Graymalkin October

It’s not like you need an excuse to read ghost stories in October.  At least that’s what I hoped other passengers on the bus would think.  Yesterday on my way into and out of New York City I read the next in the series of Ed and Lorraine Warren books, this one titled Graveyard, and written by Robert David Chase.  Now, you need to realize that I’d heard of the Warrens long before The Conjuring came out.  Those of us curious about ghosts to the point of reading at least semi-serious books on them know the brand.  What I don’t know is how to find out much about what “the Warrens” actually wrote.  These books are being (have been) republished by Graymalkin Media, after having originally been published by mainstream publishers.  This one was originally released by St. Martin’s Press.  Those of us in publishing believe that stands for something.

Loosely tied together around graveyard stories, featuring for half the book Union Cemetery near the Warrens’ Monroe, Connecticut home, the book ranges far and wide concerning ghosts.  Here we meet a man or two who turned into demons—I wonder how that works?—and a good demon punishing an evil person.  Some of these stories seem straight out of the high school scare-your-date playbook, while others are actually pretty scary.  A mix of accounts by either Ed or Lorraine, and stories embellished, it seems, by Chase, this book is like a trick-or-treater’s Halloween bag—you never know what you’re going to get.  It’s a little too bad because I’ve read some sober, and serious treatments of ghosts over the past several autumns, and with the Warrens’ vast experience, it’s a unfortunate that the accounts had been so dolled up.

It’s a shame that scholars of religion can’t be more forthright about their interest in the spiritual world.  I know many that I won’t call out here that are secretly—some openly—exploring these kinds of questions.  That won’t get you tenure anywhere (something the Ghostbusters reboot got right).  Even in the world of science there are forbidden topics.  That’s because, as this little book points out, spirits creak open the doors to all kinds of uncertainties.  I suspect that’s a similar reason that scholars of religion are treated with a certain mistrust by other guilds within the academy.  We need to play it straight and prove that we aren’t given to flights of fancy that might suggest something as unsophisticated as belief.  Still, as Graveyard shows, ghost stories are extremely common.  In fact, no October would be complete without them.  So I hope the other passengers think.

Scared Space

Ghosts appear whether they exist or not. People have seen them, we know, since as early as written records permit us to know. I first ran into Colin Dickey’s name in a review of the new Ghostbusters movie. The bio made mention of his book, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places. Then it was a matter of waiting until autumn to read it. It’s a book that will long stay with me. Dickey’s not out to prove or disprove ghosts—they are simply there (and sometimes not). Ghosts, however, teach us quite a lot about the living. What we value. What we fear. What we disdain. Some of the ghost stories in this book are famous and familiar, others obscure and pedestrian. What they all have in common is a sense of place.

This book is primarily about place. Ghosts seem to be generated by the fact that people have lived here before us. Focusing on the United States, Dickey points out that land stolen from others has inhabitants already. On top of Native American sites, we now have a few hundred years of European and African and Asian building. Lives lived on top of other lives. And although we can’t say for sure what ghosts are, they do seem to be associated with buildings, or at least places. Organized in a kind of concentric structure, the book describes ghosts of haunted houses, then haunted businesses and public buildings, including haunted outdoor spaces. And finally haunted cities. These hauntings are residue of our own making. We build, we inhabit, we die. Whether ghosts are just memories or uncanny feelings, they are ghosts nevertheless.

Combining a couple of my favorite ideas—ghosts and the sense of space—Ghostland is a rare blend of history and folklore. The architecture of our constructions functions like tombs for our imagination. We are spiritual beings, whether religious or not. Even if we’re in denial of that spirituality, we sense that somehow life doesn’t simply end. We’ve left a mark, a scratch, a dent. As long as those who’ve known us live, we continue on in their minds and lives. And some, it seems, remain beyond even that to be seen by strangers centuries later, maintaining the sacredness of space once familiar while living. Ghost stories are human stories, and Dickey is a sure guide along the way. He doesn’t tell you what to believe, but he tells you something you already may know but not realize. No matter whether they’re ever proven, or whether they even really exist, as long as there are human beings there will also be ghosts.

Thy Fandom Come

It’s not hard to feel that you’re from another planet. If you were born in the sixties and had kind of a rough transition to this whole internet thing, you know what I mean. Still, I want to be part of it—it’s kind of like New York City, only bigger. And faster. The commute doesn’t take nearly as long, now that dial-up’s a thing of the past. So I bought someone who was into fandom Sam Muggs’ The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Handbook for Geek Girls. This particular fandom, well, fan, gave me the book to read. I’m a feminist, so I don’t have any issues with reading a book intended for girls. What became clear to me, however, is that I don’t understand the internet nearly as well as I thought I did, and that girls find they’re oppressed there too. What is it with men and control?

It is an ethical issue. I don’t blame people in the past for not thinking like we do, but today there’s no excuse whatsoever for considering somebody a lesser person because of their gender. Women and girls have just as much right to “guy things” like geekdom as do males of the species. Fandom is all about fun. Enjoying the fantasy of living, for a little while, in other worlds. From the way many men treat women it’s no wonder that they feel that need just as much as my own self-identified gender. Religion, unfortunately, bears much of the blame for this. In the largest religious bodies in the world women are still excluded from leadership roles. Religion is kind of like fandom in that way, I suppose. It can be all about exclusion. We exclude others to make ourselves feel special. Why not celebrate difference and find a place for everyone?

It’s difficult to read The Fangirl’s Guide as a man simply because you’re constantly reminded (and not intentionally, because it’s written for girls) at how inhospitable men have made much of the world for their female earthling compatriots. I was reminded at several points in this book of how films like Wonder Woman and the recent Ghostbusters stand out in their sympathetic portrayal of women heroes. And equally how men find reasons to criticize them. Then I consider the White House and shudder. When a nation elects an open and avowed patriarchalist as president we all could use a fantasy world in which to hide. This little book didn’t make me into a fangirl, but I do hope it makes me a better man.

Ready, Ames,

Ames, Iowa is famous for many things. Not only is it where my wife grew up and where we were married, but it’s also the home city of Howard Bannister from What’s Up Doc? and it served as the staging ground for the crew of Twister, which includes some scenes shot in the area. Probably its greatest claim to fame, apart from the sadly defunct Do-Biz Cookies, is being the location of Iowa State University. Often I lingered near campus during family visits, wistfully hoping that someday someone in the religion department would welcome me among the faculty. My academic curse, however, is a powerful one. And that brings me (finally!) to the topic of this post—the haunted history of ISU.

Even the first president had a biblical name.

The website onlyinyourstate (we’re evolving out of the need for a spacebar) has a whimsical story about the hauntings on ISU’s main campus. The story isn’t scary at all, but it does raise that interesting specter of the ghosts of higher education. I’ve read a few of Elizabeth Tucker’s books about haunted campuses (Tucker teaches at another family school, Binghamton University) and, having spent a good deal of my life in academia, I’ve heard many tales first-hand. The very institutions that repeatedly bash our heads with facts can’t escape their own spooky pasts. Even conservative Christian Grove City College had its share of hauntings that we all knew about. You know, the Ketler ghost, and the spirit of the basketball player who broke through a glass door and bled to death right there on campus? Every campus I’ve known has had its baleful wraiths.

Sometimes I wonder if such stories aren’t a natural reaction to having the wonder excised from the world as we mature. Most of us can make it through high school somehow believing in the real possibilities that the world might offer, only to graduate from college to a 9-to-5 existence robbed of any supernatural splendor at all. Is it any wonder coeds see ghosts? Just the other day I read that a tree trimmer with a high school education in Iowa makes a much higher salary than I do with a Ph.D. working in New York City. Maybe that’s why I enjoy the movie Ghostbusters so much. When the reality of higher education and its politics and cruelty become clear escapism can be your best friend. And if you find yourself in Ames, you might want to avoid Friley, just in case.

Spirit of Equality

A few weekends back I watched the new Ghostbusters in the theater. Since tuition bills loom larger than life, it takes a powerful draw to get me to spend the money to see a movie in its natural setting. As my regular readers know, I loved it. Critics have tended to, well, criticize the movie, largely for its main drawing feature—the female leads. A thoughtful piece in by Colin Dickey in New Republic points out some of the unusual dynamics at play here. Looking at the history of Spiritualism as the basis for the modern interest in ghosts, Dickey suggests that women have been involved in the long-term fascination with the dead from the beginning. Their motive, however, was generally communication. Women wanted to relate with ghosts to make a connection. The original Ghostbusters movie represented a male, rationalistic approach to ghosts. As Dickey points out, instead of communicating, the men hunt and trap rather than trance and rap.

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Ghostbusters, in all three cinematic presentations, is for laughs. Sometimes classified as supernatural comedy, the film is meant as humor while, admittedly, leaving the door creaking open for some serious thought about the implications. In a reductionistic world there’s no room for ghosts. It’s not possible to say, scientifically, what they might be. From the perspective of traditional belief, however, ghosts are the lost spirits of the departed. Traditional Christian theology places the dead squarely in Heaven or Hell, and they shouldn’t be wandering around down here. That hasn’t stopped people from reporting ghosts. They’ve been recorded almost as long as there has been writing. Today “Ghosthunters,” arms defiantly crossed, use “science” to try to prove the entities exist. This is lightyears from the traditional seance. A ghost under a microscope isn’t very scary.

One of the reasons I found the new Ghostbusters so compelling is that it managed to tiptoe that line between science and spirit that is so rare in the real world. The women, downgraded though they are in the story, are academics. They know, and experience, the dangers of taking haunting seriously. The movie is seriously funny. Like most truly funny efforts, there is a great deal of truth hidden in the humor. Dan Aykroyd’s cameo is one of the scenes that plays on its own loop in my head. “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts,” he says before he drives off toward Downtown. Women, in the film, have a healthy respect for the departed. Not exactly afraid, but not exactly unafraid, they handle ghosts as persons. This may be one of the points Dickey is making in his article. To understand a human one must be human. Spiritualist or Ghostbuster, women have always been superior guides to what is truly important. If only men could learn to listen.

Equal Frights

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Working in Midtown Manhattan, it’s rare for a week to go by without passing through a street that’s set up for a film or television shoot. New York isn’t the largest city in the world, nor does it have the tallest buildings, but it is a city instantly recognizable at a glance. It is also a haunted city. The original Ghostbusters was a New York movie, but the reboot may be even more so (although largely shot in Boston). I’m having difficulty remembering the last time I enjoyed a movie so much. I laughed until the tears came, and the theme of spirits loose in the city appealed to that part of me that loves the strange and unusual. With several nods to the original, and cameos from the surviving cast, this is a child of love that outshines its parent. It’s almost as if it makes the original even better than it was to begin with. This is a movie with a mission.

Clearly one of the factors in making the film so good was the fact that women were the leads. They show at once the empathetic, and funny, intelligent, and challenging—roles that women routinely both possess and face. The characters have trouble being taken seriously by the males around them, yet they are fully as qualified as and indeed, know more than the establishment. Discouraged and downtrodden, they press on, saving New York City. This may be the first time women have been envisioned is such a salvific role. They are scientists, scorned for their brains and for their gender, and yet they overcome.

Sure, there’s fantasy involved here, but fantasy with a message. I applaud this movie that not only entertains, but also makes profound statements at the same time. It gives a rare glimpse of what the world would be like if men were treated with the demeaning outlooks that they already frequently give to women. It is a feminist movie, but not an angry one. I left the theater genuinely elated. Of course, I loved the first Ghostbusters, despite all the cigarettes and sausages. Still, those who made the movie had the grace to bless this new venture that takes viewers into a world where we rely on women to solve the problem. Once it’s solved, however, they are shoved into the background so that the powers that be can take the credit. It is a movie for our times. I would’ve gone to see it for the ghosts alone. I came out, however, knowing that I had seen something not only enjoyable, but which might, if taken seriously, begin to change attitudes and prejudices which haunt us to this day.

Varieties of Non-Religious Experience

The New York Public Library is an icon of rationality. Daily tourists throng by—some inspired by Ghostbusters, others by Between the Lions. Nestled in among some of the tallest buildings in New York City, it is a symbol of culture amid its antithesis, business. Nearing its last days is a small display in the library entitled “Shelley’s Ghost.” Containing handwritten manuscripts and a few artifacts from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s cradle to his grave (literally, his baby-rattle and fragments of his skull), the display celebrates one of England’s most famous and short-lived poets. Shelley, although his life was scandalous at points, was no doubt an idealist. A vegetarian, advocate of “free love,” and protestor, he would have fit well into life a century-and-a-half after he died. He was also an early atheist.

“If ignorance of nature gave birth to gods, knowledge of nature is made for their destruction,” he wrote in The Necessity of Atheism. Not quite the angry atheism often found today, but then, despite his obvious spirituality, Shelley was a rationalist. Born during the English Enlightenment, be was a strange mix of the alchemical and the reasonable. To his young mind the truth was self-evident: the belief in gods grew from nature and therefore the study of nature would reveal those origins. Today the origin of gods is still up for debate, as is the nature of the human animal. It is routine for scientists to claim that our brains are simply processing electro-chemical signals that have no reality beyond this physical world in which they occur. To be a human, however, sure feels like more than that. Shelley was a writer at this nexus. No one writes poetry like that who believes their brain to be full of only electrons.

Reductionism often gets us into trouble. The problem has always been that humans are myopic; we can only see so far and yet assume we have all the data. This myth persists despite the fact that we know some animals pick up on environmental factors that we as humans miss. It need not be supernatural to claim that there is more to the world than we can perceive. This is a double-edged sword. Many of the absolute pronouncements of religions simply don’t match our experience of the world. We find ourselves bombarded by authoritative statements by experts who know as little as we do. I have yet to hear a televangelist who can claim on any intellectual basis any reason that anyone else should pay attention to his raving. Perhaps what the world needs is a few more like Shelley’s ghost—rationalists who still recognize the necessity of poetry.