On Ghosts (Halloween 2016)
This blog is shiny and new, and I’m already behind in my ramblings. Fortunately, my one day delay places this post on All Hallow’s Eve, that day whose night invites the veil between the living and the dead to lift and shimmer above a steady stream of spooks and sweets. So we’ll keep with the theme and ramble on ghosts, which we’ll keep incredibly subjective and ahistorical, so you have my apologies in advance.
Despite the increasingly secular nature of our world (to use two problematic terms right off the bat), ghosts refuse to fade. There’s something about them that’s at once dreadful and reassuring, something that’s simultaneously self and other. Ghosts provide an obvious memento mori that bring into focus that ever-looming threat of death, which makes most of us squirm and shiver, but ghosts also serve as a sort of theological echo—a promise of something more than becoming tree-food waiting for us after death.
And yet, that echo doesn’t cater to ideas of ultimate reward or punishment, heaven or hell, as it were, and in this respect it’s important to clarify that ghosts aren’t representations of the afterlife and of death so much as they are a hybridization of the two. In this, every effort the generic ghost makes to transmit the positive qualities of life onto death is met in equal measure with efforts in favor of the reverse.
The interplay of life and death within the ghost evokes the sense something overtly familiar, yet by all means the ghost—manifestly—is unlike anything we have or can encounter in this life. The familiarity ensues exactly because of that interplay of life and death, for we (as humans) enact that interplay in a less-poeticized manner. We live and we die, and as our understanding of organic life matures, death becomes less of an end-point to us than it is a part of life as a process (in that death is hardwired into us and develops within us regardless of how it ultimately is brought to fruition).
The ghost, then, moves beyond a hybridization borne of duality and into something that is not unlike the Christian concept of the Trinity. Death and life remain present, but a new figure is added to this makeshift godhead: the human individual. Death, life, and the individual present a consubstantiality; the three faces are conceptualized separately, as we are here enacting, but in facing the ghost—in imagining such a confrontation with the unapproachable—there arises a primal recognition that those three faces are identical, and in this the ghost establishes itself as an uncanny presence, something that is immediately familiar, and so comforting, but repulsive in that it is a lump-sum realization of human existence, which doesn’t trivialize life so much as it places it on a broader temporal scale, not unlike viewing pictures of the Earth, floating hopelessly in the dark depths of space, presented to scale alongside the sun. In this, our recognition of ourselves in the ghost figure diminishes our conception self, because an urgent desire to disentangle death from our self-conception is (so often) molded into casual societal discourse.
By evoking the ghost, we place ourselves in a sort of afterlife. That is to say, by existing alongside ghosts, not necessarily as real happenings but as lateral conceptual acknowledgements of the echoes left by the dead on all tiers of history (from personal historical spheres to societal historical spheres), we exist on a post-death plane of existence. Our afterlife is conceptual, and is therefore forever bound to the inescapably intrinsic nature of death-in-life.
When I was a kid, I used to believe there was a ghost that lived in the guest room next to the room my brother and I shared. While my parents entertained occasionally and threw parties now and then, we rarely had visitors that would stay the night, so the room was consistently vacant. My first impressions of this ghost came one night when—on my way back from the kitchen, heading down the hall to my room—I spotted a shadow that wasn’t mine. It darted from behind me, running along the wall, and passed me. I eventually made my way forward, and we’ll pretend I did so very bravely. I was worried that it had beat me to my destination and gotten my brother… or, worse, inhabited my bed… but as I neared my room, I realized the door to the guest room, which we typically kept closed, was wide open. The room was nigh impenetrable, dark as it was, and instantly my childheart knew that the shadow wasn’t racing me to my room, it was returning to its own abode. I told my brother, younger than I, and though I’m sure he first dismissed me as a crazy person, the mythos of the Shadowman began to grow in us and we gave the guest room a wide berth anytime after sunset.
Neither of us believed in ghosts. Not really. And I don’t think of us ever really believed in our Shadowman either. There were no such things as ghosts, after all. But every night, walking past that room, the fear was real, even if the Shadowman wasn’t, which means—I suppose—that a thing doesn’t necessarily have to exist to make its mark upon the world.
Anyhow, that’s about it for this ramble. I hope you’ve enjoyed this Halloween special, as there’s nothing more horrifying than a blatant misapplication of theory. OoOoOoOoOoH!