it’s because his ashes are said to be buried in left field. Or because Grimm was the last manager to take the team to the World Series in 1945. We can only assume he won’t rest until the Cubs are in the Series again.

Fans say they’ve spotted famed WGN broadcaster Harry Caray in the press box and in the outfield bleachers ever since his death in 1998. Others have even seen Steve Goodman, writer of the Cubs’ anthem, “Go, Cubs, Go!,” sitting behind the batter’s box, despite his death in 1984. Goodman’s ghostly box seat would be appropriate since its rumored his ashes are buried under home plate.

7. The Phantom Ship of the Golden Gate

Although over 1,000 people have committed suicide by jumping from San Francisco’s most famous landmark, the Bay’s ghostly past goes back well before the bridge was constructed in 1937. In 1853, the steamer ship, S.S. Tennessee, ran aground at a spot that has since been named Tennessee Cove in its honor. Thankfully, 550 passengers and 14 chests of gold all made it safely ashore before the waters of the Pacific tore the ship apart.

Since then, there have been many reports of a ghostly, antique ship passing under the Golden Gate Bridge before disappearing into the fog. Perhaps the most famous sighting occurred in November 1942, when the crew of the USS Kennison claimed to have floated right past the phantom Tennessee; so close the Kennison crew could tell that the steamer ship’s decks were unmanned. The Tennessee was said to leave no wake as it passed, nor did it show up on the Kennison’s radar.

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Pop Culture
Why Are We So Scared of Clowns?
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Warner Bros.

With the box office-smashing success of the new adaptation of Stephen King's It, it’s safe to say that coulrophobia (fear of clowns) isn’t a fringe phenomenon. The colorful circus performers are right up there with vampires and werewolves on the list of iconic horror villains. But unlike other movie monsters, clowns were originally meant to make kids laugh, not hide under their beds in terror. So what is it about clowns that taps into our deepest fears?

According to Yale doctoral candidate Danielle Bainbridge, the unsettling clown stereotype goes back centuries. In the inaugural episode of the new PBS digital series Origin of Everything, Bainbridge explains the long history of this pervasive part of our culture.

Before clowns wore floppy shoes and threw pies at each other’s faces, early versions of the performers could be found in royal courts. The court jester wasn’t evil, but he was the only person in the kingdom who could poke fun at the monarch without fear of (literally) losing his head. The fact that fools didn’t fall within the normal social hierarchy may have contributed to the future role clowns would play as untrustworthy outsiders.

From the medieval era, clowns evolved into the harlequins of 16th-century Italian theater. Again, these weren’t bloodthirsty monsters, but they weren’t exactly kid-friendly either. The characters were often mischievous and morally bankrupt, and their strange costumes and masks only added to the creepy vibes they gave off.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the white-faced circus clowns we know today started gaining popularity. Unlike the jesters and harlequins that came before them, these clowns performed primarily for children and maintained a wholesome image. But as pop culture in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s showed us, that old perception we had of clowns as nefarious troublemakers never really went away. Steven King’s It, the cult classic Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988), and that scene from Poltergeist (1982) all combined these original fears with the more modern association of clowns with children. That formula gave us one of the most frightening figures in horror media today.

If you’re not completely spooked yet, watch the full story below.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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This Oregon-Based Nonprofit Creates Amazing Costumes for Children in Wheelchairs
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Courtesy of Magic Wheelchair

Ryan and Lana Weimer celebrate Halloween all year round: The couple from Keizer, Oregon, runs a nonprofit called Magic Wheelchair, which the two founded in early 2015 to build elaborate—and free—costumes for kids in wheelchairs.

The Weimers’ eldest son, Keaton, was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) when he was 9 months old. The rare genetic disorder affects the control of muscle movement, so Keaton uses a wheelchair to get around. In 2008, the 3-year-old asked his parents if he could be a pirate for Halloween. It was then that Ryan had an idea: Instead of simply giving Keaton a tri-corner hat, why not build a pirate ship that fit around his wheelchair?

Weimer constructed the wooden ship, and “what happened when we went out trick-or-treating was really just a wonderful, wonderful experience for us,” Weimer tells Mental Floss. “There's this weird awkwardness around disability. People don't always look at the kid and say hi, or talk to him or look at him. Instead, they just pause, or stare … But with that [pirate ship] costume on [Keaton’s chair], his disability really seemed to disappear, and people saw him before they saw his wheelchair.”

Kids swarmed around Keaton as they admired his ship, and he even wound up getting his picture published on the front page of the local newspaper. An annual tradition was born: Not wanting to rest on his laurels, Weimer continued building Keaton elaborate, wheelchair-friendly Halloween costumes each year. When his younger son Bryce—who was also diagnosed with SMA—was born in 2011, he included him in the fun, too. The positive reactions they received, Weimer says, inspired him and Lana to eventually “create a nonprofit to duplicate the experience we had for other kiddos and other families.”

A custom pirate ship Halloween costume, created by Magic Wheelchair founder Ryan Weimer for his son, Keaton.
A custom pirate ship Halloween costume, created by Magic Wheelchair founder Ryan Weimer for his son, Keaton.
Courtesy of Magic Wheelchair

Magic Wheelchair—which is funded by individual and corporate donors—relies on teams of local volunteers around the country, who work together to build costumes for children in their communities. To be considered for a costume, families fill out an online application, which provides the nonprofit with a kid's biography and a description of their desired ensemble.

After receiving automatic email confirmation that Magic Wheelchair has received their materials, recipients are selected on a first-come, first-serve basis, although kids with life-threatening conditions do get priority. The rest are placed on a waitlist until a local volunteer team is able to complete their build. This process can take a few months or a few years, depending on whether there's an available team in the region.

Once kids make it off the waitlist, they meet with volunteers to discuss their vision. After that, the teams work anywhere from 100 to 500 hours, from start to finish, to construct the commissioned costume. The final product is kept under wraps so Magic Wheelchair can surprise the lucky recipient at a grand unveiling.

One of these kids was 13-year-old Cassie Hudson, a fan of comic books who hails from North Plains, Oregon. Cassie, who has spina bifida and other related health issues, first heard about Magic Wheelchair in 2015 when she noticed a flyer for the nonprofit hanging in the lobby of Shriners Hospitals for Children.

The non-profit was new at the time, so Cassie and her mother, Tess Hudson, figured they wouldn’t have the resources to provide the teen with her dream Halloween costume. But in 2016, Magic Wheelchair approached a physical therapist at Shriners and asked if they knew anyone at the hospital who would be interested in receiving one of their custom creations through a big reveal at the upcoming Rose City Comic-Con. “She was like, oh my goodness, I know exactly the kid!” Tess tells Mental Floss.

Cassie’s favorite fictional superhero is Green Arrow, who appears in comic books published by DC Comics. “I just think he’s super cool—he’s one of those superheroes that doesn’t have any powers and just wants to help people because he feels the need to,” Cassie says. She wanted Magic Wheelchair to transform her chair into his motorcycle. The costume the volunteers built lights up, makes noises, and looks so much like an actual motorcycle that at one comic-con Cassie attended, security teams initially said she couldn't bring it into the building.

A custom Halloween costume created by Magic Wheelchair for 'Star Wars' fan Bryce Amiel.
A custom Halloween costume created by Magic Wheelchair for 'Star Wars' fan Bryce Amiel.
Courtesy of Magic Wheelchair

Designing custom costumes for wheelchairs does pose a unique set of challenges: For one, "these kids need their chairs," Weimer says. "Our volunteer teams don't have the chair to build on, so they take measurements and pictures and build off of those."

Also, Weimer says, "you definitely have to consider what the kiddo is capable of, where [the costume] is going to be stored, and where it's going to be transported—because they're big." Costumes, which wrap around the wheelchairs, range anywhere from 2.5 feet by 4 feet to 5 feet by 8 feet and are sometimes constructed in pieces, which makes moving them around much easier. Like pieces of a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, these parts fit together on the wheelchair's base and are secured in place with brackets, plastic and metal pipes, zip ties, duct tape, and specially designed metal mounts.

These obstacles don't interfere with Magic Wheelchair's goal to build what Weimer calls the "biggest, baddest costumes" imaginable for kids. "The sky's the limit," he says. "The only limitations are what's OK with the family and the kiddo." One particularly ambitious recent build was for an Atlanta resident named Anthony. "He loves cooking, and so [the volunteers] built him this chef's kitchen around his wheelchair, with a stove," Weimer says. "There was even food—a turkey, and different dishes on the stovetop."

In just a few short years, Magic Wheelchair has grown from six volunteer teams, with anywhere from one to 10 members, to around 50 teams. This Halloween season, they plan on constructing around 50 costumes—a far cry from the seven or eight ensembles the nonprofit first produced in 2015. And it's poised to become just as big and bad as the costumes it creates. “We have a complete board of directors now,” Weimer says. “We were also able to get to the point where we have hired a fundraiser and some part-time staff. This just help us to keep on growing.”

For more information on volunteering with Magic Wheelchair, or to make a donation, visit their website.

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