“That’s a Man Standing There Solid As Me” – Some Reflections on the Nature of Ghosts

For a moment leave aside whether you believe or disbelieve in the existence of ghosts. Would you know one if you saw it?

Once, I would have said yes. I would have had a picture in mind of a spectral figure — the familiar trope of popular media — or perhaps an orb, a shadowy shape, or some kind of purposeful, unseen force. However, there is a much deeper history to the ghost (a secret history, in fact, as Claude Lecouteux’s work points out), and one that ties it to our concepts of life, death, and our relationships with the social order and the natural world around us. And these days, although some of the details of my conceptions may remain the same, the simple associations I had given to ghostly phenomena have been erased from my mind by a brief conversation and some deep reading.

This transition began one night when I met a man named Preston. I encountered him in an alleyway as he was walking home from work. (This is a true story, by the way.) After some hellos and a polite introduction, he asked me what I did. I paused, considered the ramifications of revealing my obscure interests to a random stranger in an alley in the hyper-charged religious atmosphere of the Deep South, and finally said:

“I write about … weird things.”

“Oh, like what?” he asked.

“Well, peoples’ belief in the supernatural,” I explained with care. “How stories of the supernatural affect our sense of self.”

Much to my surprise, he didn’t flinch. Instead, he nodded thoughtfully and said, “I believe in the unknown, because to me, not to believe in the unknown is not to believe in God. I can’t see him, neither, but I know he’s there, and I can see him working.”

I nodded, smiling to myself, as his attitude illustrated one of the propaganda aims of the early Society for Psychical Research. Proving anomalous experience is one way to shake things up for the secular materialists.

“Now, some people are afraid of ghosts,” he continued. “They don’t like to talk about them none. I tell them, ‘Now I believe in the Lord too strong to be worried about any of that.’ I believe in ghosts because my daddy believed in them. He was born with a veil over his face. They say folks born like that can see things. He used to heal kids with the thrush.”

This knocked my sagacious smile askew. “Your dad was born with a caul?” I asked with the naïve excitement available only to a folklorist meeting in real life what had formerly remained firmly rooted in dusty books and pedantic studies. (A caul, as you may know, is a piece of the birth membrane that can cover a newborn’s head and face. Throughout history it has been popularly associated with magical and paranormal phenomena, and has often been taken as a sign that a child will have special abilities.)

“Yeah,” he said, “some people call it that.” He then proceeded to recount a number of stories about encountering “ghosts” with his father. But these were not the ghosts that I would normally have though of. Some of them, for instance, were solid, as in his recollection of a “ghost” they met while waiting for a bus:

“One time we was at the bus stop, and he tells me ‘Look over there,’ pointing to a man standing across the street at the other bus stop. He was standing with his back turned to us so you couldn’t see his face. My daddy said, ‘That’s a ghost.’ And I said, ‘Now how in the world can that be a ghost? That’s a man standing there solid as me.’ He said, ‘Nah, that’s a ghost. You ain’t never gonna see his face. Watch.’ So we did. We sat there until our bus come. Whole time the man just stands there with his back to us. My daddy, he said, ‘Now wait, we’ll let this one pass, we’re going to sit here until his bus come.’ So we did, we sat there until his bus come, and still that man never did turn or move. My daddy say, ‘Now watch … ‘ The lights inside the bus was bright, you know, and I watched, but I never seen him get on the bus. When it drove away, he was gone.  Now, I tell you, I ain’t seen him get on, but he was gone when it left.”

It was upon hearing this that I realized just how far popular and academic media had separated me from nearly every traditional tale of the “Other World” that I had ever heard or read. How many urban legends deal with very solid figures that are only later revealed to have origins other than the waking world? What exactly is a ghost in this sense? And what does it mean to encounter one?

Of course there was the immediate and automatic response of psychologizing, the justifying in my mind of Preston’s experience against all the rational explanations for his belief. But this slowly gave way other thoughts. “Well,” I reflected, “at face value … how many of these ghosts might I have seen myself, if I knew how to look?”

The whole thing quickly became a sort of thought experiment. How would I know a ghost of this sort if I saw one? How many ghosts have I already encountered, if they can appear as normal as a man at a bus stop whose only definitive feature is that he never turns around? If I don’t stay to watch him get on the bus, how will I know if he did or didn’t? Given all of the people that we encounter on a day-to-day basis, who could really say if any given stranger is really alive in the sense that we normally associate with living? Perhaps anyone we encounter could be a ghost wandering “in between the gardens,” as they say in Galicia.

Most importantly, how does understanding a ghost in this broader sense lead to a different understanding of our relationship to the people around us? Here the ghost becomes a messenger for something more. In the situation at the bus stop, for instance, the ghost is defined by its anonymity. In never revealing its face, the ghost is a stranger marking an important lesson in social relationships and observation as taught by a father, born with a caul, to his son who is not graced with second sight.

With as much folklore as I had digested, it was a strange experience for me to stand there with Preston and begin reprocessing all of those associations and realizing that I had always had in my mind the resources to explore such issues at greater length. However, due to the influence of dismissive secondary sources, popular media, and a generally skeptical social narrative, all of that had been left unattended in my thoughts. This lack of attention had cheapened a wealth of material that articulates subtle meanings forming the core of our daily lives. My encounters with scholarly accounts of folklore had created an intellectualized distance towards the stories themselves, as well as a distrust of those who tell them. It’s not often that I come across a work that holds all the rigor of classic scholarship while still breathing with more than a wheezing acquiescence to fragile assumptions about a subject matter as unsavory to serious study as the nature of ghosts. Ghosts — so this attitude said — are the parlance of the poor, the marginal, those still stuck in superstition and ignorance.

Nonetheless, and I have now come to realize, these stories are intricate matrices of sociological importance, directly related to our understanding of consciousness, identity, and the relationships we create within the sociological sphere. In some sense it was the ghost of Preston’s father who spoke to me that night, his memory opening his son’s mouth with wisdom for the right ears. Speaking through his son, Preston’s father turned out to have some lessons for me as well.

“It is unfortunate that so much time is spent debating the reality of phenomena, rather than trying to understand the relationships that these phenomena outline in our selves, as well as within our communities. “

Before we parted, I asked Preston about his ghostly experiences after his father died. He said there were none that he could recall. He also said he didn’t think about the subject very much. He told me there weren’t many people who could stand to hear the whole story of his father, so he never told it. As his father got older, Preston recalled, he would say that “Things ain’t like they was. People used to get healed, but now things just don’t seem to work like they did. People don’t believe no more.”

As our communities disintegrate, the infrastructure of our belief disintegrates with them. Any illusionist will tell you that without the proper set and setting to set up a mark, no illusion is possible. Being so deeply tied to our relational selves, anomalous phenomena require a similar priming of set and setting. Effective belief is a funny thing, something that requires tending on a personal level, a process deeply tied to the stimulus for belief provided by the social environment.

When Preston’s father was born with a caul, this was recognized in his community as a sign that he was destined to heal and to have the second sight. And so he grew up healing people. There was no trick. People came to him sick, and they went away healed. It was simple, predicated on the relationships the community had developed within the boundaries of certain beliefs and experiences. As time passed and the social structure changed, there was no community to uphold this belief. Children born with a caul are now delivered in hospitals, where the placental sac is removed and it’s just another day in the natal ward. As Preston’s father aged into this new social era with its new set of beliefs, he was no longer a healer for the community. He was just a man with his ghosts.

We are, however, beginning to see something of a turn in this tide. Consider, for example, Steve Silberman’s report in Wired of a strange phenomenon that pharmaceutical companies have been discovering: placebos, apparently, are becoming more effective.

It’s not only trials of new drugs that are crossing the futility boundary. Some products that have been on the market for decades, like Prozac, are faltering in more recent follow-up tests. In many cases, these are the compounds that, in the late ’90s, made Big Pharma more profitable than Big Oil. But if these same drugs were vetted now, the FDA might not approve some of them. Two comprehensive analyses of antidepressant trials have uncovered a dramatic increase in placebo response since the 1980s. One estimated that the so-called effect size (a measure of statistical significance) in placebo groups had nearly doubled over that time.

— Steve Silberman, “Placebos Are Getting More Effective. Drugmakers Are Desperate to Know Why,” Wired, August 24, 2009

Most notably, these studies confirm that the intensity of the placebo effect is culturally related; Silberman reports that William Potter, a neuroscientist who has worked for decades with the major pharmaceutical companies, “discovered … that geographic location alone could determine whether a drug bested placebo or crossed the futility boundary.” This is a very significant finding for a world saturated with mass-mediated messages designed for no other purpose than to finely tune consumer behavior.

If it’s a choice between chatting with an elderly conjure doctor or a twenty-something pharmacy tech about which substance I should submit my system to, and in the end both are equally effective predicated on my belief system, then I’d rather start reading up on some root work and have a human experience than waste my time in line at the grocery store. What I learned from Preston was that something as simple as a ghost story can open up a radically different view of reality. I also learned that we truly do live on in death, at least in part, within the memories of those who care to recall us.

It is unfortunate that so much time is spent debating the reality of anomalous phenomena, rather than trying to understand the relationships these phenomena outline in our selves, as well as within our communities. When really seeking an answer, one ought to start out with a question, but all too often we start with answers and then identify the right questions to prove our point.

So, to pose one of these questions: are ghosts real? A reasonable answer is: they’re as real as our experiences of them. As real, it seems, as the scientifically tested and approved pharmaceuticals that are pumped into well over 50% of the U.S. population. If a person responds to this by still insisting on knowing what ghosts “really are” and “really look like,” all I can say is: that, too, is a very good question.

About David Metcalfe

In addition to writing De Umbris Idearum, David Metcalfe is the Books Editor for THE REVEALER, the online journal for NYU's Center for Religion and Media. He's also an independent researcher, cultural historian, and artist. He regularly contributes articles and reviews to Modern Mythology.net, Evolutionary Landscapes, Reality Sandwich, and Alarm Magazine.

Posted on July 24, 2012, in De Umbris Idearum and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.

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