We don’t believe in ghosts. Of course we don’t. We don’t believe in ghosts, but we must, at least a little bit, because we watch movies with ghosts in them, and when we see those movies, usually… we’re scared. We come home, and we look into the woods, and we’re afraid. We hear noises, we start to wonder. Those movies tell us that ghosts are real. Which might be why we love them, because they allow us to give in.
As Wallace Stevens once wrote, “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.”
We don’t believe, but we believe completely.
We believe in ghosts. We believe in ghosts we have internalized. Sometimes those ghosts are friendly, of our loved ones whom we miss. How wonderful to have their voices in our heads, so they are never gone. But sometimes those ghosts are our childhood attackers, who told us we were not good enough, that we should be ashamed, or afraid, or should just die. A mother. A father. A priest. Another relative, sometimes a teacher. Who are dead but who still fill our heads with voices we try to shut out and ignore. Who know when we are vulnerable, who know when we are doubting decisions we’ve made in our lives, when we are struggling. But if we ignore them, if we say ghosts don’t exist, I will not listen, they in fact gain power, they become the walking dead. Freud understood this – repression gives energy to neuroses. So the only way to deal with ghosts, to dissipate that energy, is to acknowledge them, to say: There you are again. Like an old friend. I hear you, but you can’t hurt me. I laugh at you. So do we believe in ghosts? Yes, we must believe in them, and we must let them know we believe.
We believe in ghosts. In The Monkey’s Paw, a mother wishes for a million dollars, so her son is killed in a horrible factory accident, and she gets a million dollars in insurance money, stricken with guilt, she wishes for him to be alive again. . . even though her husband knows if he appears he will be a monster. . . And appears he does at the door. . . And just before the mother swings open that door, her husband wishes for the son to be dead again, and just as the door swings open, he is gone. . .
My friend’s mother died when I was in school. I wished for anything for her to appear that evening after her funeral, while I slept on my friend’s couch. Did I really want her to appear? God no. But I just wanted to understand what this thing called death was, it was the first time I can remember someone who was so part of my life suddenly being gone. Where did she go? I wanted to see her one more time. Of course I didn’t want to bring her back to life, how horrible, how scary if she had actually appeared, but of course I did. The rational father, the irrational guilt and grief-stricken mother. . . We are one or the other. We are both. Ultimately, we all believe in ghosts. And we all desire ghosts. . .
V. We believe in ghosts. Something is at the door. . . Don’t open it. . . but I must.
David E. Tolchinsky is a writer and filmmaker who lives in Chicago. When he’s not negotiating his complex relationship to ghosts, he enjoys road trips, boxing classes and pie. For more about Dave, davidetolchinsky.com