Our small university department, the little CHEF (Centre for Hammering English into Foreigners) has recently relocated. We now occupy two floors of a tastefully renovated Victorian building, and among appointments hitherto unavailable to us are visualisers and smartboards in every classroom, a large staffroom with lots of computers, our own kitchen, and a poltergeist.
The poltergeist’s first and - as far as I know, only - wholly unexplained action so far has been to bend a key belonging to a member of the full-time staff. He had left it on a desk in the full-timers’ office, a key as other keys are, and returned to find it buckled and useless. Visitors who dropped by to admire the new premises were told about the key and told us in their turn that the building was once a boys’ grammar school, and that it had an underground chapel in which the boys prayed for Old Boys who were fighting in World War One. This snippet has become conflated with the Tale of the Key as if it somehow provided an explanation; the Spirits of the Crypt are disturbed by workmen hammering, drilling and painting, and they bend our keys in protest. So now any mildly puzzling event may be explained by blaming it on the unquiet dead - books that are not where you last put them, pens shifted from drawer A to drawer B, that sort of thing, which of course went unremarked upon before we knew we were perched above a crypt. The presence of discarnate entities has even been adduced to account for the noticeable difference in temperature between the full-timers’ office and the much warmer adjacent rooms. An alternative explanation for this is that Room 101 is on a corner, has therefore two outside walls, and it’s February. There is no doubt some equally logical, spoil-sport explanation for the bent key.
You have no idea how much I want there to be a bloody poltergeist, though: a real, disgruntled Old Boy from the Crypt who might be persuaded that he's actually dead and is free to leave for a better place than Leicester: Matlock springs to mind. I’ve been swapping ghost stories with other teachers over the last few days, all the funny and weird stuff that happens to friends and to friends of friends (I have a lot of this stuff stored up) but rarely to the speaker himself or herself. Even my own experience was in early childhood and cannot strictly speaking count as first hand. It’s only a few years ago that the gods and the spirit world, which I had seen as a matrix from which we all emerge, turned entirely to dust on me, desiccated by a sudden and belated access of rationalism which has left me a universe of clanking gears and rusty cogs, all life running down inexorably to illness, frailty, dependence, dementia and extinction. All you know, all you love, every refinement of your responses over a lifetime, pffffft, gone some day soon, as it had never been.
Jesus, how did we get from key-bending goblins to cheery thoughts like that one? Well, on the train the other evening I was thinking about Father Karras in ‘The Exorcist’, the priest who no longer believes, and feels himself a fraud for maintaining the public pretense that he does. He misses belief, but the cold water of reason has doused the flame, an ignis fatuus after all. I thought how I often feel fraudulent when I say I am an atheist, because in doing so I'm denying a private longing for higher planes interpenetrating this earthly one, and for signs that we are not just bodies, but immortals exploring the plane of matter*. I really used to believe this stuff, for Christ's sake. Towards the end of the novel, Karras and Father Merrin, the exorcist of the title, change into their exorcise gear and get cracking on evicting the Assyrian Demon of the Winds from the body of twelve-year old Regan. Early in the proceedings, the cynical Karras watches gobsmacked as Regan’s bed begins to levitate, in defiance of known laws governing beds:
He stared at it incredulously. Four inches. Half a foot. A foot. The the back legs began to come up [ ....] The bed drifted upward another foot, and then hovered bobbing and listing gently as if it were floating on a stagnant lake.
Karras turned. The exorcist was eyeing him serenely, and now motioned his head towards the copy of the Ritual in Karras' hands. 'The response, please, Damien.' [...]
' ''Let the enemy have no power over her.' '' Merrin repeated gently.
Hastily Karras glanced back at the text and with a pounding heart breathed out the response: '' 'And the son of iniquity be powerless to harm her.' ''
'' ' Lord, hear my prayer,' '' continued Merrin.
'' 'The Lord be with you. ' ''
'' 'And with your spirit. ' ''
Merrin embarked upon a lengthy prayer and Karras again returned his gaze to the bed, to his hopes of his God and the supernatural hovering low in the empy air. An elation thrilled up through his being. It's there! There it is! Right in front of me! There!
See? That's what I want, evidence I don't have to conclude that the material is all there is. I see no grounds for believing otherwise, though, and it makes me gloomy as all get out.
To be resigned to death and extinction is not always a consolation even to the Stoic – although it does have its satisfactions. Among these…one can include the reasonable certainty that mere wish-thinking did not help to stack one’s intellectual deck.
Ah, well, I suppose so. But still, I really do want to go into work some morning and witness teacups travelling the air, or board markers borne aloft by impalpable hands, and most especially Ridah’s smirk of certainty about everything wiped off his face by an unseen fist. This last would certainly suggest purpose and intelligence on the part of the smiter and go some way to demonstrating the existence of discarnates to us still in our envelope of meat.
* But if you are a soul or a spirit, why would you need a physical body, any more than a fish needs a wet suit or a snorkel?
Blatty, W.P., (1971) The Exorcist, New York, Harper and Row