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The classic image of a haunted house is a ramshackle old building, generations old, somewhere off the beaten track, with broken windows, tiles slipping from the roof and the garden badly overgrown. If someone lives there, they’re seldom seen, seldom spoken to, and only ever whispered about.
We may see or come across such places occasionally, now and then. We may drive past one and be thankful our car hasn’t broken down on some dark stormy night, and that we’ll never have to knock on the door in the pouring rain to seek help.
It’s all part of the escapist appeal of the ghost story. The cosy terror that gives us chills but never encroaches on reality. It never cuts to close to home.
A real haunting is just as likely to take place in a local block of flats, while the tenant or owner does the dishes and their kids do their homework. Daily life is stressful enough without a ghost to worry about. Getting the kids to pick up after themselves and getting them into bed on time is hard enough without things moving on their own and sudden loud noises in the middle of the night.
Who can really say what causes it? There’s probably no tragic backstory, terrible crime or mystery behind it. It’s just something strange and unexplained. Something that begins as a distraction and gradually becomes more distracting, distressing and disturbing.
Skeptics often point to a decline in the reporting of hauntings, falling ever since the heyday of the spiritualist movement in the first half of the last century, to suggest that it was really the influence of a cultural moment that caused us to see ghosts. Surely if they were real, they’d be ever-present, and not influenced by the changing times.
Research, however, also points to a reluctance to report hauntings – people today are too afraid of the stigma. Skeptics have done a fine job of exposing frauds and highlighting human fallibility, but in doing so they’ve also left those in need afraid to seek help or advice. If a haunting can’t be real, then you must be foolish or losing your mind to experience one.
The sad irony is that we generally think of ghosts as restless spirits, denied peace of mind in death. In which case, we seem to have created a vicious cycle – the unsettled ghosts of the past, unable to rest, now torment the living, who also cannot seek aid for their troubles.
All the more reason to keep our ghosts and hauntings at a comfortable distance, in the old ramshackle houses we would never go near. It’s much less cosy to consider the real implications of a haunting – what ordinary despair might have caused it, and what ordinary despair it might now cause, in a home not so far away from our own.
Every haunting happens to someone. Why not me or you?
New Ghost Stories Volume 3 is out in 2021 at some point (I promise). You can read a preview story here and check out previous volumes here.