Ghosts are real.
How’s that for an opening line? Now I want you to go back and read it again.
I want you to read it again, because your response to that statement probably falls within one of three camps, and one of those camps is people who think anyone who believes ghosts are real has lost their marbles. I assure you, dear reader, that my sanity is intact (yes, even after the debacle that was 2020). I’ll show you just how lucid I am by telling you about your responses, and then I’m going to tell you two scary stories.
The first type of response is outright denial. Ghosts aren’t real, and people who say they are should be institutionalized. The physical world obeys a set of rules we more or less understand. We have science books. We know about things like gravity and magnetism, for example. When we die, our bodies rot (you know, unless we burn them or mummify them). Ghosts, phantoms, haints, specters, wraiths, phantasms, poltergeists, spooks, ethereal beings; whatever you want to call them, they are a figment of our imaginations and are by no means real.
The second kind of response stands at the opposite side of the spectrum. Ghosts are obviously real. You’ve seen them. Someone in your family has seen them. You saw a video on YouTube that you know couldn’t have been faked. You’ve had experiences that have convinced you beyond the shadow of a doubt that there is something beyond the veil and that sometimes whatever dividing line there is between the physical world and the spirit world shatters and allows us to experience things from the other side.
The last kind of response is the quiet, thoughtful one. You aren’t sure whether ghosts are real or not, but won’t come down publicly on either side of the fence because it’s hard to believe in supernatural stuff, but there’s a lot of weirdness out there and maybe… well, you know.
Here’s the thing: I understand all those responses because I’ve believed in them at different points in my life. My journey from one to the other shaped the way I see the world, and it’s in part responsible for the path I followed and why I’ve been hustling for years to make a living telling folks horror stories. The two stories that follow are real, but I’m only here to share them, not to convince you.
As I mentioned above, I’m a horror writer. My work mostly entails putting things on the page that aren’t real. Horror writers create narratives full of monsters, vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghosts, demons, creatures from the abyss, aliens, ancient gods, bloodthirsty deities, killers with supernatural powers, and plenty of other things people love to read about. The vast majority of horror readers are happy to read about such things as long as they stay within the realm of fiction. The moment one of those beings threatens to cross over into the real world–the place where people go to work, buy groceries, and put their kids to bed–horror stops being fun and becomes something else. The same thing happens with ghosts.
Now let me tell you about the first and only time I saw a ghost and why it didn’t affect me much.
Back in the summer of 2003 I was floating around Florida, slowly making my way from Miami to Gainesville by Greyhound buses and crashing on sofas, public parks, and no-name motels. My friend William and I were caught in a terrible space horror fiction seldom talks about: the interstitial space between “I just got my BA!” and “What the hell am I going to do with the rest of my life?” The answer, for us, was simple: run away to Florida and move around until we figured it out or ran out of money. We did just that (the moving around and going broke part, I mean, because I’m still trying to figure life out).
The no-name motel we were staying in was across from Miami Beach. There was a Cuban cafeteria a block away that served you two eggs, bacon, toast, and coffee for breakfast for $3.50. The second morning we had breakfast there, the man who served us recognized us and said they also had killer Cubano sandwiches. That night, his words came to mind as soon as my stomach started growling. While William showered, I decided to go down to the Cuban joint and get a sandwich. I put on my shoes and left the room.
The dimly-lit hallway was the same you’ve seen in all no-name motels across the country: bluish carpet with a horrendous pattern on it, old doors on both sides, beige walls, the stench of mold, cigarettes, and humanity hanging in the air like an invisible presence, no windows, and an elevator that, in this case, wasn’t in the middle of the floor but instead was located at the end of the hallway. I was making my way to the elevator when I looked forward and saw two things at once. The first was an old man with a full head of white hair, a white shirt, and blue trousers walking toward the elevator. The second was the elevator’s door sliding open. I started walking faster. The elevator opened and the old man stepped in and turned sideways the way people do when they’re about to press a button on the side panel. The door started closing, so I sped up again and said “Hey!” Not eloquent, I know, but a good way to get someone’s attention and get them to hold the door for you. The man didn’t hold the door, so I broke into a sprint.
I managed to lift my right foot and stop the door before it closed. The door lazily pulled back and I stepped into the elevator ready to give the man a deadly stare–but he wasn’t there.
Anticlimactic, isn’t it? No music, no jump scare, no lingering image, no demonic face engraved on the elevator’s wall, no message written in blood on the floor; the man was simply gone. I’d seen him. I’d noticed what he was wearing. I’d watched him walk into the elevator and turn. Then he’d vanished.
By that point in my life, I knew all the theories about ghosts, so I immediately decided that I’d seen some lingering image of a man who had probably died at the motel. I was more excited than scared. I’d seen a ghost! I’d been waiting for something like that to happen for years, and it had finally happened. You see, I already belonged to the group of people that are sure ghosts are real, and this was confirmation of that.
The page is the only place other than memory in which humans we can travel back in time, and that’s what I’ll do right now, and I’m bringing you with me, so buckle up.
The reason the ghost of that old man in the elevator wasn’t as mind-blowing as it could’ve been is that a few years before that (non)encounter, I’d been in a room with a ghost, and that time it was scary.
If the opening line was strong, get ready for one that gives it a run for its money: I used to date a woman who could see ghosts. Again, I’m not joking, and I’m fully aware of what some readers’ reaction will be. However, it’s true. I won’t name her here because I want to respect her privacy, but if you went to high school with me, you know who I’m talking about. I’ll call her Kay.
Kay and I dated for a couple years. She and her mother were perfect examples of the kind of syncretism that permeates culture in the Caribbean, where people understand there’s a lot going on and no single religion or belief system can encompass all of it. Kay and her mom sometimes went to church on Sundays, but they got limpias at least once a month, kept candles lit at home at all times, and went to get their cards read whenever they had time.
I recall the first time her ability to see ghosts came up. We were on our way to the movies and she suddenly started crying. I don’t mean the quiet, serious cry that people do when they’re sad or angry; this was the loud, ugly crying of someone who’s seen or felt something that pushed them beyond the point of self-control or decorum. When Kay finally calmed down, she explained to me she’d seen a dead kid by the side of the road. She didn’t have to explain how she knew the kid was dead. I didn’t ask her if this was the first time it’d happened. I was worried and at the time belonged to the group of people who think ghosts only exist in books and movies. It was weird, sure, but everyone is weird in some way, so I quickly pushed it aside. Like other things in life, though, this didn’t want to stay away.
As time went on, Kay shared a few more visions. I could write an essay recounting the times we were driving around or walking somewhere and she’d either gasp out of the blue or simply start crying. We never had a long, full conversation about it, but we had plenty of short ones that gave me the gist of it: she had been seeing ghosts since she was a kid. Some of them looked awful and had blood on them from their accidents or murders, but others were just people that appeared out of nowhere looking like anyone else.
This is where things get creepy.
Kay’s mom had a beach apartment and I was occasionally invited. (Yeah, I had to sleep on the sofa.) During the day we’d hit the beach or the pool, then have lunch, and usually headed back to the apartment to watch a movie or read. The apartment had a small room with two beds and we often went there, each take a bed, and read. On this Saturday afternoon, the sun was starting to go down and we were both engrossed in our books. I heard Kay gasp and looked at her. She had placed her book next to her and was in the process of sitting up against the wall next to the bed and bringing her knees up to her chest. Her eyes were glued to the corner of the room opposite the door. I looked at the spot she was fixated on, but there was nothing there. I asked her if she was okay. “No,” said Kay in a low voice. “There’s something in the room with us.”
You have to understand two things. The first is that she had never announced it when she saw a ghost. The times I’d caught it were because she either gasped or started crying. Hearing her say “There’s something in the room with us” was much scarier, and somehow made the whole thing real.
The second thing is the word choice. She didn’t say “a ghost” or “someone”; she said “something.” That scared the hell out of me.
Your suspension of disbelief is either still here or went out the window a few paragraphs ago. That’s okay. Regardless of where it’s at, this gets worse. After Kay said “There’s something in the room with us,” I looked back at the spot she was staring at and still saw nothing. A second later, the temperature in the room dropped. I’m not talking about a few degrees; I’m talking about stepping into a meat freezer while wearing shorts and a t-shirt. The change in temperature was something I still believed belonged in “reality” TV shows and horror movies. Experiencing it gave me chills (no pun intended). Fear is a weird thing, and the fear I experienced that day was new to me. I felt like a strong, cold hand was pulling at the skin on the back of my head while a boa constrictor squeezed the air out of my lungs. Something was in the room with us. Then Kay whimpered.
Crying and gasping were things I was used to. Whimpering was new, and it turned up my fear to 11. What was she seeing? How was this different? What did she mean by “something”? I moved to her bed and wrapped my arms around her. “Let’s get outta here,” I said, my mind pushing me to get away from there as quickly as possible. “No,” said Kay, “I don’t want to be close to it.”
We didn’t move. I saw nothing. Kay kept her eyes glued to the same spot. The temperature remained lower than it could’ve possibly had been. Fear settled in my stomach like a rock and the hand at the back of my neck kept doing its thing.
When Kay moved, I knew the thing had moved on or vanished or done whatever it is ghosts do when they no longer want to be somewhere. I unwrapped my arms from around her trembling body and looked at her. I had too many questions, but despite my ignorance at the time about many things in life, I knew she was not going to answer any of them and would rather not talk about what had happened.
Kay and I were together for a bit after that, but there were no more ghosts. Then we drifted apart and realized we were hungry for different things, so our relationships came crashing down. We didn’t keep in touch, but I know she’s married now and has two kids. Here’s the thing: sometimes I wonder if her kids see ghosts as well. I don’t know if Kay’s gift—her curse—is something she can pass on to her kids. What I do know is that if we had stayed together and had kids, my heart would jump to my throat any time one of the kids said there was a monster under the bed or something hiding in the closet.
I decided to write horror for a variety of reasons. I think horror writers do what we do because we like to be the one holding the candle in the dark room. We love having the power to reveal to others the thing that hide in the dark. We also love to entertain, excite, and scare. Horror fiction is like all other kinds of fiction: much closer to the truth than most people want to accept. I write horror fiction because ghosts are real, and if ghosts are real and some people can see them from time to time, then some of the other stuff we write about… well, you know.
Sometimes it’s late at night and I’m on the sofa reading or watching a movie, the house quiet and the dog asleep next to me, and then I’ll hear a bump, a loud click or crack, a step in another room I know is empty. When that happens, a voice in my brain tells me it’s the house settling, the wind knocking a branch against a window, an insomniac pigeon on the roof, or the icemaker birthing a new chunk of ice.
But there’s another voice, too, that interrupts the first one and tells me the sound was something else. That voice reminds me that ghosts are real and they are all around us. I hate that voice because it sometimes unsettles me and makes me stare too hard into shadowy corners, which makes me feel like a kid ready to pull the covers over his head to protect himself from the bad things in the dark.
Ah, but I also love that voice. It reminds me sometimes there are things in the closet or in the woods or hiding in the dark, and I like knowing we’re not alone. I like knowing the other side of the veil is always there and ghosts are real. I love that voice because it keeps me doing what I do.