My novel DARLING will be released by Bad Moon Books on October 26th. To celebrate, I’m posting a series exploring some of the mythology that inspired the book. This is an old post, but since it deals with one of the core concepts of the book I thought I’d do a little re-purposing. To learn more about DARLING, check out it’s page here or visit the Bad Moon Books site. You can also find a preview of the novel here.
Check out Part 1 of the series, “Black Hounds.”
A GHOST STORY FOR HALLOWEEN
I don’t believe in UFO’s. In fact, the whole idea of “Ancient Astronauts” being responsible for the pyramids and any other great achievement of ancient man offends me as an amateur historian and a human being.
I think psychics and mediums are frauds and scam artists. I think these people are the lowest of the low, using illusion and parlor tricks to prey on people in pain.
Loch Ness is empty of anything larger than an old truck tire and crop circles are, without a doubt, elaborate hoaxes. “Ghost Hunters” is, quite possibly, the most bullshit laden program I’ve ever sat through. I doubt most ghost stories that people tell me, understanding as a writer both how imaginative people can be and how fallible our senses (and our minds) are. I am, in short, a skeptic.
But I do believe in ghosts.
An odd contradiction to be sure, but there is something about the idea of ghosts that clicks in my lizard brain, something about the fact that it’s a shared phenomenon across every culture with little deviation from the idea of what they are and how they behave. Leprechauns are strictly Irish, penanggalan strictly South East Asian, yet ghost stories permeate every single culture that has ever existed on planet Earth.
Growing up in the foothills of Appalachia, you tend to develop a peculiar taste for ghost stories. There’s a definite cultural aspect to it, generations of Scottish and Irish immigrants bringing tales of black hounds howling along windswept moors and phantom highwayman stalking the crossroads at night into the storytelling atmosphere that pervades the South. Surely there’s a geographic element to it. How can anyone live amidst those dark, ancient mountains on streets named for long dead Cherokee and Creek chieftains and not feel like something stands at the foot of their bed at night?
But I still think most people who do think they saw something at the foot of their bed did not. Maybe I’m an asshole like that, but to me the mark of intelligence is a combination of keeping an open mind while applying logic and a healthy dose of doubt.
Webster has a couple of interesting definitions for the word “skeptic.”
The two definitions I like are:
*a person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual
*a member of a philosophical school of ancient Greece,the earliest group of which consisted of Pyrrho and his followers, who maintained that true knowledge of things is impossible
Those two definitions perfectly encapsulate how I view “otherworldly” phenomenon. I question stories of encounters with anything that could be deemed supernatural, yet, like Pyrrho, don’t think that science is able to attain all the answers.
Besides, as Tom Naughton marvelously demonstrates time and again while tearing apart Bad Science on his site, FatHead, scientists are not infallible and, more often than not, are dependent on funds from institutions that don’t take kindly to rocking the status quo. Christ, they’re still telling us to eat a low-fat diet, even though all of the Good Science shows that the diet they advocate keeps us fat, gives us diabetes and heart disease, and is linked to several types of cancer. Naughton pointed me to a great article the Atlantic ran recently about a doctor who, after examining how the past ninety years of medical studies were conducted and how the research was interpreted, estimated that as much as 90% of the information that doctors rely on in treating illnesses and serious conditions is incorrect. If you read enough about how scientific studies are conducted and the politics that permeate the research field, you’ll inevitably cock an eyebrow at most research and be – guess what? – a skeptic. Remember the first definition of a skeptic: A person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual.
Just as most scientists involved in medical research would never risk the funding that the American Cereal Council and Pfizer give them to conduct their horribly flawed and ridiculously biased studies, no scientist would ever be foolish enough to pursue proof of ghosts. Even if such proof could be found.
Which, again, I don’t believe is possible.
I know. I’m weird. Stay with me here.
The rational part of my mind finds every nugget of evidence against the existence of ghostly phenomenon. But so many stories by so many people over so many years leaves just the right amount of doubt. It’s something that must be experienced to believe, much like a run of the mill headache. Serious conditions aside, there is no test that can be taken, no scientific evidence existing that can prove someone is experiencing a normal headache. Yet if someone says they are, we have no choice but to take them at their word. The same goes for love. The most jaded among us doubt its existence but if you’ve experienced it, whether toward a spouse or a child, you know it’s real.
So when someone says they’ve had an experience…
Well, it’s easy to discount them in the light of day. But even the most rational of us have had times at night, all by their lonesome, where they just know that they are not alone.
Great fodder for stories, if nothing else.
My family was always a great repository for supposedly true brushes with the other side. There was the headless railroad worker, for instance, that was seen standing at the end of the sidewalk. Or the dark shape tickling my cousin Tony’s feet in the night. Folklore and nightmares, one would think. I certainly do.
But then there are other stories.
My mother died within weeks of giving birth to me. Her mother and father raised me, two great people who had already paid their dues by seeing their own four children into adulthood. My grandmother swears that the following is true. She was cleaning the bathroom one day when my four-year old self waddled in needing to take care of a little business. Not wanting to lose her momentum, she sent me to the tiny bathroom in her bedroom. I don’t remember any of this, by the way, but I don’t remember much of anything as a four year old. Anyway, I came back into the bathroom in a few minutes and said “I don’t wanna use that bathroom anymore.”
“There was a woman in there.”
She sat down the Clorox. “What do you mean?”
“There was a woman in there and she said that she loved me.”
My grandmother, fearing that someone had gotten into the house, rushed across the hall into the bathroom. It was empty, though the air was thick with the smell of flowers.
Ghostly encounter? Or just a child’s odd non-sequitur? Who can say? My grandmother certainly believes it was my mother.
But my grandmother was also in pain, nursing a wound that would never heal, and certainly wanted to believe.
It’s difficult not to go spinning around in circles with stories like this.
I’ve had some odd experiences myself. Again, I hesitate to say that they were definitely “hauntings,” but they were certainly strange. In that house I would sometimes hear footsteps upstairs when no one was home. There was also the winter that the power went out and my friend Keith and I were the only ones at home, cooking chili over a fire burning in the fireplace. We both heard the kitchen cabinets open, dishes rattle like someone was looking for a plate, and the cabinets slam shut. Being the dead of winter with snow on the ground and no electricity, there were no windows open and the doors were all locked.
But I was young when these things happened and the intervening years have dulled the experiences, have made me wonder what clues I missed at the time that might offer a rational explanation.
It’s the recent ones that make me keep an open mind.
In 2008, we were at a bed and breakfast in Naples. We had spent the day at the ruins of Pompeii and had just returned as the sun was setting. We were the only ones at the bed and breakfast and sat on the patio discussing our day and where in Italy we wished to go next.
As I laughed to my wife, I noticed that someone had returned to the B&B. A man in a white shirt walked through the dark living room, disappearing behind a divider. I turned to look into the kitchen, the only place where he could have gone, to see who had come back.
No one ever entered the kitchen.
Confused, I stood and walked into the living room.
The lights turned on.
I had forgotten that the lights were on a motion sensor. The second I walked into the room, they flared to life.
Yet the man that I had seen pass through the room, the man who seemed to vanish into thin air, had somehow avoided triggering the motion sensor.
It was only after several minutes of searching for who had come back that the word “ghost” slipped into my brain. Until then, I thought another tenant had returned, that a flesh and blood man was in the bed and breakfast. It’s this part specifically that makes me know I saw something, the fact that I didn’t “see a ghost” but saw a man who, only in retrospect, could I even begin to think of as a phantom. And even now, I’m still not positive I saw a ghost. It was a man. I know it was.
But what I don’t know is how he could avoid setting off that motion sensor or how he vanished between the living room and the kitchen.
The only supposedly rational explanation is that it was a hallucination. Yet I wasn’t on any medication or taking any drugs. I haven’t had hallucinations before or since. So would a hallucination truly be a “rational” explanation? There’s just as much proof that I was hallucinating as there is that a dead man walked through the room. But to those with rigid minds, those people frightened of exploring the possibility that what they believe about the world isn’t one hundred percent accurate, the hallucination theory is very comforting, even though there is absolutely zero evidence to support it.
And, when talking about Good Science, we require evidence.
Using the principle of Occam’s Razor, I can only be left with the fact that I saw something. Whether it was a ghost or some kind of environmental recording or one of my fellow tenants practicing his Criss Angel routine, I saw it. It was there. Of that I have no doubt.
I had another strange experience a few years earlier. This one, again, was not something I can definitely say was a haunting, but I can say it was mysterious and strange and scared the hell out of me.
I was working at a now-defunct post-production facility in West Hollywood. The company was in the old EMI records building where The Doors, Janice Joplin, and a host of other legends had recorded. Everyone said that the building was haunted, but it just seemed like one of those stories that gets around in Hollywood. Everyone wants to have some brush with the rich and famous, after all, even if they’re dead. So I shrugged it off, especially as no one could really produce a story of any occurrence.
To get a little extra money, I would pull overtime by working security on the weekends, four to midnight. The building was a little creepy after the sun went down and everyone went home, but that was more psychological than anything.
And then one night, a few months into the gig, the phone rings. I think nothing of it and answer the phone. No one says anything. I look down at the switchboard and the call is coming from the machine room- INSIDE THE BUILDING.
I know, sounds like that babysitter story. It’s not.
I punch up that room on the security monitor. No one’s in there. Wondering if some homeless person had somehow gotten past the alarm and into the building, I grab a MagLite and head straight to the machine room. It’s empty. I search the rest of the building, checking all of the doors. Locked. I check all of the security alarms. Yep, still armed.
Must have been a glitch, I tell myself, and head back to the desk.
A few minutes later, the phone rings again. This time the switchboard tells me it’s coming from the cafeteria, right next to the machine room. Again, I answer. Again, no one is there. I go through the same procedure, punching it up on the monitor before checking that room and the rest of the building again. I was the only person inside those walls.
More time passes and I receive another phone call. It’s from an office down the hall from the cafeteria. The next call is from another office, a little closer to the lobby where I’m sitting. This continues, like one of Richard Matheson’s “Twilight Zone” scripts, each phone call coming from a phone a little closer to me.
The final call, the one that made the hairs on my arm stand up and my heart pound so hard that I thought it was going to burst from my chest and scurry across the floor on little artery-legs like Bottin’s creatures from “The Thing,” came at around 11:50pm. My shift was almost over when the switchboard lit up once again and the shrill ring almost shook the phone from its nook. I looked at the board and saw where the call was coming from.
This is what freaks me out about the situation. I’m a strong man. I’ve fought amateur boxing and MMA matches. I bounced for years. I was armed with a MagLite that could crack a skull open like an over-ripe fruit. The idea of someone in the building somehow eluding me did not frighten me one bit. In a twisted way, I’m sure that I hoped someone was in the building.
But when the switchboard said that the call came from the client phone on the other side of the lobby, a phone that I could see without the aid of a monitor, a phone sitting on a desk only six feet from me, the irrational gripped me with icy fingers.
It wasn’t long until the night watchman came to relieve me. I gladly stepped out those doors and climbed into my car. I didn’t tell him what had happened, as I wasn’t quite sure myself. The next time I spoke to him I mentioned that the phone was giving me trouble. He thought that was strange, as it didn’t ring once during his entire shift.
Nothing else strange ever happened in that building.
I’m not saying it was a ghost. I don’t know what I’m saying. I just thought I’d share it with you. ‘Tis the season, after all.
Do you have any strange experiences? Please post them below.
Brad C. Hodson is a writer living in Los Angeles. His stories have appeared in anthologies alongside Neil Gaiman, Chuck Palahniuk, George RR Martin, and many more of his literary heroes. For a listing of his literary and film work, please check out his Bibliography at http://brad-hodson.com/bibliography/