Happy Friday the 13th! I’m going to tell you a ghost story. This is actually a story not about ghosts but about the weird ideas people have about ghosts. I’m joined in this telling by my pal, Sarah.
Sarah grew up in a small town clinging to the Mississippi River. Her grandmother’s brother ran a combination grain/feed/trucking business inside a large agricultural-industrial building, and Sarah and the other kids in her family were sometimes allowed to play inside. There was a lot of open space in the building and there was an office stocked with toys.
After her family left the business, most of the building was converted into storage, but her grandfather continued working out of one of the offices. After he died (during Sarah’s junior year of high school), his office was sold and redesigned into a salon.
You told me this new salon was popular with teenagers in your town.
This hairstylist was very popular with the girls in my high school. She was young and probably what the residents of a smaller town would consider hip. She was known for giving short haircuts with a lot of layers and colors. She used razors instead of scissors! Her products and prices were written in colored chalk on a blackboard like in the coffee shops I would come to know when I left town to attend college and then graduate school. This was all very different from the other salons and stylists around, who were established in the 70s and 80s in a town where the elderly greatly outnumbered any other age group. I will remind you that my graduating high school class was made of 48 students.
You liked the haircuts this stylist gave you. Was it weird sitting in your grandfather's old office, having this woman snip snip snip at your head?
She did give me two very good haircuts. Or maybe they weren’t that great, but were the best I had until that point in my life.
It’s always strange to see things change, especially the things you have fond memories of from being a child. Since my grandfather’s office was only a few blocks from my home, we would often walk over to say hello and eat the candy he kept for our visits. His death was very hard on my family, so I suppose having the office change was in a way welcomed. It was different now, and didn’t have those ghostly reminders and heartaches hiding behind familiar objects.
So let's get to the ghost.
The first time I decided to get my haircut by this stylist it was a little over a year since my grandfather had passed away. It started innocently enough. We were engaging in the normal conversation. What grade are you in school? What do you want to do after school? And then it happened. “You’re his granddaughter! Did you know he HAUNTS this place!” I could not describe the level of shock I felt.
“Haunts this place?” I asked.
“Yeah! I started to notice that when it’s late and I’m closing up I’ll put something down on the desk and it will DISAPPEAR! I’ll find it later in the back room. And sometimes after I lock up and leave my husband drives by and notices that the LIGHT HAVE TURNED ON! But they are always off again when I get there in the morning to open.”
I can’t really describe to you all the emotions I felt during this conversation. There was an immediate feeling of anger that she had reduced my grandfather to some sort of faceless and strange poltergeist who spent his afterlife taking joy in moving around her curling irons and bottles of hair dye. As if he wouldn’t have anything else better to do! Or that if there is some sort of afterlife, his would be spent wandering the earth, forever doomed to cause problems for this spunky young hairstylist. My grandfather was a very kind and generous man who befriended all he met. And now I was being told that his was how my grandfather was forced to spend the rest of eternity.
Since I am polite and hate all confrontation, I held these feelings in and went along with the conversation. And really, what choice did I have? She was in the middle of cutting my hair. I knew better than to upset a person who was holding a razor. I let it go and listened to her ghost stories. She ended the conversation by telling me that now when she closes up the store she says goodnight to him.
I don’t know if I believe in an afterlife. At that point, I felt a little hope that maybe it was true; if my grandfather was playing practical jokes in this woman’s salon, at least he wasn’t dead. At least he wasn’t gone. Some part of him was still interacting with this world. He did love his job, loved talking to people. Perhaps his spirit found his way back to the office and wanted to shake things up a little now that it wasn’t the same place he remembered it to be. Maybe there is something else after this for me. For all of us. But that wasn’t who my grandfather was. And even though a little bit of me would love to be able to hold on to that hope and believe it, I can’t. At best I could believe that it was some OTHER ghost giving this woman trouble.
Did she seem to have any doubt that you would be thrilled with this news?
I doubt she had any idea that the thought of my grandfather haunting her salon would be upsetting to me. She had to be in her early 20s, and I remember that ghost stories were one of the currencies of cool in my high school. She also didn't really know my grandfather personally, so it must have been easier to see him as a faceless invisible prankster than a real person.
This story highlights a contradiction in how we think about ghosts. We (culturally, in our stories) engage with the sappy undead and the gruesome undead and the horrifying undead, but the vampires and zombies only rarely were ever anything but undead. We rarely see them alive and happy, then dying, then gone; instead, we cut straight to the part where they lurch from the earth. And then, even on a personal, "real-life" level, someone (like your hair stylist) may believe in the ghost as the embodiment of a real, once-alive person, yet believes that this real, once-alive person is now content to rattle around a salon and move bottles of hair dye.
It does seem that we all take on a different meaning to different people after we die. A meaning that we no longer have any control of or participation in. Even the people we knew well become changed in our minds after death, so that we usually remember more of their goodness than their faults. Sometimes they become symbolic to us and take on a meaning they never intended or would have wanted. They become one-dimensional. And for those we didn’t really know, we get to interact with what has been left behind and create our own meaning for it. We can all more easily interpret a traditional ghost from a faceless entity, but it’s much harder to make that leap when we have had a relationship with that person. Ghosts in a sense are divorced from their humanity.
Did your grandfather's (and, more recently, your grandmother's) passing affect how you think about the undead? I'm curious here specifically about your engagement with the undead in stories, or video games, or movies. You're a woman who loves zombies, or did for a while.
I think my grandmother's passing is what made me remember what happened with the hairstylist for the first time in years. It did take me a while to process it, because for a while I didn't really understand what made me feel so violated. It was the first time I was asked to engage with someone I knew and loved in real life as one of the faceless undead we see in stories.
But not all undead in stories are completely faceless. I'm reminded of a scene in Shaun of the Dead which has always stuck with me, in which one of the characters dies while they are all in some sort of getaway car. In one moment he is still their beloved family member who had passed, and in seconds he has transformed into a mindless, flesh eating zombie. I think really good zombie movies and graphic novels are the ones which explore the relationship between real people and the faceless undead.
It's very unsettling because it violates how we view humanity. Are they still human? Are they still the person/spirit/soul we know and love? Or have they become something else? It’s an interesting dynamic.
Do you ever think of your grandfather when you see a movie or read a book populated by ghosts? Does your memory of the conversation with the stylist affect your enjoyment of ghost stories now?
Actually, no. I've never really thought of real people when I see/read zombie/ghost movies/stories. I really haven't thought much about that conversation until we spoke of it earlier this week. I hope it doesn't happen, but it probably will now. THANKS.
I guess I have mostly thought about what I would do if YOU were turned into a zombie. How would i deal with that? Probably throw you to the zombie wolves.
I have three last questions for you:
How would you spend your time if you died and hung around as a ghost?
Interesting question. If there would be a way, perhaps I would like to haunt Xbox Live. Sort of like Master Shake in that Aqua Teen Hunger Force episode with mega-ultra chicken (No! Shhh! He is legend.).
How do you think other people would imagine your ghost spending its time? If someone was convinced you were haunting a house, what kind of behavior would be attributed to you?
I'm sure that every flicker of light, missing object, or loud noise in the night would be blamed on me.
Maybe I should start actively cultivating my ghost personality now so I have some control on how I’m viewed after I die. Mention in casual conversation how I totally plan on doing (insert funny idea here) when I’m a ghost. Just wait and see! And then when that mentioned thing happens, everyone will just automatically assume it’s me.
How do you think I would spend my time as a ghost?
Your specialty would be to cause a very loud noise to happen just as someone took a sip from a cup.