Excuse me while I froth a bit. File this under “rant” but it’s been irking me for some time.
We are a bit behind the times here in the UK. Telly from five years ago takes a while to get cross the pond for some reason, and the “My Ghost Story” show I think aired its third season last year. I watched each season, but for reasons which are probably contrary to most viewers. I imagine quite a few people may be convinced by the mouse which bounced along in the hallway (but which somehow became an “apparition”) or may have been convinced by the voice on tape which sounded almost exactly like the voice of the woman who had just spoken a few moments before. Every ghost or inexplicable thing was a demon (which again I guess is no surprise in the bible- belt; pretty much anything is either an angel or demon, with no area in between). I could just about deal with all that, even if I rolled my eyes in several places.
I was watching the show with a growing sense of frustration; not because I wanted proof of the afterlife, but because the language people were using incensed me. There was a lot of the phrase “experience” being bandied about. It set off the same warning bell in my head I often got when people in the kink community used the term “explore”. “I want to explore my boundaries”, “I want to explore this method of kink…” Basically, to “explore” tends to mean “I want you to provide me with he means of my living out my fantasy, and your own needs aren’t really all that important.” To “explore” is a nice way of saying “exploit”. That sort of “gimme” mentality is why I ultimately got bored of kink; I am neither interested in climbing the sexual version of the Himalayas for a thrill, nor am I particularly keen on doing so solely for the other person’s benefit merely because they had a itch and felt as if I was the one who should do the scratching.
Back to the show; people called their visits “an experience”. But it was laden with the same kind of sense of entitlement. Every time the people on the program walked into a haunted house, laden with equipment and saying they were looking for an “experience”, I heard “I am looking for a thrill, and I want these spirits to perform for me in order to get one”. They had paid their admission money, and they expected to be entertained.
The lack of respect put my teeth on edge: impatient people tramping around in haunted spaces, literally demanding the spirits, ghosts, or whatever was around should perform and give a show. “I’m getting bored now, so do something!” one rather irritating individual called into the dark spaces. I quite honestly felt zero sympathy when said person was raked across the back by an alleged spirit. They only got what they damn well deserved.
Wave after wave of people went into one location; owners of property seem to have found an extra way to line their pockets by allowing disrespectful jerks into houses to demand spirits perform on cue: lights on, lights off, open doors, close doors, do this, do that. I kept waiting for someone to do something sensible- like offer to help the spirits depart and move on. I kept waiting for someone to show the child calling for its mum the way to go on from this world to the next, but out of three seasons only one person bothered to do so. Only one. I was staggered, and I was furious.
The dead are not performing poodles who remain in locations for our entertainment, or even to pad out our income. It sickens me. I was absolutely seething by the end of the show, and found myself swearing once again, in no uncertain terms, to continue my own work in Greeting the Dead. I would rather a thousand houses without a shred of mysterious noises and glowing orbs than see any souls on my patch being asked to move a ball. And with the sheer amount of whispered “get out” messages on recordings (if they weren’t entirely faked), I suspect the spirits are pretty fed up as well.
One of the lessons which I do not feel is anywhere near covers enough in pagan practice is the art of greeting the dead. Psychopomp is important, perhaps now more than ever: it seems getting one’s deceased aunt to flick on a handheld torch ad nauseum can bring in a bit of income, but what does the spirit get out of it? Perhaps there are spirits who are happy with the arrangement, but I sincerely doubt they all are, and the vast majority of people merely seems to happy to seek their “experience” and then go home without a twinge of empathy or a sense of “perhaps I should do something to help”.
Western culture lacks what I call “afterlife hygiene”. There are quite a few reasons for that, and sorry to say a fair portion of the reasons are due to the predominantly Christian belief system of Western culture, especially during the 18-19th century. It surely cannot escape viewers to notice almost all of the stories of things which go bump in the night were believed to be Caucasian people from the 1800s. However, America has been settled for a lot longer than when the first settlers from Europe, yet there’s precious few Native ghosts ever seen in these areas. Native peoples were and are very spiritual folk, and each tribe has its own way with dealing wi spirits of the dead. Some tribes revere their ancestors and welcome them readily for advice, others would cut their hair and never speak the names of the dead ever again. They all have their different way of dealing with death, but the traditions have existed for thousands of years, and death is an accepted thing.
When the religious factions of modern Christianity settled in, Christianity itself took on some rather dramatic shifts, due to the Puritans and other various offshoots of same; wakes and laying out the dead in the home was often common – it was a way to familiarise everyone with death and to allow family members to grieve and bid their farewells with the dead present in the room. This seems appallingly creepy to us today, as we have distanced ourselves so far from death we rarely see it close up: our meat is packaged in white styrofoam in supermarkets, our cemetaries are at the edge of town, with funerals held in buildings we never visit except when we must hold these sterile ceremonies. The rite and rituals of death closer to home (even within a home) was eventually phased out as the Church enforced the view that the only comfort either the dead or their families needed was knowing the dead were in heaven. Funerals were rudimentary, and the dead were supposed to be forgotten as “gone”. Mourning was unfashionable and even frowned upon. The whole afterlife hygiene changed within a very short period of time, and in many ways it jarred entirely with the wishes of both the deceased and the families themselves. This makes for unsettled spirits, and as people were forbidden to even consider the possibility that any spirit could remain behind, spirits became angels, or demons, either praised or rebuked by turns. Of course the Victorian era had its own version of paranormal exploiters, and the Spiritualism movement was both trying to address the gaping hole the austere doctrine of the time was demanding, but also lined the pockets of charlatans and provided a cheap thrill to the incredibly repressed.
This could have almost been considered a tentative return to at least trying to acknowledge the dead, but it was often done by people who had no experience with spirits. I see the exact same thing happen on these shows: people who supposedly have done “investigations” regularly but who absolutely freak out and run out of a house sobbing when a spirit actually shows up. There’s also the rather alarming trend of people assuming if they do run across a spirit in a house, that it must be the former owner of said house. It never occurs to anyone a spirit might not be who or what they say they are. Just because a spirit says a name into a recorder doesn’t mean it really IS that spirit. Sometimes, spirits like to have “experiences” too, and if that means screwing around with self-entitled humans, then game on. Sometimes, spirits lie. Sometime, what a person is talking to was never, ever human, and putting a bunch of paranormal tourists into a place to talk with those sorts of things makes me cringe. And sometimes, Spirits have been forgotten so long, and are so angry, they warp a bit into something else entirely…something nasty.
In the pagan community, I feel we really need to encourage a bit more sense when it comes to Greeting the Dead. We need to show a hell of a lot more respect, we need to get familiar with the territory, and we need to open the discussions about how to tend for our kin who pass beyond, and honour their wishes. I have felt as if there has been a “backlog” of dead spirits for decades, due to poor afterlife hygiene – it’s almost like the Over-There is getting overpopulated and clogged up because spirits don’t know how to move on anymore, and crowds of people who are only interested in having an “experience” aren’t helping much.
I was in the process of writing a book for psychopomps last year, but realised the book has already been written. It is dated, but the information is still sound: Dion Fortune’s “Book of the Dead”. It is a very good starting point for doing this kind of work, and I feel it should be in every witch’s bag of tricks to be able to help spirits who call out to one, or to deal with a troublesome spirit who is becoming dangerous. It is important, uncomfortable, thankless Work, but it is important Work all the same.
Read up, study, contemplate, my people…and for the love of the various Gods, seek your thrills elsewhere.