cultland: history of ghosts
The door to my bedroom squeaked open on its own my first morning living in Chicago. It moved slowly. The noise wasn’t that loud—just enough to wake me up. The room was small; the bed, just big enough. I’d be close to anyone or anything wavering through the door. It was July 2015. I’d been in Logan Square less than twenty-four hours. Driving the two and a half hours from Central Illinois, where I had lived for the past eight years, and moving everything up to the second floor via stairs had worn me out. The sun was out, so my room and the hallway were golden. My roommate, Rocco, was one room over. I didn’t have the energy to be afraid. I pushed my blanket off and closed the door. It clicked. I went back to bed, covered one side of my face with the blanket, and eased back to sleep.
According to Susan Owens in her book The Ghost: A Cultural History, “Ghosts are something we share; they are perhaps even an intrinsic part of what it is to be human.”
I don’t remember if I told my roommate about it later that day, as we both worked to unpack the boxes we’d brought with us from Champaign. The small room where I slept was temporary. I’d be moving to a room in the front of the apartment as soon as our landlords had the walls replastered, but I focused on unpacking. And Rocco and I talked about painting the walls and staining the woodwork a darker color. We figured we were going to be there long enough that we wanted to make the apartment feel like our own. So we focused on that.
One night, a couple of months later, Rocco texted me while I was at work. I worked downtown, at a coffee shop across from the Art Institute. He asked if I was home, and I told him no. He said he’d come out of his room and thought he saw me standing in the living room—but a shadow of myself, not something solid. He spoke to me, and I didn’t reply. Then I wasn’t there. It was around 7 pm. I’d been at work since 2. I said how weird that was. I don’t remember being afraid when I got home at 11 that night. I just went about the apartment as if Rocco had said nothing earlier. I don’t remember having any trouble falling asleep.
That hadn’t always been the case. As a kid, I remember being afraid quite often. It would get to the point that I’d pull my blanket over my entire body, tuck it behind my head and underneath my sides, legs, and feet. I needed every part of my body to be covered, protected. Little balls of blanket fabric would fall onto my face, into my eyes, but I’d keep the blanket pulled tight. My warm breath encircled my whole head. I endured it until I fell asleep.
My landlords hired workers to plaster my room and had it ready for me by the beginning of August. It looked bright with the newly painted white walls, the window that faced the street. The closet was big enough to fit a dresser on one side and hang my clothes on the other. While there was no door or curtains to separate the closet from my bedroom, just an arch in the ceiling to mark the threshold, there was a door at the back of the closet that led to the staircase and the landing of our second-floor apartment. I kept that door locked. I could use it in case of an emergency, but otherwise I wanted it locked and unused.
My and Rocco’s bedrooms were now at opposite ends of the apartment. But it felt fine. It felt like home. We had enough kitchen and living room space to hang out when we wanted.
One day, I had off from work. All the rooms were bright from the sunshine. Rocco had left the apartment for a few hours with his boyfriend. They asked if I wanted to go. I said no because I wanted to clean my bedroom and relax in the apartment.
It didn’t take me that long to sweep the wood floor, fold some laundry, dust my desk and dresser. I put some books and folded clothes on top of my dresser. The apartment felt clean, smelled like pine. A slight summer breeze drifted through my room and the whole apartment. I walked toward the kitchen to refill my water glass. As I walked through the living room, I heard something crash to the floor of my bedroom.
A warm feeling moved up my spine, into the back of my head. I hadn’t been thinking about a ghost, but that was the first thing that jumped into my brain. The closer I got to my room, the more my heart pumped louder into my ears, the heat moved up into my head. I felt like I needed to get out of there. I felt unwelcome.
I moved over to the front door, but didn’t open it. I called Rocco. He didn’t answer. I left him a voicemail. I told him what was happening. I asked when he would be home. I asked that he call me back.
I called a friend, Amber, who believed in ghosts, who dabbled in witchcraft. She also didn’t answer. I left her a message as well. I paced back and forth in front of the door.
Rocco called. He asked what was happening. I told him.
“Get out of there,” he said. “Wait on the steps up front. I’ll be home soon.”
I said okay and that I would go outside.
As I walked down the stairs, Amber called. I told her that I was going outside. I was already halfway down the stairs.
“Go back,” she said.
“If you leave, the ghost wins.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Ask it to leave.”
I stopped walking down the stairs. I looked up at the door to the apartment. I couldn’t let the ghost win.
I went back inside. I went to my room, endured the pressure I felt along my back and skull. Amber told me what to say and how to say it. She stayed on the phone with me as I did it. She said I sounded good, direct, but considerate. The tension eased up, and then was suddenly gone.
No longer did I feel afraid or unwelcome. It felt like I belonged in that space again.
Ghost stories have been around since the first century, A.D., when, according to History.com, Roman author Pliny the Younger wrote letters detailing his encounter with a ghost: an old man with a beard who rattled chains.
I used to dream a lot. Intense dreaming. It could be a nightmare where someone I couldn’t see chased after me. I’d shout in my sleep, in my bed, in the middle of the night. If a guy slept next to me, he’d shake me to wake me up. Then tell me everything was okay and not to be afraid. My roommate, Rocco, would sometimes have to knock on my door before cracking the door open.
He’d whisper my name and tell me it was okay. The last time he had to do it, he had to use his regular-volume voice to wake me up. I cried when I woke.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said as I cried. I sniffled as I worked on not crying, as I fell back asleep. I couldn’t remember what the nightmare was about. I just remember how much it made me want to cry.
The crying then was limited.
Only a month later, I’d suffer through insomnia.
Only a month later, I’d cry at random times and not be able to stop myself.
Only a month later, it felt like a ghost was standing behind my left shoulder.
I wanted to ignore it. I knew it wasn’t real. It was my brain being difficult with me. Why? I’m not sure. It was so cold, and I’d lost weight, was the thinnest I’d ever been in the winter, and my body was not used to being cold. The lack of sleep, my body’s misinterpretation of the cold, put me in a threatening situation. A ghost.
Throughout history, ghosts have taken on different demeanors: threatening, hostile, sad, lonely, lost, from time to time funny, and sometimes protective.
Susan Owens expands on the possible meaning of ghosts: “[G]hosts—if they cannot be described as living history—certainly personify our shared past by replaying it. They are so valuable to us because they are externalized memories, reminding us of the layers of history beneath our feet, of the old stories that refuse to be erased.”
I felt threatened as a child. I feared a bad incident each night. And there were many nights with bad incidents. Nights where my father shouldn’t have been in my bed. Perhaps when I saw a ghost as a child, the vision was actually my brain dealing with the invasion from my father. Perhaps it was easier on me emotionally, easier on my brain to think a ghost had been in my room instead of my father.
A ghost wouldn’t hurt as much.
A ghost could disappear.
A ghost could have been hurt as well and didn’t know how to move on.
Bruce Owens Grimm has published essays in The Rumpus, The Kenyon Review online, Ninth Letter, The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog, Older Queer Voices, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and elsewhere. He has attended residencies and workshops at The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Vermont Studio Center, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA), and he received a Lambda Literary Residency fellowship to attend The Sundress Academy of the Arts residency. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. More information can be found at www.briankornell.com.
Read earlier installments of CULTLAND here.