Ghosts and Traces

ghostlandI grew up in a household that believed strongly in ghosts. My mom saw them and talked about them and even, sometimes, reported talking to them. When I was a child, I was sure that I’d seen them. But with grown-up-ness came skepticism. These days, I’d classify myself as ghost-agnostic in the same way that I’m god-agnostic. Ghosts might be real or they might not be, but their “realness” is beside the point. I’m more interested in that grey area between belief and disbelief.

Colin Dickey’s Ghostland: An American History of Haunted Places is a book of ghost stories for skeptics of the curious kind. He’s much less concerned with the ghosts themselves than he is with their cultural implications. At his reading at Powell’s this week, Dickey discussed the Winchester Mystery House, the inspiration for his new book, and read from the last chapter where he tells of a man who created what essentially amounted to an early-model smart house, all the house’s lights and plumbing and heating programmed through his computer. But, after the man died, the programs continued, “haunting” his grown children with his habits of turning all the lights out at ten and automatizing the plumbing. In this chapter, Dickey argues that the future of haunting will be much like Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” our houses continuing our lives even after we have left them.

I thought this concept of technological haunting was fascinating. It reminds me a little of Sarah Ruhl’s play, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, in which a stranger becomes “haunted” by the phone of a man she finds dead in a cafe. It reminds me of the facebook pages of the dead, still sites to drop in on and leave a quick note. The technological traces we leave behind us—the social media profiles, the cell phones, the emails, the automated subscriptions—   like Ray Bradbury’s story or Dickey’s tale of the smart house, keep orbiting the empty spaces we leave in our wake.

But I’m most used to the notion of haunting as old, as the past–often the distant past– creeping out into the present, the tragedies and traumas of history become inescapable. So  what about these more recent hauntings, the just-past that decides not to die?

The Oregonian recently published a section of Ghostland that focuses on a purported haunting beneath Portland’s St. Johns Bridge by a teenage girl who was killed there in 1949. This is no historical ghost story but one in which the ghost herself is still remembered by the living. There’s something about a remembered ghost–remembered specifically, personally, vividly–that is immensely unsettling. These are ghosts that have not yet had a chance to fade completely to their disembodied selves, to move thoroughly into the space between the historical record, a half memory of place, and our collective imaginations. These ghosts are still half alive.

When my grandmother died, my mom said she came to her to say goodbye. I didn’t disbelieve her. The night my mom died— and even sometime after—I had moments when I was sure she was standing beside me. But those feelings of presence only seemed to highlight the sense of a stark sudden absence.

Grief is a funny place and our ghosts are born of it. Whether the grief be personal or more largely cultural, our ghosts embody it: our simultaneous longing for, and uncanny discomfort with, these world that continue even though they no longer exist.

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