I had been invited to stay for a month at an artists’ residency in a French town called Marnay-sur-Seine. The setting was a 17th century priory next door to a 12th century church, which still carries the scars of war. Beneath my window, I could see the river Seine with its flowing gray-green scroll. I planned to spend my time writing about (and capturing the emotions of) those who were dead.
That first night, as I lay on my narrow bed, trying to acquaint myself to the voices of a starlit French night, I heard the wind whisper, the river murmur, and the stone walls echo with the sounds of strangers.
In a few days, I began to identify and sift through the nighttime noises. Those that came from outside my window—the hoot of an owl, the bark of a dog, the splash of a swimmer’s arms—and those that seemed to filter down directly from above me: the scrape of a chair, the heavy thud of footsteps, a cough, the clearing of a throat.
There were six other residents living in the three wings of the old priory. Anne Moses, a vivacious and talented artist, occupied the room adjoining mine. We were the only two in our wing.
Our building was covered in ivy and had a door that led to a long narrow spiral staircase providing access to three floors and each level had empty, lonely looking rooms, with lonely looking furniture. The turret at the top had been converted into a classroom and a studio. Anne and I occupied adjoining rooms on the second floor, and she used the studio upstairs for her work during the day.
There were no beds on that level and we expected that the room was unoccupied at night.
One day, casually, as though it were not something of any great import, I asked Anne if she’d heard any movement coming from upstairs around midnight. She looked at me and, with something of a zombie look on her face, said yes, quickly, almost too quickly. I laughed to make light of it. But I could see that she was having none of it.
From the beginning, I toyed with the idea of a ghost. A notion so exciting as to power my imagination. For the other possibility, that of a man or woman creeping into the building while we slept seemed infinitely more ominous.
We decided to text each other as soon as we heard the sounds. And so we did, that night, and the next, and the next. Till the idea of texting seemed somehow pointless, merely a corroboration that it was not the figment of one person’s imagination. It had quite conclusively become more than that, maybe a figment of two people’s imaginations, for, after all, we were both artists engaged in free expression.
To my surprise, Anne refused to accept anything other than the idea of a vagrant, or a kid playing a prank.
So we set vigil one night. That night, too, we heard movement upstairs. We sent a text to the other residents who met us near our rooms and then, armed with our iPhones, we crept up single file to the turret. Was it any surprise that there was no one there, and the furniture had not been moved?
I have never been afraid of the idea of ghosts. That seems like an M. Night Shyamalan narrative. A little too expedient.
I would like to believe that a supernatural experience is a memory trapped in continuity or that ghosts are traces of the past making a presence in our present. Though, that does seem fanciful.
So how do we interpret a supernatural experience rationally?
In an article on BBC, Adam Waytz from Northwestern University explains paranormal experiences thus: “We create beliefs in ghosts, because we don’t like believing that the universe is random.” In other words it’s a matter of control. The mind, when taken out of its usual, conjures up the unusual.
Scientists spend lifetimes trying to explain the mysteries of our universe. Still there is much we don’t know, including the wonderful enigma of “dark matter,” or matter that cannot be seen but has been proven to exist.
Sounds like my ghost.
Jaya Padmanabhan, Editor