Ghost

During this week falls the Japanese festival of Obon. (It’s hard to pin down precisely what day it is — different towns seem to celebrate it at slightly different times, but it’s right around now, anyway.) It’s similar in some ways to Hallowe’en. It’s the time when the spirits of the dead return to visit their earthly homes, so in folk belief, the walls between the worlds are thin, and spirits roam. People go to the cemeteries and clean up the family graves — pulling weeds, sweeping up fallen leaves (so it’s kind of like Memorial Day, too). Buddhists pay special attention to the family altars in their homes, buying special offerings of expensive food to place there for the ancestors. Niigata Festival is going on this week, which always makes for an exciting atmosphere — different events go on every night for several days, including parades with traditional dancers, the extravagant fireworks display (tonight), and the launching of floating lanterns on the Shinano River. The streets are crowded; restaurants are packed at suppertime; pedestrians flock here and there, many wearing kimonos. There is no one specific center for the festival: things happen here and there, though primary focal points are the main shopping streets, the Shinto shrines, and in front of the train station. Flutes are shrilling and drums are pounding. I like to find the time sometime during this week to make a loop through the city on my bicycle after dark — it’s an enchanted world of sorts, particularly when the fireworks are lighting up the sky. (Tonight looks as if it’ll be rainy, though.)

Another midsummer/Obon custom is the telling of ghost stories. I’ve heard that the reasoning behind the timing is so that people can feel cooler in the hottest season. Seriously! People tell creepy stories, and when they’re shivering with chills and goosebumps, they forget the oppressive heat for a few minutes.

This is a time to tip our hats to Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). If you’ve read any traditional Japanese ghost stories, I’m quite sure that what you read came through Hearn’s pen. He was a westerner (born in the Greek Ionian Islands, grew up in Ireland, and moved to the U.S.A. as a young man) who moved to Japan, married a Japanese woman, and spent the end of his life here, collecting and translating and retelling the folklore of long-ago Japan. He became a nationalized citizen and took the name Koizumi Yakumo. It’s famously told that his wife helped him understand some of the stories and cultural concepts by miming or acting them out for him, and he wrote things down accordingly. Have you read “Houichi the Earless”? That’s from Hearn. “The Peony Lantern”? Hearn. “Rokuro-kubi”? Yep. Hearn single-handedly introduced old-time Japanese folklore to the western world. Perhaps his best-known book is Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1903). Kwaidan itself means “Weird Tales.” Five stars! Get it — read it — this is the season for it! I’m not responsible if it spooks you and you can’t sleep. But at least you should be able to turn off your air conditioner.

So what better time than this to tell you a ghost story? This relates to the previous post, too, in which I hinted at the possible existence of a ghost in my Illinois house . . . which perhaps is more than a case of wishful thinking.

First, here’s a very true story which may or may not be related to the ghost. This is the one paranormal experience which I can say for sure I’ve had: when I was in elementary school (I don’t remember how far along), one Saturday my mom and I were in the basement of our house looking for something — canning jars or something. [Isn’t “canning jars” an oxymoron? If the process is “canning,” why use jars?] My dad was at work at our bookstore. Suddenly my mom and I both heard, very distinctly, footsteps crossing the floor above our heads. This was no case of “old houses settling” or ambiguous creaking or popping. It was a clear, unmistakable procession of footfalls, tromp, tromp, tromp, tromp, tromp, across the main floor of the house. When we went upstairs, we found no one, and we were quite alone in the house. To this day I have no idea what caused that sound, but Mom and I both heard it and agreed that it could be nothing other than footsteps.

Since my Cousin Phil “went public” in his comment on the previous posting, I guess it’s fair game to relate his story here: one summer when he was visiting (again, we were somewhere in elementary school), he and I had gone to bed in my bedroom, and it was pitch black with the darkness one only gets in the country, far from the city lights, with branches rustling and the occasional pack of coyotes yelping. Just after we’d gone to bed and before we were asleep, Phil felt a hand cover his hand and press down. He was too terrified to open his eyes. After a moment, the hand withdrew. There’s no way it could have been a parent, because there was no light in the room to see by (a parent couldn’t have even seen us), and besides, you can hear parents coming a mile off. By the same reasoning, I don’t see how it could have been anyone human. It’s been so long ago that I don’t remember now whether Phil eventually poked me and we whispered about it that night, or whether he waited until the next morning to tell me. But I do know that even today we talk about the incident, and even as men in our forties, we both still sleep with our hands under the covers.

Was our ghost, perhaps, checking to see who this newcomer in our house was, and who was sleeping next to “her” boy? If so, why did none of my other friends who stayed over ever get their hands touched? Did the ghost recognize a family member? Could the touch have been a kind of greeting?

Now I’m going to turn you over to my dad. This is a little essay he wrote in spring 1991:

I have been giving considerable thought lately to why it is that two or more people can be in the same place, and one may see a spectre or U.F.O. WHILE THE OTHER SEES NOTHING. Is it possible that there may be a form of sight that is independent of the eye? I would like to present a personal example to illustrate the thought.

Back in the winter of 1985/86 our only child, our son, was away at college, so it was our custom to close off our bedroom on the colder, northwest corner of our house and sleep in his bedroom on the northeastern corner.

On the night in question, I had retired earlier than my wife. I could hear her in the bathroom, which separated the two bedrooms, bathing, preparing to retire also. As I lay there trying to get warm, I was lying on my right side, which enabled me to see the closet that filled the entire south wall of the bedroom. After a few minutes, I thought I heard my wife cross the small hallway outside of the bedroom and come into the room. I expected her to walk around to the north side of the bed and to get in. Instead, the figure I saw came directly toward me until it almost reached me and then turned to the right and seemingly entered the closet. I was jolted! After a few minutes, my wife actually did come to bed.

As I lay there perplexed, it suddenly came to me that I couldn’t have seen what I thought I had seen! It was my custom, on cold nights, to pull the covers up over my head until I got warm. Therefore, I couldn’t have seen the little old lady, dressed in brown, old-fashioned clothing, enter the closet. Not with my physical eyes.

If I saw her, it must have been through other means. I know I was not dreaming, as I was still too cold to be comfortable at the time.

A footnote to this story is that when my son was still in grade school, he reported seeing the same figure performing the same act. I might also add that the two bedrooms and bath were new additions to our house that were added on after we moved there. Where the little old spectre walks is outside of the original house. Who she is, or what her errand, could be anybody’s guess.

More on his reference to what I saw in a minute, but a few comments here are in order. One, you know how in Dragonfly, the main character is extremely relieved that her Uncle Henry hears the strange sounds from the basement, too? It was a big relief to me as a kid that my parents didn’t try to pretend the world was all well-lighted and quantifiable and sanitary.

Two, that room in Dad’s story, of course, is the same one where Phil felt the hand. Same bed (although in Phil’s incident, I was on the side of the bed toward the closet, and he was back on the “sheltered” side toward the toy shelves). Three, I remember a time many years later when Dad excitedly told me he’d felt a mysterious cold spot right at the door to my bedroom — just outside the room, as I recall. I was away at the time, either in college or in Japan, so I had no way of checking it out.

And four, here’s one more story about my dad which lends even further credence to his report. One summer when I was home, he went to bed (in the other bedroom — the one where he and Mom regularly slept), and Mom and I were still up in the kitchen, talking. A little while after he’d gone to bed, I had something (probably my dirty socks) that I wanted to throw into the laundry basket, which was in Mom and Dad’s room. So as not to disturb Dad, I went into his room without turning on the light (navigating by the light from the bathroom just outside). Very quietly I walked around his bed, put the socks into the basket, went back to the kitchen, and continued talking with my mom.

Well, a few minutes later, Dad came into the kitchen looking totally creeped out — his hair was almost standing on end, like in a cartoon — and he told us very seriously that he’d seen a vision of a young man come into the room and walk around the bed, then walk out again — a young man who looked like me! With embarrassment at having spooked him, I explained that it had been me, that I’d just been in there to put the socks in the basket. He was reluctant to believe me, since he knew I was in the kitchen talking, and he thought the figure he saw had been too quiet to be a real person. [Quite frequently I scare people without intending to because apparently I move quietly. Maybe it’s my traces of native American blood — I’m not sure — but in both countries, friends of mine have shrieked at the way I glide up behind them, and they turn around and see me. . . . Sorry, sorry!]

But anyway, I tell that story here because Dad’s reactions and ways of recounting his experiences don’t change: unwittingly, I provided a “control” if this were an experiment — I saw how he reacted to an incident that I could explain, and it was just how he reacted to what I couldn’t . . . which seems to suggest that there was something he perceived in the “old lady” sighting that seemed as real to him as when, years later, he saw “the ghost of me.”

But anyway, I no longer very clearly remember the experience of mine that started it all. I would have been in 3rd or 4th grade. The mental picture I have is of lying on my side, facing the closet, and noticing the way the moon was shining brightly through the open window, with the curtains billowing softly in a draft. For just the fraction of an instant, I had the image of a misty, transparent old lady moving in profile beside the bed, between me and the closet — gliding toward the window and angling upward, as if traveling on the moonbeams. But I can’t say for sure now whether I was awake or asleep, or whether I saw an actual shape or some trick of moonlight and/or the relaxing mind.

Finally, many years later, after I’d been in Japan for a long time, I had one possible encounter with the “ghost” (?), although this time it was fully inside a dream. I was home on summer vacation, visiting my parents. I know I was asleep this time, dreaming in my old bed in my old room. It was the type of dream that you’re aware is a dream while you’re having it; those are kind of comforting, like seeing a movie.

In the dream, I was in the kitchen in the middle of the night, and the whole house was dark. I opened the refrigerator, and in the frosty glow from inside it, I met the little old lady. She came from the direction of the living room or kitchenette, from my left. This time, she didn’t look ghost-like at all: she wasn’t transparent, and she was walking with solid feet on the floor. She had dark hair and dark brown clothes. Her face was soft and kind, perhaps a little sad, and she seemed confused.

In the dream I wasn’t alarmed. Rather, I felt like I wanted to help her, so I asked, “Can I help you?  Are you looking for something?”

“My dresses,” she answered, looking forlornly around the kitchen. “I had a whole lot of old dresses here, and I can’t find a one of them.”

“Well, this is the kitchen,” I said. “We have some clothes in the closet. Let’s go look there.” I led the way to my parents’ bedroom [this is all a dream, remember] and opened the closet quietly, since my parents were asleep in bed. “Do any of these look familiar?” I whispered.

She shook her head sadly. “None of these are mine.”

And that was pretty much the end of the dream segment. So . . . you can put the pieces together however you like. Maybe we have a little old ghost who keeps track of the people who come and go, and who lived there in some other era — it’s an old house with a long history. During the year I lived alone there after my parents passed away, I saw no sign of her. One of my aunts asked me how I could possibly stand to stay there by myself after both my parents passed on (at different times) in that house. I just shrugged and said, “If there are ghosts here, they’re ghosts that love me.”

So that’s the news from Japan, during this Obon week.

I should also announce that I finished the rough draft of The Sacred Woods, and as of now I am 26% done with the line-edits! (The larger “chunk-editing” is done.) I’m pretty excited about this book.

Here’s a true story: on the very night I finished the first draft, just as I was writing some of the final words, we had an earthquake! It wasn’t a bad one, but it went on for about 30 seconds, gently shaking the building. (I don’t think there was any serious damage or loss of life this time, even in the mountain villages.) I hope that was a sign that this book will be monumental and Earth-shaking! That was Saturday, August 1, 2009. The book is at around 74,000 words.

Enjoy these wonderful August days and nights! (A student of mine recently asked what are “the dog days of August”? I explained with great relish.)

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15 Responses to “Ghost”

  1. Chris Says:

    Looks like the Aug 1 earthquake off the west coast of Honshu was a magnitude 5 on the richter scale, 39km deep (assuming I’m reading the USGS data dump correctly (ftp://hazards.cr.usgs.gov/weekly/qedevents.txt)

    155704.7 38.276N 138.634E 39 5.0 A 0.8 114 78 NEAR THE WEST COAST OF HONSHU, JAPAN

    I assume that was your quake? Does the time sound right? 15:57 Aug 1 UTC time?

  2. Nick Says:

    As a fellow afficianado of the spooky and macabre, I thank you for sharing these stories, apropos of the season being celebrated over there.

    May I put in a plug? If you have not seen Miyazaki’s SPIRITED AWAY, it sounds like there may not be a better time to give it a screening!

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      I’ve seen it, but only in Japanese as Sen to Chihiro no Kami-Kakushi. I’ve heard Miyazaki’s films are excellent in their English translations, but I’m sure they also become different films in a way. I’d really like to see them all that way, too, but I never think of doing it when I’m in the States.

  3. Gabe Dybing Says:

    “It was a big relief to me as a kid that my parents didn’t try to pretend the world was all well-lighted and quantifiable and sanitary.”

    This post, Fred, inspires a welter of thoughts. It seems like you must have been a very reasonable and well-adjusted boy, even at an early age (which I believe I was, as well, which shall be evinced in a moment), but I have had terrible luck entertaining any of my own children’s fears about ghosts and whatnot. After any serious talk about the supernatural, my children (especially my two youngest: boys) have an incredibly difficult time sleeping alone (let alone sleeping at all!), and in these days of thinking about the cost of energy, both fiscally and ecologically, I am frustrated at all the useless light I have to burn just so my kids can fall asleep!

    But anyway, I want to share my own “ghost” (?) experience.

    When I was very young, I was living with my parents and my younger sister in an old yellow house in Dike, Iowa. Even my parents, later, admitted that they felt something “different” in the house, though they hadn’t witnessed any real phenomena along the lines of things they had encountered in a “real” haunted mansion they had shared with friends in rural Lanesboro, Minnesota. In Dike, I shared a room with my younger sister upstairs, across the hall from my parents’ bedroom. I couldn’t have been any older than five, because I remember that my youngest sister (four years younger than me) hadn’t been born yet and my other sister was still sleeping in a crib across the room from my bed…

    One night I woke up. On the wall between my bed (shoved up into a corner) and my sister’s crib was a window through which pale moonlight was filtering. I detected movement to my right, in the opening between my bed and the wall. Peering at the shadows here, I slowly descried (I should use a Poe/Lovecraft word, considering the subject) what appeared to be a long fingered hand slowly waving side to side (and it rhymes with “descried!”) just inches from my face. What’s more – and this was hard to determine just by the moonlight – the hand appeared to be GREEN and on the ends of its long fingers were long, black, sharp fingernails.

    Like you, Fred, I was a reasonable and well-adjusted young person. After scootching as far from the hand as I could – to the very edge of the bed without falling off – and after studying this moving phenomenon for some time, I determined that the only way to be certain that what I was seeing was REAL was to verify it with another sense. Slowly I reached out my forefinger towards that relentlessly shifting display of green hand and shadows until…

    I’m not sure if I actually came into contact with it, the shadows and movement didn’t alter its rhythm for a moment, but suddenly, unaccountably, I felt a sharp fiery pain on my fingertip and swiftly drew back my hand.

    Now I decided it was time to get my parents involved. Gaze firmly on the waving green hand, I slipped out of my bed, listened briefly to the calm, measured breathing of my sleeping sister, and then padded out of the room and across the hall to the bed of my parents. I heard their heavy sleep sounds, and it took some time to, politely, wake my mother.

    “What is it, Gabe?”

    Even at that age, I knew to be embarrassed about things that COULD NOT BE!

    “Can I sleep with you tonight?”

    “Gabe, you’re much too old to sleep with us. Go back to bed.”

    A beat.

    Defeatedly: “Okay.”

    I tip-toed back to bed. Sure enough, the hand was still there, waving back and forth. I carefully got into bed, scootched as far from the opening by the wall as I could, and then watched the slow, hypnotic movements of that bizarre appendage until my eyes grew heavy, my lids closed, and…

    It was morning.

    I never thought to ask my mom if I had woken her the night before. (Had it all been a dream? What a weird dream, one that you remember clearly but don’t remember waking up from. I never remember my dreams but for those just at waking, and even those disintegrate into tatters and fragments with every conscious second.)

    THE GREEN HAND is now a legend among my family. There is a sequel of sorts, as well, but I won’t share it at this time. My youngest sister also recently brought it up to me after being reminded of it by a short story of Neil Gaiman’s in _Fragile Things_. Evidently some pub character of his has had an experience with a Green Hand, as well. I wonder if there’s any archetypical significance to it.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      What amazes me about this story is the persistence and tenacity of the green hand! You could try touching it, you could leave the room and come back, and it was still there! And all the while, this was very distinctly visible? A green hand with sharp black fingernails, waving back and forth? Wow. . . . Was the palm toward you, or was the hand perpendicular to you?

      • Gabe Dybing Says:

        The palm was toward me, Fred. It waved back and forth very elegantly, for all its creepy demonicness, and thus would wrist from side to side.

        I wish I could remember if there was a tree outside my window, just casting shadows in the moonlight…

  4. Chris Says:

    Note the commonality among all the ghost stories (with the exception of Fred’s “footsteps” story)…all occur at or near or during sleep.

    Isn’t the human mind an amazing thing to behold? How real things appear when the neurons fire in that special way as we drift off or come out of sleep?

    I’ve heard the ‘archetypal’ description of the “night terror” or the demon sitting on one’s chest. How much each event bears commonalities among different people who experience it. It is amazing that our brains and bodies can develop such similar experiences (thus leading some to belief of their being “really what they appeared to be”).

    As for Gabe’s ghost story, perhaps the scariest part was the discussion of the TRULY SCARY ENERGY BILLS! (Insert Count Floyd howl here…)

    “Oh kids, now that’s truly scary!”

  5. I recall Fred's Old Lady Says:

    There were several times when, as a young boy, I would have a sleep-over at Fred’s house (sometimes they were at my house, but that was boring … Fred’s was a much more exciting place …)
    I recall the stories of the Old Lady and my recollection is that she never appeared anywhere but in Fred’s bedroom. Whether that had anything to do with “Gorilla!” (Fred will have to explain …) or not I do not know, but I CAN testify to the true belief among the Durbins that this phantasm was genuine.
    I never encountered any “monsters” or “ghosts” as a child, darn it, unless being terrified (from ages 2-4) of entering my parents’ bedroom closet — I dunno why — counts.
    Chris and Fred remember ‘Funnyface’ (previous post) but I can only recall slaying “Bigfoot” in a fabulous piece of 8mm magic filmed circa 1978!
    And, if I may further reference the previous post — I do not care for these modern ‘heroic’ or ‘sympathetic’ vampires. Twilight, et. al … is a mockery, in my opinion, of what vampires “are”.
    Lose the ancient theology, lose the story (there I go being this blog’s standing arch-conservative again!)

    • Chris Says:

      I must agree with the blog’s standing arch-conservative in regards to vampires, ironically enough (as the blog’s standing pinko-librul-atheist!)

      I dislike the prettifying of vampires, even going back to the 1970’s. I always thought Nosferatu was the be-all and end-all of vampires. And the description of some Romanian “strigoi” seemed pretty horrific as I recall!

      I also note that the “theological underpinnings” of vampires is little more than a fungible, liquid concept that can change depending how the author wants to justify some ridiculous plot conceit.

      Although I still liberally quote James Mason from the made-for-TV ‘Salem’s Lot from the 1970’s: “Put down your cross, holy man, and test your faith against the master’s!”

      (I find this most effective when my wife is watching James Mason in the original “A Star is Born” with Judy Garland.)

      The only exception I make for the tuxedo-clad vampire is, of course, Count Floyd. Truly scary. Howwwwwlllll.

    • Elizabeth Says:

      I have to agree with you — I am not fond of the “hero” vampires. There have been only a few instances where I have actually enjoyed vampires as sympathetic characters, and in those instances the “ancient theology” still held sway.

      I wonder if the rise in “sympathetic” vampires is a response to this culture’s growing obsession with youth? It seems everyone is obsessed with being young and staying young. The vampire, therefore, becomes desirable. But no one wants to “pay the price” for anything these days, and so the “good” vampire becomes a part of pop culture. Youth and beauty and strength forever, and you never have to pay a bill.

      I’m reminded of that Buffy episode, I think in the second season, where all the vampire lovers are whining about the poor vampires and then when the “poor” vampires arrive, they discover the reality of the situation. I’d like to let loose a few of Whedon’s vampires in the Twilight universe — maybe wake the kids up a bit.

      • I recall Fred's Old Lady Says:

        Elizabeth: What a great insight about our culture and youth! I think you hit it right on the head!

        I never watched Buffy, so everyone will have to excuse me, but here is my own take on vampires:

        They can be killed by a wooden stake in the heart, but only so long as is remains in place, unless the head is also then removed.
        Stuffing holy wafers into the mouth will kill one, as will immersion in running water or exposure to sunlight.
        They are repelled by any number of sacramentals: holy water or wafers, a crucifix, a cross, a rosary, etc. but only when they are displayed by someone possessing an active Christian faith.
        Garlic repels them, as well, as does the touch of silver, and they cannot see their reflection nor enter a private dwelling without being invited to do so.

        I’d love to hear from others their thoughts on the matter …

  6. Daylily Says:

    A bit of horror in the morning . . . It all began in the garage. I was in the process of throwing away a defunct weed whacker. I lifted the lid of the green rolling “waste cart” (mini-dumpster) and up and over the edge surged a wriggling white wave, which fell onto the floor, as well as into the neighboring collection of cans and bottles for recycling! I screamed and dropped the lid! I collected myself. Okay, I’m bigger than they are. I speedily moved the waste cart and the recycling bin out onto the driveway, where I systematically exterminated every maggot I could find. Houseflies are not an endangered species, last time I checked. I will often capture spiders in my house and release them into the yard, rather than squishing them, but flies, the bearers of disease, deserve no protection. (The offending kitchen trash bags, whose punctures had allowed this drama, are now contained in a sturdy black garbage bag.) End of the morning horror show. Hey, what a great incentive to start that compost pile I’ve been thinking about!

    • Chris Says:

      My wife and I volunteer every month at the local food bank and two months ago we were all tasked with going through giant containers of donated canned goods in order to cull the expired cans.

      Reaching deep down into one container we noted with some revulsion that one can had exploded a wee bit and our friend Mr Maggot and his 1500 closest friends were having a party.

      Not as horrific as your story, but the for the next 10 minutes all the volunteers made their pilgramage to the barrell to be dutifully disgusted and run away.

      (PS: I spare no spiders in my home. I recognize they are good to keep down pests, but since I despise them so viscerally I usually scream like a little girl until my wife goes over and kills them. It is a very effective survival strategy for me.)

  7. Marquee Movies Says:

    To “I Remember Fred’s Old Lady” – I hope this will make you laugh. When I read your title, my immediate reaction was, Dude, that’s a really inappropriate way to talk about Fred’s mother! Then I started reading your blog, and I quickly saw that (duh!) you were referring to THE Old Lady of the House! I don’t have a story that’s as neat as any I’ve read here, but the closest thing (that I can remember) to a supernatural event in my life happened just after college. In college, I was very close with a friend of mine (we’re still friends – I spoke to her today on the phone), but we both graduated, we stopped dating, and she married this other guy. She then moved to Florida – our college is just outside of Chicago. For various reasons, we were not in any contact at all during her engagement and first year of marriage. So, this meant about two years of not hearing from her, not having any contact with any of her friends, and having her living about 1200 miles away. One summer day, I was walking around campus. (Though I had graduated, I had recently moved right near the school, and still had some friends there, the tennis courts, etc.) And it was so bizarre – I just could not escape the overpowering feeling that around EVERY corner I walked, I’d walk right into my friend. It was the strangest feeling I’ve ever had, it didn’t jibe with any “normal” feeling I’ve ever had, because I knew she was in Florida, teaching at some school. It was so strong that I sometimes stopped in my tracks, and even got a bit woozy. This lasted as long as I was on campus, and stopped the moment I walked back to my apartment. That night, I went over to a friend’s place for a dinner. My friend David was invited too, and when he saw me, he said, “Hey, guess who I saw at school today!” When I said my married friend’s name, he reacted with some surprise, and said, “How did you know?” My friend later told me that she and her husband had left Florida, and they were looking for work in the Chicago area, so they came to the placement office at the school to see if they could help. She also said (not knowing at all that I was even in the area) that she had had that same eerie feeling that she was going to run into me at any moment. Not spooky – but it still remains one of the most interestingly unexplained events of my life. We’re still very close friends, though I’ve never experienced anything like that again.

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