As a kid growing up in northern Illinois, I wasn’t the sort who was overly concerned with supernatural phenomena. My imagination ran more along the lines of Casper the Friendly Ghost than The Exorcist or Poltergeist. I was aware of various local Gothic legends. The richly carpeted hallways and stairwells of the Leland Hotel, in downtown Aurora, were supposedly haunted by the ghosts of those souls who had leapt to their unhappy deaths from its top floor. I’d heard that ghosts, strangely attired in bespoke suits, paraded through the Catholic cemetery up the road from our Little League field. These local myths I laughed off. They seemed too obvious, the stuff of B-movies.
We also had the rumors of how the emptied buildings of Elgin State Hospital, which my family drove by with what seemed more than necessary regularity, were haunted by the inconsolable souls of patients who had languished and died there. This was more troubling, but I gradually came to understand that my unease had as much to do with my youthful lack of understanding of mental illness as it did any fear of the paranormal. Imagining what had transpired there among people who were mildly or violently out of control of their own minds was plenty scary in itself. To think of them, after death, lurking in those stark corridors where their lives and wayward minds had been imprisoned was eerily unsettling. Banished in life from the land of the living, it had seemed logical that they would also be exiled from the realm of the peaceful dead.
The one local tale of ghost lore that held my attention was actually two stories, separated by 200 years, but told of the same place: Starved Rock State Park, a beautiful expanse of forest and rock formations alongside the Illinois River near Ottawa. We went there for Boy Scouts, family outings and special occasions — visits which were always overshadowed, for me, by what felt like supernatural presence.
Illustration by Kailey Whitman
In the 1700s, as the story had it, a great battle had been fought there, between the Illinois and other tribes. The conflict started when Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa tribe was stabbed to death by an Illinois brave. In revenge Pontiac’s followers chased the Illinois to the top of a rock outcropping where they held siege without yield until all of the Illinois starved to death. The park was said to be filled with the spirits of those unsettled dead, who were capable of anything from mischievously pilfering potato salad to causing people to fall off cliffs and into the river.
And there was more. In 1960, three suburban mothers, out for a simple “girls’ weekend” getaway, had been viciously attacked and left to die in one of the rock canyons. It took months to solve the sensationally brutal crime, and it was said that the three women haunted the park, lurking in caves and under overhangs, making mournful noises and screaming for justice. And it was rumored that possibly, just possibly, the murders were somehow linked to the massacre 200 years earlier.
I found this quite interesting and frankly very scary, and wondered why anyone would voluntarily go to the park, still one of the state’s most popular. To this day I think, even in daylight, about the fluttering shadows of branches and leaves, the cracks and whistles emanating from “just over there.” Knowledge of the bloodshed that occurred in those environs cannot help but feed the darker corners of one’s imagination and make an innocent hiker wonder if something is not quite right.
“Ghost” is one of those perfect words because, as my friend, the Bowdoin professor and horror-movie maven Aviva Briefel, says, it sounds like what it is: gooooooooooo-ST! Low and slow, gooey and icky. Scary. Gooooooooooooooo-st. It requires a lot of breath for us to produce, a lot of air as it flows into the world, and the physical mechanics of purposeful exhaling suggest the word’s ability to enchant, to cast its spell. Etymologically, ghost originates from the Old English gast, meaning “spirit” or “soul.” It is linked to the German word geist, or the spirit of an individual or group, as in zeitgeist. Or poltergeist.
So the word, and our sense and use of it, takes us into a realm of human experience beyond —or adjacent to — our daily reality. Rarely is a word so musically attuned to its sense, its conceptual place in our language. We think of ghosts as having a sort of material existence, of being a residue of our corporeal bodies, “the person within the person” that will be left over when we die and our physical flesh decomposes.
Ghosts float on the periphery of our experience, reminding us that there are things we can conjure and intuit, imagine and harrate that — like the divine — we cannot fully know, organize, or measure.
Similarly, ghosts are also linked to the inhabiting spirit of a time and place — the transfiguring forces that indelibly tie a generation to their historical epoch. In other words, ghosts, or geists, have their own geography in time. They are the specters that look back at us from the dimmed mirror of the present, with its glimmers of the unsettled past. They are what remains at the willed periphery of our sight lines. Think of America as haunted by the crimes and violence and immorality of its past.
Most of us are wedded to the idea that there is something more to us than material, time-bound bodies — that we are made of something that does not die. Stepping outside on a cold day or evening, the plume of breath that emerges from our mouths seems a visual embodiment, if not proof, of a soul, an indication that we are more than meat that must age and weaken.
But what is a ghost? Roger Clarke, author of Ghosts: A Natural History, identifies eight basic types, beginning with the most basic: the “elemental,” the sort of classic sits-still-and-hangs-around-in-one-place-like-a-cemetery-while-it-stares-at-you. Then there are “poltergeists,” which are destructive, tantrum-prone spirits that can turn lights on and off, throw vases and smash furniture. Often poltergeists are attached to a living person, sometimes to a child. Poltergeists are what we see most often in movies, as their nature and modus operandi lend themselves to narrative and visual storytelling.
Third are those ghosts we might call “traditional,” and they are manifest when the soul of a person is bound to a place like a house, meadow or battlefield that was important to them in life. They often seek out the living for companionship and need to complete unfinished business that will allow them to relinquish their haunting, to surrender their existence on this spiritual plane.
The next three types are fascinating, as they are more environmental or experiential than “embodied.” For example, “mental imprint manifestations” can be thought of as energy left over from a terrible or tragic event; these often appear at a specific day or time. “Crisis survival apparitions” are the ghosts of loved ones who appear when they are near death, or in combat, or trying to survive an accident, offering comfort and sometimes guidance. Clarke also describes “time slips,” ghosts we might think of as “creatures of circumstance,” as habitats or milieus rather than organisms, such as when a person finds himself or herself suddenly surrounded in a gallery of ghost-like images, as if one has stepped into a museum of the past or a parallel universe.
The final two types of ghost in Clarke’s taxonomy are, first, ghosts of the living, or “doubles,” such as when your sister is seen walking down the streets of Portland though you know for a fact that she is firmly ensconced in Baltimore, and, finally, “haunted objects,” those wardrobes and refrigerators and fireplace pokers that are able to open and close themselves or to rock or to throw themselves across a room with malevolent force. Haunted dolls like the Hollywood mainstays Chucky and Annabelle are in this category.
Taking such a taxonomical or anthropological approach, those familiar stories and lore from my own past readily align with some of these types. Starved Rock, for example, offers a full panoply of ghosts, creating the lineaments of a real horror story. It also moves us into the direction of understanding not just what ghost stories are but why we need them — beyond their titillating fright, their masochistic shock to our senses.
Scientists have studied the phenomenon of ghosts in various ways for decades without finding any evidence that they exist. One can make the argument, and plenty do, that the technology that can detect them has not yet been developed. Some build sophisticated concepts out of quantum mechanics or string theory about the ways in which time folds over upon itself, the idea that linear time is a “construct,” an imposition upon the world that we have made in order to function as a human community. According to this line of thinking, ghosts could be citizens of “nonlinear time,” beings from other dimensions or universes living alongside of us that our science is currently too limited or inflexible to apprehend. Ultimately, as we can only live by the science we have, this seems like a lot of wishful woo.
Neuroscience and psychology also present possibilities, and challenges, as we learn just how readily our minds manufacture experiences that may or may not be true.
One theory, laid out by the immunologist Gerald Callahan in his brilliant essay “Chimera,” even suggests that ghosts may be biologically conjured in our chromosomes by those bits of a deceased person’s DNA we acquired when they were alive and we picked up a virus from them. Callahan describes, for instance, lucid “sightings” of his late wife, who died by her own hand, and notes that those with whom we share proximity over a span of years, in our bedrooms and boardrooms, become incorporated parts of our bodies. So that when someone is suddenly lost to us, we might be predisposed to experience psychically something akin to phantom limb syndrome.
Whether they are ever proven “real,” I think it is safe to say that ghosts and ghost stories are, as posited by legendary screenwriter Nigel Kneale, the product of “a profound and disciplined mind paying what it found to be necessary dues to the irrational.”
Ghosts, or the perception of them, have appeared through the entire run of human history. While ghost stories almost certainly predate written language, it is fascinating to observe that the earliest recorded stories, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, feature them. And ghosts are scriptural, with ghost stories serving as an integral part of Judeo-Christian history.
Notions of the supernatural are fundamentally woven into the tapestry of our civilization. Ghosts, in particular, seem to fulfill a profound need, in this era of supposed scientific and technological mastery, in the human psyche, as more than just a release valve for our suspicion, anxiety and dread. They inscribe in our lives a sense of the felt but distinctly unknown and unknowable. They ultimately resist our taxonomies and Geiger counters, skirting our public histories and our private ruminations. They are here and not here, real and not real, not provable and impossible to disprove. They are beyond us. Ghosts float on the periphery of our experience, reminding us that there are things we can conjure and intuit, imagine and narrate that — like the divine — we cannot fully know, organize or measure.
Ghosts thrive in our popular culture and our mythologies alongside the fact that we are, perhaps, most frightened by what we can only half-know or imagine, what resists our rational epistemology. We need to “pay dues to the irrational,” because a certain portion of our experience is irrational. And maybe that’s why, to this day, when I’m drawn inexplicably back to Starved Rock to walk one of the trails I hiked as a scout and teenager, I enjoy its beauty, imagining its river meeting the mighty Mississippi, until I hear a twig crack or a voice crackle, human or otherwise. And then I start in fear and anticipation and pause to look and listen, half-hoping to catch the speech of those garrulous ghosts, and yet fearing what I might hear if I did.
Anthony Walton is the author of Mississippi: An American Journey, among other books, and has contributed to this magazine for 25 years.