The first ghost story I ever heard was from my mother. She described how once, while sleeping in an upstairs bedroom in her sister’s house, she woke to the feeling of twin icicles curling around her ankles. They were hands, but she didn’t see a body, exactly. More like an abstract interpretation of a body, female, crouched at the foot of the bed. It yanked once, hard, and she opened her pink teenaged mouth and screamed, causing it to let go and vanish. The details shift uneasily when she retells this story — -sometimes there is a horrible, unseasonal rainstorm beating the roof, sometimes she is 15, or 17. But these two details remain the same: The bed belonged a dead woman and she never went into that portion of the house again.
There’s a lot of paranormal activity in my family. Whether it is more than most other families is hard to say, but we seem to have more than most. During holidays and family events, after the adults wander into the kitchen to drink coffee or head off to bed, us cousins gather in some remote part of the house and talk about the things that go bump in the night. These are our heirlooms, a series of signals and omens that help us make sense of each other and our shared family history, which is by turns strange, mysterious and murky. These stories open up a portal to the parts of life that don’t seem to make much sense but as still just as real as the rest of it. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that sometimes a ghost isn’t always a ghost. Sometimes, telling a ghost story is a way to talk about something else present in the air, taking up space beside you. It can also be a manifestation of intuition, or something you’ve known in your bones but haven’t yet been able to accept. But sometimes a ghost is exactly what it is — -a seriously fucking scary spirit.
I tend to offer up these stories to friends whenever we are gathered, usually at my house, after the dinner plates have been cleared away and everyone’s wine glass has been refilled. I like to dim the lights and talk about the ghosts I’ve known and invite other people to tell me their stories. The results never disappoint: A woman recently told me about the time she was living in Japan and saw an orange, human-shaped figure in her bedroom; another friend told me about stumbling in on his mother, a santería, channeling his uncle to try and solve the mystery of who murdered him.
I invoked my first ghost during a slumber party in middle school. Back then, I roamed with a pack of girls, maybe three or four of them, and we were inseparable. Weekends were spent together, usually holed up in one of our bedrooms, gossiping about boys, reading magazines and taking trips to the mall. We had a dusty VHS copy of “Clueless” that we watched over and over again, shrieking out of favorite lines. I have a few photos leftover from that period and in them, we’re in color-coordinated outfits, posing under a tree in someone’s front yard. Most of us are wearing glasses in unflattering shapes and varying shades of matte lipstick.
One weekend, my house was nominated as the crash pad, largely because my mother was out of town, and we could take over her condo. So we did. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, one of the girls — -Stephanie, I think — -asked me if I had a Ouija board. Duh, of course, I replied, and we carefully set it up on the dining room table. We gathered around it and grew solemn. We called out to any spirits, as is the way, and waited. Nothing happened. We tried a few more times, but the ivory-colored planchette didn’t move. We grew bored and started packing up the toy to go back in its box. As the lid slid into place, a loud knocking came from inside the fireplace. It banged three times — -slow, deliberate, impossibly loud — -and then stopped. We shrieked and ran outside into the hot, summery day.
A few years after that, I was in the car with my father. We were driving back to Virginia from somewhere, maybe Maryland or Philadelphia. My dad liked to take long drives. He would go to Philly and back, in a day, just for the peace of being on the road. We didn’t talk much on those rides. I was content to read whatever book I happened to be reading, while my dad whistled along to the radio, usually the stations that beamed Sade or Marvin Gaye late into the night. One time, on our way back home, bored, I asked my dad: What’s the scariest thing that ever happened to you. And he told me about that he was a kid, he picked up extra work in a factory near where he grew up in South Carolina — -I forget which kind — -to help his parents out. One night, after they’d finished their shift, he and some of his friends started walking down the dirt road that led back towards where they lived. He was young, maybe the smallest in the group, and he heard a noise behind them. They turned to look at a black cat with glowing eyes was standing a little ways behind them, staring intently at the group. He ignored it, and kept walking. A few minutes later, he checked to see if the cat was still there — -it was — -only this time, it seemed a lot larger than it had a few minutes ago. And it was closer still, staring, not moving. This time, he alerted the group, which halted to examine the cat. A few of the boys in the group threw rocks and sticks towards the beast, to to try and rattle it, but it did not react and continued to approach, still, silently, eyes glowing.
The story gets…strange at this point. My father says the closer the cat came, the more it began to resemble a man, crouched in the shape of an animal, eyes possessed and glowing. He says an argument broke out in the group — -some of the boys wanted to try and kill the thing, and others were too scared, and wanted to run away. One boy in the group began approaching it with a large branch, intending to hit it, but as he got closer, he got spooked and screamed. He started running and the rest followed behind. The thing was never seen again.
The next time I summoned a spirit, I was sitting in Five Leaves in Greenpoint, back when you could still show up on a Sunday night and actually get a seat. I was in the restaurant with my boyfriend at the time, a tall, dark and charming man I no longer loved as much as I once did. We were at a crossroads in our relationship, drifting away from one another, and this dinner was supposed to be a reconciliation of sorts. A renewal of our determination to each other and our relationship and breaking ground on a new life ahead, together. He got up for a second to use he restroom and I leaned back in the booth, rearranged the napkin in my lap and took a sip of wine. Suddenly, I heard a voice clear as a bell, as clear as if someone had walked up behind me, leaned over my shoulder and whispered a single word in my ear. It said ‘go’ in a voice that I can still hear if I try hard enough — -it had a slight British slant to it. I was spooked. My boyfriend came back and we finished our meal, and we broke up not long after.
Years later, a few weeks after my father died from cancer, I was riding the subway, watching a tall man pet and gently bounce a freshly hatched baby that he was carrying in one of those soft, peanut-shaped sling wraps. The entire car seemed to be watching them, bewitched by their abundance of life. The father seemed young, nervous and excited, and all we could see of the baby was a dark and damp patch of hair. I felt a sharp tang well up in me — -a feeling that I would later come to understand as inconsolable grief, but at the time it was like tasting something entirely new, a flavor I did not know existed. I stood up, wobbling, and started weaving for the door, when a woman accidentally stepped into my path. I bumped into her and the bouquet that she was carrying. The scent of the flowers — -lilies — -flooded into my nose, and I thought of my father, who always kept a fresh bunch in his house. I took a step back, and the woman with the flowers, who had her back to me, did the same. The fragrance washed over me again and I grasped at the vague notion that perhaps this was a different kind of apparition or visitation and I rode along for a few more stops, basking in the smell, and then the woman stepped off the train. I never did manage to see her face.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Jenna Wortham is a technology reporter for the New York Times. If she could have dinner with any ghost, it would be Tupac.