My friend had a birthday party. It was raucous and fantastic, stretching from the afternoon through to the night, two or more locations apparently, three types of cake, a very nice giant couscous salad, karaoke. I haven’t been to a party in years, which meant I entered feeling thrilled but semi-high with awkward anticipation – I couldn’t quite remember how to stand, or the appropriate greetings, and I was very aware of the thickness of my mascara. The room was filled with people I hadn’t seen since before the events, and they came with their new hairstyles, new children, new homes, new bodies, new griefs.
I’d thought a lot about parties since being locked down, remembering them variously as orgiastic performances of joy and nightmarish scenes with terrible teeth in their terrible jaws. This was neither, by the time I left anyway, mid-evening dripping in children, but it was invigorating still, and I remembered the truths of parties, how part of their thrill is in allowing no more than a centimetre of conversation at a time, the meetings so brief, a hard shot of social life to be thrown back and followed with lemon. It was on our way home that I caught the thought that had been sneaking up on me all afternoon. Talking to friends again had reminded me how, over the pandemic, ghost sightings had soared.
The news was reported around Halloween, so I chose to ignore it of course, leaving it for the fairweather ghost story enthusiasts. People like me, bred on horror, able to recall the names of every poltergeist victim from here to Hull, do not require a nice little fright to make the Haribo harvested from neighbours taste sweeter. In the New York Times a paranormal researcher called John EL Tenney said he used to receive between two and five reports of a haunted house a month, but when the pandemic began it was not unusual for him to get five to 10 a week. “It does seem to have something to do with our heightened state of anxiety, our hyper-vigilance,” he said. Going to that party was like seeing 50 ghosts, all at once, but also like the moment when you realise you have become one.
Perhaps you’re sick, now, of revelations about the pandemic and how we have changed. I often think I am, and then another one smacks me around the cheeks and forces me to reconsider the shape of us. Remeeting old friends again after everybody has endured two years of this peculiar discomfort, we come face to face with time. Our memories of who these people are seem suddenly unreliable – those people have gone. As have the years we lost, the dinners, divorces, weddings, funerals, the chance to see their children’s awkward phase, the chance to see their greys come in. These were the people we drunkenly formed ourselves with, on New Year’s Eves at 6am and on the uncarpeted floors of flats off Brick Lane, and now they were middle-aged, which meant we were, too.
The reason people saw ghosts over lockdown was (according to Kurt Gray, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina) that at moments of “great unease” there is an increased drive to find meaning. Plus there’s the complication that disease itself shares psychological parallels with a “malevolent spirit”, stalking its victims. But I am seeing ghosts now that lockdown is over, on bridges, where I am suddenly breathless at the sight of the river, and the hundreds of times I’d passed over it and the hundreds of people I’d passed over it with. At work, where an empty office echoes with expired conversations, and at parties where we stand back to back with the people we were, and the people we failed to become. They’re memories that float outside themselves.
We were in a community hall, a buffet at one end and stage at the other, and in between the two was the party with its bored dogs and drinking men and children feral on Coke, then, as it got dark, my friend started singing. I had the oddest feeling. As if we had always been here. As if all houses were haunted houses, as if something froze in us during those lockdown years, as if time was unstable. Mostly, I felt grateful. To be there. It took a pandemic for me to truly appreciate the strength of thread that connects us to our pasts, and the joy of standing in a room while those little histories dance clumsily around you.
Mr Tenney is certain most of the ghost reports he receives are “completely explainable”. “When the sun comes up and the house starts to warm up, [people are] usually at work – they’re not used to hearing the bricks pop and the wood expand,” he said. “It’s not that the house wasn’t making those sounds. They just never had the time to notice it.”