Real Ghost Stories


My husband, Marc, likes shows about ghosts and the people who stalk them. I try to hold my tongue when I catch him watching one of these programs, but sometimes I just let it out.

“That’s no reality show. All the ghost programs are staged. The people in them are ACTORS who are making up a STORY.”

Marc good-naturedly admits that yeah, the stories do have that staged air about them, but he likes them. I think he also wants to believe that close communication with spirits of the past exist. All I know is he appears quite drawn to the drama of these shows.

I myself believe in mysterious dimensions of the unseen world. The five human senses that come to mind when we’re asked to name them do not, and cannot, divulge everything that exists. In 2014, photographer David Littshweiger produced a photograph of one drop of seawater magnified 25 times to reveal an entire ecosystem containing crab larva, single-celled critters called diatoms, bacteria, fish eggs, zooplankton, and worms. It makes you wonder what would show up if it were possible to produce a picture of that same drop magnified 100 times. It also makes you wonder how much of that stuff you ingest when you accidentally swallow seawater.

But our typical characterizations of unseen entities come across to me as a cliché. The image of a pained otherworldly presence like Scrooge’s partner Old Marley rattling his chains as he walks upstairs is far less intriguing to me than another kind of ghost.

I too have a show I’m drawn to, though I feel like a voyeur whenever I watch. It’s Intervention, a reality show about addicted people and their families and friends who try to save them. The program to me feels as if I’ve been invited to a kind of spirit-watch, and a ceremony of sorts from which I can learn about my fellow human beings. Sure I know addicts; I’ve even grown up with a couple. I live in an environment where this subculture of people is not hidden. Always, I have wondered how to fairly meet what addicted individuals occasionally require, and somehow Intervention frames this all up for me so that I can reflect upon, and deal, with my version of hungry ghosts.

The hungry ghost is found in Chinese traditional religions, and specifically within the Buddhist framework. These ghosts are charged and driven by profound emotional needs. They’re looking to fill their voids. They are tortuous entities not because they are doing anything, but because they are there. They cause suffering because they are suffering as spirits, and sometimes in human form.

Viewers of Intervention know that the great spiritual battles are not always won by caring supporters of the afflicted. Those who need help may keep running toward the void that can’t ever be filled. Sometimes they recover themselves for a while and later drop the fragile thread of recovery, and relapse. Redeeming the best of the self is never a sure thing, but when it happens, it’s a shot of hope to all who see it.

Something one of the show’s counselors said years back stuck with me. He said it’s important to render the “invisible” addict visible in order to have any hope of healing. All addicts are invisible, he said. Their being is subsumed by dependence. Addiction ultimately is a state of self-loss. Once the addict experiences him- or herself as a worthy being, “seen” and loved by others, the possibility of restoration to a whole self – and a sense of self, of inner grounding, and peace - emerges.

Traditional ghost-searching crews offer a similar story, without the emotional investment. In Marc’s shows, ghosts are hunted down and asked to communicate. They’re invited to use a common language to confront whatever pain lingers spiritually so that they, and others in their ghostly sphere, can find peace. In short, these entities are theatrically hunted down and invited to make a choice other than to haunt the atmosphere, scaring the daylights out of those around them.

A counselor working with addicted individuals offered a technique that would likely hold true for the Jacob Marleys of the netherworld, too.

As opposed to scaring or alienating those around you, “Do one right thing. Every time you do, you’re able to feel good about yourself. That’s true for all of us. Aim for, and collect those experiences. It’s so simple – but there you have it.” A shot at recovery, the possibility of redemption.

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