by Alexandra Sokoloff
Halloween is almost here; my favorite holiday and, because I write spooky paranormal thrillers, it’s my busiest time of year as a writer. I always know I’m going to have an event on Halloween night. This year I’ll be doing spooky readings at the Dark Nights, Dark Deeds Crime Festival in Grantown, in the Scottish Highlands. (I know, it’s a pretty great life!)
And I always know I’m going to get this question from the audience, because it’s the question that I always get: “So, do you believe in all this? Have you ever seen a ghost?”
(The first and obvious answer is – I grew up in California. What don’t I believe?)
Actually I think it speaks to the prevalence of a belief in ghosts that people assume that I might have seen one.
After all, people don’t ask authors who write about vampires or zombies if they believe in them or have seen them. Although there are a few people out there who do believe in them, actually believe they are them, in fact. But in general, people are much more likely to believe in ghosts in some form or another, and even people who don’t believe in ghosts tend to be more tolerant of people who do believe in ghosts than they would be of someone who believed in vampires.
Have I seen a ghost? Seen one? No.
But perhaps I write ghosts because I went to a haunted high school – specifically, the grand and decrepit old auditorium where I spent most of my high school, rehearsing choir programs and plays, was supposedly haunted by a girl named Vicki who died the night of her prom back in the 20’s. Yes, yes, I know that’s a classic urban legend, but we all believed in Vicki, and there were parts of that auditorium where you just didn’t want to go, alone or with others. Cold spots. Strange noises. Disappearing props.
But was that a ghost? I don’t know. What I do believe is that a place can retain some kind of imprint of a past presence or event. That seems to be a common pattern of ghost or haunting stories. I like to believe that; I think it’s cool. It feels real enough to me that I can write it as if I believe it, and that’s what I like to be able to do.
But as much as the idea of poltergeists and hauntings compels me, what I can say for sure I believe is more on the psychic side of things.
I did a ton of research on ESP and psychic experiences for my poltergeist mystery The Unseen
– a thriller that crosses elements of mystery and the supernatural, and is based in the real-life history of Dr. J.B. Rhine’s ESP and psychokinesis experiments at Duke University in North Carolina.
The Duke parapsychology lab was the first dedicated parapsychology lab in this country, founded in the late 1920’s. There, Rhine used the brand-new science of statistics and probability to test the occurrence of psychic phenomena such as ESP and psychokinesis (the movement of objects with the mind).
Using Zener cards and automated dice-throwing machines, he tested thousands of students under laboratory conditions, and applied the science of statistics to the results. He is generally said to have proved the existence of ESP.
In my fictional story, two psychology professors at Duke discover a file on a long-buried poltergeist experiment (not many people realize the Duke lab also did field studies of poltergeists). The professors team up to take a couple of psychically gifted students into an abandoned Southern mansion to replicate the experiment… unaware that the entire research team ended up insane… or dead.
You read enough about psychic events experienced by ordinary people, as I did extensively to research The Unseen, and they’re all so very similar.
– The crisis apparitions, where a loved one is hurt or dying and appears in some way to a relative or mate at the moment of death, either as a full-fledged apparition or a signal, like a mirror shattering.
– The precognitive dreams: A young mother has a nightmare that her new baby is crushed to death when the light fixture above the crib falls – she wakes up screaming and runs in to the nursery where she finds the baby perfectly fine, sleeping soundly, but she takes the baby into bed with her and her husband – and two hours later they’re awakened by a crash from inside the nursery…
– The visitations from dead loved ones who have something to say about where your mother’s bracelet is or where the new will was filed or where those bonds are.
– And of course the ordinary psychic things that happen all the time – the wife who dreams that there is another woman in bed with her and her husband – and discovers that he is, indeed, having an affair. The teenager who decides at the last second to take the left turn instead of the right, even though it will mean an extra five minutes getting to his friend’s house – and as he makes the turn he hears the screeching of brakes and a grinding of metal back there at that very corner he was about to turn on.
Yes, yes – all these things can be explained by simple, ordinary perception. The young mother noticed subconsciously that the plaster around the light fixture was cracked and her dream warned her about a very real danger. The woman whose dead husband visits her in a dream to tell her where the bonds is remembering that her husband made that stop at a certain bank one day and her dream makes it her dead husband telling her so so that she’ll pay attention. The teenager registered that a car was driving too fast on that side street out of the corner of his eye. (I can’t as blithely explain how people see their loved ones at the exact moment of death, but I’m sure there’s someone out there who can debunk that one, too.)
But I think – reality is a lot more mutable than skeptics want to admit. And I’m not just talking about our perceptions and instincts and intuitions. I mean the whole of the universe gives us signs all the time.
The morning my grandmother died, I woke up and walked outside and the sunrise was just – surreal. The whole sky was flaming orange and red and pink – much more like deep sunset than the pallid pink of LA sunrises. The pecan tree in my back yard towered against that sky, and in the tree were hundreds, hundreds of cawing birds. It was earsplitting, mindblowing.
A half hour later I got the call.
When I look back at moments like that, I believe I knew something more than I realistically should have known. There is a heaviness to those experiences, an import, a hyper-clarity – even a time-slowing-down quality. And so it seems to me – and it’s said by spiritual teachers – that if we all paid more attention all the time to these insights, synchronicities, we’d be able to see the signs all the time.
That’s what I believe. That there’s a million layers to reality, and it’s all out there in front of us – and if we paid more attention to the signs, there’s no telling what we might discover.
So I know all of you have stories to tell about visitations, prescience, telepathy, dream signs. (Yes, all of you – even the people who don’t believe always have stories about friends…) I’d love to hear!
And if this kind of thing fascinates you as much as it does me, I hope you’ll check out The Unseen.
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