It’s now October 31 … has been for about nine minutes. Tonight is Halloween. Covid is on the upswing in our town, as well as the towns we venture off to for supplies. Otherwise I’m at home, or in the country, away from people.
It’s a good time to take an inventory of the ghosts in this house, before the possibility that I become one of them kicks in. There are ghosts here, and have been since the day we moved in, almost sixty years ago. I still slept in a crib. I left for a while but I came back. The ghosts were still here.
According to folklore the veil between this world and the next begins to thin tonight. This year I might watch a little closer.
What are ghosts?
Ghosts are one of mankind’s greatest, and oldest mysteries. In the Old Testament, Saul summons the ghost of Samuel through the Witch of Endor. When the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water they thought he was a ghost. He pointed out to them that he was flesh and blood and ghosts possessed neither, expressing his own belief in ghosts.
The Bible explains the existence of ghosts as demons and angels, rather than the spirits of the dead. This was a belief that the magicians of the early twentieth century still held onto, in secret societies such as the Golden Dawn. They fleshed out the mechanics of how its done.
At death, the soul moves on, but it leaves the astral body, now just a shell, just as it does the physical body. Demons and angels and perhaps other entities are believed to be able to move into the astral shells and that’s who we are talking to when we’re communicating with dear, departed aunt Martha. A demon impersonating someone you know.
Or at least that’s one theory. Others believe the soul lives on, and sometimes make its presence known. Spiritualism is the communication with spirits of the dead, even those who are no longer bound to this place. Skeptics, and they are legion, say Spiritualism is a hoax. While it’s true there are countless charlatans out there, preying on the grief of others, there are also some experiences which can’t be explained so easily.
By my reckoning, nobody has been to the other side, or at least can tell the story in a convincing enough manner for me to believe it, and believe they have the answers. So I don’t fuck with the dead. If I see a ghost, that’s one thing. I don’t care to have a conversation. They know I’m here if they want to talk, but so far they’re not talking either.
Identifying the types of ghosts
Peter Underwood, the noted twentieth century parapsychologist helpfully listed nine types of ghosts.
The first is atmospheric photograph ghosts, which are imprints on the atmosphere of a place. Just like photography is the imprint of light on a photographic surface. They can be seen at certain times, in certain weather conditions, certain angles even. They don’t interact with the living, but replay important or traumatic events over and over.
Related to those are historic or traditional ghosts, which are associated with a specific place and time. They’ll appear in the clothes of the era, and if a wall has been added, they might pass right through it. But again, they’ll seldom interact, or even notice the living.
The day we moved into this house, nearly sixty years ago, my Granny Bert was sitting in a chair in the living room, watching me while my mother was busy. She claimed she saw the man who used to live here walk through the room. It’s said there used to be pocket doors in the room, now covered over, which explain how he passed right through the wall.
Also related are cyclic or recurring ghosts, which have the characteristics of the previous two, but appear in a cycle, or on a regular date or time.
All of these can become associated with a family, and in a lot of cases are looked at as part of the family. They cause no harm once the initial creep factor wears off.
Photographic ghosts seem to get weaker over time, fading like an old photograph. Some believe the more people see the ghost, the faster it fades.
Underwood also lists the ghosts of the living. If nothing else, this type of ghost makes a great excuse for those who engage in infidelity.
Next on his list are modern ghosts, the spirits of the recently departed. Underwood makes room in this category for those about to die as well. When my dad died, I got a whiff of his cologne here in the kitchen, and knew immediately he’d died. Turns out he held on, unconscious for a few more minutes till I could get there. A few days after my mother’s death, as my niece sat in my mother’s favorite chair, she felt two hands slip up from behind and pat her cheeks, just like mom used to do.
Then comes family ghosts. When I was a child, downstairs in the living room here, my mother left me in my crib, sleeping while she went in the front yard. She looked up and through the window she saw a man standing over the crib, looking down at me. She ran inside but no one was there.
I can’t say if they were the same specter but the ghost I saw in this house wasn’t limited to this house. I saw it once, with three other people miles from here. What I saw was the same thing I saw in the house and on the lawn. So it doesn’t haunt the house, it haunts me. And perhaps it haunts someone from each generation.
Then there are haunted objects. Got one of those too. There’s a lamp mom and dad bought decades ago. It was antique then and had the habit of turning on and off by itself. Curiously enough, it seemed to do it with intent. It bothered them enough that they had the entire wiring modernized and replaced.
It still does it.
What my rational mind believes
When it comes to seeing a ghost, the human brain works conspicuously like a computer. The mind has a deep seated need to understand. What it doesn’t understand, it fills in the blanks, similar to what Photoshop does to fix flaws in a photograph.
Dust on a lens, a scratch on the mirror or just dumb luck sometimes leaves a blemish on a digital image. When you use software to fix the missing pixels, it samples the intact pixels around the blemish and fills in the space with what it thinks should be there. The context of the image is taken into account, and comes to play in what the computer believes should be in the missing pixels.
Now let’s say for a moment that something is in your field of vision, a ghost if you will. Your mind says it shouldn’t be there, ghost don’t exist, so the visual stimulus doesn’t compute. Your mind fills in what it can’t fully perceive, just as Photoshop does with an image. It sees a vaguely human shape, and fills it in with darkness. These are shadow people, a common type of ghost. Perhaps you’ve heard there’s a ghost, so your mind has a bit more detail and you can see a person, still dark like a shadow, but lighter. Those are brown people. Victorian era houses seem to lend themselves to grey ladies, or the lady in white. The more detail your mind has to draw on, the more complete an image it can produce.
Perhaps the mind just fills in the blank spots in what you’re seeing, or perhaps it creates the whole image. The mind has to make sense of what it sees, and has no problem lying to itself to do so.
Which explains how two people can see the same thing, but one sees a patch of mist while the other sees a full bodied apparition. It’s the same principle behind two people witnessing a crime and both having different accounts of what happened.
In the end, there’s only one thing which convinces people of the existence of ghosts, and that’s seeing one. Even then your faith will falter. I’ve seen more than a half dozen full bodied apparitions, but there are times I doubt I’ve seen even one.
My pet theory
One night I stood on the lawn, looking up at the window where as I child I looked out and saw a ghost. I realized I was standing in the same spot, and like the ghost, wearing a cloak as it was a cold winter night. And I wondered, could I be my own ghost?
I thought of the places I’d seen it … across the alley, where I had stood earlier that night. On the stairs inside the house, where I walked up later, still wearing the cloak.
I never intended on coming back to this house. It was a trick of fate. Perhaps I never make it out of here, and I saw myself when I was a little boy.
And then I remembered
Granny Bert saw the man who used to live here the very day we moved in. So unless Granny Bert’s mind put together the apparition of the man who lived here, the ghosts predate our occupancy. And include former occupants of the house.
A friend of mine once saw a railroad engineer in the house, and we only live a few blocks from the railroad tracks. Then again, he was likely high.
Four people have seen apparitions in this house, or at least admit to it. There was poltergeist activity for years, when my sisters and myself were teenagers, which fits the pattern. After my parents’ deaths, they both made their presence known for a bit. And over the past five years, a half dozen people have heard the footsteps in the Blue Room. Heavy footsteps. Those predate my parent’s death. Twice I came home to find my house guests sitting on the porch, waiting for me rather than stay in the house alone.
When Lisa moved in, she found an earring in a cup she had brought. It wasn’t her earring, nor was it mine. We’ve heard voices in the house. Sighs. She wakes up at night when I come to bed, speaks to me only to find the bed is empty.
Before Lisa moved in I was in a dark place, from the death of my parents, a fucked up personal life and way too much time studying Edgar Allan Poe. It took me thirty years to break out of this town, to get away from this house which held such horrors to me as a kid. Twenty-five years later I found myself in possession of the house I tried so hard to get away from. At this stage in my life, having this house could be a blessing. I’d never afford a place like this anywhere else.
But if the ghosts came with the house, and if they picked up my parents as well, am I dooming myself into an eternity in this place? When I invited Lisa to live here, did I do the same for her?
It’s a common theme in horror books and film, the house that traps souls. I’ve got a lifetime of studying the paranormal to bring to the house. I have sixty years of experience with the ghosts in this house. Perhaps it’s been grooming me my whole life?
I had a heart attack this summer. For me at least, answers are important. And finding them quick could be reassuring.
From the corner of the eye
They say ghosts are often seen out of the corner of the eye, for just an instant. I had that happen in the graveyard of the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow on two separate occasions in about the same place. I used to make a big deal out of that.
Twice this month I’ve seen someone here in the house, once on the stairs, once sitting at the dining room table, out of the corner of my eye, for just an instant. It’s so frequent I don’t even count those any more.
But if I added up all the seconds in my life that I had experienced supernatural phenomenon, and even added up all that others have experienced in this house, it would likely total less than a minute in sixty years.
Ghosts don’t seem to hang around very long. You experience them for an instant. The sands of time shift and you find yourself in another time, or perhaps you find yourself in the presence of entities from another time.
Who can say, till we become ghosts ourselves?
Perhaps ghosts are nothing more than demons, inhabiting the astral shells of those who have departed. After all, the Catholic church takes demonic possession seriously. The first step is proving that the person does not have mental illness, and to prove that they use the best psychologists the church’s treasury can buy. There are rare occurrences where they can find nothing but demonic possession as the cause.
In this day and age, the mantra of “trust the scientists” seems like a good idea. Do we discount those simply because we can’t believe what they’re saying is true?
Or maybe the spiritualists are right, and you can reach the dead, if you know the number.
When I check out, if I can, I’ll be listening. You know where to find me.