STOCKHOLM â€" Ing-Britt Akerberg, 70, receives us in front of paintings of nymphs and a beautiful Persian carpet. A swaggering spaniel licks her toes. â€œI live in the apartment below,â€ she explains. â€œBut Iâ€™m keeping my friendâ€™s three dogs; she went to town to do a bit of shopping.â€
The apartment building is squeezed between a day nursery and a public geriatric hospital in Stockholm's calm Sandhamnsgatan neighborhood, where Scots pines are aligned with austere 1980s buildings.
The man who just knocked on the door is Christer Fallman. At 57, with a blonde mane, tanned skin and heady cologne, he's the youngest of the 34 residents of the Rainbow House (Regnbagen). Fallman, a landscaper, is also the founder of the facilty, which opened in November 2013, after four years of endless debates, as the only seniors facility in Europe reserved for members of the LGBT community.
â€œWhen Regnbagen was approved by the city, and we were allocated a building, all the decorators in town called me. They thought I wanted an extravagant house with state-of-the-art equipment, a spa, luxurious services," he recalls. "They were soon disappointed: Lots of gays have small pensions, don't get partner benefits, and some, ostracized by their family, are denied inheritances. We needed a reduced rent so the access to this residence could be considered as an option by all homosexuals.â€
Fallman, who is fond of the U.S., where five cities now have affordable residences for gay seniors, traveled to California last spring: Hollywood was a pioneer in 2007. The comparison with the late Harvey Milk, a charismatic politician and LGBT icon from San Francisco, doesn't bother him the slightest.
At first glance, nothing distinguishes Regnbagen from an ordinary retirement home. The 27 rooms or apartments, between 45 and 70 square meters (450 to 750 square feet), line the long linoleum corridors with their mural bars, foliage plants and large doors for better wheelchair access. Residents pay between 600 and 700 euros per month.
But there are those huge photographs that surprise visitors when they step out of the elevator. They show seniors on the outskirts of a forest. The higher you go, the more euphoric they seem, and the trees further and further away. "This series is called, â€˜Here we come,"" he explains.
The pictures, by Annica Karlsson Rixon, a well-known lesbian artist, were taken on the Djurgarden island in the eastern reaches of Stockholm, and have a symbolic meaning. "In Western societies, when people retire, they step out of the frame of interest. For homosexuals, growing old can also carry the fearsome meaning of returning to the closet," Fallman says. "Imagine a classic retirement home, occupied by heterosexuals who don't have the open-mindedness of the younger generations. Gay people can soon become the local curiosity, when they yearn for serenity. Here, there are 22 men, 12 women and four couples who share the same memories, the same ordeals. They feel at ease."
A secret life
Ing-Britt Akerbergâ€™s room provides her a soothing place to stay after years filled with a fair share of torment. "I was married to a handsome man, a Greek," she says. "We lived in Boston. When we returned to Sweden in 1976, we divorced."
Her ex-husband returned to Greece, and she stayed with their two children in Sodertalje, a small industrial town 30 kilometers away from Stockholm, and found a job as a bus driver. "Later, as I wanted to meet someone, I placed an ad in the local newspaper, explaining I felt bisexual."
At the time in Sweden, homosexuality had just been declassified as a mental illness. "That was in 1981, when lesbians met each other at night, in nightclubs," recalls Akerberg. "At the time, to protect themselves, they posed as guys. They were tough, wore black jackets. Not for me."
Akerberg received about 40 responses and eventually succumbed to the charm of a Spanish woman. The lovers moved to Stockholm with the two children who were then teenagers. "My son died of cancer the following year, at only 16," she says. "Barely older, my daughter Anna left home because my partner was becoming unbearable, drinking like a fish in front of the television."
In fact, the woman also left eventually, one morning without a word. At 59, Akerberg was single once more. She was a Metro driver in the Swedish capital working nights. Her aching and solitude both torment her. "I miss my heterosexual marriage," she says. "Life was sweeter, believe me."
Six years ago, when she heard about this retirement home project, she put her name on the waiting list with a small advance. "I moved in in November 2013, for the inauguration. And I'll only leave feet first!"
Akerberg now has a new ally, an elegant pensioner. "She's two years younger than me," Akerberg says. "At first, we barely greeted each other. Now, I keep her dogs and we regularly go out together, thanks to the Golden Ladies."
The Golden Ladies is a Stockholm association for lesbians aged 60 and over. It organizes five tea dances per year for its 35 members, a cruise in the Baltic Sea, private viewings and bowling outings. "We publish a schedule of the outings every two months," explains Eva Bohlin, the group's president. "Sometimes, more than 60 women come along, sometimes only five. It's as they want."
The Rainbow House also offers activities, including gatherings that encourage the residents to patch things up with family member who may have been disconcerted by a late coming-out. â€œEvery Saturday night, we organize a musical quiz," Fallman says. "Sunday afternoon is a coffee break, the favorite time of the week for Swedes, where you share cakes and coffee."
The roof of the house is equipped with a patio with large teak tables, a barbecue and a stunning view of the pier, with ocean liners setting off for Riga or Helsinki. It's up on the roof where Bjorn Lundstedt, 75, enjoys spending his spare time. His younger brother regularly visits him. "He's always been there for me," Lundstedt says. "He often comes by with his wife and five children."
The resident is a former Scandinavian Airlines steward who finished his carrier as chief flight attendant on Boeing 777s. "I traveled around the whole world, learned several languages," he says. "My life was quite interesting, colorful."
At 20 years old, his father took him to see a doctor, who suggested castration, one of many ugly memories. "I never got the love I wanted from my father, but my mother has always supported me," he says.
Lundstedt grew up in Linkoping, a small town with a military past. Up until the 1970s, several artillery and grenadier regiments were set up there. Today, he lives alone at the Rainbow house in a comfortable 60-square-meter, one-bedroom apartment. "I still like going to the cinema or theater. And, of course, there are very nice gay bars and restaurants in Stockholm." Lundstedt would like the first floor of the retirement home to be a bit more lively, perhaps with a restaurant and a hair salon.
Fallman says the next step will be opening a residence for homosexuals with special health needs, elsewhere in Stockholm. "That would prove that our community can take care of itself at every step of life," he says. "Not all gay people would have to access it, but they'll know that it exists and that's very reassuring."
Fallman says he's recently added to his waiting list to one gay couple that likes to plan ahead: They are still in their thirties.
With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.
When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.
And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.
Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan
The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan
According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.
In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.
The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.
Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.
View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA
Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!
The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.
Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.
Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain
Old Belchite, Spain
Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…
That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.
Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.
If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.
Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan
Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.
The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.
Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."
Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.
Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden
The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden
After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.
Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia
Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia
During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.
Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.
Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy
Poveglia Island, Italy
Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).
During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.
In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.
Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.
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