This is the first story that I can remember my father telling me about the ghosts. He was driving home late one night from a duty call when the headlights of his car illuminated two children standing by the side of the road. They appeared to be a boy and a girl, around six and eight years old. My father pulled over quickly and stopped the car. He got out and walked back for another look, but there was no sign of the children. He told me that he’d asked around afterwards and heard that other people had seen the same two children on that stretch of road at night.
The children in the road were soon joined by other ghosts. There was the man my father saw running across the motorway, only to vanish when he reached the central reservation. He saw that man at least twice. There were the strange feelings he would get on family trips to old churches, cemeteries and stately homes: “There’s something in that corner, over by the stairs”. Some cemeteries were “quiet”, others, less so. One of the experiences I remember most vividly occurred on a holiday in Scotland when I was around fifteen. We visited a ruined castle. As we wandered around the empty rooms, my father turned pale and said that he had to sit down. Later, he told us that he’d been overwhelmed by feelings of grief and loss and had an impression of children crying for their father.
It wasn’t just ghosts. There were other strange experiences that couldn’t be easily explained. When I was a small child, we lived in a very rural area that was known for sightings of mysterious “black cats”. Sheep found with injuries that people didn’t believe could have been caused by dogs. A pair of gleaming yellow eyes lying low by the side of the road. Something black seen moving fast and fluid across a field in the distance. What was it? A real animal escaped from a private zoo, or a creature out of folklore? One night, my father was alerted by the sound of the dog scrabbling and whining at the door, so he went downstairs to let her in. She shot into the house and immediately peed all over the hallway floor. He went outside to find out what had scared her so badly. My father said that he saw an animal bounding away down the country lane where we lived. He only saw the back end of it, but it had a long tail and didn’t move like a dog. The black cat story didn’t surprise me when I first heard about it a few years later. By that point, my father had become established in our family as someone who “saw things”.
It seems appropriate that in his later years my father happened to work in a building that is still widely believed to be haunted. There were reports of poltergeist activity, mysterious bangs and thumps, items disturbed and doors that opened on their own accord. There was said to be an old man who haunted the building and also some children. My father said that, on one occasion, his office door opened by itself and he had a strong sense of being joined in the room by a malevolent presence. He wasn’t usually frightened by the ghosts, but this time he got up and left the building quickly. He also saw the children in the corridors and running past his office door.
When I was growing up I simply accepted the ghosts as a part of our everyday family life. Today’s news at the dinner table? Nana’s got a new boyfriend and Dad saw another ghost. Yes, the ghosts were unsettling, but then, so was much of the belief system in which I was raised. I grew up in a Catholic world, where the boundaries between the natural and the supernatural worlds were permeable. We offered masses to help give our dead friends and relatives a hand out of purgatory. We had guardian angels to protect us and long dead saints we prayed to for help with finding the car keys. It was a world in which belief in the existence of ghosts didn’t feel like much of a stretch.
But what do I do with my father’s ghosts now that I no longer believe in guardian angels, purgatory, ghosts or demonic black cats that bound around the countryside? How do I resolve this conflict between my faith in my father, and my lack of belief in his experience of the world? I have no doubt that my father was experiencing something that was very real for him, but what? He was always an extremely sensitive person and maybe this made him highly suggestible. I’ve noticed that many of his ghosts were experienced in classically “haunted” locations (castles, old cemeteries, stately homes), or appeared in the context of stories that were already circulating, such as the black cat and the ghosts in his last workplace. There are theories that ghost sightings may be connected to infrasound and perhaps this affected my father’s perception of the world. Another possibility is that my father suffered from hypnagogic hallucinations and, perhaps, sleep paralysis. I think this is very probable because I have hypnagogic hallucinations myself and I know how disturbing they can be. I often hear loud noises or voices speaking in my ear just as I fall asleep. Sometimes I wake up to see black shapes moving around the room, or crawling across the ceiling. If I didn’t know what caused these experiences, I might well look for a supernatural explanation myself. My father did mention waking dreams, the most intense of which involved witnessing a Roman battle while on holiday in the North. But no explanation fits it all and I always feel like I’m reaching.
Am I missing the obvious?
Did my father simply see ghosts?
“ghosts exist because people constantly report that they see them.” Roger Clarke, A Natural History of Ghosts
Perhaps there’s another way to think about my father’s ghosts and the role they played in his life. My father was abandoned by his mother when he was five years old. After that, he was raised by a number of deeply conservative and superstitious aunts who told him that his mother had died in a car accident. He saw his father only rarely when he returned from months away with the merchant navy. The aunts believed in good and bad luck and the evil eye. His grandfather hung around after his death to terrorise the family. Every time a picture fell off the wall, everyone had to throw themselves on their knees and pray because it meant that “Grandfather was angry”. The only married aunt suffered from “moon madness”. Her husband was also in the merchant navy and the other aunts believed that my father was the only member of the family who could calm her down during these episodes. He would be packed off to stay with her at night.
Did this upbringing play a part in creating the ghosts? After all, my father experienced a death that wasn’t really a death. He lived in a world in which the supernatural acted as a metaphor and a way of talking about things. The “ghost” of my great-grandfather represented the psychological (and I suspect sexual) hold on his daughters that continued long after his physical death. The “moon madness” was, quite likely, a way to speak about that aunt’s mental health problems. Perhaps the ghosts became part of my father’s way of making sense of the world.
He grew up and got out. He searched for and was reunited with his mother, who was not in the slightest bit dead. He had a family and pursued a successful career in social work (in child protection and mental health, as it happens), but the ghosts stayed with him.
Now that he’s gone, it’s the children that haunt me. The children standing in the middle of the road holding hands in the dead of night. The children running around the corridors of that draughty old building. The children still crying in a castle centuries after it fell into ruin.
Years later my father told me that when his mother left, he was found abandoned and wandering in the street carrying a toy. My mother objected, saying that this story couldn’t possibly be true. It sounded like something the aunts had made up and told him later. My grandmother may have been a desperate woman, but she wouldn’t have done anything like that.
I don’t believe that she would either, but my father looked uncertain.
Perhaps she did.
Children in the road.