Professor McRae's Spooky Adventure

A shuttered orphanage on the island of Buyukada, Turkey that Prof. McRae visited on her year-long tour of abandoned buildings.

The ramshackle house on the hill, its shadows creeping toward the road under a brilliant moon, terrifies but also beckons. The hapless wayfarers – to their peril! - cannot resist its dark magnetism. And the rest, of course, is cinematic history, cyclically reimagined to suit the fears and obsessions of the age.

With Halloween fast approaching, humanities professor Calista McRae, a book and film lover who appreciates the eerie allure of the deserted and derelict, recounts her own tour of forbidding edifices, conducted as much as possible, however, in the light of day.

“I’m fascinated with abandoned buildings, barns and mills,” explains McRae, who, fresh out of college in 2009, set off on a year-long tour of the isolated and forgotten across Germany, Ukraine, Turkey and further east. Supported by a Watson Foundation fellowship, the Amherst graduate was liberated from the constraints of required reading and academic deadlines to “create (her) own path” with the sole mission “to conceive an original project, execute it outside of the United States and embrace the ensuing journey,” as the foundation puts it.

Her journey, entitled “The Characters of Ruin,” began just outside of Berlin at a defunct hospital complex that once housed high-ranking Nazis, and an amusement park, abruptly shuttered in 2002. Amid the decay lay titanic dinosaurs that had toppled on their sides. She continued on to the Czech Republic and Ukraine to explore empty army bases, shunned Soviet-era apartment buildings in the “wedding cake” style and a partly destroyed synagogue in the middle of a snow-covered field between Lviv and Kiev. Eventually, she traveled past an abandoned orphanage near Istanbul, and through ruins outside Delhi and Dhaka that had been abandoned for many years.

McRae approached her tour not as a horror movie fan, however, but as a sometime poet and literary critic, eager to explore ruins for their suggestive power, which, she says, gave rise to a “millennium of poetry and art, often sentimentalized, allegorized or ‘picturesqued’ out of all proportion.” She wrote about and drew uninhabited buildings in desolate mining towns, industrial districts and emptied suburbs.

“I tried to write with a light hand – documenting more than editorializing – and to capture the beautiful, crazy angles of these collapsing structures, many of them partly returned to nature,” she recounts. One that stuck in her head was the Berlin sanitarium, a 19th century colossus, “vast and beautiful,”  whose walls were covered in patients’ artwork, such as murals of birch trees and anthropomorphized animals, a Johnny Depp poster, trompe l’oeil graffiti of ghoulish children and Soviet-era politicians and “so many corridors you couldn’t even remember if you’d been down them.”

“There were moments that briefly terrified me, when someone would pop out unexpectedly—more often than not another person exploring, but occasionally a stray dog defending her puppies,” she recalls.

She took comfort by “couch surfing,” staying inexpensively in strangers’ rooms for a small fee. “I was alone much of the day, so it was good to have other people around for the occasional meal or walk. The couch-surfing community is absurdly friendly, and many of them showed me ruins I’d never have seen,” she says.

McRae, who grew up in Central Massachusetts, was first acquainted with the spooky and abandoned as a girl, when she heard about the nearby Quabbin Reservoir, a vast, inland body of water that swallowed four towns when it was created in the middle of the Depression. Old roads are said to lead to its edge and McRae notes that “people say you can still see traces of stone cellars and walls underwater.”

Of her ruins tour, she notes, “The fellowship gave me the means to see parts of the world that I would never otherwise have had a way of visiting. More than that, it simply gave me time to think deeply about my future.”

As a writer, McRae likes to make herself and her students describe the “elusive and intangible” because it requires “examining our own reactions to things” and putting them into words.

But she believes this can be achieved as much through humor as the spooky and tragic. This spring, she is offering a seminar on comedy that will explore fiction and film from the 20th and 21st centuries, likely including work by Flannery O’Connor, Zadie Smith, and Teju Cole, along with silent films, light verse and early comics.

McRae, who is co-editing The Selected Letters of John Berryman with Philip Coleman, an English professor at Trinity College in Dublin, which is now under contract with Harvard University Press, said she was drawn to the 20th century poet for his ability to bridge the comic and the tragic.

“At one point in his volume, The Dream Songs, Berryman says his main point is “to make laugh, and to hurt”; he does both, wonderfully.”

Tracey Regan

tregan@njit.edu