First-hand interactions with the extraordinary
“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
“Who would dare assert that we know all there is to be known?”
— Galileo Galilei
“I do believe [in ghosts]. But more important, they need to believe in themselves.”
Have you ever encountered a ghost?
I have. And I know a number of other people who have, too. In fact, you might be surprised by the number of Americans who report having had a ghostly encounter. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in September 2021, 44% of US adults have “experienced the presence” of someone who died; 20% have experienced getting help from someone who has died; and 14% have communicated with someone who has died. A separate survey found that 20% — or one out of every five Americans — say they’ve personally encountered a ghost. That translates to about 66 million people! And that’s just in America.
Given these numbers, it shouldn’t be a surprise that most of us know quite a few people who’ve had encounters with apparitions. You may not be aware of this, because many folks don’t volunteer their stories for fear of looking foolish.
It’s easy to dismiss such things as nonsense when it’s not your own experience, but a first-hand encounter can’t be dismissed quite so easily. What just happened? Did I imagine that? What the heck does this mean??
Making Sense of a Ghostly Encounter
Most of us tend to mentally categorize the experiences we have each day. That way, we don’t have to think about how to interpret and react to each one of them individually, because we already know how to react to things that fall into that category. It’s a way of streamlining the process of dealing with life. But what happens when we encounter something that’s completely outside of our experience—something that defies standard explanation?
Events like that can leave us unsure how to react. Of course, we do have a number of options: We can dismiss such an event by “explaining it away;” we can set it aside as something we don’t understand and just ignore it; or, we can attempt to understand it as something new, and possibly alter our world view as a result. You can see this in the way people react to reports of unidentified flying objects. Some just dismiss such reports as misinterpretations of other phenomena; some shrug their shoulders and say, “I don’t know what to make of it.” And some conclude that the universe may be a lot more interesting than it appears to be.
The same is true regarding encounters with ghosts.
Thinking about all the stories I‘ve heard—and my own experience—I’ve concluded that ghosts tend to be encountered in one of three sets of circumstances. Many seem to be tied to a location (giving rise, among other things, to the idea of a “haunted house”); many encounters involve a close friend or relative who has just passed away; and a few encounters (like mine) are very hard to categorize. (Some might say they seem personally targeted.)
I propose that how we interpret such an experience depends largely on which type of encounter has happened. Seeing an apparition in someone’s house may just leave us thinking the universe is strange—or wondering if we really saw what we saw. Encountering a friend or relative who just died may make us consider the possibility that death is not the end. And having a more personal experience, one that seems targeted, might make us rethink our entire world view.
With this in mind, here are a number of first-hand reports of such encounters (including my own). Make of them what you will!
Home Sweet Home
A colleague of mine once mentioned that her family’s home in the desert Southwest had a live-in female ghost that virtually everyone in her family had seen multiple times. (She told me that her mother had once lost her temper and started screaming at the apparition and throwing things at her. She didn’t tell me if the ghostly inhabitant was moved by this display of emotion.)
One of my favorite stories involving a living space was told not by a friend of mine, but by the highly respected actress, Meryl Streep. She recounted this tale during a talk show appearance in early 2012, when the host asked if she’d ever seen a ghost. She replied, “No, but I’ve heard one.” (The following is not in her exact words, because that would violate the copyright of the program’s creators.)
Apparently, Ms. Streep owns a house in Connecticut with a small guest house in the backyard that had been built in 1830. She’d just had her last child, and the family was temporarily living in the guest house because of construction going on in the main house. She happened to be in the guest house alone, because everyone was outside playing in the swimming pool.
She recalls sitting at a desk, when she heard what sounded like a grand piano falling, an enormously loud crash, directly above her on the second floor. At first, she thought it must be one of the kids creating some kind of trouble. So she went running up the stairs. But halfway up, she says her hair stood up because she realized no one was home but her. There were only two rooms on that floor, and nothing was out of place. She checked the attic and the roof—nothing. And yet, she’d just heard an ENORMOUS crash right over her head.
Not long after, some businessmen from Japan came to visit them; they were interested in some work done by her husband, who is a sculptor. By this time, Ms. Streep’s family was back in the main house, so the visitors stayed in the guest house. They were exhausted from the long flight to America, so she took them to the guest house to sleep, at about 9:30 that night. She says she went to get them the next morning at about 10:30. She found them all in the living room, looking stressed and like they hadn’t gotten much sleep. There were half-smoked cigarettes everywhere. They looked at her and said, “Spirit! Spirit!”
Stories about people encountering loved ones after their deaths are much more common. For adults, these encounters often happen in dreams described as “completely real;” kids, on the other hand, may report seeing the deceased person smiling at them on the street and mention it casually to an adult later, not realizing the import of their experience.
One family I know had multiple encounters like this. When the husband passed away, his wife told me that the following night she was awakened by him bursting into the bedroom, saying “Honey, I’m alive! I’m fine!” A moment after this experience, he vanished, leaving her to wonder if she’d dreamed the whole thing. Their adult son also reported that his father came to visit him in a very vivid dream; he told me he recognized the smell of his father’s workshop on his clothing during the encounter. Later, after the mother also died, the son reported cleaning up her kitchen, when a display of spoons abruptly fell over without explanation.
A deceased person reporting that he or she is OK seems to be a common theme in encounters like this; well-known composer-playwright-actor Lin Manuel Miranda reported that his friend Steven Sondheim came to him in a dream after he died and while laughing said, “I’m fine, Lin! Keep going!”
Another incident happened to the family of a close friend of mine. This one affected two people at the time, both of whom confirmed the story for me years later. A 20-something member of their family was one of four people flying in a small airplane at night, when something went wrong and the plane went down. It plunged into a river, and the young man died.
His adult brother and sister were many miles away in their own homes, not even aware that their sibling was flying that night. His brother was in his workshop in the basement, when he suddenly felt like he’d been immersed in icy water. He had no explanation at the time, but the experience was so intense that he was rattled.
Meanwhile, the young man’s sister suddenly heard her brother’s voice, saying: “Take care of Mom!” (I didn’t ask her what she was doing when this happened.) Again, the experience was so bizarre and startling that she was taken aback.
Neither one of them had any idea why they’d had these experiences, until the next day, when the police called to tell them their brother had crashed into the river—at exactly the time they’d had these experiences. (And yes, if you know my songs well, this story was included in the lyrics of my song Long Distance Call, on the WILD IDEAS album.)
By far, the most moving story of this type was told to my wife and I a number of years ago. A male friend of ours had a new baby girl, but sadly, not long after her birth the mother passed away. He took over caring for the infant, and a few years later, he remarried. His new wife loved the little girl very much.
One night his new wife was at home watching television in the living room, with the little girl asleep in the bedroom, adjacent to the living room. (The father wasn’t home at the time.) She told us that the television she was watching suddenly turned itself off. She was startled and got up, walked over and turned the TV back on, and then sat down again. A minute later the television turned itself off again.
By now she was a little freaked out, so she sat quietly, unsure what to do. Then she suddenly had a very strong feeling that something was happening in the little girl’s room. She didn’t hear anything, but she thought she saw a light coming from under the door. So she very quietly got up and went over to the door. She carefully, quietly, turned the doorknob and looked into the room. She saw a ghostly figure of a woman leaning over the child’s bed.
Some might have screamed at this point, but she had an overwhelming feeling that nothing bad was happening, so she chose to quietly close the door and go back and sit down in the living room. Then she sat still for a long time, waiting for something else to happen. But nothing else happened.
The next morning our friend and his wife were eating breakfast in the kitchen when the little girl came into the room. ”Last night Mommy came and took me up to see the stars,” she said.
The apartment I was living in in New York City had never shown any signs of being haunted; there were no portentous omens that something extraordinary might take place there. So what transpired probably had nothing to do with the location. On the other hand, it may have had everything to do with the events I’d been living through at the time.
Before moving to New York City after college, my world view had been fairly cut-and-dried. I believed that the world is just what it appears to be: What you see is what you get. But after living in New York for a year or two, I began to have experiences that were not supposed to be possible. Many of my new friends reported having had similar experiences in their own lives, as well. (The extraordinary nature of those experiences is far too complex to get into here. That’s a story for another day!)
As a thoughtful person, all of this made me take a careful look at what I believed. The message seemed clear: The universe may not be as straightforward as you think.
It was in the middle of this transformation of my ideas about the world around me that one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life took place. I was sharing an apartment with two other guys and working at a small publishing house. It was a week or two before Christmas, but there was no snow.
I was working late at the office with a few other folks when I got a call from one of my roommates, who was home alone. My roommate, a very down-to-earth fellow, not inclined to imagining things, was in a state of alarm. “Can you come home?” he asked. “Something very weird is going on. Ever since I got home, I’ve been hearing noises and footsteps in the apartment, like someone is in here. I took a knife and checked the apartment from top to bottom, but no one is here. But as soon as I return to my room, the noises start again. I don’t know what’s going on, but I really don’t like it.”
At one point he put down the phone to check out the sounds again, and while he was away from the phone, I heard some very strange sounds on the line, reminiscent of footsteps in a large, empty room or cavern. When he returned and I told him this, he was not pleased. In any case, my curiosity was piqued, especially in light of my recent experiences, so I told him I’d come home right away.
It took a while to get home, because I had to take the subway. When I arrived, all the lights in the apartment were on, and my roommate had barricaded himself into his room with an immensely heavy manhole cover he kept in his room (as an art object) leaning against the door to prevent unwanted entry. He was watching TV in attempt to take his mind off of the sounds in the apartment.
We started talking; we were in his room and I was sitting on the back of his couch, which was positioned in the middle of the room. At one point, he turned to look at the TV, and that’s when it happened. Suddenly, a face was right in front of my face, almost nose to nose, staring at me with a blank expression. It was definitely not threatening. I could see through the face, rather like seeing through a hologram (though such things barely existed outside of laboratories in those days).
Needless to say, I was stunned. After a couple of seconds, I turned my face away and closed my eyes, and when I looked back the face was gone.
After telling my roommate what had just happened—which took place while he was looking away at the TV—he was really freaked.
I honestly don’t remember what we did after that, but there were no more sounds or faces. It seemed like the appearance of the face had been what all the evening’s events had been leading up to. I do remember how the experience affected me, though. All doubts in my mind regarding whether my old ideas about the universe were suspect went out the window. The universe was knocking itself out to get me to start looking for different ideas about the world around us.
Ironically, it wasn’t until decades later that it occurred to me that if this experience had happened without my roommate being present, I might have been tempted to try and explain it away…perhaps I just “lost it” for a moment. But the way the events of that evening unfolded, there was no question that it was not my imagination.
You might not be surprised to learn that this event (following all of the inexplicable events that preceded it) was a turning point in my life. I decided at that moment that my world view up to that point couldn’t possibly be right, and I set out to find a better explanation for our existence. Eventually, I did find a more complex understanding of the world that helped me make sense of all of this. (That’s a story for another day!)
As I noted at the beginning of this essay, the impact of an experience like this depends largely on the way we interpret it. As one of my friends has pointed out to me, I could have reacted to this experience in many ways. For some people, it would have been frightening, making the world seem confusing, perhaps even scary. But I’ve always had faith that the universe makes sense, so I took these events as an indication that my understanding of the world was wrong. These experiences motivated me to go looking for a better understanding of the universe around us.
So: If someone you know tells you about a ghostly encounter they experienced, don’t be too quick to dismiss their story. Instead, ask whether it changed the way they see the world.
And if you encounter an apparition, just remember: You’re not alone! (In more ways than one!)
Copyright 2022 by Christopher Kent, All Rights Reserved.