We Need Ghosts More Than They Need Us

If ghosts didn't exist we would have to invent them.

Posted Aug 29, 2013

I'm not afraid that ghosts might exist.

I'm afraid that they might not.

We need ghosts. Need them in our campfire stories, need them in our films, need Halloween to let us pin plastic versions of them to tavern walls. Even the least childish among us sometimes wonders what that white wisp drifting past the window was.

Not that we want our loved ones or ourselves to wander hallways moaning for eternity, but still. We want to know this fragile body is not everything. We want to know that this laugh, this love, this liking for crumb cake and this expertise in litigation decades in the making will not simply disappear forever and ever without a trace. We want our evidence.

If ghosts didn't exist, we would have to invent them. But they do exist, either as ectoplasmic entities, as scraps of energy attached to battlefields and bedrooms or as literary tropes. Whether or not ghosts can ever be measured scientifically beyond the shadow of a doubt, they are permanent fixtures in our human culture, in our lore, because they need to be. The ancient Greeks and Romans told ghost stories: The Iliad was their Shutter, Ghostbusters, and The Sixth Sense.

For all intents and purposes -- for the cold comfort of thinking we might not vanish from this earth forever when we die -- the ghosts in horror films are as real as those I may or may not have photographed in Wild West clubrooms on a recent haunted-house trip to Virginia City, Nevada, which the SyFy Channel calls one of the USA's most haunted towns.

Professional ghost-hunters walked us through a boomtown-era hospital turned gallery whose spectral residents include a cowboy and a dwarf; vintage hotels haunted by suicides and Buster Brown-haircutted boys; the lofty Mackay Mansion, in whose elegant high-ceilinged rooms allegedly dwell a top-hatted spirit and a ghostly little girl whom Johnny Depp reported seeing while filming a movie here in 1995. We spent six hours -- nearly overnight -- in the rangy, empty Old Washoe Club, a warren that was once a gambling-hall for millionaires and in which my companions claimed to see chairs moving by themselves. On a Bats in the Belfry walking tour behind the old courthouse where Victorian-era murderers were hanged, I may or may not have felt the touch of an ethereal finger on an extremely private body part. With every shiver, every criss-cross of the dowsing rods, we felt fear mixed with something else: Hope? Proof? Relief?

When I was small and used to ask my dad if he would haunt our house someday, he scoffed: I am a scientist, so I believe that when we're gone we're gone

I balked: What? Someday we will never talk again? You can't come back to fix things when they break?

Nope, he said, smoothing wet cement on garden steps that far outlasted him. 

After he died, a massive seagull landed on a car-hood in a parking lot where I had never seen seagulls before. The gull swiveled its head to stare, making eye contact more intense, more piercing than you would ever expect of gulls.

For the six years since a dear friend committed suicide, I have found birthday gifts that I believe she places on the street for me to find. Usually jewelry: earrings, pendants, pearls. How do I know they're meant for me? I find them in late June. And they're my favorite color: pink. Passersby stride right over them, not seeing them or stepping on them. They're for me.

If we vanish forever -- no more watching Kitchen Nightmares, no more playing racquetball -- what's the meaning of anything? Why are we ever here at all? How could we fall in love, have children, knowing we will lose it all, and all of it lose us -- unless, perhaps, some part of us survives?

Fear not only of death but of its permanence is our most basic, elemental, existential fear. Fear of being forgotten. Loved ones? Us? Cease to exist? No way! This is not our first fear in life, of course: First we must learn of death, but then -- this is the terror that sticks.

We the living need the dead -- need them not just to lie there but to sometimes walk and talk and carry candelabras through the air. We do not need the "living dead" -- vampires, zombies, who never quite really died -- as much as we need ghosts, who have lived, died and told the tale.

We need ghosts more than they need us.

Accompanying photographs by Kristan Lawson.