Encounters With the Uncanny

In 2007, while on residency in Paris, my partner and I took time out to visit friends in London. It was August, and we were fortunate enough to be offered the opportunity to mind a friend’s mother’s house in Balham Hill. The first night we stayed we were tired; it had been a long day, travelling on the Eurostar with our fifteen-month-old, and so we ordered a pizza, watched television and went to bed early.

I have never been a good sleeper, especially in unfamiliar places, but that night I was asleep almost as soon as my head hit the pillow. For a time I slept undisturbed, but then, sometime deep in the night, I woke, falling out of a deep, dreamless sleep into the sort of strange wakefulness jetlag induces. At first I was disoriented, the room unfamiliar in the darkness. Next to me I could hear my partner breathing. Gradually I realised where I was, but even as I did I was gripped by the certainty I had not woken of my own accord, and that something, somewhere, was wrong.

And then, quite suddenly, I heard a child cry. Although the sound seemed to come from inside the house I knew at once it was not my daughter: it was not her voice, nor could it be coming from the house next door, since we knew the neighbours were away. Indeed the more I listened the more it seemed there was something out of kilter about the acoustics, some quality that made the cries sound simultaneously close at hand and somehow distant, as if they were being carried down a pipe or through a vent from somewhere far away.

For a long time I lay there, listening. There was something in the cry I found disturbing, some sense the child was alone. Surely his parents must come soon, I thought as the minutes passed. But instead the child cried on, unconsoled, as if he had been crying like that for as long as he could remember, as if he would cry like that long after I’d gone.

Eventually I slept again, and when I woke it was light, and the sound was gone. In the bright of the summer morning the sense of unease I had felt during the night seemed vaguely ridiculous. It had been a dream, I told myself, some kind of unsettled sleep state. Yet another part of me couldn’t let it go, returning to dwell on the absence of children in the houses nearby, the question of where the sound might have come from, and how a child might have been left to cry for so long.

Most of us have had experiences of this sort, incidents in which we were keenly aware something was not right, that we were in the presence of something we could not explain. But more often they remain unspoken, memories of rooms we have bolted from, or of moments of stark terror in the darkness. Sometimes, though, they take on other, more formal shapes, becoming stories about inexplicable encounters and intimations of the supernatural. These stories take different forms, but most often they are ritualised as what we think of as ghost stories.

I have heard many such stories over the years. One took place in a hospital in Brisbane where a friend of mine and her family were gathered at the bedside of her dying grandfather and involved a mysterious visitor to their bedside and a phone call a few minutes after the grandfather’s death in which a voice assured them their grandfather would be fine, ‘because he’s in a better place now’. Another involved my brother, and a little girl he spoke to in a hallway in a hotel who could not have been there.

My favourite though is a story an old family friend called Alan told me several years ago. Alan is in his seventies now, but at the time of the story he was still a young man and had taken a job as one of a team of researchers working in an Aboriginal settlement in the Central Desert. The various members of the team had different responsibilities, but Alan’s were mostly focused on recording the stories and experiences of the men in the community.

Because of the nature of the work Alan became close with a number of the men, and over time they began to travel out into the desert. Having the researchers, with their Toyotas there, was a blessing for the men, who were suddenly able to visit many sites that had been neglected for many years because of their distance from the township.

After a year or so of this, two of the men offered to take Alan to meet an elder who lived two days drive from the township and to visit a series of sacred sites along the way. Alan agreed, and so, a few days later, the three of them set off together into the desert.

As anyone who has spent time in Central Australia will know, the desert is a strange place, and one that can easily unsettle the unwary. Alan has spoken more than once of places he did not care for or that seemed somehow haunted, not the least of which was an archaeological dig in the necropolis of Lake Mungo, where many thousands of Aboriginal dead lie buried beneath the sand. Yet this trip quickly became particularly odd. Early on the first day a mob of kangaroos they were following hopped off the track and disappeared, and later, on a hillside, they three times sighted the sacred site they meant to visit and set off down to it, only to find it had vanished, an experience Alan still has no explanation for.

Come dusk they were approaching a low, rounded hill, and though Alan could tell it was a place the men he was with were uncomfortable about, they directed him to stop, and together the three made camp for the night.

Like all Dreaming beliefs, the Dreaming beliefs of the Walpiri people are complex, and inseparable from the land they describe and sustain. The Dreaming is a place of power and myth, a world pressed close against this one, and Dreaming sites are those places where the two worlds meet. Those that live on the other side, in the Dreaming, are not evil, but nor are they safe to be around; they are creatures of power, with their own agendas and meanings.

As they ate, the men told Alan that on the other side of the hill there lay a Dreaming camp site, and as they sat there around the fire, they could hear the cries of the wind, sounds the men said were those of the dingoes around the camp on the hill’s other side. Both were uneasy, but it was, as Alan himself admitted, an unsettling night—very cold, with a freezing wind blowing low across the land.

Much later, Alan woke. The wind had dropped and it was still, but looking up from his sleeping bag he could see the clouds overhead moving fast against the stars. Rising, he stepped past the sleeping forms of his companions and the fire, now little more than embers, and walked out into the darkness, looking for somewhere to piss. Now the wind was gone it was very quiet and bitterly cold. And then, quite suddenly, he felt fear grip him. Not fear of the dark, or of being lost, but a primal, physical fear. On his neck and arms the hair stood up, panic gripping him in the gut as he turned and ran back to the camp site.

In the morning they all woke early. Alan’s companions seemed as eager as he was to be quit of the place, and so they were on the road before the sun was fully up. With the hill behind him he felt easier, and although he did not forget the experience, it faded and, aware how foolish it sounded, he never mentioned it to anyone, at least not until he returned to the township for a visit several years later. And then, quite by accident, the subject of that trip came up. The two men who had been with him looked uncomfortable, and, curious, Alan asked them why.

‘That was a bad trip,’ one of them said. ‘A lot of strange things happened.’

‘Like what?’ Alan asked. ‘The kangaroos?’

He nodded. ‘The kangaroos. And that night, by the hill.’

Suddenly uneasy, Alan asked him what he meant, and after a moment the man asked him if he remembered the Dreaming camp site. When Alan told him he did, the man paused again, then said that they too had awoken in the night, only they had not seen Alan in the darkness beyond the fire, they had seen him in the moonlight on the hill, speaking to two of the Dreaming men.

‘And then?’ Alan asked.

‘And then we were so frightened we covered our heads up and waited for the morning.’

I don’t disbelieve Alan, at least not in the sense that I doubt the events he describes happened. My own experience with the child in the bedroom in Balham Hill is enough to remind me we all have our stories about encounters with the eerie and unsettling. But like the stories of my brother and my friend, the neatness of the tale, in particular its denouement, makes me uncomfortable when I try to think my way through its implications.

In one sense saying this is merely to recognise the manner in which the process of giving narrative form to a series of events changes the nature of those events, transforming them into something new. After all, any story is really two things: the experience it describes and the sense we give to that experience by arranging and shaping it. It would be a mistake to say the first is simply something that happened—no experience is that simple or unconstructed—but as soon as that experience is described or connected to other experiences it becomes something quite different, a thing charged with meaning.

This is particularly true of ghost stories, which draw their energies from the tension between our rational minds and the primitive, unsettling power of the unknown. For as long as that tension can be maintained we are moved out of the world we know and understand, into a state where meaning and the order of things are unsettled, and possibility is given play.

This frisson is both exciting and unnerving, but it can only be maintained for as long as we do not enquire too closely into what is going on. It’s possible this is part of the reason ghost stories rarely translate well into print—like that other oral form, the joke, with whose structure (and whose capacity to unsettle established orders) they share many similarities—the more allusive and performative processes of oral storytelling allow us to place ourselves in the hands of the teller in a way we find difficult when reading.

Likewise there seems reason to be wary of the neatness of these stories—we all know life rarely offers itself so neatly equipped with a punchline or a reversal, that these are usually the work of the teller, but so alluring do we find the stories we seem prepared to overlook these qualifications.

But what of the other aspect of these stories, the experiences themselves? There is little room in a scientific viewpoint for the existence of ghosts or spirits, and yet we all of us have felt moments of terror, apprehended the presence of something that triggers our most primal fear responses. Paranormal research has a bad name, perhaps not unreasonably. But recent years have seen interesting discoveries. The late Vic Tandy, a scientist at the University of Coventry, published a paper in 1998 that argued that at least some encounters with the paranormal can be attributed to a reaction to ultra-low frequency sound, or infrasound. The discovery occurred after Tandy himself had endured a series of unsettling experiences, from creeping chills to the sense a presence was in the room with him, while working in a lab manufacturing medical equipment. Tandy was not alone in having such experiences, but when he felt his apprehension tip over into fear one night, he decided to try to establish the cause.

Through a process of elimination Tandy found the experiences seemed to be caused by a fan in the lab which was producing sound in a frequency well below the range of the human ear. Armed with this result Tandy first ‘exorcised’ the ghost by having the fan removed, then later, having identified the exact frequency, reproduced the effect of the fan in experimental subjects. Intrigued, Tandy suggested the frequency must be resonating somehow with the body, causing a physiological reaction that manifested as apprehension, fear and the sense of other presences nearby, speculating further that since the effect could be reproduced it was at least possible that many supernatural experiences were the result of natural phenomena such as the wind blowing across open chimneys or pipes vibrating underground.

Tandy and his team then investigated a cellar under a fourteenth-century house adjacent to Coventry University that had long been believed to be haunted. Setting up listening devices they quickly established not just that infrasound was being produced in the area, but also that it was infrasound of exactly the same frequency as that the fan had been producing in their lab, the frequency that seemed to be associated with feelings of fear and apprehension.

Other scientists have observed similar reactions triggered by sudden drops in temperature and by localised magnetic fluctuations. In 2001 Dr Richard Wiseman, of Hertfordshire University, set up thermal imaging equipment in Hampton Court’s famously haunted gallery, finding evidence not merely of sudden temperature fluctuations caused by the many hidden doors, but of a higher incidence of reports of ghosts and unsettling experiences connected with the areas where the fluctuations were greatest.

The gap between our lived experience and the physiological basis of that lived experience is always wide, not least because we rarely—at least in the absence of brain injury or disease—have access to our own processing. When we do, it is usually precisely because something is not working properly. Several years ago, in broad daylight in a Sydney park, I saw something moving towards me. As I noticed it out of the corner of my eye and turned to focus on it, it changed several times in rapid succession, becoming a dog, a cat, a child, before settling quite suddenly into the form of a dog. The process cannot have taken more than a second or two, but it was enough for my confused brain to trigger a powerful fear reaction and desire to flee, a desire I only narrowly resisted. Presumably what I experienced was a failure by my brain to process the information it was receiving and, along with it, a very sensible desire to remove myself from a situation where I was being approached by something I could not identify. But the momentary glimpse of the countless processes of identification and processing that go on every day beneath the surface of our brains was unsettling, to say the least.

Could all our experiences of ghosts have similar causes? Part of me says yes, but another part is reluctant to give up the pleasure of being spooked. In a world where the power of story is pushed, like ghosts and fairies and monsters before it, ever more out of focus, the ghost story still has a place, if only because it allows us to escape the rational for a moment or two.

But there is another part of me that clings to these stories because some primitive part of me cannot let them go. In the house where I grew up there was a space in front of the window seat in the front room that terrified me. When the room was full of people and sound it rarely bothered me, but as soon as I was alone there I would feel it, the sense that something was there, a presence or—I sometimes thought—a hole, into which all the light and warmth in the room seemed to drain. More times than I can remember I felt it start: the creeping feeling I was not alone, that something malevolent was nearby; more times than I can remember I fled the room, too afraid to turn and see whatever it was that lurked there.

Many years later my father and I happened to be talking about the house. He had not lived there since I was thirteen, when he and my mother separated, but on being asked about it he looked uneasy. ‘I never liked that house,’ he said. I began to tell him about my fear of the front room, but before I could finish he interrupted me. ‘That room most of all, over by the window,’ he said, ‘used to give me the willies.’


To read a fascinating postscript to this piece, visit James Bradley’s blog here.