Dennis and Michelle Waskul. Ghostly Encounters: The Hauntings of Everyday Life. Temple University Press, 2016.
Denis Waskul, the lead author of this book is lying in bed one night, finding sleep difficult, his wife Michelle asleep beside him when he sees a mist forming at the top corner of his window, coming through the window and blind. From it come wispy tentacles, reaching out to him. Without thinking he says “I will tell the truth, I will tell the story right” and the misty thing retreats.
This personal experience in its strange ambiguity is typical of the stories in this book, many of which centre on some ill-defined disquiet, whispers where there should be none, doors that open on their own, pictures on the wall move around, the cat acts up for no reason, the TV is turned on where you were sure you had turned it off, coins are found in strange places, something bangs against the window when there is no wind, a slap in the face when there is no-one there, a black shadow moves through the living room, you feel watched when you are alone, the cat peers round the corner, the dog barks at nothing.
All of these add up to senses of shared space, the house is never truly empty and you are never really by yourself. These small incidents can be signs of presence or of transcendence, one of the interviewees spoken to by the authors relates a number of these apparently trivial incidents and then breaks into tears because she feels they are signs that her sister, killed in a car accident, is trying to communicate with her.
As they examine the stories the authors note the language and intonation of the tale, how they wrestle with the ideas of belief and scepticism; their day light reason tells them it is all explicable, their night intuition tells them otherwise.
Even in the home ghosts seem to haunt liminal spaces, if outdoors they inhabit crossroads, bridges, field boundaries, old houses and graveyards falling from habitat into wilderness, in the home they can haunt porches, doorways, landings, closets (which are room-like spaces which are not real rooms; the same going to bathrooms. They come in the marginal zone between sleep and waking.
Ghosts are creatures of the edge-world that are both and yet neither presence nor absence, here or not here, real or unreal, alive or dead. Ghosts frighten us because they cannot die, we can’t kill them because they are already dead.
Children report playing with a little girl no-one else can see, the little girl in pyjamas perhaps. The might be the brunette sitting on the right side of your bed looking at you, or perhaps the man wearing the light green short sleeved shirt, the lady in the red dress who is pretty to some people but not to others. Or maybe it is Madison who lives in the closet in your brothers’ bedroom and who tells you that this is her house and not yours. All of which goes to remind you that before you came ‘they’ were here, and when you have gone, another ‘they’ will come and occupy your space.
Few of these presences are hostile, that is left to living people. The most chilling tale doesn’t concern a ghost at all but a deserted graveyard that has been vandalised because a legend grew up around a seventeen year old girl who died of diphtheria and who is buried there, that she was a witch who had been beheaded by her father and that others in the graveyard were also witches. The vandalism argue the Waskuls is a symbol of human beings capacity to dehumanise and persecute and destroy. Today the gravestones, tomorrow …?
The authors are unable to come to any conclusions at the end of their survey and ghosts remain too elusive to analyse. The Waskuls suspect that however anomalous such experiences are, there really is little reason to associate them with deceased people. They note that ghosts have an absence of specific traits, often ageless, sexless and lacking in ethnicity, essentially empty presences which are also absences, though there was a tendency among recipients to give anonymous ghosts masculine names.
This book can be compared with the British studies of Caron Lipman's At Home With Ghosts, and though somewhat lighter in analysis, avoids the academy-speech. -- Peter Rogerson