It is a curiosity that wherever there are great waterfalls, the indigenous peoples of that region, without any near anthropological connection to each other, all have similar stories concerning an ancient distraught princess throwing herself to her doom. Niagara Falls, Victoria Falls, Iguazu Falls, you name it. I suppose the notion that a young girl would commit suicide rather than be without her true love resonates with a certain sentimentality present in every spirit. Who knows? Nevertheless, spirits are set free, then, to haunt the immediate confines with the low wails of youthful tragedy, wails undergirded by the ceaseless outcry of falling water.
Easy ghost story, right? Well, about 30 years ago, when I was 12 years old, one of the local Chickasaw gentlemen serving as a guide at Noccalula Falls in Gadsden, Alabama taught me a little more about these liberated spirits. Spirits specifically compelled to go over the falls by frustrated romantic love, he said, cannot merely wander, as it is always told. No, they must remain incarnate within something material. Thousands of people over the ages have gone over the falls, yet only a handful are known to call out. Why? Because these went over the falls with something material in hand into which their spirits could remain incarnate even after their bodies had been obliterated. As for this Cherokee princess at Noccalula Falls, she must have carried some sort of talisman with her which embedded itself in the rocks behind the falls.
Fascinating, right? Over the years, especially after I developed an interest in cross-cultural deep structural analysis, that is, what makes us all common to each other within our cultural expressions, I’ve made a small hobby of investigating his teaching. He was old, so I believed him.
Here in the Niagara Falls area, there is a subculture of collectors, much like philatelists who specialize, say, in Pacific Island stamps–there is a subculture of artifact collectors here in the region who specialize in broken bits of the barrels in which adventurers have died when they went over the Niagara Falls. After some inquiring, which was considerable–these guys are very close, shall we say–I was directed to a little meeting room above one of the halal places on Third Street, from which you can see the Niagara Falls.
I remember trying the door, and it was unlocked, yielding a view of a room filled with canvas, burlap, and glass display cases. Some of the display cases were electrified, with sensors blinking alternately green and red as they cycled through their monitoring programs. I stood in the doorway, taking it all in. A few chairs were scattered here and there.
“Hello,” said a voice behind me. Naturally, I was startled.
“Sorry,” I said. “I was looking for someone to talk to.”
“We’re not a therapist group,” he replied, but he was smiling, indicating the jest.
I told him who I was and what I was doing, mentioning the Chickasaw guide from back when.
“Oh, Indians romanticize perfectly measurable science,” he said. I cringed at the prejudice, but I was listening. He continued, saying, “It’s not just specific to distraught teenage girls, but he’s absolutely right about incarnation. High Place Phenomenon gives us a ton of artifacts to work with, you see, and we can run experiments. The easiest ones to work with are those which float, like pieces of barrel. If you run a control, the pieces which went over the falls tend to move as though they have a will of their own, propelled by some sort of unseen force.
“What we don’t know, and we haven’t developed a proper experiment for, is how life force is caught up in some pieces and not others. Our pedigree analysis is fairly thorough, so we know that two pieces from one barrel will have a different measure of life force. Competing theories abound up here, but it’s all speculation right now. The two main lines are: first, that a strong-willed man might actually be able to call the life force of others who linger nearby to join his life force, and which creates the guise of uneven distribution. The second is that the material does not break up uniformly or in sequence, so the life force is distributed at the moment of death into the nearest largest shard.
“Again, we’re scientists, but our methods are terribly under-developed.
“Of course, we might be entirely wrong: the death of the man in the barrel might actually invoke the life force of the falls to enter into the material, a sort-of by-product of the material slash life force exchange going on in an extraordinary circumstance. High Place Phenomenon is an outside influence on the psychology of perfectly ordinary human beings, you know.”
“Don’t forget the woman,” I said.