Lately, I've been haunted. By tenderness and terror, by spirits, spooks and other worlds. The stories - poltergeist mischief, precognition, demons and love that transcends death - are not my own. They are true experiences of Australian women, told to journalist Karina Machado. But when it comes to the supernatural, even secondhand accounts can leave an imprint of unease.
"Sometimes they were just shapes," says Anne Kidd who woke at 2am every night for six weeks to a bedroom full of dead people. "To this day the thought of his eyes sends a shiver down my spine," Kelly Hammond says as she reflects on her childhood ghost encounter. "I felt as if someone was watching me," is how Delise Moore describes the moment before the figure of a young man with a beautiful smile appeared before her eyes.For a long time, Karina mulled over writing a book of true ghost stories. "The idea has been with me for a long time. I've been fascinated by the paranormal since I was a kid. A lot of children are." Born in Uruguay , she still recalls family ghost stories told to her by her mother and aunts.
"A few years ago my husband had experiences in our house," Karina explains. "He's a tradesman, a sceptical, practical man, and he saw a ghost several times in a period of weeks...I didn't see the ghost but I did feel how different the house was." The experience was her call to finally start research.
The ghost hunters
Now I believe any journalist or scientist investigating the paranormal would need to be a gutsy person. The willingness to invest in and explore unknown territory takes gumption, but also, for those working in disciplines that value objectivity and rationality above all else, the paranormal is a tricky area, one that's widely discredited, and absolutely marginal.
In his essay "Ghosts and Liminality", George Hansen points out the negligible amount of support for serious ghost research published in refereed, scientific journals. "No scientific institutions (with offices, buildings, paid staff) are devoted to investigating the reality of ghosts. There are virtually no university courses on ghost research, and there is no credible academic textbook on the topic."(1) Objective, scientific evidence about ghosts is shaky, rare, or regarded with scepticism.
And yet in most places and cultures throughout the world (and throughout human history), the spirit world is accepted as fact. Beliefs in ghosts are found everywhere from the Inuit people to the Amazon tribes. The Chinese Ghost Festival, Japanese Festival of the Dead and Western All Souls' Day are all traditions built around respecting and communicating with spirits of the dead. "Ancient peoples recognised, and respected, the reality of ghosts, and they had a deeper understanding of them than we do," writes George Hansen.
Indigenous Australians believe spirit power is stored in animals, plants and sacred sites, and their elaborate cultural system not only requires a deep respect for spirits, but also equips people for direct experience with this powerful realm.(2)
In our culture, ghosts are mostly feared and celebrated through the adrenaline rush of a Hollywood horror or "skeleton in your face" amusement park rides. Ghost tours of historic sites are based on true stories told respectfully, and often theatrically. But outside the tourism and entertainment industries, ghosts struggle for validation.
The ghost whisperer next door
Yet scratch the surface of our modern, rational world and you'll be surprised at how grounded ghosts are in experiences of ordinary folk. Ask people you know. Not everyone will believe in spirits and, of course, not many have seen a ghost, but you will find the stories there.
For Karina, a handful of print media advertisements produced 200 real life ghost stories. "One hundred and twenty women responded to my ad in NOVA [in April and May 2008, WEST edition], they were some of the best stories," Karina tells me.
She followed up on 60 of the most intriguing stories - a threatening hiss flashes through the air like electricity, a gargoyle-like creature perches on a suburban balcony, the slender figure of a teenage boy staggers up the driveway of his home a few hours after his death. There are guardian angels and doppelgangers. One story was so attention grabbing and frankly, frightening, it justified a six hour train ride, so Karina could sit face to face with the poor, haunted woman.
Alone no more
From a young age, long time NOVA reader Shayne Wallace has seen spirits, and she has seen and communicated with her teenage son Jamie after he tragically passed away. Jamie was the boy, the spirit, walking up the driveway just after he died in search of his mother Shayne, with whom he shared a deep connection.
Still raw with grief and tired of intrusive journalists, Shayne hesitated over Karina's ad in NOVA, but was compelled to respond, because, she says, encounters with the spirit world are "very much taboo" in our culture, and here, finally, was a platform for discussion.
Shayne is a tough Kalgoorlie woman whose "tell it like it is" manner makes her difficult to discredit. But not many know her story. "It's not something I share," she says, and I get the feeling that belonging to this ad hoc community of spirit sisters has been a welcome relief. "Part of the reason I told my story is that I grew up thinking something was wrong with me. I thought I must be crazy," she says.
"So many times women have said, 'People will think I'm a fruit loop'. It's important for me to give them a forum, a sympathetic, or even just a neutral ear," says Karina, who I notice always speaks respectfully of the spirit world, and refers to the ability to see ghosts as "a gift".
Many Spirit Sisters stories are about trauma, loss and secrets that haven't yet seen the light of day, but for Shayne and others being part of the book has been therapeutic. "At the time of the interview, we'd only lost Jamie six months before. But talking with Karina was healing," Shayne says. "Karina emailed me a week before the anniversary of my son's death, to tell us she's thinking of us. I think she's really, really taken a personal interest in the people in her book."
Karina agrees the sense of community has been important in bringing the book to fruition. "The women loved knowing they were not alone. Our pop culture has come part of the way to make it acceptable, with TV shows like Ghost Hunting and Medium. But there are not many forums as a culture to have serious discussions about this.
"One nurse I interviewed has lived her entire life with a psychic medium gift. She's in a practical profession, is a mother of three, lives in a country town...in her case I felt there were not many she could talk to. Most start the discussion afraid, but feel a weight lifted in telling someone."
Human lives can hold pain that cuts deeper than any heart can really deal with, and there's a mysterious disquiet surrounding some of these stories. But also in the pages of Spirit Sisters is a great deal of warmth. Many paranormal encounters bring messages of comfort, no reason to fear.
If there is a world beyond the human one, it offers protection and healing. Fear melts away as the sweet breath of a loving spirit brushes the skin. Angela Wood describes the spirit of her daughter Anna visiting her family after her tragic and high profile teenage death. She recalls Anna's message: "Mummy, I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm really happy. I'm so happy. It's beautiful where I am, beautiful..."
After one year engrossed in all that these women told her was true, Karina tells me she's not the same. She found her informants "credible and intelligent and articulate". Her fascination with the paranormal has grown into belief. "I was neutral when I started, but at end of the process I'd heard too much, too many things seemed impossible."
"How could it be," she writes at the end of her book, "...that some among us can see dead strangers, or loved ones who've been wrenched from our arms, dream of the future, lock eyes with their mirror image or be stalked by invisible horror?"
It's not an easy question. It belongs with the other questions science cannot answer: if, why or how ghosts exist. "For thousands of years ghosts have been reported, discussed, and denied," writes George Hansen.
Kalgoorlie 's Shayne Wallace puts it bluntly and perhaps, best: "The book is like lifting the veil on this subject. We all have our opinions and points of view about whether ghosts exist, but hey, there are all these women across Australia who have encountered them."
With a level head, caring heart and no agenda but to listen and report, Karina Machado has brought the spirit realm into the light of day, and in doing so has tried to resolve a problem for our culture - that whether we dismiss or accept the spirit world, ordinary people will continue to experience extraordinary things, and ghost stories do persist.References:
. Hansen, George. "Ghosts and Liminality: A Brief Introduction" from The Tricker and the Paranormal. Philadelphia : Xlibris Corporation, 2001. Accessed May 2009 at http://www.tricksterbook.com/ArticlesOnline/GhostsAndLiminality.html
2 Australian Institute of Parapsychological Research. AIPR Information Sheet: Psychic and Mystical Experiences of the Aborigines. Accessed May 2009 at http://www.aiprinc.org/aborig.asp