A family obsession.
By Sophie Burkholder
I grew up in a family obsessed with the afterlife. For our Catholic household, death was never the end. There was heaven, hell, and the mysterious in-between land for souls whose fates had yet to be decided. But a jumble of biblical stories about people who had transcended death somehow or other left me sort of mixed up about how it all worked.
I was lucky. For the first several years of my life, no one close to me died. So I comfortably rooted my own ideas in those of my parents, particularly my mother.
Every weekend, my sisters and I relaxed around the television together with her. As she faded away through glasses of red wine, we watched shows set on the border of the paranormal and the spiritual, like Ghost Whisperer and Joan of Arcadia. Every episode found a way to connect the living and the dead, and there was always unfinished business.
These shows about unseen presences—about ghosts—undoubtedly fueled my mom’s paranoia in everyday life. She would get particularly edgy on windy nights, when the sounds of our trash cans rolling over outside could throw her into a panic. Once, a squirrel infestation in the attic of our old house flared up during a trip that took my father away from home, and my mother convinced herself that the scurrying sounds were those of a home intruder. She grew so nervous that she crowded my sisters and me into her bedroom and called the police, who, of course, found no one.
I now live in a much older, much creakier house in Philadelphia, in a neighborhood that is objectively less secure than that of my childhood. Yet I never fear ghosts or mysterious sounds when I’m here. Still, when I visit my family’s home, I seem to inherit my mother’s paranoia. I can grow so afraid of darkness or squeaking doors that I’ll refuse to leave the safety of my bedroom even to go to the bathroom. I don’t believe in ghosts, but attempts to reassure myself of this fall flat in the presence of a family that so vehemently does.
My family’s commitment to the spiritual reality of the afterlife was never a quality I questioned, but rather a quirk that I thought made us unique. My friends never disclosed any familial fascination with ghosts in their own houses, but it didn’t occur to me to wonder why. I never asked anyone outside of my family what happened to our souls after death. So for a long time, I didn’t think to ask myself what this preoccupation with ghost stories might be covering up.
I don’t remember how old I was when my mom revealed to me that she had been married to someone else before my dad, but I remember her crying when she first told me. His name was John. They were in love and engaged to be married when he received a terminal diagnosis. My mom married him anyway, and he died shortly after. But when she told me this, I could tell her spiritual connection to him remained unbroken.
This was the first of several family secrets I would come to know. Learning about John helped me to know a bit more about my own life—about the antiques in my house that my mom inherited from him, about why ghost stories in which one spouse lost another always made her tear up, and—after finally seeing a picture of John and noting his striking resemblance to my father—about the kind of men my mother liked. Her tearful stories about him gave me little information beyond his name and his day job (I found the picture of him in secret), but they brought me closer to understanding both her history and mine.
Slowly, I learned more. Sometimes, in the car, when it’s just mom and me, she talks about her own mother: about what a strong woman she was, and what a difficult life she had. She emphasizes the love her parents had for each other, and I wonder if she sees that in her own life. I never ask. The stories always end with her parents’ deaths—her mother from breast cancer, her father a few years later from emphysema—and she suddenly refuses to say anything more.
My mom believes in ghosts—is obsessed with them—because of these early losses. These spirits are silent stand-ins for the things my family doesn’t talk about. Parents dying too young, spouses lost to tragedy, eating disorders gone too long unresolved, miscarriages pushed to the back of the mind: these were stories my family only shared in poignantly nostalgic drunken hazes. Brought up the next morning, everyone would act as though suddenly struck with a bout of amnesia, letting the previous night’s tales evaporate like ghosts themselves.
We are an anxious family with deep-seated fears of the unknown. We don’t talk to each other about these fears, but our house reverberates with a cryptic tension between the levelheaded sensibility we purport to espouse and the irrational fears that throb in our hearts. Every antique is a talisman of a past we never talk about, every needless trinket a way of giving shape to memories we don’t know how to share.
My parents prioritize prayer and moments alone to converse with the dead in silence. But this pathway of communication doesn’t exist for them among the living. My dad often reminds me that he was only 10 years old when his own father died, but when I ask about the circumstances—a mysterious accident—he abruptly ends our conversation. Similarly, my mom paints idyllic pictures of childhood and marital happiness in the memories she shares, but when I ask her about darkness, she changes the subject.
As I get older, I feel this aversion to openness growing within me as well, like an inheritance of my family’s fearful reticence. I’ve started to keep my own secrets, though often only from my parents and sisters. Among friends I am open, emotional, tearful, and loving. Around my family, I shrink back from myself, feeling an undercurrent of anxious spirituality the moment I walk through the front door.
And the undercurrent catches me in its grip. When I look out of a dark window in my Philadelphia house, I feel calm—but when I do the same in my childhood one, I’m paralyzed with an inexplicable fear of something appearing on the other side of it.
I often wonder if my family and I only sense paranormal presences when we’re looking for them. Why are we so quick to explain a random flicker of the television or an unknown sound from an empty room as the workings of a ghost? Why are we all so afraid to be the last person awake at night, to be the one responsible for turning off the last light in the house, sending our small world into darkness? And then there’s the question I’m afraid to know the answer to: What does our unbending belief in ghosts and paranormal spirits take the place of?
The heavy guilt that has begun to accrue around my own growing store of secrets makes me think I know the answer. I know my family has a long history of keeping secrets, of not telling each other the whole truth. We prefer solitude, and when we grow lonely, we place our confidence in unseen spirits over fellow humans.
But another query gnaws at me every time I look out of the window on the long bus rides from my family home back to Philadelphia. Why do we search for solace in illogical places? Why don’t we look for the deepest comfort among each other?
In the liminal moments between my life among family and my life among friends, I can’t help but wonder about what these strange and twisted tendencies cover up. What is it my family is looking for in these dark recesses of the spirit? I no longer expect to find an answer. Ours is a mysterious family bond. We each remain bewitched by the secrets we know others are keeping, the unspoken words we live in fear of yet crave to know.
Sophie Burkholder is a senior majoring in bioengineering.