Life lessons from the ghost of Lon Chaney

lon chaney

I enjoy watching ghost shows. Not the breed of modern-day POV infrared cam shows that feel like cheap rip-offs of The Blair Witch Project, but the cooler, older stuff. To float my supernatural boat, I’ve usually got to dig a bit deeper than the bilge so readily found these days on cable channels like Destination America and the Discovery Channel—back to the golden age of made-for-TV documentaries hosted by world-class narrators like Leonard Nimoy and Rod Serling. Maybe it’s a sign of my age. Or maybe things really were scarier before all that new ground was broken. Either way, I dig the oldies. And sometimes, if I’m lucky and I look hard enough, they might even impart a life lesson worth mentioning.

Such was the case last night when I scrobbled back in time to the oh-so-distant 90s for another look-see at Patrick Macnee’s Ghost Stories. I’d seen the show before. It’s a little dated—who am I kidding? It’s a lot dated—and more often than not, it’s just a rehashing of old ghost tales we’ve probably all heard dozens of times in other places. But the episode I watched last night had something a touch heavier.

It was an episode called “Hollywood Ghosts,” and it told a borderline creepy tale about an actor everyone’s heard of named Lon Chaney. Before Chaney gained legendary status as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” in movies like The Hunchback of Notre DameThe Phantom of the Opera, and London After Midnight (where he also created all of his own iconic makeup), he was just another actor hungry for work. Each day, he’d sit on a bench at the corner of Hollywood and Vine and wait for the bus that would deliver him to the studio gates, where he earned his money and cut his thespianic teeth as an extra in movies.

As the story goes, after he made it big, one of Chaney’s favorite things to do was to drive by that same bus stop and give a lift to any aspiring actors waiting for the bus to the studio. It’s the classic—and dare I say, heartwarming—story of a guy who worked hard, got to the top, and never forgot where he came from.

After his death in 1930 at the tender age of 47 (says the 48-year-old guy, quietly, so as not to alert the agents of Death who roam the land of the living in search of souls to take), reports began to circulate that Chaney’s ghost could be occasionally seen sitting on the bench at the bus stop on Hollywood and Vine. The story grew to urban legend status long before anyone knew to call it that … and it wound up on Macnee’s silly ghost show.

It would have been a brainless bit of information to be filed away under S for spooky if not for my pesky, often uncontrollable desire to find significance in every crevice of experience. What struck me about this purported haunting was the why. Why would a person choose to haunt a location associated with their early days of struggle and longing, and not, say, the exquisite ballroom of the mansion that symbolized their greatest accomplishment? Or the wings of the theater where they made their first big splash on the swim to stardom? Why, of all places, a bus stop?

I figured out the answer to that one pretty quickly, especially considering I’m always one of the last people to get the punchline of a joke. It reminded me of something my wife and I talk about a lot: the understanding that the best part of success is the climb. (And here’s where you can insert any one of your favorite adages, mottos, maxims, what-have-yous in the “Happiness is a journey, not a destination” vein.)

Whatever you call it, I think this one holds great merit. Because once someone’s realized their goals and they’re standing above it all, it’s human nature to look down. And when they do, and if they’ve made it there on their own terms, they probably reflect fondly on every bump and scrape and fall they took to get there.

I think to Lon Chaney, that bus stop bench probably represented a lot more than a comfy place to sit on his way from Point A to Point B. It became the tangible embodiment of his hopes and dreams, and who can blame the guy for haunting such a place, both during his mortal life and maybe even in his afterlife? If you believe in that sort of thing, that is.

I’m not there yet; not by a longshot. There’s still a lot more I want to do in my life, and I’ve got a big enough bucketful of notions and ambitions and dreams to keep me busy to my croaking day. But whether I make some of them happen or try and fail miserably, I’m pretty sure I know the places I’ll be haunting.

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