Everywhere We Look We Find Ghosts

The modern ghost story as a reality TV show; ghosts as a means of understanding the things you miss most.

ghosts

Photo courtesy of Richard Schuerger

Dear Zak,

I’m writing you in regards to events that transpired in season 7, episode 12 of your hit television program Ghost Adventures. In that episode, you and your crew of certified paranormal investigators traveled to Rawlins, Wyoming, where you turned up, unexpected, in the driveway of a thin, middle-aged woman. She wore a Wyoming Public Radio sweatshirt. Her name was Dee.

Dee welcomed you into her home, where she showed you, among other items, a tiny box containing an old photograph and a clump of human hair, which she claimed she found inside the walls.

You returned to the house that night, Zak, and set up a night-vision camera in Dee’s living room. At some point during the night, a black cat passed through the living room, crossing the lower right frame of that camera. You initially assumed this was Dee’s cat, until a few minutes later, when Dee’s cat appeared on the camera again, but looked completely different than the first cat.

“And here’s the most compelling part,” you began. “Watch as the living cat appears on camera again and seems to be puzzled, like something’s messing with it, possibly the black shadow cat. And after it walks off camera toward the dark hallway, the black shadow cat appears seconds later, following the living cat.”

Zak, we are both analytical thinkers. Given the data you have provided, I concede that one possible scenario is that Dee’s house is being haunted by a ghost cat.

But I ask you to consider this alternative explanation: I believe it is possible that Dee, a middle-aged, single woman in Wyoming, the kind of woman who invites three complete strangers into her home to show them the human hair she keeps in a box, such a woman, Zak — and please forgive the stereotype — but such a woman may very well own more than one cat.

Look, this letter isn’t only about the cat. It’s about what the cat represents.

Look at all these shows, Zak: Ghost Adventures, Ghost Hunters, Ghost Hunters International, Ghostly Encounters, Paranormal State, Paranormal Witness, The Haunted, Haunted Collector, Psychic Kids, My Ghost Story, Celebrity Ghost Stories (that one has a spin-off, Zak). Why are we so eager to see the paranormal everywhere we look?

To me, ghost stories are like dreams. Everyone has them, but only morons want to tell you all about theirs. And yet, I still feel compelled, like millions of others each week, to tune in for your ghost stories. I have listened to so many of your ghost stories, Zak, that you are the only person to whom I feel comfortable telling mine.

I grew up in a suburb of Chicago called Aurora. One summer day in 1996, we got a storm. It wasn’t the kind of storm we were accustomed to, the kind with epic lightning, tornado winds, and hail the size of your head. Instead, it just rained. And rained. In fewer than 24 hours, seventeen inches of rain fell.

Three feet of water collected in our basement, but we only kept old junk down there. People in other neighborhoods weren’t so fortunate. Some lost everything. I was only twelve years old, so I couldn’t wrap my head around the wider devastation. I spent the next day playing in the water. I waded into the dark lake that lapped against our front lawn and tried to catch fish with my bare hands.

In the afternoon, I went inside with a friend to play Nintendo. Ten minutes into a game of Mario Kart, my friend set his controller down and said he was going back outside. I tried to convince him to stay, but he wasn’t having it.

“There’s never going to be another day like this for the rest of our lives,” he said. Then he went outside.

My friend’s words were not intended to be profound, but Zak, that shit messed me up. I think that was the first time I’d ever thought deeply about my own mortality. I followed him outside and found that everything had changed. Summer no longer felt endless. As the water in the streets slowly receded, it felt like I was watching the last day of my life drain away.

My point is that you and I both think a lot about death. And this thing with the cat triggered a memory that I hadn’t thought about in a while.

You see, Zak, that flood wasn’t the only devastating event that struck that day. It was the same day that a Trans World Airlines flight from New York to Paris exploded twelve minutes after takeoff and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 230 people on board. There was a man who lived in Aurora who had a daughter and two granddaughters on that flight. His name was Wayne.

I met Wayne many years later, when I was in college. He accepted my out-of-the-blue request to interview him for a writing project. By that time he was a widower, too. He told me, in a deep, gravelly tone, about “his girls.” He told me about his daughter and how she had once narrowly escaped a different sort of violent death. (She was a real estate agent. One evening after work hours, she had gone to check on a house under construction. One of the workers had followed her there, snuck into the home quietly behind her, and attacked her. He thought she was alone; her husband was upstairs. He surprised the attacker and beat him into submission. Later, police searched the attacker’s vehicle and found only two items: a roll of duct tape and a hand saw.) He also told me about his granddaughters, who would stay at his home for two weeks every summer while their parents went on vacation. One afternoon Wayne and the younger girl sat on the patio eating candy and drinking cream soda. “Grandpa,” the seven-year-old said, “this is the life!”

And he told me about the moment he knew they were gone. In the evening there was a break in the storm, the worst would come later that night. During that break, news of the crash broke across every television station. All Wayne knew was that his girls were flying to Paris via TWA — he didn’t know what time or which flight number, and he couldn’t get through on the phone.

He went out to his garage and watched the water creep up his driveway, feeling helpless, until a neighbor floated down the street in a small motorboat. He hitched a ride to the highway, and somehow managed to get a taxi to O’Hare. The airport was a madhouse, both on account of the storm and the crash. When Wayne finally reached the TWA desk he told the clerk that he may have had family on board Flight 800.

The clerk typed his daughter’s name into the computer, waited, then printed out a boarding pass. Even as Wayne took the ticket from her, he still wasn’t sure his girls were gone. Then a man behind him in line spoke up.

“Hey, why does that guy get a ticket?”

He boarded a flight to New York. Meanwhile the rain picked up in Aurora, and floodwaters waist deep filled the main level, the only level, of his home.

The longer I talked to Wayne, the clearer it became that what happened to him was incredibly sad, but it wasn’t really a story. Do you ever feel this way, Zak? Do you ever visit a place with a bad history and it feels like you’re trespassing? As though what happened there is so tragic it transcends explanation, that to turn it into narrative feels exploitative, that your very presence has disrupted the partially-restored calm? That’s how I felt about Wayne. I wished I had left him alone.

I was packing to leave when Wayne spoke, but not to me. It sounded as though he were thinking out loud.

“When it rains,” he said, “I can feel them. They’re talking to me.”

I’m not proud to admit it, Zak, but inside my head I lapsed into the same smug judgments I make every time someone tells me their ghost story. There was an awkward silence where I tried to think of something to say.

Before I could speak, I heard a sound like radio static. It was very quiet at first, then it grew louder. Outside the window fell a hard, heavy rain, drumming on the roof overhead, thrashing the surface of a pond behind Wayne’s property.

Wayne and I sat very still and listened.

A few moments later, the rain stopped as suddenly as it began, as if a faucet had been opened and shut.

Zak, I’m not suggesting that ghosts guided the weather to make a point to me. I know what happened was a coincidence — a passing storm cell, what meteorologists would call a cloudburst. But that knowledge didn’t make the goosebumps that rose on my skin, or the feeling of peace that fell over me as I drove home, any less real.

So I’m writing you, Zak, not to tell you I believe, but to tell you I understand. I can see why you’d want to hold on to that feeling. I can see why you’d seek it out again and again in the darkest places, and why you, and so many others, project your hope of something greater onto the otherwise mundane: in the memory of a dream, in the sudden downpour of rain, in the passing shadow of a cat.

Willy Nast lives in an apartment in Chicago with a retired greyhound and a strange roommate. He is originally from Aurora, IL, and yes, he has seen Wayne's World an astounding number of times. He co-hosts a "completely unpretentious literary podcast" called All Write Already! and a monthly reading series called Essay Fiesta! Don't get the wrong idea — not everything he is involved with ends with an exclamation mark.