Thursday, April 29, 2010

A true ghost story

First, the kid's version. Then details.


Years ago, I was one of the parents with a bunch of kids at Camp Catoctin, a Quaker Camp
near Camp David. In the dark, surrounded by deep forest, in a solid old stone building,
the counsellors decided it was time for people to tell each other ghost stories. I remember there was one story about a ghost with its head cut off, dripping blood all over, and that sort of thing, and I remember the kids laughing. Then they turned to me: "Paul, it's your turn."
Me:"But I don't have any stories like these... nothing much.... and I don't feel very creative right now."
Them:"Yes, but tell us what you have. It doesn't have to be much."
Me:"OK. It's not much, but it's a true story.
When I was a kid, I really didn't believe in ghosts. I thought they were the silliest thing there ever was -- just a silly crazy idea.
When I was in high school, I went away to school, far away, to New Jersey. One day,
I called home to Philadelphia, to call my mother, to make arrangements to come home for Christmas vacation. On the phone, my mother said:
'And Paul, there's one more thing I have to talk about. I really don't want to talk about it,
because I know you won't believe me, but I really do need to warn you before you come home.
Paul -- it's about Aunt Mary.'
Me: 'Aunt Mary? But Mom, didn't you just have the funeral for her a little while ago?'
Her: 'Yes, yes, but the problem is that she doesn't really want to leave just yet. You remember
how she was a very strict Catholic, and she always kept after me to follow every little rule? Well,
she's still doing it. Every time anyone in the house does anything that violates the strict Catholic rules, she bangs on the walls and makes a racket until they stop. And she keeps turning on televisions and radios to tell us to go to Church all the time.'
Me:'Mom, that is SO silly!'
Her: 'Yes, I knew you would say that, but I just felt you needed to be warned.'
Me:"OK, Mom, you warned me. No need to worry. See you in .....'

Of course I did not take it seriously. No way. And I came home.

One other part of Christmas -- since it was a two-week vacation, I planned to
spend a couple of days with a friend from New York City. He was a kind of wild guy,
certainly not a ghost or Catholic kind of guy. In those days, a long distance call
all the way from Philadelphia to New York was a very big deal, and we thought of it as
expensive. So when I made the call, I first went to the quietest, most isolated
part of the house that had a telephone -- my sister's big room, over the garage,
with a solid lock on the door. I went in there, and locked the door, and checked everywhere,
because I didn't want to risk being interrupted. I made sure the closet was empty,
and that no one else was there. I didn't want to turn off her TV, because I knew that
would be bad for the picture tube, but I turned the volume all the way to zero,
and checked to make sure it was ALL the way to zero. And then I dialed my friend.
After a few rings... suddenly the television went up to maximum volume. All by itself.
So loud I couldn't hear the phone ringing any more. I turned around to look...
it was a commercial saying: 'Go to the church of your choice.. any church... but GO TO
CHURCH this Sunday.' And there was stained glass in the image...

And that's really all there was, kids. Nothing more. No blood. Nothing really bad.

But I can tell you.... when I went to bed in my own room that night, just down the hall,
it was kind of hard for me to get to sleep. I told myself very loudly in my mind:
'I really do not believe in ghosts. This is really silly...
But then, realizing this is the same house just down the hall...
'But please, Aunt Mary, I don't mean that personally...
What I mean is, I'm really not ready for this kind of thing right now...
'I don't believe it, it's impossible, isn't it?...'

I didn't have any idea how to explain it. The volume switch was a mechanical switch,
and only real mechanical force could have moved it. I checked. But I figured
there had to to be SOME explanation. A week or two later, back in school, I put it
away from attention, and returned to my solid conviction that this was impossible.
And that was the end."

I looked around, and I still remember the look of almost terror in the face of one small kid
who had been laughing loudly about dripping blood just a few minutes ago.

One of the kids called out... "OK, let's have ANOTHER ghost story..."
But that small kid said: "Yes, but not a TRUE one.
That's TOO scary...."


This was late 1963, when I was going to Lawrencevillle school,
taking a graduate course in logic from
Alonzo Church and also number theory at Princeton,
after differential geometry the year before
that, and advanced calculus long before.

In spring 1967, it took much stronger evidence to change my mind
about how things work. That's described in the chapter on "why space"
on my web page...

I gave up Catholicism at age 8, and, after some due diligence at age 12, I never felt
any inclination at all to turn back. Reality is not exactly what it seems
at a superficial level, but ... I still think for myself.


  1. Paul, reading this post I had the oddest feeling....which proved to be correct. The phone call you're describing, made from S's locked room, must have been either to RS or LK, your friends at L'e [school], and the visit you were planning was the one during which we met, on December 14, 1963! I had that feeling as I was reading along, and then when I saw the year, 1963, that clinched it. We met when a group of you went to see a performance of Shaw's _Candida_ that night, and then we went back to RS's parents' apartment.

    Talk about ghosts!

    Am not signing my name because I think in order to post this I'll have to use my old blog account.

  2. 一定要保持最佳狀況呦,加油!!!期待你發表的新文章!.............................................

  3. 生存乃是不斷地在內心與靈魂交戰;寫作是坐著審判自己。......................................................................

  4. 失去金錢的人,失去很多;失去朋友的人,失去更多;失去信心的人,失去所有。.................................................................

  5. Hi, Lucy!

    You are absolutely right. The call was to LK,
    which adds depth to the story... more than one
    story can convey...though it does not change this piece of things. LK reminds me of a more recent ghost story in China, much more complicated, but I am not sure how much to post about that one. Or what to make of the comments in Chinese here.