For Mystics and Skeptics Alike:
Real Tools for Disenchanting
Our Ghost-Ridden Existence
Whether or not we define ghosts as living memories that share the circulations of our bodies (though why not?), we are all of us, no matter how skeptical or credulous, haunted. We are perhaps more haunted and overburdened by ghosts than we care or dare to face. But there are physical tools, not merely placebos or talismans, not devices of the imagination, that verifiably repel ghosts, disenchanting us from oppressive hauntings. Advertisers and major corporations employ such tools to magnetically draw clients, dispelling the old ghosts so as to clear the way for new charms and jingle-borne incantations. Yet anyone can wield these tools to battle restless nights with ever-greater peace of mind.
In 1901, Alfred Noyes offered evidence that we are all haunted people, mystics and skeptics alike. His substantiations are so compelling that we can't resist quoting a few of them. He said that all of us haunted folk have heard strange things in music, in the wind, and in the dead stillness of the night. "It may be that all the great sages, the great world-poets, Aeschylus, Job, Isaiah, Dante, Shakespeare, have been haunted men; for they, too, tell us what they heard in music, in the wind, in the dead stillness of the night, in the revolving years; and they, too, seem often strangely and bitterly eager to cast away their memories and their delusions." Noyes noted that we all are poets nowadays, seeing "a thousand million apparitions, woven from such stuff as dreams are made of, walking the earth openly at noontide; surely we are all haunted." Some of us, he explained, "are haunted by the sound of one set slow bell, tolling, a great way off, in the spiritual forests that beset all pilgrim souls." Others of us "struggle in the shadowy places of despair with the clutching white fingers of a decayed ancestry, the ghosts of sins that are visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation." Still others are "haunted by the homeless cry of the sea, the cry that is like the voice upon the wintry mountains uttering the old Promethean moan of man. Night and day that cry goes up to heaven so long as the universal sea breaks itself against the iron shores of time." Noyes grants that some of us "are only haunted at certain times and seasons, or at the performance of certain rites." We'll come back to that shortly. ("The Romance of Christmas," Literature: Christmas Supplement, Dec. 7, 1901.)
Looked at another albeit more horrific way, we are all haunted because "the dead are all around us, in substance and in spirit," as Brian Stableford proves. "Every breath we take draws in carbon atoms that were once incorporated into the bodies of other men; with every mouthful of food we engulf the remains of our ancestors. As we devour them they devour us, fueling the slow fire of life—the fire whose ashes are absorbed, in the end, into the earth and her fruits, or lost on the wings of the wind. Our inescapable fate is to be eaten and breathed in our turn." Stableford adds that "Once we are conscious of the everpresence of the dead we can easily feel their nearness. To see them, and to hear their voices, is only a little more difficult." (The Haunted Bookshop and Other Apparitions
So, if we're all haunted and all eager to cast away our ghostliest memories and delusions, what technologies are available to us? Indeed, there's an entire doctor's bag full of tools. It's worth mentioning that a "doctor's bag" is appropriate, since ghosts and gauzes seem inseparable. The poet-novelist Gary Barwin
, in a work-in-progress, explains that ghosts are associated with gauze because memories are living wounds, and haunting ghosts are symbiotic dressings to those wounds. First, Barwin notes that "The remembering mind [is] a kind of ghost, drifting, no longer bound by time or gravity, as if twilight or reality had gathered into a cloud." Barwin imagines a ghost returning to the place where it once lived: "That place would seem a ghost to that ghost. Nothing the same. Everything haunted. As if seen through gauze. Of course it would seem that way: it’d be seen through a ghost. But gauze is apt, for a ghost’s past is a wound and the ghost is a dressing, a consolation, instead of us returning with no veil, the past in full colour." Barwin notes that though a haunting may be unsettling, it does not excoriate (in the medical sense of a stuck bandage removing part of the skin) in the way that imaginative reliving does. He suggests that the gauze of a haunting memory is more akin to a skin graft than a bandage, as it "shares a circulation with the body, with the lived life, with the present." ("Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted," an excerpt from a novel-in-progress, 2018.)
Yes, we need a doctor's bag of tools, and such tools are revealed by Tim Powers in Alternate Routes
(2018). Though Powers' book is presented as fiction, we're reminded by E. M. Forster that "fiction is truer than history, because it goes beyond the evidence, and each of us knows from his own experience that there is something beyond the evidence" (Aspects of the Novel
, 1927). Let's look at each tool in turn and explore why each is obviously valid and crucial to bring into play.
Mathematics. Recite the multiplication tables or even simple addition in a loud voice to repel ghosts. As Tim Powers notes, "Math is deterministic, and ghosts are an effect of possibility extended beyond reason." You might recall that since ancient times in Japan, the mantras of Shinto meditation have involved reciting numbers in order. Similarly, a Catholic's rosary beads might be compared to an abacus. In both religious systems, counting is used to engender peace of mind. Mathematics dispels the ghosts of irrationality. If a ghost approaches, Powers suggests saying this: "Six and six is twelve, squared is a hundred-and-forty-four, squared is twenty-thosand-seven-hundred-and-thirty-six!" If that isn't immediately effective, say, "One from one is nothing. Don't take my word for it, do the math. Nothing." Though Powers doesn't mention it, another mathematically-based ghost-neutralizing tool is Feng Shui's bagua, festooned with eight trigram figures from the iChing (having binary values). If mathematics is not your forte, reciting metered verse will be efficacious.
The uncanny valley. Mannequins, waxworks, robots, CGI characters -- when artificial faces look too realistic, when they seem genuinely human but you can sense that they're not, the creepy feeling is called the "uncanny valley." Ghosts are repelled by the contradiction. Powers doesn't mention the obvious, that advertisers and retail stores bank on this phenomenon. When you approach a clothing store's display mannequin, you're meant to associate the sudden feeling of inner peace with the need to purchase those clothes. But it's not the clothes that do the trick -- it's the mannequin. You'll apprehend all the other ways this technique is used in sales; it's why the models on magazine covers are airbrushed into oblivion; it's why Disneyland (brimming with uncannily lifelike animatronics) is called "the happiest place on earth." Wear a necklace or carry a keyring featuring a lifelike figurine. Put stickers on your car or bicycle or skateboard that sport realistic but artificial faces. Collect mannequin heads as bookends.
Spirit level stars. Powers suggests using a hot glue gun to arrange eight spirit levels (also known as bubble levels, the sealed glass tubes partially filled with liquid that reveal whether a surface is plumb) like spokes on a wheel, upon a circle of cardboard. More than a talisman, the confusing readings of the levels will induce a negating z-axis spin in an attentive ghost. You may wear a spirit level star as a necklace. Powers says that if you are approached by a ghost, hold up the star and ask, "Why are you tilting?" Again, a tool with a similar purpose is Feng Shui's octagon-framed concave bagua mirror, which warps and thereby neutralizes poisonous energies from one's home.
Fixed compass. A pocket compass, equipped with a magnet on the back, will have its needle in a fixed position. "Swing the compass around in a circle," Powers suggests, "and the apparent shifting of north might induce a terminal y-axis spin in a ghost."
Personal aspects. Change personal aspects that ghosts of your past might recognize. Powers recommends parting your hair on the other side or, if you aren't bald, shaving it off. Reinvent your fashion sense, especially with used/vintage clothes. Alter your jewelry, your scents. Wear a watch on the other wrist. While eating, teach yourself to hold cutlery in your non-dominant hand. Change your shoes regularly. Wear your clothes inside out and/or backwards. Hop on one foot whenever possible. The point of all these techniques will be fairly obvious -- by getting out of your habits, you can escape cul-de-sacs of life in which ghosts accumulate. Hopping on one foot may sound silly, until one recalls the hops, skips, and jumps of carefree childhood; children at play instinctively perform rituals that dispel ghosts. Backwards clothing may sound silly, too, but recall that Chris Kelly of the hip-hop band Kris Kross wore his pants back-to-front every day from 1991 until his sudden death in 2013. He revealed in an interview
, "Even if I put on a suit, I put my suit pants on backwards. It’s just a way of life for me." It seems that celebrities and personal demons go hand in hand.
Temporal anomalies. Sporting the wrong time, Powers says, is good for confusing ghosts. Set your watch, computer, phone, and household clocks to different time zones. This technique also happens to be good for keeping you alert, as you'll need to calculate the correct time with every glance at a clock face. Yet, just because it might be happy hour in France, don't imbibe. (See next item.)
Teetotaling. Ghosts tend to miss alcohol and are drawn to the smell of it. That's why Powers cautions one to avoid all liquor. You know about alcoholics who fall into the "sad drunk" cliché, but consider whether it might not be the alcohol that's the problem as much as the ghosts drawn to that alcohol. So many miserable drunks are overwhelmed by spirits of another sort.
Alkalinity. Because ghosts are compatible with alkaline bloodstreams, Powers suggests, an acidic diet is recommended: coffee, roasted nuts, blueberries, prunes, pickles, chocolate. This insight would appear to be rather little-known. Yet on a microscopic level, there is a connection between alkaline blood and transparent cellular "ghosts
" (that's the scientific term, used by hematologists). Presumably, as in the microcosm, so in the macrocosm.
Garden decorations. We've all seen and presumably visited peaceful gardens. Envision one that you particularly liked. Did it happen to feature a little statue (like a gnome or a saint or nature deity), perhaps a pinwheel or other wind-driven spinning object, a reflective sphere, or dangling prisms that cast rainbows? Powers identifies such objects as spirit distractors, protecting the garden from unwanted hauntings. Tools like these have been known for centuries upon centuries to dispel dark energies; they are vital components of the sense of peace that the garden engenders. Peacefulness doesn't merely happen of its own accord. Indeed, an unequipped garden can feel quite ominous, unwelcoming, or otherwise disconcerting.
Headed metronomes. Powers recommends using metronomes affixed with heads as ghost detectors and traps. The head should be of an organic material (for example, bone, wood, or even a pine cone) and should be painted with a human face. Fatigued spirits, inhabiting the head so as to rest, will find themselves trapped and will cause the metronome to tick back and forth, thereby alerting you of their capture. Though Powers doesn't refer to it, in the traditional folkways of Japan, a different sort of headed doll is employed. The "teru teru bozu" ("shine shine monk") is a handmade doll constructed of white paper or cloth that is hung on a string by a window. The doll is inhabited by a wandering spirit, and a chant is spoken, essentially a contract: if the "monk" ensures good weather, it will be allowed to remain and will be soaked with alcohol as a reward, but if the weather turns foul, its head will be cut off as punishment.
Two radios. Play two radios simultaneously, each tuned to the same station. Powers notes that any desynchronization of the audio will be instantly noticeable and will alert a disturbance in the field. If you play digital music on a laptop through your stereo system's speakers, set your music player to also play through your laptop's speakers. There will be times when the audio in one set of speakers begins to pop, cut out intermittently, or silence altogether, and that's your early warning to be on your guard.
Artificial trees. As they abhor mannequins, ghosts abhor the contradiction of artificial evergreens. Powers mentions this in passing, but we can extrapolate from that a useful tool: install a year-round aluminum ornament tree in your living space. A great many people who celebrate Christmas avoid artificial trees as archetypes of soullessness, as not only poor substitutes for the original concept but also as perversions of tradition, because the inorganic aluminum is felt to lack a "spiritual content" and therefore reflects an environment of alienation (George Nash, Old Houses
, 1980). An organic ornament tree draws spirits to it, which is why the age-old Christmas ritual creates an atmosphere of homecoming, gathering as it does the ghosts of lost loved ones. Such spiritual homecomings, of course, are also why so many people find Christmas a melancholic or even depressing time. Importantly, in his essay on "The Romance of Christmas," Noyes wrote that between the moonlight and fire in a winter twilight, when the shadows come out to dance upon the walls and ceilings, everyone is haunted by the ghosts of Christmastide. As modern poets, Noyes said, whatever our views of finite faiths may be, and no matter how many years have rolled away with crumbling creeds and dogmas, we poets have "looked into the fundamental paradox" and have "understood that everything is true, everything exists, and the earth is only a little dust beneath our feet." Noyes explained that "the crude spiritualism of the ancient season of Christmas is dead; yet agnostic and scoffer, Pre-Raphaelite and Impressionist, ascetic and mystic, are all alike taking up and fulfilling the prophecy of Matthew Arnold concerning poetry [replacing religion], and the whole of the West is looking towards the light that never was on sea or land."
Self portraits. A self portrait allows a wandering spirit to remain anchored on this side, Powers notes. When you encounter a "selfie," you've likely encountered a ghost. Researchers
at Ohio State University, Nottingham Trent University, and other institutions linked selfie-taking to narcissism, psychopathy, and anti-social behaviors. Consider how a narcissist's inflated self-image and low self-esteem are, like a bulging balloon, evidence of an insubstantial interior. Selfie-takers' self-objectification is very literally that -- objectifying in a desperate measure to physically exist, to have proof that they were here, regardless of what form it took. A psychopath's lack of empathy is additional evidence of ghostly inhumanity. To avoid more ghosts, prevent exposure to selfies.
If it's true that the spirit of our age is one of transformation, "our imperative is to think anew, to disenchant ourselves" from lost relics and illusions, and to enchant ourselves once again with aspirations of progress (Patrick J. DeSouza, 2000). Oliver Optic once said that if it is hard to enchant others, it is still more so to disenchant ourselves; for although we stand out in bold relief, and our faults are glaring, we too rarely introvert our gaze or hold a mirror (except for vanity's sake) before our faces; and so, for the most part, we are invisible to ourselves. Optic noted that most of us practice some sort of disguise or pretense to cover up our motives, while others carry out our machinations in the dark or beneath a cloak of hypocrisy. With our eyes in our heads, we can but look outwardly, and we are thus conscious of everything but that which is passing within. It seems to require some magic to endow us with that self-knowledge, Optic suggested, without which all other knowledge may avail nothing. We must learn to gauge or measure our own capacities, to probe our own motives, and to understand the principles by which we act. As in the classic story of the shepherd Gyges who found the magic golden ring of invisibility, we must turn the bezel so as to be no longer invisible to ourselves. (Oliver Optic, "The Ring of Gyges," Our Boys and Girls Magazine, 1867.)