The ghosts found me young.
The first came, when I was no more than six, from the hallway in my parents’ friends’ home. The cowboy stood tall and blue in the doorway of the bedroom where I lay in a sleeping bag on the floor. He stared at me. I pulled the sleeping bag over my head and shuddered. When I was brave enough to chance another look, the ghost was gone.
The next arrived, when I was no more than eight, from the closet in Grandma Etchemendy’s bedroom, in the tiny ochre-painted home in southeast Portland, Oregon where she lived. They were wispy white figures that flew around the room at phenomenal speed. They weaved in and out of the folds of thick curtains that kept the room in complete darkness during the day. I screamed and my mom and my Grandma Etchemendy came to rescue me immediately. But they told me there was no such thing as ghosts and I must have been dreaming.
I don’t know if my great-grandma believed in ghosts. She was a lapsed Catholic, she read books and attended conferences about the metaphysical, and I remember she was reading Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard. Until her devastating stroke, she was sharp-witted and curious about a great many things. She embraced her interests with passion, but what she really believed she did not live long enough for me to be old enough to want to ask her. How I wish I could ask her now.
There were other paranormal experiences.
Out with another grandmother—Grandma Hinkley—I saw an unidentified flying object. We were coming out of a diner where I’m certain I ate french fries and drank a milk shake, and several people in the parking lot looked up and pointed at the sky. What I remember is a slow-moving object with blinking lights around its equator. The UFO drifted overhead and across the town until it was too far away to see.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that she was Grandma Etchemendy’s daughter, but when I asked Grandma Hinkley about the incident years later, she did not recall it. She found my memory amusing. She guessed that I must have seen a blimp. I’ve seen many blimps. What I saw that night wasn’t a blimp. The UFO must have come from the stars.
Mars has ghosts, too.
The “Face on Mars” was the most extraordinary image I had ever seen. I was no more than thirteen. It’s there in an image taken of the Martian surface by the Viking 1 orbiter on July 25, 1976: a kilometer-wide humanoid face in a helmet, carved out of the very ground. The Face is situated in a region of Mars named Cydonia Planitia, where there are other mysterious and huge stony objects that look a lot like the ruins of an ancient city in Viking orbiter images. I kept a newspaper clipping of the Face in my scrapbook devoted to horses and planets.
The Face was one to launch a thousand conspiracy theories, most notably those touted by the writer Richard C. Hoagland. He has spent the past several decades promoting his ideas in books, on mail-order VHS tapes, and on websites, and he has been a frequent guest commentator in documentaries and radio shows devoted to the paranormal. He regularly criticizes NASA for their cover-up of evidence for alien civilizations elsewhere in our solar system and for their lack of follow-up on interesting features he and others frequently spot in images of the surface of Mars and other celestial bodies.
Hoagland was my hero. Hoagland touted his good fight on TV and radio and I cheered him on while jeering at his critics, most notably that rascal Carl Sagan. Oh, sure, Sagan seemed calm and rational when I watched or read him say that extraordinary claims required extraordinary evidence, but I knew he was one of the conspirators, tasked with keeping the public ignorant. What with his constant media presence and popular science-themed series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage on PBS, Sagan did not seem to me a real scientist. He was, I thought, a glorified actor. The magnitude of the conspiracy against Hoagland and his intrepid kind was, to me, not that frightening but it was incredibly frustrating. Why, I whined to myself with perpetual impatience as I studied the image, hadn’t NASA immediately built and launched a new spacecraft with a better camera? This was during the long dry spell between 1980 and 1997 when NASA had no assets on or orbiting Mars to take new images. I wanted to know the truth about aliens. People had a right to know.
Scientists like Sagan scoffed at the paranormal and most of the public ridiculed it, but it was my favorite subject. I felt for the paranormal one part terror, two parts wonder, and three parts escape. Through most of my childhood, I was a scared and lonely little boy terrified by an abusive father. The paranormal gives people like me a glimpse at powers that connect us to something bigger than ourselves, something bigger than abusive parents and other bullies, something bigger than our constant fear and pain and loneliness. I wanted the paranormal to be real. If I survive my childhood, I told myself frequently, then there will be a great and grand adventure in store for me when I reach adulthood. I would be able to tell my dad and the bullies at school look how important I am now, and how insignificant you are. Look at what I’m a part of and you are not. The paranormal chose me!
In libraries I gravitated toward the nonfiction books about ghosts, UFOs, astral projection, ESP, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster. I read at least as many books about the paranormal as I did science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels. At night I practiced: I tried to feel for the universal energies, the psychic links, the astrological signs that would let me know I was special and powerful and better than my tormentors. I wouldn’t have to wait until adulthood if I could manifest my latent psychic powers and prevent my dad from beating me up. Maybe aliens would abduct me and I would be done with the Earth and its real monsters forever. I just had to wait a little longer and keep practicing. Something big was going to happen to me.
The ghosts found me even while I excelled in science and mathematics in school. Science and the paranormal were the same to me. I earned straight A’s quarter after quarter, school year after school year, all through high school, until I received a single B grade in one class my senior year. My grade point average was enough, though, to get me a full paid scholarship to attend the University of Rochester in upstate New York. There I would study physics and astronomy. There I would learn what I needed to become a scientist, work in planetary science, and investigate the paranormal. At the University of Rochester I would be an adult and free from abuse.
My dad was not going to let me go.
This is how you create a ghost: you traumatize the living person and then to death. He is so upset and afraid and enraged that he becomes trapped between existences. Instead of moving on to the next world, he remains behind to haunt the setting of his trauma.
When I graduated from high school, my dad informed me I could only go to college if I worked full-time that summer and saved all my money. He ordered me to convince him by the end of those three months that I was ready to take on the responsibilities of college and adulthood. I had to want to go and he had to see my dedication.
What I did, though, was enjoy myself that summer. During the day I worked at McDonalds and had a great time with my coworkers, many of them my age or a year or two older. My boss, the franchise owner, was proud of me. When I graduated from high school, he had awarded me the Ray Kroc award and a small scholarship. Evenings after work, I hung out at my friend Jessica’s house, just up the street, with her and Becky and Scott, my best friends from high school. We watched movies, played games, ate fast food and junk food, and talked about the future.
I stayed away from home as much as possible. My dad had stopped hitting me, maybe because I was eighteen, maybe because I wasn’t around as often, maybe for other reasons I will never understand. He didn’t stop having angry outbursts when I was around, though. My younger brother, Paul, the one dad tortured the most, had run away again, so when I was at home my dad focused his rage on me. Some days he told me to get out of the house and stay gone until dark. Other days he screamed at me for never being home. Coming home late from Jessica’s house one night, he wouldn’t let me in. He threatened to call the police. He had never set a curfew before, but that night I had broken it. He eventually let me in and for an hour more he yelled at me. He had no idea, I think, if he wanted me there or wanted me gone. He didn’t want me gone. He wanted me to stay forever. He didn’t want any of his children to leave him. We thought he hated us. He beat us, screamed at us, made up new rules on the spot, berated our interests, raised us with vile bigotry and hatred, and that’s the only way he knew how to love us.
I was not going to miss him. I kept out of his way as much as possible and spent most of the money I earned at McDonalds that he didn’t steal from me on having fun with my friends. I was going to miss them.
Then he told me I couldn’t go. “I guess you really didn’t want to go after all,” he said. He said I did not deserve to go: no money saved, wasted months with my friends, and who did I think I was to tell him that it was my decision! He had other reasons why I couldn’t leave for college. He scoffed at my interests in astronomy and planetary science. Space missions were just an excuse for NASA to find other places to turn into garbage dumps. I should have been outside every night with a telescope instead of spending time with my friends. He had made his final decision and I was not allowed to leave.
My mom purchased my Greyhound bus ticket. When it was time to leave, she waited to drive me to the station. My dad stopped me in the kitchen while she waited quietly in the doorway. He disowned me. He said I was going without his permission and without his blessing. But my mom and I made it out of the house and we made it to the station. She told me on the way there that dad was going to miss me and the only way he could deal with such strong emotions was through anger and violence and dramatic ultimatums. This is the mom I got for having a dad who routinely beat me up: a mom who loved her children very much, who didn’t want to see her children beaten, who didn’t know what to do about it, and who helped her children to escape when it was time for each of them to leave. I made it onto the bus. I watched my mom cry uncontrollably through the window and I cried uncontrollably. I waved. I watched her shrink and vanish.
The bus travelled three long days from Portland, Oregon to Rochester, New York, stopping at one station after another all along the way. The trip was long enough for me to get sick from the fumes coming from the chemicals in the bathroom in the back of the bus. It was long enough for me to regain my excitement. Long enough to sense my freedom. I was afraid, but it wasn’t the fear of a fist or belt or shouting. This was fear of the unknown. At the end of summer 1991, I arrived in Rochester, about as far away from home as I could realistically get at the time. I had made it to the university where I would become a scientist and figure out the secrets of the universe and the paranormal. I thought it was going to be amazing.
This is how you create a ghost: you isolate him, you let him isolate himself. He is so terrified of other people and new experiences that he becomes trapped in one place, forever. He builds a shell around himself and dies within it. Instead of moving on to the next world, he remains behind, alone, encased, haunted, haunting.
College, it turned out, was not what I had imagined. I didn’t make any friends; I was too scared of people and too self-conscious. My roommate in the dorm, George, was a nice guy, but everyone else on the floor thought I was strange. By the second semester, they were calling me “The Ax Murderer” because I was so quiet and kept to myself. Meanwhile, I struggled in my classes. College wasn’t like high school at all. I had no idea how to study. I had no focus. I couldn’t see the chalkboard or projector screen very well from where I sat in the back row by myself, with no idea my eyesight was fading. I couldn’t understand (but really I didn’t try very hard) the English-as-a-second-language of the graduate student who taught calculus. In high school, I had skipped over much of what turned out to be the prerequisites for calculus, and for the first time in my life math was a complete and utter mystery to me. With near-complete freedom from strict parents, I didn’t study very much, I ate Sprees and Pringles by the pounds, I depleted in one semester all the money for food that was supposed to last until the end of the school year, and I stayed up too late, lying in bed every night until the early morning listening to Coast to Coast AM.
Coast to Coast AM is a radio show broadcast across the United States and Canada. It’s about the paranormal. I discovered the show on a local AM station on my transistor radio soon after I arrived at the University of Rochester. The topic changes night to night. Sometimes episodes are devoted to UFOs, with guests who claim to have obtained physical evidence from UFO crash sites, uncovered relevant government documents, or snapped the best photograph yet taken of a UFO. Other nights are devoted to monsters, predictions, conspiracies, etc. Every night guests talk about their experiences and the forces aligned against them and the truth.
Coast to Coast AM was another way for me to try to escape my problems instead of confronting them. The paranormal was all I could think about. Outside my lonely, failed college existence, there were incredible paranormal forces at work. During the day I haunted my dorm room and at night Coast to Coast AM haunted me.
My transcript from the University of Rochester tells a lie. I earned credit for seven classes my freshman year, but none of them are listed with a grade. This was a perk of being a freshman at that university at the time: a chance to learn how to be a college student without having the details recorded permanently. The transcript is missing the poor grades I earned and the classes I dropped or flunked that school year. The transcript tells the truth, however, about what came next: semesters with no credits earned, failing grades, classes repeated, classes selected seemingly at random, being kicked out of school and being let back in, and struggling all over again. I did best in English and creative writing classes, worse in everything else, especially physics and mathematics. By the time I left Rochester for good in the spring of 1996, I had made little progress toward any undergraduate degree.
I moved back in with my parents. My dad’s emotional abuse began again just a couple weeks later. After two months of hell, I moved out and into an apartment and that’s when I discovered transhumanism.
But there’s more to the ghost story. While researching this essay, I discovered an anomaly in my memory. It begins with the Shadow People.
I heard about the Shadow People for the first time on Coast to Coast AM. These beings, according to the guest that night, look like shadows and live in shadows, which are the gateways between dimensions. The Shadow People are unpleasant and dangerous.
What I wanted to write about in this essay is how I came to reject the paranormal. How I came to realize that the ghosts and UFO I thought I had seen had never been real. How in the spring 1992 semester of my freshman year, after listening to hundreds of hours of Coast to Coast AM, it finally dawned on me while I listened to a woman talk about the Shadow People that everything I had heard on the show was bullshit. I remember it like it was yesterday: lying on my dorm room bed, frustrated at the lack of evidence, and that silver moment of early morning insight: the show was about claims, not evidence. I wanted evidence, and all I heard night after night were claims. What these guests of the show had were their stories and their belief in conspiracies, but, I thought that night in surprise, they were shirking their responsibility: instead of working against the conspiracy, collecting evidence, running experiments, building up their case, and having their rigorous and peer-reviewed research published in reputable science journals, they were seeking 15 minutes of fame on the radio. It didn’t matter if they believed what they said or if they were outright lying. It didn’t matter if they had mental issues or were as sane as the paranormal allows anyone to be. They were simply not doing their job. Conspiracy or not, it was up to them to overcome such obstacles. All they had to show for it instead were Coast to Coast AM appearances and endless claims. Coast to Coast AM: the radio show for claims, not evidence. I had had enough of the show and its guests, and I had had enough of the paranormal. I quit cold turkey. I had found the ghosts: the fraud of them, the way they haunt, how they waste time and lead to incorrect and harmful ways of thinking. I had wasted my own time. I was a college idiot, unprepared for the rigors of higher education.
Even after confronting my delusions, I continued to stumble and when I failed out of the University of Rochester the first time, so began the pattern that would repeat for twenty more years: a successful return to school for a semester or two, followed by a desperate year or two of skipping and flunking classes before being kicked out again, followed by a year of remorse and rebuilding and eagerness to try again. I came to haunt various halls of higher learning from one side of the country to the other, and though I learned a lot and earned a ridiculous number of credits, it was a desperate kind of learning, a lazy kind, a kind that wanted for academic skills I should have honed in high school instead of seeking out the paranormal.
That was going to be the sad ending to this essay: how having had enough of the paranormal, it wasn’t enough and I didn’t do any better in school. I would move on in later essays to how I eventually put that chapter of my life behind me and only decades later finally managed to finish an undergraduate degree.
But I wanted to get my facts straight in this essay. I didn’t want to just write down what I think I remember; I also wanted to find corroborating evidence that what I remember is factually true. So I looked up the Shadow People. I remember the night I abandoned pseudoscience forever in 1992, but who was the guest that night? Wikipedia lists her as Harley “SwiftDeer” Reagan, and, oh, RIGHT, I remember her! I remember how her story was just one story too many for me.
The thing is, Wikipedia lists the date of her first appearance on Coast to Coast AM as April 12, 2001. Either Wikipedia is wrong, or my memories are faulty. And in trying to tell the rest of this story about finding ghosts, I find myself back in 2001, remembering the night that I had truly had enough of the paranormal. This is a much stronger memory, a much better one, and one that I find documented in my own journal entries from 2001.
And so the ghosts have found me again. This is how you create a ghost: you make him remember. He remembers falsely. He’s so certain of his memory that he constructs a narrative that traps him in this one story, forever. He dies by narrative. Instead of moving on to the next world, he is stuck forever between pages.
With memory so faulty, what evidence do I have of my own brushes with the paranormal? Did I really witness a cowboy ghost, or did an adult come in the dark to check on me? Did I really see ghosts in Grandma Etchemendy’s bedroom, or was I a little boy with an overactive imagination, a headache, and bad dreams that woke me up screaming? Did I really see a UFO or was it a blimp, reasonable and likely, of terrestrial and explainable origin? I have nothing but anecdotes. The Face on Mars? I know now how tricks of shadow and light can, like the Man in the Moon or Jesus on toast or in a tree knot, suggest things to our brains that aren’t really there. By now there have been several new images taken of the Face on Mars by more recent orbiters with much better cameras than those on board the Viking vessels, including this image taken in 2007 by the HiRISE Camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter:
With memory so faulty, I find in writing this essay two pasts, the one I thought was real, and the real one, the one evidence I have at my fingertips tells me is the truth. The first faulty one might have a kernel of truth to it, though. That would result in a slightly different story to tell: How at the end of the fall 1991 semester or sometime in the spring 1992 semester of my freshman year, after listening to hundreds of hours of Coast to Coast AM, it finally dawned on me that everything I had heard was bullshit. I remember it vaguely: lying in my dorm room bed, frustrated at the lack of evidence, and an early morning insight: the show was about claims, not evidence. I wanted evidence, and all I heard night after night were claims.
But in 1991 or 1992 it couldn’t have been the Shadow People that finally got to me. There was another guest that night and they were making claims about some other paranormal phenomenon, claims I have now forgotten. The truth is, I didn’t stop listening to Coast to Coast AM that night like I thought I remembered. No, I kept listening on and off for a decade more, leading up to another night in 2001 when I was 28 and had the most profound religious experience of my life.