Last in our Halloween spooks series
Haunted by flu, cough, and infection shortly after the conclusion of my previous ghost-hunting adventure in Brantford, this week’s amateur paranormal sleuthing was relegated to the confines of my townhouse and backyard.
A fairly recent build, my home was unlikely to be haunted by anything other than the spirits of unfolded laundry (my undoing), the odd monstrous hairball (my cat’s doing) or the ghosts of forgotten chicken nuggets slowly mummifying under the dresser (thanks, kids).
While the Dr. Gauss EMF detector sat quietly on my front entryway table, waiting patiently for my recovery, I took advantage of my convalescence to sort through some old photos on my computer.
My eyes took in hundreds of images: photos of my children as babies, scanned black-and-whites of my grandfather in Vietnam, snaps of me as a sullen teen, then an unsure young adult, and countless family vacations.
Some photos ignited a clear recollection—an image took me instantly to the before and after. Behind each snapshot, behind each frozen scene in time was a whole backstory. A photo of me and my younger sisters ripping open Christmas gifts brought to my mind images of my mother’s Christmas tree with its twinkling lights, and the sounds of our laughter and the crinkle of the colourful paper.
Photos of my parents’ first house in Hamilton bring to mind only vague, disconnected images and sensations— the sound of my shoes skipping across the stones, and the wind through my thin jacket as I danced with the shadows of the trees—real memories or my mind attempting to fill in the blanks?
Human memory is an interesting beast. Our brains are said to process and store memory through two mechanisms, known as “System 1” (unconscious, routine thought) and “System 2” (conscious, problem-based thought). Each of these levels determines how we process the memory as it happens (encoding), how we keep it in our heads (storage), and how we reflect on the memory (retrieval/recall).
Much of our experiences are lost to time. Were it not for photos, or other peoples’ recollections, inherited objects, and recorded correspondence such as old notes and letters, texts and emails, most of our lives would vanish forever into realm of the past.
In contrast, there’s not much to be gained from trying to predict the future, simply because it has not happened yet—and until that moment one can never be sure.
So when it comes to perfect recollection, what exactly can we trust? Or better yet, who? Enter the figure of the “psychic,” or “medium,” a person who claims to communicate with spirits from the past, and who can sometimes attempt to predict the future.
Alas, such readings are only available for a fee (paid in cash or material gifts, please). Ghosts can’t pay, so that task is left to the living.
Regardless of what you believe, there is an entire industry built around the possibility, or the hope, of receiving messages from the deceased. A quick glance at the Yellow Pages or an online search reveals countless individuals offering Tarot card readings, astrological charts, psychic interpretations of the future, and seances to communicate with the dead. Rates start at a dollar per minute. Reviews range from middling to glowing.
I’ve never visited a psychic, but my mother did during a family trip to Vietnam in 2007. She asked for readings relating to her future, and that of her three daughters. In the decades since, she revealed each of our readings to us separately. I was only a teenager during that trip, and I wasn’t to hear my fortune until I was in my 30s.
According to the Vietnamese psychic, I was to have three children. My first marriage would end, but I would marry again and have two husbands throughout my lifetime. Eventually, I would become very successful and rich.
In retrospect, I’m glad that my teenage self didn’t hear this reading of the future. I don’t quite believe in the power of psychics, but I believe that the human mind is capable of obsessing over what-ifs and potential connections. Even if I didn’t believe the reading at the time, my mind would have wondered constantly about it—I have no doubt that my life choices would have altered as a result, even subconsciously.
And yet, unknowing, I had a daughter, then a son. My first marriage ended in divorce. I took steps towards realizing my writerly dreams—journalism awards, poetry and short fiction publications followed. I had no plans to every marry again, but then I met someone who became a loving and supportive partner. Onwards to the marriage altar for a second time. We plan to have a third child one day.
As for being rich, I’m still waiting on that one, though I do recognize that interpreting one’s fate can be a matter of semantics. What does “rich” mean, anyway? Rich in wealth? Or rich in love?
For me, the key is interpretation.
Memory is about interpreting the past. Projecting the future is our attempt to interpret our anxieties and fears in a way that is least harmful to us.
Click. Click. Click.
While ill, I sorted through old digital photos for hours. I will forever associate the clicking of the mouse with the paleness of the screen, the soreness of my eyes after looking at years’ worth of memories, and the taste of ginger tea.
Right before I shut off the computer, I saw a photo I had taken of the streets of Danang. Teenage Helen didn’t have steady hands, and the photo was blurry, but I could still make out the shapes of motorcycles and bikes.
Traffic in Vietnam was terrifyingly chaotic— there were rules, but no one knew about them, or cared to follow them. Most of the populace could not afford a car, so most families drove motorbikes. Morning, noon, and night, the motorbikes would stream through the streets (sometimes eight to a row), sleek and darkly shining, like columns of fast-moving ants.
My family spent two summers in Vietnam. During one of them, I would spend much of my free time with Sophie and Vivi, two daughters of a family friend. Sophie, the older one, would take me around town on the back of her motorbike, showing me interesting places to eat, or to help me bargain at the marketplace for souvenirs.
I always considered her the height of cool, and nothing pleased me more than to feel the wind whipping across my face as I held tight to her waist, trusting my life to her driving skills.
We had many adventures together, running through alleyways, exploring bookstores, walking through the tombs of long-dead emperors, gorging ourselves on street food, and buying ridiculous quantities of clothing and shoes. Our crowning achievement of mischief was dancing (classic waltzing, mind you) at a cafe that doubled as nightclub when the sun went down.
In Communist Vietnam, certain kinds of entertainment were illegal. Once we narrowly escaped fine and/or arrest when Communist officers raided and temporarily shut down the club where we were dancing.
One day, we had a very different adventure. We had just finished lunch and were about to climb back on her motorbike when we heard the sounds of chanting, a gong, and someone calling out in a loud voice.
“Attend, attend here,” the voice boomed in Vietnamese. “Come see the wonders of the Psychic Medium, and hear from the spirit world.”
Sophie and I exchanged grins. We did not believe in any of it, but we had already spent our money for the day, and needed to fill the rest of our afternoon with free entertainment.
People were gathering around the open front porch of a nondescript yellowish-grey house. Everyone was muttering excitedly as they sat down in sweaty rows, pointing at the door.
Sophie wiggled her eyebrows at me. I could tell she was skeptical. So was I, but I was also intrigued. I had never seen a psychic perform before, let alone one in Vietnam, where communicating with and seeing spirits was accepted as a common occurrence.
Judging from the size of the crowd and the way they immediately hushed when she emerged in the doorway, she had a sizeable reputation
A few servants lingered by the open doorway. They had already set up a table and chair, and the air was thick with the smell of incense.
“Look,” Sophie poked me in the side, then pointed. One of the servants was walking amongst the audience with a bowl, into which various bills and coins were being thrown. We dutifully tossed in the last of our coins and sat down, anticipating the arrival of the Medium. Judging from the size of the crowd and the way they immediately hushed when she emerged in the doorway, she had a sizeable reputation.
The Medium shuffled out to the fanfare of silence, save for the bells that tinkled on her porch. She was wearing a shapeless grey robe, and her frail feet were encased in socks and sandals. Her silver hair was pulled back tightly in a bun.
As she sat, her servants flocked to her, one lighting more incense, the other adjusting a cushion for her chair, and the last fanning her from the side. The old woman closed her eyes, and went very still.
The crowd went still too. Everyone was waiting —but for what? I tried not to wiggle too much, lest I seem disrespectful, but the sun was hot on my back, and my shirt was starting to stick to my sides. Surely if the spirits came, they could cool down the place a tad?
The old woman suddenly jerked, as if her body was yanked by an unseen force. She clapped a hand to her forehead.
“The spirits are coming to me!” she gasped in Vietnamese. “They will speak!” The crowd erupted into excited whispers, just in time to drown out Sophie’s scoff. I tried very hard not to look straight at her— if I saw her roll her eyes, there was no way to stop myself from giggling.
The Medium began to call out periodically, disjointed statements in Vietnamese. Through Sophie’s muttered (and sometimes sarcastic) translations, it was apparent that the woman was claiming to receive messages from the beyond, even seeing the departed. A ghostly little girl searching for her mother, or an old man with a message to a dear son to live well.
Each declaration resulted in a flurry of activity from the crowd. One person would call out and identify themselves as related to the deceased, another would wipe the tears from their eyes, and always, the hands reaching out, offering more cash, more coins, and little notes promising future payment, or pleas for more time, more time for the spirits to answer.
The Medium did not lend much drama to the supernatural visiting. She was actually quite stone-faced and deadpan as she sat in her chair, fanned by her servant. She would call out dispassionately, acknowledging no one, and accepting none of the gifts herself. The crowd supplied the emotion, and the servants collected the money.
After an hour, the Medium abruptly declared that the spirits had left, and that it was time for a nap. She stood, bowed to us, then shuffled back into her house, and the crowd dispersed as quickly as it had gathered. Sophie and I stood in front of the house for a moment, taking in what we had seen.
“What a bunch of hokey,” Sophie snorted. “What did you think?”
“I thought it was weird,” I agreed.
In my teenage opinion, the whole thing had been rather anticlimactic. We were both aware that our relatives saw psychics from time to time, preferring to visit the more ambiguous ones living in back alleys and in distant villages.
“Psychics can make a lot of money here,” Sophie explained to me once we had gone home. “My dad told me that there’s a psychic in another city who was gifted with a house, and a car.”
The whole encounter was quickly forgotten, as we were more interested in allotting our next day’s allowance to more adventures (of the shopping and dancing sort).
At the end of the summer, I would return to Canada, and Sophie remained in Vietnam. We never saw each other in person again, but over the years we would exchange the odd email or Facebook message. We never referenced our encounter with the Medium, instead laughing over the time we were almost arrested simply for dancing after dark, and sharing photos of our weddings, and eventually our children. Our minds had relegated that specific encounter to the file in our brains labeled “unbelievable,” and “unimportant.”
Do you think it is possible to communicate with ghosts or spirits, or to predict the future? Have you ever visited a psychic, or do you know someone who has spoken with one? If you went (even if you did not believe), what would you want to ask? Ultimately, questions are entertained because the answers, or possible answers, are hard to resist.
Much of our experiences are lost to time. Our memories slumber, only waking up when triggered. If I had not happened to glimpse my old blurry photo of a motorbike in Vietnam, I would not have thought of my long-ago friend Sophie, or remembered our encounter with the Medium.
In his book “The Cloud Atlas,” Liam Callanan writes that, “We’re all ghosts. We all carry, inside us, the people who came before us.”
The answer we reach, to any question either big or small, depends on how our minds interpret (or want to interpret) the information.
If we were to follow the words of Callanan, this means that ghosts are memories. If ghosts are memories, and everyone has them—then we are all, for better or for worse, haunted.