A general belief in ghosts – or at least an open mind on the subject of the afterlife -- seems to be on the upswing. Television shows on the subject are guaranteed to attract viewers. Most people I know either swear they’ve seen or felt “something” in an old house or building which defies rational explanation, or they are willing to be convinced that the energy of every live person continues to exist in some form after the death of the body.
A friend of mine in cyberspace once asked me for advice (as though I would know) on why a real-life friend of hers who died young seemed to be giving her subtle messages by disturbing objects in her house. My friend was freaked out. She wondered what her friend wanted from her.
It often seems as if the dead (especially those we have known and loved) won’t leave us alone. It seems equally true that we won’t leave them alone. In a traditional ballad, a woman who died a year before begs her grieving lover to move on and stop mourning her, since his tears are wetting the winding sheet her body is wrapped in.
I tried to comfort my email friend by asking her to remember what she knew about her friend when he was alive. I reminded her that if he is still present in her life, he is the same person he was before. My clincher was that my friend probably knew, on a gut level, what her friend would want to tell her after death.
When an editor that I know sent out a call-for-submissions for lesbian ghost stories for an anthology, I asked myself why a ghost (and in this case, she could be completely imaginary) would haunt the living.
The answer came to me: because many people die with unfinished business, unreached goals and unfulfilled desires. Deprived of a living body, they might still want to say or do something they never did in life. The central character of my story, like a ghost materializing from the mist, began to take shape in my mind. I saw her as a dutiful wife and mother who never dared act on her unspoken desires.
Certain people in history appeal to writers because they showed great potential before their lives seemed to be cut off in mid-stream. The playwright Christopher Marlowe is a good example. He was a contemporary of Shakespeare in the late 1500s, and some still say he was a better writer. According to the records, he was killed in a tavern brawl before Shakespeare’s first play was performed in 1600. My old Shakespeare prof claimed that the real Shakespeare was a third-rate actor who died or disappeared before Marlowe’s “death,” which he faked because he was not in favour with Good Queen Bess. The theory – which was circulating in scholarly circles before my old prof grabbed hold of it – is that Marlowe used the identity of the dead or missing Shakespeare to continue writing brilliant plays under his name.
Truth or fiction? One thing is certain. Whether Marlowe desperately wanted to continue writing after his real or apparent death, his fans didn’t want him to stop.
So are the living haunted by the dead, or vice versa? Maybe it works both ways.
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