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Research and Influence #1b: Echoes from the Past: Urban Legends Brought to Life

Posted by CW64 on January 19, 2011

Urban Legends: Real or Unreal?

Urban legends, such as those created and maintained through stories of Lambertville High School, are always assumed to be just that, with no basis of reality, at least not in the major sense with all of the ghost stories prevalent throughout history and the various cultures of the world; most of these stories are believed to be figments of the imagination or tales conjured up through pranksters or hearsay or those weird inexplicable phenomena witnessed by people who find no logical source but that are, again, assumed to have a rational explanation.

Still, with all of the accounts that continue to emerge and be passed along throughout time and space by people from all walks of life—those of imaginative capacity and those who are “respectably level-headed,” as the learned and prominent in society—not all urban legends can all be untrue or non-factual, can they? What if some of these urban legends were based on some actual truth in reality? After all, many encounters have been investigated and still remain unexplained. Some even have scores of witnesses.

Such a case would be Columbine High School. The dreadful event took place on 20 April, 1999, almost eleven years ago. Two disturbed high school students burst into the school library and murdered several students in cold blood. Some bodies were even tossed out the windows for terrified onlookers to see. No one ever believed that such a situation could happen, until it did—more than once.

Virginia Tech, even more recently (17 April, 2007), echoed that long-ago scenario, and it occurred in another part of the country (the former in Colorado; the latter in Virginia, farther east). A troubled Asian student burst into a hall while classes were in session and open fired, killing many, this time including instructors.

Both events and others like them have left lingering nightmares in the minds of those who witnessed them or knew those involved—effects that will likely last a lifetime. The country, as a nation, will never forget these horrible scenes and the lives lost. Such indelible impressions have shaken a nation and scarred its conscious so deeply that no one will escape the damage incurred.

As far as haunts go, however, Columbine has already begun manifesting the paranormal residue of its own story based in reality. Accounts reported by both students and teachers attest to feelings of being watched, oppressing pain and apprehension, voices and screaming throughout the school (but especially near the library), orbs and even sightings of mysterious figures. Could this be a result of so many minds still under siege by a persistently lingering nightmare that many are unable to forget? That is entirely possible. Yet, how can one explain the uncanny similarities between accounts, especially with regards to students now attending the school who were too young to remember the actual event of eleven years ago? To those who have experienced these phenomena, the series of variable manifestations are certainly unwaveringly real.

Obsession or Destiny Fulfilled?

The protagonist of my novel, Hallowed Halls, encounters similar manifestations. Nothing so unusual about that, only that he is drawn by forces beyond his control to pursue them in a dire need to uncover answers and is uncertain as to what he might find, even as he is succumbed into what he senses as real. This is subjective, of course, until others from his clan, without knowing anything about his situation, become involved and experience the same overwhelming manifestations that purposefully interact with them as well.

This is a case exploring what it would be like if such urban legends were actually true or based on some fact. My protagonist (and later his comrades) conduct research on the haunted place and discover the horrible event that happened there so many years before, so long ago that it has been left forgotten, except by those who were there and have managed to survive. The answers reveal a story that is surprisingly not as much science fiction, fantasy or as supernatural as human. THIS is enough to weigh upon the heart and mind because it involves actual people. It is such a sad ordeal that no one can or would want ignore it. An obsession turns into a need to help others who are lost, and that attempt, the protagonist learns over time, is his destiny, whether he is ready for it or not.

Both Lambertville High School and Columbine play a part in this story’s development, mainly because these are real-life places with real-life stories. Although the legends of the first example are unproven and are assumed by lingering manifestations continually permeating the place eerily destroyed but still standing, the latter has a confirmed account that correlates to the phenomena experienced by those there.

Another chilling point testified by Columbine is the fact that such a possibility of an in-school massacre is, in fact, true, since it actually happened. Such a scenario, though one that no one wishes to imagine, is indeed not beyond the realm of feasibility. As ugly and as tormenting and as disconcerting as it is, such an occurrence forces us to keep an open-mind and never underestimate what is possible and what is not, and never to assume anything is considered too farfetched to be conceived or believed. The protagonist of Hallowed Halls learns this lesson all too well, as do all of those around him, including those who have died.

Another aspect that correlates between Lambertville and Hallowed Halls is the echoes that ring over time through several means to grip the minds of those in the present. Such signals take the form of visual manifestation, such as the mysterious artwork of students on the blackboard and other various images throughout the site to sounds vibrating in the inner conscious, such as calling voices and laughter of those from an earlier time to even the deeply embedded feelings of presences sensed. These are common, true, but they are nonetheless profound on those who experience them, whether young explores at the Lambertville ruins, attendees at Columbine or the protagonist in Hallowed Halls, who encounters is own array of inexplicable visuals and sounds directed specifically at him. They all share similar experiences that draw and tie them to the past where they learn more about their surroundings and themselves. This is the true nature of any haunting, and though it is skeptically contested by many, it is an experience prevalently shared by an even greater number of people than those who deny it. There is no concrete evidence to substantiate any of this, of course, but, then again, those who have experienced such phenomena do not need evidence—their own sensations and how they are affected by said phenomena are absolutely real enough. Perhaps that’s all that is necessary to create impressionable meaning in the human mind.

This is what gives the story of the novel its strength, persistence and solidity, as well as the assurance that so many people will be able to relate to it over time. This is an urban legend that is all too human, just as the readers are; the human factor is what makes the story as real to the reader as the ghostly experience does to the individual. If this is the case, as apparently it is, the story is well-justified, as it achieves its intended purpose.

Lessons on Writing

As writers, we all learn more about writing by actually writing. It’s not too out-of-line to say, then, that each writing project we complete as writers teaches us lessons on writing while simultaneously improving our skill in writing. The two, therefore, go hand-in-hand.

What have I learned about writing through Hallowed Halls?

First: that the characters themselves create the story, just by being the entities they are. If the writer knows and is confident in her/his characters, the story will flow out and write itself. Yes, I already knew this, but this experience has reminded me that such a notion is not merely an ideal, but indeed a truth in creative writing. The Characters are everything; they are the essence of the story. If a writer underestimates them, s/he is wasting time with the story. First thing a writer needs to do—regardless—is to get to know the characters. Before I even started writing on the story itself, I delineated pages upon pages of life story for each of the characters. That took hours, days, even weeks, but it was necessary, and by the time I was done, I knew exactly what the story would be from beginning to end. Yes, some details fluctuated, but the essence of the entire story was already there and out, so I felt confident when I started on the actual novel. All this came to be because I knew my characters well beforehand.

“But if it isn’t going into the novel, why waste your time writing it out?” Many of you might say.

The answer: It doesn’t matter. Not all of the details of a character’s background should go into the body of the novel. The important thing is that you, the writer, must know your characters well enough to write about them.

A fine example would be that which lies in a different field of writing—journalism. One does research on a given subject to familiarize oneself with the subject so that one can write about it, even if much of the information obtained remains unenclosed in the final product. The writer gains an in-depth understanding regarding the overall nature of the subject so that s/he can write about it confidently without the need to include everything.

A writer isn’t wasting time by developing character backgrounds. The principle described above applies to creative writing and the characters one creates. Writers need to know their characters, how they think and feel and what makes them tick, how they relate to others and what motivates them, their families, their childhood friends, their enemies, their issues and pathologies (we all have these). In doing this, the writer IS writing the novel because all of this serves as the basis for the story upon which the novel is founded.

Another important point I accomplished through writing Hallowed Halls relates to foreshadowing. This not only alludes to future developments in the novel’s story, it also ties together the many elements of the plot so that everything is unified. This is done through the employment of metaphors and similes, setting, dialogue, structure, even font. As I mentioned in earlier posts on this blog, modifiers are of the essence. Nouns themselves can and do serve as modifiers for themselves. If such elements are used correctly and innovatively, foreshadowing will be effective.

One should keep in mind, though, that the most efficacious foreshadowing is, believe it or not, the most subtle. Nothing destroys a storyline like foreshadowing that SCREAMS what will be to come. Never underestimate the intelligence of the reader; if they are paying attention, readers will pick them up quicker and easier than the “in-your-face” references, probably because the former are naturally and casually presented, as they are in life, and are therefore more profound.

An instance of the subtle foreshadow would be a conversation between two characters who are joking. An off-the-cuff slur is made that will come into play later on. Do NOT elaborate or explain this right then and there, as the foreshadow will lose its power and so the story will lose its strength. A writer should simply make the slur and move on. Unnecessary explanations and descriptions are not only redundant (please see post on “redundancies”), but also interferes with the flow of the story and bloats the content.

The overall irony about composing a novel is that despite all of the writing that goes into character developments, minimal referencing will make the final product.

A conscientious writer should never underestimate the power of a single word, as long as it is the RIGHT word.

As for Hallowed Halls, this is only the beginning; more writing development and lessons to learn will come with the revisions. That’s where the REAL writing takes place.

I am looking forward to it . . . .

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