Margaret Corvid on desire, change and culture

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I was a die-hard sceptic, but then I saw a poltergeist

I was too stunned to be scared, but I remember the sense of conviction; surely, it was a poltergeist. Why had a supernatural being decided to show itself to me, a Marxist, who does not believe in ghosts?

 An apparition causes havoc by menacing two people in their kitchen. From the London Stereoscopic Company Comic Series, 1865/Getty Images
An apparition causes havoc by menacing two people in their kitchen. From the London Stereoscopic Company Comic Series, 1865/Getty Images

One dim afternoon, I was doing the washing up, when I heard an insistent ticking noise. I looked to my right, and a just-washed wineglass, set aside to dry, was shaking slightly on the kitchen counter. Unthinkingly, I laid a finger on the base of the upended glass, silencing it.

I continued my washing; my brain finally caught up, and I wondered what the ticking noise had been. Then it started up again. I stared at the glass in horror, worrying that it signalled the return of the massive, brown rat that had occupied my kitchen for weeks, and that he was again chewing away at the wood of my cupboards. But no, only the one glass was shaking.

I was too stunned to be scared, but I remember the sense of conviction; surely, it was a poltergeist. Why, I thought, had a supernatural being decided to show itself to me, a Marxist, who does not believe in ghosts?

The ticking and rattling continued. In my mind’s eye I saw the home page of a YouTube channel with thousands of hits, and an increasing bank balance. I grabbed my phone and started filming. Then the fear came, and feeling like a brave reporter, sacrificing her own well being to capture historic footage, I held the phone out in front of me like the exorcist’s crucifix. I imagined myself on the red couch of The One Show, with perfectly coiffed hair, describing my encounter to a rapt audience, obscured by the blazing lights. Fixed to the floor, I watched the rattling glass through the tiny screen, as if its sense of remove could protect me from being ripped limb from limb by a spirit with inhuman strength.

My fiancé returned home from the store. I felt like Eve showing the apple to Adam. “David,” I said, “there’s a supernatural event!” As he watched from over my shoulder, he explained; I had put the glass down so quickly that a vacuum had formed, and as air seeped in under the nearly perfect seal between wet glass rim and counter, the glass shook and rattled. I stopped recording; he switched on a light, and I saw the tell tale foam on the upturned glass’s rim. My encounter with the supernatural had ended.

I was stunned by my credulity, and by how it had affected my thoughts and choices. Where was my sense of scientific inquiry? In my ego and my belief, I had stayed with the poltergeist, filming, afraid of scaring it away; if I had stopped for a moment to turn on the light, I would have seen the foam.

Humans flock to the supernatural. Psychologists, philosophers and anthropologists have long wondered why. Perhaps neuroscience will give us an answer, when the brain is finally mapped and understood. The world has always been an inexplicable place; even as humans mastered their environment, they wove stories of gods and spirits, imbuing them with human and animal personalities. By connecting the monstrous, unpredictable world with the smaller unknown of another being’s mind, those gods and spirits kept us from going mad with fear. We can pray to a god, or sacrifice for one; a spirit can be appeased. And, in the two months since I saw the poltergeist, I have realised that despite all of my education and understanding, as soon as there is a gap in my knowledge, the ghosts and spirits will enter.

I must admit that, now, I hunger for this experience. I seek out a sense of the numinous, and I find it, richly and wonderfully, in all elements of human experience. Consider the regular, deep gashes on this washed up log, found beached on the banks of the Tamar River. Was it gouged by the claws of an eldritch sea-beast, or gnawed by fat, writhing caterpillars the size of a duckling? I pause and enjoy these moments. Sometimes my curiosity wins, and I must sleuth out the answer, but sometimes I let my imagination run and find the most creative explanation.

Unfortunately, the world is still a horror. In some senses it is even worse than it was at humanity’s birth. We may know what causes an earthquake, but global poverty means that too many die when their buildings crumble into dust. We may understand climate change, but we still pour greenhouse gases into the air, ignoring our treaties and ensuring that floods and tsunamis will drown and beggar entire peoples. The elites who control us give us ghosts to believe in. They tell us to trust the free market to find solutions to our crises. It is a powerful spirit. In speaking of it, we even refer to market forces; to an invisible hand.

When we contemplate Stonehenge or Uluru, we may believe in ghosts, but we must renounce them when we contemplate our future as a species and a world. It is easy to throw together a few observables and come up with an explanation, but, even today, at the pinnacle of human civilisation, for each penetrating analysis there are many more ghosts. They are UKIP’s stock in trade. Immigrants and Europe did not cause recession, austerity and unemployment; selling our legacy to the bankers did that.

I feel smug here, until I remember that I, too, am susceptible. When I take stock of the horror, death and oppression across the world, I grasp for solutions as fervently as a medieval fisherman might have prayed as he watched the wave engulfing his house, from his vantage point on a high hill. Many ghosts hide within my Marxism, like belief in the infallible and mighty Leninist tradition, belief that building the vanguard party is the only way to save humanity and the planet. Unfortunately, those traditions are gone; I can mourn them, but I must never worship them.

My fiancé David, a counsellor, tells me that a belief is mutable and superficial, but a person’s values are deeper. When I chase away my ghosts, I find my values. I still know that justice exists, and that the workers and poor around the world hold the immense power to change the world in their hands. They are kept quiescent, or divided, or betrayed, by ghosts. And it is not my job to sit here and belittle them for their ghosts. It is my duty to do battle with the ghost-makers, who are, unfortunately, all too real.