Ghost stories have enthralled me since I was a kid. My home state North Carolina is rife with them. It is, after all, the locus of the notorious Devil’s Tramping Ground near Siler City and the Uhwarrie Forest “lights.” Even where I live in Carolina Beach, locals report a rotating cadre of apparitions haunting the base of the bridge that joins our island to the rest of civilization.
Folk can be mighty dismissive about such haints, geists and manifestations, debunked or not. When someone tells me, “I don’t believe in ghosts,” I admit that I have a moment of knee-jerk defensiveness. For me, it’s not a matter of belief but a matter of appreciating the power that legend and myth hold over our culture. Young’uns still camp out at the Devil’s Tramping Ground hoping for a sighting of old Mephisto, even though geologists have concluded that the denuded patch in the woods is no more than a salt lick, not a demonic fire circle.
I take a bit of guilty pleasure in spinning a yarn about my own encounters with the inexplicable. As a college student in Chapel Hill, I lived in a rickety shack on McCauley Street where every night around the same time my housemates and I would hear what sounded like a dinner party in progress. Glasses clinked and muffled voices resounded with revelry. Was it the decrepit wood expelling the weight of its years? I have no idea.
I also can’t explain what I heard in the stairwell of the hospital where I worked in the fever pitch of the COVID pandemic. A voice called for help as I passed through a column of ice-cold air in that stairwell, between the eighth and seventh floors. I could chalk it up to my own exhaustion and vulnerable state of mind, not to mention a ragged physical plant, except this experience occurred intermittently over the course of several months. I related the events to the one co-worker I could trust not to call me crazy, and he conceded that he never stepped into that stairwell because he had “a bad feeling about it.”
For insight into why humanity dabbles in the occult, I turned to Alicia Puglionesi’s marvelous and comprehensive Common Phantoms: An American History of Psychic Science. The publisher labels the book as “religion / history,” but it could also bear the monikers of cultural studies, science, psychology or spirituality. In her introduction to the book, Puglionesi writes:
This book maps the unstable terrain where assumptions clash with direct experience. It’s a space defined by absence: the absence of logical explanation, of the fixed laws and evidence that are supposed to govern modern life.
Yes, that passage is exemplary of the elegant language you can expect in this book. Here you have an author who cares about writing as much as the research at hand. (Puglionesi also has written a novella and poetry, as well as numerous articles, including the beautiful analysis “Spiritualism’s Shadows: On COVID-19 and false consolation”).
Common Phantoms delves into the vast and storied mission of the American Society for Psychical Research and the extensive movement of laypersons experimenting with mysterious phenomena at home. In the book, we meet societies devoted to communicating with the dead and citizens flexing their telepathic muscle. We hear remarkable narratives of dreams that predict reality and learn of an extraordinary connection between nightmares and Welsh rarebit. You can read this book for its rigorous research and historical documentation or simply find joy in its window into American life and human curiosity.
StartleResponse.com pairs Common Phantoms with a couple of tales loosely based on actual events ….