“What is it about the concept of death that compels us to toy with it?” It was a question posed to the audience of Ghost Stories, a West End production I attended a few months back. The crowd chuckled nervously as the buttoned-down presenter glared unnervingly into the audience. It was true, I realized, we had all attended that night in hopes of being scared silly by tales of the macabre. As the play went on the question echoed and expanded in my mind: why do we, as a society, use death as a sort of recreational pastime? What enticed us to play with it tonight by coming here?
Death’s ability to entertain, which relies heavily on the assumption that consciousness exists in some sort of afterlife, can be somewhat comforting until one realizes its full implications. Sure, at first a wispy existence of wandering the spiritual plane, watching unattractive strangers shower is preferable to eternal nothingness (which seems to be the ultimate dread). Yet if we follow that thought all the way through it leads to some ultimately, terrifying conclusions. It opens up a whole new realm where not just Gandhi survives, Ted Bundy exists as well. The Nazi that shot your grandmother, the man who once followed you home. Sprinkled amongst the souls of soccer moms and Spanish teachers, sadists and killers would roam.
Of course some belief systems have separated these two groups into Heaven and Hell so the righteous needn’t bother with such meetings in the hereafter. But what assurance do we have that Hell is so airtight? Indeed, multiple passages in scripture points to the Devil and his minions roaming about as they pleased. And if Hell does exist, then that opens the gates to a whole new cast of characters that no longer play by humanity’s rules. In place of nuance and chemically-based brain disorders, the existence of ultimate evil seems considerably more chilling. So no matter what door you peer behind, be one of nonexistence or one of inter-dimensional coexistence, the landscape is somewhat disconcerting.
So why do it at all? Why do we narrow our eyes at that dirty old photograph? The one with the strange shadow just beyond the trees. Why do we pull out Ouija boards, go to graveyards at night and tempt fate through spirit photography or EMF recordings? If it’s just curiosity then why, when we are home in our beds, laying in the dark at night, don’t we welcome such intruders in the name of science and exploration? When you wake up just past 3:46, and feel a slight breeze wash over your body, why is it dread that fills your gut rather than excitement?
An acquaintance of mine, Morgan, recounted his own paranormal experience for me. He was just a kid when he and some of his cousins were spending the night in the living room of their grandmother’s house. It was quite late when they heard shuffling footsteps coming down the hall. Thinking it was their grandma they were surprised to see a strange man in a white shirt and suspenders walk by the door without so much as looking at them. Slowly the footsteps faded out until they completely disappeared. Morgan and his cousins spent the rest of the night in a circle so nobody had their back against a wall. When he recounted this story Morgan mentioned that he doesn’t even believe in a spiritual plane, and chooses not to explore the context of what happened. Was it strange? Yes. Did it scare him? Sure. But he’s flat out not interested in what’s behind door #3 and refuses to go there.
Yet others I spoke with prefer to use this area as a jumping off point to explore their culture. In Chinese and East Asian mythology there are a bevy of different ghosts. They do not follow the same rules or local lore as Western spirits that can be exorcised away with incantations and suggestions to go to the light. Rather these ghosts are often depicted as unrelenting in their haunting and damnation, staying with a victim for eternity. Many of these vengeful spirits use the haunting as a way to punish children who have acted out and often play into cultural gender roles. As one Chinese-American woman put it, “This ghoulie scare tactic is another form of controlling girls. Don’t do X because Ghosty So-and-so will get you. These stories start from birth to scare kids, and I’ve noticed they have great impact on women, but not the adult men I know.”
In Arab culture, the Jinn or Jineah (evil spirits both male and female) can be considered just as much a part of daily life as God’s will. Echoing the sentiment on Chinese and East Asian ghoul lore, many who grow up with it feels it was used as a method of control and subservience. If you do naughty things then you open yourself up for jinns to get you! One women named Iman, who grew up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia tells a tale of local folklore as such: “Some friends of mine’s mother took them all to a “shaikh” so he could read Qur’an over them (because of their naughty behavior) and it turns out they were all possessed, apparently, by a group of jinns. And according to the jinns they were possessed by a neighbor of theirs in a previous city they lived in. This neighbor performed black magic on the whole family because she was scared that her husband was going to take her (their mother) on as a second wife.” Iman added, “I mean, it’s funny as hell now, but back then when I heard about it I shit bricks.”
In some lore, objects are the focus of strange activity in the house. These inanimate things always seem innocuous at first, but start to give off a general vibe or atmosphere of unpleasantness. Often in these tellings, once the object is recognized and removed, a level of calm is said to descend onto the house. One woman named Tess told me about a picture that was once hanging in her spare bathroom. It had been there when her family had bought the place. It was inoffensive and so it was simply ignored for a number of years. During this period of time her little sister was awoken with night terrors nearly every night and more than once family members reported getting stuck inside the “creepy” bathroom. Then one afternoon, as her mother dusted the frame, the picture fell and broke. Written on the back of the picture in blood-red ink were symbols of the occult. After burning the paper, Tess says her sister never suffered another night terror.
Another common theme involves normally docile animals suddenly becoming exited. Family pets leaping up from laps and stare into nothingness with their mouths foaming. When I first moved into my apartment in Paris my own dog took to growling loudly at the empty hallway. Numerous studies show animals having heightened senses in comparison to humans. So was it just a neighbor he smelled, or something else?
Stories like these highlight our innate fear of being confronted with something we do not understand or refuse to consider. Jinns, vengeful women, and demons all have the ability to touch on normally taboo subjects such as gender roles, sexual relations, incest, and infidelity. It is an oddly safe place to explore such issues because its is supposed to be uncomfortable and uncontrollable. Tragedy is innate in the subject matter so we allow ourselves to go to a darker place. Being inflicted with such entities can force issues to the table that polite society would rather leave alone.
On some level, it seems to me that we must want these stories around. Because what every single story of a haunting has in common is our permission to go there. We all have the ability to pull a Dana Scully and posit reasonable explanations: those kids saw an old neighbor sleepwalking, the sister grew out of her night terrors and finding and destroying the paper was merely a coincidence, my dog was uneasy in his new surroundings. To turn these stories in to tales of the supernatural requires our consent. And although it may not feel like it, most experiences do have a completely rational, almost boring, explanations.
Optical hallucinations are actually a surprisingly common every day occurrence. We often experience such a low level with such unimportant objects that we rarely even realize when it’s happened. Was the shoebox under the bed or on it? Doesn’t really matter because we can look again. It’s not until something out of the ordinary occurs that we wonder if that shadow was really just our eyes playing tricks on us. Adding fuel to this theory, scientists have found vast increases in “sightings” occurred when the most indifferent of objects were interjected into a situation: a osculating fan or a rumbling elevator. That’s because when your vision vibrates at certain frequencies (caused by fans, elevators, or a number of common household objects), optical hallucinations measurably increase.
Likewise environmental factors have been shown to have a measurable effect on that “creepy” gut feeling. Low frequency vibrations between 7 and 19Hz have shown to manifest feelings of panic and terror in a number of test subjects. In fact, the reaction is so predictable that during the Vietnam war the US Army actually researched a number of weapons projects that used these low-level vibrations. This noise, imperceptible to the conscious mind, can be find in all kinds of places, from a coffee maker to windy alleyways. So that “emotional pickup” may really just be a matter of vibrating pipes below your living room.
Yet this information rarely comes to the comfort of anybody who’s been jerked awake in the early hours of the morning. After all, just because we can explain cause and effect in one situation, it does not mean it applies to all instances. One might even infer that oscillating fans vibrating our corneas actually open us up to seeing what was already there rather than “producing” a hallucination in and of itself.
Believer, fence straddler, or skeptic, we can all learn from the ghastly tales that surround us. They indicate a profound connection in the human experience, one that spans continents, time, and culture. The strongest man and the tiniest child can both be reduced to raw nerves with the cadenced tapping of a windowpane. The smartest and the slowest can be struck motionless by a dark shadow shaped just so. Some might even argue these similarities are worth celebrating. That this inevitable appointment we all hold with death being our one common human denominator divorced from wealth, class or education, is acridly comedic. And maybe this is why we fool with it, batting it about like a primeval mouse and underplaying it’s significance. As Edgar Morin once said, “Man is a being that knows death, but can’t believe it.”
Whatever human corporeality ends up meaning in relation to our consciousness, we can be assured that our specters will live long after our bodies expire. Lights flickering, toilets flushing, and shadows on a wall will no doubt be attributed to us by relatives in the days after we pass. “Oh, that’s just Olivia, letting us know she can hear us.” And as we haunt the generation we leave behind, we can at least take grisly comfort in becoming part of something which once kept us up with chills in the night, tenuously flipping on the bathroom light and wondering, if only to ourselves, “Am I really alone?”