A thought popped into my head this morning. It happens occasionally. I normally try and ignore them but on this occasion an odd twinge of doubt made me stop and unpack it, put it on the table and spin it around for a good look.
A couple of days ago I posted ‘Ghoulies and Ghosties’, a piece principally about why I don’t believe in ghosts. And yet at the beginning of September I posted what was in effect a sort of ghost story. And I have written several other stories with supernatural themes and intend writing more should the mood take me.
Is this a problem?
I mean, am I lying somewhere along the line, to readers or to myself? Do I really believe in supernatural events? Psychics, poltergeists, spirit mediums, psychic surgeons, astrology, vampires, werewolves etc etc? Or am I really a complete sceptic trying to perpetuate a belief in the occult to make a few bob?
On the first point, definitely not.
On the second point, definitely not, I think.
So how did I get into this Orwellian state of mind, believing two apparently contradictory things at the same time?
I really enjoy certain types of horror story. Now horror seems to have morphed over my lifetime, at least in publishing classifications. Horror now seems to be mainly slasher movies and stories that deal with physical violence perpetrated on the vulnerable, using as many power tools as possible, madness in these days of excessive electricity bills. In my youthful brain horror certainly could include elements of physical danger, but the main threat was to the protagonist’s spiritual and/or mental wellbeing. Yes the victim may be bitten and drained and eventually die at the teeth of a vampire, but the horror started after death, and for eternity you had to dress in outdated, over fussy fashion with no mirror to see how bad you looked in the afterlife.
But the classics like Dracula and more or less anything by MR James and a few others by contemporary authors still make for an enjoyable read in this period of the year particularly, between Hallowe’en and Christmas when the boundary between this world and others weakens and occasionally tears. At least in fiction and Celtic mythology.
In reality I have little time for the maunderings of the True Horror brigade. In some instances I have genuine sympathy and concern for some of those caught up in the events exploited by this genre. Those who are living with manipulative partners, upset teenagers or mischievous children have my sympathy, especially when people who want to peddle a world view antithetical to logic and science encourage them in explanations that rely on otherworldy interventions rather than psychological insight, divorce courts and firm parenting. For those suffering from sleep paralysis, waking nightmares and types of mental disturbance then good psychiatric intervention is the answer rather than an exorcist or worse still an investigative paranormal journalist.
The difficulty with being robust about the defence of rationality in many of these cases is that we live in a world of compulsory acceptance of any belief system, however wacky that comes down the track. If I think seances spirit mediums and talking to the dead are in all cases demonstrably false and the product of charlatanism and wishful thinking, I am not only being a killjoy and rude, but I am guilty of some sort of hate crime against an alternative belief system. The point being that if you suspend your innate tendency to be polite and respectful of people telling you they are suffering from some spiritual malaise; a haunting or possession or poltergeist phenomenon, you can usually explain the ‘phenomena’ quite simply. Put bluntly people often lie to get attention and when they get in too deep, rather than come clean, invent ever more rococo embellishments to the story to throw people off the scent. It doesn’t always, perhaps seldom, start off with bad intentions; it’s a bit of a joke, a livening up of a boring day or just a desire for attention. Or to take the mickey.
Confession; I’ve done it myself. Years ago as a teenager I turned the lights out in a hallway to some toilets. The toilets were in an extension to a church hall behind a church and there was a youth club discussion group in progress upstairs. There was a break and people went off to stretch their legs, have a cigarette (you could smoke indoors in those days, even as a teenager if the leader pretended not to see) and go to the toilet. I slipped out and, unseen by anyone, flipped the lights off. Late on a Sunday night in midwinter it was quite ‘spooky’ and the returnees told a great tale of hearing all sorts of odd noises and then all of a sudden the lights went out and etc etc. The tale grew in the telling and took on a new lease when we discovered the extension was built on an old, uncleared, Presbyterian burial ground from the late eighteenth century. I never fessed up and no doubt there is someone even now writing a ‘true ghost story’ about the incident.
Would I have spun it further if a journalist had turned up? Probably not. I hope not, but as an intelligent, bored teenager with a creative storytelling bent who knows.
Not all ghosts are the product of malicious little ******s like me, some people are more sensitive, not to the spirit world, but to life and fly to first answers. If that answer is a draughty house and a faulty electricity meter you may be very scared but not spiritually. If that’s ‘by the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes’ it could still be the electricity company, but you’re more likely to think of the supernatural power surge and a witch coven.
So if you must make ‘investigative’ programs or articles about Highgate Vampires or haunted houses, let’s have some hard hitting examinations of the logical explanations as well as open mouthed credulity of the oddball solutions.
But for preference; leave the supernatural stories to fiction (and nasty little teenage boys).