Opinions, Column

Ghost Stories, Mysticism, And Our Love Of The Unreal

When you were a kid from New York City, adventure meant three or four days out in the woods, looking for patterns in stars that you didn’t see very often and cooking store-bought hot dogs over a fire. I’m not sure that I ever was a kid, really, but I know that adventure always made me a little sick.

So, when we were held back a few hours on I-95 on the way up to Maine, my father pulled into the first hotel parking lot he could find.

The place seemed to be going for the sort of warm, colonial hospitality that the state of Maine was famous for back in New York, although I don’t think anybody had ever told the guy at the front desk.

He checked us in with a few grunts, only ever taking one eye at a time off of the game show network. Twenty dollars for a night. Fifteen if you’re out by seven. It wasn’t until we started up the stairs that Toby—I read his nametag—came out with his only full sentence of the night.

“If you hear kids running up the halls, don’t bother calling down,” he said. “There’s an echo or something from next door, and folks always think they hear kids running.”

I didn’t think anything of it.

In the morning, we got back in the car and made it to the campground by noon. No sounds the night before. It wasn’t until we had been back for
a few weeks that I took my camera in to get pictures from the trip developed.

In the middle of the stack, there were three I didn’t take. Close-ups. Two of me and one of my father.

Sleeping on twin motel beds ….

Alright, it’s actually me now. This never happened to me, and I’d be willing to bet that it hasn’t ever actually happened to anyone. But, if you’re one of the few people who hasn’t heard some variation on this story before and you aren’t totally dead inside, it should have sent something of a chill through you.

It’s my favorite ghost story; it has been since the first time someone told it to me years ago. I can’t quite articulate exactly what keeps it rattling around in the back of my head, and I’m not sure it would be a very good story if I could.

This, I believe, is what sets the ghost story so far apart from the world’s other tales—we turn to them for pleasures of a relatively twisted sort, beyond words or plot. It hits us somewhere we don’t like going very often.

The stories are content—it would seem—in having the sole purpose of making us feel uncomfortable. Making no heavy-handed attempts at character study or didacticism, they look instead for the most shadowed, vulnerable places in our subconscious, crawling inside to wreak quiet havoc and come back up to the surface when they’ll have the strongest effect. To tell one of these things is to engage in a careful attack on who- ever is listening. You plant an idea deep and hope it sticks around long enough to come back.

This idea—the one that sits between fiction and reality—is the point of a good ghost story. Regardless of how extensively I searched old books and the Internet, I could find no single person to whom the tale I told you could be attributed—nor could I find two identical versions of it. The origin and the words, apparently, don’t really matter. The little ghost children who photograph people in their sleep, however, certainly do.

So, why the ghost story? Why, when cheap adrenaline rushes are found in such abundance everywhere from action movies to theme park rides, do authors and filmmakers continue taking such pains to craft the mood, atmosphere, and plot necessary for the sort of hair-raising, sleep-with-the-light-on kind of fear that we’ve come to crave? The answer, I think, is that they provide suspension of our habitual disbelief with an invaluable outlet.

For as long as we’ve had stories, we’ve had ghost stories. And, out from their various complex fabrics, there emerges something of a common thread.

From the supernatural myths of ancient Rome up through the Victorian Gothics and all the way to The Conjuring or The Shining, the ghosts remain because we continue to depend on them. The ghost story feeds our overwhelming need to believe that what we see isn’t everything, that there is something to human life far beyond our perception or understanding.

When we read the seduction scenes in Dracula or are faced for the first time with Susan Hill’s ghastly Woman in Black, we don’t pretend to believe—we do believe. For the brief hours spent in the company of these stories, the ghosts are as real as we’d like them to be.

With the acknowledgement—even a whimsical or a fleeting one—that something impossibly evil is out there comes the inevitable comfort that there might also be good beyond all comprehension. If demons are real, then angels are real, too.

And so as we listen to these stories, stepping as we do into a dark tunnel. Although we know that we’ll come out the other side just as we were, we go through in the hope that the world might look a little different when we do.

We hope that world might be informed and instilled with the sense of mysticism and peculiarity with which we’ve been overcome for the tale’s length, and that we might find comfort in the fact that we don’t quite know everything. We hope to emerge still believing that our world—and whatever lies deeper within and beyond it—is a place of far greater wonder than we could ever imagine.

Not, at least, outside the context of a story.

Featured Image by Jordan Pentaleri / Heights Editor

October 23, 2014