A Ghost, Shared
The First Incident
John William Counter died in 2004, in a hospital bed, having undergone surgery for a back injury and suffered multiple heart attacks while in recovery. He left behind the family of his only son, Dave, my father. The four of us survivors - Dave, my mother, my brother Nick and I - were watching a VHS copy of Tim Burton’s Big Fish when this happened, and the phone rang as the credits began to roll. It was nighttime.
Dave took the call in another room, and after thirty minutes of hushed talk, he approached me from behind while I was sitting at our family desktop computer, chatting with school friends on MSN. He hugged me, for the first time I can remember, and it was awkward.
One of us, or both of us, said, “Grandad died.”
I can still feel the quivering, arrhythmic shakes as he nodded against my back in affirmation. The green upholstered computer chair squeaked beneath me as my father offered assurance. Everything was going to be okay. But it wasn’t.
A month passed. Maybe two. I had been struggling with my teenage mental health, and was diagnosed with rapid cycling bipolar II disorder after a failed suicide attempt. I was in bed and couldn’t sleep. Insomnia was no stranger to me then, but there was something slightly different about the difficulty I was experiencing. A sort of dread hung over me as I lay on my back underneath a dinosaur patterned blanket that kind of embarrassed my sixteen year old self, and my eye gravitated to the far corner of my room, near my closet, where I kept my karate gear (I was a teenage martial arts instructor).
The shadows of my bow staves (Donny is my favourite Ninja Turtle) seemed more substantial that night, and I strained my eyes to see why. The shades of deep grey and black seemed fluid, as if to suggest motion at first, but as the moments passed in the green glow of my digital alarm clock, they became a darkness of weight and substance. The figure of an aged but able man, standing at that far corner of my room, upset and approaching me.
He closed the distance and grabbed my shoulders. He shook me and screamed in my face, the terrible wailing of an angry man. I joined him in screaming, before struggling out of my bed and escaping to the main floor of my parents' house. I spent the remainder of the night on the couch in the comforting blue glow of post 1 AM TV.
The above story is true. It is likely a nightmare manifestation of my Catholic guilt combined with my grieving over my grandfather. At the time I was a semi-serious Catholic, so the possibility of it being a ghost held a lot more weight for me at the time. Traumatic events would later shift my faith to an atheist standpoint and eventually to the nihilism through which I currently identify, but for three years the memory of that night fit into a specific narrative for me: John William Counter was haunting my room because shortly after his death I attempted to commit suicide with a belt.
The emotional turmoil I was experiencing at the time of the first incident seems trivial in comparison to the experiences that shattered my faith - the experiences I will save for a much longer, more horrific post than this - but the important part is this: after I moved away from home to Toronto, I became a strong skeptic. I read Dawkins and Hitchens, and I got really excited about arguments over religion. I didn’t believe in the supernatural, and that extended beyond the existence of God to the legitimacy of the ghosts in my past.
My brother moved to Toronto and we became roommates. He would travel home on the weekends more often than I would and, on returning from one of these solo visits to our parents’ house, he recounted something that tested the steel of my realism.
Nick had been sleeping in the guest bedroom, which was my room in 2004. My single dinosaur themed bed had been replaced with two twin sized ones from my grandfather’s home, one with its headboard two feet away from the dark corner where the angry man had materialized. That was the one he slept in the night he was shaken by a screaming man.
He described his experience in uncomfortable detail, after which I told him that the same thing had happened to me when our granddad died. He remembered me telling him so. Sure enough, the next time I slept in that bed I was visited by that shadowy discontent too. These subsequent encounters inspired Nick and I to concoct the Memetic Ghost Hypothesis.
Our theory goes like this: My initial night terror, based on deep teenage angst, had passed to Nick when I told him about it in 2004. He forgot about it, then relived the experience, and through retelling the events to me, primed me to encounter our ghost the next time. It wasn’t the room that was haunted, it was us, and we were doing it to each other.
Our shared ghost has become a frequent part of our lives. Nick and I live close to our home town, and visit with semi-regularity (I could stand to visit more to be honest, but you know: angry strangle man), and when we sleep in that guest room, we do so with the knowledge that there is a chance that we will suffer a very specific night terror.
Applying the Memetic Ghost Hypothesis to what we actually experience, it makes sense that our encounters with the angry man would evolve. With each sleep depriving incident we excitedly retell our run in with the man, feeding variation into our shared meme pool like a two person game of broken nightmare telephone. The following details remain, however, particularly consistent: it always begins with a palpable sense of dread, the man is always there and he always makes physical contact.
We are locked in a cycle of storytelling and torture, Nick and I, and it has escalated our haunting considerably.
The most recent encounter with our shared ghost was experienced by Nick in the summer of 2014. He had learned to sleep in the twin bed furthest from the shadowy corner, as it has proven to be the safer of the two places to dream. It is directly below a window, and on a moonlight night such as the one in question, the covers are brightly illuminated. The far bed is not a place for shadows. Or, at least it hadn’t been.
His retelling begins with that familiar sense of dread. Because Nick and I have mythologized this as the heralding of our shadow person, we have devised strategies to thwart the encounter. He covered his head in blankets and tried to sleep through the event. He awoke later, head uncovered, with the shadow of a man between him and the window. He shut his eyes, but it said his name. He managed to fall back to sleep, untouched.
He woke a third time that night, and though the shadow was gone and nothing whispered his name, he was uncovered and his right arm was pressed against the wall above the bed. He couldn’t move it and he couldn’t scream.
Nick told me about this encounter at our parents’ kitchen table the afternoon after it had happened and we explained it all away. This was our shared haunting and our storytelling has allowed it to evolve beyond its initial territory. Sleep paralysis has been a part of this phenomenon for a long time, which would explain the arm thing, and everything else can be written off as a nightmare or hypnagogic hallucination born from our shared mythology surrounding our grandfather’s death.
In that way it’s beautiful. Through a mutual love of the macabre, two brothers have managed to keep their grandfather alive with storytelling and dreams. Sure, those dreams are violent and terrifying, but it’s an adventure we share that commemorates a difficult time for our family. With every night that we experience the painful memories born from an awkward hug in a difficult time, we awake to a morning where we still have eachother.
We tell our mother this, taking turns to fill in details the other left out, giving the terrible nightmare man a chance to evolve yet again, but the nuance and beauty is lost on her. She’s not convinced. Forever the master of horror, she suggests that rather than some comforting pseudo pop scientific denial, we have actually, for the past decade, been haunted by our sleepwalking father possessed by some violent dream, of which he has many.