In all human history, there’s perhaps never been a more enduring popular culture fixture than ghosts. The zombies and vampires filling up pages and screens right now are from legends that go back a few centuries or even a few decades depending on your perspective, robots and superheroes even less than that. But ghost stories have given us some of our most long-standing social motifs. Even the Bible has them.
The reason ghosts might be so popular isn’t just because they’re so effective in storytelling, it’s because of the sheer number of people who’ve seen or sensed them. Sydney journalist and author Karina Machado has written two books about common people’s experiences with the paranormal (Spirit Sisters and Where Spirits Dwell) and the biggest surprise is that it’s not crazy old ladies living in dusty mansions seeing them. Young single parents, retirees, teenagers, kids, miners, sales reps and housewives in houses just like yours and mine are being visited from beyond. The cliché was never truer — there might be one of them living next door to you right now.
But even more surprising is an absence of the terror many of us equate with hauntings. Those visited by the dead usually find it anything from a curiosity to an inconvenience on a par with a noisy neighbour who keeps them awake.
“That was pronounced quite early,” Machado reveals. “I thought ‘my goodness, most of these people aren’t scared’. They were never scared where they sensed the spirit of a loved one or somebody they knew. But even on occasions where they’re seeing something unexpected their reaction’s usually surprise rather than fear.”
The reason seems to be that if the dead really can come back and show themselves, they’re essentially the same people as when they lived. Sometimes they died in horrible or unexpected circumstances — which psychics tell you is the reason they can’t move on, but Machado quotes a psychic she’s seen in action who says ‘being dead doesn’t raise your IQ’. Some ghosts are only bad because they were bad people, but when a loved one has passed over, a common theme in those left behind is a feeling of calm and love at their presence again.
Even though Machado has written about ghostly experiences twice now and has seen evidence of the paranormal herself, she never categorically says in either Spirit Sisters or Where Spirits Dwell that she believes the paranormal is evidence of the afterlife.
“I’m still learning about it,” she says, despite having stood in ‘haunted’ rooms and seen evidence of intelligence from beyond. “All I can really say is that I definitely believe my interviewees’ experiences are valid. They saw or sensed something they couldn’t explain. But I guess I hesitate because I don’t know how to describe it, I don’t know the logistics behind it. I’m convinced there’s something we can’t grasp, that there’s more to our lives than the material we see in front of us. What that is and how it manifests I’m not sure.”
Though ghosts have been with us for at least 2,000 years, medicine and physiology are teaching us a lot about the way our brains work for the first time ever, and there’s a growing body of work about how much our brain can skew our perception according to the picture it wants us to see, tricking us in all sort of creative ways that seem disingenuous but which ultimately contribute to our survival. Now science is overtaking institutions like the church to explain ghosts and the paranormal, doesn’t Machado think we could be imagining the whole thing?
One of the few truly scary stories in Where Spirits Dwell tells of a young mother in the inner west of Sydney who awakens at 3am to hear toys being loudly and forcefully played with in her infant son’s room before shaking off sleep and realising he’s laying next to her in bed. Huddling in terror while toys crash and clang down the hall behind a closed door is hard to dream up, and Machado points to a long history of similarly tangible phenomena that are hard to imagine.
“We certainly don’t know the power of our own minds and consciousness but I just don’t know that we can discount [ghosts] just because we don’t know that power. We have no right to discount reports going back a couple of thousand years. When you consider cases of poltergeist activity there are physical effects that are happening right before your eyes with household items or with tangible, physical matter. There’s no possibility of imagination playing a part.”