12. A Picnic for Phantasms

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I can’t necessarily count myself amongst the 32 percent of Americans that believe in ghosts (Gallup, 2005). That is, not normally. It’s hard to believe in ghosts while the sun is up and I’m standing in line to get a cup of coffee and bad pop music is on the stereo.

However, my wife, while not necessarily being a religious woman, is a total spook. Late one night in bed, we heard an ominous clatter coming from downstairs. She got so scared that it was a ghost. Seeking to put her at ease by making it humorous, I grabbed a dumbbell and a belt and went down to challenge the “ghost.” HA! But down in the darkness of the basement, I was actually scared witless. “Maybe,” I thought to myself. “Maybe ghosts ARE real.” Then our roommate’s black cat leapt out from behind a shelf and I almost fainted.

The most terrified I have ever been was watching the movie “Event Horizon,” which is about a ghost spaceship which returns from the dimension of hell. (The ghost ship motif has its roots in the old story of the Flying Dutchman.) I am not “good” with horror movies to begin with, a weakness that I attribute to having “too willing a suspension of disbelief.” At one point in the movie, the main character is in a narrow ventilation shaft and the lights are going on and off in rhythm with a “whoomp” sound ever time they go on.

At this point in the movie, I was so scared that I wasn’t having fun. I was a mess of nerves and decided to go out to the lobby to calm down and remind myself that it was just a movie. As I walked up the aisle, the faces of the audience were lit, “whoomp,” and then went dark. I got to the top of the theater and headed out through the double doors.

You may not realize this but the doors of theaters are often connected to electric magnets so that when the projectionist hits the green play button, the doors close automatically. For some reason, these doors were not closed. As I walked through the double doors, the lights came on in the movie on the screen, “whoomp,” and the main character’s dead wife appeared right next to him, her eyes completely white, without pupils. Everyone in the entire theater screamed in unison.

At that moment, all of the power in Beaverton went out. All of the lights I saw out in the lobby went dark as the electric magnets, without power, let go and the doors in front of me and behind me closed. I screamed like a woman, high and shrill, and threw myself at the door like a wild, panicking animal. I fell onto my face in the lobby, just as the emergency lights went on.

I was so hysterical that it took me a couple of hours at least to calm down. And this for someone who “doesn’t necessarily believe in ghosts.”

Ostensibly, my reluctance to believe in ghosts is partly due to the perception that it is not very “Christian” to believe in them. At least, that’s the way I was raised. There are certainly such things as angels, Satan and demons but… ghosts? The concept of deceased relatives wandering about empty halls in white sheets had sort of a pagan-ish flavor to them, I suppose. When people die, they go to heaven or hell and that’s that. But that’s a little actually bit misleading, scripturally-speaking at least.

For example, in 1st Samuel (28:3-25), King Saul is trying to get a read on what to do about an upcoming battle. God is not answering his prayers and Saul’s already kicked all the necromancers and magicians out of Israel. So he consults the Witch of Endor who claimed to see “elohim arising from the ground.” The word elohim is actually a fairly ambiguous Hebrew word that can mean “God,” “gods,” “spirits,” and a bunch of other ethereal things. Well, with the help of the Witch, Saul conjures the ghost of the dead prophet Samuel who is not pleased to have been disturbed. He tells King Saul that he’s going to lose the battle and he and his sons are going to all be killed. This is a Biblical ghost we’re talking about here.

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“Elohim” by William Blake

Shoot. Even Jesus brings up ghosts. When he comes back from the dead, the disciples are (obviously) totally scared of him. I would be. Here’s Luke 24:37-39: “They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.’”

Alright. So there are ghosts in Christianity and Judaism. There’s also ghosts going back to Homer, in which the deceased appear in the clothes they were wearing (sometimes even with the wounds that killed them) and impart important plot information. These were usually not feared by the folk who saw them but, by 500 B.C., the Romans saw ghosts as being equally benevolent and malevolent and ghosts were commonly feared. In fact, every culture on earth has some sort of belief in ghosts of this kind or that. Jinn in the Koran, hungry ghosts in Buddhism, Bhoot and Baital and Pishacha in Hinduism, Yurei in Japan, Yidag in Tibet, Strigoi in Romania, Vampir in Serbia, Vrykolakas in Greece. This is to say absolutely nothing of “ghosts” in the countless animist, indigenous and tribal beliefs throughout history and the world over.

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Click on this image. Then, freak out.

There are of course ghosts in both Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth. There are the classic Victorian ghost stories. There’s Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King. There’s the Border Ballads of the 16th century, and The Castle of Ortranto by Horace Walpole in 1764. And let’s not forget our New Yorker pal Washington Irving with his Headless Horseman. You should also definitely check out “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things,” a book by Lafcadio Hearn that collects ancient Japanese tales of ghosts and the supernatural.

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Yurei

In almost every case, a ghost is a soul that is somehow stuck between worlds because of some unfinished business. It is almost never a desirable or natural condition.

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To me, these stories certainly don’t prove the existence of ghosts as much as they prove how much we want to believe in them. I happen to enjoy the modern science-fiction show “Dr. Who.” It’s a splendid bit of make believe. In one episode, the Doctor is speaking to Queen Victoria and they are telling ghost stories…

Queen Victoria: Since my husband’s death, I find myself with more of a taste for supernatural fiction.

The Doctor: You must miss him.

Queen Victoria: Very much… Oh, completely. And that’s the charm of a ghost story, isn’t it? Not the scares and chills, that’s just for children, but the hope of some contact with the great beyond. We all want some message from that place. It’s the Creator’s greatest mystery that we’re allowed no such consolation. The dead stay silent. And we must wait… Come, begin your tale, Sir Robert. There’s a chill in the air. The wind is howling through the eaves. Tell us of monsters!

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The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, by Captain Hubert C. Provand, 1936

With the advent of photography and audio recordings and then of motion pictures, people set to using new technologies to trying to capture scientific evidence of ghosts and specters and visitors from the great beyond. I, for the most part, consider myself in the camp of the skeptics and debunkers. Having looked for hours at “ghost photographs” and YouTube videos of “otherworldly happenings,” it mostly looks like a bunch of (fairly obvious) hoaxes and hopeful fame seekers grasping at invisible straws. Think Bigfoot, alien abductions, the Blair Witch, pretty much anything from the X-Files. What’s interesting to me is not any sort of “proof” but the spectacular popularity these stories, photographs and videos. Millions and millions, possibly billions of people want to believe.

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I am no great televangelist, trying to convince people of believing something, nor am I a Christopher Hitchens type, wanting to spend much of my time trying to dissuade people of their convictions. This is especially true if those beliefs are of any benefit to the living. So how could believing in ghosts be a good thing? One marvelous example is the Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos or “Day of the Dead.”

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It is an ingenious, tender and hilarious fusion of pre-Columbian and Catholic beliefs that beats the pants off of our stupid old Halloween, where we all just dress up in dumb costumes and party for no reason. The Day of the Dead is a remembrance party. The whole family (the holiday can actually serve as a family reunion) gets together in the graveyard, cleans the gravestones, and puts out food that they think their beloved dead would enjoy. Dead children are given little toys. Painted skeleton faces and skulls and masks are everywhere. Pillows and blankets are laid out so that the dead can have a rest after their long journey. There are picnics and feasts in the cemetery. There is music and dancing and laughter amongst the tombs. Flowers are cast about and candles are lit and hilarious stories are told about the deceased. The ghosts are welcomed and celebrated guests.

How could this be a bad thing? Why (and I’m speaking to my Judeo-Christian and thoroughly Americanized friends here) don’t we do this? Let’s say you do believe in ghosts, that disembodied souls still wander the earth. Why not throw them a party, dance with them, give them some good food and drink and sing songs with them? Why not try to make them happy? Why not try to get your ghosts to laugh?

If you don’t believe in ghosts, isn’t it still a good thing to get together with family and loved ones to remember those good folk that have passed away and how their lives have been gifts to you? It seems sad to me that we only have one heartbreakingly mournful and somber funeral and that’s that. Our mausoleums and cemeteries are vacant, empty, forlorn places. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could get together, throw a party and remember a well-spent and splendid life in a spirit of gladness and joy and laughter? After the sword of loss has lost it’s edge, after the initial wound has scabbed over and left us with its scar, why should a deathday be any less celebrated than a birthday?

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Perhaps we’re so scared of ghosts because we shun their memory, try to pretend that death doesn’t exist, do our best to forget that they ever lived in the first place.

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About psychopompkaleidoscope

Is a mortal who will not live forever.
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