One Monday evening some five years ago, I walked into my first Spiritualist service. In those days, the New York Spiritualist Church held services roughly once a month in a broad-minded white-marble Methodist structure designed to hold some thousand parishioners. But the Spiritualists only filled the first few rows. It was dim, churchy-smelling, and vast.
I’d thought about what to wear. It was after all a church; it was also seven in the evening in late November. In the end, I changed out of my jeans and wore a high-necked Laura Ashley dress and a tweed jacket and my least ironic glasses. My hair was severely curled into a topknot. I suppose, as in many such moments, I was trying to control the one thing I could.
As it turned out, I could have worn anything. There were people in jeans, there were people in gowns, there was a Guardian Angel beret—or maybe it was just a red hat. There was one person in a cape. From the moment I walked in, I was approached by other congregants: people introduced themselves and shook my hand and told me how long they’d been attending. Some made unusually intense eye contact; I’d later learn these were the mediums. We were all there to see ghosts; we were all, I suppose, future ghosts.
Am I making it sound jaunty? It wasn’t, at least not for me. I was not there out of irony or even morbid curiosity; I needed comfort. It was one of those moments when the world of the living seemed too callous and cruel and my own resources too depleted and I was not at all sure I could bear it. I had contempt for my younger self; my older self didn’t interest me at all. I had lost a pregnancy and didn’t think there would be another. People I cared for had died. Others were suffering. There were still others I couldn’t forgive, and I had not yet learned that you don’t need to forgive everything in order to love someone—that the truth is quite the opposite. In short, I was a mess.
I’d always gravitated towards ghost stories. I have a few of my favorites on my phone for tense moments: Edith Wharton’s collected ghost stories—digital copies of my high-school-era, dog-eared paperback edition and the slicker New York Review Books reissue—a pdf of a sixties Victorian collection, and a Virago compilation. I have carried them to hospital waiting rooms and read them at times I was too down to get out of bed. Some people like fantasy epics or Regency romance or Sudoku or science-fiction world-building or the gentle challenge of cozy mysteries; I like the undead.
In a sense, I come by it honestly. One branch of my family was heavily involved in Spiritualism when it was popular and progressive after the Civil War. Family lore has it that one evening, during their nightly automatic-writing session, two elderly great-great aunts received a message about their even more elderly mother upstairs: “MAWMAW IS DEAD.” (She was.)
Not long ago, a document made the rounds on the family listserv. In the wake of my great-aunt’s death at one hundred, her daughter has been dutifully scanning and disseminating several lifetimes’ worth of correspondence from a particularly communicative branch of the family tree: hand-painted Christmas cards, reams of letters, menus, programs , and emailed exchanges with distant relatives in Yorkshire. This particular document, however, was long even by the family’s prolific standards. At the top were the handwritten words “Psychic Experiences of James E. Benedict (1854–1940),” and what follows are thirty-six pages of typescript.
“In writing out the incidents which have occurred during a long life,” begins the first section (marked both “I” and “INTRODUCTION”), “I am recording in the following pages those with a possible psychic bearing, perhaps as an excuse for my long-continued interest in psychic research. I have not been an arbitrator in the proper sense of the word as I have always had other interests with the first call on my time. All of the happenings were real to me, as real as the other experiences that added to the knowledge of the contacts of my life to its surroundings.”
So ghosts were an established fact of my life when I was growing up, maybe the only real religious certainty we inherited. My grandmother—also a churchgoing Christian—accepted their existence with the same serene passivity with which she did everything. My mother claims to have seen a few. I have not. I used to think I’d never see a ghost because I wanted it too much, as though the spirits of dead people behaved like an underwritten man from an early season of Sex and the City. I’d even lived after college in a converted brownstone that was widely considered to be haunted—former tenants had seen apparitions and my roommate had had unsettling experiences with slamming pocket doors and rogue electronics. I never felt anything at all. But my faith is solid.
I had thought of going for a long time before that November night when I finally did. I didn’t tell people before I went. And after I did finally go, I did not admit how much I had loved it, how comfortable I had felt amid strangers joined only by a belief in the Golden Rule and the presence of dead people. It wasn’t a large congregation, but it was by every metric the most diverse group I’d ever encountered in New York City. I wanted to be better; I wanted to have the perspective of those on the other side who, we were told, were above all petty things; I wanted to feel and not think forever and ever.
We held hands in the dark and recited a creed that was sort of Unitarian, but with ghosts. The medium—a rather irritable gentleman in a very large marled sweater—told me (the last to receive her message) that people who “passed over” would visit me via dreams, or in those moments between sleeping and waking. I was exhilarated. I dutifully acquired a bedside notebook and even interleaved the pages with some pictures of benevolent dead relatives, but I think Ambien thwarts their messaging, and I was on a good deal of medication then. It was clear there were people there who communed with the same loved one regularly. One woman rather monopolized the medium trying to get a message to her mother, who must have been gone twenty years. A man in a velveteen jacket, meanwhile, had the air of someone who never finds what he wants, but still projects a jaunty optimism for the benefit of others. In a world where we analyze all our responses, it felt very good to respond only in terms of feeling: sympathy, sadness, irritation. I went back again, and again.
I have thought about what it is that I, and those like me, find so soothing about ghosts. There’s the usual escapist appeal—that of gritty procedurals, cozy mysteries, or romances: wishes fulfilled, things tied up neatly, and order in a chaotic world, with the added bonus of a type of immortality. Spiritualism thrived after the Civil War and again in 1918, and grief, as C.S. Lewis said, is an awful lot like fear. Maybe it’s an antidote to the ambient nihilism every generation thinks they invented, or the vestige of something ancient. Or, just maybe, a part of us wants to keep our small horrors, betrayals and fears alive, because in spite of everything, we think it is the truest, most secret part of who we are: what Edith Wharton called “those deepest depths where the inexplicable and the unforgettable sleep together.”
My primary takeaway, as a congregant, is that the bulk of supernatural dealings aren’t more interesting than any other, and require at least as much politeness. “It is, in fact, not easy to write a ghost-story,” Edith Wharton writes in her preface to Ghosts. Wharton’s interest in the form—she wrote over one hundred ghost stories in her life—came, crucially, out of phobia. Wharton’s ghost stories aren’t built around cheap thrills. They’re much scarier than that: her specters are guilt, sexuality, suppression, aging, the changing world, profound loneliness. human things. Wharton knew there was a lot to be said for denial, and for refusing to let go, too, even at great cost. Psychological hygiene is the enemy of the good ghost story.
The first of her ghost stories I came across, 1910’s “The Eyes,” was in Virago’s terrific compendium “Modern Ghost Stories.” I originally read it during what seemed like a bad time, when I was twenty, and have since reread it in what really were bad times, and its power has only grown. Like many of Wharton’s ghost stories, it’s written from the point of view of a male narrator, deals in questions of sexuality, and concerns an American trying to outrun demons by escaping to the Old World. But, as any reader of her work knows, the banal is not a barrier to the horrific any more than the Gothic is a guarantor—indeed, Wharton seems to take special pleasure in subverting these conventions. In “The Eyes,” her meticulous detailing of interiors isn’t only a decorator’s enthusiasm (although it’s also surely that). It’s also a deft way of making comfort unnerving. I ran across one online reviewer who calls its narrator “the worst ghost-story teller ever.” I can only assume this reader is young, or has been very lucky in life.
But then, other people’s ghost stories are generally boring—or they would be if we knew them. After all, it’s small, personal things that torment us, the things we’re supposed to have forgotten, or maybe even have forgotten in our waking lives. And I do think that’s part of their comfort: sometimes a life trauma can give one a level of laser focus, of avoidance, that a more cheerfully occupy brain won’t allow. That’s the periphery where the specters slip in, I guess.
My great-great-grandfather’s account is a case at point. No one can question his thoroughness (it includes exhaustive descriptions of the proper preservation of fish for display in paraffin jelly) nor his belief in his own honesty (although a suspicious number of the “psychic” experiences seem to be an excuse to brag about being a great checkers player). But the document, so detailed, so conscientious, is anticlimatic. What’s strange is that we do not hear about the time he spent as an eleven-year-old orderly in a Union war hospital, the deaths, illnesses, and tragedies that color any life. It ends: “The bushes were more like the alder than the thorny bushes of Africa or eastern countries. A man could make pan cakes in the wood sure enough, but I am sure I never saw one do it.”
There was one section, though, which I felt compelled to copy into that unused notebook I had bought and kept by my bedside: “In common with many others I have, when slowly awakening from a sound sleep early in the morning, had pictures of many faces come before me in succession … sometimes the scenic is dispelled for sound and voices are heard saying sounds or perhaps whole sentences which have no connection with any of my activities and are promptly forgotten as too worthless with which to burden the memory.”
Sadie Stein is a New York-based writer and critic. She interviewed Jane Gardam for the Spring 2022 issue of The Paris Review.