[Author’s note: Sometime after this article was first written, to coincide with the publication of Alexandra Holzer’s book “Growing Up Haunted,” her father Hans Holzer died on April 26, 2009, at the age of 89.]
What is it like to be raised as the daughter of a world famous ghost hunter and paranormal researcher? Does the fragile barrier between the world of spirits and apparitions and the material world as we know it sometimes crack under the strain of everyday family relations?
For Alexandra Holzer, the daughter of the author and ghost expert Hans Holzer, such questions have been answered, but at a price not everyone would be willing to pay.
For those of you who don’t already know, Hans Holzer has been on the trail of ghosts and related phenomena since the 1950s. He has written more than 140 books, a large percentage of which have gone into second printings, as well as appearing over the years on all the major television networks and such programs as “In Search Of,” hosted by Leonard Nimoy.
“My father started out being a skeptical reporter,” Alexandra said. “He always had a way about him of being inquisitive and wanting to know what happens in life and the science of life. He studied a lot of different things that kind of put him in a place where he ended up doing something that would deal with life and death and humanity.”
As a young man, the elder Holzer made the acquaintance of a very well-known medium named Eileen Garrett, who had her own spiritualist foundation in Manhattan. Garrett saw potential in Holzer as a student of the spirit world and urged him to get funding to continue his work. That led to Holzer’s first book, “The Ghost Hunter.”
“That’s the original phrase that was coined for him,” Alexandra said. “It’s used loosely nowadays. He had respect for people of the dead, for what happens when we go and when we get stuck. He became a father of the paranormal, you know, a father of parapsychology.
“He was very ballsy and forward,” Alexandra continued, “and really didn’t care if other people liked him or didn’t like him. And he was a humanitarian; he helped people.”
Hans Holzer is currently in retirement but continues to be sought after for media appearances and lectures.
“Anybody can Google him,” Alexandra said, “and find out who he is.”
Long before such high-tech possibilities existed, however, Hans Holzer was already telling ghost stories. As a five-year-old boy who was just beginning kindergarten in Vienna, Austria, in 1925, Hans took advantage of the teacher’s having left the room and began to tell his classmates a ghost story.
“My father saw ‘dead people’ long before the adorable actor Haley Joel Osment saw them,” Alexandra writes in her memoirs, “Growing Up Haunted.”
As in the movie “The Sixth Sense,” when Osment’s character draws a violent scene during art class and his mother is called to his school to deal with it, Hans’ parents were forced to explain that their child was a little bit eccentric, and agreed to have him refrain from talking about ghosts.
Fast forward to the marriage of Hans to Alexandra’s mother, one Countess Catherine Buxhoeveden. Alexandra’s parents met through her aunt, her mother’s sister, Rosemarie, who had been dating Hans herself but felt he and her sister would be more compatible.
“My mother is twenty years younger than my father,” Alexandra said. “She lost her father at a young age, and there are people who gravitate to older people to replace a parent figure. And in this case, a lot of it had to do with the idea that my father could take care of her. Of course they hit it off. He was very elegant. He was already becoming very well-known for his work and she was taken in by the paranormal and what he was doing with it.”
Catherine Buxhoeveden was a believer in the supernatural and had a history of her own paranormal experiences. Her mother, Alexandra’s grandmother, was a psychic.
“So it really wasn’t too farfetched for my mother to date a man who chased ghosts for a living,” Alexandra said, “which no one else was doing. Pretty brave of her.”
Hans helped rekindle Catherine’s love of art, and she began to paint images of ghosts and hauntings, quite groundbreaking at the time, the 1960s and 70s. The couple began to travel the world together, Hans doing his investigative work while Catherine helped manage the logistics and assisted the mediums who traveled with them and served to facilitate contact with the spirits.
Hans and Catherine were a working couple immersed in the day-to-day search for the truth about the Other Side, but around the time of the birth of Alexandra’s older sister Nadine in 1963, the marriage was already beginning to show signs of strain.
“My mother had to kind of refigure who she was as a person,” Alexandra said. “My father steamrolled through life. He would just do what he did and wouldn’t pay attention to what was going on around him, to her needs and her dislikes and the issues she had with him.”
According to Alexandra, her father could be very crude at times, but the years spent working with her mother had helped to polish the ghost hunter’s manners. When writers from “The New York Times” or “The New Yorker” would visit the apartment to interview Hans, Catherine had seen to it that the apartment was presentable looking and that Hans was well-groomed and wearing matching clothes. But by the time Alexandra was 13, in 1984, the dysfunction finally led to divorce, in spite of which her parents remain on cordial terms.
An interesting side-note about Alexandra’s mother Catherine: She is descended from Catherine the Great, the 18thcentury German-born empress of Russia. The empress’ daughter Natalie married into the Buxhoeveden family, with the lineage eventually passing to Alexandra’s maternal grandfather and on down through to Catherine. The Buxhoeveden family can itself be traced back to 800 A.D. in Germany and Eastern Europe. Catherine’s father was Count Alexander Buxhoeveden, and thus Catherine is a countess in her own right.
“Just one family merging with another,” Alexandra said, “but it just happened to be bluebloods and royal Russian ancestry. It’s just one of those weird things, which is why I think my parents were brought together. They have such an incredible back-story that’s so unique. I don’t think you’d find it anywhere else.”
In this odd mix of heredity, the paranormal and domestic tension, one can safely conclude that it wasn’t easy for Alexandra to grow up between the two worlds of the mundane and the supernatural.
“I didn’t have many friends,” she said. “I had two very high maintenance, creative, narcissistic, self-absorbed people for parents. My sister and I were left to our own devices to figure things out.”
Surprisingly, it was Alexandra’s grandmother, the one who had married Count Buxhoeveden, who gave her an early education in the paranormal, explaining the spirit world and what happens when people die. When Hans’ medium associates visited the apartment, they would often look at Alexandra as though they sensed some kind of dark future ahead for her, things Alexandra herself could not possibly know.
“It was creepy,” she said.
Despite her parents’ stretched finances, Alexandra was sent to an elite New York prep school.
“And of course children of those backgrounds and their parents,” she said, “don’t believe in ghosts, especially back then. It was hard for me to get play dates, though my parents really tried. I always ended up with the children that were either too tall, too fat, or just didn’t fit in. But they were the ones I gravitated towards because they knew my pain. I just couldn’t come out and say, ‘Well, I’m not popular because my father chases ghosts for a living.’ But that’s the truth of it, and it was really pretty painful.”
Those misfit friends, however, were often quite fascinated with Alexandra’s home life.
“People loved it,” she recalled. “It was a freak show, and my father was very entertaining.”
As she moved through adolescence, Alexandra began to develop a sixth sense of her own, having accurate impressions of things she could not have known through normal channels of information. She and her friends also began to experiment with an Ouija board, something she now regrets.
“Every time we used it,” she said, “something would happen. We couldn’t explain it and we were always scared—every time. We were in my room one day and we were calling upon any spirit that would come and talk to us. We didn’t care who. Anybody. The door was closed and there was no lock on the door. Just a regular doorknob. We had this board and this little oracle is moving around, spelling out ‘My name is Jim, blah, blah, blah, nice to meet you.’”
Alexandra and her friends grew bored with “Jim” and his small talk, so they let go of the oracle and pushed the board away. They decided to go into the kitchen for a snack, but the unlocked door refused to open.
“It got really cold in the room,” she recounted, “and all of a sudden we felt like we were not alone. We just completely freaked out, and of course when we screamed, we were able to get the door open and get out of the room.”
The portal through which the spirit of Jim had passed stayed open for a couple of months, after which things in Alexandra’s bedroom eventually quieted down and returned to normal. Her father’s calling as a ghost hunter may have been helpful in providing the family with a kind of spiritual protection, she thinks, that kept the spirit world at a respectful distance.
On another occasion, Alexandra and one of her girlfriends took the train to the Hamptons on Long Island to visit a boy Alexandra was dating. After they checked in to a hotel, she and her girlfriend made an improvised Ouija board with a piece of paper and a cup, writing in the letters and symbols by hand. When Alexandra called out, “Is anybody here?” the makeshift oracle moved of its own accord. The room became very cold again, and Alexandra’s friend was frightened enough to take her hands off the cup.
“I yelled at her and said, ‘Don’t do that. You’ve got to keep your hands here because we need the energy!’ And then it just stopped.”
But events began to go downhill from there.
“That whole night was a disaster,” Alexandra said, “because everything we tried to do we could not do. It was like roadblocks everywhere for me. I was supposed to meet my boyfriend, but I couldn’t get to him. The car that we had wouldn’t work. We asked for him to come down, but he got stuck and had an accident. All these weird things happened. We went home the next day and we felt drained. We felt that something shifted and changed from that moment. But you’re young and you don’t think twice about it.”
More recently, as an adult, Alexandra feels she has been contacted by her aunt Rosemarie Buxhoeveden, the woman who first introduced her parents to each other.
“When my aunt passed,” she said, “it was the hardest moment in my life, other than giving birth. I felt her around me after she passed. She had said something to me before she crossed over. She pulled me in and said, ‘I’m changing.’ At that point she could barely talk. She wasn’t eating. And I didn’t know what that meant—‘I’m changing.’”
Two and a half years after her aunt’s death, Alexandra was at home folding laundry. She heard her aunt’s voice calling her by her childhood nickname, Shoura, a Russian variation of the name Alexandra.
“I kind of shook my head, as if a gnat or mosquito was buzzing around and continued with the laundry. Then I got this really warm, vibrating sensation that made me feel I was not alone, but it was a warm feeling that I was not in any danger and it brought back all those childhood feelings and she said it again.”
After the experience, Alexandra spent months meditating about what had happened and had several dreams that seemed related to her aunt’s visit. Alexandra said that her aunt encouraged her to return to her writing. Her aunt also told Alexandra that she loved her, saying the words she had been too ill to speak as she lay dying.
“I knew it was her,” Alexandra said. “I didn’t need any other validation. I knew I wasn’t being haunted. I didn’t think something bad was around me. It was her, because it just instinctively would be what she would have done.”
Since that visitation, Alexandra has begun to have psychic impressions on a regular basis, which she sometimes relays to those who would find the information helpful. She also continues to experience the presence of a warm and loving spiritual guidance as she and her husband raise their four children.
Despite her sometimes problematic relationship with her father, Alexandra is a firm believer in the ghosts and spirits that formed the focus of his life.
“The reality is we do go somewhere,” she said. “It’s very typical for someone to say, ‘Well, we’re here physically right now and then we’re gone and that’s it. It’s done.’ But we do leave traces behind, like dinosaurs. We’re no different. The human race is still evolving, but to sit and think that we’re it—it’s just asinine.
“There is so much documentation and proof,” she continued, “over the past couple of hundred years, of apparitions and ghosts. Listen, if a ghost could stick around long enough in front of the camera to please everybody, it would. I know that if I was a ghost and I could come back, and I’m stuck and trying to get out, I would certainly work really hard to stand there in front of you and say, ‘Do you see me? Okay, I’m going to disappear now. But before I do, I am a ghost. I existed once. I need help.’”
The reality of ghosts is also the reality of the soul, Alexander says, and the difficulty a given soul may have in crossing over.
“A spirit and a ghost are the same,” she explained. “It just depends on how you die. Do you cross freely? Knowingly? Or were you killed tragically? And stopped in that moment of your life-path that you didn’t know was coming? And so therefore are reliving those moments? There are so many different ways of how one can go, but to assume that we’re it because of our physical sense that we’re it is just stupid.”
Alexandra says she looks forward to a not-too-distant future when technology will succeed in opening up those ghostly portals with some kind of machinery, a device that can see past what the naked eye is able to take in. In the meantime, there’s no substitute for a good medium, someone whose vision extends beyond the physical world.
In any case, she is satisfied that we already have sufficient proof that ghosts are real, citing things like apparitions that show up in family photos, say an image of one’s late grandmother superimposed on the background. The film was processed normally and the image is not doctored in any way, a phenomenon that has happened many times. That’s the kind of thing Alexandra relies on, though she acknowledges that hoaxes have happened for centuries and will continue to happen. One also has to screen percipients to ensure that they are not schizophrenic or bipolar.
“You have to go through that when you’re doing a case,” she said. “But like with anything, there’s a checklist. We have proof. I think the influence of cable TV keeps us hearing voices on the recordings, seeing the digital photos of the orbs and apparitions, because that’s so fascinating. That’s why we still ask for proof. It’s not because we need proof, it’s because we want to see more, simply because we’re fascinated by it.
“That’s my message,” she said. “We have proof, and we’ve always had it. It’s just the nature of the beast.”
Her memoir “Growing Up Haunted” is being shopped around for a possible movie deal, which Alexandra feels is the only way of getting the book the attention it deserves.
“That’s the way it works in society,” she said. “Unless you’re famous, nobody cares. It’s a very sad thing to say, but we’re just such a quick, quick society in this microwave era, you know. It’s got to be in your face or otherwise you don’t want to know about it.”
In any case, it is important to Alexandra that the story of her father’s life is told as well as how her own growing up years were spent in the shadows of his lifelong obsession with ghosts and their attendant phenomena.
“It’s a very uplifting book at times,” she said, “and at times it’s very sad, because divorce is sad and dysfunction is sad and not being there for your children is sad. Then there are times when it’s funny because I choose to be funny, I choose to write anecdotally. So it’s a blend of all those emotions because isn’t that what life is? Isn’t that what a memoir should be? It should be about the emotions we go through and the story we have to tell our reader that they didn’t know before and that they should know, that they might benefit from.
“After reading the story,” she said, “they might get up the next morning and be a better person and maybe be more open to what happens when we do go. I want to continue with my family, protecting them and giving them a better life. Just doing what I was born to do. I’m a little late on it, but I get it now. Better late than never.”
[To read more by Sean Casteel, visit his website at http:www.seancasteel.com ]
For more information or to purchase this book simply click on the title: Growing Up Haunted: A Ghostly Memoir