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Friday July 20, 1979 my mom took a day off from her job at On the Spot, a cleaning supply company located out in the Valley.  It was the 10th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing and she thought it would be a good opportunity for us to learn something.  So we headed into Griffith Park, destination: the Observatory.  They were having some “to-do” there and they were offering telescopic views of the moon. IMG_3214

In the foyer there was (is) a huge pendulum suspended from the ceiling (one of the many aspects of the place utterly unchanged since the 1950’s).  It was in constant and slow circular movement, I heard it was a proof of the rotation of the earth.  Seeing this seemed to remind my mom of something, she was pretty excited, and when we got home she brought out me a small faux-leather case and opened it up.

Note, this is not a story about astronauts or moon landings, but rather, my own mother’s otherworldly endeavors. It is about Spiritualism, or Spirituality, if you prefer.  I’d known that though she had a few Edgar Cayce books she never really talked about her beliefs.  Well, she was about to open up, as she now had a new and unwitting acolyte.

The Pendulum

The Observatory Pendulum had reminded her that we had a pendulum of our own and she showed me how to use it.  It was a wooden sphere with a cone of plastic protruding from one side.  It looked to me like those endlessly tipping top hat wearing wooden birds that were popular in gift shops (the ones that went up and down over and over like it was drinking water).

...or something like that

…or something like that


The other side of the sphere had a string; I was to sit in a chair and lean forward, holding onto the end of the string, and not to move so the object would hang still below.  She asked me to concentrate on a question, it had to be a yes or no, then wait and see what the pendulum did.  If the point of the pendulum rotated clockwise, it was a ‘yes.’  Counterclockwise was a ‘no.’ I found that if we wanted to get anywhere answer-wise, we had to work within a format like “20 questions.”

It always seemed to be in some kind of motion.  It would decisively rotate or counter-rotate shortly after a question was asked.  Decisiveness in this “world of spiritualism” (as my mom called it) was a sought after thing, I found, so I learned to run with it (more on that later).  The pendulum became really popular in the apartment in the coming days and weeks. But it seemed we often asked the kind of questions that couldn’t be proved out one way or another.

I think we did that because it was safer that way.  It was safe, and we could go on believing, even when the pendulum would seemingly contradict itself, dialing one way, then the other on an identical question (“hey, you bumped me!” one of us would say).

I found that through the subtlest manipulation I could get the pendulum to swing the way that I wanted.  Nobody could tell what I was doing. This “nuance of intent” would serve me well a little later.  It got a little boring after a while asking Mr. or Mrs. “I-don’t-know-who” endless yes or no questions, so I learned to steer the conversation.

Hollywood has always been a magnet not only for people trying to become famous, but also for those trying to get a glimpse into ‘the other realm.’  I could definitely count my mother among the latter (actually also the former), and she saw her kids as her conduits (for both).  When my sisters eventually lost interest, I became the favorite, her unwitting acolyte.  And what a trip it was.

She introduced me to the many tools we had at our disposal: tarot cards, the aforementioned pendulum, a crystal ball, tea leaves, glasses of water atop old photographs, books on Transcendental Meditation (TM) and dream interpretation, and of course the Ouija Board.  What did my mom want?  She wanted to contact the deceased; anybody would do, really. But she had her favorites, family members and especially dead actors/celebrities.   She also wanted to predict disasters and find wealth, but the Celebrity thing- now that was the big one!

To us, the book “Hollywood Babylon” was becoming more like a phone directory.

She soaked up all of the Hollywood ghost stories and the tragedies that had happened to them to turn them into ghosts in the first place.  All the stories of tragic deaths and murders among the glitterati were part of the allure of living in Hollywood, she explained.

We’d heard on the news one morning that a landslide had taken out part of a house that Harry Houdini had once lived in.  Mom was fascinated by Houdini because of his well-known attempts to contact his dead mother (though he was always just being bilked by con artists).

We headed out to the place (for once the Star Maps were right) and saw what looked like ruins and a partially buried house on a hillside.  There was a fence around it.  My little sister, being little, scurried under the fence to look for treasures.  She emerged a few minutes later with a really cool vintage wooden Pepsi-Cola crate.  Years later we lost it, but believe me; it should have ended up on “Antiques Roadshow.”

The Séance: First Contact

   That night after we decamped back to the Lido Apartments we made our first attempt at contact.  During the ride back home we’d convinced ourselves that Houdini not only owned the Pepsi-Cola crate but that it was undoubtedly one of his treasured possessions.

The Great Houdini

The Great Houdini

I thought he would like to know that we were holding it for him.

We were going to have a séance.  For me, the hardest part of a séance had to be the need to turn off the TV.  I reluctantly switched off a rerun of “Love, American Style” and we sat in a circle in the middle of the room.

We held hands.  It was quiet; the room was illuminated by a couple of candles.  The Pepsi-Cola crate had been placed in the middle, I guess so that Harry wouldn’t miss it.  I stifled a giggle because I imagined my mom was going to say. “Psst, Harry, we have something of yours….if you want to see it again…” kind of like a ransom note.  Instead, it was this:

“Is there anybody there?  This is Jeannine.  We’re looking for Harry Houdini.”

The séance intro always went something like this.  It invariably brought to my mind someone breaking in on a party line or of someone walking into a dark room that you know is full of people.  Then they all look up and point to the back, where the target of inquiry is sitting by himself, as if waiting for your visit.

Instead what happened was, silence.  We sat this way for about 20 minutes, with my mom making repeated attempts.  I heard creaking in the apartment (it’s funny the noise that actually goes on when you think it’s really quiet).  I reported the creaking after the séance was over and was asked to characterize it in as much detail as I could remember.  I didn’t think it was anything but my mom was starting to make me think it might have been, and that was exciting.  I started to think,”maybe it WAS Harry….”  My interest was piqued.

The next day my mom broke out her book on Transcendental Meditation.  This was the second of several “Implements of Spiritualism” that I would see the next 6 months.  I was inwardly skeptical, but I soon found this TM stuff was useful AND cool.  One morning I sat down, and as per parental instruction, I closed my eyes and visualized a beautiful garden.

Meditation: TM style

I thought I’d probably be a natural at this visualization thing because I was 12 years old and I already used my imagination A LOT.

Walking through the imaginary garden I was instructed to visualize a door on the ground (like a tornado shelter).  I’d open it and step down a long stairway, leaving the world behind for darkness, peace, and silence.  Every step lower was to bring me away from one realm and closer to another.  Then there would appear a light at the end of a pathway, where there was a chalkboard.

I’d pick up a piece of chalk (kindly provided me) and write down what it was I truly wanted (what “I wanted” was usually provided to me too).  I was always in a more peaceful state by the time I got at the end of the stairs and through the garden; so just as a calming exercise, this was great.  I needed it just to deal with LeConte Jr High, sometimes the codeine I was prescribed was not enough (see stories “My PT” and “LeConte 101”).

But then I’d write something groundbreaking down like ‘talk to Clark Gable’ or ‘give a message to Myrna Loy.’  Then I’d concentrate on it, breathing deeply.  Clark never checked in and unbeknownst to any of us I could have simply looked up Myrna in the Beverly Hills Directory; she was still very much alive.

Variants of this meditation had me descending the stairs and approaching a pot of gold (ostensibly to bring wealth to our family, but all I ever received was a box of Lucky Charms in the kitchen).  I may have never received the actuality of what I had written but I was very relaxed and that really made it all worthwhile to me.  I’d learned to meditate.  The journey to the destination became, to me, the goal in itself.

A Strange Dream

   During this summer of ’79 I started having very vivid dreams.  It had been observed for years by psychiatrists that states of deep relaxation (as what I’d been experiencing in TM) caused people to have colorful, memorable dreams.  At the time I didn’t know about all that but I was seeing some crazy stuff.

In one dream, my family and I were sitting on a sofa in a house and there was a knock at the door.  The furnishings in the house were very distinct and clear to me, as I later recounted to my mother.  I noticed them as I walked to the door and opened it.  An old lady walked in, looking around as if she knew the place.  That was good because I had never been in that house before.  She kept asking my mom a question:

“Why did you bury me in the ground?”

She was visibly distraught, and after about her 4th time asking this question, I woke up, all agitated.  It was morning already; I got up and told my mom about this bizarre dream.  I got to the part about how all the furnishings and the house layout was so memorable; and when I said “French doors” she stopped me and had me back up.

She was listening now.  When I told her about the old lady at the door she asked me to describe her with more detail.  Then she stopped me again and ran into the other room, soon returning with a photo album.

She quickly thumbed through the stiffened pages, arrived at one and turned it to me.

“Was it her?!”

There was a picture of 5 ladies, each one older than the last, and a baby.  She was pointing at the 4th lady in the pic.

“Yeah, um, that actually IS her.”

My mom then excitedly explained to me that the old lady in the picture (and my dream) was her grandmother and that in the dream we were all in her house (that she swears was torn down before I was born).  So I was seeing a house I’d never been in.  She told me her grandmother told her this shortly before she died:

“If you do not bury me in a wall vault I will come back and haunt you.”

For it seems Grandma Howell had a deathly fear of being buried in the ground.  Far from being decades ahead of the whole recycling curve, she simply didn’t want her earthly remains to be consumed by worms.  After she died she was buried in the ground because, well, it was cheaper that way.  I guessed she had come to me to pass a message to my mom “It is sometimes not good to cut corners financially.”

As my mom explained it, my relaxed mind or newly smooth brain biorhythms or whatever was giving me an interesting side “benefit.”  I may have been intrigued but my mom was positively thrilled!  If I had been in for the proverbial ‘penny’ with her before, from now on it was going to be all about the ‘pound.’

In my mom’s eyes I had become a powerful psychic.  With the moving pendulum (that I’d become convinced I’d moved with my mind) and now this, I was starting to believe her.  I was also starting to feel bad that I was leaving my sisters (the norms) behind.

I continued to have strangely vivid dreams, dreams that were later analyzed in minutiae by my mom, her dream analysis book always in hand.  Some were about plane crashes, or me leaving my bedroom and flying over cities I’d never seen before (like Superman).  I saw weird corporate logos on weird stores in business districts where it was not night (like it was in LA) or where the sun was just coming up.  I dutifully described all of these in detail.

She told me when in a dream to look for a silver thread.  I’d never see the thread but she was not discouraged a bit.  I was also getting into this, it was so interesting to see all this stuff in dreams, and I loved talking about it when I woke up.

So I started to peer into a crystal ball, that, of course, my mom also owned (where was she hiding all this stuff?!).  In our house the reveals came one at a time.

The Crystal Ball

In some ways, crystal ball gazing was very similar to TM; I liked it because it relaxed my mind.  It was a good way to just zone out.  I would stare at it for long periods of time and eventually I’d think I could see things moving around in there.  Like sinking ships or crashing planes (like my mom, I guess I was a bit of a disaster voyeur).  Because through it I once thought I saw…I thought I saw a cargo ship sink (to my mom it was “proved out” on the Channel 5 News that night).

This is when she started to ask me to look for lucky numbers.  She would also read off mysterious names like “Wednesday Adventure” and “Sally’s Sally” and ask me what I thought. One day, a trip to Santa Anita solved that little mystery.  I would choose the horses for my mom during several stops there to “play the ponies.”  We won some, we lost some, because my mom was a believer I got credit for the wins but no blame for the losses.  Win win.

Whether at the track or not, the crystal ball would become a popular choice that my mom would trot out over the coming months.

Another Strange Dream

I was continuing to have those vivid dreams.  In one, I stood on a flat windswept field next to a small airstrip or airport.  A big military plane was coming in for a landing.  It came in low and tipped a little; one wingtip brushed a small metal shed.  It crashed and burst into flames.  The sun was rising right when that happened.  The air felt cold.  I woke up in the dark, calmed myself and went back to sleep for about an hour.

When I got up I told my mom about the dream, she was interested but her interest seemed kind of vague.  We were watching the news a little later and they reported that that morning there had been a C-130 crash in Texas.  The big military transport plane had hit a building and crashed while landing at dawn.  It was light out there but back in California it was still dark…. right when I was having this dream.

Was I there and did I actually witness it?! 

My mom sure thought I was!  Future dream analysis became even more intense.

When my mom wasn’t busying coaching me with the “implements of spiritualism” she would read tarot cards for anybody who was interested, sometimes us, sometimes coworkers or neighbors.  Visitors to our apartment always left happy because she was a free fortuneteller and loved the practice.  Visitors always left with a refreshed desire to “follow their dreams” or to tell their loved ones they were in fact, loved (good advice from anyone anytime, though, right?).  Mom may have not been in it for the money but she WAS into deigning how to get TO the money.

On that note, one day she told me I should try to dream numbers (I didn’t really know how to go about that).  She told me that like with the crystal ball I should be able to direct the action with some skill in my “traveling dreams” (the ones where I was looking for a silver tether).

By this time our family life had taken on a kind of mystical flavor that made me feel we were different than most other kids.  But this was something I didn’t speak about to my Town & Country and Vans-clad classmates.  Kids at LeConte generally got their spiritual experiences from the waves out in Santa Monica.  As far as school was concerned, this was our own weird (yet admittedly fun) little family secret.  This was one time where I learned the value of compartmentalizing, I didn’t want my friends to think I was nuts.

What turned out to be the most fun ‘Implement of Spiritualism’ turned out to be the Ouija Board.  One of the board game makers, Hasbro or Parker Brothers, produced it; and because there was so much controversy around what people thought it was, they had to call it a game. I grew to see it that way myself.

The Ouija Board

This was definitely fun for the whole family.  My sibs and I would clamor over one another for a chance at the planchette.  All our attempts here were to speak to famous dead people; we’d say “think of someone, think of someone” real fast and start asking questions.  Things at first were pretty inconclusive as we spelled out gibberish.  This led to boredom.  But I’d learned something from the pendulum: certainty was the close ally of success in these spiritual endeavors.  So I decided to try something, something I’d learned with that swinging wooden sphere. 

Thinking back at how I seemed to be influencing the direction of the pendulum, I decided it might just work here too.  At first my movements were obvious, but I was able to explain them away as nerves or excitement.  But soon, my concentration seemed to be paying off.  I was influencing the movements of the planchette so subtly that neither of my sisters ever caught on (maybe not until now!).  I didn’t know it at the time, but in all this I was probably utilizing what’s called the ‘ideomotor effect.’

Some Science

Shrinks have pointed to the ideomotor effect as being the thing that influences automatic writing (which my mom also LOVED to do) as well as the movements on a Ouija Board. I think some of the elements of TM were applying themselves here; states of mental relaxation were leading right to concentration (what Buddhists might even call a “Spooky Samadhi”).   Basically the theory, as applied, stated that not only was I fooling my sisters, I was fooling myself with small unconscious muscle tics.

I made sure when I was ‘playing’ Ouija to keep the answers consistent, simple and personal.  If the Ouija players felt that the ‘spirit’ knew who the players were, especially their first names, why they’d never lose interest!

In no time at all I was influencing the answers; well I should say, the “responses to what I was thinking (that were to them magically showing up on the board).”  Because that’s sure how it felt.  I was a powerful psychic, after all.

I started by eliminating the erratic responses.  If you were, say, talking to Rudolph Valentino, then he was sure going to stay there with you for a while and stay on topic.  The answers were always crowd-pleasing.  Yes, “they” always missed being in the movies; but no, “they” weren’t ever unhappy.  And of course, they knew some of our relatives ‘over there.’  In fact, they were usually right nearby!

Testing the Science

Like everybody, I always got a vicarious thrill from doing something sneaky and getting away with it.  So I usually instigated these Ouija sessions.  Sensing a general need for entertainment, I had to spice things up.  To see if my sibs really believed what the Ouija told them, I had to test them.  Could I get them to actually do what Judy Garland or James Dean wanted? Could it work?

I knew I had to start off small.

I also knew I couldn’t use this ‘power’ to benefit myself; or the game would surely be up.

One day Bud Abbott happened to tell my little sister he really liked red blouses, he said it would make him ‘really happy’ if she would wear one the next day.  Sure enough, for 3 days straight she wore red.  My sis never knew why I kept having these bursts of stifled laughter at odd moments.

Next up, it was time to deliver a message of some importance.  I couldn’t think of anything really important so I tried to deliver the promise of a message of importance.  As Marilyn Monroe was a frequent correspondent, I called upon her.  OK, now what?

There was a life-size wax figurine of Monroe at the Chinese Theater.  During a Ouija session with my sister one day, Marilyn appeared and told her she had a “special message” for her.  That she had to go to the Chinese Theater at a certain time and stand next to her figurine, and then it would be delivered.  I believed she took it to heart, not a bit suspicious.

My mother observed all of this; though I don’t think she had any suspicions either.  But she still warned me to be wary of the Ouija Board and its “power,” just in general.  Though oddly not a believer in angels and demons, she didn’t want to “let a bad thing in.”

I don’t know for sure because I wasn’t there, but my sister may have showed up in the Mann’s forecourt to hear a message that never came.   Thinking about it, I felt remorse for the first time, like I’d gone too far.  I was afraid to ask her if she actually went.  I imagined she seemed down.

I felt like I had just stomped on Bambi.

The “star manipulation” took the fun out of all my Ouija adventures.  I had used my power inappropriately.  Eventually I put it and the crystal ball; and all the other stuff away and out of my mind (to my mom’s everlasting disappointment).  I told her about it later (actually, many years later) and we all laughed but I still felt bad, like I had used the power to do harm.

And it’s really too bad, because the weird dreams I had were very interesting.  I had achieved meditative states that led me to experience phenomena that I’d never had before.  Although a lot of it was obviously hokey and fake, kind of a con-job really; there was a glimpse there for a while, of something.

Of the mystery of things in life.

Though in the future I had the occasional weird dream or would peek into a crystal ball when my mom really wanted me too, I professed shame at my mom’s “strangeness.”  She lost her little pupil but she never stopped reading people’s cards.  One thing she really taught me, and that I tried to take with me, was to keep an open mind about things I didn’t really know about.

And for this my friends John Garfield, Douglas Fairbanks (and now even Myrna Loy) and I are very thankful.

1 reply
  1. Alannah Murphy
    Alannah Murphy says:

    I love it when you speak of your life with your mother before I met her. Brings her back a little to me. She talked to me about all those things, and taught me some of them. I love that she did.


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