Thursday, April 24, 2008

when i believed in ghosts

I can't quite remember what the spur was - I don't think it was a film or a TV programme, so it must have been a book - but when I was about 12 or 13 I became suddenly, passionately and fleetingly interested in paranormal activity. In the way you do when you're a precocious, too-serious teen, I quickly dispensed with any associated elements which seemed to be too childish or unscientific (the ghost who appears before you, wailing, or alien abduction) and concentrated my efforts on becoming an authority on the two phenomena which I felt unaccountably sure did exist: poltergeists (which seemed to me as certain as memories) and - a bit weirdly, in retrospect - stigmata, the spontaneous bleeding from hands, head and feet which recalled Jesus' crucifixion, although I think I weirdly ruled out any religious connection on the basis that I was an atheist - and too grown up for all that rubbish...

In order to facilitate my developing expertise, I began working my way through the 'Supernatural' shelf in my local high street book store - which mostly consisted of discounted paperbacks with titles like 'The World's Greatest 100 Mysteries'. I even went so far as to steal from the library a copy of Colin Wilson's then out-of-print classic 'Poltergeist', a well-respected book which I subsequently found terrifically boring. Although, being a nice middle-class kid, my method of 'stealing' was to borrow the book then report it lost, incurring a sizable replacement fee in the process, which my mother wearily paid.

Wilson's book was particularly interesting to me and my friends because, amongst other famous hauntings, it documented the case of the Enfield Poltergeist, which had occurred in our neighboring borough. It opened my eyes to the possibility - no, the fact - that I was lucky enough to be living in a hotbed of lurid paranormal activity.

Looking back, me and my friends - James, Iain and Richard - were ludicrously unadventurous. It would have been very little trouble, even in those pre-internet days, to find out the address, get the bus over there and stake the place out. But I don't think we even considered it. As it happens, we had a more solid lead, anyway.

I grew up in a house filled with cats. Not literally, obviously, but my parents supported a linear line of cats from their early twenties onwards - a non-genetic chain of cat-children. And of course the cats, whichever one we had at the time, were always getting spooked by something or nothing - leaping up from their repose as though prodded, wailing ghoulishly at some imagined presence. I was familiar with this and thought nothing of it; a quirk in the feline brain. But when Iain told me that his dog - a representative of a species I was at that time completely unfamiliar with - would regularly bark at thin air, there was only one conclusion I was going to reach. Iain's house, a modern semi-detached in New Barnet, was occupied by a poltergeist. It would be our first assignment to, in the most scientific way possible, prepare case notes, document its existence and ultimately identify it as either well-meaning or malevolent.

We took care not to pre-judge.

Of course, when I say we, I really mean I. I should have realised that my peers didn't share my dedication to science when I arrived at Iain's house - clipboard in hand - for our first investigation to find my friends sprawled around the living room, unwilling to start 'til they'd finished discussing a new movie, 'Silence of The Lambs', which was nearing its release date. Trying to take charge, I organised a sweep of the property, concentrating on the hearth area, which Iain had reported emitted occasional 'wailing sounds'. Eventually it occurred to someone that we were taking the wrong approach, and that what we really needed was Iain's dog, who would act as our eyes and ears and lead us to the part of the house where supernatural vibrations were at their most intense.

"Where is he?", I asked.

"Oh, he's in the kitchen", Iain replied. "Go and get him".

I shrank back a little - I had no experience of dogs at all, and was just a touch scared of them. "Can't someone else get him?"

Everyone was suddenly very busy.

"OK", I said, and made my way to the kitchen. Just before I opened the door, I heard Iain shout over.

"Say 'squirrel' when you see him".

I shrugged, and opened the door, closing it behind me. Lying in the middle of the floor was a dog I can probably now identify as something broadly sheepdog sized, and rather friendly-looking, but which also seemed pretty huge and unknowable at the time. I inched towards it, and it rose to meet me, sniffing gingerly as it approached.

"Can you help us find some ghosts?", I asked it, feeling a bit stupid. "Come on". I turned towards the door, and then remembered.

"Squirrel", I said, turning around.

I heard a key turn in the lock, and was knocked off my feet. Iain's dog was reacting to the word 'squirrel' in exactly the way my friends - no, captors - had anticipated, and was charging round the room barking, jumping and attempting to recruit me to its game. I was absolutely stricken, beating a path to the door and yanking the handle in terror. The dog was upon me by now, clearly making some concerted effort to kill me, and this - combined with the tense, paranormal vibe resonating through the house, and the sound of ecstatic laughter from the other side of the kitchen door - heralded the precise moment when I began to lose interest in the supernatural world. A couple of months later I'd forgotten all about it.

I say all this only because there's a terrific article about Robbie Williams, Jon Ronson and the strange world of Alien abduction up on the Guardian website, and it's worth a read. It reminded me of my fleeting, humiliating obsession.


Anonymous said...

ha ha, nice post J

Anonymous said...

I'd been missing Assistant blog this week. Good to be back with a bang!

Paul said...

Two great articles, your and Jon's. It's weird to find myself sort of liking Robbie Williams tho!