“Break On Through To The Other Side,” by Jane Donaldson

Sep 14th, 2022 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

1968 was the year I became a spiritual medium. I was a nine year old with time on my hands. Our parents fed us, clothed us and kept us on the straight and narrow, but orchestrating after school activities was not in their job description. Carefully choreographed play dates were nonexistent. In fact even the word “play date” was nonexistent. No one cared what we did between the hours of 3PM and 5PM as long as we did it quietly while not wearing our good school clothes. Our public grammar school was no help. Chess club, Kumon, art camp, Little Thespians… those offerings were decades in the future. But that was fine with us. We managed to stay busy. Left to our own devices, we arranged a standing date with a band of ghouls every day at 4PM.

At 3:45 each day we’d gather around our behemoth of a console TV in anticipation of watching grainy black and white images of Barnabas Collins. Barnabas was the undead heart throb and star of Dark Shadows, a popular if unconventional 60s soap opera. Barnabas worked alongside a spellbinding cavalcade of witches, warlocks and fellow vampires. For thirty spine tingling minutes each day we sat transfixed, captivated by the tribulations of Barnabas and his unholy band of followers.

Barnabas, although technically a blood sucking ghoul, was portrayed as an urbane approachable guy with prime real estate on the Maine coast. He had a soft spoken avuncular affect and moved through his tormented life with a sorrowful expression on his face: his compulsion to suck people dry seemed to pain him. To add to his appeal the studio had him dine discretely off camera. Because Barnabas seemed far too self-contained to be a voracious feeder, we often speculated about his choice of victim. Were his targets all human or would a raccoon or squirrel slake his thirst? Or maybe vampires, like reptiles, had sluggish metabolisms making their urge to feed infrequent. Such debates consumed our afternoons.

Watching Dark Shadows piqued our interest in the occult and all things supernatural. During lazy summer evenings, and most of our summer evenings were pretty lazy, we would hold a séance. Because we had no interest in unleashing unruly spooks with scores to settle, we summoned spirits of the unthreatening variety. Our genies were the sort who would obligingly retreat back into their bottles.

Seeing as we lived in Massachusetts, the Kennedys were a popular choice. If conjured, they promised to be stimulating and cordial company. Their blood was blue, but otherwise they had a lot in common with Barnabas. They had their own personal stretch of coastline; they were witty; they were wealthy; they were well bred. Our world overlapped about as much with theirs as it did with Barnabas’s, but we reasoned that, as New Englanders, we were all family. If summoned, the Kennedy clan would intuitively know the rules. There would be no unsettling banshee howling from that crowd.

We soon discovered that summoning decorous ghosts had its downside. From a purely technical standpoint signs from beyond could be tricky to interpret. Ghosts were slippery. After some debate we decided to allow our spirits leeway in expressing themselves. The slamming of a car door, a dog’s bark, a distant siren, all were admissible as evidence of a successful conjuring. In our hearts we knew that we should tighten up our parameters, but who had the patience to sit in the dark hour after hour, dancing attendance on some elusive spook?

Then one evening we summoned Bobby Kennedy.

We did the usual Kennedy evocation warm up: chit chat about touch football and some entirely speculative rhapsodizing about sailing the high seas off of the Hyannis coast. We wrapped up with a stirring rendition of ‘Abraham, Martin, and John’ and then… presto… Bobby’s shadowy profile appeared on the wall. We fell silent. We’d never actually discussed phase two: small talk with the spirit. As it turned out, we soon discovered that the light playing on my mother’s ruffled curtains had caused the illusion. Or was it an illusion? As students of the occult we had divined that ghosts were notorious opportunists. It seemed plausible that Bobby might choose to apparate in the form of a ruffled Country Curtains valance.

We placed that summons in the “success” column and began holding nightly séances in my garage.


Although our approach to school work could be haphazard, our seances were miracles of organization, strictly regulated and never veering from the established protocol. We always kicked off the festivities with a quick levitation. Levitation was definitely a side show and not altogether on point, but as a warm up, it got our powers flowing.

On one particularly memorable night Billy Ryan, my next door neighbor, lay on the cement floor of my garage primed for levitation. He made his body rigid while we gathered around him and placed two fingers from each hand under his head, torso and limbs. We’d managed to lift him to chest height when he fidgeted and the inevitable happened. Billy was young. The savvier subjects knew to fidget early in the process because levitations always ended with the subject collapsed in a heap on the garage floor. The longer you stayed stock still, the higher we hoisted you. After Billy’s crash landing, it was time to get down to business.

Ours was a garage without a car. We sat in a rough circle on the floor among hand push lawn mowers, baskets for plant debris, and stacks of clay flower pots. Sinister looking hedge and hand clippers hung on the wall casting ominous shadows and setting the mood. The garage had a single small window and two large wooden doors. In hushed tones we debated who should be summoned that evening. I must not have had much interest in the chosen subject, because I quickly grew bored and slipped unnoticed back to the house.

Having finished straightening up after dinner, my mother had settled down at the kitchen table to enjoy a cigarette and the latest copy of Readers’ Digest. Her body language signaled that she was taking a break from motherhood, so I went in search of my father who could often be found in the evening tinkering in his basement workshop.

“So where are all the kids tonight?”

“They’re at the séance in the garage.”

“And why aren’t you there? You always like that kind of thing.”

“I don’t know… it’s really crowded. And lately nothing ever seems to happen.”

My mother was from Irish stock and prone to histrionics. My father was her opposite. His family hailed from Scotland where people tended to be a little stingy with their emotions. But as my father spread wood glue on a sanded plank and applied a clamp to his project, a smile played on his lips. “Well, if you like, we could make your séance a little more interesting.”

And we did.

My father and I climbed out of the cellar via the bulkhead door which emptied us just steps from the garage window. As we crept to the window and stood by the cinderblock wall of the garage, we could hear the sound of young voices raised in incantation. My father placed his hand very close to the glass and slowly began moving it back and forth. For one long moment the invocations to the spirit world stopped and there was dead silence. And then a howl erupted that would honestly have raised the dead had they not already been lingering around on standby. The shrieks of two dozen children mingled and rose like a mushroom cloud. Then came groans and blunted thuds as body propelled against body in a desperate scramble for the door. We discovered later that Billy Ryan had barely made it out. Still nursing his wounds from the levitation, he had just missed being trampled in the stampede.

My father and I melted back into the darkness of the cellar. As we settled back onto our stools, we could hear the sound of my sister Rosemary as she careened through the front door. “We saw a bony hand at the garage window!” she shrieked. I collapsed in convulsive laughter.

To calm Rosemary’s near hysteria my father quickly admitted to our prank. The story soon spread far and wide. During the rest of that lazy summer other adults interrupted our ghost conjuring with all sorts of shenanigans and we soon grew bored with our pastime. Our success rate had skyrocketed, but we knew it was unearned due to parental interference. It was important to maintain some professional pride. We moved on to other equally enriching pastimes.

When I think about childhood my mind often wanders back to that haunting summer. During our many hours ministering to dead souls, my sister and I learned that death could visit without so much fanfare, but by then we’d left our spiritualist days behind us. Time, like ghosts, is slippery. The neighborhood kids all grew up and went off in different directions, but fundamentally none of us changed that much. If I were to use my powers to summon them back to the old neighborhood and I conducted an informal poll, I believe most would stand behind our old conjuring record. A statesman communing through the veil of a ruffled curtain is not an event to be taken lightly. After some spirited debate, we’d probably agree that we’d been on to something.


Jane Donaldson has, up till now, only had one piece published (a fluke?) in the online publication Thread. Over the many years she has been a dog walker, a house cleaner, a soda jerk, a librarian, and a mother (roughly in that order). More recently she worked growing organic produce for a restaurant in Chicago, as well as doing various and sundry filthy things for the Chicago Botanic Garden.

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