Making Space for Ghosts

Written by Jackson Eflin

The Digital Literature Review class had a visit from Anthropologist Dr. Cailín Murray on August 20th, who told us about recording the stories told to her about the disruption of a Native American burial ground.  She told us that when recording stories, it is vital to “Encounter, and document, with humility.”  Several weeks ago I had the chance to attend an exorcism, and have tried to do just that.  Names have been changed for privacy.

It was a highly relaxed time, brownies and sundresses, a little after eleven in the morning, when we went to Taylor McGuinness’s house to exorcise whatever was haunting it.

She’d told us her stories at a coffee shop two Mondays ago.  Carefully at first, then with gathering speed, of how, ever since her mother-in-law with her chest full of magic had moved out, something else moved in to fill the empty space.

She said it started with a bad feeling, and the dog, usually well behaved, barking and snarling at empty space behind the woodshed.  She told us about feeling uneasy in the night, about how one night the back door, bolted shut, started rattling like someone was trying to get in.  George, Taylor’s husband, had gone out with an M4 Carbine to find only empty air. “George freaked out while mowing,” she’d told us.  “Said he kept seeing someone standing in the yard, out of the corner of his eye.”

“George doesn’t like to admit he can’t handle something,” Taylor said.  “But he said we should ask for help.  That scared me more than anything else.”

The coffee shop seemed to explode from there.  Elle started giving her advice she’d learned from the woman who ran a health food shop in her hometown.  Malcom started getting down the nitty gritty, making sure there wasn’t a scientific explanation for any of the disturbances.  Neal was on his iPhone, looking for the history of Taylor’s neighborhood.  Andy started writing litanies, and by Wednesday he’d translated them into Latin and Gaelic.

Taylor walked away from the coffee shop thoroughly over-prepared, and two weeks later we drove up to her house.  It was unseasonably warm.  I was handed an apple because I was an Art Major and could cut it into equal-sized portions.

We got out to the back yard just as George had finished a banishing in the name of his gods.  The apples were blessed in the name of an entirely different pantheon, twelve from Olympus and quite a few others.  They were buried at the corners of the yard, with a few herbs and a prayer.  Andy walked around the yard with a hammer, touching the fences, praying in Icelandic for the gods to defend the house and all its territories.  The girls stood on the porch, chanting.  Taylor kneeled in front of a fountain, her hands clasped in prayer, calling on Christ and His angels.

When everyone was done, we sat down, had lunch, and admired George’s swords.  Taylor had made brownies, and we played board games until everyone left to run other errands.

While I went in thinking about Dr. Murray’s advice, I came away analyzing the experience based on our discussions of constructions of space and how ghosts subvert that understanding of space.

Walls make us feel safe not only because they keep out literal dangers, but because they are a solid indicator of constructions of space and property.  One of the aspects of ghosts that terrify us is their ability to walk through walls, doors, and other borders, flaunting human authority over space while not really existing in it.  Instead, they are shunted out into a non-space full of things we do not fully understand, things that weigh on us too much not to be but that have neither form nor weight, which makes their existence difficult to prove.

The work of the exorcism was to expand the known space, redefining the liminal space between the physical, known territory, and the phantasmal, unknown territory by reclaiming the fence, a border touching both the yard and the neighbors’ yard, a vital fixture of both but truly part of neither.  Much ritual work was put into relocating the fence into known space, transforming it from an indicator of the edge of known territory to a part of the known territory.  The rituals at the boundary, which was now marked out by apple cores and a line where the hammer scraped the fence’s paint, made the fence more concrete, less liminal.

“It feels much better,” Elle said as we left.  She couldn’t explain how she knew.  I asked Taylor later, and she said that there had been no disturbances since then.  The unknown is less disturbing when the walls between it and safety are so very thoroughly defined.

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