In honor of Halloween, I have two ghost stories, which is a little odd because I don’t believe in ghosts in the first place. They both happened to me during the summer two years ago, just after I’d moved to New York.
The first thing was, one night I woke up because there was an old woman, a crone, standing at the end of my bed. She was wearing a brimmed hat and held her hands lax in front of her chest, like a cartoon dinosaur. She was mostly scary because she was so old. I should note that while I’m a total coward if given the chance to think, when startled I tend to go on the attack. So I sat up and demanded to know what she was doing there, like an imperious crazy person, and then watched her fade away. I knew, even though my eyes were still open, that I was dreaming. She dissolved like sugar in tea. But if I believed in ghosts, I guess I would have believed that I’d seen one then.
The second story is about something that happened about a month later when I went to see an art exhibit in the East Village called “Strange Powers.” The exhibit was all about supernatural phenomena, so there was a framed curse — “do something evil” — hanging on the wall, and boring photographs of people’s auras, and a little headphones station where you could listen to records of ghosts, although when I tried them on it seemed to just be static and people speaking in German. German, I’m sorry, is a scary language to hear if you’re not well-prepared.
The last piece in the exhibit was an installation called “The Ghost of James Lee Byars,” which consisted of two pairs of black-out curtains leading to a tiny room. A plaque outside the installation explained that the artist, James Lee Byars, had built the room to house his spirit, and that he had died in 1997.
Like I said, I definitely do not believe in ghosts. But deep-rooted beliefs can get a little wobbly in the dark. I made it through the first set of curtains and peeked through the second pair into the room. It was pitch-black, the darkest thing I’d ever seen. The street noises of the city were muffled to near-silence, and without a companion or a crack of light or those reassuring honks and whirs I realized that I couldn’t go inside. The installation was basically asking me to prove that I didn’t believe in ghosts, and there are some things I wasn’t willing to prove, at least not on my own. Besides, what if Byars was there, in some small way? People leave a part of themselves behind on everything they touch. I decided that I’d go back outside and wait until someone else went into the room, and then follow close behind.
The next person to go in was a woman who looked to be in her early thirties. I waited a few beats and followed her inside, running smack into her on her way out.
“It was too dark,” she said. “I couldn’t do it.”
“Me neither,” I said.
We looked together at the second set of curtains. This was New York, wasn’t it? The whole point of the city—well, one of its points–is that you have nothing to fear, you’re never alone. Whoever you are there are more people like you. And now that I thought about it, there was no reason that shouldn’t apply to ghosts too. We parted the curtains; paused. We went in.