I don’t really believe in ghosts, because the evidence just isn’t compelling.
Including what I’ve seen myself.
I worked in a boutique in an oldish building in a New England seaside town. One quiet day, I was standing behind the counter organizing jewelry when I was surprised to see a woman standing in the middle of the shop. I say “surprised” because she would have had to walk directly past me to enter, and I hadn’t seen her.
I automatically smiled and said “Hello.” She — I barely had time to get an impression of her: pale brown hair pulled back in a chignon or bun, high-necked white blouse, long dark skirt (long skirts were in style then; I owned several myself) — gave me a severe look, walked (or moved, or glided, depending on how spooooOOOOoooky you want to get) a few steps, roughly parallel to me, toward a narrow supportive column in the middle of the room, and as she reached it, she vanished.
This all took maybe a second, and it took me maybe another second to react: Though the column was no thicker than my leg, I walked over and looked behind it, then checked under and around all the clothing racks, the dressing room, even the staff-only stairwell and loft.
I scoured that shop, getting more and more nervous — not because I thought I’d seen a ghost, but because I’d seen a woman and the only logical explanation was that she was hiding for reasons of her own.
I didn’t find her.
One of my employers came by later, and I mentioned the odd thing I’d seen, almost (but not quite) accepting that I’d hallucinated it. He had me describe her in as much detail as I could, then said “Right, that’s our ghost. Oh, we didn’t tell you?”
YEAH NO YOU DID NOT
Given what we know about vision, hallucinations, pareidolia, and so on, I don’t think my own fleeting sight is any kind of compelling evidence, and I know my then-employer would have agreed to any description that was remotely close to what he believed he’d seen, so that isn’t what I’d consider reasonable corroboration. In later discussions with others who thought they’d seen her, I think we were leaning toward corroboration, not toward doubt, and that we cobbled together a shared image of what we claimed we’d seen. And still… we did see something similar.
But apparently there’s a part of me that kinda believed, because when we moved locations and the other owner mentioned that she’d invited Alexandra (“We call her Alexandra because we have to call her something”) to move with us, my reaction wasn’t a neutral nod but a “YOU DID WHAT?” I was the one who spent long work days in there; I was the one who would have to make sense of any weird sightings; I was the one who had to track down the things that went missing.
Oh, yeah, things went missing. DID I NOT SAY? Sewing needles, spools of thread, scissors. I could be alone in the shop, in the middle of sewing on a button or mending a seam, turn to answer the phone, and turn back a minute later to find the needle I had certainly poked into the fabric for safekeeping missing, or the scissors placed on a high shelf across the room, or the spool of thread moved several feet away. A co-worker of mine speculated that Alexandra had been a seamstress; I speculated that Alexandra was A PAIN IN MY ASS.
We also heard noises, which isn’t hard to explain in any old building, and found dresses in ridiculous places, which isn’t hard to explain when customers (though mostly lovely) could exhibit some bizarre behavior. We’d find the downstairs office doors, off the sale cellar, open when they had no business being open. Sometimes I’d hear them pop open when there was no one in the cellar.
A co-worker and friend of mine was a bit scared of “our ghost,” and I tried to talk her down with a graceless combination of reason and scoffing. It was all explicable, a clutch of unrelated visual glitches, old-building noises, and forgetfulness, I told her. “But you saw her!” “I saw something, for a second. Minds see a lot of things* that aren’t there.” Rationally, there were far simpler explanations than ghosts. Occam’s razor, blah blah blah.
But here’s the night I could never explain.
Each night, the closing staff person had to go downstairs, tidy all the racks, make sure the double office doors were closed, turn off the lights, then finish closing the upstairs.
One night, alone in the shop, front door locked, I heard an ENORMOUS bang from the cellar. I thought a rack had toppled over, or a mirrored closet door had fallen. I zipped downstairs to see both office doors still shaking from banging open against the concrete half-wall behind them. As I stood watching, the doors – then coming to rest from their violent opening — began to move more vigorously, flapping back and forth with no visible means of movement. If someone had been standing there, frantically flapping the doors back and forth, that’s what it would look like. But no one was.
I fled. I turned tail and ran up the stairs, not turning out the cellar lights, not closing the office doors, not nothing. I shakily finished counting out the drawer, keeping one eye on the stairwell, and left as quickly as I could.
It’s years later now, and I still don’t believe in ghosts — at least, I don’t think the evidence of the existence of ghosts is very strong. I don’t think my own uncorroborated experiences add up to much. I do not know how to explain them, and I suppose that, taken as unconnected events, they don’t require much explanation: a random hallucination, a settling building, ordinary human forgetfulness, an old, inadequate substructure shaken by the busy street outside.
But still, my mind insists on seeing them as part of a pattern, so they puzzle me, and I still think of them from time to time and wonder.
*I suffer from sleep paralysis, so I know very well that my brain sees things that aren’t real. But I can’t recall any experiences of drug-free hallucinations in broad daylight anywhere but in that building.
Oh, speaking of “in that building,” I lived in an apartment upstairs, where periodically I would see a cat. I didn’t have a cat, no one else’s cat could have got in, and when I would look harder, there would be no cat. I dismissed this as a fluke of memory and sight: I’d grown up with cats, so when I saw a stray ray of light or shadow, my brain thought cat.
Then my (extremely hard-headed, rational) father came over for a visit and joked, “You have a ghost cat!” I asked what the hell he meant, and he said, “I keep thinking I see a cat out of the corner of my eye.”
So. I don’t believe in ghosts. I do believe most “ghostly” phenomena can be explained by things we already know about human brains and eyes and ears, and about old buildings. But I’m very, very open to being wrong.
[This post is a response to Nicole Cliffe’s request for readers’ personal ghost stories.]