It’s Halloween, a time for frights and chills, when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is as flimsy as the night is dark.
It’s a time for sharing ghost stories, of which I’m the keeper of a few, having written two non-fiction books on the subject. But people are surprised when I tell them that my fascination with the paranormal has little to do with fear, and everything to do with hope—and the love of a good story.
When I was a child of about seven or eight, I was suddenly gripped by a fear of death. I’d been reading a kids’ encyclopedia, which explained, matter-of-factly, that one distant day, the sun would engulf the earth and then there would be … nothing. I read this sentence over and over, stunned by its implications.
That marked the beginning of a string of sleepless nights, where, laying in the top bunk of our little flat by the main road in suburban Eastlakes, in Sydney, I would try hard to imagine this vast nothingness, this vacuum of life, this treacherous sun snuffing out everything.
But I couldn’t. Every time I came close, my stomach would swoop and dip and I’d be back to where I’d started.
I found solace in an unexpected way, wrapped inside a story my mother handed to me like the gift it was. She described how as a girl growing up in Uruguay, she’d had moments of precognition, where she’d sensed the imminent deaths of loved ones.
Of course, the stories were sad: two family members had died, one a cousin of only four. But how could my mum have known that tragedy loomed? What force steered her to her little cousin’s bedside in time to hold her hand as she died from an illness not even her mother knew she had?
It was a delicious mystery, hinting at a world beyond our own, of universal secrets and magic tucked away within everyday people.
It was an antidote to the fear that had lain in me like a weighted rock since I’d read that (deceptively harmless-looking) children’s reference book. Now, I could see a way out.
Many years later, as a journalist interviewing people who’d felt they sensed the spirits of late loved ones, I recognised the familiar flicker of those embers of hope. I’ve learned how these experiences can work as powerful healing agents.
I will never forget interviewing Kath Campbell for my book Spirit Sisters. Over the phone, Kath unravelled a story of loss that had me stifling sobs, as my children played in the room next door.
When her two little girls perished in a car accident, along with their grandmother, it was only the experience of seeing her daughters’ spirits that gave her the strength to go on.
And go on she did. Kath and I are still in touch, and I delight in hearing news of her son Thomas, a “miracle baby” born to Kath and her husband, Greg, four years after the tragedy.
In Where Spirits Dwell, three other bereaved mothers opened up to me about the ways they know their children are around—Laura’s son draws hearts in shadow and light on her walls, Jo’s baby sends his love on the wings of white butterflies and Christine’s beautiful daughter is a steadfast “silent partner” in her business.
As much as I relish this aspect of my work I confess to being a sucker for the singular delight of the classic ghost story, too.
They’re a language of their own, aren’t they? A universal currency crossing boundaries of race, gender and society.
“A spirit glided past my face; the hair of my flesh bristled,” says the Bible (Job 4:15). Over the years, some of the firsthand accounts I’ve heard would bristle the hairs on the flesh of even the most ardent skeptic. There’s the the experience of Emma, an erudite book publicist who woke, one autumn night, to the sight of a wharfie rifling through her fiancé’s belongings in their 1800s-era workers’ cottage in Sydney’s historic Balmain.
“He was so real, I actually thought we had an intruder,” said Emma, remembering his “steely blue-grey eyes” and the “heavy cable-knit jumper” he wore. Lean and muscly, aged around 40, the intruder stood only centimetres from her partner’s sleeping head, inspecting a watch on the nightstand. Her heart racing, Emma sat up in bed, uttering a staccato “oh oh oh.” Hearing Emma’s voice, he calmly turned his head in her direction …
Then there’s Amy, a young criminology student I met for coffee at Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building. As shoppers bustled about, quietly-spoken Amy told a tale of waking one night to the sight of a colonial family staring at her as if she were a curio in an old wares shop: there was an intrigued-looking mother, an excited little boy who walked over to prod her and, presiding over the Twilight Zone-style tableau, a rather haughty-looking father. The details were seared into her memory, as they’re now in mine… And yours?
Few of us can resist the charms of a spooky yarn. It’s what Halloween is for—losing yourself in the literary nightmares of Edgar Allan Poe, or revisiting The Sixth Sense from the safety of your couch.
It’s all good fun. But, as I learned in primary school, and as my interviewees have taught me, sometimes a story about crossing the divide between life and death carries more than chills.
Sometimes a story like that is a guiding light—a potent harbinger of hope.
Do you have a ghost story to tell?
Karina Machado was born in Uruguay and was 2 when her family moved to Australia, where she grew up hearing stories of her mum’s psychic gift, igniting a life-long curiosity about the paranormal. Always passionate about books and writing, Karina began her career in journalism as editorial assistant at TIME magazine in 1994, and is now a senior editor at WHO magazine. She’s also obsessed with the Tudors, and has been known to dress up as Anne Boleyn, whose ghost she’s sadly never seen. She lives in Sydney with her husband and two children. She is working on her third book, about the ways our late loved ones make themselves known to us, and she would welcome any reader stories at firstname.lastname@example.org.