2007.03.07 Beast in the basement

By JEFF PICKELL

“They say there’s no such thing as ghosts, Jeff,” my father explained. “But ghosts are real.”

I was about seven years old and we had just finished watching “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which is a rather innocuous, if not thoroughly boring, movie for adult Jeff. But that weird bubble baby thing at the end of it creeped seven-year-old Jeff right out of the house.

“Is he a ghost now?” I asked of the astronaut dressed in red.

“No, he’s fine. The astronaut was transported home, safe and sound, and that weird baby thing was completely unrelated,” would have been the appropriate response from my father.

Instead, he undertook a windy diatribe, which I scarcely understood, about how scientists scoff at the paranormal, but there’s good evidence that ghosts exist. He said the bubble thing was the soul of a new child traveling to Earth and explained at length the myriad evidence for the existence of the soul.

I trembled long into the night, convinced the dim ochre and magenta waves fluttering behind my closed eyes were the souls of babies on their way to their mothers’ tummies.

Nowadays, I’m not so inclined to believe that ghosts are real, but that doesn’t mean I’m impervious to the occasional creep out. As a matter of principle, I don’t dare step into a graveyard at night, I try to avoid dark forests, and the basement of the Observer office is strictly off-limits after sunset—I defy you to find a creepier place than that dank old basement.

I know these frightened impulses are foolish. Zombies aren’t going to come clawing their way out of burial plots, the most dangerous thing in the woods is probably a sick coyote, and the beast in the basement is easily bribed. Still, what is it about spooky things that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up?

The one time I could’ve actually encountered a real-life ghost wasn’t spooky at all. My family was spending a weekend at Oxbow, an ancient hunting and fishing club my dad has a stake in. The main clubhouse is a creaking two-story cabin filled with photos of legendary dead fishermen holding the legendary dead fish they had caught. Sometimes the men are pictured smiling, but often their expressions suggest their bounty would still be alive if it weren’t such a smart aleck.

All the men sleep in a room full of bunks on the clubhouse’s second floor, and on the night in question, I was the last to bed. I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth and forgot to close the door, but it wasn’t a big deal because we were the only family there that weekend and my dad and brothers were already snoring, shielded from the bathroom light by a row of lockers.

However, mid-brush, the light mysteriously went out. The light bulb died, right? Wrong. Someone—or some...thing—had physically moved the switch to the off position. I had no idea how it could’ve happened. My brothers—swift and nimble though theys may be—are not built for stealth. My dad’s joints rattle more than a rusty truck.

I messed around with the switch for a good 20 minutes, but still couldn’t recreate a situation in which it could go from “on” to “off” all on its own. It sounds nuts, but the only explanation for the light going out that I can imagine is the ghost of some grumpy fisherman got ticked off that I didn’t close the door, climbed out of bed, stomped over to the bathroom, and angrily slapped the switch down.

“Dumb kid,” I picture him muttering.

I know, it’s not your typical ghost story—“real life” ghost yarns usually involve strange noises or flickering apparitions and they’re spooky all around. I was more befuddled than spooked.

Lying in bed, it dawned on me. Ghosts don’t have to be spooky. There’s no reason why a ghost can’t carry on a sensible existence—rising in the morning, moping around whichever edifice or area they’ve decided to inhabit, and going to bed at a decent hour.

And is it too much to ask to close the bathroom door when you go in there to brush your teeth?

If I’m ever a ghost, that’s the kind I’d be. I like company, so I wouldn’t mind sharing my living (deading?) space with the living and I’m too lazy to be mean-spirited.

I can’t say the same for the beast in the basement. Anything that decides to haunt a place like that must have been a sourpuss when it was alive.

      – March 7, 2007
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