It’s not popular anymore to believe in ghosts. To think that these kinds of things are real is old-fashioned and silly, from what I understand. I haven’t taken a poll, but I’ll bet the only people who still believe in them are the elderly and the devout.
Now, in spite of what I’ve just said I’m not sure how I feel about ghosts. I grew up indoctrinated by a religion that taught that what people thought were ghosts, or “revenants”—spirits of the dead come back to life—are actually wicked angels who are trying to trick people into believing an untruth about the supernatural world. This is of course a ridiculous answer to a question about a belief that people have held for longer than I know; a belief that when someone dies, it’s possible they aren’t gone for good. Some aspect of their person survives and can stay on Earth instead of going to wherever it is that spirits go.
Why do these ghosts come back? Well, it depends. Sometimes, I guess, they come back because they’re angry. Someone slighted them in life and they want revenge or something like that. Sometimes they come back because they’re sad. There are stories of widows who die of grief at the loss of their spouse and they show up in a certain place—their old home, or their tomb, or the place where their true love was first sparked, or the town where they lived—to continue to grieve. Other times, they might have unfinished business. There are a lot of movies that take this as the plot, and the ghost has to help someone they once loved, or save them.
Whether ghosts are good or bad, humans generally have one response to seeing them, and that’s fear. I don’t know why. Perhaps when we the living sense the uncanny it just stands our hairs on end. I don’t know if there’s an alternative answer as to why we fear ghosts. I had the impression that it’s partly because of the way they look. Either they look “dead” or something about them just isn’t right and it’s spooky. That’s what stories say, anyway. Maybe that’s why some cultures have shrines to their dead relatives, because they fear them and they don’t want them to come back and look scary as hell and mess up their lives. I’ve seen people make little shrines for their uncles or grannies or dads and give them donuts, cigarettes, coffee, rice—you name it, whatever they used to like in life, I guess.
As I said before, I’ve never believed in ghosts. Not until I saw something that made me question that.
I’ll tell you my ghost story. I don’t know if you’ll understand, but I hope maybe you will.
I was a passenger in a car. Fortunately I wasn’t driving or I might’ve crashed. The odd thing is that the driver, my friend Jordan, didn’t seen what I saw. He only saw my face and knew something was wrong. I remember exactly where I was—Prince Avenue, between Hendershot’s and The Grit, headed back through downtown Athens to Legion Pool. I wasn’t supposed to be in Athens. I left a long time ago, and I hadn’t visited in months, and I hadn’t intended on visiting when I did; it just happened. I saw what looked like her. It looked so much like her, but she wasn’t supposed to be there either. She wasn’t scary-looking like a ghost should be. She was white as snow and her thick black hair trailed behind her in the breeze. She was smiling, and her step was so light that she couldn’t have been touching the ground as she walked; she must have been floating. The strangest part was that she was with someone who was alive. I knew him because when I lived there I worked with him. He was my friend, and I had just seen him that morning. Instead of being afraid, as you’d expect someone to be while with a ghost, he seemed enchanted by her specious mirth—her narrow eyes and gaping mouth, the tips of her teeth bared—and was even talking to her as if she were not an apparition but really there. I always heard that ghosts couldn’t touch the living, but her ghost touched him, and they held hands.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a ghost yourself, or felt the feeling when you see a ghost. It’s a white-hot fear that begins in your heart and radiates in an instant to the tips of your fingers and toes. It crushes your lungs as if you were being rushed miles beneath the sea in seconds. It’s the kind of fear that can make you fall to the floor.
I felt that fear, and it still hasn’t gone.
Ghosts might seem to show up as a special warning only for you, or as a terrifying reminder of something you must do or not do, as in the case of the hungry dead relatives. The confusing thing is that when a ghost manifests itself to you for whatever reason and you see it, it may, as in the case of my ghost, take the position of complete indifference as if you are the insubstantial ghost and it is the one living out its happy, fulfilled mortal life. I think that may be what incites fear of the dead in the living, what incited that fear in me: I wasn’t sure who was the ghost, she or I.
And now, I still don’t know. It may be that not that long ago it was me who died, and she moved on, and I am just wandering about, haunting places I used to go, hoping to be seen as evidence that I am more than a ghost. But I think, more likely, that it is she who is dead. What I saw may have looked like her, but if I were to approach it, I think I would find that the soft flesh that occupied that spirit image when I knew it has since rotted in the ground, leaving a wraith behind that has forgotten me and is yet there specifically for me, to haunt me, so that I never forget what she once was to me. Maybe these are just two sides of the same coin.
Henry Grace is a writer and artist that comes from nowhere in particular, which is also to say he comes from everywhere. His current home is Hawai‘i, and he will probably stay there forever because he likes the land and the people. He maintains a fiction blog at henrygrace.com. His contribution, On Ghosts, is written after an experience he had in Athens, Georgia, where he attended the graduate program in comparative literature he dropped out of.