It Came in Through the Bathroom Mirror

When you have ghosts, you have everything

C: Someone has died who is not dead
M: And now we are friends
—Sarah Kane, Crave (1998)

I don’t see dead people. But a ghost has haunted the bathroom adjoined to my childhood bedroom for as long as I can remember, and it terrifies me. I don’t believe in ghosts.

I was around seven when my family moved to the leafy 1930s-style detached home in London in which my parents still live. My bedroom was on the back corner of the second floor, with an en suite bathroom. It boasted a dusty pink tub and toilet, installed when avocado green was an acceptable bathroom color scheme. I don’t trace the ghost back to that era, or to any specific time. All I know is that he was there when, or as, I arrived. I have never been haunted — except metaphorically — anywhere else.

This ghost is formless — a shadow that seems to peer back, an aspect that shifts when you look back twice, a displacer of air in the room. I’ve feared him for as long as I’ve disbelieved in his broader kind. A few months ago, I was back to London to stay in that house with my boyfriend, to whom I clung throughout the night in fear. I wasn’t afraid that the ghost might come; the ghost was already there. It’s not a heavy presence all night, but he stirs at some point or points most nights. The bathroom shifts from small and quaint to a cave of darkness visible. Closing the bathroom door doesn’t help; the concealment can evoke more dread.

There is no prima facie contradiction in fearing something that one does not believe to exist. It’s not even unusual, as the success of horror movies suggests. My fear doesn’t point to a de facto belief. The ghost who haunts my childhood bathroom does not present grounds for me to shift my web of ontological commitments to include a realm of formerly embodied souls wandering among us. I’m not waiting for the right empirical experience to substantiate a coherent and comprehensible ghost world for me. But the least interesting thing to do with my ghost is to explain him away.

Instead, I want to account for my ghost without reducing him to nonexistence or empirical fact. I want to insist upon the ghost’s presence, not as a metaphor, but as a substantive reminder to believe and disbelieve differently — to believe and disbelieve simultaneously, with a commitment that goes beyond a jump in the night. The hows, not the whats, by which he is — I aim to explain why I can allow a certain reality of the ghost, and then why I should, and you should too.

I was petrified as a child, but only in private. Neither withdrawn nor fanciful, I was not imaginative enough to see ghosts everywhere, nor fairies anywhere. Precocious enough to reject magic, and not philosophical enough, until much later, to let it back in. But my bathroom was haunted.

The haunting was pretty standard: I would lie like stone under my covers, hiding my feet. Trips to pee at night were mad dashes to the toilet and back, under the watch of a dark presence, with a felt immateriality no less robust than a human gaze. Yes, yes, the male gaze in my bathroom mirror. The fact that the ghost has always seemed male to me is probably not an accident, but this essay isn’t a therapy session. The ghost will never show or prove itself male or not, or gendered in any direction, because the ghost won’t prove itself at all. And the ghost hardly stands alone in the set of beings interpellated into gender. But, again, the ghost is not a metaphor.

There is no prima facie contradiction in fearing what one does not believe exists. The least interesting thing to do with my ghost is explain him away

As children often are, I was better back then at maintaining contradictions — the reality and unreality of the ghost was no mental strain. But I contracted positivism while growing up and tried to explain my ghost away. When I was around 11, a physics teacher accidentally offered some bright relief by describing the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, when a person experiences a total inability to move or speak on the edge of waking, a state often accompanied by visual and auditory hallucinations, and the sense that a presence is physically weighing on them or the edge of the bed. Centuries of succubus and incubus demons sitting on chests, explained as a glitch on the journey to or from REM sleep.

A bad drug trip can be mitigated by the reminder that it’s drug-induced. Hallucinations, deciphered as mental illness, can be mitigated by the use of drugs. In both cases, what matters is an intervention that asserts that the hallucination is not real. Such reality affirming (or inscribing) interventions can be life-saving. The same considerations need not apply to my ghost. He could be explained as a product of sleep paralysis, but the simplest explanation is not always the best. It depends on your aims. Knowing about sleep paralysis didn’t stop it occurring, nor did it vanquish the ghost as an ongoing presence to this day.

When my mother told me that she uses my bathroom and bedroom for my baby nephew when he stays over, I shuddered. My nephew’s little body, bubble bath, baby toys, and the ghost. I leave psychic room for the possibility that they might notice each other.

Although I’m the only one who has experienced my bathroom ghost, he is not a private mental object. (I don’t believe in private mental objects). I talk about the ghost now, joke about him. I’m telling you about my ghost because I don’t really know how to tell about him. I point to him here, because I can’t but I do. If he (or anything) were just a subjective phenomenological experience, we wouldn’t be able to discuss it. Sure, you can’t feel what it feels like to be haunted by my ghost for me, but you also can’t feel what it feels like to be me in general — that’s not unique to haunting and is not a good enough reason to dismiss the ghost as just my imagination. Equally, if the ghost were just there, like standard-issue worldly stuff, there’d be no grounds for comment, no reason to reach out and share him with you. It’s his ambiguity that makes him worth mention.

Intimacy lives in those places we don’t reduce to the wholly explicable, even though we could.

Contemporary science allows for the reality of my ghost only in so far as he is the content of a real hallucination or psychological process, steeped in my projections. And I can’t disagree with that, aside from the fact that it’s not much fun, especially on Halloween. My disagreement begins with the assertion that hallucination or imagination are the only possible terrains of reality for my ghost.

The new atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris — the worst of all ghostbusters — demand the universe, however physically massive, be as small and legible as possible. They would do well to consult some better empiricists. Willard Van Orman Quine, a 20th-century American logician and philosopher, had little time for ghosts, but even less time for the sort of bad thinking that organizes the world into stable, immovable categories that could not ever allow for ghosts. Quine thought our theories of the world should be considered webs of belief, with centers and peripheries. At the center of the web are propositions we might call analytically true, or a priori — e.g. 2+2=4; all bachelors are unmarried. On the periphery are beliefs that can be changed based on some recalcitrant experiences, e.g. if one believes there are no red-haired French people, but then meets a few red-haired French people, the original belief is easily revised. Quine rejected that these are actually different types of truth, epistemologically (i.e., really). Given the right, albeit dramatic, alterations to a belief web, 2+2=4 could be false, and not just by swapping around the meaning of words.

Right now, as I sit here soberly typing, if I see a pink elephant dance into the room, my web of belief is such that I assume I am hallucinating, not that pink elephants dance into rooms. It would take a decent dose of recalcitrant evidence for me to choose the latter explanation. Given that we develop these holistic systems in societal, not isolated contexts, it would likely take a critical mass of people experiencing the pink elephant to conclude that the pink-elephant hypothesis is a better story of reality than the hallucination hypothesis. But Quine’s point is that this is possible.

It’s a political imperative to believe (impossibly) that another world is possible, even while unable to explain that world from the confines of this one

Webs of belief are holistic systems and can shift to include new, even radical propositions, so long as the entire web shifts accordingly. The webs of belief aren’t intersubjective attempts to map out a real world, a map that gets closer and closer to truth with better and better science. Rather, they delineate reality at a given time, and every proposition contained in such a web is (in theory) revisable. They could shift to include the existence of ghosts, or just one bathroom ghost. We can imagine a world in which we had enough shared experiences to include bathroom ghosts as verifiable objects in our web of belief. More crucially, Quine’s approach entails not only that we could “add” ghosts to the set of existing things, but also that we can maintain webs of belief in which things do and don’t exist at the same time.

Some webs are better, by Quine’s empiricist lights, if they better predict future phenomena based on experience. But, using the example of Homer’s gods, he noted that the affective reality of something doesn’t depend on its materiality: “In point of epistemological footing,” Quine wrote, “the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conceptions only as cultural posits.”

This points to the larger stakes of Quinean holism, which relate to my ghost’s mode of existence. When Quine talked about conceptual schemes for future prediction, he failed to talk about desire, about ethics. In affirming my ghost, I’m asking that we not be boring assholes about what gets to exist, and how. The ghost invites an ethical consideration, not just an ontological one: he is indicative of inexplicable possibilities, which get ruled out as empirically impossible. We act better, I believe, when we don’t work to fold every unusual phenomenon into our pre-existing precepts. It’s a political imperative to believe (impossibly) that another world is possible, while necessarily being unable to explain that world from the confines of this one. The “inexpressible contained — inexpressibly! — in the expressed,” as Maggie Nelson summed up Wittgenstein’s central concern.

The Babadook, for example, is such a good movie because it refuses to reduce its monster to a psychological posit. We realize we are watching the story of a mother and a son haunted by grief, but the film insists, too, that the monster, qua monster, is real. The Babadook isn’t banished to the psyche, but to the basement, and all the better for the universe of the film.

My bathroom ghost sits somewhere liminal in my web of belief; he’s not part of how I typically navigate the world, which requires constant banal prediction. That it remains there, however, is ethically important. Your ghosts, too, your demons, your holy visions don’t need to exist; you could no doubt account for them scientifically. The bombastic tendency of Western science is to pathologize, and thus dismiss such things. But the question of what realities are possible should not just be answered by the measurable components of what already has been. Does maintaining the reality of your ghost hurt you or help you? Does a collective commitment to something mystical, outside “reason,” cause more harm than good? Bathroom ghost is a heuristic (which is not a metaphor) for considering what is desirable to allow for in our worlds, or to explain away. Because even though I could explain him away, he will still come and scare me. So I might as well make epistemic room for him; it’s more interesting to do so.

Ontologies are open ethical questions we have to ask again and again. This is no more true of, say, religious ontological commitments than it is of the sciences which foolishly believe themselves to have escaped ideology.

A few decades ago, there was an critical-theory trend in making use of ghosts. Jacques Derrida introduced the idea of “hauntology” (which, by no accident, sounds exactly like “ontology,” in his native French pronunciation) as a radical critique to use temporality to challenge the limits of totalities and ideological dichotomies. Insofar as we always live with presence and nonpresence, he suggests, there are spirits. We see this clearly in fiction: All stories are ghost stories, a reading invokes a return, for the first time in the present, specters of, say, a dead writer or an idea from the past. Derrida focused on the examples of Marx’s “specter of communism,” and Shakespeare’s principal tragedy. Tenses are muddled — “the time is out of joint,” says Hamlet. These hauntings occupy an ambiguous ontology, between life and death, presence and absence. “They are always there, specters, even if they do not exist, even if they are no longer, even if they are not yet,” Derrida wrote. “Haunting is the state of proper being as such.”

Though “to be or not to be” remains Hamlet’s most quoted phrase, in the play’s broader context, life or death is not the question at all. The dichotomy is undone from the beginning. The play begins with a ghost, the king who is and is not — both gone and present, both rightful king and no longer king. Hamlet fails to understand the hauntological universe in which he lives, where “to be or not to be” fails to exhaust the logical space.

I like the thought, but Derrida’s intervention in ideological totality seems to posit a totality of haunting itself. It reminds me of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, and tormented Mrs. Alving, who says, “I am half inclined to think we are all ghosts … it is not only what we have inherited from our fathers and mothers that exists again in us, but all sorts of old dead ideas and all kinds of old dead beliefs and things of that kind. They are not actually alive in us; but there they are dormant all the same, and we can never be rid of them.”

How the internet functions is wholly explicable, but how our phenomenology has accommodated them is a magic of sorts. We relate in ways once deemed unreal

For Derrida, the possibility of something always already dead-and-alive provides a dichotomy-breaking possibility. We do well, unlike Hamlet, to notice it.

Derrida’s ghosts that put time out of joint shouldn’t be so strange to us digital denizens. We live with and through digital selves and are beyond the era in which online experiences and relations were deemed and experienced as “unreal.” We have normalized the fact of our enmeshed digital existences and expanded what we allow to be “real” selves, real experiences. How the internet functions is wholly explicable — there’s no spectral mystery to how we integrate into networks — but how our phenomenology has accommodated them is a magic of sorts. It evidences our ability to relate in ways once deemed unreal. It took collective leaps of faith to see online avatars as aspects of people, not just pictures of people, to feel an iPhone as a bodily extension. “There you are!” I say as a friend goes green on Gchat — we’ve shifted the possibilities of “there” and “where” a whole lot in recent decades. We don’t call digitally integrated life mystical or paranormal; tech companies would like us to simply call it “progress” and reap the profits.

Still, it took choice and a certain consensus (albeit hierarchically organized by Silicon Valley techno-capital) to permit for digital reality to be real. That choice was also a choice to introduce ambiguity into the real, or else “IRL” would make no sense as a phrase. My ghost is possible by the same logic, although, to his credit, he will not find articulation through capitalist enterprise.

Remember the dress? Gold and white or blue and black and maddening either way. Like Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit perception puzzle (which, by the by, I have tattooed on my arm), it was an aspect-perception game in which one reading of the image makes the other equally valid reading impossible to see. Unlike the duck-rabbit, where most people manage to see both duck and rabbit, the dress was less available for aspect-shifting. Most people could only ever see either the gold and white, or the blue and black. We couldn’t force ourselves to alternate between them, even as we begged each other to try to see it our way. Scientific explanations of the phenomena were given, but it didn’t matter, I was a gold-and-white; it didn’t open to me the blue-black aspect. Fuck what the dress looked like in the store — in the viral image we shared a blue-and-black dress and a gold-and-white dress both simultaneously existed with neither existing at once. And what fun we had with that!

For Wittgenstein, the point about aspect–perception is that such phenomena are not best read through “the language game of reporting” or “the language game of information.” The least interesting thing about the dress was that it was actually blue and black. The explanation of why different aspects can be seen is not the point of talking about them. To talk of an aspect’s truth or falsity misses the point, and that is precisely what’s important about these figures. Perception is not just the expression of a subjective experience; it goes beyond the personal — we ask each other, compel each other, to perceive an aspect of an object or an experience that has struck us. There’s an intimacy in inviting each other to perceive anew, to accept the invitation, and to be taken by surprise. We wish to be struck together with, in Wittgenstein’s phrase, an “inarticulate reverberate of a thought.” This intimacy is about by sharing realities beyond the reach of plain or obvious empirical experience; if reality is just there, then we all exist together in its sameness, separately and alone, with ghosts no more than metaphors.

Natasha Lennard is a British-born, Brooklyn-based writer, focusing on how power functions, and how it is challenged. She writes for publications including the Nation, the Intercept, Fusion and the New York Times philosophy blog, the Stone.