This is Faith in Play #59: Ghosts, for October 2022.
At some point I was asking about topics for this series, and someone suggested including the undead, giving a list of several examples in that group. We did a piece about Vampires specifically, but otherwise have left the group untouched. Yet there is one member of the group that stands out for one point: it is the one type of undead creature with the greatest number of people believing it to be real in the real world, and not just a fantasy notion. Sure, there are some people who eye others with suspicion, wondering whether there might be a vampire in their midst, and some who are readying themselves against the zombie apocalypse, but in the main most people relegate the undead to the realms of the imagination–except for ghosts. We have ghost hunters, and stories of haunts and poltergeists around the world. Many people believe in ghosts.
For my part, I am unpersuaded. That is, there are evidences supporting a belief that there is something supernatural or paranormal happening in some places, but I don’t know what it is. It might be, as some suggest, psychic residue from a traumatic event, or as others suggest demons masquerading as people to deceive observers, or simply overactive imaginations stimulated by atmosphere and ambiance. On the other hand, it might be spirits of what we call the departed who have not quite departed.
Yet it is that notion that catches my attention this October: what if ghosts really are the restless spirits of the dead, unable to tear themselves away from this world and move to the next?
But I don’t have to decide that; indeed, that’s outside the purview of this series, which is about our leisure activities. So let me return to that.
I once played in a game in which my character had somehow become sensitive to supernatural realities around him. One evening he saw the faint form of a man pass through a wall where a doorway had once been, turn on a television that was no longer there, and sit across from it in a non-existent chair. He was quite startled when I spoke to him, but he explained that he did this every night, coming downstairs into his living room to watch the news. I didn’t ask him what he was seeing, but apparently he saw the world as it was when he was alive. For some reason he was so attached to his earthly home that he never left it, and it never left him.
There are stories of ghosts who make trouble for living people who come into their homes and make changes. How dare we; how rude. From that perspective, their efforts to evict us make perfect sense–we’re squatters who don’t belong there. Calling Beetlejuice begins to make sense.
There are stories of ghosts who seem to be reliving the last moments leading up to their traumatic deaths, like the railroad conductor who was trying to let the engineer know that the switch was in the wrong position, or the flight engineer trying to alert the cockpit that the landing gear had in fact been engaged, despite the warning light on the dash. There are ghosts who have lived in old castles so long no one knows who they were or why they are there.
Yet they all have this in common: they were living people once, and their presence suggests there is some part of us that survives the deaths of our bodies.
Of course, some will argue that it is appointed to us to die once, and after that is the judgment; but then, sometimes our dying takes years, and it is not promised that our judgment will occur immediately upon the moment we die. Perhaps these ghosts died and are waiting for what comes after that–or trying to avoid it for as long as possible. So perhaps ghosts are proof of what we already know.
And certainly within our games and stories they can be that.