According to a recent poll, one third of Americans believe in ghosts. Almost a quarter of us claim to have experienced the supernatural. Belief in an afterlife doesn’t always correlate with orthodox religion. One of my ancestors, who wasn’t affiliated with any particular faith, wrote of his confidence in the “immortality of every human mind,” and the “sensible communion between the peoples of the earth and their relatives in the summer land.” I had a great aunt who was a medium, and used a Ouija board to communicate with the dead. It is comforting to believe we can communicate with the loved ones we have lost. We want a connection with our forebears and loved ones after they have left us. It’s easy to understand why so many indigenous peoples have some form of ancestor worship. We have powerful emotional and psychological links with the dead. They are our past, we are their future. We know we will join the dead, and return to eternity with our ancestors.
My mother grew up in an old farm house that had been in her family for a hundred years. The farm was far away from town, and a mile or so from any neighbor. Several generations of the family were born and died in that home: there was a large downstairs bedroom that served as both nursery and hospice. For a century, family members were born and died in that bedroom. The room was said to be haunted, visited by those who once lived there. The ghosts weren’t evil or even mischievous. Rather, people heard noises, footsteps, and drawers opening when the room was empty. One distant cousin, who slept in the bedroom directly above the haunted room, was frightened by the noises she heard, and claimed to hear voices. She used to stay and help out the family with the farm chores and cleaning, but she was terrified of that bedroom, and wouldn’t go in. It so disturbed her that she refused to spend in the night in the old house.
By the time I was born, the house stood empty, and my grandparents had moved to town. I was intrigued and frightened by the old place. The large rooms were covered in antique wallpaper, and on the shelves were broken dishes and coverless books that no one wanted. The wooden floor creaked when walked on, and the wind blew in broken windows that had ceased to be repaired. Most of the antique furniture had been sold or dispersed among relatives. Mice and bees made their nests in the cellar.
The bed was still standing in the downstairs bedroom. Once, years ago, my parents wanted a retreat from us children, and decided to spend the night in the old house. Mom and Dad were eager for their get-away, and looked forward to a night of peace and quiet. However, they got very little rest that night. They were kept awake by the sound of footsteps, faint voices, and strange creaking and moaning. The house, especially the downstairs bedroom, teemed with activity, and it was more than just mice scurrying around in the basement. My parents were unnerved and frightened. Morning didn’t come any too soon. They sensed that something, someone, in the old house wanted them to know of its presence. They weren’t alone in the bedroom.
Several hundred yards from the farm house, another old house once stood. It had been inhabited briefly by relatives who came to help harvest the crops. It wasn’t well built, and was torn down within a decade of its construction. A young cousin died there, and was buried in the garden between the two houses. His grave wasn’t marked, and remembered by few. The farm house my family lived in for all those years was eventually demolished as well, along with the barns and outbuildings. Recently, I visited the farm. It was a warm summer day, and sky was clear and bright. When I got to the place where the house once stood, there was a dark cloud overhead. I felt a deep sadness. They were unhappy, I thought, with just the vaguest idea of who “they” were. My eyes filled with tears, and I was overcome. The dead want to be remembered. These were my dead who had lived so long in this place. They yearn to know that their lives have mattered, and that their descendants are carrying on.
Maybe the departed leave a residue of themselves behind when they leave. We sometimes smell the fragrance of those who have left a room; maybe the dead leave a trace of themselves as well. Sometimes, sitting in an old chair or turning the pages of an old album, I feel connected to my ancestors who have sat in that chair, and whose sepia photographs have been lovingly saved and preserved. If the house held some remnant of my relative’s lives, it’s no wonder they were hurt and confused by its demolition. They had loved the old house, perhaps they were homesick.
As a child, my interest in the supernatural was limited to scary movies. Before the advent of computerized special effects, Hollywood’s monsters looked humorous. Horror movies were, and are, moralistic. Bullies, smokers and sex-fiends are always the first victims of Freddy and Jason. In the world of Elm Street and Friday the thirteenth, nerdy kids like me are usually the survivors and heroes. These movies offer an antidote to the unfairness of life, assuring viewers that there is justice somewhere, even if that place exists solely on the screen. The ghosts we see in films or on TV are alternately humorous and terrifying. If there are actual ghosts, I don’t think they’re like that. In sometimes perverse ways, scary movies assure us that death is not as final is it seems to our rational selves. If ghosts can torment, then there is something beyond death. Yet no matter how angry and bitter we may be about dying, few of us would want to return as avenging phantoms.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I left my family and my hometown to go to graduate school in the deep South. It was here that I had another experience with a house that was said to be haunted. Some friends and I visited a plantation deep in the Louisiana bayou. It was built in the late eighteenth century, near a proverbial Indian sacred site. When Europeans first arrived, they thought it was a place where the Indians executed their criminals. There were corpses hanging from the branches of a large tree. The settlers didn’t know that Indians placed the bodies of their deceased in trees. It was considered a good thing for the dead to be devoured by birds. It was a strange place to build a plantation house, and the location may have been a poor choice.
I had a friend who was a journalist who once spent the night there. He succeeded in staying the entire night, something many were not able to do. I’ll never know what happened: he refused to talk about it. Still, my friends and I decided to go there on Halloween. The tour was long, and not particularly interesting. In each room, the guide recounted the specters and supernatural experiences of the visitors. I walked ahead of the group, looking for a place to sit down. I came to a sitting room, and sat on a sturdy looking sofa. I closed my eyes for a minute, then opened them when I heard a creaking sound. An old wood rocking chair next to me started rocking. I smiled at the hokey gimmick, and went over to see if there was a string or wire. I didn’t see anything obvious, and I was impressed. I figured it must have been on some kind of switch or timer, so that when someone entered, they would see the chair rocking.
The tour guide and the rest of the group entered the sitting room. I glanced at the rocking chair, but it had stopped moving. I was amused, and listened to the guide. She talked about the history of house. It was a sad tale of murder, suicide, and doom. Probably any house that has stood over two hundred years has a troubled history. She didn’t talk about people’s experiences in this room, though. So I asked, “Do people often see the rocking chair move?” I couldn’t help smiling as I asked. I was sure of the answer.
“No,” she said. “As far as I know, no one has ever reported that.”
That shut me up. Had there been a breeze? The windows were closed, and there was no air conditioning in the house. I know what I saw. There might be a perfectly good scientific explanation, but I was disconcerted. Was I so suggestible and silly I imagined the chair rocking by itself? Some would say I succumbed to mass hysteria.
It’s possible that the dead return to a place they know and love. Just as I felt the presence of my ancestors at the farm, maybe other people’s ancestors are unwilling to completely leave their homes. Maybe in death they return to the places they have loved in life. Even at its worst, life is so wonderful it’s hard to think of leaving. Few of us are ever ready to die. Returning to a familiar place is something we all long to do, especially during stressful times.
Sometimes, people experience the dead apart from a house. During the height of the AIDS epidemic, before there were effective treatments, I lost friends to the disease. I had the good fortune to become close to a man with a wicked sense of humor named David. He should have been a stand-up comedian. He entertained us for hours with his funny anecdotes, and had one- liners for any occasion. His death shook me.
He passed away in August, a month of heat and humidity. One night, just days after his death, I had trouble sleeping. I couldn’t get comfortable, and the sheets were soaking wet. I decided to go to the living room, where the apartment’s one air conditioner was. I turned it up to high, and put my pillow on the floor beside it. I lay down, and closed my eyes. Finally I was about to fall asleep. I rolled over on my side, and in the moment between consciousness and sleep, I was aware of touching something. I thought perhaps it was a chair leg, but then I had the awareness I hadn’t rolled in to something, I had rolled in to someone, someone standing next to me. It was David. I stared, my heart pounding. In barely a second he was gone. I was confused and scared.
I barely slept the rest of the night. I wasn’t frightened of David, not exactly. I was sure he meant no harm. But he was dead, and couldn’t have possibly entered my apartment. What had I experienced? I told a friend about it in the morning. She was reassuring, and insisted my mind was playing tricks on me.
“You miss him, and you want to see him again,” she said. “It’s perfectly natural.”
I wasn’t sure. Had I just imagined it? I was sure I had seen him, and touched him. The following day, I spoke with David’s sister, who was staying in the house where David lived with his mother.
“Do you want to hear something crazy?” she asked. “My son won’t go in to the guest bathroom because he thinks he saw David there last night.” A chill ran down my spine.
“What did you tell him?” I asked. “Is he scared?”
“Yes, he’s scared,” she answered. “The funny thing is, I believe him. I thought I saw David, too.”
I told her my experience, and it made us both thoughtful. Could it be that David hadn’t left, that some part of him remained, tying up loose ends, saying goodbye? Is it possible that the dead sometimes return? Do they long to see us as much as we want to see them? I don’t know. I know that the mind can play tricks. When I was in high school, I was religious in a conventional way. Once, conflicted about a relationship, I prayed, and was sure I heard the voice of God speak to me. It sounds absurd now, even slightly deranged. I don’t believe that God, if there is such a thing, micro-manages our friendships. I think God has larger issues that occupy Him, or Her. Is my belief in visitors from the afterlife as naïve as my belief in God once was?
When I was in my mid-thirties I developed epilepsy. I’ve read that epileptics have vivid senses. Doctors speak of something called an “aura.” Before a seizure, some epileptics experience a color, smell, taste, even a sound or sight. For me, my pre-seizure aura was the memory of a great-aunt. She was one of my few relatives who smoked, and I could often smell her cigarette. It was reassuring, and her presence brought me comfort when I experienced the discomfort of a seizure. Was my sense of her simply a neuron that misfired? That’s the medical explanation.
My grandparents made a pact similar to one Houdini is said to have made. They promised each other that if there was life after the grave, they would find a way to communicate. Whichever one of them died first would let the other know about the afterlife. My grandfather passed away years before my grandmother. She never had a sign from him.
A rational person might say that there are no ghosts, that the phantoms we see are a product of the imagination, mere wish-fulfillment. Experience can’t be scientifically verified, there is no proof of what we see and feel. Have my very limited contacts simply been an overwrought mind, the result of wanting comfort, wanting assurance that the dead are not really gone? I wonder about my great-aunt, the psychic. Was she able to contact those she wanted to speak with? That isn’t something I can do, no matter how much I want to.
If I could establish contact, on demand, with those who have gone ahead of me, I would speak with my grandmother and my father. In the case of my grandmother, I want to tell her how much I love her. I want to say I’m sorry for not always being the person I would have liked to have been. I would apologize for my impatience, for my constant hurry, when the thing to do was just to spend time with her. She asked for little from me, though I thought she wanted more than I could give. Once, when telling a wise older friend how impatient I was with her, my friend said, “Why don’t you tell her how much you love her?”
I protested that she knew how much I loved her, that I had told her of my love. I didn’t understand what my friend was saying to me. He was telling me that time was short, and the thing to do with all those we love, is to enjoy them, to spend time. It’s a simple thing, but very hard to do. I can’t remember anymore the things she did that bothered me. Those things are long forgotten. All I can remember is how much I love her, how much I admired her. She lived to be ninety-four, and her life spanned two centuries. I know how much I am like her, I know how aggravating I can be to those who love me.
I don’t have unfinished business with my father. His death was slow and sad, the only good thing about his prolonged pain is that we had time to say everything that remained to be said, and, thankfully, that wasn’t much. I had the gift of being close to him, geographically as well as emotionally. What wouldn’t I give for just another five minutes with the man? The heart is greedy, and the more we have, the more we want. Maybe that is what makes some of us believe in communication with the dead. Our conscious mind knows that time is short, there are limits to the happy hours spent with loved ones. All of our happiest moments will end. What a comfort to believe that death is not the final blow, that there is something beyond. Ghosts, even the ones in scary movies, assure us that it is never too late to say what needs to be said, or do what we should have done.
When we die, we leave our things behind. Books, papers, clothes— all are left for our loved ones to dispose of. Just as we leave our possessions behind, we leave a legacy as well. Our words and actions are remembered. Maybe something of our soul stays behind as well. Could ghosts be a remnant of the dead, part of ourselves we can’t take with us, just as the scent of someone stays on the pillow where they have lain? Maybe our longing for the loved ones we have lost keeps them from abandoning us forever. The rational mind says this can’t be so. Rather, supernatural encounters proceed from the unconscious, just like dreams. A neuron misfires, our eyes play tricks. Who knows. But if you hear a floorboard creak, or a faint whisper from a room you know is empty— it might be wise to listen.