naughty boys

We’re standing just inside the front door of our old house one evening, coming in our going out, I don’t remember.  It’s twilight.

Rrrrrinnnggg! goes the doorbell.  It goes for a long time, a ring that sounds insistent, and a little mean.  The ringer is inside the coat closet by the door.  I reach in and pretend to fiddle with it, and it stops.  My little girls are crying.

‘Silly thing,’ I say.  These old electrics do this on humid nights.

The girls calmed down.  It was a nasty trick to play on little people.

Which brings us to (a) what shitheads the fallen angels are, and (b) how heavily God’s hand limits them.  50,000 years (or whenever the fall of satan was) to learn wisdom about how to sabotage people, and this is the best they can do?  Ring doorbells and hide?



more inane orbs

Cold afternoon, and I’m at my downstairs desk, paying bills.  Bleached light, pale sky.

I observe a little red play of something electrical, down at the baseboard opposite.  It makes me think of a science fair project.  It’s a tiny cascade, a fall of what looks like the laser pointer I use in lectures.  It descends maybe 7 inches, in 2 seconds, and that is all.  It’s gone.

I stand up, worried about wiring.  I remember: there are no wires along that wall.  (I know because I wired this part of the house.)

I remember reading somewhere that orbs can look like this.  Ah!

Did I feel a Presence?  No.  And I never do.  Was I alarmed?  No.  These things always happen too fast.

Was the whole thing kind of dumb?  Yes.  Did the entity know what I was thinking?  Probably not, or it wouldn’t have bothered with something as unremarkable as an orb.

Jesus allows an apparition

So I’m shivering in the Newcastle train station, looking for my 3:17 to Edinburgh.  I’ve just been given a job, and I’m exhausted from the interviewing and from hiking through a cruel rain and imagining how I’ll befriend this packed and grimy and good-natured a tough Victorian theme park of a city.  It doesn’t help that I’m fighting through the end of my winter cold, so I’m dazed and headachy anyway.   

In the dark figures on the platform with me is a church eccentric.  I know the type.  He looks like a Latin teacher, only seedy:  Lenten purple turtleneck, threadbare lecturer’s jacket, leaky shoes.  He’s got one of those wooden crosses on a leather cord, of the sort you buy in liberal Anglican bookstores.  He’s got dandruff.  He’s weaving through people and talking animatedly.  He’s got an eyes-closed grin, and he’s blinking a lot, like the light is bright (which it isn’t here).  I don’t think much about him, or anyone else, because my head hurts and my feet are wet, and part of me is still back in the interview room.   

I make a couple circuits around the steel benches and the station billboards, toes stinging, and I become aware of a low string of words, about a train set.  It’s this eccentric.  He has circled around the steel benches too, and is walking right at me.  He’s talking at me, too, and it’s about trains, and he’s a little bit louder he should be.   

He says, ‘… and so, there we were, going round and round and round.  After all this waiting, we all got on, you know, and then it was just a train set.  Just a ruddy train set!  Only we didn’t realise it.  Ha! Ha!’  

I’ve already gone to Weirdo Mode.  It’s uncharitable, and I do feel guilty, but I turn sidelong to him and try to look occupied.   

‘We’d no idea!  What a ruddy dream that was!  Ha! Ha!’   

I bob the polite nod, and say ‘sure sounds strange, yeah.   

He has unbrushed teeth.  He’s still in that squint-grin.   

I turn away, I hear him chortle something like ‘one strange dream’, and it sounds as though he’s turning away from me too.  I glance over at him, and he’s not there.  I rush eyes around the platform, and he’s really not there.   

I’m astonished.   

I turn all the way around, two or three times.   

I’ve started breathing hard.   

I scope every dark figure on the platform, intensely.  There are only a dozen of us.  The train is rumbling in.  The dark crowd starts to move.  The eccentric is nowhere at all.   

It’s exhilarating.   

I glance back and forth behind me as I get into Car C, and fumble out my ticket.  I’d been praying for a spirit for a long time.  I’d been praying about a lot of things.  I’d been talking to Jesus intensely in the train ride to the interview.  We’d been conferencing before then, about liberating me from the dismal college job I’d been in for too long.  I’d been worrying with him over family darkness as well.  All these things felt like dungeons, and I wanted to liberation.  I wanted to rise to Jesus and just be with him, and watch as he lifted me free.  And just for indulgence, simply as a dad-favor, I wanted to meet a spirit.  I was pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to.  I told him I thought it was naughty of me to ask.  But I wanted to see a for-sure spirit, just because it would make me know, even deeper than I already knew, that spiritual things were real.  By inference, I would then know even deeper that God is real.  I’d prayed a lot for this.  Be it an angel, be it a demon, it didn’t matter to me.  I just asked that it not be scary, and that I know at the time that it was a spirit I was seeing.  And I wanted to see it, not feel it or hear it.   

And I got one, of the rare variety, no less: the ones that seem human, and that speak to you.   

In the yellow light of the train, I remembered all this praying, and I started worrying.  Was this visitation just now demonic or angelic?  I have the scriptural assurance from Hebrews, that people have entertained angels and not known it.  Angels can be around us all time, in other words, and in fact they probably are, given how interested God and his angels are in us.  We’re sort of their job.  We may well see them in crowds every day.  So this eccentric could have been angelic.   

But I didn’t like him.  In retrospect, I remembered not liking that disinhibited, rather manic, grin.   

He was also intrusive.  Are angels intrusive?  Sometimes they are, in scripture, but only in a grand and holy sort of way, when they’re announcing something or rebuking someone – not when they’re incognito.  That must be why we’ve entertained unknowingly.  There was something like an ambush with this visitation.  He veered around a crowd and came right at me.  He was not only intrusive, he was disruptive.  There was something about him that seemed inclined to make trouble, I thought.   

He was also strangely disengaged.  He wasn’t trying for a conversation.  He was broadcasting.  Ghosts do exactly that.  And I think that ‘ghosts’ are demonic masquerades of dead people.  I’ve never heard of them engaging in real conversations.   

Then I got worried.  Had this demon come to me in particular, or was he trawling the platform for humans to bother?  I tried to remember if anyone had spoken with him.  I couldn’t.  Did they even see him?  I didn’t know.   

Was there something about me that attracted him?  If Jesus was making a pastoral breakthrough with me, if I was maturing as a Christian, was this spirit allowed to approach me now, as part of some sort of advanced lesson?  Was he approaching me out of spite, resenting my progress?   

I’m not inclined to think that demons are all-knowing.  They come across in the Bible as rather limited beings.  Anyone who has watched a Ouija board session can’t think they know much, either.  I found myself doubting that his visit, while eerie, was terribly important.  Nor did I think he knew much about me now, or even my whereabouts.  I thought, if he appears in Edinburgh, I’ll think this is a bigger project than it seems.  He never did.

When seeing Mama changes everything

bachelors grove

Just a quick note on how easy it is for a chance encounter with the supernatural to change our entire outlook on things that are as dear and important to us as life itself. A student of mine said sadly after class last week that she’d seen her mother after she died. ‘I used to imagine that dead people were all in a nice place, or most of them were,’ she said. ‘Heaven, I guess you’d say. But after I saw my mom, I thought, well, here she is, right here. So I guess there isn’t a heaven.’

It was a profoundly melancholy moment. She calls herself ‘an agnostic.’ No, she’s not. Never underestimate our need for the supernatural.

[The picture is one of the most famous in print. It was taken by Judy Huff Felz in the Bachelors Grove cemetery outside Chicago in 1991. I reproduce it here from Ursula Bielski’s website, ‘Chicago Hauntings.’ Ms Bielski outlines the prevailing theories as to the identity of this apparition. They center on the theme of mother and child separated.]

Experimental method and apparitions

Apparitions on Youtube are nothing like what people report. If you’re like me, and think that supernatural agency is demonic, not human, that makes perfect sense. The principal function of a fallen angel is to deceive. Masquerade as the shade of dead human, and hey presto, a watching human may conclude that the dead are awake and sentient, some of them at least, and not asleep to us, as Jesus told us more than once. But the wise demon will not want to be documented too well. He wants us as confused as possible. So he’ll keep his best pantomimes far away from cameras. He’d prefer to be known through reportage, memory, and legend. If he leaves something unambiguous to study, we’ll reach a different, probably more rational, set of conclusions about the geography of the afterlife. A demon is probably happiest knowing that we’re not even unanimous about his very existence. C.S. Lewis has a demon make this point somewhere in the Screwtape Letters. So if you want to film a ghost, and ghosts are actually demons, don’t expect much success. That’s my hypothesis.

I said this to someone I know who had seen the very regular apparition of Lady Louisa Stuart (or so named by tradition*) in the grounds of Scotland’s ‘Traquair House’ in Innerleithen. She wanted to return with cameras. I told her I believed she’d seen what she reported, but that she’d not be able to get a good shot if it returned, however well she might see it with the naked eye. She went. She saw the spectre. So did her friends. But sure enough, the resulting video was too dark to make anything out. As predicted.

*See Hans Holzer, for example, in Ghosts: True Encounters with the World Beyond (Open Road Media, 2012), passim.


When we prefer the ugly spirits

It’s probably too obvious to say, but when we perseverate on ghosts, in fiction or when we speculate about real ones we’ve met, we’re really talking about ourselves mostly.  We project onto phantoms the parts of our own identity that fascinate us, particularly our failings.  That’s to be expected.  We do it with each other, too, notably our spouses, as Harville Hendrix has shown beautifully.*  What are we afraid of, when we’re not feeling viable, not feeling comforted, not feeling Right?  Eventually, it’s death.  We’re afraid, in our baby way, of no longer living.  Good marriages, and healthy existence everywhere else, requires growing out of babyhood, thinking critically about how the world works, and devising creative solutions to threats, disappointments, longings, and the rest.

C.S. Lewis wrote an allegory rather close to this concept, in The Great Divorce.**  Taking some liberties with the Scriptural depiction of our afterlives, he conceived of the damned, failed people, as ghosts, allowed to visit heaven when they liked, but doomed mostly to reject it, preferring the hell that is much their own construction.  Our own narcissism, like satan’s first and greatest act of pride, is the thing that separates us from our Maker, in whom we were built to reside.  Death, and the things of death, are our own fault.

Now, it’s a bad thing to want to keep company with spirits at all.  It’s not the right solution to our fallen state.  Scripture says so, whether we think we’re talking with the dead (who don’t hear us) or consorting with demons.  Even trying to contact angels isn’t strictly Cricket.  By extension, fascination with ghosts is probably not a good idea either.  But what a telling thing it is, to examine the sort of ghosts we construct.  For it shows how we are, at least when we’re not in our right minds.  Listen to this passage, from the end of Chapter 9 of the Great Divorce.  Lewis has his narrator describe all manner of human folly, as it extends into ectoplasm.  The follies range from wrong-headed indignation through drifty nihilism to crumbling despair – there’s a gorgeous turn of phrase about the eventuality of the cemetery.

‘There were tub-thumping Ghosts who in thin, batlike voices urged the blessed spirits to shake off their fetters, to escape from their imprisonment in happiness, to tear down the mountains with their hands, to seize Heaven “for their own”: Hell offered her co-operation. There were planning Ghosts who implored them to dam the river, cut down the trees, kill the animals, build a mountain railway, smooth out the horrible grass and moss and heather with asphalt. There were materialistic Ghosts who informed the immortals that they were deluded: there was no life after death, and this whole country was a hallucination. There were Ghosts, plain and simple: mere bogies, fully conscious of their own decay, who had accepted the traditional role of the spectre, and seemed to hope they could frighten someone. I had had no idea that this desire was possible. But my Teacher reminded me that the pleasure of frightening is by no means unknown on earth, and also of Tacitus ‘ saying: “They terrify lest they should fear.” When the debris of a decayed human soul finds itself crumbled into ghosthood and realises “I myself am now that which all humanity has feared, I am just that cold churchyard shadow, that horrible thing which cannot be, yet somehow is,” then to terrify others appears to it an escape from the doom of being a Ghost yet still fearing Ghosts-fearing even the Ghost it is.’

And now a post-script.  Remember that Christian logic, drawing on Jesus’s recorded utterances about the dead, says that wailing wraiths are really demonic imposters of the dead, whose function is to deceive us about death if they can, and more generally to frighten us if they can.  Why do they want to frighten us?  Because they are condemned, and will be destroyed in time.  They were once exalted, appointed to be our caretakers.  They fell, because of their own self-importance.  They would like us to do the same.  They themselves are terrified.  This passage, about shame, despair and fear, and crumbling into failure, and then being ferocious in the ensuing panic, applies to us exactly as it applies to them.

When we dally with the lost – the really lost – it’s because we instinctively know this.

*Getting the Love You Want.  A Guide for Couples (Simon & Schuster, 1993, 2001).

**The Great Divorce (Geoffrey Bles, 1945); this was originally a serial feature in the Guardian.

Fox News as culture sample

A Fox News report here, out of Pennsylvania, shows the perfect baseline workup of what your basic American makes of the supernatural. It’s a salad of ideas and solutions, from lots of sources, generally unnamed and not carefully considered. These manifestations are unusually aggressive and varied: scratches, pushes, at least one EVP, plus lots of orbs, a shadow man, and a door shutting on command. These together are rare.

What do the watchers make of it all? It’s ‘bad’, ‘evil’, ‘scary’, and ‘inhuman’.

What is doing the haunting? ‘Ghosts’ and at least one ‘demon’. (How one tells the difference is not clear.) Why are the entities being so unpleasant? There’s ‘a history of grisly deaths’ in the house. Also, the entities don’t want their stories told, though they seem happy enough to perform on television.

What does one do about scary hauntings? The reporter thought she’d ‘need’ a Ouija board. The woman of the house cleansed the cameraman’s scratches with what looks like holy water, and said, ‘God bless you’. She thought the Ouija board would provoke the entities. Was hers a strictly Christian perspective? She invited priests to visit, but also ‘mediums’ and ‘researchers’ (and at least one other television crew.)

Take the cameraman and the reporter as Everyman. He arrived ‘skeptical’ but liked watching ghost reportage. She was receptive to empirical data, but nearly stopped the interview because the situation just felt bad.