To be entirely honest, I don’t know that I can actually say that I do believe in ghosts. It’s a matter of definition. If we insist upon “Ghost (n.)- the spiritual residue of a deceased person, which is able to make its presence known to the living,” then I stumble a little, because that seems awfully specific and precise. It also opens the door to people who prey upon the weak by making sweeping declarations about your grandmother… or maybe your aunt… she’s right there, right beside you, and she says you shouldn’t worry about that thing you did when you were little… yes, when you upset the goldfish bowl, she forgives you, and says you should buy my book about past lives.
But, if we remain fuzzy on the definition, if we speak only of some sort of unseen agency which occasionally produces effects in the physical world by means difficult to quantify, then yes, absolutely, I believe in that. I believe in it for the same reason as I believe in rain and gravity– direct experience. A year ago I published a small account of a thing that happened along these lines, and for reasons almost certainly related to the season I have been feeling the urge to share more. I’m going to offer two stories which are, unlike just about everything else published on my little site, autobiographical, although my role on one of them is limited to uninvolved bystander.
The scene is the same in both these stories, a two-storey house erected toward the end of the 19th century on the north shore of Mission Lake. The walls were of concrete, somewhere between twelve and fifteen inches thick, although the mansard roof meant that they only extended a short distance above the floor of the second level. An addition was tacked onto one side of the building, at what became known as the back, a kitchen space with a relatively low ceiling.
It was, in the early years of its existence, used as a small sanatorium for sufferers of tuberculosis, although it ceased to fill that role even before the more famous Fort San was erected. For much of the 20th century, it was owned by the Boy Scouts and used in an intermittent way as a the centre of a camp; intermittent because it was allowed to become somewhat derelict until a renovation in the mid-1980s. The Scouts would, at least subsequent to the renovation, let the place out to other organizations.
On the night I will speak of first, which actually occurred later in the progress of history than my other tale, it was another organization which was using the camp; there were a few children about the place, but the population was primarily adults. It was a night in May, when Saskatchewan was starting to realize that winter was over, and the more camping-inclined members of the gathering were around a bonfire about thirty meters west and slightly shore-ward of the main building. The trees were not yet in leaf, and when the smoke was not in their eyes (a democratic substance, it slowly worked its way around the compass, as anyone who has stood by a bonfire will confirm) those present were able to see the building easily.
And thus, as the fire settled into its bed and thoughts of adding another log were growing, someone pointed at the nearer of the two dormers overlooking that side of the house and said, “Who’s that?”
Others looked. There was a woman at the window. Evidently a short woman, as her pale face no more than half-way up the height of the pane. Also, it seemed, a very sad woman, and this is what prompted the initial question about her identity. This was a merry gathering, not quite a party in the more reckless sense of the word, but a far-flung collection of like-minded people enjoying a weekend of fellowship. There were enough people present, and enough friend-of-friend attendees, that it was reasonable for one person to not necessarily know another at a distance in the dubious light cast by a sodium fixture about seventy meters from both observer and observed… but when the question went about the fire and no one present recognized her even to the extent of someone glimpsed earlier in the day, the failure became noteworthy.
Because she seemed very sad indeed, and because the people of this group are generally concerned about their fellows, after a few minutes of speculation, one of the bonfire-sitters declared, “Well, I’m going to go in and see what’s wrong with her.”
There was a ramp, for wheelchair access, running along the whole west side of the house, up to a deck on the south where the largest door to the house was. There was another door, letting into the kitchen, but it was all the way on the other side of the house; possibly no more distant, but it felt less direct. The concerned person mounted the ramp.
At about the time they were putting foot to the top of the ramp, I was coming out through that south door. Unaware of what had been going on above and without, I was simply performing an act of social migration. A conversation among those inside had reached a natural lull, and I had decided to go expose myself the cold and smoke outside for a while to chat with other friends.
I met the concerned person when I came around the corner, she half-way up the ramp, I at the top. “Hey,” she said, slowing, “do you know who’s upstairs?”
“No, there’s someone up there,” and she put her head down to increase speed.
“Oh, no there isn’t,” I said, with the perfect assurance of superior knowledge, and I turned to follow her as she went past. Superior knowledge, because while everyone who had been inside the building could see how it lay for themselves, they might forget details. I, however, had been involved as a labourer in the renovation and was very familiar with the details of the place. I knew that there could be no one upstairs, and as we both passed back into the house, I heard my friend gasp as she was reminded of why.
There was no upstairs. The whole second floor had been removed, and above the main floor there were only a pair of supporting trusses running from north to south, two meters to either side of centre, and at least two meters away from the dormers, which on the inside had been covered over with insulating foam panels. The concerned person stood looking up for a few seconds at the place where no one could stand to peer out the window, then said, “Ah. Right. Hey, holy crap, we all saw a ghost!” She explained the events which I have laid out above.
Insufficient? Still too second-person indirect for you? Then let me wind the clock back a few years, to another, similar event at the same location. And let me set the scene a little further.
With the removal of the upper floor came the removal of all the walls in the lower part of the house, which my group of friends called in our levity The Great Hall, although it was hardly big enough to make a Heorot (we also called the train which ran nightly just north of the property “Grendel,” because we were a clever bunch). The supporting trusses mentioned earlier took up the role of the departed load-bearing walls, transferring the weight of the central part of the roof and resting it on the massive walls. At the north end of the hall was a large fireplace, installed after the gutting and open at the sides to the kitchen, while at the south was the exit to the porch.
The exit was a set of heavy fire doors, both fitted with hydraulic closers. They had been bought surplus, fitted into a hole cut for them in the wall; the original front door had been in the west wall, and had been sealed up shortly after the installation of the modern portals.
The night of the event was not only a few years previous, but earlier in the year. It was colder, and there were fewer people present. There was still about a half-and-half split between the hall and the bonfire, because we are a hardy breed in Canada and if there’s a bonfire pit and not too much snow on the ground, some will stay outside. Fire’s warm, after all, and it was a still night.
There was a fire in the hall, too, and those of us who had spent enough cold nights around bonfires as children (oh, the fond memories of being a Boy Scout!) sat at one of the long tables in the hall. As the night wore on, the conversation cycled around to the history of the place, and given the prognosis of late 19th century tuberculosis suffers, the likelihood of there having been many deaths in under that roof. This inevitably brought about the notion of ghosts. Were we likely to see one that night? Were ghosts likely, at all?
Some believed. Others were unconvinced one way or another. One said, with some evident conviction, “It would take some pretty dramatic evidence to make me believe.”
Both the big steel doors banged outward, suddenly at the full extent of their travel. We were all still in the act of turning our heads to see what the commotion was when they both banged shut, moving fast despite the presence of the hydraulic arms attached to them.
There was a moment of stunned silence, then I and one of the other chaps jumped up. I cannot say exactly why he raced to the door, but I wanted to confirm what I thought I had seen beyond those doors. We each struck a door, each of us a large and well-muscled man, neither of us able to smash the doors open as they had been seconds earlier. We did not tumble out onto the deck, but surged gently.
My opinion was confirmed. There was still no one out there. The other guy swung himself toward the ramp, and I went after him. One of the people from the bonfire was ambling up, just about to reach the foot of the ramp.
“Did anyone just run down here?” At this late date, I honestly forget which of the two of us asked the question.
“Nope,” said the ambler. “What’s up?”
We told him. He said “Bullshit.” We each took turns trying to yank the doors open in the same sudden manner. We all got sore rotator cuffs and failed to reproduce the effect.
The one who had spoken of his doubts was quiet and pale for the next hour. We offered him warm drinks and congratulated him on his power to persuade the unseen. We told the story several times, as people drifted in from the bonfire. Some were delighted. Some were horrified. Some said “Bullshit.”
And you may, too. You weren’t there. I’m just some guy on the internet, where you can find people saying with great conviction that the earth is flat and that man has never walked on the moon. I’m writing on a site that presents fiction, too, so who’s to say I haven’t made this whole thing up from whole cloth? I didn’t, but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?
I’m sure if you started reading these yarns with an inclination to accept the existence of unseen forces, I have served confirmation bias admirably. Similarly, I expect those who take a hard-headed rationalist approach to these matters will not be particularly swayed in their broad opinions, although I may well have generated a new set of opinions about me and the sort of people I hang around with. If you’re somewhere between… actually, that’s a great place to be. Open-mindedness is an excellent approach to the world, so long at it brings the tools of rational inquiry with it.
If you’re in that frame, then you can easily dismiss the mysterious face at the upstairs window. I could even join you, despite the number of people who claimed to have seen it and fact that none of them were expecting to see anything in particular at that window (for is “you expected a ghost, and thus you interpreted ambivalent evidence to fill the expectation” not the frequent call out of the ghost-denier?). I didn’t see what they saw and I can concoct other reasons for it which may actually be true.
But I’m at a complete loss to find an alternate explanation for the slamming of those doors, because a wind gust of sufficient power would have been noticeable. Those who saw that face are similarly earnest in their position that there definitely was someone looking out at them, so while I could dismiss it… I don’t.
So, yes– when we leave the concept of ghost a little nebulous, I believe in them. I won’t insist that you join me. In all honestly, a place of unbelieving scepticism is likely more comfortable to dwell in. After all, by accepting the notion of ghosts, or at least the notion of unknown forces which appear to respond to human discussions and on occasion will put on a human appearance, I then have to accept the possibility that these things… whatever they really are… are looking in on all of us living people all the time. If that’s not a shuddery thought worthy of Hallowe’en, I don’t know what is, and I really can’t decide if it’s better if they are a sort of residue of human personality or something completely inhuman.
“Why I Believe in Ghosts” ©2017 Dirck de Lint