I SPY: a childhood obsession with ghosts

Nina Powles remembers the thrill of being scared by stories as a child, and not quite believing in ghosts but not not believing either … Remember Scooby Doo, I Spy, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and Goosebumps?

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I spy a leaf, a whistle, a ring,

Whenever we went on a plane when I was little, I always sat by the window. Not for the view, but because of the people in the sky. They were characters in an important story invented by my dad. Actually, the author of Peter Pan invented them; the characters were the Darling family. I would ask please can I have a Darling story and Dad would grumble a bit, then give in. His story would usually involve them flying to an imaginary land and back, once even all the way to the moon. When I looked out the window I saw them there in the clouds, the pyjama-clad family and their hairy dog bouncing around happily, waving to each other and waving at me, the dog’s ears lolling in the breeze.

an arrow, a spyglass,

The first time I became invested in stories was when I started watching Scooby-Doo every night at seven o’clock on Cartoon Network. It didn’t take long before I realised that every every episode follows the same six-part structure. 1) The gang are driving the Mystery Machine when it breaks down near a large decrepit property. 2) The place turns out to be suffering from a ‘monster problem.’ 3) The gang splits up. 4) Clues indicate that monster is fake, and a trap is set. 5) The monster is unmasked. 6) The offender shouts some variation of ‘I’d have got away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!’ while being apprehended. It went the same way every time, but I was always disappointed when the ghosts, yetis, vampires or mummies didn’t turn out to be real—that is, until the 1998 release of the feature-length animated movie Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island in which the gang encounters a coven of werecat witches who have cursed the corpses of their murder victims to come alive every year at the harvest moon.

two foxes, a wing;

The school library was on the top floor of the building. I remember the comforting smell of old wooden bookshelves and the way my shoes sank into the thick red carpet. I would head straight for a shelf in the middle of the room where the I Spy books were kept. Each one had been opened and laid out on the floor so many times the spines were falling apart. My favourite was I Spy: Spooky Night. There was a cobwebbed attic full of dolls, a library of secret trapdoors, a graveyard of crumbling tombstones. Even after I’d found all the objects in the riddle I would look at every corner of the picture, hungrily examining all the little objects that seemed to belong there at first, then when you looked closer, were eerily out of place. I pictured all the objects coming alive whenever I closed the book, just like in Toy Story. They were careful to stay perfectly still when the book was open. Blink and they might disappear.

I spy a magnet, a lion, a trick

When I read books about ghosts, sometimes I read the words without looking at the pictures, covering them with one hand. That didn’t work; I looked anyway, and just made sure not to look out any windows or into any cupboards straight after. I knew I might get bad dreams but somehow I couldn’t help it. I wanted to see everything. One of them was a special Halloween edition of Ripley’s Believe it or Not. It showed the famous photograph of a ghostly Abraham Lincoln standing behind a tiny woman in a black bonnet, his semi-transparent hands resting on her shoulders. I became convinced that a ghost lived behind the curtains in my bedroom. I read so much about them, more than everyone else—how could there not be one haunting me? I almost hoped there was. I had so many questions to ask.

a veil, a tophat,

Every Halloween we coated our cheeks in white face paint and fake blood and put plastic fangs in our mouths. My best friend Isabella’s mum hosted the best Halloween party, with bowls of candy corn and liquorice spiders and chocolate fudge balls rolled in orange sprinkles. The decorations that hung in windows all over the city filled me with wonder and excitement, even the scariest ones—mummies wrapped in bloodied rags, glow-in-the-dark skulls dangling over doorways. It was the one day of the year when you could be sure none of it was real.

a witch’s broomstick;

I got all my Goosebumps books at garage sales and secondhand bookshops. At one point I owned more than thirty, not including the spin-off series Give Yourself Goosebumps in which you could create your own nightmare. Open this door and see what’s inside, skip to page 4. Go down to the basement, turn to page 3. We nineties kids were addicted to their fluorescent covers with neon goo dripping down the spines and their sensational, oddly poetic titles such as The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight (1994), Phantom of the Auditorium (1994), The Curse of Camp Cold Lake (1997). The story I remember best is The Haunted Mask (1993) in which eleven-year-old Cathy seeks revenge on her school bully by scaring him with a ghoulish mask. She later finds she cannot take it off; it has become part of her own face.

I spy a mermaid, a sneaker, a clock,

The second school I attended had a big, bright library with high ceilings and sunlight streaming through tall windows. It also had a ghost—or so they said. They say she lived in the tower, stuck there ever since she tripped down the stairs on her wedding night and died. After school I would read pony books and mystery books on one of the comfy chairs next to the window. After the last bell, the hallways vibrated with quiet echoes. When I reached door at the top of the staircase where no one was allowed, I sped up slightly and did not linger. But I always glanced into the shadowy spaces that the fluorescent light did not reach, hoping to see something. Perhaps a light under the door.

a locket, a seahorse,

After a lifelong ghost obsession, it’s taken me almost as long to figure out that my view is this: I don’t quite believe in them but I do believe in our imaginations. Which is to say: I believe people who say they have seen one.

an unopened box;

The library where I discovered poetry for the first time had only just been built when I started at the school at the age of thirteen. Everything smelled too new, too clean, the lights too bright. But my best friend and I made it into a home. On the lime-green couches by the window looking out over the soccer field, we read poetry aloud to each other (Dickinson, Whitman, cummings, Frost) and wrote lines of poetry and song lyrics (Nirvana, Bob Dylan) in permanent marker on our book bags. I felt the same wonder and mystery that I got from reading ghost stories. I didn’t always understand what was happening in a poem—and often still don’t—but understanding is secondary when it comes to ghosts and poetry. I grasped that there was a deep mystery contained inside the sound of the words, a new kind of aliveness that is not necessarily possible to describe or explain. Like a ghost that only you have seen.

I spy a feather, a needle, a cat,

‘The imagination is a physical space that one shares with other people,’ wrote Dorothea Lasky, echoing the words of Albus Dumbledore, who famously remarked to Harry on the misty train platform, ‘Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?’

When we name places as out of bounds or forbidden or an earthquake risk, perhaps it’s inevitable that strange things will start to happen. Eventually the story becomes real. All it takes is a sharp gust of wind, a dust pattern on the floor, a flickering light. In the shared space of our imagination, we run wild.

a mirror, a candle, a vampire bat.

Nina Powles
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Nina Powles is a writer from Wellington. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University and was the 2015 winner of the Biggs Family Prize for Poetry. Her work has recently appeared in Mimicry, Scum and Shabby Doll House as well as several self-published poetry zines. Her debut poetry book, Luminescent, was published in August 2017. She is half Malaysian-Chinese and currently lives in China.

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