This article originally appeared, in an altered form, in the Reno News and Review.
This is a story about ghosts. According to the Most Holy Book of Cultural Cliché, I’m supposed to either tell you about how the ghost hunters are a bunch of superstitious charlatans or passionately defend the paranormal possibilities of the universe. I’m supposed to either deny the emotional and subjective truth of the experience or I’m supposed to dismiss the scientific method because, you know, those things are somehow mutually exclusive. To hell with that, it’s so much more interesting to approach a story when you don’t assign heroes and villains beforehand.
I parked my motorcycle at the Pub n Sub, just west of UNR, right at dusk. Old Harley Davidson’s shake a lot, so it took me a minute to get feeling back in my legs and feet. When I finally made it to the veranda I saw Peter, Joe and Kelly drinking beer outside. They welcomed me over right away and we got right to business. I don’t think it had been more than five minutes before Peter, a middle aged Asian guy who has been hunting ghosts since the mid 90s, asked if I think I’m ready for the “hardcore stuff.” I said I was.
The sun disappeared behind the mountains and clothed the streets in gloom. I can see only splotchy islands of landscape under yellow, sodium streetlights. We start talking about ghost sightings and I can almost feel the observable world shrinking. Peter brings out his laptop and shows me some of the highlights from previous hunts – a floating black cross in the desert, something that looks like cotton ball ferret wrapping around Kasey’s jacket, an angry, growling voice repeating “go away, go away, GO AWAY!” I can feel my stomach tightening while my eyes adjust to the glow of the computer screen, as my imagination fills in more and more sensory blank spots.
We pick up and head to the old graveyard on Nevada Street, right behind the fraternity houses. Brown, sickly light trickles in from the casinos below and accentuates the weedy, dry, dead ground surrounding the crumbling headstones. Few, it seems, remember these dearly departed.
Joe and Kelly head for the far reaches of the graveyard to set up voice recorders. Peter stays behind and lays out an Ouija board in case the spirits want to contact us via medieval text message. I walked alone to the northwest corner of the graveyard and became intensely aware of sounds – crickets, dead plants beneath my feet, frogs, my own heartbeat.
Finally, I join Kelly at the Blethen grave. A dark granite pillar stands in the middle, while around it a badly weathered and heavily cracked concrete pad fights to hold off the weeds. A knurled, low tree hangs over said pad and casts weak shadows in the distant, artificial light. Even the air seems dead. I say nothing for fear of prejudicing the others, but the reporter in me thinks this is the place to stake out.
Joe’s very bright flash goes off in the distance and soon Peter and Kelly join in the photography. I ask why and they explain that ghosts manifest on cameras much better than they appear to the naked eye. “We take pictures of each other,” Joe said. “The apparitions tend to show up near us.”
I join in with my digital camera and notice something peculiar. The more open the area I walk through, the better the lighting, the more relaxed the vibe. Near the fence where car headlights often illuminate the hills, I feel almost normal, lightweight, like I’m just taking a walk. The more I talk and the closer I get to the graves (particularly the Blethen grave), the heavier I feel.
After about two hours we retreat from the graveyard and head back to the Pub n Sub. Two sound recorders, both near the Blethen grave, pick up an extraordinarily deep and angry, very labored human voice. Hearing this dead man’s malice rising up from the depths scared me more than anything else, I had to consciously release the tension in my diaphragm and remind myself to breathe normally. The three ghost hunting pros discussed it and decide the spirit said “go away!” We also got a picture, from Joe’s camera, of a cotton creature floating in the air above and behind me. It was enough, frankly, to leave me feeling vaguely violated.
I have absolutely no doubt that ghosts are real to the people who see them, hear them, experience them. They were certainly real to me in the moment. However, suggestion is a powerful force. From the moment I arrived at Pub n Sub, there were dozens of factors suggesting creepiness and fear to me. The darkness altered my perceptions, the quiet invited me to notice the tiny noises – mice scurrying, leaves falling, dirt crunching – I normally ignore. And that doesn’t even get into the tales Peter, Joe and Kasey told me about demons, ghosts and hellish apparitions. If ever I was primed to find supernatural evil, it was that night.
The graveyard itself heightened my suggestible state. It’s morally icky to imagine oneself traipsing over unseen, forgotten graves. It’s sad to think of all those people who have not only died, but been forgotten in that derelict place. It’s natural to sympathize with those dead folks’ “resentment” at how we’ve abandoned their memories. Most of all, it’s nearly impossible to avoid thinking of one’s own mortality in a home for the dead. If we do go on after death – and who doesn’t want that? – does it not make sense we’d reach back into the physical world?
I could feel these suggestions pulling on my fear, but I also feel their opposites. It was amazing how quickly things like the sounds of traffic, the sight of passing car lights and looking out over the city alleviated my fears. It seems odd the ghosts or demons would immediately stop twisting my guts because I heard a car drive by, it seems unlikely they’d care if I watched the Circus Circus turn pink.
Further, most people, including myself, don’t want to ruin somebody else’s day. Joe, Kelly and Peter are nice guys and I wanted them to like me. I wanted to share their experiences. Saying something like “I think it’s all in your head” is the social-graces equivalent to calling the bride a heifer. If a reporter who is supposed to remain objective and distant felt this social pressure, imagine what close friends must feel.
Lastly, people have a hard time accepting chaos. It’s not hard to argue this urge to impose order on the world, to make sense of our surroundings and find patterns in our environments is the entire point of having a brain. The cotton ghost that followed me and the growly, angry voice are good, if incomplete, examples of the human tendency to create order, whether or not there is any to begin with. My ghost, and in fact all of the cotton ghosts I know of, came from Joe’s camera with the extremely bright flash. I know, from testing it, that this camera and flash combination will bleach a black camera strap white and render it suspiciously similar to the spirit that followed me. And that voice saying “go away” we picked up on those two sound recorders? I made a point not to share what I thought the voice was saying and, before the pros decided, I thought it had said “I’m awake.” Perhaps the voice wasn’t actually as clear or well enunciated as it seemed later, after we’d had the chance to create order from possibly random growling sounds.
Anything we believe, we believe out of faith. Those who accept Christ, or the cycle of reincarnation or the redemption of Allah do so because of faith outside the purview of science. Those who accept the primacy of science do so out of a faith in the objective accuracy of our observations, or, even more basically, our senses which is no less an act of faith. You cannot scientifically prove the validity of science. The same applies to philosophy – you cannot reasonably prove the primacy of reason. In fact, the best reasons for accepting science or philosophy basically come down to “it seems to work.”
I mention this because the ghosts and apparitions seem to me a lot like old religious beliefs that didn’t quite make the cut in Judeo-Christian theology. Perhaps even more basically, ghosts, demons and spirits seem like ways to explain human death – that great curtain of the afterlife we can neither pierce with reason nor part with science. I remember a Stephen King short story, Room 1408, if I remember correctly, where a minor character accuses the protagonist of killing the afterlife by debunking ghost stories. I wonder if Mr. King’s character wasn’t more right than wrong. I wonder if the paranormal doesn’t function a lot like religion.