The Ghost is You
On Trying to Write During a Pandemic
“One need not be a chamber to be haunted,” writes Emily Dickinson. “One need not be a house.” But we are the latest iteration of the haunted house: full of guilt and sickness and loneliness and anger and ennui, forced to perform the same routines each day, to follow our own spirit traces until we have worn a path in the metaphysical carpet. We are the latest twist on the ghost: a phantom of those other, better timelines. We are haunted by us.
I think the pandemic has forever altered my ability to write. Or at least to write anything in the inspired, joyous, lightning-fast way I used to, where I felt myself a conduit, and not just a vessel. We have been here so long that I look around my apartment and I swear I can see the circuit of my own ghost; I spot afterimages of myself sitting yet again under a blanket on that couch, chained to that chair like some kind of pathetic Prometheus, my own fear gnawing at my guts. It feels like I am on a loop, at this point, that I will be watching myself here forever, traveling this same circuit around this same small space. And my writing has become as looped and layered; jumping back and forth, landing in the same dumb spot again and again and again. One of the main characters in my novel is a ghost, and it truly didn’t seem a stretch to write a character trapped in a small haunted space on earth. In fact it seemed inevitable.
It’s odd, though, and frustrating, the banal kinds of ghosts that appear to me now. My mother died two years ago, and yet I can count the times I have dreamed of her on one hand. I thought she would be a longtime haunt, and I thought that I would write about her, but it is as though the things I love have receded into the background, the backdrop to a Greek chorus of small, petty worries and big fears, all wearing my face. I cannot get away from myself, even in dreams. And how can you write about anything else, when you’re haunted by yourself? What a boring kind of writing to be immersed in, this endless examination of the old dead self.
“You and I both know that the house is haunted,” sings Shakey Graves, “and you and I both know that the ghost is me.”
The most haunted house I’ve trekked through wasn’t a house at all. It was a nearly abandoned faux bunkhouse at the dying theme park Paul Bunyan Land in Brainerd, Minnesota. Stuffed figures, once loggers but now just decaying dolls, were half slung out of bunkbeds, gray with age and dust and stitching come undone. Moldy fabric pancakes were scattered over a crumbling clay stovetop. The park was old, neglected, set for closure, and nobody frequented this bunkhouse anymore. At one time, it seemed likely that music might have played, polka probably, and a tour guide might have told tall tales to the children and parents who crowded in to see Paul Bunyan’s co-workers. But now, this empty, silent log cabin felt like the scene of a horror film, ghosts under every logger’s latticed rotting blanket.
Empty places are uncanny places, as any ruin enthusiast knows - especially if they were designed for entertainment. Thrill seekers roam abandoned malls and amusement parks, the ruins of the 20th century. They are not natural or aesthetic ruins, not beautiful nor melancholy nor tragic. The ghosts that haunt them are different, spirits made not of tragic stories but of cheap consumerist pleasures run dry. This tawdry uncanniness is doubled if the place in question contains dolls, waxworks, paper mache, other replicas of people. Think wax museums after dark. In the early days of the pandemic, I dreamed of those closed, empty spaces - even as I spent weeks and then months more or less trapped in my apartment, I began to be haunted by the idea of all the emptiness out there, waiting for humans. I thought about how long those spaces would be waiting, after humanity dies out.
When I was small, I went to Disneyland with my family, and my favorite rides were the animatronic ones. It wasn’t that I felt like I was in Peter Pan, or a real pirate in the Caribbean - it was something else entirely. I loved the delicious thrill of watching these animatronic creatures trying and failing at being human, the uncanny sense that I suppose many turn of the century tourists found on attending automaton exhibits and shows. I remember being thrilled during these rides but then later, after we were home, I began to have nightmares that the rides were empty, dark and silent, and I was trapped inside, turned into one of the mechanical creatures. Forced to endure the motionless terror of the pirates, frozen mid-plunder, the Haunted Mansion silent and musty, the bride still and menacing in her lightless attic. These rides, meant to thrill, were now terrifying because of a great wrongness. I had become one of the uncanny.
Freud wrote of automatons in his essay “The Uncanny,” that inanimate objects closely imitating life tend to provoke our ambivalent feelings about life and death. Once they were almost lifelike; empty, they were death masks, a broken double of their former selves. The stillness would be absolute, yet the feeling of movement interrupted. Lately I feel my fictional characters tipping toward the uncanny valley; we know these are not real creatures, but machines, and still the false sense of life gives them a kind of menace that increases the slower they go. We do not stop being haunted when they are still. We can feel their eyes on us, following in the gloom and silence. “Either I am hunted,” writes poet William Brewer, “or hunting so slowly I can’t tell.” Perhaps being haunted is the new way of writing. Perhaps instead of inspiration, possession.
At the end of the world, will these ghosts we’ve made die with us? Or will we be left as ghosts on the landscape we made, the landscapes we destroy?
I start a story on global warming, and the future stares at me over top of the computer screen. I feel watched. I think of ways to tell my daughter about climate change, without making it a horror story. Once upon a time, I write. The future has become a fable.
In a relatively new (and controversial) field of study in genetics, epigenetics, some scientists have posited that based on studies of survivors of trauma--those of the Holocaust or extreme poverty, for example--that “trauma can leave a chemical mark on a person’s genes, which then is passed down to subsequent generations.” If this is true, is the pandemic already haunting us? Are there ghosts in our future children’s genes, or their children’s genes, made of our fear and our anger and our helplessness in this moment? Will our grandchildren be our own pandemic ghosts? Will the stories they tell be written in this new kind of ink, made of the shadows of the future we failed to change?
My belief in ghosts has gone from “probably there aren’t” to “maybe there ought to be.”
I can’t imagine my mother as a ghost, no matter how much she may have haunted us in cyberspace when she was alive. She kept accounts on Instagram, on Facebook, on Goodreads - though she never posted anything except comments on her children’s pages. I asked her often to learn to text so I could finally get off Facebook. She never did, though, and it was only after she died that I was able to shut down my account, after scrolling through the comments she’d made, taking screenshots like spirit photographs. “She’s going to look so much like you,” she commented on one picture of my daughter. “She’s going to be such a great singer,” on another, a photo of the kid holding a microphone.
Are these spirit traces of my mother? These arrows toward a future she wouldn’t see? Is this one way of being haunted? I’ve heard similar stories from friends, of text messages and social media posts they won’t delete, of voice messages they can’t bring themselves to erase. These digital ghosts put a cold foot in the chest as much as any Victorian spirit speaking through a table-rapper. I do not speak entirely metaphorically, by the way, because ultimately, it doesn’t really matter if it’s a metaphor or not. The silence in this pandemic is long, and loud, and ghosts tend to rush in. Perhaps, in a pandemic, the ghosts, too, become more domestic, along with the rest of the world. Maybe, like us, they float closer to home. Maybe their sense of space shrinks like ours does, their story and scope less epic. Perhaps the ghosts are hunkering down, too, suddenly more concerned with blankets and candles and slow, sad music than with wheezing organs and drafty, tapestried mansions. I think of the lines from Charles Wright’s poem “Homage to Paul Cezanne”: “The dead are waiting for us in our rooms, / Little globules of light / In one of the far corners, and close to the ceiling, hovering, thinking our thoughts.”
I’ve noticed a huge uptick in the number of people experiencing sleep disturbances during the pandemic, including nightmares, insomnia, and sleep paralysis. I’ve suffered from sleep paralysis my whole life, but it’s happened with more frequency during this period. Sometimes I’m frozen, the hallmark of paralysis, and sometimes not, but I always see things: bugs, lights, strange animals, menacing intruders, all of it in my own dumb mind, all of it absolutely real to me at the time. I think of these strange specters as the ghosts of my personality, figments and fragments of my free-floating imagination. I try to be inspired by them. I wake regularly at 2am now to instant insomnia; so I try instead to write. I start a story about a person, but I can’t believe in this person. I send my character on a trip to another country, but then I find I am angry at my character. It must be nice, I say to my character, to go on a trip to another country. It must be nice, I say, to live in a different timeline, free of consequence and disease and having to explain things to your children. IT MUST BE NICE.
I believe it when people say they are more sleep-haunted now than ever. We’re all so anxious, so nervous and angry and full of unfocused, wrong energy. For me, sleep paralysis is full of that wrong feeling. Maybe more of us are finding ourselves in the nightly presence of our own sleep ghosts.
I sometimes have dreams that I think I should write down, that I think would make good stories. In the morning, they are phantoms, dreams of dreams, visions of visions. They never make it to paper at all. Sometimes I sit very still and I try to remember what it was that I once wanted to make; I try to hold a seance to contact my former, pre-pandemic self. But the orbs are dark, the mists dispersed, the spirits poised on the other side of the veil. In Hades and here on earth, it feels like we are all holding our breath.