Why do we love ghost stories? Well, we have fun being scared. Even babies like being a little spooked, as in the game of Peek-a-boo we play with them, which has been described as ‘an infant jump scare’. When we read a good spooky story or watch a creepy movie, we’re scared without actually being in danger, and that raises our levels of endorphins – hormones that, along with reducing pain, also reduce stress and improve our mood. We get a little boost of pleasure when the story’s over.
The best ghost stories play on our innate fear of the unseen. We know there’s something out there, but without the information from our eyes, it could be anything, and grows ‘larger’ and more terrifying the longer we’re unable to tell what it is. We watch the characters in the story as they grow more and more frightened (perhaps because some of them are disappearing, one by one), and the storytelling invites us to project our fears onto them. We begin to live it with them, followed by enormous relief when it’s over and a certain euphoria that we stuck it out to the end. A study asked 262 adults how they felt before and after they entered an extreme haunted house, and 50 percent said they felt better after the visit.
There’s also a sense that, if there are ghosts, there must be an afterlife, which is an enormous comfort for most of us. Spiritualism, also known as occultism, wherein psychics and mediums attempt to contact spirits passed beyond the veil from their grieving, earth-bound loved ones, has been around for several centuries. Our modern fascination with haunted places and the ghost-hunting groups who investigate them taps into the same desire: to believe that there’s something beyond our far-too-brief lives.
So, in honour of the haunted atmosphere of October, I’ve written for you a short ghost story. Make yourself a cup of tea – maybe a good strong one, with a shot of brandy to warm it up against the night’s chill – and settle in for a scare. If there’s a storm brewing, or a thick blanket of fog drifting in, even better.
This is a different kind of ghost story. It’s set in the 1950s, with all the moral undertones of the decade, just to provide context, but it’s not a moralistic story in any way, so please don’t read anything into it. As you’ll see, it ties in with the setting of my Chaos Roads trilogy of novels, and it’s nothing more than a creepy story for you to enjoy as we enter Halloween season.
Alice Still Lives Here
by Erica Jurus ©
I’m everywhere. I see everything that goes on in this house. I see things people don’t want me to see.
Like my younger brother’s collection of nudie magazines that he hides at the bottom of an old box at the bottom of his closet. I see what he does when he reads them too.
Like my older sister’s attempts at pleasuring herself. She’s the pretty one in the family, but she’s too prudish to do anything with it. At school dances all the boys follow her around, hoping they can get her into a dark corner outside or into a car, but they don’t get anywhere.
So they come to me.
I’m Alice, and I’m not pretty at all. Kinder people call me ‘plain’; from others I’ve heard the word ‘ugly’.
I don’t think I’m ugly, really. I like my eyes – they’re a nice green colour. But my face is bland, my lips are small, I don’t have much of a chin, and I do have a light moustache. I’ve tried removing the moustache with a new product one of the girls at school brought back from Toronto – it’s called Veet – but it leaves my skin red and irritated for a few days. I have to apply it on Friday nights and then dab makeup on over the weekend so no one knows what I’ve done.
My parents, you see, are pretty well off, and they’re active in Llithfaen society – what you might call pillars of the community. They’re successful farmers; our place, out on Hollowmede Road, is called Little Goblin Farm, after the variety of holly that grows around the house. We supply the grocery store in town, and my mom sells a lot at our stall at the Saturday morning market. My parents are often involved in activities at the church, my mother helps out at my brother’s school, and my father is on the town council.
Nothing is allowed to mar the ‘perfect family’ picture we present. Every Sunday we all dress in our best outfits to go to church, although I know that I’m a severe frustration for my mother because she can’t make me look pretty no matter how hard she tries.
How horrified George and Alma would be if they knew that their middle child will lift her skirt for any boy, or man, that asks. I’ve probably had more sex than my mom had in her entire lifetime.
I used to be the classic wallflower at high school dances, the one none of the boys asked to partner with. For the first couple of years, I hated going to the dances, and hated my parents even more for forcing me to go. Then my body began to develop, and I discovered that there was something the boys very much wanted from me.
I like it. For a few minutes, I hold the power. I’m desired. I like to see the lust in their eyes when they show up, and the satisfaction afterward. They leave right after, but I don’t expect them to stay. I don’t even want them to – no awkward conversation, no pretension. We’re both there for the same thing, nothing more.
Vera, and I had a fight over it a few weeks ago, because I had sex with her boyfriend. Harold is gorgeous – all the girls in our high school would die to go out with him. He’s athletic, not too bright, but funny enough to be popular. I think Vera was hoping to marry him after they graduated, but eventually his hormones and Vera’s tight legs got the better of him. I was in the right place at the right time, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Harold and I have had a few romps together, and he started spending more time with me than my sister. When she asked him what was the matter, the stupid twit actually told her. So she had it out with me behind the school. She called me a slut, and I told her she might have better luck with men if she loosened up a bit. Then she spit out the ‘ugly’ word, crying that I was as unattractive inside as out. I lost my temper and called her a frigid bitch who didn’t deserve her looks. We haven’t spoken to each other since.
A funny thing happened that day. After Vera fled in tears, an older male student appeared from around the side of the building. His name is Donald Lee; his family moved here last year because he wants to go to Tempus College when he graduates from Hillier High.
They practice some weird religion from the Orient. Donald attends the special prayer sessions at school, but he doesn’t participate, just sits there quietly. He’s not bad looking, and I wouldn’t mind a tumble with him, but he’s never shown the least interest. I was very surprised to see him come over to me after the fight.
His eyes were serious as he said, “You must be very careful, Alice Gosselin.”
I leaned back against the brick wall of the building, drawing my corduroy jacket closed. It was just three weeks from Halloween and the afternoon air was carrying a real chill. “Really. Why is that, Donald Lee?” I said in a deceptively pleasant voice.
“You have desperately hurt your sister. There will be retribution.”
My pleasant façade vanished. “That’s none of your damn business, asshole.” Pushing off from the wall, I turned to stomp away, but his hand on my arm caught me.
“Please listen. I fear for you. As this new season turns, the gates of Hell open and ghosts who punish grave misdeeds roam the earth. You are in danger.”
“I’m sure,” I said dismissively. A cold wind had risen, making me shiver. That’s all it was, nothing else. “I don’t believe in all that crap.”
He cocked his head, looking ridiculously cute. In the mood I was in, I was ready to tackle him and see just how far I could get. But his next words sent a chill down my spine. “You carry a great deal of bitterness. You’ve found a way to disperse it for a few minutes, or hours, but it never goes away. And now you’ve injured someone who was innocent. For the hungry ghosts, you glow with darkness, and they will find you easily.”
I was cold, and angry – and yes, bitter. “Well, I imagine it’s probably too late for me, anyway.” Not that I believed him, but what was the worst these hungry ghosts might do – haunt me? I gave a little laugh.
“It isn’t, if you make amends to your sister, change your ways and pray for mercy.” His eyes were pleading.
I was having far too good a time to change anything. A small voice from deep inside me said Is this how you want to live the rest of your life? An easy lay? Aren’t you worth anything more?
Shut the hell up! I told it fiercely. My conscience was rearing its annoying head, and I was definitely not in the mood.
“Sorry, Donny, I just don’t feel like doing all that. My sister needed a good wake-up call, if you ask me. And I like the sex, so that’s not going to stop. Thanks for the advice, though.” This time I turned and walked away.
“Goodbye, then.” His voice was sad.
Vera has kept away from me since then. Our brother Gregory could sense that something happened, but he’s prudently stayed out of it.
Harold’s interest has waned, but that’s okay. There’s always someone else.
Otherwise, things have been normal. Until three days ago.
I was at the small desk in my bedroom, doing homework. Luckily for me, I received all the brains in the family, so school assignments are a breeze. When I finished, I gave the essay a pat, got up to cross the room, and slid up my sash window so I could lean out and smell the night air. The moon was full, casting a pale light over our fields. In the copse of trees behind the house, I could hear an owl hooting.
As I inhaled deeply and listened to the sounds in the darkness, a mist began to drift across our lawn. I love fog, especially at this time of year. If we were lucky, it would stay around for the Halloween party at school tomorrow night.
Closing the window except for a small crack to let the air keep wafting in, I turned off the overhead light, hopped onto my bed and picked up a book I was halfway through reading. I was part way through the next chapter when I noticed how chilly the room had become. Drawing up my comforter over my legs, out of the corner of my eye I noticed that mist was coming in through the small gap between my window pane and the sill. I watched it in stupefaction for a few seconds – how could it be doing that? My bedroom is on the second floor, and fog never rises that high. And the more I stared at it, the more I could see that it was a strange colour, like rotting grapes.
I jumped up from the bed and stepped towards the window to slam it closed, but the mist gathered itself together and headed straight for me, closer and closer, backing me up towards the opposite wall. Soon I was pressed against the pale flowered wallpaper, my hands splayed out in front of me as if to stop the advancing vapours.
“Get away from me,” I snarled. What kind of shit was this?
Whispers began to surround me, worming their way through my skin and into my brain. Darkness, bitterness, a cold heart… darkness, bitterness, a cold heart… darkness, bitterness, a cold heart…
“Don’t I deserve something good in my life?” I hissed. “Everyone calls me ugly. I don’t deserve that. I just found a way to get boys to spend time with me. They never would otherwise!”
Callousness, cruelty… Your sister’s heart bleeds. Your brother is embarrassed to hear people talk about you. Your parents are ashamed. No care for them. No thought for other women betrayed. How will you defend that?
I stiffened. How do you answer them? my unwanted conscience pointed out.
Shame crept up from my stomach to my ears. I hadn’t thought of gossip; I hadn’t thought anyone else knew. I hadn’t thought of any wives or girlfriends, although part of me figured that if they’d been decent in bed their men wouldn’t have sought me out.
No answer? We thought not. Your bitterness has consumed you. You have hurt many people, all to make yourself feel better. You did not wait to see what goodness life might bring along. The mist surrounded me; I could feel its wet clamminess, as well as an implacable sense of purpose. A chill began to seep deep under my skin, into my bones, into my very cells.
“No, wait!” I cried. “I can repent. I can change!”
You were given warning. You were given the chance. You laughed it away.
Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit. My body began to shake with cold and dread. I wanted to call out to my parents, but though I managed to open my mouth, I couldn’t make any sound come out. My eyesight began to fade, as if a succession of veils were being drawn across. No, please, please, please! I pleaded silently.
There was no answer. Abruptly my shivering stopped. I could see my bedroom again, but there was something clouding my vision, like looking through a length of beige chiffon. There was some kind of pattern as well; I struggled to focus my eyes. Slowly flowers began to appear; they looked familiar.
My body felt strangely stiff. I could move a little, but it was a struggle. The more I tried, though, the easier it became. Finally I was able to take a step forward.
The mist was gone. I breathed a sigh of relief; it seemed I’d had a narrow escape. Drifting to the window, I tried to close it, but I couldn’t make anything happen. My hands wouldn’t grasp the wooden frame, and they looked weird, insubstantial.
I stepped back and looked down at myself. Through my legs and feet I could see the weave in my green and brown rag rug. What the…?
Oh God. Realization hit me like an icy shroud. I was no longer part of the living world. The spirits were now my kindred – I could feel them out there, lingering around the town, each on their own haunted errand. I began to shake again, and something inexorably drew me back toward the wall, until I faded right into the lathe and plaster. I hid there, as if the wall could shield me from the new reality I’d become part of. I cried, but no tears fell…
It’s Halloween night, 1952. I’m still here, out on Hollowmede Road. Inside our farmhouse, I’m everywhere.
Hungry ghosts are a concept from Buddhism and Chinese traditional religion. They’re beings who are driven by intense emotional need. It’s believed that they can arise in various ways, including from a violent or unhappy death, or from neglect by their descendants. In one philosophy, lower-level evil deeds during life will cause a soul to be reborn as a hungry ghost, including killing, stealing and sexual misconduct.
According to Chinese tradition, the month of the fall harvest opens up the gates of hell, and hungry ghosts are free to roam the earth seeking food and entertainment; families are required to offer prayers to their deceased relatives and burn ‘hell money’ to help their ancestral spirits live comfortably in the afterlife.
In my darker tale, the ghosts are out delivering retribution to souls they consider irredeemable. But what happens to Alice and her family as time goes on? Well, that’s a story for another dark and stormy night.
My choice of tea would be a stiff cup of Russian Caravan, a somewhat smoky tea born of the months’-long tea caravans that transported heavy packs of tea from China to Russia across the mountains in the 18th century. During the nightly encampments, both the traders and their tea-laden camels would draw close to the fire to stay warm, and the tea would pick up a smoky flavour. This became so popular that Russian Caravan tea became a fixture even to modern times, and is made by blending Lapsang Souchong, an intensely smoky tea, with Keemun and Oolong to produce the same effect. Russian Caravan is a robust tea, so if you’re going to pair a treat with it, you’ll want stronger flavours that are complemented by the tea – perhaps a hearty cheese with pumpernickel bread, or a slice of rich gingerbread loaf.
I hope you enjoyed this twisted little tale and would love to hear your thoughts. (Only comments that are thoughtfully and respectfully presented will be posted.) The story is based on someone I once knew (although in her early twenties) who behaved the same way for the same reason, and I extrapolated how that might have turned out in a world entwined with the spirit realm.