Listen to me!
I’m totally an expert!
My first professional writing job was for a small regional publisher that operated a division devoted to trade paperbacks about the supernatural. I accepted the gig not out of any enthusiasm for the subject, but because someone was willing to pay me actual $ to put words on paper and I was–at that time–working the weekend graveyard shift at an adult video store. (The position I had originally interviewed for had actually been for their Canadian history division–one of the few subjects that would have interested me even less.)
I admit that I took on the assignment as a skeptic, but I was open-minded enough to allow myself the possibility that after diving into the subject and doing the research that I might end up being convinced my doubt was ill-placed. But that didn’t happen. Instead, 10 and 1/2 books later (the 1/2 is a long story), my skepticism had been replaced with complete and utter certainty.
I ain’t afraid of no ghosts, because there are no ghosts to be not afraid of.
How did I become so certain? Oh, let me list the ways! I think six points shall do.
1) The Ghost Boy Paradox
The “Ghost Boy Paradox” was the term I created for the fact that the more research and effort me and my fellow full-time “ghost boys” (three young male writers who also all once worked together at a popular Greek restaurant–another long story) put into proving a story really happened, the more likely we were to do the opposite. The facts almost invariably never matched up with the legend.
There were only two ways to get past this. Write what we knew was true (ie. boring history stuff) and make a half-hearted nod to a ghost story we knew was crap or go in the opposite direction and ignore the history completely and just tell the best story you could. For this reason, anyone who reads a ghost story and feels like they’re in a classroom OR sitting around a campfire, is most probably reading a bullshit story.
2) Location! Location! Location!
I once wrote that one reason so many hotels are haunted is because by their very transient nature they are places filled with untimely deaths. I pulled this reasoning out of my butt to meet a deadline. The real reason so many hotels claim to be haunted is because the people who own them have noticed that there are guests who will specifically seek out such places in their travels.
The best part is that because these guests are already primed to assume that anything even slightly abnormal has a ghostly explanation, they’ll only be too happy to spread the word if a light bulb so much as flickers during their stay.
In other words, ghosts mean money and we all know how honest people are once money is involved.
3) Live Action Role Phantoming
“Ghost hunters” are really just the paranormal equivalent of larping cosplayers. It’s a form of theatre where they are their own audience. They seek out spooky abandoned buildings at night, rather than local shopping malls in the middle of the day, and make up the rules regarding what their equipment does and what their readings actually mean—conveniently working in a field where a lack of compelling evidence isn’t actually considered a detriment.
Essentially what they do is no different than if I went out in a forest with my iPhone and a TV crew on the hunt for Woodland Fairies. After explaining to the viewers that fairies famously disrupt cell reception, we would all walk around the area until I finally found a spot with zero bars. I would then earnestly claim that we had just discovered a place filled with fairies, but we could not see them because their magic fairy dust made them invisible to both the human eye and modern recording equipment.
4) Oh, Have I Got a Story For You!
The same day my mother died, a dart board in my parent’s basement fell and broke a tacky serving dish she had received as a present years earlier. As someone telling an anecdote it would be easy for me to turn this into a story about her making one last final statement from beyond the grave. As an author, I would grab onto this and come up with a reason why my mom hated that serving dish enough to destroy it after her unexpected death, when the truth is that it was just strange accident that wasn’t connected to anything other than a loose screw.
Whenever you read eyewitness testimony described in a ghost story, you’re almost invariably getting a dramatized version of an already embellished account of an incident that has a perfectly logical explanation. The fact that these stories so often involve the deaths of loved ones adds an emotional element that can’t be ignored. To dismiss what happened with the dart board as mere coincidence almost seems to be doing my mother’s memory a disservice, but the reality is that if it hadn’t happened, something similarly weird would have and it wouldn’t have been any more meaningful.
5) Listen To Me! I’m Totally An Expert
In between ghost books my publisher asked me to write one on urban legends, so I did. In virtually all of the interviews I did to promote it, I was described as an “expert” in the field, even though I had known nothing about the subject when I started.
I like to think I’m a pretty smart guy and came to some interesting conclusions during the four months I spent writing the book, but the reality was I didn’t know any more than anyone who’s made it a habit to visit Snopes.com every now and then. But that didn’t matter because people needed to fill in airtime or get quotes for their stories.
This made me realize that if I was such a shitty expert, then what did that say about the ones who I myself quoted in my ghost stories? How many of them were just trying to seem knowledgeable while they cashed a much-needed paycheque. Out of all the people I knew who worked on the ghost books I didn’t know any who actually believed what they were writing about. Was this ONLY true for our small pocket of writers or is it possible that many other folks who worked in the industry were operating under the same circumstances?
6) One Bad Apple Will Spoil the Whole Bunch
Despite what I just wrote above, I am willing to acknowledge that it is entirely possible that I am the only writer in the entire history of the ghost story genre to ever knowingly and willfully pass off fiction for fact, just as it is entirely possible that someday Salma Hayek will realize that her life will never be truly complete until she meets and marries a short, bearded 38 year-old Canadian copywriter who doesn’t like to wear pants and who spends way too much of his time tweeting about how handsome he is on Twitter.
A lot of things are “possible”, but I am willing to go out on a limb and assume that I am not an extraordinary outlier in this instance. And this is significant when you consider that a major way these books are researched is through the reading of other books.
Imagine somewhere out there a blogger in one of the states I wrote about decides to use my book as a source for a story about a local legend they’re interested in. Along with mine they’ve found 2 other books and a bunch of websites that feature the same tale—except none of them match up. The basic story is the same, but the details are all different and while it’s easy to dismiss mine because by that time I had stopped even pretending to give a damn about plausibility, the others aren’t any more help.
I can sympathize with that blogger, because that was the exact same position I was in when I wrote my bullshit version of that same story. At a certain point it doesn’t even matter who really believes what they are writing, because the pool they are drawing from has been irrecoverably polluted by assholes like me.
Except, in my experience even the most trusted sources in the field are capable of spreading this pollution. I say this based on what happened to me while I was writing my second book, which was dedicated to the study of haunted schools.
Because my publisher was Canadian, they insisted at least a third of the book’s stories be set in this glorious paradise of the north. This proved to be a problem because—unlike hotels—it isn’t in a school’s best interest to be considered haunted and the majority of what I found amounted to the same “A crazy janitor once killed a kid and burned his body in the boiler room” stories I remembered hearing back in the day at my own elementary school.
That was why I was excited when my editor found a blurb in a book written by one of the best-known names in the field. It briefly described an incident at a small town high school where a student crashed his new car on prom night and proceeded to haunt the school from that point on. Turns out the small town wasn’t too far from where I live and it proved easy for me to get in contact with the school’s principal who passed me onto a librarian who had not only worked there for 20 years, but was actually a student at the school when the accident supposedly took place in the mid-70s.
She was genuinely excited to talk to me, but there was a problem. She had no knowledge of any such incident and had never heard any stories about the school being haunted. In my mind, this killed the whole deal, but my editor was getting desperate and urged me to investigate further. At my source’s requests I sent her the entire blurb from the famous-author’s book, so she could read it for herself.
It was then that she pointed out to me a detail I never would have picked up myself because I know less than nothing about cars. Even though the accident took place in the 70s, the car specifically identified in the blurb wasn’t manufactured until the 90s—20 years after it supposedly happened.
Now, it is entirely possible that we had found the one lone story in that very thick book that was contradicted by such a glaring (to people who know car stuff) anachronism, but I’m guessing that the chances of this are about the same as Christina Hendricks deciding she wants to get into a kinky sister-wife situation with Salma Hayek and that awesome guy I first mentioned when I started this section.
And I realize that for true believers none of this serves as convincing counter-evidence. I long ago accepted that the people who most firmly embrace a belief in the supernatural, do so because they HAVE to believe and nothing anyone says will ever make them question what they know to be true.
So why write something like this?
Because I find that the believers tend to get more ink and airtime than us doubters. There’s a half dozen shows on cable about hunting for ghosts, but all us skeptics ever had was Penn & Teller’s Bullshit and they never even did an episode on ghosts!
And by posting this I now have a link I can share with people before they start telling me their “undeniably unexplainable” true stories of personal ghostly encounters that I’ve heard in one form or other a dozen times before and which I can totally explain–just not in a way that doesn’t come across as really condescending.
At least it’s better to be a jerk here than in person, right?