Monday, February 8, 2016

Ghosts, Personal and Otherwise

O day and night, but this is wondrous strange! 
Ghosts, it is advanced, either do not exist at all, or else, like the stars of noonday, they are there all the time and it is we who cannot see them.
I…have never been able to understand why the unvarying question should be, "Have you ever seen a ghost?" when, if a ghost cannot exist apart from visibility, his being rests solely on the testimony of one sense, and that in some respects the most fallible one of all. May not his proximity be felt and his nature apprehended in other ways? I have it on excellent authority that such a visitor can in fact be heard breathing in the room, most powerfully smelt, and known for a spirit in travail longing for consolation, all at one and the same time, and yet not be seen by the eye. And even short of signs so explicit as these, who at some time or other has not walked into a room, known and familiar and presently to be known and familiar again, but that for a space has become a different room, informed with other influences and charged with other meanings? Something has temporarily upset the equilibrium, which will be restored by and bye. 
– Oliver Onions, "Credo"
A person I know believes, or half-believes, that he once came into contact with a certain something in a nineteenth-century house turned restaurant. Throughout our dinner, he felt the presence of someone waiting at his elbow, and actually turned to see who it was several times. Contrary to what's shown in the movies, that seems usually to be the way of it: the person who has "seen" a ghost has experienced some sort of psychological disturbance – an upsetting of the equilibrium – that has convinced him personally, on some level, that something was there, but is unable to offer much more than a subjective impression as proof.

The materialist would simply say that a belief in ghosts is irrational. To me that seems to miss the point. Of course it's irrational. Ghosts are irrational. That's the very reason they're so terrifying: they represent a dissonance in the logical framework of the universe, a thing that could not and should not be but yet somehow is.

And what exactly is a ghost? The disembodied spirit of a departed person? Calling up visions of Jacob Marley and Hamlet's father, who are basically just bodiless people, that seems hardly an adequate definition. Sometimes a ghost is more the decayed psychic remains of a person. At others, it's a sinister, inhuman semi-intelligence or force, a watchful presence at work in a place or object. And quite often it's something else altogether.

Perhaps ghosts, like love, elude us when we try to define them.


My grandfather passed away when I was nineteen. His was the first death I had witnessed with my own eyes. The semi-mechanical winding-down of his body – his brain had already died its own death as the result of a medical error, and the family had made the decision to take him off life support – may be the most horrible thing I ever watched.

He had served as my confirmation sponsor two years before. I can't say why I'd asked him, as he wasn't in communion with the church, refused to communicate in the course of my confirmation, and died as he had lived. Still, we had a certain bond because of it. My grandmother, though herself not entirely orthodox in her opinions, didn't approve of our free-thinking collusion.

After his death, I began dreaming of him. The dreams were always the same. I'd be at a family gathering, and my grandfather would arrive, sitting down in a corner without saying anything or making eye contact with anyone. Gradually, the realization would grow in me that he oughtn't to be there, that he was, after all, dead, and that I had seen him buried. Mixed with the sense that something just wasn't right, I had the anxious feeling I get in those dreams where I'm supposed to depart on a journey, but things keep happening to delay me, so that I end up wandering around, getting farther and farther from my goal. In this dream, the feeling was vicarious, experienced on my grandfather's behalf. Go! I would tell him. You don't belong here! But he would hang on disconsolately, saying nothing.

This went on for such a long time – years – that I finally told my father about it. He related a story about my great uncle, my grandmother's brother. I was named after him but never met him, as he died before I was born. An air traffic controller and (I'm told) something of an alcoholic, he had remained in Puerto Rico all his life; it was he who had introduced my grandparents. After his death, my great uncle began "visiting" my grandfather much as my grandfather was visiting me. According to custom, my father said, the way to stop such visitations was to light a candle while one slept. I know not whether my grandfather employed this remedy, nor with what success. At any rate, I never sought such relief. If my grandfather was visiting me, why would I want to drive him away? The visitations gradually ceased on their own, however.

Now, I was not the only one to report being visited by my grandfather. Soon after his death, my grandmother, who used to confide in me, began telling me that he would come to her in the house they had shared, and not merely while she was asleep. Whenever she asked whether I thought this possible (for some reason she considered me an authority on spiritual matters), I would tell her, noncommittally, "I don't know, Granny," and change the subject, which, I felt, was not conducive to her mental health.

To explain what this meant to me, I find that I must describe my grandmother and her house more fully.

My grandmother had long, straight white hair. She was, as my grandfather had been, considerably overweight, and usually dressed in black, never showing any flesh above her wrists, which were banded with quantities of jangling bracelets. She had a peculiar horror of light and space. She kept her house as dark as night, with layers of curtains over the windows, which were also iron-barred and overgrown with ivy. Even when she was in good health and my grandfather was alive, curiosities and knick-knacks filled every room, from a Kermit-the-Frog phone and a giant wooden fork and spoon to a number of terrifying (to a small boy) relics from Japan, where they had once lived, and other Oriental bric-a-brac – serene smiling Buddhas, pictures painted on gold silk, tapestries of scowling Noh players, green porcelain dog-lion things sticking out tongues between long white tusks. Bulky furniture turned the small rooms into spaces a large adult could hardly move around in. I had never even seen into certain corners of the dining room. A large, soft canopy bed swathed in yellowed white lace took up most of my grandmother's bedroom, and I remember sleeping there once or twice as a little boy, and also on the thickly cushioned sofa under the frowning Noh players, always an unsettling experience.

Imagine a small version of the house from The Haunting combined with a small version of the house from The Others, decorated like the unsettlingly Oriental death-house in Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep, surrounded by monkey grass and loquat trees, and placed on a sunny street on the south side of San Antonio. That was before the outright hoarding began. The claustrophobic closeness and decay mounted nightmarishly after my grandfather's death. For that period, Miss Havisham's house in Great Expectations comes more to mind:
I crossed the staircase landing, and entered the room she indicated. From that room, too, the daylight was completely excluded, and it had an airless smell that was oppressive. A fire had been lately kindled in the damp oldfashioned grate, and it was more disposed to go out than to burn up, and the reluctant smoke which hung in the room seemed colder than the clearer air—like our own marsh mist. Certain wintry branches of candles on the high chimneypiece faintly lighted the chamber; or, it would be more expressive to say, faintly troubled its darkness. It was spacious, and I dare say had once been handsome, but every discernible thing in it was covered with dust and mould, and dropping to pieces. The most prominent object was a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together. An épergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite undistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstance of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community.
I grew up not three miles from my grandparents' house, and went there as often as you might imagine. But it was not until I was twenty-seven – years after my grandfather had died – that I first went upstairs. Not once in all the countless times I had been there had I ascended the staircase. On this occasion, I found my aunt's bedroom preserved as it had been when she was a teenager, stuffed animals and all, and my grandfather's bedroom untouched as well. My grandmother herself never climbed the stairs, but my parents once saw an light on when they dropped her off at night, so perhaps she went up there sometimes, after all.

That house was, in many ways, the embodiment of my grandmother's mind, full of secrets and decay and things left untended. Twelve years after my grandfather's death, she began having outright hallucinations – which naturally call into question her reports of ghostly visitations – and had to be placed in a psychiatric ward. It was a grim place, high up in an old high-rise downtown. I went to see her as frequently as I could, living as I did some ninety miles away. Security measures required that she receive only a single visitor at time, which turned my visits into strange colloquies, even when I accompanied other family members to the hospital.

Generally, she seemed lucid enough, making sarcastic remarks at the expense of all the "crazy people" in the ward, but at times she would fall into weird fugues. After seeming to nod off, she would sit erect and begin playing games with children who weren't there, or talking about buildings that stood on forgotten cemeteries, with "creepy things" crawling out of holes in the walls.

Eventually she was diagnosed with dementia and moved to a nursing home. There she became morbidly preoccupied with assisted suicide and the work of Jack Kevorkian, whom she admired. But she was always pleased to see me, and also my wife and children, who were now allowed to accompany me. She died not long after.

Now I dream about both my grandparents.


My narrative abounds with rational explanations for those who want them, but there's something about it, an unsettling quality I can't quite put my finger on, that still bothers me. The same, I've noticed, is true of the best ghost stories.

Since I reviewed Crimson Peak last fall, I've been on a kick of trying to find the best ghost stories and movies I can find. Crimson Peak, incidentally, is not particularly successful as a movie about ghosts, falling as it does into the rational Jacob Marley trap. Simply put, it shows too much and explains too much. Since it is, in fact, a gothic romance, rather than a movie about ghosts, this is excusable. But I can't exonerate the many failed horror movies that make a similar mistake.

The very best ghost movie I have seen is Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963), which is based on a story by Shirley Jackson. It explains little and shows less – nary a ghost is seen on screen – but certain parts make my blood run cold. Atmosphere, the play of light and shadow, and sound effects all combine to create a force more terrifying than anything that could be trotted onstage. So, for me, The Haunting is the standard.

Other haunted house movies attempt the same thing but fail. The Legend of Hell House (1973), though it has a promising beginning, ends with the technological contrivances and scientific elucidations that made me think immediately of Ghostbusters. The highly acclaimed The Others (2001), with its sunless rooms and brooding unease, preserves its perfect atmosphere throughout, but relies in its denouement on a trick ending, an ending I unfortunately saw coming. And then we have The Conjuring (2013), which comes close to The Haunting, at least in parts. However, it shows too much toward the end, opting for jump-scares rather than numinous dread, and it also tries too hard to interweave the Annabelle doll into the story, in preparation, I suppose, for that doll's lackluster prequel. But there are a couple scenes – the nighttime clapping scene, the clothesline scene – that still give me goose bumps when I think of them.

As for literature, I've been making my way through the Modern Library Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, a large volume I recently acquired at a used bookstore. Standouts include stories by Oliver Onions, M. R. James, and Sheridan Le Fanu. The only author I hadn't read before was Oliver Onions; actually, I'd never even heard of him before, which is much to my shame, for he seems to be a very gifted writer. I'm currently working through a collection of his ghost stories as well.

Unlike, say, heroic fantasy, the ghost story is a genre that real "literary" authors try their hands at from time to time. Henry James and Edith Wharton are famous examples. Perhaps this is because ghosts stand closer to real life than swordsmen and sorcerers. No one ever fears meeting a dragon on a blasted heath. But just spend a night alone in an old house that makes peculiar creaks and sighs of its own volition, and you will begin to feel uncomfortable.

For me, that's what has made me avoid ghost stories in the past. The reality I inhabit is already haunted enough as it is, be it actual ghosts or merely my neurotic temperament. But lately I've found that the various strains of horror fiction have a cathartic effect. After all, people have enjoyed telling ghost stories for a long, long time. Surely there is some reason why small doses of terror are found pleasurable.

My theory is that they help to brace us up against the onset of the lonely night, which might otherwise drive us mad with fear.


  1. Wonderful post. There are several times in my life, particularly since the deaths of my parents, I have felt haunted, or at least as if something's off with reality. Strange, but not actually frightening.

    I'd always come across mentions of Oliver Onions but only recently was able to get my hands on any of his stories - which I have yet to read.

    The first time I watched The Haunting was in the dark and it definitely spooked me silly. I actually like the "scientific" rationalization in Hell House. The Conjuring indeed suffers from the flaws you note.

    One of my favorite ghost stories is one of the "literary" ones, Edith Wharton's "Afterward." You've inspired me to reread (and maybe a few other haunt stories as well).

    I like your theory about why we like ghost stories.They fill in those quiet moments of dread with something tangible, if only for a little while.

    1. I like "Afterward" as well. Oliver Onions' "The Beckoning Fair One" is really good (the very best, some people say), and worth reading alone late at night...

    2. (Response coincidentally written while listening to The Zombies' "Time of the Season" on the radio, a song that appeared to creepy effect in The Conjuring...!)