By Jennifer Benningfield
“Ideal weather” is a myth. So the absence of wind that night represented nothing more than a kindness to the sensitive skin of my face.
Sometimes I feel an intense gratitude that I lack friends who can reach me in the proverbial “hop/skip/jump.”
“So what’cha been up to lately, Ally?”
“Well, I watched a marathon of some ghost hunter show on TV, and while I’m pretty sure those guys are con men at worst and gullible morons at best, some of the stuff they do is pretty interesting. Like, trying to communicate with spirits? Anybody can try that. So I’m gonna try it, this Sunday Sunday Sunday. And if I dig it, I just might do it again.”
I can imagine the reactions–glances askew, snickers barely stifled. Understandable. At first, even I was aghast at my own ghoulish interest. The day after I decided to dare, I attempted to find sufficiently dissuasive reasons NOT to, worried that I would be disrupting a peace beyond my comprehension. But I stuck to my pop guns: I’m gonna go record EVPs in a graveyard near my apartment. An undertaking that while frightening on the face (to some) strikes me as banal. What’s so special about being intrigued by spiritual plurality, of wondering about worlds beyond ours without discernible beginning or end?
My curiosity has always bested my trepidation. (As my brother’s since-age-eight till-age-whenever limp can attest.) I’ve been through thirty-two years of knowing that I know nothing much. People who say, with total certainty, that ghosts do or do not exist tickle me. How do they know? All we have are hunches, vibes, anecdotes, and severely limited study data. For every yes comes a no, for every no arrives a maybe, and let’s be real, you can’t even put twenty people in a room, show them a turtle, and get them all to agree on what color it is.
Standing at the corner of 3rd and 4th Streets, St. John’s Cemetery takes five minutes to reach, on foot. Coming from my apartment on 5th, I entered via the north gate. (The 3rd Street entrance is the main one, an attractive brick arch surrounding an iron gate.) Thursday 10 PM is never a hopping time around these parts, which was not only helpful for eliminating ambient noise, but kept me from feeling self-conscious about my gray sweatpants/sweater ensemble.
Among the dead stashed within St. Johns are a handful of Revolutionary War soldiers, fifty Civil War vets, and dozens of men who fought in a World War. I agonized over the strained, haunted words I might pick up, the answers I didn’t want. It bothered me–still does–to consider that physical death does not guarantee the serenity unattainable in corporeal form.
I glanced over the gravestones, wondering: Are they occupying a placid paradise, a wretched inferno, or something else entirely?
Some women knit. Some women hike. Some sell antiques, baked goods, advice, their bodies–anything to endure the crisis DU JOUR. I have no go-to release, not since a sobering doctor’s visit marked the beginning of the end of my passionate affair with fatty foods. I suppose I could have taken up smoking, or scrapbooking, but those activities involve me spending more money per week than I need to (not to mention leaving the house more than I want to). Whatever distractions I call upon, whatever decompression chamber I enter, I demand one-time payment and a one-person limit.
Controversy only adds to the appeal.
The more I looked into recording Electronic Voice Phenomenon, the more I couldn’t resist taking a shot at it. Online are dozens of sites devoted to the pursuit, with “proof” in abundance. For craps and chuckles, I listened to some EVP files uploaded onto the Internet.
EVPs fall into one of three categories. Class “A” recordings are the goal, the Grail–immaculate quality, words loud and clear. “B” recordings are much more common, apparently–audible, but in need of enhancement via computer software. Lastly are the Class “C” recordings, of such poor quality they’d be accurately deemed “steaming gobbledygook.”
No one who appeared to be a serious “hunter” boasted about capturing a “Class A,” I noted. Some of the “B”‘s were intriguing, but far from definitive proof of life after death. The “C”‘s were the worst things I’ve heard outside of spoken Turkish.
These websites have forums, of course, where believers and skeptics alike clash over the very idea that the dead can speak. One poster’s passionate, paragraph-free retelling of a fruitful trip to an abandoned school (numerous Class B’s featuring children’s voices!) will be meticulously rebutted by someone drunk on 200 proof Logic, someone whose post will begin with some variation of–“Well, my Caspar-loving friend, there are all sorts of gadgets taking up valuable air waves, see….” He (I know, damn my assumptions) will then proceed to explain how static, rather than providing an energy that can be harnessed and utilized by otherworldly types for communication purposes, actually fools the listener into thinking they are hearing speech.
The frequent rottenness of the faceless aside, doubters serve a grand purpose. Indeed, most of the so-called “evidence” for paranormal occurrences is easily explainable as entirely earthly. But, we must all remember–once people stop asking questions, they stop finding answers.
One poster on a forum asked: “Do magnetic fields mess with the brain and create the illusion of apparitions or do apparitions cause the fluctuations in the fields?”
A fair question, one that cannot be answered to the satisfaction of a critical thinker–that’s all I needed.
I went into this expecting nothing. So if “nothing” was what I wound up with–no skin lost. Still, in the interest of a good foot forward, I ordered the Spirit Box SB-11-8130 digital voice recorder after research convinced me it would be a nice device for an incipient hunter of residual energy.
The Box was the only thing I took other than myself that night, clutching it in my right hand as though it received energy from the firmness of my grip. I traversed the narrow concrete paths for a few minutes. The lack of wind kept the trees still; the grass struck me, alternately, as black or dark green or dark blue.
Every dozen feet or so, I tugged at the hem of my sweater, hating how it tried to chum up with the flesh of my stomach. (My fault for inhaling a cherry fruit pie and glass of whole milk before heading out.)
The dim moon rendered the floral arrangements colorless. I had to bend and squint to discern the names carved into stones. Although, really, the letters meant less to me than the numbers.
Some depressed me (1865-1868, 1940-1987) but not as profoundly as the fact that human beings are not even equal in death. For every grave without a single flower is one with three baskets overflowing. For every stone lain flat along the earth is one shooting skyward, shiny and ornate, wider and taller, proving how loved the deceased were, how fortunate, how valuable, and how tragic their passing away was, so much more tragic than, say, Johnny Flat-Stone over there.
A part of me–a considerable part, that part which still pulls at imaginary pigtails while ruminating over the reasons the 1980s represented the apex of American culture–hears the word GHOST and refers to the iconography of Halloween, those sheet-draped essences floating in the air, arms held out at the sides–kinda cute, kinda hair-raising, kinda not what a ghost really is, if a ghost really is. I suspect the dead continue on in a perpetual fog along staggered paths, no concept of time and no time for concepts. Once dead, we are nothing but what we were, and what we will be is no longer a concern, as it is no longer a possibility.
I’d turned right, towards the 3rd Street entrance, when some limbo dweller shot a foot out, pitching me towards the pavement. Luckily I caught myself with both hands, saving my knees and/or head from even minor damage. A lesser broad would have tucked fuzz and Flo Jo’ed the scene. Being a greater broad, I took a few seconds to recuperate and proceeded towards the center of the graveyard.
I was twenty feet from the main office building, mind occupied with thoughts as to what their carpet situation was like, when the next stupid scare happened. My cheek felt as if it had been struck by expectorate. I reacted in a normal manner, yelping and reaching out to grab some air.
T’was a raindrop. Just a raindrop.
I rubbed all four of my cheeks and peered at the peaks of the evergreens that looked so gorgeous in their daywear. A willow beckoned me from fifty feet away. It provided shade for a dozen or so final resting places, and I decided to make that my “spot.”
No sooner had my back hit bark, then the desire to acclimate myself to my immediate surroundings brought me onto all fours. I made my gradual way to the grave directly ahead of me.
It didn’t jut up from the ground; it was one of the humbler markers, belonging to a Driver 8 who took his final break the day before my big 3-0. I did not know him, he did not know me, but the thought that this evening’s experiment might change that somewhat imbued me with an embarrassing warmth. Anticipating a sinkhole’s emergence, I scuttled backwards to the base of the tree.
Reverie helped steel my reserve. I envisioned myself marooned on an island, just me, a tree and a jacked-up walkie-talkie. My jaw tightened from the yearning to hear the songs crooned by those trapped and timeless troubadours. The muscles in my forearms went momentarily rigid; I was overcome, briefly yet acutely, with the admixture of hubris, elation and dread that could only be felt by the last living person on the planet.
Success depended upon presence. Negativity and aggression are to be avoided. Respect is vital. As there exist mean, untrustworthy people on the planet, there are bound to be specters of unpleasant demeanor, who might view me as a breather, a beater, with a sense of entitlement I’m too dense to appreciate, who might consider my visit as a sort of home invasion. (I would have been greatly tickled to pick up a “screw you, bitch.”)
A warm greeting, an icy threat, secrets tips and tricks, the location of the treasure–I had no clue what I would capture. I wet my lips, adjusted the hem of my sweater, and switched on the Box.
I asked each query calmly, leaving seven seconds of silence in between each, since it’s my favorite number.
“Hello. Hi. My name is Ally. Short for Allysa. Two L’s. First time here, in case you were wondering. But enough about me. Who are you?”
“Was anyone here an only child?”
“Does it bother you that people step all over your final resting place?”
“Does it bother you that many people doubt your existence?”
“Is it better, where you are?”
“Does anyone here in the air tonight know the Muffin Man?”
“If Allan is here…do you have anything you’d like to say?”
“Okay, that’s all. Time to bid you fine folks adieu. Thank you for listening. And, hopefully, for talking.”
This life–this upright, uptight life–isn’t so terrible. A world of spleen in the soup and gremlins on the wing seems appealing when ennui hurls a high ‘n’ tight one, but enough baleful glances from resentful sideliners has given me a profound appreciation of the old routine, moving from one chalky outline to the next, tapping and rapping with the other names and numbers.
It was 11 when I arrived back at the apartment, the next pitch still a half hour away. (Had it been midnight, I still would have resisted the temptation of a thin thing under me and a thick thing over me.) I downloaded the recording onto my Mac. I knew nothing other than I would give it a fair listen. (I fancied myself impervious to the temptation of auditory pareidolia. I have no agenda, after all.)
I’d grabbed some free audio analysis software from a site that took pride in assisting “ghost hunters on a budget.” (How many multi-millionaires/billionaires unwind with trips to haunted houses/abandoned asylums/graveyards?) As anticipated, the majority of the 112 seconds was gobbledygook. Here and there, I thought I could make out short intelligible bursts, but I suspected I was indulging in wish fulfillment.
Then there was 1:01-1:02. Within this second-long span, I heard a male voice “answer” my final question–gruff, gravelly, begrudging. I enhanced the audio; the extra filtering robbed the voice of its “charm” but made the “words” much clearer.
Three words. The three that save the day, sweeten the pot, spin the world. Easy to say, difficult to feel…unless they’re difficult to say, easy to feel.
I should be delighted to have captured a “Class B” on my first attempt. I’m not.
Dead two years, and now he tells me.
I’ve played that 1.2 second part 528 times in four days (per the exceedingly helpful software). I’ve reached the point of constant return, where I have to listen before my first coffee of the day and before my last conscious action of the night. Forget auditory illusions; I’m beginning to see things in the sound waves. Iced-over cauldrons, a mountain of unused trash bags, a dancing dog, a sleeping fish.
Did I really hear what I thought, or only what I longed to hear? Strike that second one; I haven’t craved that particular approval since I entered grade 9 and stuck the desire to hear him say a damn thing ever again underneath my desk like a tasteless wad of gum.
At times I want to invite someone else to check it out, but, who? I could send the WAV file to a friend, with a minimum of preamble and no leading language, and then what? Emojis and memes. I could send the WAV file to a family member, but that would require I grudgingly acknowledge a blood tie. I could share the WAV file with strangers online, and then immediately begin slicing my wrists with used toothpicks.
No. No to all of that. Whatever I heard, whatever I thought I heard, is mine. Simultaneously the best and the worst secret I will ever decide to keep.
Before my maiden voyage, I was undecided as to if there would be any to follow. I know, now, with certainty.
Jennifer has been in the (mostly) benevolent thrall of words since receiving “Green Eggs and Ham” as a birthday present. She is either writing, reading, or in a situation where she wishes was either writing or reading. Currently, Jennifer is working on her first novel. Her blog can be found here.