I don’t Believe in Ghosts, I Believe in Ghosts

I’ve been really enjoying The Returned – a French thriller currently airing in the UK on Sunday evenings. (Watch the latest episode here.) It concerns the (apparent) return of some young people to a small town in the Alps, some 10 years after they had died. Giving lie to the easy words ‘I wish they would come back’ the returns these people each make back into the lives of parents, one-time lovers, siblings and friends cause huge ruptures. Joy is tempered by fear. Wounds are re-opened.

In one scene in Sunday’s episode, Adele, whose one-time fiancée Simon comes back, goes to see the local priest. He is about to conduct Adele’s wedding to another man – the local chief of police. She confides in him that she has ‘met’ Simon, and is concerned that the manic episodes that she suffered after Simon’s death are returning.

The priest is understanding, and says

“I believe that people we have loved continue to live within us… It’s very important to be at peace with ghosts.”

He then encourages her to engage Simon when she sees him again, and speak to him.

All of which is by way of introduction to saying that the show, resonating with some other things (including these two posts by Peter Rollins and some research into a new novel that draws quite heavily on the life of my great-grandfather), has left me thinking quite a bit about ghosts recently, in the same way that magic struck me at the end of last year.

Magic, as I explored in After Magic, functions in a space where we suspend our disbelief. This is very different to belief in magic – it is about allowing oneself to take what magic has to offer in the space within which it presents itself. In a similar way, I want to say that I don’t believe in ghosts… but I believe in ghosts. That is to say, suspending disbelief in ghosts actually allows them to function so that the gifts they bring can be engaged with, without the horror of actual belief.

I remember as a young teenager going on a youth camp, and us all sitting up telling ghost stories. What were we trying to do? Clearly, none of us actually believed in ghosts, but the suspended space that we created allowed ghosts to speak to us: they allowed us to examine our deepest fears and horrors, and these were the subjects of the stories.

Ghosts speak what has been too-long left unspoken. Ghosts are not the undead, they are the unsaid.

I grew up with a lot of spirit-talk, surrounded by ghosts and demons. I spent the first 8 years of my life living with a graveyard as the extension to my garden, just through a gate from the vicarage where I lived. It was a time when a lot of the adults around me were going through ‘charismatic renewal’… God’s spirit was moving powerfully through them… Which, for me now, looks a lot in retrospect like a form of suppression release. Tombs were being opened, dead spirits speaking. And yet, framed in Anglican Christianity, there was still this ‘stiff upper lip’ suppression to this release.

Which is to say that ghosts began moving, but were not necessarily heard out. Demons, those ghosts that have suffered even more than others, sometimes shouted and writhed, convulsed and screamed, and found some kind of settlement… But not all did. Fears still remained, superstitions still held power.

Perhaps the real problems come when those to whom ghosts wish to speak will not engage. What I’ve been reflecting on recently is how, in some ways, I am haunted by other people’s ghosts. And these spectres, if one is not careful, begin to make demands on you, demands that, actually, you cannot speak to because you don’t know intimately enough the fear and pain that has given rise to them.

So my question is this: how does one deal with other people’s ghosts? Hungry spectres that have been shunned for generations?

All of this can be read from a psychoanalytic point of view of course (Jung himself was heavily involved in paranormal exploration), but what I’ve loved about The Returned is that it has put these questions back into the language of ghosts and haunting, something that is so ancient and archetypal.



9 responses to “I don’t Believe in Ghosts, I Believe in Ghosts”

  1. Could you give an example of the sort of thing you mean when you talk about “other people’s ghosts”?

  2. Hmmm…don’t want to go into too much specifically, but I think it’s possible for a child to be haunted by the ghosts that their parents never engaged with. Although there was a lot of ‘spirit talk’ going on in my upbringing in a vicarage, I’m now wondering if that was a cover for not addressing the unholy ghosts, who remained hungry so long that they moved on. My genuine question is whether it’s even possible to ‘speak’ to these spectres in a healing way. I suspect not, that they somehow need to be side-stepped, despite their desire to haunt.

  3. Interesting Kester thanks for this. This morning a lady started talking to me in a cafe – she’d experienced that very thing – picking up ‘ghosts’ from other people … I agree, anything that is not explored, engaged with in a person / community / culture will rise up somewhere else; often those on the fringes or who are ‘open’ psychically will be the channel, often artists. I guess our task is to engage with them skilfully – and know like the paradox you outlined in the opening – they are not me, but they are also me.

  4. Lyle Taffs

    Hi Kester. I recon Jesus gives us a good example in the healing of the ‘Demoniac of the Gerasenes. I recon this story has particular significance because all three synoptic writers tell it. The story undoubtedly leaves out much by way of details but the key message is retained. Jesus said to him, “What is your name”? In this, Jesus lead the person to a point where he could recognize (rather than be in the ignorance born of repression and denial)that his demons are his own ‘dark side’ and that by ‘welcoming'(recognising by ‘naming’) them they are integrated and lose their power. So, you can not deal with other peoples ‘ghosts’ – only they can – because they will resist any attempt by you to take ‘their’ power. Paidrag speaks very well about this. Ask him when you see him.

  5. In Matthew 14:26, Jesus spooks his team, but doesn’t treat them as if thinking he was a ghost was nuts.
    Suggests he knew that ghosts were real, or at least that ghost experiences seem real.
    Suggests fear is normal.
    Also suggests some ghost experiences aren’t really ghosts, but can be reinterpreted as God-with-us, and to be welcomed rather than feared, and can increase our awareness of His presence and difference, giving us more aspiration to be like Him – living ghosts who can walk on water.
    NB: http://www.allmusic.com/album/ghosts-upon-the-earth-mw0002191291

  6. @Kester: I guess what you said sounded to me like it had echoes of a range of online interactions I’ve seen recently where people being criticised have accused the people who are criticising them of overreacting. My experience is that the suggestion that there is something excessive or irrational in people’s engagement is often used as a way of shutting them down: especially if they are women, black, working class etc. etc. It’s much easier to be calm and reasoned if you are in a position of power and privilege and comfort; if there’s not much at stake. It’s harder if you feel like you constantly have to fight for your right to be heard or even your right to exist; it’s harder if you’ve had those conversations before and felt all the time like you’re banging your head against a brick wall. I don’t know whether this is what’s going on here – again, I don’t know the specific things you have in mind – but it does sound to me dangerously close to some other things I have read which have been written from a position either of deliberate attempts to shut other people down or of a genuine inability to grasp why it’s actually kind of reasonable for, say, women to be angry enough about their experience of misogyny to not have a lot of grace for men awkwardly failing to understand the issues.

  7. @Kester And it’s not just about structural oppression; it’s also about history. For example: I’ve no idea who @EmergentDudeBro is in terms of gender/sexuality/race etc., but it seems to me like what happened there was a long line of pretty measured critiques of people in the Emergent Church which were dismissed, evaded or shut down; and then this parody account gets set up and people respond by suggesting that whoever is behind it is angry, hurt, mean etc. etc. whereas actually it looks to me like biting satire is a pretty smart response to people who show no signs of being willing to engage with their critics anyway.

  8. @Marika – I can see that now, but the root of the post is in familial stuff, rather than online debate or discourse as the previous couple of posts were. Given that, I totally agree with what you’ve said here.
    From the familial / relational perspective though, when you say

    It’s much easier to be calm and reasoned if you are in a position of power and privilege and comfort; if there’s not much at stake. It’s harder if you feel like you constantly have to fight for your right to be heard or even your right to exist; it’s harder if you’ve had those conversations before and felt all the time like you’re banging your head against a brick wall.

    that completely resonates. I’m thinking here about a young person fighting that battle to be heard – or, within this metaphor, to allow ghosts to speak – when those a generation above simply refuse to speak, or allow the unsaid to be said. And then when they are older, the effect that that silence has had on them can be haunting…even though they are effectively being haunted by the enforced silence of someone else’s ghosts. Does that make sense?
    But, that said, I think what you are saying about history, misogyny, anger etc among women in families – and perhaps long-standing Christian families – is highly relevant too. It may be that what you’re saying about structural oppression I need to factor more into this, and would be happy to take direction on that.
    And yeah… I mean… That whole debacle about EmergentDudeBro. Horrendous. To be honest (and I apologise if I’ve failed in this regard) I’ve tried to keep away from that whole thing. I’ve said my piece to those involved, and I’m trying to focus more on other areas now…Though it just drives me mad.

  9. acetate monkey

    Hi Kester, it may/may not be of interest but Susan Howatch’s St Benet’s novel trilogy (A Question of Integrity, The High Flyer & The Heartbreaker) explore some of these paranormal/psychological language interactions (esp TH).

    Ps After Magic arrived today. Looking forward to reading it! 🙂