I have always been afraid of ghosts. Most of my childhood anxieties waned and were replaced with those of the real world – public speaking, money, love, loneliness. Yet that fear of ghosts remained and thrived.
Upon contemplation I’ve realised that my fear isn’t of ghosts at all. They are merely a symptom of a far deeper and primal angst; one humanity has shared since the moment we became introspective creatures. It is fear of the ‘Unknown’. Ghosts are a reflection of our own mortality, and with this comes the most haunting of all questions: what happens when we die? Here is an ‘Unknown’ that scientific advancement consistently fails to answer. It perplexes and humbles us. What’s the use of all these moments, the triumphs and tribulations of life’s journey, if we just die, forgotten and faded into the ether?
Religion has long sought to comfort us. But two in three Australians now think religion does more harm than good. The amount of us identifying as ‘no religion’ has increased to 30% – up by 8% since 2011. With society’s faith at an all-time low, how is it that we are not driven mad by the hollowness that atheism ultimately offers?
A few months back I began asking my friends about their belief in the afterlife. Many called me morbid, but the few who responded became uncharacteristically philosophical. I would think: here is a vulnerable soul – one that craves answers just as I do. Then one of my best friends invited me to watch a medium demonstration.
The prospect was unnerving. I’d never had the slightest urge to witness a séance. My mind whirred with images of crones gathered by candlelight, ‘table tipping’, and charlatans performing magic tricks for cheap television. I didn’t like to believe in any of it. But my friend was encouraging. Real mediums, she explained, act as a link between the spirit world and ‘the physical’. I decided to investigate with an open mind. Perhaps this medium would prove my fear unwarranted.
They call it ‘Evidential Mediumship’: attempting to deliver messages from a specific person’s loved one with undeniable integrity and detail. The event was hosted in a small community centre – our room could only seat about thirty. I felt conscious of being the youngest person there. My friend said simply, “Most people put it out of their mind, that they’re going to die. Especially when you’re young.”
The medium we saw was Chris Drew, who travels the world provide solace for the grieving through his ability. His movements were animated, restless – even comical. There was nothing sinister about this man, nothing to verify the clichés I held. But I was still nervous. After all, I was potentially about to witness a miracle.
The first spirit was apparently connected to someone in the back row. “It’s my sister,” a man said curtly. I marvelled at the solemn poise in his voice, imagining how I would react if Chris was describing my dead relative. I grew shaken by Chris’ sensitive depiction of this unnamed woman. As the night progressed I began to wonder why Spiritualism was not yet as popular as Christianity or Islam. Wasn’t this proof enough of life after death? No, there was still something wrong. He wasn’t always accurate. Often Chris made statements that audience members could not verify or disagreed with. When this happened Chris dismissed it, reverting back to more generic details like “half the town came to his funeral,” or “she had a wonderful personality.” This method encouraged my suspicion. It would be easy, I supposed, for someone to get so caught up in the ecstasy of communicating with a loved one that they would be prepared to overlook the finer details.
Then again, surely it must be difficult to interpret whatever messages the spirits give him. Maybe he only got shattered fragments of the spirit’s physical life and had to piece these together – and that would leave some margin for error. Since I’ve never experienced anything like it, who am I to claim he must be faking it? We know that bees see colours no human can even imagine. We know that there are people who hear in colour, and children who possess extraordinary memory. Here, maybe, was a man who could sense another realm of existence.
Chris’ passion for connecting spirits with the audience created an atmosphere that was entirely magnetic. When he was on the right track with a reading he would start jumping up and down like an excited kid, joking around. “Your grandma”, he said, “she had chickens in her backyard, and she’d send them to heaven, wouldn’t she?” He’d recount idiosyncrasies in such a way that the entire room felt fondly the spirit’s presence.
“She had lovely skin,” he said of a woman’s dead mother. “That’s what I’m getting – people would always compliment her appearance as she grew older, she looked young for her age…”
“That’s right,” the woman said.
“I’m getting that because I can see… just touching her skin like this, in a mirror – she had this beautiful skin.”
There was a tiny tremor in the woman’s voice as she said, “yes, yes, I know why you’re seeing that…”
Chris’ emphasis on this intimate detail clearly meant a lot more to her than she was letting on.
After two hours the demonstration was over. Chris asked if anyone had questions. One thing bothered me above all the unexplained phenomena I’d witnessed.
“Why is it that you don’t get their names?” I sounded a little challenging, and immediately regretted speaking up.
“I do get names,” he said, “I just didn’t tonight.”
Chris told me that when he first developing his ability he’d asked his mentor my very same question.
“If you’re trying to connect with someone in the afterlife, they’re wanting to send you a lot of important messages, all at once. Their name isn’t one of them. They focus on their relationship with you.”
I nodded soberly, but it was not the answer I needed. Cynicism gnawed at my heart despite my best attempt to regard his miracles with unbiased eyes. I would never get the solid proof I wanted.
Regardless of my uncertainty, it was liberating to have taken a risk and dared to participate in something people might find too uncomfortable and confronting. I walked out feeling at ease, uplifted and glad to have seen these strangers in the audience granted some relief and closure. Chris had assured them their loved ones had not simply disappeared – that life is eternal. Seeking this assurance, whether through religion or a spiritual alternative, is the best thing we have to distract us from the Unknown.
As for me, I’m still afraid of ghosts.