Monday, February 18, 2008

Ghostly Encounters

By now it’s no secret to anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis that I’ve been obsessed with ghosts and ghost stories all my life. I hated Shakespeare as a kid except the parts with ghosts. Slumber parties for me were always anticipated with the hopes that someone would be there who had a really good ghost story I’d not yet heard. Lend me books of ghost stories, and you’ve got a friend for life. And a few years ago, inspired I think by some of the fantastic architecture and ghostly passages at Bob’s seminary (the best of which were stolen when Columbia began renting space from the seminary, and we were no longer allowed access to the basement of our dorm building), I began writing my own.

Maybe I’m just projecting, but over the past few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that most people are obsessed with the supernatural, with the mysteries in this world that we can’t easily explain. Take a look at all the shows on television that address the supernatural. Take a look at bestseller lists. Religion is all about the supernatural and the unexplained and making ourselves comfortable with it. Even ultra-orthodox rationalists are obsessed with the supernatural, spending countless amounts of time and energy trying to convert others to their belief that there is a natural, scientific explanation for every single mystery in this world, and all we have to do is study it and find it. My favorite of these are relatively recent studies in which experimenters stimulate specific areas of subjects’ brains, and subjects then report seeing ghosts. Yes, this very well could mean that when certain areas of the brain are stimulated, or tapped into for whatever reason, the brain conjures up apparitions that aren’t there. But there’s another possibility. Maybe those apparitions really are there, and we just can’t see them under normal circumstances. Think of it this way, would anyone ever say, “Well, those skin cells don’t really exist. You need a microscope to see them.” Maybe the ghosts exist, but we need brain stimulation in order to be able to see them. I’m not saying I necessarily believe this. I’m far too much of a natural rationalist (dammit) not to be drawn almost automatically to the first explanation, and I don’t even want to consider what it would possibly mean for the whole concept of “hallucination,” but I am asking: couldn’t the second explanation also be a possibility?

But now we get to my problem: I’m too much of a rationalist. I write ghost stories, yet I’ve never seen a ghost. I’ve never heard a ghost. I’m extremely skeptical as to whether or not they really exist, and am far more drawn to a Henry-Jamesian-type belief that they are all in the head, than I am to an M.R.-Jamesian belief that they are walking about all over the place. I’m like an ancient scribe writing a book of the Bible describing all that God is doing without actually believing God exists. I want to believe, but I can’t, and I long for proof.

Then again, do I really? That’s the problem with ghosts. I long for proof, but not if it means some evil apparition is going to make an appearance and scare the daylights (or nightlights, as the case may be) out of me. I walk around in the cemetery out back in the early evenings, half hoping I’ll see something, and half hoping I won’t (of course, I recently came to the realization that if ghosts return to places of trauma, which is supposedly what they do, they aren’t likely to be hanging out in the cemetery that’s been part of their deaths but certainly wasn’t part of their lives. And then I had a friend who so helpfully said to me recently, “If they do exist, I’m sure they’re not going to show themselves to someone who’s eagerly out looking for them").

After the one two-inch snowstorm we had this winter, I found some extremely interesting tracks in the melting snow in the cemetery. They crossed the path and then, literally, disappeared. Even accounting for the melting, I’m pretty sure they were too big to be a bird’s tracks, unless eagles are hanging out in the cemetery, but I’ve already convinced myself that they must have been a rabbit’s tracks (because I see rabbits hopping around out there all the time), and he must have hopped out of the cemetery (a rabbit with wings, because his hop into the trees beyond the cemetery would have had to be about 25 yards long), but I just can’t believe there isn’t some sort of natural explanation. However, it’s fodder for a great ghost story, isn’t it? And that’s how my thoughts work these days: everything seems to be fodder for a great ghost story. I find myself constantly asking friends, “Do you mind if I use that in a ghost story?”

Well, Friday night, I didn’t ask permission. I just sat around and observed and now have so many ideas for stories, I’d better just quit my job and start writing full time. This was the night Bob took me to the Wine, Dine, and Séance night at the mansion at a local winery as a Valentine’s Day gift. When he presented me with this gift, about which I had no clue, as he’d discovered it on his own, my first thought was, “You don’t get anything much more perfect than this.” I love fine dinners. I love theater. I love ghosts. Dinner theater with a play about ghosts? That’s my idea of heaven. And it lived up to my expectations, with the exception of the wine (Pennsylvania wine will not be rivaling Napa and Sonoma anytime soon).

In fact, it more than lived up to my expectations, because besides getting to watch a fun performance, we also got to interact with the actors who were obviously having a ball, and two unexpected but very interesting things happened. First, we were encouraged by the actors, in order to get in the “spirit” of it all to sit around the dinner table with the other “guests” and basically tell ghost stories, relating our own incidences of encounters with the supernatural. Well, there I was, the ghost story writer, being one of only two out of the group sitting at my table who couldn’t recall any encounters with the supernatural. However, I heard some great stories from others (including Bob’s, which I never tire of hearing. He’s got a terrific story from his days as a boarding school teacher). Where do I start? I have yet, believe it or not, to incorporate Bob’s ghostly encounter into any of my stories. Is it time I did? Or do I include the story from the woman who saw the ghost of a child at the Jersey shore? How about the woman who had the dream about her neighbor’s heart attack and death exactly as it happened about two weeks before it actually did? Or the man whose dog got upset over “someone” sitting in his favorite chair?

Secondly, an unexpected fringe benefit of the evening was a palmist who wandered around to the tables at dinner time. The first thing he said to me when he looked at my palm was “See all these random lines here? (I didn’t, as it was pretty dark, and I know absolutely nothing about which lines are important and which ones aren’t when it comes to reading palms, but that didn’t keep me from just sort of giving a noncommittal nod, as if I could see and understand.) Those represent your past lives.” (And you all think I’m joking when I say, “I must have been such and such in a past life.”) Once again, I’m obviously completely out of tune with the supernatural, as he told me that sometimes when he tells people this, their immediate response is, “Oh yes, I was in Paris during the French Revolution.” Then, he told me for most people it’s much vaguer than that, like feelings of déjà vu on a street you’re walking for what you thought was the first time (nope. Sorry. But even those sorts of feelings have eluded me all my life. If I’ve never been on a street, I’ve never been on a street. Maybe my past lives all suffer from amnesia or something).

Having my palm read, I’ve discovered, is maybe not such a good idea. He told me that I will have two major relationships in my life, not necessarily marriage, but important relationships. “Well, now that’s nice and vague, isn’t it?” Emily-the-Rationalist thinks. “Does my on-again-off-again-boyfriend-of-five-years-before-I-met-Bob count as the first, or is something terrible going to happen to Bob?” wonders Prone-to-Suggestion-Emily. He tells me I’m promised three children in my life, not necessarily my own, but three important children, like nieces and nephews. “Well, he certainly got that wrong. I only have two nieces, and if you count other important children in my life, it’s many, many more than three,” Emily-the-Rationalist thinks. “Ohmigod,” thinks Prone-to-Suggestion-Emily, “better be ultra careful with the birth control. I certainly hope this doesn’t mean headlines of ’First 45-Year-Old Lancaster County Resident Ever to Give Birth to Triplets,’ or something on the horizon.” Oh yes, and my life line has a big intersection in it, which supposedly represents trauma of some sort, like a major illness or a car accident, but trauma that I’ll survive, “Well, doesn’t everyone have trauma of some sort in his or her life?” E-t-R questions. P-t-S-E hopes such things as an ovarian cyst at age 18 and that car accident back in 2000 count and that it isn’t some future trauma right around the bend. I’m wondering which lines represent the multiple personalities. Oh, look at that Emily-the-Writer personality line that seems to indicate a story about a palmist with past lives and a ghost materializing at some point.

It all leads back to stories, doesn’t it? I guess if I can’t have a supernatural encounter of my own, then I might as well make some up. On Saturday, some friends of mine and I (after I’d described Friday night to them) decided that some day soon, we’ll take a ghost-hunting trip to Gettysburg. That battlefield is supposedly one of the most haunted places in America. Do you suppose if I ever actually encounter a ghost my need to write the stories will walk through the walls of my brain and disappear forever? I like to think not. I like to think the need will settle down on a spot that stimulates my brain, so that I discover even more ghosts hiding out all over the place where I never knew they were.

17 comments:

Eva said...

I loved reading this post. :) I'm fascinated by ghosts (and cemetaries) as well (have you ever watched that series "Hauntings" on the Discovery channel? It never fails to creep me out), although I don't have nearly as much of a rational side as you, so I accept that they certainly could exist. My mom's side of the family seems a bit 'in touch' with things, and I've inherited it (just in random things-like, I knew what my aunt was going to name her new daughter the night before she was born, even though we didn't even know she was having a girl), so maybe that has something to do with it. :) There's no way you could get me anywhere near a Ouijia board!!

I wish I could read your short stories. ;)

Eloise said...

What a fantastic valentine's day gift! Like you I'm obsessed with ghosts stories and the paranormal (and write ghost stories) but have never had any spooky experiences. I want to be convinced they exist, but don't think I ever will be. I think there are some people who are very sensitive to strange experiences and others who have a big brick wall rather than a veil between them and the other world and I'm one of the latter. MR James said something similar about being prepared to consider evidence of ghosts and accepting they exist if it satisfies him. I wonder how many people write ghost stories because they are obsessed with an experience they haven't had?

Dorothy W. said...

Glad you enjoyed the Valentine's Day gift -- it sounds fabulous. I'm too much of a rationalist to really believe in supernatural things; just the other day a woman was talking about her past lives and nodded politely but was very, very skeptical ... but even not believing doesn't keep me from being interested.

mandarine said...

You were that close to solving the rabbit's interrupted track mystery: it was first a rabbit and then an eagle!

IM said...

You should definitely go to Gettysburg if you want to feel some supernatural power. Even if you don’t actually see anything weird, (Although how can a place where thousands of men hurled metal at each other for three days not be weird in-and-of-itself?) the place offers some very strange sensations when you are confronted with what went on there. It was one of the few places that had me believing there is another world apart from the one we exist in.

J.S. Peyton said...

I've seen a ghost once and only once in my life (of course, once is certainly more than enough), and it wasn't a ghost person, but a ghost bird, if that makes any sense. I was young but I know for a fact that I didn't dream what I saw: a glowing white bird flying around a pitch black room (my room) which subsequently disappeared into my bedroom bathroom. It must have been a phantom bird because when my grandfather checked the windowless room after being alerted by my screams, he found nothing. Not a feather. The fear I remember feeling as I watched that glowing bird fly around my room is more real than any that has ever been reproduced in my nightmares then or since.

On another note, I was wondering if you've had a chance to read ODD THOMAS by Dean Koontz. I just finished it and I loved it. Considering that it's about a man who can see ghosts, I think you might enjoy it too. : )

BooksPlease said...

I like ghost stories too and have the same desire and reluctance to encounter a ghost. I really enjoyed this post, particularly your analysis of your reactions to the palmist - great.

Froshty said...

I've had two ghostly encounters in my life that people say were only dreams because they happened at night. The first was in England when I was 3 and I saw a man with a red hat and white cloak beating on my window and then disappearing. The second was about the same year when a ghostly hand came up from under the pillow of my bed--which belonged to my great-grandfather or some kind of "great"; I refused to sleep in that bed ever again. (By the way, the bed was the one that eventually became the Doll Hospital.) I've always thought that ghosts were not so much apparitions as they were indelible stamps of extreme feeling that supersede time and space. In other words, if someone feels an intense emotion--maybe the strongest of their lives, they leave behind an emotional imprint of themselves and their actions at the time they experienced that emotionlong after they're dead. Think about the times that you feel sadness in an empty house. Also, it sounds like you had a wonderful Valentine's gift.

Stefanie said...

Your Valentine's present sounds like it was a wonderful time. I've had some weird experiences but never have seen a ghost. I can't make up my mind whether or not I believe in them. Rational me says, "No way!" but the side of me that has the wild imagination and loves stories and loved scaring myself when I was a kid, says "you just never know, it's possible."

Esc said...

I really enjoyed reading about your Valentine's present. Your rational vs prone-to-suggestion conversations sounds much like some I have with myself. I've referenced your article in a post over at FaireNews.com, thanks for helping me get the review written.

Emily Barton said...

Eva, yes, I love watching "Hauntings" (although right now, we don't get cable or satellite TV, so I can't watch such things). Lucky you to have a bit of "the touch."

Eloise, yes it was a fantastic gift. And you're right: I've got a big brick wall, one that even the most determined ghosts don't seem to be able to walk through. And I bet quite a few write ghost stories for that reason.

Dorr,I would have been right there with you, nodding politely.

Mandarine, well, we did see an eagle in our yard the other day...

IM, yes, I've GOT to go to Gettysburg. I drive through on may way down to Ch'ville, but I'm sure that's not the same.

J.S., hmmm...may I use that one in a story if I promise to let you read it?

BP, so glad you enjoyed it!

Froshty, I remember those stories of you. Funny, I didn't remember that THAT bed was the doll hospital.

Stef, yep, that's me, too.

ESC, thanks for the link! And glad you enjoyed my post.

Emily Barton said...

J.S., forgot to mention that no, I haven't read ODD THOMAS, but it sounds as though I must now.

Lost said...

I read the entire entry, and I was fascinated by it. Maybe you haven't experienced a paranormal apparition because you have a powerful rationalistic side to you, as you've stated, if I remember correctly. I've, myself, esperienced (or what I THOUGHT was) a ghostly encounter. I was no more than five at the time, and the mind does play tricks on us, so I can't say I was 100% positive it was an actual visit from the beyond, but I did see a lady on my terrace. She stood on the other side of my window and played with my curatains. I never saw her face, however. She had been looking up. She wore what looked like 18th century attire--more of a blue and white nightgown. But what baffles me the most, is the apartment building we lived in at the time was fairly new, and nobody that we knew of had died there. Although it WAS during the wartime. However, I do try and stay on the realistic note and come up with a reasonable explanation for things that occur around me. Other than that, I haven't experienced anything major since then (it's been fifteen years). I've had strange things happen to me when I'm in my bedroom at night, but I started wearing a cross, and hopefully that'll keep me safe--I don't know. (Come to think of it, I lost it somewhere; I must find it again.) And another strange thing--either it's my overactive paranoia trait--but, I've moved quite a few times, and everywhere we settle down, I feel like I'm not alone...


Good luck in finding your ghost. I know I won't, but attempt to stay calm if you do see one. They usually won't be out to get you. ^^ I heard a lot of them aren't aware of their passing and wander around the earth, trying to find their homes and families.

Sheesh. I need to stop watching Most Haunted. Lol.

Peace.

Anonymous said...

like many of us obsessed or into the whole thing.like myself i have something that once in a while i will see someone or talk to them not knowing it when i turn back to them as i was talking there gone.my mom passed jan of 08 and she is still here with me.if she wants to tell me something and cant she will appear in my dream and tell me.as for dad i called him a few times andafter a few days of calling there he was .....

Anonymous said...

I my self had AN acounter with the ghost of my mother. see my mother died when i was in grade 2 but my parents were divorced in the first place so the night before she died the light in my bedroom flickered, then went on and then i felt her presence around me ( and the smell of her perfume) but remember it was like 12 am and I was at m dads so it had to be her ghost,but anyway she gave me a kiss on my cheak. and then she said sorry. the only words i've ever told my "mom's ghost" was "what for?" and the last words I told her (alive) were c u soon but i didn't think it would be that soon for the last time.!

Anonymous said...

ok the truth is i feel my mom all the time. well her ghost at least. yeah im the one with the mom died in 2 grade but who cares ? anyway some times when im angry ill tell her things but she never tells me anything.

Anonymous said...

My name is Melanie. I'm only 14 years of age. I keep having these ghostly encounters. The other night I was on my sister's computer. It's really close to these trees. & I heard a big "CABOOM". I didn't know what it was & I went to go see what it was....it was a tree it fell in my yard close to where I was...a few minutes after I noticed that I was talking to my mom about it..& they had it dark in the room 'cause it was like 4 in the morning..& I saw a white shadowy figure. It had like a pumpkin's face like. But it was like mist. & it looked like a ghost. It scared me so I got in bed with my parents. I know that's a little weird coming from a 14 year old. But I got scared. I couldn't go to sleep with them..so I went to my room & finally fell asleep at like 5 in the morning. This evening it was 1 something in the morning. I was listening to my music in my room. & I heard these screams coming from somewhere. & at first I thought it was my mom hollering for me. So I went into my living room. But she was asleep & I asked my dad 'cause he was still up. & he said that she was asleep & that him nor her had hollered for me. So I ignored the noise & kept listening to my music. A few seconds later...I heard another scream. It really scared me so I stopped listening to my music. It sounded like a girl's scream. Anyway I'm just wanting to know if any of you can give me some advice or let me know if it really is a ghostly encounter or whatever. 'Cause I really need to know it's freaking me out. Me & my sister also went around our house today sprinkling salt around it. Since I heard that it can keep bad spirits away. I would also like to know if it's a bad spirit & if it's trying to harm me & why it wants to harm me. Or if it's a person that I knew before they died or something...because I had a grandmaw that I never did get to meet 'cause she died right when I was born. Or if it could be like a guardian angel or something...& it's not meaning to harm me. But why would it throw a tree down? Or if that had anything to do with it. Well if you know in anyway what this is all about..please let me know! I really need some help. This is my email melly.loves.you78@gmail.com