My elementary school was a place that thought nothing of throwing children out into the schoolyard for a wild 45 minutes of unsupervised daily activity. The playground was filled with proper danger—a real merry–go–round, an honest–to–god see–saw, and the infamous monkey bars from which, at least once a year, some lucky child fell and came to school the next day with a plaster cast and the smug smile of knowing their books would be carried for the next six weeks.
It also had a wide, wide field bordered by a chain link fence holding back a spit of woods that, to an eight–year–old, seemed vast and dark. On particularly brave days my two best friends and I would creep closer and closer to the fence, egging each other on with false bravado. Because, you see, a ghost lived in the woods. The story: an unwed, teenaged mother took a bad dose of acid and walked off the edge of the building with her baby, and now walked the woods holding the bloody bundle. If you listened carefully, you could hear her crying. But you had to be close.
As an eight–year–old, there was a lot about that story I didn’t understand. None of that mattered as we crept closer to the fence, whispering, “Did you hear that? Can you see anything?” Inevitably, someone would spook and we’d all run hell–bent–for–leather back to the safe chaos of our classmates. Until the next time we got brave.
Everyone has a ghost story. It might be a schoolyard tale whispered under the slide, or that time your dog howled before you found out your grandmother died. It might not even be your story, but an urban myth that made you scared to drive down the lane, walk past that house, or look in the mirror in candlelight. The point is, we all have stories that have crawled into the deepest parts of us and never let go. If you’re very lucky, this happens when you’re young, before you’ve thrown up your defenses of cynicism and doubt.
Some stories are universal, variations on a theme that act as modern day fairy tales—warning us against irresponsible behavior or sexual “deviancy.” What is the Bloody Hook story—where teenagers on Lovers Lane rush home after hearing of an escaped, hook–handed serial killer only to discover a bloody hook hanging from their car door—other than a cautionary tale against teenaged sexual experimentation? My own childhood ghost story, assuredly handed down by an older sibling, is pretty easy to parse. After all it was the 1970s: there was nothing more horrifying in white suburbia in the 1970s than an unwed, pregnant teenage girl on drugs. But none of that mattered to eight–year–old me. I hadn’t yet built any walls of cynicism. All I knew was every few weeks, we would gather our courage, hold hands, and creep closer to the fence. Maybe the story wasn’t true, we told ourselves. Maybe there wasn’t a ghost walking through the woods. But what if there was? It was scary and unknown and the very idea of it thrilled us to our toes.
Some of us grow up and assume we have put such childish things behind us. We turn toward logic and pragmatism, read good works and Jonathan Franzen, and believe only what our own eyes and Fox News tell us. Others never feel as though we have truly outgrown the ghost story. We may logically understand the origins, the intellectual root, of the things that scare us, but like a junkie, it doesn’t stop us from looking for that next hit. We devour books, movies, and every television show with a supernatural element, always seeking out that little shiver of the unknown. It’s an addiction fueled by an adrenaline rush of the fight–or–flight syndrome and the delicious temptation of possibility. What if the story is true? What if the ghost is real? What if…
I’d also argue leaving yourself open to a little spookiness is a curiously optimistic and wishful way of looking at the world. Arguably, people addicted to stories that deal with the very worst we can imagine are bleak souls, but they can also provide a hopeful, naïve comfort. When real life seems beyond comprehension, a fantasy of supernatural intervention seems like an absolutely plausible way of explaining the inexplicable. I mean, what makes more sense—Old Scratch coming to collect his due for financial success, or a presidential candidate seriously advocating kicking thousands of people out of their adopted country and building a wall behind them? We need to step away from fantasy and deal practically with the worst of humanity, but pragmatism is exhausting. Losing ourselves, even temporarily, in the comfort of a good supernatural story can provide a mental life raft in a world gone mad.
Every neighborhood has That House. The one with an overgrown yard that stayed dark on Halloween. The one you walked past just a little faster, the hair on your neck standing up as you imagined eyes following you from behind closed curtains. Sometimes a witch lived in the house, sometimes a demon. In our neighborhood That House had a witch who kept the bones of her children in the basement. Stories were passed from neighborhood child to neighborhood child. “Don’t go there, it’s haunted,” they’d say. Our parents shushed us and told us not to spread gossip but we knew better. The bolder ones would dare each other to walk past at dusk or corn the windows on Mischief Night. (I’m told this is a very regional tradition of throwing handfuls of dried corn at people’s windows on October 30th. It causes no damage to the window but scares the devil out of you if you don’t know its coming!) Most of the time That House simply contains a lonely, elderly person who doesn’t deserve the ire. History is filled with old women, in particular, who are cast into the role of villain simply for being out of step with their community.
But sometimes those stories have a kernel of truth. In our neighborhood the witch also had a grown son living in the house. A son who was later convicted of child molestation. I never knew who first came up with the story of our neighborhood witch. It seemed like it had been around forever, but when you’re young everything seems ancient. Maybe it was a victim, maybe it was someone who knew someone who had been harmed. Again, 1970s suburbia just didn’t talk about such things, but it could talk about a witch with a secret.
Perhaps this need to give evil parameters is why we embrace the supernatural with such abandon. It’s as good a reason as any to explain the modern phenomenon of the Halloween Store, a seasonal wraith that slips into empty storefronts in the US like some sort of magical carnival of the macabre. No longer a childhood holiday, Halloween, with all its trappings, is second only to Christmas in retail power. The National Retail Foundation estimated Americans will have spent approximately 7 billion dollars on Halloween this year. 7 billion dollars. And that’s just on costumes, candy, and rubber zombies for the front yard. Add in the revenue from books, movies, and television, and you have a lot of people who are chasing that uncanny thrill of “What if?”
I’m not immune. When I was 26, a co–worker lucked into last–minute tickets for a Broadway show. It was in the middle of July. We cancelled everything and made spur–of–the–moment plans to spend the weekend in New York after I found a reasonable hotel within walking distance of the theater. When we arrived, I was handed an envelope, marked with my name and arrival date, which had been left for me at the front desk. Inside was an unsigned note with the message, “Meet me at Sardi’s at midnight.” I immediately called my boyfriend (now husband) to see if he was planning a surprise visit. He was just as perplexed as I was by the message, so I asked the front desk clerk if he had any other information about who delivered the envelope. He looked but said he could only tell me that the envelope had been delivered to the hotel with the instructions to hold it until this date. I asked when it had been delivered and he said March 14, more than four months before we got the tickets.
Did I go to Sardi’s at midnight? Of course I did. But when we arrived, we discovered Sardi’s was boarded up and had been under renovation for nearly a year. To this day, I have no idea where the note came from. I can’t even parse a logical explanation for its delivery. But that’s okay. Because everyone has a ghost story and this is mine.
The nights are getting longer as the end of the year closes in upon us. The wall between our daily lives filled with endless to–do lists and the Other seems a little thinner. It’s the perfect time to remember your ghost story. It’s the perfect time to close your eyes and, just for a moment, imagine “What if?”
© 2015 by Deborah Stanish