Appropriately for this week, I am at World Fantasy Con in Saratoga Springs, where the theme is “Ghosts and Revenants.” I did a ghost walk night before last. There have been a lot of sightings here. It doesn’t feel as resonant as, well, New Orleans! – but there’s definitely stuff around.
I’ve had three ghost encounters in my life.
I wrote THE HARROWING about a haunted college, with a ghost apparently from the 1920’s, and it never occurred to me the whole time that I was writing it that I was writing it because I went to a haunted high school, with a ghost from the 1920’s. I was a theater kid and the greatest thing about my high school was this beautiful, decrepit old auditorium from the turn of the century. It was a real, fully equipped theater and all of us drama kids LIVED in that place – not just for classes and rehearsals, but we were always cutting other classes and hanging out there. It was just live. There were places that you simply would not go alone – under the stage, up in the conference and storage rooms at the top of the building – because there were cold spots and breezes from nowhere and a feeling that you were just not alone. The lights would go off at odd times and props disappeared from the prop table and ended up in unlikely places. Of course those last two kinds of occurrences were undoubtedly sometimes or always the work of pranksters, but that kind of thing only added juice to our feelings of being haunted.
The story was that back in the 1920’s a student named Vicky died in a car accident on the way to her senior prom. The next day was Baccalaureate, and when the class was photographed in their gowns, standing lined up on risers, Vicky appeared in the back row in the photo.
I never saw a shred of evidence to support this story, and of course you may recognize this as a classic urban legend, but we teenagers didn’t know it was an urban legend, and we all believed in Vicky.
THE HARROWING is also based on another spooky incident I experienced in high school. I had another crowd I ran with that was into those classic teenage rites of passage – séances with a Ouija board and breaking into graveyards at night. One of my girlfriends had a single mother with a boyfriend and was often not home for days, and so of course her house was the gathering spot. For a time we were really into playing with the board. And that escalated, as these things do, and we decided to try a séance at a local cemetery. Of course sneaking into a cemetery at night is going to get you jacked up, and we had all those teenage hormones going on to begin with (there were six of us, three boys and three girls.), so we were pretty well flying on our own expectations as we settled down on a likely grave to try making contact. It was always me and my friend, D., who sat with the planchette, and I was quite sure that D. was moving it, but the messages were often perceptive so I always went along with it.
That night the planchette had just begun circling when one of the boys suddenly bolted up in terror and screamed, “OH MY GOD. RUN!!!”
Which we did, screaming all the way to the car, and there, freaked and panting, demanded to know what he saw. He turned and pointed back to the cemetery and we saw that the automatic sprinkler system had gone on. We all could have killed him right there, but instead we went back to D.’s house and jumped right back in to another séance. We always had candles lit in these glass candleholders on the wall, and we were so completely wired from the cemetery that things started getting weird right away. We “contacted” a spirit named Zachary who claimed to be the son of Hitler and was saying some really profoundly nasty things. There was a weird tension in the room – I’m sure all of us thinking at the bottom of it that my friend was actually saying these things and being uneasy about that, but not quite willing to put a stop to it.
And then in the middle of the board spelling out a sentence, one of the candleholders shattered on the wall.
(Mass hysteria, screaming, running from the house, hours to calm down again…)
We never played with the board again after that. I never believed that we actually contacted a spirit, but I was very affected by that demonstration of collective psychic energy: I thought that the combination of all our intense focus on the board had actually effected a physical manifestation. It’s a classic poltergeist situation, and pretty much hooked me on the supernatural for life.
My third experience was much more recent. When I moved into my house in LA, there was a front bedroom that just didn’t feel right. It was fine in the day, but as soon as it started getting dark, I had an enormous reluctance to go into the room. The middle of the room was also weirdly cold. It was the best bedroom but I wouldn’t sleep in it, until someone moved in with me and we started sleeping in it. But on several nights I had the same dream or not quite dream – of a small, very angry woman rushing out of the closet, just a ball of fury. My partner had the same dream.
And then I got my cats, and the ghost completely disappeared. The sense of the room totally changed, no more cold spot, no more dreams. And yes, the cats have been controlling the rest of my life ever since as well.
But that haunting felt the most real of the three of them, because I was so sure of an imprinted presence.
The best thing about having written a ghost story as my first novel is that now everyone I meet always tells me their ghost stories. And I’ve heard way too many not to believe – something.