I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts, but It’s Still America: Chasing the Ghosts of Thurber House While Black

1.

“Gotta run. Got a date with a ghost.”
Ghostbusters (1984)

The Thurber House – named after famous writer and cartoonist James Thurber – sits on a tree-lined avenue in Downtown Columbus, the burgeoning urban landscape towering over a pocket of neighborhood stuck aesthetically in the early twentieth century. If you ignore the parking meters and mixed architecture of the buildings on the other side of the avenue you could squint and almost convince yourself that you’re taking a stroll in 1913, when Thurber’s family moved into the house. The site is a nationally registered historic location and operates as a literary center and museum of Thurber’s life and storied career. I have been a part of programming in the writing center next door to the house, and performed poetry on the lawn of the residence proper just a few months ago, so I am acquainted with the institution, with its many classes for young writers and residencies for artists refining projects in utero. Toni Morrison read there, as has T.C. Boyle, Anne Lamott and dozens of other notable writers. The walls of the closets on the second and third floors are covered in signatures from visiting writers as a guestbook ritual.

All of this would be a notable enough resume for a late nineteenth century Queen Anne Style Victorian abode, but the Thurber House has one more outstanding credential: it is purported to be haunted.

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Earlier this year I had an introductory meeting with the Executive and Deputy Directors of Thurber House (Laurie Lathan and Anne Touvell respectively) to establish the ground rules for the poetry reading I would be doing there in July. While we were sitting at a table in the dining room, a bang rang out in the next room, a small sitting area turned exhibit space. Anne mentioned that it was probably the ghost of Thomas Tracy Tress, former jeweler and notorious haunt of the grounds who in 1904 famously shot himself by accident in the house, moving things around. I got up from the table, stating, “I’m going to go in there and see what fell.” When I entered the small sitting room, one of the placards they hang on the wall as part of the museum display had indeed fallen to the floor…the placard of Tress. “Well played,” I said (to whom it was not clear), and because I am a sucker for almost any experience from which I can wring a story, that was the moment I initially floated the idea of staying overnight to document any paranormal activity for the public record.

The things I have in common with James Thurber comprise a very short list, but the items that populate it are important ones. We are both writers. We both make no secret of our love for our home city. We both performed miserably at Ohio State University, though for different reasons (he largely owing to physical injury, me to rampant immaturity), and those experiences informed the men that we would become. Presenting the staff there with the notion of my spending the night, I was met with a disarming warmth bordering on glee. The people who work there have witnessed things, you see. So I, a stated and loud skeptic, was fresh meat. If I could be convinced that the space might be haunted, anyone could. It was an opportunity the scientist in me could not refuse, and the museum curator in them seemed to relish. We set a date and I proceeded to bone up on my ghostbusting skills.

2.

“Some people go to mediums to bring them into contact with the spirit world, but most go to bartenders.”
– Evan Esar

I threw myself into my research, which is to say I added extra pillows to my couch and watched many episodes of many television shows with “ghost” in the title.

It is a little known but empirically proven fact that all ghost hunting shows are garbage. The format is a boilerplate straight out of a dumb horror movie: a team of self-styled investigators walk through decrepit mansions, former slave plantations converted for party rentals, and any other standing structure that’s a hundred years old, looking for signs of the paranormal. Their methods aren’t remotely scientific, the evidence they collect is largely created in the editing room, and the players all sport gear that looks suspiciously like the same stuff used on prank shows to punk celebrities.

Hulu informs me that there are thirteen seasons of Ghost Adventures available for me to peruse. Thirteen, each averaging around twelve episodes a pop. I focused on this show primarily because it was handy. I only had about a week before my visit to learn the trade, and if nothing else it is one of the longest running shows of its kind. It is not the first or the oldest, but has all the hallmarks of its ilk: reenactments galore, suspiciously bad audio that investigators swear are clearly audible phrases, reports of being touched by unseen forces, noises generated conveniently in whatever room the crew isn’t, surprisingly compliant ghosts who creak and speak on command…the whole arsenal of student film tricks.

Ghost Adventures is the Jeff Spicoli of the genre, hosted by a personality deficient former jock named Zach who refers to himself as an investigator and randomly wears glasses which I am not convinced have lenses. He yells into vacant rooms, challenging ghosts to interact with him with the marble-mouthed elocution of someone ordering their second bag of weed of the day, threatening empty spaces to prove themselves haunted. “You want me?!” he asks one living room, as if he is waiting center ring for another wrestler to come down a runway. It is an operation so poorly executed that I have to double check to make sure it’s not a spoof. At the point that the Zach is chasing a cameraman with a handful of horse manure, giggling and throwing it across the lawn, I figure it’s safe to stop watching that episode, and perhaps all remaining episodes. No one is supposed to take shows like this seriously, but the production’s attempt to convey an earnest interrogation of the supernatural pains my logical spirit and makes me want to do medieval things to my television.

One particularly egregious episode features a black couple renting a house in Seattle who claims they’ve been targeted by a ghost. It is one of few episodes in which black people appear at all, which both sets off my racism radar and makes sense. Black people don’t do the paranormal – “get out” isn’t just the name of the tenth highest grossing film of 2017 and an Eddie Murphy punchline; it’s also an ancient African American proverb handed down from generation to generation, right after the baton hand-off that is the secret to perfect grits. At the same time, it is the only episode of the many that I watched wherein the crew truly goes in the paint to disprove the haunting before doing what passes for an investigation in their world. The investigators rationally pick over the evidence in this one case with the same verve I do with every case they’ve handled.  The evidence is highly suspect: footage of violent poltergeist damage, but only after the fact; overturned furniture and open cabinets, but never in the moment; and so on. It is the kind of evidence you see in other episodes, but in this one the crew has bothered to be discerning. I suppose in the interest of faux science you have to have at least one episode per season in which you debunk a claim to make it look like you’re not running a snake oil operation filled with gel-haired charlatans, but I watch, waiting for the other shoe to drop. On cue, during the actual investigation, the host states having a visceral reaction to the “energy” of the woman who lives in the house. In one scene they walk past each other and the host physically backs away from her as if suddenly burned. He uses words like “powerful”, “uncomfortable”, “in your face”, and “intense” to describe her “energy”. All of this language sounds distressingly familiar. I have heard all of those words used to describe Serena Williams just two weeks ago at the U.S. Open arguing with a referee, and to be completely honest her entire career, even when she isn’t arguing with a referee. In the end, the team of investigators determine that the house had no measurable levels of supernatural activity. The only demonstrably malevolent force was the gaze of a black woman either tired of living with a poltergeist, tired of pretending to be a poltergeist, or tired of supporting a man who wants the world to think they live with a poltergeist. Ghost Adventures plays the race card and slaps down a sloppy, pot-splashing Angry Black Woman flush.

I became even more resolved in the purpose of my visit then. If the Ghost Adventures posse just had a black person on call, never mind on their team, Malik would have told them to just scrap the whole episode. Paranormal investigation deserves more level-headed blackness than the perennially underrated Winston Zeddemore and Abby Yates – both confined to the Ghostbusters franchise – can provide alone. I can still feel the S-Curl waves popping from my scalp as I write this.

3.

“I look for ghosts; but none will force
Their way to me. ‘Tis falsely said
That there was ever intercourse
Between the living and the dead.”
– William Wordsworth

To rile or not to rile, that is the question.

Almost every story I’ve heard to date about a Thurber House happening was unsolicited. So not only do I not wish to throw some chicken bones across the parlor floor to commune with a spirit; history suggests I shouldn’t have to. By all accounts the afterlife present in Thurber House is self-motivated, so I plan to just sit back and see what happens. It is a common tactic of ghost hunters to attempt to elicit reactions from spirits through vocal requests or banging on walls and what-not. My goal is to confirm the presence of activity, not generate it. If a ghost has something to say to me, I’ll be open to receiving it right before running out of the house, but I’m not putting up with a lazy ghost or rolling anybody out their grave on their night off.

While we’re on the subject of things I ain’t fittin’ to do, what I’m also not fittin’ to do is communicate. I am there to confirm the existence of ghosts, period. At the point that such phenomena can be established as true, I’m out. Should a presence make itself known during my visit I labor under no pretense that I can fix whatever its problem may be. Tortured soul because your remains haven’t been buried properly? Tough; I didn’t pack a shovel. Stuck on this plane of existence because of a great injustice done to you? Hey, whoever did it is long gone and I write stuff for a living, so you know it wasn’t me; let me not get between you and your hate haunt. I am not doing this to help spirits check boxes off their post-bucket lists or to delve into the unknown. The second I think I have encountered anything paranormal, I’m outta there. Determining what a ghost wants or why it may be tethered to the realm of the living is not the goal of the visit. There will be no seance, no Ouija boards, no dowsing. I am there merely to observe and, if necessary, verify. The running joke that isn’t a joke is that black people don’t do anything haunted, and we certainly don’t knowingly stay in haunted houses. At the point that I got a nibble, I’m good.

You either got ghosts on the night I’m there or you ain’t got no ghosts is the sign that shall be emblazoned on the side of my ghosthunter truck someday.

4.
“A lot of the time, I write in the third person, but I’m mostly describing my own ordeals. When those unsettled struggles prey on your mind, you become haunted. To get free, you must defeat your ghosts.”
– John Mellencamp

An avowed glutton of horror films my entire life, the ghost story already figures prominently in my paranormal regimen. If I had to put a figure to the ratio of ghost films in the horror field I’d venture that at last 50 percent of the movies made are ghost stories. This has less to do with the popularity of ghosts than it does with how much easier it is to produce such fare. Horror movies start off on the cheap, which means much of the content is driven by indie production, which also contributes to the markedly lo-fi ghost industry. Make-up has always been cheaper than monster suits and CGI, and that’s if you bother to show an apparition at all instead of just opting for a teacup on a string. If you really want to be a deconstructionist about things, you could just throw a big sheet over Casey Affleck for an hour and a half (A Ghost Story, 2017).

Mind you, ghosts don’t need the advertising. As paranormal brands go, ghost stock stays through the roof. Sure, zombies have made some lurching strides into the zeitgeist in the last decade or so, but only after everyone got tired of sexy vampires. The public embrace from bloodsuckers to brain eaters was as swift and drawn as a post-Obama backlash vote. But through it all, ghosts have always ruled the roost. Ghosts don’t go out of fashion.

As to why the idea of ghosts persist, there are lots of reasons for that. First off, they’re infinitely mutable, ranging from harmless (Casper) to the outright terrifying (the tortured family of The Grudge), with dozens of variations between those extremes. Ghosts are also one of the few things in all of the macabre that otherwise rational people can still convince themselves might be true. On the one hand, despite all of our technological advances as a civilization, there is still enough of the world, and the world of the human mind, that remains unplumbed, so why not believe in ghosts? On the other, people want to believe in ghosts so strongly that most proponents simply point out that there isn’t any evidence that they don’t exist, as if this is how we determine the physical properties of anything outside of religion.

Of course, the main reason why ghosts persist despite all evidence to the contrary – and I mean literally all, literally evidence, and literally to the contrary – is for the same reason why our ancestors the world over conceived of them: because, as Lovecraft put it, “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Every permutation of ghost stems from man’s attempt to process their purpose as a species. Call it the curse of having developed just enough intellect to generate faith. The greatest unknown in the history of mankind is what happens to us when we die. It is, in part, why we created religion at all. In the same breath with which we created our gods we also created our ghosts, which is why most religions feature them. Ghosts allow us to hope for more out of the universe, to not see ourselves as alone in the cosmos, or worse, as insignificant. Ghosts make us better able to deal with the purpose of being alive to begin with.

Researching ghosts afforded me the opportunity to dust off Lake Mungo, a personal favorite in the ghost genre despite utilizing the tired trope of the faux-documentary. Its premise is that filmmakers are interviewing the Palmer family, a traditional nuclear family who claims to have experienced ghastly visitations after the drowning death of teenage daughter, Alice. The family presents eyewitness accounts as well as video and photographic evidence, largely taken by the son, and the film reveals itself to be an interrogation of the veracity of their story. Unlike most horror films, Mungo is well written, shot with craft and care, and strives for an earnest realism. The film tackles the possibility that the family’s all-consuming grief is a motivation to deceive as opposed to spectacle. For a pure fiction the whole exercise has the patina of a smartly executed real-life documentary. Its lessons in debunking aside, there are a few seconds of dialogue in Lake Mungo that succinctly illustrate the core struggle between mankind and our unavoidable fates:

“Death takes everything eventually. It’s the meanest, dumbest machine there is and it just keeps coming and it doesn’t care. There’s nothing else to know about it, really.”

The film takes a final liberty in its closing credits that is profound: various shots and scenes of evidence already discredited during the course of the film are reintroduced, but this time the camera zooms in on a less obvious part of the scene, exposing an actual ghost-like figure – Alice – in each that was there all along. A suggested take is that the supernatural may not be something we can process while actively looking for it, and that if such a world exists it may play by different rules. I bear this in mind and put on my list a reminder to turn around really fast at the last second at every opportunity.

You know, just in case.

5.

“One need not be a chamber to be haunted.”
– Emily Dickinson

One of the reasons why I can’t take ghosts seriously is because their rules are inconsistent.

Every notable place in the world is haunted according to the locals, or, failing a fame check, any place that’s simply old enough. A friend admitted to me that she just assumed any building that was a hundred years old is haunted, while in the same breath admitting she’s never actually seen a ghost…and she works in a building that’s a hundred years old. Just build a building tall enough and someone will claim they saw an apparition handing out mints in the bathroom. It is a statistic so prevalent that I am giving serious thought to spreading the rumor that my house is haunted just to increase its property value.

I grew up on cryptozoology before it had a name. In Search Of, narrated by Leonard Nimoy, was regular watching in my house, and as urban legends go I have always had a soft spot for la chupacabra. I grew up in a time when cults were threatened to be around every corner, and Dungeons & Dragons (my middle school pastime of choice) was the devil-worshipping trend that has since evolved into, well, nothing these days, really. Evil as an idea was palpable then, a lede on the news every night. But if ghosts are so prevalent someone would have caught one on a smartphone by now, and really, the world is plenty evil without the help of the supernatural. So we turned over that energy to shlock soap operas where a crew of always white, almost-always guys stumbles around house after house playing Marco Polo with the afterlife. I get it: we got bigger problems than spirits now, so much so that we’ve gone from fearing ghosts to hunting them for sport. It’s hard to be scared of getting slimed by a ghost when more people are dropping like flies from opioid overdoses than every weird encounter ever recorded combined.

Another inconsistency is that people make up what ghosts’ motivations are to suit their own needs. Ghosts either just want to be seen or they’re tortured souls that can’t move into the light or they’re poltergeists that hate what you’ve done to the place. Or worse, they’re warnings or demons or a dozen other things. The one thing that is consistent is that you can probably predict what a ghost’s intentions will be based on who’s doing the interpreting. The woman who wants to get her ill-decorated bed and breakfast on television has only to suggest that the place is haunted and then neglect to cut the grass for a while for ambience. The whole reading has more to do with what’s going on in someone’s wallet or banging around in their head than what’s going on in their basement or banging around in their cupboards.

When my maternal grandmother died twenty years ago, it happened in my mother’s home, in a bedroom that used to be mine. My grandmother had been ill for a long time and was being cared for by immediate family until she passed away. I did my own hours-long stints in the rocking chair next to the bed, sometimes at day, sometimes at night, thinking every good and horrible thing, sometimes at once. When she passed away I wasn’t there, but my Aunt Tweet later told me that my mother cried out and later saw a vision of their mother in the house. I had never seen my mother cry out as described by my aunt, and based on the Tweet’s description, I never wanted to. It sounded horrible, like a great weight was not being lifted, but pressed down upon my mother, knocking her to the floor. I couldn’t imagine my mother – the woman who raised four boys by herself my entire life while working two jobs – in such a state. But then, I have always seen my mother through a cloudy lens, never acknowledging her as a person with feelings and needs like every other person I knew and often catered to until I was much older. What did I know of a grief like that? I hadn’t lost anybody that close to me yet back then. Aunt Tweet told me my mother saw a ghost. Setting aside for a moment that Tweet wasn’t a woman whose words you dismissed simply because you disagreed with them, was I prepared to call my mother liar? She didn’t even bother lying to me about Santa Claus, tooth fairies, or my absentee father. Why would she make up a vision? I chalked it up to grief and moved on with my spirit-less life, never asking my mother directly about it. Our relationship was never the kind that you could just float a thing like that into, and years later I learned not to go around ripping off people’s band-aids to satisfy my own curiosities.

Finally – and this is the raison d’être undergirding my lack of belief in the spectral realm – there are no clear designations about who gets to become a ghost. I’m all for diversity of the ghost spectrum, but the range is suspiciously vast. If you announce that the rule to be a ghost is a considerable degree of suffering, all ghosts should be slaves. If the rule is that you have to have experienced a grave injustice, then 90 percent of ghosts would be Native American and the other 10 percent would be victims of police abuse. It’s mad inconsistent. But look: I’m woke enough to point out the inconsistencies in their playbook, but apparently not woke enough to stay out of an actual haunted house, so what do I know?

Here is what I know: The closest person to me that has passed away was my oldest brother, Tim, and just several months ago at that. It was a death of natural causes, but still too soon. Tim was always my mother’s favorite son, a public honorific so clear and well-earned that you couldn’t even be mad about it because you knew you weren’t going to do all the stuff that he did on her behalf. Tim was a good man who unknowingly spent the last years of his life constantly helping others, becoming a true steward of his community. Over the years he became one of my mother’s best friends and confidants as she grew older. And then in February I was walking beside her in the emergency ward of Mount Carmel East Hospital when she was informed that he had suddenly died. She fell to the floor, moaning and crying, refusing to be consoled, hit with despair like a bat to the ribs, crumpling her in front of strangers and family alike. This was the version of my mother my Aunt Tweet described to me years before, after I thought I had escaped the possibility of witnessing such pain inflicted upon the woman who cared for me my entire life. After Tim’s death my mother is different, changed, more fragile. The loss has cracked her spirit beyond just being a parent’s grief. She is haunted by the loss of her friend. Someone explain to my mother why he doesn’t get to come back, why she can’t see him just once more to say goodbye or be soothed with the knowledge that his presence is near, but any random person who might have died while living in a mansion gets to knock about for tourists.

Of all my mother’s sons, he was the best of us, and if there is a heaven, I suppose he is in it. That is the only way I can allow the supernatural to slide on that one.

6.

“It is wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.”
– Samuel Johnson

Built in 1873, Thurber House was not the first or last house Thurber’s family would live in while in Columbus. They moved approximately fourteen times while in the city, most of the addresses within a square mile of each other. The house that would one day become a haunted museum is one of the few still standing, and marks the years James Thurber went to Ohio State University (1913-1918). Walking through the rooms drives home the fact that people were built different back then. As a species, Americans were smaller on average a century ago, and I feel like a giant in this house, scared to sit on the little furniture, afraid to walk too quickly through its hallways. Everything creaks, crying for shims in the boards, the trek exposed for a built-in burglar alarm.

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I arrived at 7:00 PM and was instructed by a very helpful staffer (Leah) about the alarm system and other nooks and crannies. It is important to note that she believes in the ghosts, and I do my best not to dishonor that knowledge during the presentation. She tells me that should I encounter anything supernatural that I should feel free to leave (other visitors have) and to just make sure I turn the top lock of the back door as I flee. I’m glad she said something. I think she could sense how things were going to go another way without fair warning.

I camped out in the third floor apartment, which used to be the attic. Unlike the first to floors, it’s been tricked out with a modern remodel for their occasional writers-in-residence: two bedrooms, a kitchen, a full bathroom, and Wi-Fi. This spread would run you a mint in New York. Heck, it’d run you a solid paycheck on the east side of Columbus. Still, it’s the attic of a 150 year old house, so I still have to watch my head here and there.

I didn’t packed much in the way of equipment: a change of clothes, writing materials, and a library copy of The Everything Ghost Hunting Book (Melissa Martin Ellis), my chief guide in how to maneuver the experiment. It was a second edition printing, so I assumed it had all the new hotness a budding ghostbuster requires. I also stocked myself with provisions: peanuts, Slim Jims, Powerade, a Cherry Coke named “Pablo”. I didn’t want to put anything heavy on my stomach just in case I had to run. I can tell you from several cookout experiences that it is extremely difficult to escape a supernatural encounter when one is struck with The ‘Itis.

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I briefly walked around the first floor and must admit: early twentieth century décor is kind of creepy in any light, with all of its highly detailed woodwork and deep-stained surfaces and ornate curves of every table leg or chair back. Furniture back then had to be impressive where the surroundings may fail, and as the sun began to dip behind the Downtown skyline, shadows were popping up that weren’t there during my daytime visit two days before. You can’t get shadows like those from an IKEA bookcase, all flat and white and shiny. It goes a long way toward explaining why people used to believe in the things they did, how superstition was able to take root so easily in the face of more concrete and stark realities. As the sun disappeared the house went dark quick, and I turned on as many lights as it took to make the space still feel like it was receiving early evening shine, which is to say, all of them. I left the lights off on the first floor, as they are usually off and I didn’t want to give the neighbors any ideas. The house may not be haunted, but it is one hundred percent creepy. I did my first floor sweep but eventually made my way up to the third floor in short order, where the twenty-first century belongs.

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The first few hours were all about shaking off nerves and settling into the space. The apartment was comfortable, but every house has an ambient rhythm, a way in which things sit that you have to adjust your eyes and ears to. It isn’t your home, where every crack and mark you can account for. In a new space, particularly a haunted one, all of the furniture is out to trick you, to suggest a potential for the macabre. What is that pile of guest towels looking at?, you wonder, and what does it really want to get into? Are we about to get into some gangster action here on Jefferson Ave? Of course, all I have to do is move the pile of towels off the edge of the bed and the fight is over. By 10 PM I was actually comfortable enough to remove my shoes. I refused to bring any sleepwear because I did not anticipate getting any rest, diligent in my duties as a ghost hunter. Stationary, but diligently watching nonetheless. The poster child for hall monitors everywhere. If I had to break out, there wouldn’t be any wardrobe changes, and I certainly didn’t want to be on the news in my drawers.

The Jefferson Avenue block was surprisingly dark considering it sits squarely in Downtown (what in Thurber’s time was the east side of Columbus, period). The park that the street wraps around to make a turnabout has several streetlamps, but the trees are so full and large that their ancient limbs essentially blot them out. I am reminded that Columbus used to be littered with asylums, practically since its inception, and for all manner of afflictions, their names on ancient street maps dripping with unveiled condescension over the various conditions of their wards. Almost none of the structures that housed them exist anymore. Case in point: for about thirty years in the mid-1800s the entire block that was Jefferson Avenue was an insane asylum. The facility burned down in 1868 – exactly 150 years ago as I write this – and seven people died in the fire. It is the kind of tragedy that has become rare, which should make it easier to fathom how jarring it might be to the American psyche of 150 years ago. The tragedy has long sparked the rumor that every building on the block is hot with ghosts, each with its own stories of dogs howling into empty corners of homes, visions of long dead matriarchs holding court over homes they no longer own, and worse. Tonight, looking down from an attic window, the street is pitch black, and because the houses on each side aren’t in use at night, Thurber House feels like it’s in a black hole. It is impossible, even negligent, to dismiss how such an atmosphere might feed an active imagination, let alone the imaginations of people wrapped in the limits of nineteenth century cultural trappings, each decade bringing a new industrial revolution that changed the world before their eyes. In the end, it was all just darkness. I saw or heard nothing in it that I did not bring to the table, even at 2 AM, when a mind really begins to play tricks on you. I am up at that hour with some regularity – it is when I can get in all my guilty pleasures without worldly distractions or responsibilities, even to myself, since even I don’t expect me to be up doing anything at 2 AM – so I know the rules. Fortunately, the only sound at that hour was the air conditioner clicking on and off to keep things at a temperature that couldn’t mask a ghastly drop in temperature if it tried.

Half the reason why anyone thinks Thurber House is haunted is because of Thurber himself, not because he’s still hanging around, but because of his short account entitled, “The Night the Ghost Got In”, published in 1933. It is a comic telling of a night in 1915 when, as his family was sleeping at the Jefferson Avenue house, they were visited by a spectral presence. Police were called, someone threw a shoe out a window…it was a whole thing. By contrast, I mostly hoped that the staff informed the neighbors that a black man would be staying in the house that night. The police in Thurber’s story are jerks but they are not demonstrably racist. Why would they be? A hundred years later, I can’t afford the confusion. I double check to make sure all the lights are on again.

It occurred to me to wonder what the ghosts would make of a black man in their house? Black writers had been in the house before, even overnight, but it begged the question: do ghosts notice us or are they trapped in their own loops of awareness, consigned to an eternity of looking for a locket where a locket hasn’t been for a century? I imagine if a ghost from 1915 actually saw a black person in the front parlor where they welcomed guests, had tea, and played the occasional bit of piano they’d react to that. The ghostbusting shows never break down the possible prejudices of ghosts from ethically inferior times. And more: what if I am Thurber’s ghost, bumping in and out of some wormhole in time and space, somehow haunting his family in my attempt to upend the very notion of hauntings? What if the spook by the door is I? It is a concept too dark to contemplate deeply in the middle of a haunted house at 5 AM, or profitable without further evidence to suggest such a possibility. But man, what I wouldn’t give to scare a ghost. That would be peak blackness. I might even regain the half of my Black Card that was taken from me for breaking the rules and coming here in the first place.

7.

“Anything worth having is hard to keep,
I love you like my coffee, so hot and so sweet.
So, let’s stick it out so we never regret it,
I could forgive the past-but I never forget it.”
– Ghostface Killah

It is 7:00 AM. Sunrise was my goal, and here it is, lighting the houses around me, making my night prison a neighborhood again, lifting me out of the black hole filled with a floor of overhead lights burning through the night like some Victorian spaceship. I encountered no ghosts nor discovered any signs of such. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times when I wouldn’t have been surprised if something had happened. The mind is a powerful illusionist at 3 AM on no sleep, no decent food, and no familiar furniture. But now, everything has ceased flexing their fright muscles and relaxed back into Jazz Age quaint. I’d also be lying if I said the air wasn’t a bit sweeter this morning, and that the rising sun couldn’t be more perfect, and I have seen the sun rise out of oceans. Maybe part of that is the comfort that comes with having one’s worldview confirmed, of the assurance that your place at the top of the food chain remains intact. There is a thrill not unlike a rollercoaster on the other side of all that night and silence. It helps in the appreciating to have come with a fairly closed mind. At the same time, I can see the thrill for people who chase ghosts in earnest, with their eyes wide with excitement and not fear. We’re all looking for something. The scientist in me can’t hope that they find what they’re looking for, but the wanderer in me understands that it’s all about the journey. It’s not fun to catch ghosts – no one has caught a ghost, ever. The fun is in the trying. And that is a thing I understand very well, as I type this last bit before getting in my car and heading to the day job I didn’t think to call off from beforehand, a job that is neither ghosthunting or writing.

Yes, I can understand the desire to search for more than this world very well.

 

 

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One thought on “I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts, but It’s Still America: Chasing the Ghosts of Thurber House While Black

  1. Great piece! I share your general disbelief of the supernatural, but I loved reading about your experiences.

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