A whole lot of things come to mind with that word: Ghosts.
Chain-clanking, bedsheet-bedecked, christmas-ghosts come to mind.
Half-hearted "photoshop" smears and blurry church photography from the sixties comes to mind.
The proverbial "lady in white" who seems to show up all over the goddam place.
And then we have all of our beloved ghosty television programs from ghost hunters (yay!) to haunted collector (FRAUD) to all the other "reality schmeality" game show type programs that give us jiggly closeups of horrified twenty somethings as they wander helplessly through deteriorating assylums at midnight.
Ghosts appear in pretty much the entirety of human history - basically since humans started telling stories, that very night I'm guessing someone told a ghost story.
Spirits of the dead, though? Lost souls? Lingering phantoms who can't "move on" without help from the living?
Let's not forget our carnival-ghosts, either. Let's not abandon our halloween pranks and magic-trick somethings that our friends put us up to in the middle of the night to see how brave we really are. Did you ever whisper bloody mary three times as you stared in the mirror of the girls bathroom? Did you ever wonder who it was that was really knocking back when you did that seance at your sister's friend's house?
The truth is, there is no truth on this subject. WE can't know. Like how you can't ever go feeling around inside your own heart muscles... Experience of one negates participation of the other, by which I mean "Ghosts" and "Being Alive".
But maybe that's not wholly accurate. Because we all, as a culture and a species, we all have that sneaking suspicion that there's SOMETHING. There has to be, doesn't there? Well, no. There doesn't HAVE to be anything, but we all secretly suspect that on some level we wouldn't be entirely surprised to find out that such a thing as a ghost might actually exist. And that suspicion keeps our minds up late at night. And it keeps good luck charms in our pockets and talismans on our walls. And it hardwires us for strict adherence to rituals of death.
For my part, I've thought a lot about what this whole ghost thing is about. In my opinion, my own arm-chair-science-y opinion, they're real, but they're not what we think they are.
Not by a long shot.
Neither drooling daemons nor gauzy ladies in white are real - though they make for great stories about this common something we're grasping at. New technology is trying to tease out the "what" and the "how" with infrared photography and all kinds of sensors and things. For my part, I'm more involved with the "if".
Philosophically speaking, let's say that these things exist. Why, then, are they only dead soldiers from a hundred years ago? Why just the heartbroken lady in white or the child-amputee who got starved to death under the stairs? There's a theory that those who died horrible deaths become ghosts - but in all of history people have been dying grizzly, wretched deaths. Why does nobody ever see some beer-soaked, bedraggled miner ghost who got run over by the mail-wagon on a thursday?
And why do the ghosts have on clothes if it's just a person's soul? And why, otherwise, is our very last inch of open space not choked out with clawing, yearning, heart-broken souls who need closure?
Why do we only encounter them at night?
It is my theory that follows.
My theory for all of this nonsense is that we, as humans, are magnificent storytellers. When we come up against a thing, we try to explain it. WHAM, that is a thing: what kind of thing is it? Ahh, it is a tree. That thing is a tree.
and so on.
But some things are harder to grok. Like clouds. Or the sun. Whither, o Sun? Well, for a long time it was up to the Gods to drag that thing from here to there. Now we know more and have a better picture of how the world works around us. And I think this shall be the case with these mysterious things we call "ghosts".
I'm sure you can tell by now that I'm calling bullshit on every lady in white story I've ever heard. Not that the actual encounter wasn't real, I just don't think that from a two second "wtf" moment, we can actually ascertain that her name was Sally, that she lived in a mine with her Spanish husband who beat her (insert woeful sighs) and she's back to haunt the living and protect future girls from abusive boyfriends. I don't doubt that maybe someone saw something out of the corner of his eye, but the rest is pure embellishment. That lady in white is the chariot that drags the sun across the sky. It masks a lot of what's really going on.
It is my opinion that there is actually something going on. Shadows sneak and move and lurk, there is not a doubt about it. Things do go bump in the night, but that doesn't mean they stop whatever it is they do when the sun comes up.
It is my theory that the functional root of all of this magnificent story telling we've been doing since the dawn of time, the very nugget at the center of it all, is that there really is something there.
And it is my theory that that something is no more associated with the human experience than a hummingbird, a tick or a rhinocerous. The something we're all grappling with is a natural entity and part of the world as much as oxygen and steam and rust. We don't percieve it like we do rhinocerus-es or rust because it is outside of what our organs are employed for. These things were not part of our original quest for food, shelter and nookie, so we largely ignored it.
Like ultraviolet. We don't see it. But it's still there.
So now that you're still with me, here's this thing that we can't see but it's there.
In my opinion, it is a thing that is not human shaped or deer shaped or anything shaped. It is itself. And in certain moments perhaps these things, like dogs, become fond of a human for one reason or another. And perhaps in our fits of grief over our loved ones' passing, these things try to lessen our grief by copying the cause of our loss, by appearing to us in a misty facsimile as the person we have lost (or are seeking out)... in an attempt to either communicate or interact or get us to shut the hell up. I don't know.
Perhaps these things also can be possessed of a mind to decieve us? Perhaps it is the free will of these entities to interact with us or not - and perhaps it is on a scale like we humans experience, that sometimes the interactions are favorable and sometimes... well let's just say I suspect that these things get born to be assholes too.
SO here is my proposal: IF ghosts are real, and we attempted to study them the way we've approached the giant squid as opposed to the way we're doing now, maybe we could get somewhere? Maybe we could start asking different questions to the darkness instead of "Is this my grandma Martha?" and "how did you die?"
If a thing were interested enough in us humans to interact from time to time, it stands to reason that we might ultimately (as individuals) bore them too.
And perhaps (and I know this is a long shot) these things that roam our planet with us (and through us) are so numerous as to have multiple kinds... which is to say that maybe they have levels. Like maybe there are some versions that are benevolent, some are degenerate, most are benign... and maybe some few are fierce protectors of the anonymity of their phylum/kingdom/class/whatever and it is "not allowed" that these things interact with us for anything more than a glancing nuance. Like ghost-cops... they'd show up when stuff started getting too robust and shut everything down.
What I'm suggesting is that we humans are not the only self aware, fully sentient entities on this planet. At the same time I'm suggesting that our ghosty neighbors very often don't give a rip about us or our daily lives - but when they do, it's for their curiosity or because they think it's cute when we get the tar scared out of us. And maybe because of that, they have controls that prevent the kind of mind-blowing, scientific AHA moment that would prove they are real after all to everyone forever.
It's a reach.
But so is the idea that wandering souls spend centuries wandering abandoned libraries looking for someone to return to them their missing teddybear. Or that ghosts only wear victorian wedding dresses. Or that daemons have nothing better to do than make our refrigerators fly around in the living room.
We don't know.
We CAN'T know.
I guess that's what makes it so much fun.