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CHLOE EFFRON // WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (Everest), ISTOCK (climbers)
CHLOE EFFRON // WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (Everest), ISTOCK (climbers)

Ghost Stories From the World's Tallest Peaks

CHLOE EFFRON // WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (Everest), ISTOCK (climbers)
CHLOE EFFRON // WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (Everest), ISTOCK (climbers)

The world’s tallest mountains, including Mount Everest and K2, are associated with great mountaineering feats, a love of nature, and tales of adventure. These 8000-meter peaks also hold a dark side for climbers, however, and there are just as many stories of hardship, defeat, and death on the summits. Among these tales are a surprising number of accounts of the strange, ghostly, and supernatural.

To begin with, the atmosphere on the tallest peaks can be somewhat grim. Death is a constant possibility to be reckoned with for climbers on the highest peaks of the Himalayas and the Karakoram range, which spans Pakistan, India, and China. Over 220 people have died climbing Everest, and due to the impossibility of retrieving the fallen, the majority of bodies are left frozen on the slopes indefinitely, turning the mountains into a high-altitude cemetery.

Some of the bodies remain visible, lying close enough to the main routes that climbers are obliged to step over them. The colorful gear worn by the dead has earned Everest’s Northeast Ridge route the nickname “Rainbow Valley.” Everest, however, is not the deadliest 8000-er in terms of percentages. Since the first successful ascent of K2 in 1954, over 25 percent of those who have attempted the summit have died, while Annapurna I’s death toll is closer to 33 percent. It’s no wonder that the area between around 8000 meters and the tops of these mountains is ominously referred to as the “Death Zone.”

Given this macabre climate, it’s inevitable that some weird stories have emerged. Some of these spooky tales are informed by the mountains’ cultural and spiritual significance, and some can be explained by science, while others remain inexplicable.

The Sherpas, without whose help so many ascents of Himalayan mountains would be impossible, view the Himalayas as both the embodiment and the realm of gods. Some feel that disrespect for their sacred mountain has led to both bad karma and to restless spirits. In May 2004, Pemba Dorji Sherpa was climbing Everest, a trip during which he earned a disputed claim to the world’s fastest ascent, when he encountered what he described as black shapes near the summit. Pemba says that the shapes were the ghosts of climbers who died on the mountain, and that as the shapes approached him they held out their hands, begging for something to eat. Pemba and other Sherpas believe the ghosts will continue to haunt the mountain until a proper funeral rite can be performed for their souls.

The scientifically minded feel that ghostly sightings above 8000 meters have a much more logical explanation. The detrimental effects of time spent in the Death Zone are well-known. At high altitude, temperatures far below freezing inflict frostbite, sleep becomes difficult, and reflected light causes snow-blindness. Perhaps worst of all, though, the lack of atmospheric pressure and attendant low oxygen concentration (about 30 percent of that at sea level) can cause altitude sickness and High Altitude Cerebral Edema, or HACE. In the latter condition, the brain swells, leading to hampered speech and mental function, poor decision-making, impaired coordination, hallucinations, and loss of touch with reality.

Altitude’s effects on the brain can explain a particularly haunting moment described in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a first-person retelling of a 1996 Everest expedition during which a severe storm killed eight climbers on the mountain and stranded several others. The incident is considered one of the worst-ever mountaineering disasters. Krakauer, descending in the midst of the mounting storm, at one point thought he encountered his teammate Andy Harris, only to discover later that he had seen an entirely different person, and that Harris had died up on the mountain.

Low oxygen and other physical stresses can also account for a common phenomenon in which mountaineers report the sense of an additional, phantom person. Dougal Haston and Doug Scott, members of a 1975 British expedition up Everest, describe a horrific night spent just below the summit with no food and problems with their oxygen supply. The men are said to have sensed a third climber with them in their snow hole, a comforting presence that talked them through their ordeal. Climber Hermann Buhl experienced something similar on his first-ever ascent of Nanga Parbat in 1953, as did Joe Simpson, whose ordeal escaping death in the Andes is described in Touching the Void.

British climber Frank Smythe, who attempted Everest several times in the 1930s, may have the most colorful story, however. He describes encountering two presences, the first being a benign one that seemed so real he offered it some of his mint cake. Later, he encountered strange hovering objects, one of which had "what looked like squat, underdeveloped wings, whilst the other had a beak-like protuberance like the spout of a teakettle. They distinctly pulsated … as though they possessed some horrible quality of life."

Michael Shermer’s book The Believing Brain reports that the so-called sensed-presence effect (referred to elsewhere as “Feelings of Presence,” or FOPs) is common to people under physical and mental duress, including mountain climbers, polar explorers, endurance athletes, and isolated sailors. An experiment conducted by a Swiss team in 2014 and reported in Current Biology seems to confirm this. Researchers managed to induce in volunteers the experience of nearby ghostly presences by creating a disconnect in motor-sensory signals received by the brain, causing the brain’s sense of the body in space to malfunction. Researchers suggest that FOPs, or ghosts, may be an illusion created by the mind when it temporarily loses track of the body’s location due to mental illness, stress, or extreme physical exertion or duress.

Not all mountaineering ghost stories can be explained away so easily, however. Jennifer Jordan’s book Savage Summit, which details the lives and feats of the first five women to climb K2, also presents a few accounts that would not be out of place in a book of ghost stories. Wanda Rutkiewicz, an accomplished Polish mountaineer who in 1986 became the first woman ever to climb K2, survived the descent and went on to climb several other 8000-foot mountains before dying in her bid to climb Kanchenjunga in 1992. After Rutkiewicz’s death, Jordan writes, her friend Ewa Matuszewska was awoken in the middle of the night by a telephone call, and upon answering heard Rutkiewicz’s voice on the other end of the line. Delighted to hear her friend’s voice, Matuszewska pleaded, “We are all in despair. Where are you?”

The voice responded,“I am cold, I am very cold, but don’t cry. Everything will be fine.”

“But why aren’t you coming back?” Matuszewska persisted.

“I cannot now,” Wanda’s voice said, before the phone went dead.

Equally chilling is a story from Jordan’s book involving Julie Tullis, a British climber and the third woman to summit K2. Tullis’s accomplishment took place in July of 1986. The months surrounding her climb saw 13 deaths on K2, which came to be known as the Black Summer. During her descent with her partner Kurt Diemberger, Tullis suffered a bad fall, severe frostbite to one hand, and blurred vision likely stemming from HACE. She died while trapped at Camp IV with several other climbers, and her body was left on the mountain.

Years later, in 1992, Thor Kieser and Scott Fisher, members of an American-Russian team, were jolted out of an unusual quiet at base camp by the sound of a voice coming over the communications radio. “Camp IV to Base Camp, do you read, over?” the voice said. Both Kieser and Fisher knew that no one was on the mountain at that time. And the voice was that of a British woman.

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6 Historical Methods for Contacting the Dead (and Their Drawbacks)
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

'Tis the season for getting in touch with the spirit realm. (This applies no matter what month we're in right now; 'tis always high time to get your séance on.) But there are several different ways you can go about it. Do you Ouija? Should you go wandering around a haunted house? No, you should probably pick up the psychic telephone.

Lapham's Quarterly helpfully charted out some of historical ways you could (supposedly) go about contacting the dead, from Chinese Fuji writing—a method that's kind of like a Ouija board, but using a stylus to make letters in sand instead of a board—to past-life regression via hypnosis. The chart lays out how each ghost-whispering concept works, and its theoretical drawbacks. Because there are always drawbacks.

Transfiguration, for instance, lets you see a spirit's face through the body of a medium, but that's a whole lot of hard work for your medium. You can listen for electronic voice phenomena via a recorder, but you have to buy the recorder first. F. R. Melton's 1921 invention, the balloon-powered psychic telephone, was a great option—except when his son George wasn't around to work it. And past-life regression, as you might imagine, holds “potential for new levels of self-hatred." No one wants to find out that their past self was a total jerk.

There are plenty of scientific and cultural explanations for seeing ghosts that don't involve the actual spirits of the dead returning to the Earthly plane, but if you're into the history of the occult, this is a great primer on spirit-conjuring traditions.

[h/t Lapham's Quarterly]

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Michael Tackett - © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.
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9 Horror Movies Inspired by Real-Life Events
Michael Tackett - © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.
Michael Tackett - © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.

While most horror movies are complete works of fiction, the genre occasionally offers up stories that are based on terrifying and jaw-dropping real-life events, like the nine collected here.

1. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)

Premise: A supernatural killer stalks his prey while they dream during deep sleep. 

Real-Life Inspiration: Wes Craven based A Nightmare on Elm Street on a series of newspaper articles from the Los Angeles Times about a strange phenomenon where young Asian refugees would mysteriously die in their sleep. It was reported that many would refuse to sleep, citing terrifying nightmares that they feared would lead to death.

According to Craven, the paper "never correlated [the three articles], never said, ‘Hey, we’ve had another story like this'":

The third one was the son of a physician. He was about twenty-one; I’ve subsequently found out this is a phenomenon in Laos, Cambodia. Everybody in his family said almost exactly these lines: "You must sleep." He said, "No, you don’t understand; I’ve had nightmares before—this is different." He was given sleeping pills and told to take them and supposedly did, but he stayed up. I forget what the total days he stayed up was, but it was a phenomenal amount—something like six, seven days. Finally, he was watching television with the family, fell asleep on the couch, and everybody said, "Thank god." They literally carried him upstairs to bed; he was completely exhausted. Everybody went to bed, thinking it was all over. In the middle of the night, they heard screams and crashing. They ran into the room, and by the time they got to him he was dead. They had an autopsy performed, and there was no heart attack; he just had died for unexplained reasons. They found in his closet a Mr. Coffee maker, full of hot coffee that he had used to keep awake, and they also found all his sleeping pills that they thought he had taken; he had spit them back out and hidden them. It struck me as such an incredibly dramatic story that I was intrigued by it for a year, at least, before I finally thought I should write something about this kind of situation.

2. CHILD'S PLAY (1988)

Premise: A serial killer's soul possesses a toy doll and wreaks havoc.

Real-Life Inspiration: In 1909, Key West painter and author Robert Eugene Otto claimed that one of his family's servants placed a voodoo curse on his childhood toy, Robert the Doll. Supposedly, the doll would mysteriously move from room to room, knock furniture over, and conduct conversations with Otto. Robert the Doll was left in the attic until Otto's death in 1974, when new owners moved into his Florida home. The new family also claimed mysterious activities would happen in the house connected to the doll. Today, Robert the Doll is on display at the Custom House and Old Post Office in Key West, Florida.

3. THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979)

Premise: A young family moves into a house where a murder was committed, and experiences strange and terrifying occurrences.

Real-Life Inspiration: Based on the book of the same name, The Amityville Horror follows the paranormal events that terrorized the Lutz family. In 1975, the family moved into 112 Ocean Avenue where, unbeknownst to them, Ronald DeFeo, Jr. had brutally murdered his family 13 months before they arrived. While in their new home, the family claimed that they saw green slime on the walls and red-eyed pigs staring into their kitchen and living room. After less than a month, the Lutz family moved out of the small town of Amityville, New York.

4. PSYCHO (1960)

Premise: A secretary goes on the run after she steals $40,000, only to wind up in a motel where the innkeeper and his mother are more than they appear to be.

Real-Life Inspiration: Psycho's Norman Bates is loosely based on convicted murderer and grave robber Ed Gein, who, during the late 1950s, killed women and unearthed corpses in Wisconsin. He also fashioned human skin into tiny keepsakes and knickknacks, such as face masks, belts, and chair coverings. Psycho's novelist Robert Bloch based Bates on Gein, but changed the character from a grave robber and murderer into a serial killer who dressed like his mother. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs also based their serial killers—Leatherface and Buffalo Bill, respectively—on Gein.

5. THE EXORCIST (1973)

Premise: Two Catholic priests perform an exorcism on a young girl who is possessed by the devil.

Real-Life Inspiration: The Exorcist's author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty based the novel and film on a Washington Post article from 1949 headlined, "Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reported Held in Devil's Grip." The article followed Jesuit priests William S. Bowdern, Edward Hughes, Raymond J. Bishop, and Walter H. Halloran participating in the rite of exorcism on a boy with the pseudonym "Roland Doe" in Maryland. According to the priests, they allegedly experienced the boy speaking in tongues, the bed shaking and hovering, and objects flying around during the ordeal. The exorcism was one of three official Catholic Church-sanctioned exorcisms in the United States at the time.

"Maybe one day they’ll discover the cause of what happened to that young man, but back then, it was only curable by an exorcism," William Friedkin, the director of The Exorcist, told Time Out. "His family weren’t even Catholics, they were Lutheran. They started with doctors and then psychiatrists and then psychologists and then they went to their minister who couldn’t help them. And they wound up with the Catholic church. The Washington Post article says that the boy was possessed and exorcised. That’s pretty out on a limb for a national newspaper to put on its front page ... But you’re not going to see that on the front page of an intelligent newspaper unless there’s something there."

6. THE GIRL NEXT DOOR (2007)

Premise: An aunt tortures and abuses her niece, and a neighborhood boy fails to alert the authorities.

Real-Life Inspiration: Based on Jack Ketchum's novel of the same name, The Girl Next Door is based on the murder of Sylvia Likens, a 16-year-old girl from Indiana in 1965. Sylvia and her sister Jenny were left in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski, a family friend, when their parents left town as traveling carnival workers. Baniszewski, along with her children and a few neighborhood kids, locked Sylvia in the basement, where they tortured and abused her until she died of a brain hemorrhage and malnutrition.

7. THE CONJURING (2013)

Premise: Two paranormal investigators help a family who move into a secluded home plagued by weird events.

Real-Life Inspiration: The Conjuring is based on real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren and their experience with the Perrons, a family who moved into a Rhode Island farmhouse and experienced ghostly and terrifying occurrences in 1971.

"When Insidious came out and was successful the story about the Warrens came to me and I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, this is really cool,'” director James Wan told Entertainment Weekly in 2013. "But I didn’t just want to make another ghost story or another supernatural film. One thing I had never explored was the chance to tell a story that’s based on real-life characters, real-life people. So those were the things that led me to The Conjuring."

The Warrens also had a possessed Raggedy Ann doll that was the inspiration for the spin-off film Annabelle. Allegedly, a demon spirit possessed the Raggedy Ann doll, which is currently on display and under lock and key at the Warrens' Occult Museum in Monroe, Connecticut.

8. OPEN WATER (2003)

Premise: Two scuba divers become stranded in shark-infested waters after their tour group accidentally leaves them behind.

Real-Life Inspiration: Open Water is based on American tourists Tom and Eileen Lonergan, a couple who were lost at sea when their tour group left them behind while scuba diving near the Great Barrier Reef in Australia in 1998. When the diving company realized the mistake two days later, they organized a search party, but the Lonergans were never found. The only thing that was found was a diver's slate (an underwater communication device) with a S.O.S. message on it that read, "[Mo]nday Jan 26; 1998 08am. To anyone [who] can help us: We have been abandoned on A[gin]court Reef by MV Outer Edge 25 Jan 98 3pm. Please help us [come] to rescue us before we die. Help!!!"

9. THE BLOB (1958)

Premise: A mysterious alien life-form terrorizes a small town and consumes everything in its path as it grows bigger and bigger.

Real-Life Inspiration: Believe it or not, The Blob is based on a New York Times article from 1950 titled, "A ‘Saucer’ Floats to Earth And a Theory Is Dished Up." The story followed four Philadelphia police officers who came into contact with a strange gooey material, which is now believed to be "Star Jelly," a transparent gelatinous substance. When one of the officers tried to move the goo, it started to dissolve and evaporate, so there was nothing to show the FBI when they arrived on the scene except a spot on the ground.

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