George Washington crossing the Delaware River by Sully

When I was a kid, my family went on vacation to Gettysburg. Most kids probably would have preferred to go to Disney World, but I was the kind of kid who watched the History Channeland in the weeks before the trip I had heard that Gettysburg is supposed to be one of the most haunted places in America, and the ghost of George Washington was occasionally seen riding around the battlefield on a horse.

My fascination with ghosts was born on that trip as I gobbled up staple-bound collections of local ghost stories and lay awake at night convinced that George Washington was going to ride through my spooky hotel room. I never saw George Washington or his horse, but I did meet a reenactor who looked remarkably like George Pickett and picked through barrels full of bullets that were still being dug out of the ground and walked up Little Round Top to the place Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (my second favorite Civil War officer behind Robert Gould Shaw) held the line against a regiment from Alabama even though his men had run out of bullets.

At the time, I was disappointed that I didn’t see a real ghost, but looking back on it now it’s obvious to me that even if there weren’t specters behind every tree, the battlefield-turned-national-park was haunted. In ghost stories, ghosts are like actors in a shadow play forced to repeat emotionally charged scenes from the past over and over without deviation. As I talked with reenactors immersed in their roles and ordered pheasant pot pie at a tavern from a waitress in hoop-skirts, I could feel that the monuments and tourist traps were just ways of dressing up the phantasmagoria. No ghosts are needed when the living are willing to play the roles of the dead.

This morning I finished reading Hauntings by James Hollis, and it may have been the hardest book I’ve ever read. At less than 200 pages, it wasn’t a thick book, but it took me almost two attentive weeks to read. When I finally reached the last page, I felt like I had pushed off the bottom of an ancient seabed two weeks ago and was only just then breaking the surface and gasping for air.

Hauntings is about authenticity and how to hear the voice of the soul over the stories and legacies of the past. I picked it up hoping for insight into the psychology of a character, but Hollis is a Jungian analyst, and most of the book is taken up with practical advice on how to quit being a ghost in your own life, repeating the scripts of the past.

It is a trope in ghost stories that the key to liberating a ghost is to figure out some task that was left uncompleted and help them do it, but the hauntings that Hollis describes work in reverse. An unconscious life, he said, defaults to a quest to carry out an agenda that haunts us. A man with a disabled mother assigned the role of the caretaker carries out that role with his mother, his wife, and then his adult daughter. A scientist assigned the role of lab assistant by her illustrious father continues the role as an adult by marrying an equally illustrious man from her father’s generation. A poet who buried his father with an untold story is compelled to repeat the story in every poem he writes.

In Hollis’s experience as a therapist, liberation comes when life gets in the way of our ability to dance the dance. The caretaker burns out. The husband dies. The poet can’t bring himself to tell the story one more time, and suddenly they are like a ghost standing in the wreckage of a razed haunted house unable to figure out what to do with themselves now that their ability to repeat themselves has been taken away.

In the stories, an outsider is often needed to hear the story one last time and give the ghost permission to leave the old place behind. This permission frees the ghost, who is then left to figure out the way to heaven or oblivion on their own. Ghosts, apparently, come equipped with a compass and the ability to read it because ghost stories with happy endings usually end with the ghost disappearing, and I’ve never heard of one coming back to ask for directions.

In reality, finding someone willing to save you is the easy part. If you haven’t gotten it yet, I can direct you to a dozen bloggers who would be thrilled to sell you an e-book or a video series or conference that will give you permission to break with the script and dozens of others who would be more than happy to provide you with another script to replace the script you lost. But if you find yourself sick of your career as an itinerant ghost traveling from story to story and house to house, reenacting battles in someone else’s war, you will find nothing but silence, and that is the most terrifying thing of all because following directions is easy. It is much harder to stand alone in a house no longer lit by the cool light of ghost stories, feeling in the darkness for a match.

How scary it might prove to conclude that I am essentially alone in this summons to personal consciousness, that I cannot continue to blame others for what has happened to me, that I am really out there on that tightrope over the abyss, making choices every day, and that I am truly, irrevocably responsible for my life. Then I would have to grow up and stand naked before this immense universe, and step into the largeness of this journey, my journey (James Hollis, Hauntings). 

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