By Kara Hildebrand
A novel I’m reading mentions a child who has died and I begin to feel it happen. Phantom fingers weave between my ribs and squeeze. The air seems to thin as I gasp for the whisper of a breath and think of the day when I will no longer have need for breath at all. My chest heaves, too young to bear the weight of politics, taxes, sex, but old enough to shoulder this unwelcome awareness of death. I hesitate, paralyzed, strangled by the finality of it and the infinite nothing that awaits me when I’m gone.
Stories give us power over death. The knowledge of our eventual fate is a deeply suppressed sense of some unknown, an ache embedded in our bone marrow. Fiction is one of the ways we take control back, and the supernatural provides us with some version of our world where dying does not mean vanishing into eternal limbo. Stories of ghosts and vampires epitomize rebirth in death; through them we pantomime a fantasy of infinity. In stories, we can imagine ourselves to be the creatures whose powers we covet. In stories, we are the undead walking, denying the fracturing cliff below us as we try to outlast our expiration date.
The thought repeats: “Someday I will die,” incessant and cruel. The words begin to contort, and then another: “Think of anything else.” So I do. I think of the wall of uneven spines at my back that shift backward if, in a distracted moment, I misjudge my own weight. I think of the distinct library murmur that staggers between shelves. I breathe. In. Out. I remind myself how much life I have left before I should worry about dying, but I can conjure up no lasting antidote. The hands loosen their grip and I can breathe again. For now.
A pale mirage, flickering in and out of our realm. A blank sheet suspended midair. Ashen skin and hollow features joined in something almost human. Iterations of ghosts exist across all cultures, and the lore that surrounds them dates back thousands of years. Why do we rest timid fingers on ouija boards to confirm that they’re watching? Why do we gather before a screen, cowering at the sight of them yet unable to look away?
Ghost stories contain three truths:
- Humans have something akin to a soul.
- Our something-akin-to-a-souls remain on this earth long after our bodies die.
- They are stored like fermenting wine bottles in some form of an afterlife.
As The Haunting of Hill House puts so eloquently: a ghost is a wish. Ghosts in Hill House linger, preserved as they are or as they want to be forever, scattered in time and winding through the affairs of the living. Perhaps it’s inevitable to dream of hypothetical afterlives that house our enduring spirits. While we munch on popcorn or peek between trembling fingers, we’re really wishing for ourselves and those we hold dear to be, in some way, everlasting.
As my consciousness wavers between asleep and awake I feel something shift in the air. My eyes snap open. An icy chill strikes my legs like a fleet of arrows as my blanket is ripped off of me by nothing. Silence. I’m being watched, and I wonder by whom. I think of my grandfather, I wonder if it’s his gaze on me from the other side, if it’s he who has ripped away my blanket. Is he restored to his old self before his memory dissolved apart? Hardened from war, from years of farm labor, but kind as I like to imagine he was? Is it him in my room, or something much more sinister?
Condemned to the shadows, repelled by all things holy, undeniably beautiful and eternally strong beyond human possibility; these are our modern hypersexual renditions of vampires, just inconvenienced enough to make their infinite lifespans compelling.
Such is the life cycle of a vampire:
We’re condemned to rest indefinitely in stage two. We can’t imagine a life without death, but are our modern iterations of vampire romances what one would look like? Passion and hunger that lasts forever, bleeding the life force from those less lucky? Would such a trade be worth it? Take The Vampire Diaries for instance, whose characters routinely massacre dozens of people, caught in the crossfire of their selfish pursuits. Or Twilight, where vampirism (i.e. the desire to kill) is no more than a romantic hero’s irresistible dark secret. Perhaps what’s sexy about a vampire is the concept of eternity. Through them, we allow ourselves to ask: what is life if not evading death? We contradict ourselves with every beat of our heart; undoubtedly alive yet waiting to die with only time sustaining us. Death and undeath, two incomprehensible things; to die is a mystery, to live forever a puzzle we can only hope to unpack through the eyes of immortals.
My television screen is full of them. Bloodied smirks, sharp jawbones, and ivory skin untouched by time. They die, they return better than ever. They die again, they return to please the fans. Nobody on TV is ever truly gone. For a moment, I imagine that I could be so important. For a moment, I imagine that death is not permanent.
If the human condition is tainted by contradiction, then can we find our peace in solidarity? That our fear and our stories are as eternal as the beings from which we cannot unglue our eyes? When we cannot boast a certain knowledge of death, we find our ways to simulate such control. Death need not be lonely if we all must face it together.
A metallic taste, an illusory apparition. A shriek drags its nails down the screen. A friend beside me watches, transfixed as I am. Death’s eyelids begin to droop, her ghastly lashes fluttering closed as she tucks her inky face into the crook of her arm. She rests and we imagine a world that’s different. For a moment, our existential fear is a point of a connection. For a moment, our souls feel as infinite as our modest human spark as it echoes through time.