As Jacob Needleman states in our new issue, the greatest unknown is us, ourselves. We fear the unknown and we try to run from it, even as we try to tame by making it a thing we can name. We make it the punch line in every equation we can’t solve or else sanctify it and pray for it to be on our side. But we really can’t run from ourselves. The unknown will surface.
After I saw Elizabeth (see my old post, “A Midsummer Night’s Ghost Story”), I was understandably ambivalent about ghosts and guardian spirits. I couldn’t move to New York fast enough. I couldn’t bury the experience deep enough. I didn’t speak of the experience or even think of it. I worked hard to build a full life. But the experience and that strange and terrifying message trailed after me, a prophetic riddle I hadn’t understood.
From the distance of all these years, it seems inevitable that I would run blindly into the kinds of situations I was being warned against—situations that would invite me to give up my place in the universe, to lose the awareness that is acceptable for me to be just as I am. But there are truths that can be learned only by living through them. As P.L Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins and a founding editor of Parabola, wrote in an early issue the word “understanding” means to stand under, to have the truth rain down on us. Some truths take a long time to soak in.
Years after the experience, I received an assignment from the late, great science and science fiction magazine Omni, to write about how researchers try to use the methods of science to track down ghosts. The assignment was exciting to me because it allowed me to explore ghosts and related paranormal events under the protective label of work. I thought that becoming a journalist meant leading a more adventurous life—a more inhabited life—than working in the cubicle of a giant corporation. The isolation of the writing life dawned on me over time. And so did another truth. I discovered that meaning of what I had seen and what I had heard that night in that spooky old house might be found by opening my heart and mind in a new way.
In addition to interviewing paranormal researchers and skeptics and doing research, I visited the scene of a few hauntings and paranormal investigations. One was a rambling apartment on Washington Square. As I sat at a kitchen table drinking coffee, “Kathleen” (not her real name) described how her sense of reality vastly expanded one night in October in 1973. She thought she heard the front door slam. Thinking it was her sister, and thinking ahead to the dinner party that was planned, she rushed happily towards the door. In the dusty rose-colored hallway she froze and all the bright images in her mind went dark.
“There was a hunched over figure in a black robe,” said Kathleen (I quote from my 1988 Omni article). “I thought it was a robber, though it seemed very sick or old.” She turned on the light and watched the gigure creep toward the bathroom down the hall. She called to her mother who was in her bedroom up the hall, asking her who just entered the apartment. “Nobody,” her mother answered. “It was almost as if the figure was absorbing light instead of reflecting it,” Kathleen, who happened to be a talented photographer, told me. “But even then, I never thought of a ghost.”
The following night Kathleen looked up from the sofa to see her mother standing in the doorway shaking. She told Kathleen she had heard a whooshing sound in hall and looked up to see a “transparent blackness” passing down the hallway towards the bathroom. She yelled “Kathleen! Kathleen!” and ran after the shadow, only to find nothing there. Eventually a family friend, Michaeleen Maher, who had a Ph.D. in parapsychology from City College in New York, heard about these incidents. Equipped with a Geiger counter, infrared photography and other equipment, and a team of volunteers, Maher attempted to use the tools and techniques of science to investigate. The results were suggestive but maddeningly elusive in scientific terms. There a “parabola of fog” in an infrared photo of the hallway; a flurry of Geiger clicks in a particular spot, but nothing that could not be ruled out by ordinary explanations. But Kathleen couldn’t rule it out.
I sat with her and Michaeleen Maher in the freshly renovated kitchen of that apartment on Washington Square. In the years after the haunting, Kathleen became an accomplished photographer and her smoky, evocative photos lined the walls. I watched Maher and Kathleen study the infrared photo with the parabolic arc of fog. They also notice a strange dark circle that looked to me a little like the interlocking black and white tear drops of the yin-yang symbol.
“To me it looks like a face, a black face up close to the camera,” said Kathleen. Mayer said that one of the psychics she brought in to read the space reported seeing the figure of an African American as well. Kathleen and Maher acted out how the mysterious figure moved up the hall. The tour ended in her late mother’s room and a window overlooking Washington Square Park. Although I didn’t know it until much later, what Kathleen explained next changed my perspective on such things for good.
Directly across the street stood a massive old elm tree. Kathleen said that according to her research, the last person to be hanged in New York City was hanged in that tree. She was an African American woman who worked as a servant in one of the grand buildings lining the square. The conversation rushed on: Kathleen saying that ghosts open up a world of forces and influences science can’t understand; Maher suggesting that someday science may have tools fine enough to collect physical evidence for such phenomenon.
I kept thinking of that servant, hanged for stealing. I wondered if there might be situations so grave and critical they have to be impressed on us by extraordinary means. I wondered if we were asking the wrong questions, looking at things in the wrong way. Maybe where the ghostly messenger came from was less important than the message she brought.
To be continued….