Saturday, December 28, 2019

Preview--House of Wills: It Feels Evil

Author's note: This preview was written sitting inside the main chapel of the House of Wills the first day that the Travel Channel's show, It Feels Evil, was shot. But there was literally no way to suspect that the investigation would take the turn it did. Present initially as a writer, not an investigator, I was quickly sucked in with the rest of the team as we tried to decipher just what in the hell was going on in that place. Or to us, to be honest.

When the team pulls into the parking lot of the House of Wills in Cleveland, Ohio the wind howls around us while rain slashes against the crumbling building. Perfect conditions for a landmark paranormal investigation. The team heads into the building for its first look at the location, and there’s a definite sense of unease pulsing around all of them. Although it’s still daylight, the interior of the building is dark. The central chapel would be pitch black and silent if it wasn’t for the thunderstorm pounding outside and the chamber open to the sky. But despite the wind that is shrieking through the narrow corridors and winding staircases, the air is heavy…humid…and smells of decay, death, and rot. I always thought something about the building was disconcerting.

Sitting inside it, I now see why. 

The House of Wills has a definite sense of purpose. A will of its own, if you’ll pardon the pun. The atmosphere is watchful and definitely sports a malevolent edge. There’s no way to escape the isolation of this ravaged beauty on a June afternoon that feels more like March, but it’s only inside the building that one gets the sense that something’s not quite right.  

The House of Wills is cold, cold, cold and its atmosphere presses in upon you like the grave.  

Through the gaping windows on the second-floor gallery, the sky looks orange and the tree branches are whipping from side to side. The chapel has gone from repressive to malevolent. The House of Wills is nothing like it was in its heyday. Once it was a Turnverein, a German social club that promoted the ideals of Eugenics—a theory which would become the foundation of Hitler's genocide in WWII—in the twilight of the nineteenth century. Then, in a staggering reversal of purpose, the building served as a Jewish school in the dawn of the twentieth century. Most famously it was a funeral home that was one of the largest African-American-owned businesses in the US for over three decades. This ruined building went, within the space of fifty years, from a building whose owners espoused beliefs that led to the Holocaust but then became a power structure at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement.  

How would such an volte-face affect a building? Is that conflict at the heart of the alleged haunting here?

Current owner, artist Eric Freeman, is high priest of a religion he co-founded with the grandson of Anton LeVey. LeVey took Aleister Crowley’s Thelemic cult and his writings on magick and turned them into a religion (and profitable business venture) in the San Francisco of the 1960’s.  Freeman uses the  former House of Wills not only as his curated art gallery, but also for religious purposes.

There’s never been a place more perfectly suited to be haunted, but that’s not what brings the team to Cleveland. The House of Wills was designed to channel, store, and conduct energy.  The building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was built by renowned area architect Frederic Striebinger, a thirty-second degree Mason, in 1900. 

That energy is what we're chasing.

This chapel was once a consecrated site, where thousands of families attended the Christian last rites of loved ones. But since the death of J. Walter Wills in 1971, the building’s been desecrated, first by the family who owned it, then by the gangs and drug dealers who took it over when it was abandoned. Now, the building would be almost unrecognizable to the people who once loved it. 

Something inimical and cautious lurks among these relics of Egyptian grandeur—fake relics, of course. A reproduction sarcophagus shares the space with a massive carved head of Baphomet, the horned god of Satanic worship, and the crumbling plaster of art deco glory. This old building still possesses dignity in her aged splendor, but has been cannibalized by her own children and desecrated by her own community. You can tell that desecration has been dark for it is never daytime in this place.

In the House of Wills, it is always night. 

On the former chapel's stage, an ornate casket sits upon a bier, flanked by two massive red-upholstered chairs that look like thrones. In front of one throne, ritual candles await their time to burn. The uses the building is put to are painfully obvious. The House of Wills is decaying faster than its owner can repair it. For all practical purposes, there’s nowhere in the world better suited to the task the team has been set: researching what we're beginning to believe may be a demonic attachment.  

I have to wonder if it's wise to expect this team, several of whom have been battling against their own demons for years, to attempt contact with any diabolical agency. The House of Wills, therefore, is both a battleground and a research facility, but hopefully will lead us all down a path that hopefully will lead to greater knowledge.  

Is it worth the risk? I'm not sure.

I have to be honest: this is one of the few places that has ever creeped me out instantly. I'm as sensitive as a brick so I'm used to everyone else around me being able to sense there's something about a site that just isn't right. Other folks have the instincts that lead them to paranormal activity. Tim Wood, our lead investigator, is one of the best guys I've ever seen when it comes to that. I tend to get dragged into paranormal synchronicities (like what happened when we were conducting the Zozo experiment) or I piss something off and get slapped upside the back of my head (like numerous trips to the haunted fields and cave involved in the Bell Witch haunting).

But in this moment, right after I first set foot into the House of Wills, I'm overwhelmed by the cold certainty that this is not a place to be trifled with. 

Aside from the general decrepitude of the building, it's pouring rain outside. And inside. That's rendered almost every square foot of floor into a slick, threatening expanse to navigate. Despite the fact that it's summer, the interior of this building is freezing. I'm usually the person who walks into an alleged haunted site without concern, automatically looking for anything that could debunk evidence previously caught by other teams or witness accounts. At the House of Wills, that's not possible. 

Not just because it's spooky. This place plays to a lifetime of horror movie tropes.

But something in this building feels like it's aware, and it knew we were coming. The House of Wills is anticipating...something. Or someone.

Naturally, that sends me straight into "blame Tim" mode.

Always has to be Tim's fault, right? I mean my research is rarely targeted by some supernatural entity...unless Tim's involved. Then all kinds of crazy stuff happens. But this trip is different. The crazy stuff started before I started the car to drive up here. I'm starting to think whatever is gloating at me in the House of Wills sent me a direct warning at home yesterday...the day before I left for Cleveland: 

Be careful. I'm watching you. No one involved in the shoot knows what I'm about to relate except the executive producer and Tim.

Yesterday, I was packing for the trip in my office, so my suitcase was open on the bed. I was talking on the phone when all of a sudden, a section of the ceiling collapsed. Flooring, drywall, insulation, and God knows what else fell all over me and my nearly-completed packing. 

Ever have to dig insulation out of a suitcase? I don't recommend it. Not fun. 

Aside from a sizable lump on my head, the way the whole incident went down was baffling.

Evidently something heavy in the attic had fallen between the floor joists onto the drywall, bringing a full three-foot section down in the middle of my office. Missed my bookcases, thankfully. I would have been hugely pissed if my books had been screwed up. In fact, the majority of the material that fell went smack dab into the middle of my suitcase. 

Except for one chunk of drywall. That smashed me in the head.

Here's the kicker: everything was dry. Not wet. As for whatever had caused the collapse, there wasn't a sign. It was almost like someone had stepped between the joists and stepped directly on the drywall. The incident made no sense in the normal, mundane everyday would we all inhabit.

But shivering in the dark chapel of the House of Wills, that "accident" makes perfect sense after the fact. The irony of trading one collapsed ceiling for another is too pointed to miss.

I was being warned by something that maybe this little jaunt to Cleveland wasn't such a great idea. Me being me, I shrugged it off and came up anyway like I'd been double dog dared by Flick on the playground. Nothing like a challenge, right? 

But as I sit here, with the storm lashing the building and the day waning into nighttime, I have to wonder if accepting the challenge was the smart thing to do. I have a good idea what might be lying in wait for us now that I've taken my first steps into this site. A familiar miasma, hovering over everything. The difficulties the film crew are having to combat. The mood of the investigators. The sense that something is just not right. 

I've felt this supernatural aura before. This is the first haunted location I've ever walked into and immediately had to evaluate my judgment as a result. I have no idea what's about to happen, but I have the feeling that it's going to be bad. 

Really bad.
Author's note: By the end of that episode shoot, it was apparent that this time we had all miscalculated what the effects of putting this investigative team into that location would be. 
You can check out what happened at the House of Wills tonight at 11 pm EST, 8 pm PST in It Feels Evil on the Travel Channel. Basically, it's a master class on 'why you shouldn't ignore your guts when investigating'...for all of us. 

Additional note: As I was preparing to schedule this post for release, the same section of the same room's ceiling just collapsed. Again. Apparently, I've pissed something off.