Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ghosts and Fungi: Halloween Spooky Post (Updated)

"In the basement, my skin felt clammy and clenched tightly around my bones. My heart pounded so wildly in my chest, I felt as if I was facing my own death. I felt so uncomfortable underground, in fact, that I thought I was going to pass out."--Theresa Wiza at .

In that basement...but not in another basement? I thought, reality-testing as I read. Yes, I can believe that a sane, intelligent person could have this reaction in only some basements, because I've watched it happen. Just as vertigo is a physical reaction that's distinct from fear of heights but is triggered by looking either up or down a "visual cliff," the phobic reactions some people have in only some buildings or basements are physical reactions to substances in those places, distinct from claustrophobia.

As discussed here ...real "horror" houses that seem to be exuding palpable waves of evil at almost everyone are likely to be physically polluted with nastier things than ordinary mold or insects. Houses that make only a few people feel "sick with horror" are likely to be polluted with mold or other natural substances to which only a few people have the nasty reactions that produce the sense of panic.

As when I was writing for Associated Content and working a flea market that was set up in an old tobacco warehouse. Some days it reeked of black mold, Stachybotrys atra, and some days blue mold (Aspergillus, usually a mixed growth), and some days my nose clogged up and I couldn't smell anything until chlorine bleach had become the dominant odor. And the funny thing about the warehouse was that, although the building was well aired, well lighted, and frequently scrubbed, people acted so weird as they walked through it. Sun would be pounding down on the big tinted skylight overhead, vendors' booths would be ablaze with lights, and we'd hear would-be shoppers babbling, "It's like walking into a cave," "It's spooky," "It's like being in a coal mine." 

So, some people don't know much about caves or coal mines. But things got weirder when other people wanted to work the booth with me. A laid-off father of young children who honestly wanted a job, especially a job where kids were positively appreciated, came in for a day. As he walked through the building his eyes teared up, his hands started trembling, and he began to cough. "I can't do this. I don't know why, but I cannot be in this building. I could not bring the children here."

A human friend and partner (yes, I do have a few of those in real life) had gone into the building, without blathering about caves or mines, and happily reported that she'd found me a booth with doors that locked for lower rent than I was paying in another indoor market, farther from home, at the time. Great job! Now she could work the booth and market her own wares some of the time! She came in with me, and after half an hour her mood and manner changed. She started looking nervously around, clock-watching, wanting to go to the bathroom or go out to a store or go home early every few minutes, like a child. Didn't she want to sell her stuff? She did, but..."I don't know what's wrong. I know it's not cold, but I feel cold." Halfway through the day, despite all those breaks, she was obviously trying to cope rationally with irrational mood swings, as her sinuses began to clog. She didn't like the people in the building, even when they bought things. She didn't like the way I'd set up the booth. Something might have been wrong with the food she'd bought. She just had to get out of that horrible building! She couldn't breathe! Her heart was pounding, her head was throbbing! She was going to faint! And this lady doesn't faint easily, nor does she have any kind of heart disease or suffer from migraines...

There's no local legend about the warehouse being haunted. Nobody's ever died there, or even become ill in any dramatic way. There is a solid history of vendors having failed to make a profit there, no matter what they've done. I was one of those vendors. So I left. Around that time, the tornado about which I wrote my last AC article passed by. No funnel cloud was seen, but the "spin-off cyclone" took out one wall of the building. The vendors voted to take out what remained of that wall in hopes that better air circulation would reduce panic reactions in shoppers. From what I've heard, either this didn't work (mold continued to thrive in the shade) or any benefits were offset by the loss of what the building had in the way of climate control, which was inadequate.

Anyway, those people's reactions started to make sense to me when I researched an AC article about the effects of exposure to mold and mold spores on different people. What was "toxic black mold"? (Stachybotrys atra is not toxic but, for reasons unclear, it's more likely than any other mold to cause a toxic chemical reaction when people are exposed to it.) Was there, then, a non-toxic black mold? (Aspergillus niger is generally regarded as safe enough to be the source of most of the citric acid used as flavoring in processed foods...but now we know, although a few years ago we didn't know, that A. niger can cause significant chronic illness for a few unlucky people: .) 

What, exactly, does mold do to people? Different things depending on who they are, what they've been eating, what other chemicals they've ingested, and who knows what-all. Allergy reactions definitely include mood swings, panic attacks, rage outbursts, depressive episodes. Mold does not usually mess with most people's minds, but it can mess with some people's minds.

Some sane and intelligent people believe that various kinds of paranormal influences are involved when they have panic attacks, or unexplained surges of rage or depression or, for all we know, maybe even manic energy. There's no proof that these paranormal influences do not exist. If evil spirits exist, they must absolutely love Stachybotrys atra. There is, however, proof that various kinds of allergies and sensitivities can be involved when a long series of nasty things happen in a specific place.

Last winter I wrote about a cancer survivor whose wife had also become ill, while caring for him at home, after another death in the family. Thanks perhaps to some of you and to other kind people, they got the trailer house parked on their own property, as requested, and have reclaimed their right to privacy. But the Kingsport Times-News printed a sequel last summer. A house close to their property seems to be unsalable at any price because it's been described as haunted or at least unlucky--a long series of occupants died of different kinds of cancer in that house. People who don't believe in ghosts or aliens feel creepy about that house, too...should it be called the Hawkins County Horror? And, er um, are that family still sure they want to live there? Should they at least have the place tested for known carcinogens before they rebuild a solid house?

Some people's panic attacks occur frequently, and may be a symptom of something wrong with a natural warning system. Other people seldom have panic attacks, but when they do, theirs may be a healthy indication that something is genuinely dangerous--at least to them. A place where some people feel comfortable, some think that if there's a ghost it might be a friendly one, and others feel sure that the place is haunted by evil spirits, sounds to me like a place where physical triggers of those people's physical sensitivities are present.

This does not necessarily prove that ghosts aren't present...especially if humans have lived in the area and kept records for a long time, and several of those humans have had psychological reactions to the same physical trigger. In theory, if a lot of people's reactions included paranoid panic, there might be a history of murders and suicides, and for all we know the ghosts of all the people involved might haunt the place, as is rumored to be the case with some historic houses in England. But, for those of us who are skeptical about ghosts, "evil spirits" like mold, radon, pesticides, and other pollution are evil enough to explain why some places evoke feelings of horror.

(Update: I didn't search for links to authorities who could validate that mood swings and other psychological phenomena can be allergy symptoms, because that had been recognized in the 1990s. However, for those who are interested in more complete and recent discussions of mood swings as symptoms of mold allergies, here are some links:

The doctor a landlord is likely to call as a witness if you sue for damages from mold in a building: He doesn't say that mold does not cause insanity or major brain damage; he just says that lots of people live with mild brain damage, and it's hard to prove that mold does or doesn't cause damage to any specific brain.)