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Colin Dickey | Longreads | October 26, 2023 | 15 minutes (4,149 words)

Let me tell you a ghost story.

My street—East 21st Street in Brooklyn, on the border of Flatbush and Ditmas Park—is filled with ghosts. A block up from me, in late 2020, there began to appear a series of strange signs in the Japanese elms that line the street. They were made from tile of marble, 6 by 18 inches, strung around the limbs of the trees that lined the block. Someone had used a Dremel to carve words and pictures on them. One in white marble read simply, COVID took you. May l❤️ve keep you forever. In the corner, a small heart with the street name, 21st, superimposed on it. Another, in blue marble, had the faces of three middle-aged Black men, and read For the ones we lost, the two first. A third, in black, was hung vertically; on it, written in cursive: For the stolen ❤️s of COVID, for the ❤️s stolen by COVID of Two First, Amen. 

I walked by these memorials several times a day; I didn’t always need to, but I realized at some point I was altering my path to see them. They haunted me, in the sense that we often mean that word. “Haunted” as in a haunting melody, a haunting story—a thing that you cannot stop thinking about, that follows you like a ghost through your waking hours. Haunting like Hamlet’s father, reminding you what’s left undone, haunting like a vague blur, a noise or a whispered word, reminding you that the borders between us are porous, sometimes nonexistent. I saw the faces Dremeled into the marble—who were they? What stories did they leave behind?

By that point, I’d been thinking about ghosts, more or less nonstop, for months. In February of that year, I had been contacted by a magazine editor preparing a big summer issue on movies about New York City; would I, she inquired, be interested in writing about Ghost and Ghostbusters? I jumped at the assignment and the opportunity to write once more about this city I love and what haunts it. So I started writing about these two films. I wrote about them as the news each day got stranger and stranger, I wrote about them as a friend predicted “summer is going to be canceled,” I wrote about them as the city emptied out. I wrote about them after the magazine shelved its summer movie issue, I wrote about them after the editor stopped returning my emails. I kept writing; I wrote about them in cafés that were almost entirely empty, and I wrote about them at home when I realized it was no longer safe to write in cafés.

The usual idea behind a ghost is that they’re someone you shouldn’t normally see, someone who, due to some cosmic accident or injustice left unaddressed, has become visible again. The same, I understood, came to be true of pandemics: they are invisible until they suddenly become visible. The 1918 Spanish Flu had been more or less forgotten by history, a mere footnote to World War I, until we had our own pandemic and suddenly we couldn’t stop seeing the Spanish Flu everywhere. And watching these movies about ghosts as a new and terrifying reality loomed, I realized there were things there all along that I’d never noticed, that had, all at once, become all I could see.

So much lurks in the shadows of Jerry Zucker’s 1990 film, Ghost. At first, there is only Patrick Swayze’s character, Sam Wheat. The film’s title, after all, is singular. It’s hard not to root for him: he’s likable, successful, and has just started a promising ceramics internship before he’s tragically murdered by a hitman hired by his scheming business partner Carl Bruner. Once it’s clear his girlfriend (Demi Moore’s Molly) is also in danger, he enlists Whoopi Goldberg’s huckster psychic, Oda Mae Brown, to help save her from murderous  Carl. 

Sam sees himself as uniquely important. At first, he’s the only one Oda Mae can see, but after he unlocks her “gift,” she’s beset by ghosts, all trying to reach loved ones. (At one point she barks at him, “Did you tell every spook in the world you met about me? I got spooks from Jersey coming in here.”) But Sam can’t see beyond his own problems, even in death, and forces her to shoo these other souls (almost all of whom are Black or Latino) so she can focus on his problems. 

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In those early, terrible days, it became harder and harder not to see what Oda Mae saw, or forget these other ghosts as simply extras in Sam’s story. Who were they? What were their stories? We never truly know. The only other ghost whose story we get is Vincent Schiavelli’s subway ghost, who tells Sam, “Yeah someone pushed me. . . . What, you don’t believe me? You think I fell? You think I jumped? Well fuck you! It wasn’t my time! I wasn’t supposed to go! I’m not supposed to be here!” Beyond that, though, all we’re left with is the tantalizing idea of a city of ghosts, none of whom will get a chance to tell their stories.

In addition to the spirits that make brief cameos in Ghost are still others, even more obscured but no less vital. Sam Wheat, after all, is not the first to haunt 104 Prince Street, the loft he and Molly share at the beginning of the movie. In the film’s opening credits, a camera pans through the dusty, as-yet-undiscovered attic space: soft light catches dust in the air as we see dress forms and covered furniture, draped with sheets to suggest ghosts waiting to be found. Who might they be?

By 1990, the year the film was released, it was clear who these spectral traces belonged to—even if moviegoing audiences did not want to name them outright. A block from Sam and Molly’s fabulous loft is the former home of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art. During the AIDS pandemic of the ’80s, Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman worked tirelessly to rescue and safeguard LGBTQ art—including, likely, the same detritus that Molly and Sam toss out to make way for her own sculpture. Indeed, clearing SoHo of its longtime gay population lurks in the background of Ghost like a ghost haunting Manhattan. As Sarah Schulman writes in The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Generation, “The process of replacement was so mechanical I could literally sit on my stoop and watch it unfurl. . . .Many died in their apartments. It was normal to hear that someone we knew had died and that their belongings were thrown out on the street. I remember once seeing the cartons of a lifetime collection of playbills in a dumpster in front of a tenement and I knew that it meant that another gay man had died of AIDS, his belongings dumped into the gutter.” You can watch Ghost now and feel this presence, even if it’s never named as such—how did Sam and Molly luck into such a cavernous loft in SoHo, its previous owner apparently vanishing, leaving a lifetime of possessions still lingering in the attic?

In 1990, though, no one wanted to think about this, especially not in an Oscar-winning major motion picture. If these ghosts are referenced at all, it’s as a joke. In an early scene, Sam and Carl do a routine in a crowded elevator: Carl begins coughing (visibly not covering his mouth), and complains to Sam about some mysterious but highly contagious illness that’s affected his penis. AIDS isn’t named outright, but it’s clear from the horrified looks of the others in the elevator what they’re afraid of catching—all to the delight of Sam and Carl as they exit the elevator and laugh their way down the hall.

It’s just a joke, but it became hard to unsee, particularly as I thought more and more about uncovered coughs, about social distancing, about the proximity to illness, about the dead left behind who would go uncounted and un-remembered.

Lucy Sante notes in Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York that the “ghosts of Manhattan are not the spirits of the propertied classes.” Rather, “New York’s ghosts are the unresting souls of the poor, the marginal, the dispossessed, the depraved, the defective, the recalcitrant. They are the guardian spirits of the urban wilderness in which they lived and died. Unrecognized by the history that is common knowledge, they push invisibly behind it to erect their memorials in the collective unconscious.” To watch any ghost story set in a city like New York requires this kind of sensitivity, an awareness that every building is haunted, and that these hauntings happen in layers: as much as each generation tries to wipe out the traces of those who’ve come before, those memories are always there. Ghost is a story about haunting that’s haunted by a pandemic just out of sight—and to watch it as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded was to be reminded that cities have always been made and unmade by their plagues and epidemics, and it will always fall to the spirits to tell the whole story.

To watch any ghost story set in a city like New York requires this kind of sensitivity, an awareness that every building is haunted, and that these hauntings happen in layers: as much as each generation tries to wipe out the traces of those who’ve come before, those memories are always there.

Ghost stories always used to work like this: the ghost lingered because something was left undone, or because the living forgot something or someone that should not have been forgotten. Ghost is atypical in this regard; it follows the same track as A Christmas Carol, Lewis Allen’s 1944 classic The Uninvited, and the 1980 George C. Scott vehicle The Changeling. These stories have their moments of terror, but they’re ultimately comforting stories about making the past whole. A justice is rectified, a wrong avenged, a restless spirit comforted at last. The ghost story ensures that even if one doesn’t have a satisfying conclusion in life, there may yet be narrative resolution waiting after death.

This works well for a single ghost, but what about a city? How to make each and every one of these stories whole? What do we do when there are whole cities full of ghosts, each one with their own unique story to tell, each one with something left undone? There is so much left undone when it comes to the dead. They bustle and jostle, they howl and they carouse and they interrupt and demand your attention. They never sleep, the dead. How to imagine the work of Oda Mae, beset with spooks, each with their own unfinished narrative, needing a slow and careful expiation to make the past whole so they can rest? 

One death is a tragedy, but as the bodies pile up, the ghosts and their stories become a problem to be dealt with en masse rather than one at a time. Ghost is rare as a New York City movie about a haunting that doesn’t stress exorcism, since usually ghosts are evicted against their will, like so many poor, queer, black, and brown tenants, their presence erased and their homes disinfected. It’s perhaps why the city’s most famous ghost story focuses not on ghosts like Sam but on the janitors sent to clean them out: 1984’s Ghostbusters.

Ghostbusters is the perfect fairytale of New York: a libertarian fantasy from the Reagan ’80s where the main villain is an EPA official and the all-powerful mayor has to turn to ordinary working Joes to save the city. (And after the bumbling government official shuts down the containment grid and unleashes these imprisoned spirits back into the air above Manhattan, you’re reminded that this, too, is a story about an airborne plague threatening to wipe out the city.) Their iconic coveralls are meant to remind us that the dead of New York are nothing more than pests to be exterminated. The fledgling start-up gets its start ridding the upscale Sedgewick Hotel of its iconic green ghost (later named “Slimer”), and much of their clientele appears to be the affluent, as they cleanse Central Park West condos. The moral of Ivan Reitman’s blockbuster is that the best thing for the city is to let unregulated small businesses wreak havoc and extort payments, mafia-style. (Who are the Ghostbusters, but a protection racket? After all, when the Sedgewick Hotel manager balks at the exorbitant fee, Bill Murray’s Venkman offers to release the ghost back in the now-destroyed ballroom.)

As befitting pests and vermin, hardly any of the ghosts in the Ghostbusters franchise get a backstory; they are nameless squatters and vagrants, marginal figures to be vacuumed up and put in deep storage. Who, for example, was this green gluttonous ghost in their previous life? Presumably someone with a soul, with a family, with a place in New York’s history? Like Patrick Swayze, someone capable of feeling love and longing even in the afterlife, someone with regrets and rage and confusion—someone who deserved an end more dignified than being trapped in a box by three fools. It feels absurd to try to empathize with this gross green thing, but why not? Ghosts were people, too. 

Our two options, it seems: the individual drama or the infestation. The solitary tragedy, the individual whose life we rescue from oblivion. Or: the mass to be removed, as quickly as possible. Ever since February 2020, as I’ve revisited these two movies a dozen times, I’ve asked myself in a hundred different ways: is there any way to write about death that is not as a single tragedy or as a mass cleanup operation? I care about ghost stories because I believe in them another possibility for storytelling, for understanding the past, and for processing grief. The ghost, perhaps, need not be exterminated or expiated. The ghost may not be a problem to solve. The ghost might be merely a gift.

Sam Wheat’s ghost is the kind Hollywood prefers: translucent and a little gauzy, but with a definite shape, features, and personality. They’re easy to visualize and demonstrate, and this form allows a star like Swayze to continue to be on-screen without being disfigured in some way. But as paranormal investigators (along with anyone else who’s ever reported an experience with the supernatural) will tell you, such a manifestation is exceedingly rare in the world of ghost hunting. What people describe instead again and again are invariably sounds, words, maybe a blur of color. Presence without shape. The ghost is disembodied: it does not have discrete form. It is not singular. 

The ghost may not be a problem to solve. The ghost might be merely a gift.

In Ghost and Ghostbusters, the city and its multitudes are just the backdrop from which the narrow few protagonists emerge. But the reason I’m drawn to ghost stories is precisely because by its very nature the ghost blurs the edges of the individual. It flickers. It is and is not any kind of identity. It is and is not the subject of its own story. There’s possibility there.

To say I neither believe in ghosts nor fully embrace skepticism is also to say that I no longer believe that each of us is a discrete entity unto ourselves. The boundaries that separate you and I are porous, our lives not entirely our own. There is a line in John Berger’s 1972 novel G. that’s used as an epigraph in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, and again in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. In Berger’s G., the Casanova-esque protagonist is in the Alps as a friend attempts to pilot the first solo flight over the mountain range, but G is hardly paying attention, instead attempting to seduce a housecleaner. In Berger’s description of the seduction comes this line: “Never again will a single story be told as if it is the only one.”

I found the line first in Ondaatje’s novel, then traced it back to Berger, only to see it reappear in Roy’s when I read it after it won the 1997 Booker Prize. All three novels move between characters as they traverse past and present, reminding you that you can never tell the story of a single life without also telling the stories of all the lives that intersect. 

But ever since late winter 2020, whenever I read a story of a single individual in a novel or an essay or a news report, all I can think about are the ghosts at the margins, those begging  to speak. Every story of a single person is already embedded in a larger story, one where the writer has decided—consciously or not—to reveal or hide those other layers. It’s still the case, of course, that writers will attempt to tell a single story as though it is the only one. But having lived in this pandemic, I now see how impossible it is to read a single story as though it were the only one. Our duty these days is to enter the world of story aware of the ghosts in the background, to always be seeking their stories as well, coaxing them out.

Our duty these days is to enter the world of story aware of the ghosts in the background, to always be seeking their stories as well, coaxing them out.

More and more, to write solely about oneself these days has begun to feel to me like Sam Wheat bypassing the other ghosts in Oda Mae’s waiting room. A “post” pandemic means going back to our old ways when we could imagine ourselves as discrete individuals. But we are never going back; our lives are too interlaced now. Surely, by now, there are other ways to tell stories, other ways to acknowledge the other souls in the room alongside you and me, writer and reader, ghost and medium?

I went back, day after day, to the block where the trees were strung with memorials. The white one, which reads COVID took you. May l❤️ve keep you forever, called to me, demanding to be witnessed again and again. A sentiment so simple, and yet it ached with pain and longing and a story that I did not know, could not know. The first time I saw it, I broke in two. I stood there on the sidewalk and started to cry, crying for all that loss, all the grief from the entire year spilling out of me. In ways I still can’t put into words, it changed me, changed how I saw the city, changed how I saw those years. Not a day went by when I didn’t think of those signs, and the stories—unknown to me—behind them. This is what I mean by haunted. This is what I mean by a ghost story.

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And then, in early 2023, I was walking home one night and discovered to my horror that the white sign had been split in half, its two marble halves dangling from the wire that bound it to the tree. It was hard to imagine such an act—to imagine vandals so unthinking, so malicious, that they would destroy such a thing. Perhaps to console myself, I imagined it was some sort of horrible accident, that someone had backed up against it, or perhaps a fight where someone had been thrown against the tree. These objects were sacred. I couldn’t imagine anyone doing such a thing on purpose.

The blue one came down not long after. I don’t know if it was also broken, or if its creator feared for its safety. The vertical one remained; it would be months before I would learn why. 

How will we ever be the same again? To treat a death in isolation, to treat a story as though it is the only one—these are choices. They are forms of active denial, active forgetting, active erasure. You cannot tell a narrative of those years—of these years—as a single story, as a personal narrative of an individual. Our lives have always been intertwined, but “how to live?” is no longer a question that one can answer solely for oneself.

As the world tries to move on from a pandemic that has left us all scarred and traumatized, you can expect more ghost stories, because they’re one of the few available modes we have for dealing with the unresolved. Expect a language that allows us to see grief as a fleeting shadow out of the corner of one’s eye, there and beckoning, waiting for us to be ready. But beware the sleight of hand that would use a ghost to tell a single story, a homogenized or sanitized version, a discrete narrative. 

It was sometime in the summer of 2023 that I saw the fourth sign—not on a tree, but on the stoop of a brownstone on the same block. A larger slab, but the same carved sentiment: For the ❤️s stolen by COVID-19 of the Two-First. Leaning on the steps, nearly obscured by a garden in full bloom. Suddenly, it felt like I had the key to it all. An address, perhaps the artist behind the signs I’d come to know so well. On a late summer day, I happened by while the building’s occupants were out front, gathering herbs from their garden to give to a neighbor who was standing on the street with a granny cart. I asked them—their names were Emily and Andy—if they were the ones who’d made the signs that were hung from the trees.

“No,” Emily told me. But they knew who made them. Amber had lived in one of the apartment buildings on the block but had since moved to California. The mosque on the corner, they explained, was undergoing a renovation when the pandemic halted construction. That was where the marble tiles had come from: discarded building materials. Amber had taken a few of them and carved the memorials, and then hung them on the trees. 

“This block alone lost 13 people to COVID that first summer,” Andy told me. “And all while people on the television were saying it was made up.” One woman, he said, pointing to a house near the end of the block, survived both World Trade Center attacks, and then died of COVID, her first year into retirement.

He kept on gathering parsley while his neighbor waited patiently, happy to talk but focused on this act of generosity. Emily was picking spinach for a friend; she offered to let me have some as well, anytime I wanted to pick the leaves I was welcome. Our conversation was punctuated by the matter at hand: “Do you want some mint as well?” he asked the woman on the street, who nodded. Emily explained that the sign on their own stoop was not Amber’s work; Emily had made it herself, inspired, a way of keeping the story going, a way of keeping the ghosts alive.

I felt sheepish interrupting them at their work, this act of care for the living that is just as vital as the care we offer the dead, so I left shortly thereafter. But at the end of our conversation, Andy explained to me how the memorials had broken. It hadn’t been vandals as I’d feared, or even an accident. When they’d been hung around the tree limbs, Amber had bound them tightly with wire. But it had been over two years—the trees had grown, slowly, steadily, stretching the thick wire until something had to give, and the marble broke in half. The one hung vertically stayed only because the wire was looser and there was less tension on the brittle marble. What I’d thought was carelessness, or desecration, had been instead the stubborn reality of life going on, even at the expense of our memorials to the past. When I went back to the trees the next day, I saw how thoroughly the limbs had grown around the wire, still there—a vestigial remnant now bound inextricably to this living, growing thing. There may come a time when no one knows the story of that wire, how it got there, what it once held. But it will remain there nonetheless, a presence without a shape.

What I’d thought was carelessness, or desecration, had been instead the stubborn reality of life going on, even at the expense of our memorials to the past.

A slender thread—thin and sharp as a steel wire—connects each of us to these lives we lost, people we don’t know, will never know, but who stay with us every day. It connects you to the ghosts all around us, the ones that remind you that you are not singular, that you are not just the protagonist in your own story, that your own story is a part of a million other stories. That’s what makes a city a city—it’s that slender thread that holds us, the living and the dead, holding us even after we break.

The slender thread that reminds us that never again will a single story be read as though it were the only one.

Colin Dickey is the author of five books of nonfiction, including Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, and, most recently, Under the Eye of Power: How Fear of Secret Societies Shapes American Democracy.

Editor: Krista Stevens
Copyeditor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands