I write about ghosts, so people often ask me if I believe in them.
Of course I believe in ghosts. My real life experience with them is limited, I think, because I want it to be. Even though the one compelling experience I’ve had was pleasant and benign—a smiling, elderly man in a rumpled brown suit who nodded to me in an old house located on the campus of a historic boarding school—I don’t spend much time looking for ghosts. They are too unpredictable.
I believe in ghosts because I think that the spark of life, or soul, inside each of us is too strong to truly die. I have no proof of this, but I figure that there’s no problem with believing it because there are no repercussions in disbelieving it. (It’s a little like Pascal’s Wager, though the stakes aren’t anywhere near as high.) So often ghosts are equated with evil, though I imagine that ghosts are little different from the people that they were in life: If their hearts were dark and their motivations impure when they lived, they’ll be no different after death. But how much worse might they be, unhampered by the filters we put on our human selves for community’s sake?
Some of my favorite ghost stories are Kaidan, or Japanese ghost stories, from the Edo period (1615-1868). The vast majority of Kaidan are horrific. The ghosts had tragic human lives, or were victims of some crime, or were filled with sadness and disappointment. They’re often looking for revenge, and their presence is one of overwhelming despair, dread, and suffering. They reach out for the living, jealous of the fact that they might be happy, to cause the living pain, or even try to take their lives. In Kaidan stories, the living rarely seek out these ghosts. Really, who would want to?
In contemporary western films and stories, and even in real life, there are people who seek the company of the dead. They poke, curious, at the veil between death and life. But I wonder sometimes what might happen if that veil can’t be replaced once it’s been lifted. We imagine that we are terribly in control of our lives, and in control of our surroundings—but surely we are not in control of the dead.
Do I sound superstitious? Ridiculous, perhaps? Maybe it’s a symptom of my overactive imagination, or even my intuition, which works overtime. Still, I believe.
While I’m a believer in ghosts, I am also a romantic. I think good survives the boundaries of death as well, because it’s just as strong a force as evil and unhappiness. It lives in the sunlight in the same way it shines out of living people I know. Goodness doesn’t get nearly the press that evil gets, unfortunately. They’re both powerful human qualities, but goodness doesn’t make much of itself because it’s content in the way happy people are often creatures of quiet contentment. If I were to go ghost hunting, those are the sorts of ghosts I’d want to connect with—ghosts that are just hanging around being happy. Or encouraging and kind.
In my own work I try to honor the balance between them, and let each of them have their say. But—good or bad—I don’t want to see any sort of ghosts in action in my actual life. I prefer them on the page. I want to exercise control, and to have their unpredictability be just unpredictable enough to be frightening, but not paralyzing. I want the goodness to be true, but not overly sentimental.
Would you want to meet, or have you met any ghosts? I wonder…
***The opening image is called Female Ghost, by Kawanabe Kyōsai, 1831-1889. Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper. Cincinnati Art Museum. (Female Japanese ghosts traditionally wear a white burial kimono, have messy black hair, and deathly white skin.)