True to the title of my piece, this is not a horror story. Although, what I see now that I didn’t see when things like this happened was just how much my friend and I wanted it to be a horror story, how much we enacted the things that we read in our Fear Street books and our horror movies, and made the world of horror come alive, if, simultaneously, to our delight and our chagrin. Again, this is not a horror story. This is a childhood memory – a childhood memory I share on an overcast day in early November, when my frenetic, two-and-a-half-month mania has dwindled and I’ve suddenly fallen into this shifting state that fluctuates between focused, positive energy and complete depression and self-loathing. This is not a horror story—at least, I hadn’t intended it to be so. But, maybe it will turn out that way as I keep writing. One never can predict the end of the story, after all—or, at least, I can’t—when one’s merely writing the beginning.
Lisa (I’ve changed her name) and I were swimming in my family’s backyard four-foot deep swimming pool on one warm Sunday night in July. We were probably in early middle school—say, in sixth grade, maybe seventh—and we loved that pool in the summer, although speaking for myself, I always just loved the water. We’d create competitive games in the pool and act out faux commercials on the deck and make water dances, and then, since the neighbors were relatively nonchalant about this sort of thing, we’d swim late into the night, long past sundown, having contests to see who could hold their breath the longest underwater, or racing back and forth doing laps, before getting out of the water, putting the cover on the pool, and drying off for the night—a point at which we’d go inside, and play board game after board game or watch scary movies. Now I’ve said a few times that this is not a horror story—and, I repeat, it’s not—but one night does stand out to me as an evening in, perhaps, mid-July, that was, well, just a little bit different.
We were having one of our multifarious competitions, this one to see who could hold her breath the longest. I loved going under water at night, lapsing from darkness into a darker darkness, into the depth of a swimming pool that seemed a little like the ocean floor, but with wrinkly vinyl lining, on those summer evenings. But when I popped up from my immersion, breathless and feeling victorious – Lisa was already above water – I noticed that her eyes were fixed on the backside of my house, although for myself, I could see nothing. Is she scared, or is she faking? I asked myself. Is something wrong, or is she being dramatic? I mean, Lisa looked scared, but maybe she looked a little too scared, like she was trying to give the appearance of being afraid. I wasn’t sure.
As it turns out, Lisa was certain—she emphasized, absolutely certain – that she saw the outline of a blue man, a sort of ghost creature, on the side of the house. We continued to play in the pool, Lisa lapsing in and out of her fear, me staring fixedly at the point Lisa was looking at, trying to discern the elusive blue man for myself. I imagined he looked a little like a hooded ghost I was particularly afraid of in Super Mario Brothers, and I imagined the outline of a malicious blue hooded ghost stuck to the side of my house. Is he moving? I asked Lisa. No, no he’s not moving, she said. He just sat there, perfectly still. Or so she claimed.
And what occurs to me—what emerges from this story—is how much I wanted to see the blue man, whether or not Lisa actually saw anything—and, after all, who’s to say she didn’t? To be fair, there was always a bit of ambivalence, in my mind, regarding the ghost, the so-called specter, and it’s an ambivalence that’s followed me into adulthood. Part of my wanted so much to see the outline, to know that traces from the past, from times long gone, could linger and populate the otherwise sometimes seemingly dull, dead air around me. It would be like standing in the presence of a time capsule—a capsule encapsulated, encapsulated in the body of a person—like one of the old-timey, black and white photographs from my grandma’s basement had come to life and was lingering off in the distance, mixing its time with my time. I loved the anachronistic possibilities of the ghost, in other words, long before I knew what the word anachronistic meant. And I imagine I’m not alone in this fascination, in my understanding of this “essence” of the specter. Ask anyone who’s been to Gettysburg, a town that makes thousands of dollars off the house of a woman who died of a rogue bullet through the window during the Civil War (the Jenny Wade House, complete with ghost tours), not to mention the simultaneous commemoration and marketing of the deaths of hundreds of soldiers dead and gone, a town that, for tourist purposes, strategically mixes actual, documented history with an imagined past that exists in present day, so that one past seems tangible as another veritably springs up around the tourist.
But even though I couldn’t see the blue, translucent ghost – is that how Lisa described it, or is that just how I imagined it – I could, in a way, sense its presence. I lived vicariously through Lisa, experienced what she said she experienced, and experienced the specter in my imagination. I just read an essay in a journal called Modernism/Modernity about the splitting of the conscience involved in religious rejection in Modernism, and particularly in the works of Virginia Woolf. Characters’ access to the “religious,” so called, was through the (rejected) experience of another person, a phenomenon that, according to the author, created Woolf’s particular brand of secularism. As it turns out, my experience of the supernatural, that evening, was through my own splitting consciousness, through the experience of my then-best friend. But I didn’t reject her experience, at least not wholly. Indeed, a large part of me clung to it, embraced it, immersed myself in it.
When we entered the house that night to play board games, we were sure we heard noises emanating from the basement. We lived, the entire night, under the presence of that specter, as he slithered in and out of our psyche during our other revelries, and for all I know, in and out of Lisa’s field of vision. He was present in every thump from downstairs, and probably especially those produced by the cat. Cat knocks something over? Ghost. Cat’s acting a little weird, running out of the room for no reason? Ghost. But then, maybe—if I recall correctly—there were weird noises that couldn’t be explained coming from the basement that night. When Lisa and I set up board games around the house, so we could move seamlessly from one board game to another, a weird habit that we delighted in, maybe the pieces did move a little bit. Maybe something really was wrong with the clocks, and it wasn’t just our imagination. One never can tell. And that’s what’s so delightful, so delicious about the specter; perhaps the presence of the spiritual world has never been entirely proven, but what would be the intrigue if it were? It’s the ellipses inherent in the supernatural, I think, that’s always made it appealing to me—its technical possibility despite its absence of physical manifestation, like ghosts are less powerful gods roaming the contemporary landscape, reminding us of times that are as dead as they are. Death. As Derrida says, ghosts disrupt the binary between life and death, but they do so in a way that seems a big magical, mysterious, infinitely alluring. The disruption between life and death, between the past and present, never seemed formidable or threatening, at least not severely, when I contemplated the ghost (well, except maybe for the horrifying Bloody Mary). My imagined encounter was always partially horrific, but partially like finding a rare, dusty relic in an attic, something really unique, really antique and cool.
I’m not sure what it says about me as a child; in elementary school, while other girls were dressing Barbie Dolls, I was making up ghost stories with my friends. And by middle school I was hooked. I suppose it doesn’t much matter though, what the significance of the addiction was or is. Ghost-hunting, ghost-“playing,” became an active element of sleepovers with a lot of my friends. It became a part of me, though one, perhaps, that I forgot about as the years lapsed, as life happened, which it always does.
And I don’t much hold my breath anymore, the way I used to, when I contemplate seeing the ghost. I doubt it will happen to me in my lifetime, and I doubt I’d want it to. I mean, sure, it’s cool to see a ghost, but who wants to be a specter anyway, this walking, Jacob Marley-esque alive in death being, maybe a guy with chains and an angsty moan, surrounded by puffs of dust, banished to an in-between life on earth when you could be floating in peaceful oblivion, experiencing some sort of divine rapture, or doing whatever else it is we might do after death? Seeing a ghost from an adult perspective, while terrifying, could also be rather sad, depending on one’s experience and viewpoint.
And yet, it’s fun to remember, to recall those long summer nights of play, of reckless, unapologetic indulgence into a world that my friends and I could create, without fully understanding. To recall taking death and darkness and making it, well, not so dark—making it sort of magical. And maybe that was always the big appeal, with me, of the specter. I hated the thoughts of death, dying, and eternity from a young age. Maybe, through the specter, I could deal with those realities in a healthy way, and in a way that seemed a little scary, but not incredibly threatening.
This is not a horror story. Perhaps it could have been, if I were a different sort of writer. Alas, like so many other things on my blog, my piece is merely this: part speculation, and part memory. And perhaps that’s what the ghost is—an amalgam of consciousness (speculation) and memory. Perhaps these essays are specters, ghosts themselves, situated between the past and the present—and thus, thus partially dead, even as they exist in the moment.