I have enough self-awareness to know, without anything remotely resembling doubt, that I’m the worst party guest you’ll regret inviting to your small gathering. I’ll very likely demand to bring a friend* just so I have someone I feel comfortable chatting with. Left to my own devices it’s likely I’ll have any or all of these conversations with strangers:
- Culturally appropriate domestic and sexual violence prevention and services, complete with the latest Department of Justice statistics
- How much I hated Gone Girl (both the book and the film)
- Mountain Lion sightings in Lower Michigan
- Scottish Terriers, presidential dogs, canine allergies, and my recently departed Scottish Terrier, Drama
- My miniature panther masquerading as a housecat, Dartanian
Yes that’s right: ghosts. And before you try to tell me all the logical reasons why ghosts don’t exist, know that I don’t care. My religious views are best described as apathetic atheism with a pinch of passive superstition. Unless we’re talking about Tom Waits, I don’t believe in God, Heaven, Hell, or souls that could be left behind to deal with unfinished business. Moreover, I’m highly critical of organized religion—especially Christianity—and all the shit storms they’ve started over the years in the name of faith. And even though I only have a very basic understanding of science typical among those in the Social Sciences, I’m still far more willing to put my faith in science than general woo. Your microwave will leave you with shitty tasting food but definitely not cancer, you don’t need to go on some ridiculous cleanse unless you get your jollies from shitting your pants and being hungry all the time (which sounds terrible), and anti-vaxxers are a deadly combination of willful ignorance and assholery. Yet despite all this I remain steadfast in my belief in ghosts, even if all logical evidence points to the contrary. At the very least I know that if I’m wrong I haven’t done any undue harm to anyone else, unlike that measles outbreak at one of my favorite grad school diners, or conversion therapy.
Recently I’ve been reading Sherman Alexie’s latest memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me . A common theme throughout his writing is walking between two worlds but never quite fitting comfortably into one or the other. This is a common point of contention between himself and his mother, about whose life and death are the subject of the memoir. Laudably, Mr. Alexie recently cancelled much of his book tour, citing that this book and subsequent tour brought up too many painful memories to continue. In the book he talks about how he doesn’t believe in ghosts, but sees “ghosts” all the time in the form of small reminders of his mother. Many cultures have teachings tied to ghosts, spirits, and the supernatural. These ghost stories still serve practical purposes, ranging from pure entertainment to cautionary tales of the types of people and situations that can lead to harm. They provide a link to the past and help to keep cultural practices alive. For marginalized communities with a long history of colonization, these ghost stories, for lack of a better term, can be seen as an act of resistance against Euro-Christian powers meant to assimilate and destroy. They are a way to proclaim that we are still here, despite attempts to get rid of us. Odd as it is to think about, our reverence for our dead is part of what keeps our cultures alive today. For instance, consider New Orleans Voodoo Queen Marie LaVeau’s lasting legacy: she was a mixed race woman in the South alive during the 1800s who managed to rise to prominence across all socioeconomic statuses. While it’s hard to parse out what is fact or fiction about her life, what remains is that she was able to gain enough trust (fear?) from the social elite to obtain the status she had, using ancestral knowledge as a healer and voodoo practitioner. Whether or not her legacy is comprised of tall tales, the stature she has within New Orleans history is still incredibly relevant. In a lot of ways it doesn’t matter whether or not she was possessed by spirits, her immortality extends far beyond the hot mess that is American Horror Story: Coven.
As a small child I had two imaginary friends. There was Sneaky, who was some sort of magically growing and shrinking, shoe shaped creature who I know definitely didn’t exist and only proves that, even as I small child, my obsession with shoes was very real. Then there was That White Girl, a temperamental girl a bit older than me, dressed in a white Victorian dress, who would run around in my mother’s garden and would occasionally slam doors in the house. That White Girl stories are some of my mom’s favorite creepy anecdotes to share from my childhood. It’s very important to note here that my mother is about as skeptical and scientific as they come, but still gets the willies talking about her First Born’s strange connection to the spirit world. In that sense ghost stories are fun. They’re fun to tell and they’re a whole lot of fun to listen to. In my adult life I’ve gone on at least two walking ghost tours in major cities (for the record, nothing paranormal happened). I’ve listened to every episode of Snap Judgment’s Spooked special and am impatiently waiting for the latest installment this fall. I’ve seen enough episodes of Haunted History, My Ghost Story, Klingon Ghost Adventures starring Worf, son of Mogh, and the inaccurately titled Celebrity Ghost Stories to give me all the anecdotal evidence I need. Knowing the lore behind some of America’s most famous haunted locations made reading Colin Dickey’s Ghostland even more interesting. For instance, did you know that Sarah Winchester of Winchester Mystery House fame wasn’t actually being haunted by all the ghosts of people killed by a Winchester rifle, but rather kept adding onto her home because she rather enjoyed architecture and, as an added bonus, used constant home renovations as an excuse to never entertain visiting relatives? (Author’s note: I mean, there could have been ghosts, or she could have just been an eccentric introvert who didn’t want her family visiting all the time and touching her stuff.) Abandoned prisons, defunct hospitals and asylums, battlefields, crime scenes—places where some sort of traumatic event took place—tend to have their own ghost stories. I admit that I can’t even begin the explain the existence of ghosts on some logical level. I don’t know what they would even be or why they’d stick around. That said, even if you don’t believe in ghost stories, it’s important to acknowledge that history as a way to show respect to those who have been historically mistreated while striving to not repeat the mistakes made by our ancestors. Whether or not you believe in ghosts is irrelevant, though what is important is looking at the meaning behind the stories and what that represents.
So, do you have any ghost stories? I’d love to hear them sometime.
*This friend is very likely Robin. We’re unfriendly, awkward, and will likely eat all your snacks.