Trip to Kiev and Chernobyl

It is a massive mistake to travel to a destination and expect your visit to give you a kind of transcendental ”understading” of what happened there. Doing so is like peeling an onion, and expecting there to be a definitive ”core” to it; in the end, you’ll just be left with the layers scattered across the table, with no core element in sight.  

The reality is that in the construction of meaning, it’s the layers that count: an event as massive as the  Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 left behind thousands of stories, and the incident means different things to different people. Not only were there thousands of survivors, all with their own tales, there are also millions of us around the world who are fascinated with the disaster, and we all have our own reasons for our fascination.

For me, the main point of reading and seeing documentaries about the accident of 1986 has been in trying to understand how an individual human heing comes to terms with a massive disaster with global implications. I’m also fascinated by how specific accidents and tragedies impact paradigms of thinking (another fascination of mine is the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and its effects on organized religion and atheism). The Chernobyl disaster was another blow to the argument that the Soviet Union was a perfectly oiled machine, a political structure serving the working man. In fact, Adam Higginbotham, author of Midnight in Chernobyl (2019), even goes so far as to claim that Chernobyl was the very event that ultimately crushed the Soviet system.

It also had some serious implications on our species’ never-ending arrogance in the face of nature and the laws of the universe: we are not in control of the Cosmos – ultimately, the Cosmos is in control of us.

I set off on a trip to Ukraine on 11th October 2019. My brother (his blog, in Finnish, is here) had arranged for all the practical necesseties, such as a place to stay, and he had negotiated a trip to the nuclear disaster zone with a company that provides such trips for a living. Our guide was a man named Taras, a historian and biologist with an extensive knowledge of the 1986 disaster as well as the surrounding cultural and historical circumstances.

All photos in this post were taken by me using an Honor 20 Pro smartphone. Some images were edited with Snapseed.

Step 1: Kiev

Kiev is an amazing, very European city with over 2 million inhabitants. Many Westerners still have negative stereotypes about countries in Eastern Europe, but they are mostly just that – stereotypes. The truth is, essentially anything you can ask for is available in a city like Kiev, from well-stocked luxury boutiques to excellent restaurants.

We arrived there in the afternoon of Friday the 11th of October 2019, and immediately set about exploring the town.

We first headed to the Holodomor memorial museum, a place dedicated to keeping alive the memory of the 1932-1933 famine, forced upon Ukraine by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Somewhere between 3-12 million people perished, most dying of hunger and diseases. It is, sadly, a largely forgotten tragedy.

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Statue outside the museum.
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Inside the museum. You can light up a candle and leave it burning at an altar of sorts.
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A multimedia presentation recounts the story of the tragedy.

If you’re going to visit the museum on your trip to Kiev, be sure to walk out of a doorway to the left of the main entrance – this doorway leads you outside, to the top of a long stairway, and gives you an amazing view of a part of the city.

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View from the top of the stairway leading to the Holodomor Museum.

Once we had explored the museum and lit up a candle in remembrance of the victims of Holodomor, we took an Uber (which are extremely cheap in Ukraine, by the way) to the Independence Square, or Maidan Nezalezhnosti. This is where the 2014 revolution took place.

After the Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich refused to fulfill the Ukrainian people’s wishes to be a part of Europe rather than a pawn in Russia’s imperialist games, the people took to the streets. The riots and demonstrations got violent, with the police and their tactical teams assaulting and brutalizing the people, but the demonstrators ultimately prevailed, forcing the President to leave the country. They had done it – they had overthrown the Ukrainian government.

The documentary Winter on Fire (2015) is an excellent telling of the story.

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Monument at the center of the Maidan Square

The only negative thing I would say about this spot is that, on the night of our visit, it was full of local “enterpreneurs” who had chained wild animals to themselves (owls, birds, even monkeys), and were using these poor animals as an attraction to get money from tourists. Absolutely tasteless and cruel.

Step 2: Chernobyl

On Saturday morning, a minibus came to fetch us from our apartment in downtown Kiev. We had paid for our Chernobyl exploration in advance, so all we had to do was show the tour guide our passports and tickets, and we were off.

The drive to the “zone” took around two hours, with our drive stopping for a quick bathroom and coffee break once along the way.

Entrance into the contamination zone is controlled through two checkpoints: the first one stands at the 30 kilometer mark from the reactor, the second around 10 kilometers from “ground zero”. Once you reach the first checkpoint, you have to get out of the bus with your passport and tickets you’ve bought with a Chernobyl tour company, and wait for the police to come check these documents.

There will most likely be other tour groups at the checkpoint with you, all accompanied by their tour guides, so it might take something like 10-20 minutes for the police to come to you. In the meantime, you can enjoy the bizarre, surreal atmosphere of the checkpoint: there are two little kiosks at the first checkpoint, selling all kinds of Chernobyl-related keepsakes, such as fridge magnets, postcards, t-shirts, hats – you name it. What adds to the bizarre atmosphere is that there is this old-time music playing from loudspeakers, as though at a mental asylum to calm the patients down, and you can see Jehovah’s Witnesses standing around, distributing leaflets about the coming apocalypse.

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Mannequin dressed with a “liquidator” outfit at the first checkpoint. Easily one of the most bizarre, eerie places I’ve visited in my life.
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Yes – you’re reading that right.

Once the police had checked our papers, we were allowed inside the area. We hopped back into our minibus, which took us to the Duga radar, a massive secret Soviet era device used to spy on the West. It was located near the Chernobyl power plant because it required so much energy to run.

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Photographs simply can’t convey the size of this thing.

Once this less-known aspect of the nuclear tragedy was relayed, we continued on to the site of the nuclear plant. This was, without question, the most anticipated part of our journey: I yearned the see “ground zero”, the actual reactor where the life-changing tragedy had taken place.

The sarcophagus (a protective structure built on top of the destroyed reactor) was visible from far away – it is that massive. As we entered the industrial area where ground zero was located, the minibus stopped, allowing us outside to photograph and marvel at this dangerous, terrifying structure. And there it was – reactor #4:

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The sarcophagus is on the right.

Standing next to the reactor, you feel like you’re standing in the middle of history. If you are interested in the Chernobyl disaster, have seen documentaries and read books about it, standing here, next to the reactor, is such an intense experience that it will most likely take you the rest of your trip (or your life) to fully digest the idea of where you’ve just stood.

On the night of the disaster, several residents stood at a bridge watching the colors in the sky caused by the explosion of the reactor. We drove over this bridge, and continued on to the town of Pripyat, another highlight of the Chernobyl tour.

Pripyat is a ghost town left behind by the people who manned the nuclear plant. Entire families were given just a few hours to evacuate the town, which meant that the infrastructure and the homes were left essentially intact. Entering the town is like walking into an elaborate studio lot, decorated for some post-apocalyptic cinematic nightmare, possibly directed by Andrei Tarkovski.

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The town cinema. It exclusively showed Soviet propaganda films.
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Behind those trees is the town hospital where the first responders (the “liquidators”) were treated. They were later sent to Moscow to a clinic that specialized in radiation-related illness.

If you follow the news and are interested in history even just a little bit, you are most likely familiar with a lot of the imagery related to Chernobyl. However, actually standing there surrounded by the physicality, the reality of it all gives you goosebumps, no matter how many documentaries or pictures you’ve seen. I would imagine that, for many people, the sense of displacement, of people having to leave their lives behind in a matter of seconds, would also increase their empathy towards groups such as refugees and homeless people; maybe it should be compulsory for politicians and other leaders to visit Pripyat before they can assume the duties of their office.

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A child’s bunny rabbit toy at an abandoned nursery.
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Doll at an abandoned nursery in the contamination zone.

One question you might be asking while reading this is “Isn’t it dangerous to be in the contamination zone?”

The answer is Yes and No.

Yes, in the sense that you do have to listen to your guide and keep up with his/her instructions as to how long you can spend in an individual spot; some places are more contaminated than others. You also can’t go flying solo – you will most likely get lost in the dense, forested area. Pripyat, the town housing the Chernobyl workers, is not a small one, and it’s an entirely possible scenario to get lost in the bizarre, dreamlike mixture of nature and concrete surrounding you in all directions. (Think of it as like getting lost in a nightmare going on inside David Lynch’s or Jorge Luis Borges’ head).

But no, ultimately it is not life-threatening, nor is it even dangerous for something like procreation: the radiation levels are down to a manageable degree now. You’ll be fine, just don’t go playing Indiana Jones and pretending like you’re going to be the one to “get to the bottom” of the mystery by negotiating the walls and entering Reactor 4 or something.

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Soda machine. In true communist Soviet spirit, there was just one glass for everyone to use – I’m not kidding.
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Looking at a river in Pripyat through a chain-link fence.
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Discarded political propaganda.
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Black Angel monument outside the seclusion zone. Photo taken by my brother Sami.

Conclusion (5 days later)

Visiting the area was intellectually and emotionally exhausting: you are surrounded by so much meaning that no matter how hard your brain works to make sense of it all, it will not succeed. This is, of course, a classic sign of a place worth visiting: you have to see it to believe it; no film or television show, no matter how well made, will quench your thirst to experience it first hand. Just don’t expect a “revelation” of any sort – be content with the chills and goosebumps it gives you; ultimately, that feeling is closer to truth than any written or pictorial account of a trip there.

One of the things that frustrates me about modern cinema and literature is that I feel that many otherwise great works are “over-written”, so I am going to live as I preach and keep this post to a moderate length.

I will upload more pictures for those of you interested to my Flickr account as the week progresses and my head slowly returns from Ukraine.

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Sitting on the living room couch, Teemu, one of the creators of the app, used to read countless books about unsolved mysteries during the days of his youth. UFOs, ghosts, unsolved murders – they all made the Northern winds whisper secrets into his ear, and he was hooked for life.

Meanwhile Sami, the other part of the duo who would go on to create ForenSeek, was out in the world already, making a name for himself as a sales manager, specializing in marketing. He was also involved in the early

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Your Creepy Stories, part 7

creepy

Collection #7 of stories from readers and followers of my Instagram (www.instagram.com/mysteries_crimes_curiosities)

Thank You to everyone who contributed!


Anonymous:

This is my encounter with a murderer not really a serial killer but here it goes, I was like 7 or 8 at the time it was 2007-8 and there was this gas station it was newer but abandoned, and someone bought it and turned it into a small flea market/yard sale and it was like a store where you basically buy second hand things that the owner didn’t really want in his house and he sold hamsters that he bred. And there was another guy there and he was very quiet and creepy, he was like a taller fat shoulder length curly hair Jonah Hill. We and my mother went there once and that one time the guy that owned the place was very nice and funny but the other guy kinda hovered about.

Well a month or two later an old man went missing and his body parts were found chopped up all over the county. It was those two guys, and how it happened was the nicer guy was arguing with the old man in the store over something and the weird guy came up behind him and stabbed him in the back of the head with a screwdriver and then they ditched the truck in the middle of nowhere and chopped up the body.

Anonymous:

This happened a few years ago. I was living with my friend for the summer and her apartment building was built probably in the early ‘20s. I’ve had creepy stuff happen my whole life to the point where the people around me started saying I was haunted. I’ve had non-believers begin to believe because of the amount of stuff that has happened.

In this particular incident we were just minding our business and watching tv. Her two chairs were set up with a table in between us. All of a sudden I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up and get really cold. I just ignored it because it’s happened before and I had gotten used to it. This time it was different though it felt like someone was approaching me or sneaking up behind me. Out of the corner of my eye I see a face creep up inches from mine. Our faces were side by side, It was a pitch black figure, had a faded outline, and looked to be floating. I didn’t move, I couldn’t move, until a hand began to creep over my shoulder and grabbed me. I whipped to look and nothing was there and my friend didn’t see it, and didn’t believe me. Anyways the next day as I was taking a nap on the couch my friend all of a sudden launches over the back of it, landing on me, and screams at me to wake up. She then tells me there was a black figure that was behind her in the bathroom as she brushed her hair. She described exactly what I had saw grab me. I have never felt scared when creepy stuff happened around me but this was different. We have both moved since then.

Anonymous:

I don’t know if this count. But I will share with you. So my father was a pastor in Mississippi starting in  the 80’s . The very first thing that happened at this church was once a year they would vote to keep him or find a new pastor. So my family and I was outside waiting for them to vote. And this man came walking out the graveyard. He put his coat on his hat he spoke and walked in the church we all waved at him. My daddy said “I wonder if he is a member I haven’t met yet.”

Ok they voted, and he came out of the church. He waved bye and walked back into the graveyard. As he was returning he was taking his coat and hat back off. And my dad said “Maybe his wife has passed and he misses her.”

We went back inside the church, and the people had voted for him to stay. So after he thanked everyone he asked who was the man he thought we had met everyone being we been there a while. A member got up and said “that was my uncle. He passed away years ago but he was a big part of voting when he was alive. And since he has passed.”

Anyway when it’s time to vote we always see the doors open and close at the beginning of the vote and open and close at the end of the vote. She asked us what was he wearing and we told them she said that’s what he was buried in. And after church they took us to his grave and they showed us a picture of him and that’s the man we saw.

The next thing that happened at this church was having services in the summer weeks.  Now we are from Tennessee and we drove to Mississippi for church. My father’s friend was preaching this night and a lady started shouting how she was HAPPY everyone was there! Then it took a dark turn. She was possessed and it was the scariest thing I have ever witnessed in my life. The way her voice sounded, the way her face looked…

They stopped to get her together and she said she was ok. But soon as he stared preaching again she was right back at it. Everyone was concerned, so her family got her to the car, but all the way there she was fighting, biting, spitting, everything. They got her in the car put her in the back seat, put the car and air on for her.

Now we were standing around, and I guess no one really thought it was real. Until she didn’t know how to open the car door to get out the car. She was knocking on the windows saying she was ok just let her out the car. And when no one did her face and voice changed again. It was awful! Long story short they finally got her away. And she was never able to come back to church again. At all. She would say it hurt for her to be there.

Anonynous:

I had a paranormal and maybe a near death experience this February at home.
I had been home alone for weeks – my brothers were in school and my parents went on a business trip, I was left to take care of the house and myself. Anyway, we’ve been experiencing some strange happenings in the house: from spoons falling in the kitchen to doors closing; loud/heavy thuds in the ceiling to footsteps around the house.

In February, on a Monday morning, being as lazy as I can be, was asleep till 10 am. I woke up still feeling sleepy when I saw a tall black shadow standing by door of my room. I had thought to myself *how did an intruder manage to enter with the gates locked * then it walked to the end of my bed, climbed it (I felt its movement on the bed) and began choking me, I tried standing up, but it was too strong and the good thing was, I was laying on my chest -so it couldn’t really get round my neck. It continued choking me for what felt like an eternity, I was almost passing out and I was praying in my heart that it should leave. Then it disappeared. My neck hurt for the rest of the day and I couldn’t sleep that night, stayed awake cause I felt it would come back when I sleep. I was alone for two more months till my parents returned and I had to tell them. We prayed about it, and I haven’t experienced that since.

“Gold”:

 I live Indonesia and I used to live in jambi Sumatra and if you do research in 2012 one of the students in Al-Azhar named Fadillah Krisma Ataya got into an accident. She was hit by the school car; I remember vividly how it happened. I was between seven to eight that time it was lunch time and I was feeling a bit lazy to go to the canteen with my friends so I stayed in class until I have the urge to buy a drink.

My school has two canteens just say the canteen am going is the nearest to my class and the teacher lounges, and that’s when it happened. I was walking, nobody is there except me and I see a girl drinking water right in front of the canteen entrance – and just then a loud crash was heard. I stopped right in my tracks a few meters away from the car. Half of her body is flung inside the canteen. Glass shard was everywhere and the black van was broken to a pulp. I don’t know how to react, and just drop down in shock.

School was canceled that day and we have a week off

Two weeks after the accidents I keep having nightmares of that girl. She keeps appearing in my dreams, with half of her body just crawling to me while smoke and glass shards keep showering my vision to the point where I am too afraid to go to sleep. Not only that, but I don’t feel safe anywhere even near my parents. I feel like like someone keeps following me and whispering cryptic things.

A month of nightmares and chills that’s when it’s happened

My mom says she only will take a while so she left me in the car. (A reminder: Jambi is a small town.) The parking lot was in an open space behind the bank. When we arrive, the first thing I notice is the big oak tree in the middle of the parking lot. I was weirded out but ignored it.

I was waiting in the car for I think 8/10 minutes when I got the chills again, but this time it’s more subtle, more real. I feel tense and scared and sit in the driver’s seat pressing my back hard but I still feel the burning eyes behind me. That’s when I looked into the rearview mirror. On my right I see her, the girl, but her body is whole for some reason!

I panicked and looked away and looked back, but see nothing. I know if I look at the rearview mirror again she will be there, so I decided to go out of the car. But I know I can’t leave the car alone while being on so I tried pulling out the keys but it won’t budge! I tried twisting it but it Still won’t budge!

I look left and right, there’s no one, but when I see the mirror again she’s there! Getting closer and closer I was having a panic attack breathing hard and I was like ‘leave the car and just run!’ ‘Open the door and just run’

I tried! I really tried! I tried unlocking it and opened it but for some reason it won’t open! I start banging the window hoping someone will hear and help me but my eyes caught something red behind me.

I feel like I made a bad decision to look back – I saw the girl staring at me with dead eyes with her upper body and blood drip down the chairs.

For some reason the door opened and I fall face first into the ground and just scramble to the bank but I met my mom the perfect time, she get out and she saw me panicking with tears on my cheek

After she calmed me down, we go back home, and that’s when I realize the big oak tree I see the first time suddenly disappear.

I never see her again after that and it’s been 7 years this is still my scariest experience and I have claustrophobia because of this experience

Hope this is interesting.

Anonymous:

When I was little I got sick and was sleeping on the couch in the living room. And at some point in the middle of the night I woke up and saw some guy staring at me through the window. I hid under the covers for the rest of the night. I was convinced it was a vampire lol. I finally told my mom about it years later and she said it probably was some creep. She told me when she was little (she lived in the same house) some guy robbed a house down the street and then broke into the garage and stole her sister’s bike in the middle of the night.

Anonymous:

I wanna share my spooky story. It could all just be a coincidence but it was really freaky in that moment.

About 2 months ago, my grandmother (moms side) was staying with my little brother and I for the weekend because my mother was in the hospital with our youngest brother. It was like 11pm and we started talking about our family. Somehow, the topic of my grandpas (her husband) father came up. My grandfather is embarrassed of his family constellation (I don’t wanna go into further details about it, but for the curious: Not incest) so he doesn’t talk about it. What I found out is that my great grandpa took no shit and debated everyone and everything. He also had a big mouth and hated it when people talked about him. Just as I was about to ask another question about him, a clock fell down from the wall and shattered. Yeah it could be a coincidence but it hung there for over 10 years without a problem. In that moment, I thought it was my great grandpa who interrupted us from further talking.

Anonymous:

2016: I was walking to the bus after I had finished shopping with a friends of mine. I didn’t want her mom to have to give me a ride home because the city is super busy and I didn’t want to make her drive (we lived on opposite sides of the city). A old man approached me and asked if I needed a ride. I said no because I didn’t know him my gut was telling me something was wrong.

I later found out that the old man was Bruce McArthur, a serial killer in Toronto.

Anonymous:

One night in the summer of 1989 my friends and I were smoking a joint on the Staten Island ferry. This crazy looking guy with long blond hair and deep piercing blue eyes plopped down and demanded to smoke with us. Out of fear we agreed. His name was Daniel Rankowitz.

As we smoked our weed and some of his own, he made random loud outbursts about politics and child abuse. He also  proclaimed he killed people. Usually I would be unfazed but this guy had an aura of evil about him.

Two weeks later he was arrested  for killing his girlfriend in Manhattan. He made soup from her flesh and organs. He also fed the soup to homeless in Thompson Square Park. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Anonymous:

A few years ago, my family lived near a man who claimed he was a warlock. He was Wiccan. (I have nothing against Wiccans) Anyway, he gave us a few stones to put in our house. One sat in the living room, and another in our little office. My mom claims to have been lifted off of the couch, by something she couldn’t see. And to have been knocked over forcefully in a chair. She decided to get rid of the stones, and nothing else ever happened.

 

 

 

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The Ghosts of Marjaniemi. Visit to a haunted villa.

Some weeks ago, my brother hosted a sales event at an old mansion called Marjaniemi in Ruissalo, Turku, Finland. Afterwards, he told me that the hostess of the building had given the guests a “ghost tour” of the house.

Obviously, this sparked my interest, so I set up a meeting with the hostess in question, Laura Louko, and she gave me the same tour.

Here’s my “report”.

Thank you, Laura, for your time and hospitality!


EtukuistiMarjaniemi

(old photo of the porch)

The manor was built in 1857 by P.C. von Rettig, a tobacco factory owner. He lived and died a bachelor, and because he had no children to pass the villa on to, its ownership went to P.C.’s nephew Fredric, who lived there with his family from 1874 onwards. Fredric also later took charge of the tobacco factory.

Through the decades the manor has passed from one owner to another, but the basic structure of the building is essentially the same, despite a new wing being added in the 1900s.

During WWII, Villa Marjaniemi served as a communications headquarters where secret coded messages were received and decoded. There was a long antenna outside in the yard, masked as a tree branch.

People have lived and died there for over a century, and the place oozes the patina of an old manor from one of those classic horror films produced by Hammer Films.

On a snowy Winter day in early 2019, I arrived at Villa Marjaniemi to get a personal “haunted tour” of the premises. Laura greeted me with coffee, hospitality, and some eerie tales.

Without further ado, here are the stories she told me.


When I started working here around 2012, we employed three cleaners, who commuted to work from Artukainen, a borough of the city of Turku. They would walk in through the the back door.

One day, they were coming to work when they heard the sound of a piano being played really loudly inside the villa. The only problem is, there was no piano in the villa back then, and nobody was in here.

Two of them refused to come back here, and quit their jobs.

 

A few years ago, we hosted some sort of a sad event here, a funeral I think. I had let the staff go home already, so I was the only one here.

I went outside to take down the Finnish flag from the flagpole. As I was folding the flag, I happened to glance upwards, towards the third floor of the villa. That’s when I noticed there was a light on up there, I could see it through a window. It’s one of those motion sensor lights: it goes on when you walk in the room, and turns off when it doesn’t detect movement for a while.

But there was nobody up there to turn the light on, not even bats or some other animals.

Next thing I see, a light in the second floor goes on, then a light in the first floor! I was terrified and started shaking. It was like someone had walked downstairs from the third floor to the first, activating the motion sensor lights on his/her way. But again, there was absolutely nobody else in the villa besides me – I checked several times before and after the incident with the lights.

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A while after that, something else happened.

We have several fireplaces here, and I had stored firewood for them in anticipation for an event we were going to host here. I kept the logs in my office.

I went away for a short vacation, and closed all the doors to the villa; nobody would be coming in during the time I was away.

When I came back to work, I found the logs scattered in front of the fireplaces around the house. Somebody, or something, had placed a portion of logs in front of each fireplace.

I never found out who had done it, or why.

 

We were about to host a memorial event for someone here, and we hired some workers to install lighting. They were young guys from a vocational school who were studying to be electricians.

As they were working upstairs in the third floor, tools suddenly started dropping off of a totally balanced, straight table. There were no massive tools being used that could have caused such shaking or anything like that – the tools just moved across the table and dropped off, without explanation.

Just as with the cleaners, some of these workers did not come back, either. We literally had to replace them.

 

Several people who have stayed in the upstairs rooms have reported hearing footsteps coming towards their room across the hall, and then feeling someone or something blow cold air on them.

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(hallway connecting the guest rooms)

Several folks who live within a short distance from this villa have told me about seeing the lights go on in the house without anyone seemingly inside.

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During WWII this villa served as the place where secret coded messages were received and decrypted. The cellar served as the office for this activity.

Sometimes I can hear the sounds of morse codes being sent with one of those machines they had for that back in the day, but of course, no such machines are down in the cellar anymore.


What’s your own personal view regarding the paranormal? Are you open to it or skeptical?

I’m fairly open-minded about these kinds of events. My experiences of this type are not limited to just Marjaniemi.

Years ago I was living in downtown Turku, and was pregnant. One night, my then-spouse went out, and I was alone.

I had an intense, very vivid dream where my spouse’s grandmother appeared to me, and said, in a loud voice: “So that’s how it’s gonna be!”

My heart beat like crazy for hours afterwards.

Also, years ago, I worked at a skiing center in Sweden. On several nights, I could clearly hear someone walking around in the hallways of the place I lived in, opening and closing the doors, though nobody was supposed to be in there besides me.

I’m not afraid of these phenomena. Though I do have to say that I prefer not to be alone at Marjaniemi after dark! (laughs)