Turn out the lights. All the lights. Listen to the sounds the house makes, cooling down, settling in for the night. Stir the fire; set it spinning on the hearth, trancing us as we gaze into the flames and glance at the corners where the shadows have begun to shift. Come closer; tell me a tale. Tell me of the spirits who ride the wind this night, who even now are slipping through layers of darkness to skim our roofs and watch at our window as we sit here, flushed and glazed behind the panes, speaking their names. Smooth your story out slowly, rustling it like an old map spread across your knees, and when my turn comes 'round, I'll glance over my shoulder, then tell you another.
No tales of headless horsemen tonight; no sagas of needle-eyed kids who swivel their skulls 360 degrees and vomit green; no gloomy ghosts in shrouds, chin-bindings, chains, croaking dire predictions; nothing that moans, nothing that clanks. And spare us any psychotic spectres "working through" their problems on the living. I do not invite any such to this hearthside. This Halloween I want to tell a story that will give a bit of chills, to be sure -- and a bit of warmth as well.
Listen now. This is a true tale, first told by a nurse who sat keeping vigil by a deathbed in another city, not so very long ago.
The woman lying in the well-appointed bed was dying. Outside her comfortable hotel room the New York City traffic churned, but as if at a great distance, muted, aloof. Private nurse Margot Moser watched from her chair, the click of her knitting needles ticking evenly like the clock in the room. Rosa B., her patient, slept. Perhaps her face, in repose, looked sad to the nurse. Perhaps Mrs. B. was dreaming of Russia, where she had grown up; or perhaps it was only a trick of the light and shadow in the suite, the dustmotes floating in a triangle of sun. All at once Mrs. B. wakened, sat up smiling, waving in the direction of the suite's foyer, and the door. A visitor had arrived, though Nurse Moser had not heard the door open in the alcove, out of sight. It was an elderly woman who approached the bed, a woman who bore a striking resemblance to the patient. Her arrival seemed to lift Mrs. B. into a state of great happiness, her face lit, moved, excited. Perhaps too excited, Nurse Moser thought, more than she has strength for. As the nurse rose, the visitor withdrew before any tactful suggestions were needed. Intent on her patient, Moser did not hear the sound of the door opening or closing. Mrs. B. looked up at the nurse. "That was my sister," she said, her face radiant. "Didn't she look beautiful?" The nurse murmured agreement, quieted her patient, resumed her chair.
A few days later Moser sat quietly at the funeral service for Rosa B., scanning the faces of the mourners for the visitor she had met that sunny day. She saw a young man who resembled the visitor; he introduced himself as Mrs. B.'s nephew. Nurse Moser spoke of the visit which had so cheered her patient, only to be met with puzzled glances from the next of kin. Finally the nephew produced a photo of Mrs. B.'s sister: was that the woman Nurse Moser had seen in the broad daylight of a hotel suite? It was. "That is a picture of Rosa's sister," Nurse Moser was told. "But her sister never left Russia. She died there ten years ago."
One more? Ah, well then, there is the story of Eddie, who with his wife Madge had been friend and neighbor to Victor Werner. Werner was saddened when Eddie received a good job offer in another city and moved away. "You'll be the first one I come and see when I visit," Eddie told his friend when they said goodbye, good luck, God bless. Werner corresponded with the couple for a while, and then, as often happens, the friends lost touch; until one busy day when Werner was hurrying home after work to change quickly for an evening meeting. As he neared his home he saw Eddie on the street amidst the rush-hour crowds, but guiltily Werner hurried on, fearing he'd be late for the meeting, perhaps promising himself that he'd look Eddie up later. On his way out of his apartment, changed and ready for the meeting, Werner ran into Eddie's wife Madge. They greeted each other; Werner apologized for being too rushed to speak to Eddie when he'd seen him a little earlier. Madge looked bewildered; Werner couldn't possibly have seen Eddie, she said. Werner described the suit Eddie had worn, and Madge looked at Werner hard. That was Eddie's burial suit Werner had described. Eddie had died six months before. It seemed, however, that he had still honored his promise to his old friend.
Parapsychologist Frank C. Tribbe, who told me in his pleasant, rational voice about the first story, does not find it beyond the realm of possibility. Nor does psychic Diane Nagorka, of the National Spiritual Science Center of Washington, who led me to the second one. According to the Reverend Nigorka, a spiritualist minister, we all have [WORD ILLEGIBLE] spirit guardians and guides near us, "Though we don't always pay attention to them," she says. "I always feel I am in very good protection, very good company."
Why are we more aware of spirits at Halloween? "This is a very ancient holiday," Nagorka explains. "Long before it was the Eve of the Feast of All Saints and the Feast of All Souls it was considered to be the eve of the New Year. As the old year died and the new year began, there was an opening in the cycle, a kind of open door in the year. yThis happens at other shifts in the cycle, at the summer and winter solstices, for example, and at full moon. These points create an opening through which energy pours forth upon the planet. The energy comes from the Hierarchy, the angels, the masters, all who have passed . . . but they don't come into the graveyard and play monkeyshines, the way people think. They are right there with you, sitting by the fire, and it's a delightful time, an opportunity."
Nagorka can tell that spirits are near her. "It's just a knowing," she says, adding, "Everyone is psychic, according to their abilities; it's just that I've worked to develop the psychic powers I have. You can't welcome just any spirit either. You wouldn't open the door to your house for just any stranger, would you? I say a prayer for protection before I open myself to spirit. Spirits are a mix of things, some good, others not."
Anyone who has bought a book or seen a movie in recent years knows that the malign spirits seem to get most of the attention; maybe it has always been so, from the time tales of the unknown were first told around [WORD ILLEGIBLE] But the blessed dead were also welcomed on this night in ancient times, spirits who were believed to slip through the psychic faultline as the year turned, to pay friendly calls upon the living. "Soul cakes" were baked in each home by way of welcome, and masked costumed carolers went round singing prayers for each household's dead, in exchange for cakes and sweets: this may be the forerunner of our custom of trick-or-treat. Lights were placed in the windows, sometimes inside large turnips called "bogey lights" in Scotland, and an ear of corn hung on the door honored the goddess of the earth, reminding her to return, bringing seedtime with her again. Decorations made from the fruits of the harvest greeted the positive spirits, and symbolized hope; the reaper's sickle had done its work, and the earth would now lie still for a time, but a more generous season lay on winter's other side.
Maybe it seems too irrational, too superstitious for us, all this hidden ritual, all this talk of spirits. Maybe it is. And maybe that's all right, even good sense. We still must face the darkness and all it represents, even in an industrial, technological society. The days still shorten, the seasons still shift, the sunlight still thins. In our post-Freudian, post World War world we are perhaps more than ever aware of the darkness that may lie within as well as beyond.
Most of us have at one time or another been afraid of the dark. We recall waking up as children in the ashen hours after midnight with the hall light gone out and the world gone away and our cries gone unanswered. Perhaps it was then, as the long-fingered night reached toward our blankets, that we first learned the value of certain rituals to keep back the dark, keep down the fright the toy that became the amulet, the bedtime story, remembered and repeated under our breath, the promises we'd make to the powers of darkness and light if only we could have protection till morning. Child and adult alike, we all have our own private incantations, our personal magical thinking to ward off the dark that can come in waking hours. Some ancient wisdom tells us that although we cannot control certain forces, we can, indeed must, come to be on speaking terms with them. And on Halloween we do just that. We greet what we understand the least, what scares us the most; we dress up in its faces and pay those faces off, we court the fright and laugh at ourselves when we jump. And we tell one another its stories. That way it becomes manageable.
And so; Throw another log on the fire, pour one more mug of cider . . . What was that?That noise. You heard it too. Don't go home yet. The shadows are weaving a new pattern behind us, and we, our faces turned to the spatter of light from the hearth, we have more enchantment to speak as midnight passes. And if we are not quite alone, may we at least be in good spirits -- and with them.
It's warm here, amidst the smells of scorched pumpkin and ripe apples; sit closer. Tell me one tale more. Tell me, and I'll believe you. This is the night such things can be. The story of nurse Margot Moser and her patient "Rosa B." was reported by Susy Smith in Life Is Forever (pp. 67-68), Putnam 1974. The story of "Eddie's" return was printed in the January 1979 Psychic Observer (pp. 21-22), published by the National Spiritual Science Center, 5605 16th Street NW, Washington 20011.