Tuesday, October 8, 2013
I don't believe in ghosts--but they believe in me
I don’t believe in ghosts. And yet they keep haunting me.
I’d like for ghosts to be real. Same thing for ESP and some other parapsychological stuff, too, like Jungian synchronicity. For one thing, it all makes for excellent programming on Discovery Channel and in movies starring SNL alums. Beyond that, most of us--skeptics included--would prefer that some part of our conscious persists after death. That the journey has meaning. That we can, if we choose, watch over our loved ones and haunt our bad landlords into eternity. That we will be able to read the final Game of Thrones novel when it’s published one century from now by George R.R. Martin’s great grandson, George R.R.R.R.R. Martin.
Ghosts offer a translucent carrot towards that effect, a tantalizing ectoplasmic treat we chase despite its complete lack of recordable scent, touch, taste, sound, and sight. (And no, sadly, the apocryphal 21 grams-lighter-after-death pseudo-study doesn’t offer scientific proof that the soul has mass; it was a dubious experiment conducted by a single Massachusetts doctor whose results a century ago were reported in the New York Times but have never been replicated; we’ll get to the science-of-ghosts stuff later).
And yet some people who don’t believe in ghosts seem to have ghosts who believe in them. I’ve heard from reasonable people, in Finland and in America and elsewhere, whose freaky stories have tickled the hmmmmmm centers of my brain. Nothing that would stack up against the criteria required by full-blown empirical evidence. But occasionally someone who I trust will bust out with a ghost story juicy enough to make me shiver beside the campfire while waving a flaming marshmallow at the full moon.
One of my bosses at Harvard Medical School once had a ghost ride in her backseat all the way from Western Mass to the Boston area. She wasn’t proud of her story—I don’t know how I coaxed it out of her—but in between looking at blood pressure data and eyeball rotation, we got to talking about ghosts. She said that she kept on looking in her rearview mirror and seeing a red-headed young man in the back seat who shouldn’t have been there. She didn’t want to tell her fiancé riding shotgun about it, figuring he’d make fun of her. Well, she got freaked out enough that she finally said, “Don’t call me crazy, but I think there’s been a ghost in the backseat the last half hour.” And he said, “You see it too? I’ve been going nuts in here thinking I was seeing stuff!” They both proceeded to scream, pull over, and perform an exorcism by repeating the Latin form of “AAAAAHHHH!!!” while heebee-jeebee dancing around the car. Which, if you’re ever in a similar situation, is very similar to the English version of “AAAAAAAHHHHH!!!” and entails the pulling of hair and waving of arms. Not sure what happened to the phantom hitchhiker. Eventually it disappeared.
Most of that story’s power over me relies on witness credibility. She’s an extremely rational person. I trust her. We checked off the abundant rational explanations for otherworldly phenomena—stuff like refraction of light, momentary lapses into dreaming, pattern recognition, bad Thai food, good acid, and the like. But she didn’t do acid or eat Thai. Not that night, or any other night, she claimed. So we’ll chalk her experience up to freaky unexplained phenomena.
My mother’s story about her own mother’s death is more touching. A young woman at the time, my mom was on her way to the hospital to visit her dying mother when my mom became overwhelmed with emotion. Suddenly, she had to pull over and sob. She knew that her mother had died. Just knew it. Some time into her weeping episode, my mom felt a warm presence in the seat beside her. She stopped sobbing. Her mother—some non-corporeal variation of her—was sitting in the car seat beside her, consoling her that everything would be okay. Warmth and strength filler her. She put the car in gear. At the hospital, she took the news of her mother’s actual death a few minutes later with remarkable composure. She was prepared, after all. After that, my mom always believed, albeit self-consciously.
So here’s my story. This one actually was seen by dozens of people, although to call it a ghost isn’t quite right. Two months after my own mother died of cancer when I was 14 years old, a golden crow began visiting my backyard. And when I say gold, I mean gold. Like, the same pigment mutation for albino, only expressed as gold. Which, my research has revealed, is probably what happened to that crow. Xanthrochroism, it’s called. A golden pigment defect seen across various species, in fish most often. But crows? Black crows turned gold? I’ve never heard of another golden crow. Nowhere. It’s not in the literature, as a scientist might say. But there it was in my back yard with me and buddies. We’d be shooting hoops or messing around in the yard when the golden crow would swoop down and stare at us. Only one kid had the temerity to look at it with shy eyes and say, “Dude. Is that your mom?” He wasn’t joking. We sort of tried to laugh it off, but it got awkward. The crow kept looking at us. Did I mention the crow started visiting right after my mother died? That it kept coming back for all of high school? Probably a coincidence. Probably nothing to get worked up about. Part of the grieving process involves grasping for meaning that might or might not be there, after all, and that golden crow was right—and I mean right—there, close enough to grab, often perched on a branch hanging outside the bathroom window staring at me with its cocked head and curious black eyes when I’d find myself in desperate times of teenage angst.
While my inner skeptic knows it was coincidence, my outer novelist still decided to this year draft another novel titled, “The Golden Crow,” that pursues the “what-if” of golden crows and the afterlife (and demons and science and teenage world domination conspiracies as well; sorry, dear reader, I can’t help myself). I just could never shake the feeling that the golden crow meant something. (Crows, by the way, have been mythologized as messengers between our world and the spirit world in cultures literally spanning the globe and from all ages, from ancient India and China to the Celts to Native Americans to Bruce Lee’s son, Brandon, who tragically died while filming an excellent action flick, The Crow, in the early 90s.)
If you’re interested in the science stuff I promised earlier, read this link http://www.ack.net/Paranormal103008.html. A few years back I wrote a science-of-ghosts thing for my old paper, the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror. It was a lot of fun. Nantucket, the old whaling capital of the world, provided excellent atmosphere for the piece. Salem is more famous for its witches, but Nantucket is one of America’s hotbeds for paranormal activity, and it inspired an excellent famous-isalnd-ghost-story collection that's on every good Nantucket resident's or visitor's book shelf. Many islanders admit to either having seen something freaky themselves, or to having heard such testimony by a trusted source. There’s even a ghost tour run by the Nantucket Historical Association. Ghosts are kind of part of life there.
This story took more research and uncovered more cool stuff than you'd believe. I spoke with the long-time head of the American Parapsychological Association, Dean Radin, a super interesting guy who was involved with the studies by DARPA and the CIA for the cold war psi spying programs of the 1970s, as well as the so-called Stargate program of the 1980s. A lot of that stuff was fodder for the Cohen Brother's movie, “The Men Who Stare at Goats.” Interesting to me, was that the American Parapsychological Association was not only begun in 1885 by pioneering Harvard psychologist William James, but since 1969 it has been part of AAAS, the world’s largest and most prestigious science association. Radin also told me something I didn’t print, about his work with a former astronaut who believed he saw angels (or something ghostly and beautiful) while in outer space, a phenomena that’s supposedly been reported by more than one astronaut.
I also spoke with James Kakalios, a physics professor at the University of Minnesota and a really great guy and engaging skeptic whose book, “The Physics of Superheroes” I highly, highly recommend. This guy really nailed it on the science side and his quotes were absolutely money. Worth skipping ahead to his stuff.
Please leave comments about your own freaky stories. I’d love to hear them. Needn’t be about ghosts. Ever had a psychic link with someone? Or predicted something would happen via dream or premonition? I’ll be continuing this theme for the rest of the month, time permitting, and your stories are encouraged!