Is it better for horror writers to believe what they're selling or to approach the supernatural with skepticism? Are the stories of true believers or self-described "mystics" like Algernon Blackwood and Shirley Jackson invested with a more terrifying conviction? Or do the works of skeptics and materialists like H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James take less of our belief for granted and take greater pains to be convincing?
A question I sometimes get, especially after my recent story "In Search Of" explained a wide range of weird mysteries in a recent issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, is whether I personally believe in ghosts, precognition, or other paranormal phenomena.
My answer isn't very satisfying: maybe. I've always enjoyed reading and theorizing about all our unanswerable cosmic mysteries, but I've never seen enough to convince me. I have seen enough to make me wonder, though.
For me, a discussion of the supernatural is an important litmus test for human beings: early in our friendship, we must share our theories of ghosts and goblins so that I might better judge our relative positions on the axis between imagination and realism, between credulity and skepticism. You don't know another person until they've told you their weirdest experiences across a dimly-lit restaurant table or flickering campfire.
I'll start our conversation first, and you can contribute at the Horror World forums.
First, my general view of the universe in case it helps the discussion: I am essentially agnostic, though maybe ambivalent is a better word. I'm not sure it really matters if there is a god. Assuming one even exists, he/she/it chooses to remain obscure and anonymous, apparently trusting or testing us to make our own decisions. Because such a force is inherently unreliable, it seems better to me to assume it doesn't exist at all and merely enjoy the occasional strange and wondrous occurrences begging the contrary. My credo, then, is something like, "God or no god, we must do our best."
So I'm therefore doubtful about the existence of an afterlife or that ghosts visit us from one.
My mother would like very much for me to believe more than I do about the continued existence of the dead; she certainly does. She's participated in s�ances and spiritualist services, witnessing "readings" and "healings" and "spirit messages." Once, a man at her spiritualist church claimed to channel my grandmother's spirit through a mysterious box. He held it out in both hands, concentrating so as to align himself with the universe, and the tiny colored pencils danced under the power of spirits.
What did they do with all this extraordinary psychic energy? They drew a picture of my grandmother.
She showed me the scrap of cloth with a hairless, wrinkled face that could as easily have been Mr. Magoo as my grandmother. "See?" she said. "Hard evidence."
I peered at it awhile and then handed it back. "When did Grandmother learn to draw?" I asked.
I wondered how my grandmother, so quietly self-effacing in life, would have ascended to heaven only to develop such a monstrous ego that her only message to us would be a picture of herself--not even autographed. I'm pretty sure that any contact with my family beyond the grave will involve a surly ancestor demanding to know why I'm attending a s�ance in the first place.
Still, despite my snide skepticism, I have seen things that make me wonder sometimes about the vast storytelling power that sometimes seems to plot our cosmic drama. Once such experience occurred in high school with three other witnesses: my parents and a friend.
We were driving either to or from a restaurant when we took a winding road near our small town's biggest cemetery. A few hundred yards away from the entrance stood three or four old two-story houses, built in the twenties or thirties but now in disrepair. Vines crawled over their dusty windows, shingles and boards peeled back from the corners, and cars stood outside amid towering weeds.
We turned the corner, glancing at the houses during our conversation. We passed the first, jabbering away. When we got to the second, all four of us looked through the side windows of our car and screamed simultaneously. My stepfather stomped on the gas and drove away, all four of us shaking and startled.
"Did you see that?" I asked tentatively. Everyone nodded. We'd each seen an image flash brightly for a moment of another house.
Already skeptical as a kid, I insisted that we each write down what we thought we saw independently when we got home, and our descriptions matched: a much larger and more brightly painted house with tall white columns and a huge porch.
Curious, I called a friend whose father was the city attorney to ask if they knew anything about those houses near the cemetery. My friend, without knowing our experience, explained the local legend that the house originally built there long ago had burned after a father murdered his wife and children before committing suicide himself.
I have no idea what it means, if anything. It doesn't encourage me to believe in an afterlife or the presence of spirits; it is merely a peculiar circumstance that corresponds all too neatly to my own proclivities and interests. I'm not sure what we saw in that old house, but it can't be meaningless that all of us who saw it came from broken and violent families. Were we extra sensitive to such a place? Or were we just extra sensitive to the explanation of our reaction to it?
I wonder sometimes if human beings themselves aren't the most interesting paranormal phenomenon, a species of creatures given to instantiating their neurotic imaginations all around them. We see our fear, our love, our guilt, our pain in our mysterious world, making meaning from them as best we can. The "truth" of what we see isn't as important as how we interpret it.
When someone tells me of their extraordinary experience, I always wonder what that experience is doing for them psychologically. Why does this person need to see a ghost or a UFO or a lake monster? The paranormal has a strange way of happening to the people who need it most and those who need it least...but rarely in between. I'm not sure this means these experiences aren't "true"; it just means that true or not, they require an intellect to experience them--one already steeped in other experiences that can change their sensitivities.
I turned my interest to the mysterious as a kid because my ordinary life was terrifying and unstable; I found solace that the world was bigger and more magical than the brutish one in which I lived: maybe ghosts or vampires or aliens could come and kick my father's ass if I couldn't. Likewise, my mother saw and heard my grandmother at the spiritualist church because she needed to know she was okay, that she'd made it, that she was happy now.
I think the question of belief in the paranormal is a blind alley. The better question is whether an author understands that, belief or no belief, we project ourselves on both the natural and the supernatural. Can he or she convey the very personal and human awe a character should feel in either case? Both Blackwood and Lovecraft, credulous and incredulous, certainly could. They knew that the best horror and fantasy fiction should hint at the human implications of cosmic mysteries and that the cosmic eventually becomes the personal.
Ghosts or no ghosts, the most powerful hauntings come from within.
You can now read Will's story "In Search Of" from the June 2008 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine for free on his website.. You can also learn more about Will there, too: www.will-ludwigsen.com.
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