It was a dark and stormy night.
Really. A few weeks ago, we had a crazy storm blow through.
I was snuggled up in my bed with the house to myself. My favorite gardenia scented candle was burning, my nose buried in a book, and a cup of chamomile tea on my nightstand. The only noise other than the muted sounds of the night outside was my cat Murray snoring lightly at the foot of the bed.
I was reading Stephen King’s latest book, Billy Summers, but he’s become somewhat subdued in his elder years, and so far, it hasn’t induced a deep-seated festering fear. I couldn’t be more relaxed.
Suddenly, Murray’s ears prick up. He wakes up with wide eyes. Startled. I hear a creak from across the hall. I look up from my book to see the door to my son’s empty room swing open on the hinges I forgot to grease. The odor of dirty socks, gathering dust on the electric guitar he begged me for, oozes out of his darkened room.
My heart is pounding. I know he’s not home. I also know that he made sure to shut his door before he left. He had explicitly told me that he had just washed his blankets and didn’t want Murray licking his butt on them.
My thoughts turn to the pocketknife I have in the drawer of my nightstand. Then I feel silly. It wasn’t the thought of an intruder that had my heart doing flips. In my head, it was a ghost. Specifically, the ghost of the original homeowner who I had been told died while living here.
Now I really feel silly.
From the age of nine, I lived in a small gold rush town in the foothills of Northern California. I spent years immersed in history peppered with ghost stories. After that, I spent most of my twenties and a good part of my thirties hunting the spirits of miners and old-timey prostitutes with my friend. We went to every haunted house, cemetery, hotel, and one especially creepy shuttered reformatory school we could drive to. We watched paranormal TV shows and documentaries and compared notes while drinking sticky sweet appletinis or long island iced teas.
And yet, in all those places over all those years, we never came face to face with a real-life ghost.
Weird, I know.
As I began to look into the scientific side of ghost hunting, I began to realize why my friend and I never encountered a disembodied spirit.
They’re not a thing. Nope. Ghosts aren’t real.
I read the actual research on the subjects of the afterlife, spirits, and ghosts. Each and every spooky experience I had soon found its earthly explanation. Even the times where I was sure the answer must lie outside the natural world. But alas, all the answers turned out to be simply natural and not super at all.
But my disappointment soon dematerialized, as my curiosity about how I could be so convinced of their existence grew. I read more about debunking all sorts of stuff.
And what I found to be much more interesting is how our brains are so suggestible. Not to mention stubborn.
That stubbornness is why my brain leaped at the conclusion that it must have been the ghost of the old man who owned my home until his death. His very timely and peaceful death came after more than eight decades of life I should add. That doesn’t even fit the typical narrative of a good ghost story. And yet, that was my very first thought.
All the evidence I read which easily debunked the idea of ghosts, wasn’t enough to stop me from shuddering under my covers. My cat knew better, as he lifted his nose to the warm air coming from the ceiling vent that had just come on. Very likely causing the door to open. Which probably wasn’t latched properly.
Part of that stubbornness is baked into our brains. I spent so much time convinced of the existence of spirits that I had simply conditioned myself to think that way. And even all my reading wasn’t enough to stop that initial reaction. But it was enough to reason my way out of the irrational fear that gripped me for a minute or two.
The other part, and maybe the most important part of all, is that I really wanted to believe in ghosts. Ghosts aren’t just a way to scare ourselves silly around a campfire; they’re a way to cheat death.
If ghosts are real, it means that when our bodies give out, which we all know they will, we go on.
Ghosts meant that there was a chance that my grandmother would be waiting for me when I close my eyes for good. Maybe even the greatest cat that ever lived, my departed Charlie, would be waiting for me too.
Shattering that illusion is a tough pill to swallow if you grew up believing it. It was for me. At least for a little while.
But once I came to accept that this is very likely the only life I will have, I noticed that I was able to appreciate it that much more. I began to savor the little moments where I found happiness. The look of sheer bliss on my son’s face as he rolled his Thomas the Tank Engine around its track singing the song. The warm breeze kissing my cheek on a beach in Kauai. Or the deliciously naughty taste of a cream-filled éclair.
I found a new meaning in ghost stories themselves.
Rather than just an excuse to avoid the thought of death, ghost stories are the stories of us. They speak to our fears and anxieties about death, but also about failing to live our lives while we are on earth. Ghost stories almost always tell tales of people who are seeking closure or have regrets about they lived their lives.
Ghost stories are a reminder that our lives are here and now and we better start living.