Emily, a lovesick teenager, is said to haunt the bridge in Stowe, Vermont that she jumped from in 1805. President Abraham Lincoln's ghost has been spotted numerous times at the White House since his assassination in 1865. Hardware merchant Seabury Tredwell and his family apparently haunt the New York City home that was in their keep until 1933. Now a museum, the Tredwells are said to remain, roaming the halls, spooking guests, and charming the New York Times.
You’re always hearing about old ghosts like this. A Civil War soldier, an old-timey nun, a sea captain who died when fishing boats were a new concept. They get all of the glory, all of the documentation in books with titles like 32 Ghost Stories of the American South, and all of the attention around Halloween. What you don’t hear about, though, is newer ghosts. Ghosts who know who Obama is. Ghosts who had an iPhone. Maybe a guy who got so frustrated with his lagging smart TV that he had a heart attack, and now his energy won’t let anyone in that location reliably stream anything.
Why is that? Aren’t there newer ghosts?
“There are ghosts created all the time,” Cathy Towle, a medium and energy healer, told me. But she clarified that some things perceived as hauntings — a figure walking up and down a staircase, or a face in a mirror — might not be a visit from a spirit at all. “That is what I would call a ‘place memory,’” she said, “a memory recorded where some intense thing happened, or somebody did a repetitive motion.” These things are more like energetic residue than a visit from another realm.
“Spirits usually don’t hang around this plane,” she said. “In most cases they go wherever they’re going.” While Towle doesn’t “have the scoop on exactly where they go,” she said that when they get there, they have the ability to come back and communicate with us if they’d like to. But that tends to be a different sort of communication than what we know of as a haunting. “It’s usually kind of a more spiritual and uplifting interaction.”
Then there are the spirits who don’t transition. “They don’t transition because there’s either been a trauma, or they think they have to stay, or they’re confused, they don’t even know they’re dead, or they’re just stubborn rebels who have decided they want to hang out here.” (She noted that NYC was “thick with spirit” early in the COVID pandemic, due to an abundance of new spirits who — I’m paraphrasing — didn’t know what the fuck was going on.) These spirits generally need a push to move on: a transitioning ritual, an offering, or the ability to communicate a message.
So why don’t you hear as much about them as you hear about spirits from the 1800s? “I think some of the spirits that have been stuck for a longer time period have maybe figured out more about how to make their presence known,” Towle said, “because they’ve been here longer.” Methods of communication tend to include showing up on audio recordings, flickering lights, or blowing out lightbulbs. “The newly hatched spirits that get stuck here maybe haven’t figured that out, so they don’t know how to communicate,” she said. “That’s just my observation as somebody who has dealt with different manifestations of spirit over the years.” One common caveat, though, is from people who are visited from recently passed loved ones. “Their experiences of the newly deceased can be very real.”
Amanda Paulson, a paranormal investigator, had an experience like this. She and her boyfriend recently visited her boyfriend’s father’s house for the first time since his death. While in the hot tub outside, they saw his bedroom light flicker on and off; at the same time, the hot tub’s display panel — which had never worked — started displaying random letters and numbers. “We went inside to make sure no one was there, and decided to ask his dad to move something for us, in case it was him trying to say hi,” she said. “Not even 10 seconds later a jacket was pulled off of a chair right in front of us.”
“It’s totally normal for us to picture the stereotypical Victorian ghost, thanks to scary movies,” Paulson said, but ghosts can “absolutely” be a result of recent events. “That probably makes you wonder why we don’t see more about modern hauntings, then,” and yes, actually — that’s my main Q. “Well, maybe we aren’t hearing about them yet. Maybe the family isn’t ready to tell the story. Maybe investigators haven’t had a chance to investigate yet.” She said that while spirits may remain attached to a home, object, or person because they have unfinished business, or for another reason, a lot of their power comes from the living who have chosen to tell their story. “We breathe new life into spirits every time we talk about them,” she said. “The living have a lot more to do with the paranormal than we realize.”
So, I guess we either have to find these new ghosts ourselves or wait for someone to tell us about them. Maybe in 100 years, if human beings are still around, they’ll pass on stories about a presence that haunts the halls of my apartment building; an eerie voice sometimes heard there at night. Why … do I have to … log in … to every … app every … time … I want to … watch … something, the voice will say, eerily. I … hate … Roku. “What could that possibly mean?” the future living people will wonder. “Our smart TV is annoying, but it basically works.” And then the voice will say, Fuck … you. You … know … it … sucks.
And that spirit will be right.