Daughter invited three friends on the carriage ride to the haunted tunnel, followed by a sleepover. It was a birthday party that turned out even more excellent than expected. Afternoon thunderstorms threatened to cancel the ride, but they cleared up by evening. She hadn’t known that kids are allowed to sit on the horses for the whole ride, even on the return trip in the dark, illuminated by the lights of the carriage. We could just as well have been led by the bright full moon that rose over the trees. Most of the kids rode on a horse for a little while, then rotated back to sit next to the driver. Not Daughter. She was up there, on the back of an 18-hand Percheron, the entire time.
Being up front, she couldn’t hear the ghost stories. This area is renowned for being haunted–on campus, in the old mental hospital, in the local cemeteries, in this tunnel. The audience for the stories were the adults in the back of the carriage–me alone, two groups of local women, and a guy and his mom and grandma from out of town. The guy is a writer, researching popular views on the spiritual and supernatural. Throughout the ride, he talked to each of the groups. One of the women shared about her religious background. One of the women had some creepy stories about the old mental hospital. I’d remarked that, as a newcomer to the area, I am struck by the amount of local labor history, the use of natural resources, the development of the railroad, and the like that are bound up in these ghost stories. The local ghost stories are a means of transmission of culture. I’d said that before I knew he was a researcher, and I noted that it warranted a note in his little notebook. That’s when I asked him what he was up to. He explained his project and I told him it was too bad that he lingered behind with his mom and grandma when we’d disembarked from the carriage to hike through the muddy, slippery trails to the tunnel, because we met three guys out there who introduced themselves as “two writers and a wiccan.”
The guy did a good job of drawing people out. There was so much I didn’t tell him, though. I did mention that local advocates for the mentally ill have been working hard to restore the dignity of the patients who died at the old asylum and to reduce the gawking and irreverence of “ghost hunters” who lurk around the hospital property. I didn’t tell him that I felt the same way about the stories we were hearing on the carriage ride. Workmen who lost their lives in unsafe working conditions, desperate people who took their lives–these are the ghosts that comprise our local lore. These are the human beings who lived here, who struggled, whose families suffered when they were gone. I don’t even wince anymore when I hear a tale told about people who took their own lives. I remove myself for a moment, honor them, remember that they were a person in pain, try to restore a little of their dignity to their legacy that exists now as sensational local legend.
The researcher asked me a little more about myself. I made it clear that I’m a newcomer, unlike the other groups of women in the carriage who had a deep history in the area. He asked me how I like it here, and I was surprised to hear myself say, “I love it here,” considering how down on this place I’ve been lately. But there in the carriage on a little country lane, under the full moon, feeling anonymous, my daughter accompanied by her charming, loyal, spunky friends, I remembered why I feel lucky to have landed here. My daughter was born here. My husband died here. I’ve given this place my blood, my heart. I am a part of this place, and this place will always be a part of me and my children. Maybe my husband’s story will be part of local lore someday. After all, we dropped off a kid one day and he informed us that, years ago, a philosophy professor shot himself in the garage. Another colleague lives in a farmhouse where the husband threw the wife down the stairs. No one is being so disrespectful now, but maybe, years from now, locals will piece together fragments of my husband’s experience and turn it into a lurid story. That doesn’t bother me anymore. It’s what comes of being part of a place. I think of how much would be lost to history–his gentleness, his quick wit, his daughter’s pluck and spirit, his son’s brilliance and struggle and droll wit. I would be partly to blame for the lapses; I haven’t really told people what happened. How could I? How much did they want to know? How much do I really know?
It’s just like any ghost story, because ghost stories are just fragments. How did that one worker fall into the furnace? Was he drunk? If that railman lost his arm, why is the ghost headless? Was that guy struck by the train because he was distracted, or did he let himself get hit on purpose? Our culture clings to the facts we know, we string them together past the gaps, try to tie it up into a story, but there’s always a mystery. And that’s the lingering spookiness at the end of the ghost story–we’ve faced what we don’t know, what we will never know.