Welcome to our seventh episode, Or Maybe, it’s a Ghost?
Episode description: A wisp of white. A voice in the dark. A toilet mysteriously flushes by itself. Few things capture our imagination like a good ghost story. But is there more to a spooky tale than thrills and chills? What do our ghosts say about our cultural values? Are we more afraid of who haunts us, or what we’ve done to deserve that haunting? We discuss these questions this week on a very SPIRITED Death in the Afternoon.
Some quick fun facts about this episode:
- Or Maybe, it’s a Ghost was originally conceived as a Halloween Episode, since we knew the podcast would be running during Halloween week. It replaced a previous pitch for an episode focusing solely on cemeteries of enslaved people, but we just couldn’t connect all the stories in a way that worked. In the end the subject expanded into what became Or Maybe, it’s a Ghost?
- The exchange between Louise and Sarah was put together in the recording studio at the last minute.
- Order member Colin Dickey’s book Ghostland was one of our inspirations for this episode. You can read an excerpt here.
- Prior to working with The Order, Louise wrote a regular series on the now defunct xoJane called Creepy Corner, where she covered folklore, urban legends, and ghost stories.
- We receive a lot of emails every year asking if Caitlin believes in ghosts or if she ever had a “ghostly” experience. We usually refer them to this episode of Ask a Mortician.
Lucky for us all, Louise is back this week to share a bit about her family and…GHOSTS!
You may or may not know this, but my first real job as a writer involved writing a weekly column about ghosts. Ghost stories, folklore, death legends, cemeteries, cultural death traditions – for four years I lived and breathed in that creepy little corner.
When that publication met its demise and Caitlin asked me to come work for her it felt like a natural progression. Once again ghosts were my stepping stone into the conversation about death.
I say “once again” because growing up, ghosts were my gateway to talking about death with my family. In my Chinese American family, talking about the ghosts my great-grandmother supposedly shared a home with led me to asking my mother about who those ghosts were and how they got there.
I’m always amazed that people tend to gloss over the fact that every ghost story is born of death. We are so afraid to talk about death that we just skim over that important detail.
When I asked about my great-grandfather’s ghost, the conversation eventually turned to his death and funeral. My mom told me about the family altar in my great-grandmother’s basement; I learned about the tablets that had our family members’ names inscribed on them on that altar; I learned about how great-grandmother cared for her husband’s body; how his body stayed in his home; how they sat with him; how the monks came to bless him.
I’ve known about my mom’s death plan since I was around six-years-old. When she told me about the angry ghost that my family says skulked around the second floor of my grandmother’s house, we talked about why a ghost might be angry. Then we talked about what would make my mom a happy ghost someday. A lot of being a happy ghost had to do with giving her the death and funeral she wants.
“I’ll come back and haunt you if you don’t do what I tell you!” my mom would joke. I think she was joking. Honestly, if ghosts do exist, I have no doubt my mom will come back and haunt me if I don’t follow her plans to the letter. Who am I kidding? Even if there are no such thing as ghosts, my mom will haunt me out sheer force of will.
I completely understand why some may balk at the inclusion of ghosts when talking about the reality of death, mortality, and death positivity. In the wrong hands, ghosts give us a way to avoid looking the reality of death square in the face. We just jump over the whole “dying part” and suddenly it’s all about disembodied voices and ghosts tapping out answers to your questions at the seance table. They can be a conduit through which we absolve ourselves of cultural responsibility when they take the form of vengeful spirits or troubled entities that simply need to “go into the light”. If ghosts mean immortality, why concern ourselves with mortality?
But for me, ghosts eased me into thinking about death. A good death, with the dead person’s wishes fulfilled would make a “happy ghost”. That’s super simplistic, but those kinds of thoughts were some of Little Louise’s first forays into death positivity. Death was not merely an insignificant stop on the way to the great beyond, it mattered. How we treat the dead mattered.
I had to ask myself the big question: what would make me a happy ghost?
Louise’s ghost book recommendation: Yurei: The Japanese Ghost by Zack Davisson.
This book is a delightful dive into the spirits of Japan. I love how Davisson approaches Japan’s ghost-lore as both a scholar and an eager listener. His book dedication says it all:
To my wonderful wife, Miyuki Davisson. And to OIwa, Otsuyu, and Okiku. Please don’t hurt me.
(Oiwa, Otsuyu, and Okiku are three of Japan’s most famous – and dangerous – ghosts.)
Zack is also an Order contributor! You can read an excerpt from his latest book The Supernatural Cats of Japan, here.
Now, here’s Sarah to talk a bit more about her segment, and another local legend whose origin can be traced back to another forgotten woman (cw: violence, murder):
Like Avila and La Llorona, urban legends and ghosts are often tied to real people and events. The thing is, most communities have their own local ghosts and monsters that are an important part of their identity as a community and local history. There’s a great documentary that examines one such story, Cropsey (available to watch on Hulu or Shudder), which allows viewers to accompany a pair of siblings as they unravel a local legend from their childhood in Staten Island, revealing a horrible reality.
When I was a kid, there was one rule for all of us – when the streetlights came on, it was time to come inside. I don’t ever remember anyone defying this rule, not only because we’d probably get the dreaded chancla thrown at us, but because if you were a child out after dark in our neighborhood, “She’d get you” – a woman in white, screeching like an owl and clutching a hammer, roaming the hills of East LA, looking for more pint-sized victims.
Enter real life LA murderess, Clara “Tiger Girl” Phillips, who in 1922 purchased a hammer, lured a friend she was jealous of into a car, and brutally murdered her with it. According to historian Joan Renner, Clara then went home covered in her victim’s blood, and cheerily announced to her husband that she was going to cook him the best dinner he’d ever had.
I’d love to know about your hometown ghosts and monsters – you should totally @ me on Twitter or Instagram @DeathAfternoon
Death in the Afternoon is a podcast written, researched, and developed by Caitlin Doughty, Sarah Chavez, and Louise Hung of The Order of the Good Death.
Caitlin Doughty is a mortician and funeral home owner in Los Angeles, CA. Along with Sarah and Louise she runs The Order of the Good Death and the Good Death Foundation, orgs that spread the death positive gospel around the world through video series like Ask a Mortician, blogs, bestselling books, and now, a gosh darn podcast!
Sarah Chavez is the executive director of The Order of the Good Death. As the child of parents in the entertainment industry, she was raised witnessing choreographed Hollywood deaths on soundstages. Her work has been influenced by her unique life and weaves together the relationship between death and food, feminism, Mexican-American death rituals, and the strange and wondrous history surrounding the culture of death itself.
Louise Hung is a writer, researcher, and community manager for The Order of the Good Death. While she can usually be found hunched over her computer working on video scripts for Ask a Mortician, Louise has also been known to tap out a few words about death in folklore, history, pop culture, and Asian or Asian American communities.
Editor and composer: Dory Bavarsky
Engineering: Paul Tavener
Podcast: Death in the Afternoon
File Name: DITA_-_Episode_7_-_Final_Master
File Length: 00:35:20
Transcription by Keffy Kehrli
[00:00:00] [Toilet flushing.]
[00:00:03] [Music plays.]
Caitlin: [00:00:12] From down the hall, Jean Williams heard her toilet flush. But she knew she was alone at home. So, she forced herself to go investigate. Creeping down the hallway, she could see that the door to the bathroom was open. And nobody was there. But the toilet tank was filling up, confirming that the toilet had indeed, just flushed.
[00:00:41] As Jean headed to the kitchen to calm her nerves, she thought she saw a shadow flit past her out of the corner of her eye. Did it duck into her granddaughter Carli’s bedroom? Or into the room she shared with her husband Ben?
[00:00:56] This was supposed to be their dream home. Jean forced herself to drink a cup of tea and scolded herself for her overreacting to bad plumbing and the light playing tricks on her eyes.
[00:01:09] Then she heard it.
[00:01:10] The TV had turned on. By itself. Again.
[00:01:16] “Please, please, please,” Jean thought to herself, “Please, let this all have a rational explanation…”
[00:01:25] [Toilet flushing.]
[00:01:28] [Death in the Afternoon theme plays.]
Caitlin: [00:01:41] Welcome to Death in the Afternoon, a podcast about all things mortal from The Order of the Good Death. I’m Caitlin, a mortician and educator, and as always I’m joined by my fellow researchers and writers Louise Hung and Sarah Chavez. Today’s episode: Or Maybe it’s a Ghost.
[00:02:03] [Music plays.]
Caitlin: [00:02:16] The story of Jean Williams was told there with some of my dramatic license. The Williams family reported that all of those events—the toilet flushing, the shadows running around, and the TV turning on by itself—actually happened in their suburban Houston home. But probably not EXACTLY in that order.
[00:02:35] But the real question is, given know how I feel about ghost stories muddying the waters of the pristine death conversation, is why are we talking about ghost toilets and shadow people today?
Louise: [00:02:47] Well for one thing, it’s fall, so ghost stories are actually in season, you curmudgeon—
Caitlin: [00:02:52] I see that label and I recognize that label.
Louise: [00:02:56] —and two, the haunting aspect of this story is always just the jumping off point to greater conversations. In this case, conversations about death anxieties, culture, corpse rights, African American cemeteries, and the treatment of African American cemeteries.
Caitlin: [00:03:13] Alright, go ahead. Convince me. Do your spooky thing.
Louise: [00:03:18] So, the Williams family lived in the Crosby neighborhood outside of Houston, Texas, which was on land gifted to freed Texas slaves by former slave owners, the McKinney family. They called that land Black Hope.
Caitlin: [00:03:31] So Black Hope was a community of freed slaves?
Louise: [00:03:35] Yes, this was around 1865, after slavery was abolished. Black Hope started small, when the McKinney family gave the land to a few of their former slaves.
[00:03:44] But between 1865 and around 1939, the Black Hope community grew to include homes, schools, churches, and a cemetery. Unfortunately, Black Hope was destroyed by a fire, and the community had to move to nearby Barrett Station.
Caitlin: [00:04:01] What happened to the cemetery?
Louise: [00:04:03] Well, it seems the last burial took place in Black Hope Cemetery in 1939, and there were approximately 60 individuals being buried there, but the bodies were never moved after the fire. In the 1970s the descendants of the McKinney family sold the land to developers who built a subdivision over what was once Black Hope and the Black Hope Cemetery. The land over Black Hope Cemetery is specifically labeled as section number eight in Crosby.
Caitlin: [00:04:34] And how does Jean Williams and her ghost toilet figure in?
Louise: [00:04:39] Well, in the 1980s families like the Williames started buying homes in the subdivision. The Williamses bought a home on Poppets Way.
Caitlin: [00:04:48] Poppets Way! That’s both very innocent and very creepy, somehow.
Louise: [00:04:53] There you go, now you’re getting into the—
Caitlin: [00:04:54] —Sounds like the place that would have a ghost toilet on it.
Louise: [00:04:56] Right? Well, now you’re getting into the spirit. So, for the Williamses it was more on the creepy side. They claimed to have always felt ill at ease in their home. Their granddaughter complained of cold spots, they had electrical and plumbing problems, they heard VOICES, saw shadows—
Caitlin: [00:05:14] Which are all the “paranormal activity” boxes being checked, one after the other.
Louise: [00:05:20] Right, exactly. Well, look, I don’t want to diminish the experience of the Williams family, their experience in that subdivision proved to be actually really traumatizing for them—ghosts or not. What was supposed to be a happy place for them turned into a nightmare, culminating in the sudden and unexpected illness and death of their daughter. And while I don’t agree with them blaming the “ghosts” or the “curse” of Black Hope on their misfortune, I can understand why they’d want to place blame SOMEWHERE.
[00:05:51] I mean, in American culture a slave cemetery and the retribution of angry slave ghosts might seem like as good a scapegoat as any.
Caitlin: [00:06:01] Did the family ever find people buried under their property to, quote-unquote “substantiate” their paranormal claims? Because, I guess, if someone is buried under there that PROVES ghosts.
Louise: [00:06:11] Well, this is where the ghost story and reality get a little blurred. Supposedly, Jean was planting a garden in her backyard, when “coffin-shaped” indentations became apparent on their property. And after asking around, a local man conveniently informed them of the location of their home over Black Hope Cemetery.
Caitlin: [00:06:35] That’s very convenient for that family. It’s very, “I’m on a Native American Burial Ground” I swear. Really? Are you?
Louise: [00:06:44] Oh, but there’s more. Nearby, the Williams’ neighbors, the Haneys, claimed to have similar disinterred corpse problems.
[00:06:53] While preparing to put in a pool, a SUPER convenient Black man MYSTERIOUSLY made himself known to the Haneys and told them that two residents of Black Hope were buried in their backyard, Betty and Charlie Thomas.
Caitlin: [00:07:08] That also is very trope-y, like the trope of the wise black man showing up and pointing a finger and going, “Do you know who is buried here?”
Louise: [00:07:16] Right? It does. But somehow the Haneys did dig into their property and they DID find two coffins.
Caitlin: [00:07:24] Wait the mysterious black man shows up, tells them there’s two coffins under there property, and then there are two coffins buried under their property?
Louise: [00:07:32] Well, yeah. But, I can neither confirm nor deny that those coffins belonged to Betty and Charlie Thomas, who were buried in Black Hope Cemetery around 1929. It’s possible, but no concrete confirmation is available.
Caitlin: [00:07:48] And if it was those ghosts, how did they know how to flush the toilets?
Louise: [00:07:52] It’s true. I mean, did they have toilets in—
Caitlin: [00:07:55] That’s yeah. I don’t know.
Louise: [00:07:57] —1929 Black Hope?
Caitlin: [00:07:58] I don’t know.
Louise: [00:07:59] Mysteries.
Caitlin: [00:07:59] I guess it’s a skill you can always learn post-mortem.
Louise: [00:08:02] Yeah. I mean how hard—well, how hard could it be? Anyway. After they found the bodies, the Haneys claim that that’s when their ghost problems really began—faucets turning on, disembodied voices, a DARK PRESENCE.
Caitlin: [00:08:17] This subdivision had ghost fever. You have a ghost, you have a ghost, you have a ghost!
Louise: [00:08:22] Really, it’s hard to confirm a lot of the Black Hope Lore surrounding the subdivision, besides what is generally popularized by ghost blogs and the movie.
Caitlin: [00:08:34] Excuse me, the movie?
Louise: [00:08:35] Oh, yeah. Grave Secrets: The Legacy of Hilltop Drive, it stars a very ‘90s Patty Duke.
Caitlin: [00:08:43] There is a feature film about the ghost toilets of Black Hope?
Louise: [00:08:47] Well, not about the toilets, per se. But it was a made-for-TV movie—
Caitlin: [00:08:51] Okay, that’s not surprising. All right, now this is all clear to me.
Louise: [00:08:55] As a kid, I loved this movie. It was perfect nightmare fodder.
Caitlin: [00:08:59] Do we know anything for sure about the Black Hope Cemetery?
Louise: [00:09:02] We know that part of this subdivision was, and still is, being built atop of Black Hope Cemetery. We know that the bodies were never moved.
[00:09:10] We also know that the Haneys sued the developer for not disclosing that they were living on top of a cemetery—which in Texas, the seller or developer has to disclose. The Haneys were awarded over $140,000 by a jury for mental anguish, but the judge threw it out and actually ordered them to pay $50,000 in court fees. The Haneys ended up having to file bankruptcy, and eventually lost their home.
Caitlin: [00:09:38] YIKES. They were like, kicked out of their home by a vengeful ghost. Okay, dare I ask about the Williams family?
Louise: [00:09:46] They lost everything as well—
Caitlin: [00:09:47] What?
Louise: [00:09:48] Yeah, including the house and their daughter, and they ended up having to flee to Montana.
Caitlin: [00:09:54] Do people still live in this subdivision? Why would you live in this subdivision?
Louise: [00:09:59] They do, actually. It’s called Newport, and contrary to what some ghost blogs will tell you, the subdivision is not an abandoned horror show. People live there, quite happily. Some talk a little bit of ghosts or even laugh about the HAUNTINGS, but it seems that few if any people are blaming any sort of CURSE or ghosts for misfortunes.
Caitlin: [00:10:22] So, what is happening with the actual graves in Black Hope?
Louise: [00:10:27] Well, that might be the most disturbing thing I suppose. NOTHING. It’s confirmed that the Newport subdivision, specifically section number eight is built over Black Hope Cemetery, but nobody is willing to take much action.
[00:10:41] At one point an organization called Respect Houston was willing to relocate the bodies if they could be identified, but I tried to reach out to them a little while ago there was no response. It seems that the whole project dropped off.
[00:10:55] So, the bodies stay where they are. The current residents can’t legally disturb the graves without next of kin permission or without a lengthy court procedure. And of course, contacting the next of kin would require knowing WHO is buried where. That remains largely a mystery, still.
Caitlin: [00:11:14] It feels like the go-to response to finding out that a bunch of suburban white people are living on the graves of former slaves or any kind of wronged people of color is almost always it’s a GHOST or a CURSE.
Louise: [00:11:26] Totally. It’s some weird way of acting out institutional racial guilt. Like, my people wronged you, it’s your turn to wrong me.
[00:11:36] Sometimes I think that if an alien were to try to divine what “Americans” are like through our ghost stories, they’d take away that we are afraid of death, people of color, and dead people of color. Ghosts are our disembodied guilt made manifest.
Caitlin: [00:11:49] And toilets that flush themselves, apparently.
Louise: [00:11:51] Not ready to believe in the toilet ghost yet?
Caitlin: [00:11:54] It’s just that maybe I need more time to integrate the toilet ghost into my framework of reality.
Louise: [00:12:00] Take all the time you need.
[00:12:03] [Music plays.]
Sarah: [00:12:20] It seems like every town has a resident lady-in-white—a spectral figure, wearing a white gown, who is doomed to cry for all eternity over some guy who cheated on her, ghosted her (so to speak) at the altar. Or she’s crying for her children, that were kidnapped, or missing, or dead.
[00:12:43] [Music plays.]
[00:12:49] San Juan Capistrano, a picturesque, California coastal town with a Spanish mission as its centerpiece, that’s been romanticized in songs sung by old crooners like Pat Boone, has its own lady-in-white, who can sometimes be seen wandering along the train tracks.
[00:13:08] Her story can be traced back to the 1880s, to a 21-year -old woman named Modesta Avila. Modesta came from a family of ranchers who had owned and lived on the land there, when California was still Mexico, just a few, short decades beforehand.
[00:13:27] Southern California was rapidly becoming populated by immigrants from all over, especially by men of European descent, who had been quick to buy up cheap land from local Mexicans, forcing them out of an area they had called home for generations. During this time, there was a determined group of these “pioneers” who had pushed hard to establish their own county, separating themselves from Los Angeles. This area would soon become known as Orange County, an area that today is known for its wealthy, white, conservative residents, and that Magic Kingdom known as Disneyland.
[00:14:09] Enter into the mix, the powerful Santa Fe Railroad which had quickly been establishing railway lines and depots throughout the area, including right through Modesta Avila’s property, a mere fifteen feet away from her family’s house, without their consent—because that’s just what the Railroad did back then—I mean, who was going to stop them?
[00:14:33] To say this was an inconvenience was an understatement—the noise, the rumbling and shaking of the house, the soot and filth produced by the constant passage of the trains, greatly affected the Avila family’s quality of life. It caused damage to the house, scared the chickens so much they refused to lay eggs, and soiled laundry, the black soot coating their belongings, their hair, their food, their lives—a constant reminder of this underserved violation in the name of white progress.
[00:15:10] Some sources say that out of her frustration, Modesta protested by hanging up a line of laundry across the tracks, or that she placed a railroad tie on the tracks with a note attached that read: “This land belongs to me. And if the railroad wants to run here, they will have to pay me ten thousand dollars.”
[00:15:34] No one is exactly sure what happened next, but after a conversation with an agent of the railroad, Modesta came away believing she had been promised a $10,000 payout. To celebrate, she planned a victory party, visiting friends and neighbors and surrounding shopkeepers to let them know, she had accomplished the impossible—she had made the all-powerful Santa Fe Railroad listen, and acknowledge a powerless brown woman, and pay her the money she felt her family was rightfully due.
[00:16:10] Her celebratory mood didn’t last long—Modesta was arrested for attempting to obstruct a train. There was literally a new sheriff in town, as well as a new District Attorney, and newly formed Orange County was desperate to prove itself as a town of law and order. With no convictions on their books, Modesta became their sacrificial lamb.
[00:16:35] Labeled “malicious,” “drunk,” “a whore,” and “untrustworthy,” Modesta was characterized as dangerous—a threat and distraction to the progress of the American dream. For her small gesture of protest, the audacity to criticize and speak out against those in power, and now rumored to be pregnant out of wedlock, this was a woman that needed to put in her place. Modesta would become Orange County’s first convicted felon. She died in prison a couple years later.
[00:17:15] Stories like Avila’s and the other lady in white phantoms, serve not only as spooky tales amuse and thrill us, but they are also intended to be morality tales. Ghost stories for us are not so much to entertain but are intended to instruct and inform our behavior. Demonstrating to us what actions are acceptable, or punishable.
[00:17:41] This especially true among Mexican American families like my own. Most of us are raised on a steady diet of rice, beans, and fear.
[00:17:52] Your kids don’t want to go to bed? Just tell them if they don’t go to sleep right now La Mano Peluda, a grotesque, decomposing, hairy hand that some poor guy lost as punishment from Spanish colonists during an inquisition, will creep out of the vents, and drag them from their beds!
[00:18:14] Your child will get in their car seat so fast, when they find out that the alternative, is being forced to ride in La Carreta Chillona, or, the “screechy wagon.” La Carreta Chillona is fashioned from the bones of victims who were once patients of a greedy, Spanish priest who deceived indigenous people into believing he was a doctor in order to get their money.
[00:18:40] Don’t want your kids playing near the water? We have a story for that, too—La Llorona, “the weeping woman.” She is often seen near bodies of water and will drag children beneath the surface to their graves. There are many different versions of her origin story—that, like the mythical Greek figure of Medea, she takes vengeance against her cheating husband by drowning their children. Or, there’s another version in which she wants to leave her husband for another man. In this rendition, she drowns her children so she can start a new life with him.
[00:19:18] The oldest narrative of the La Llorona tale is linked to another cultural archetype, a real-life woman we refer to as La Malinche—her name is synonymous with insults like traitor, sellout, and whore.
[00:19:36] She was an indigenous child forced into slavery who was given to Spanish conquistador and colonizer Hernan Cortes. She was noted for her intelligence, ability to speak multiple languages, and for her skill and incredible influence in planning and negotiations with the Aztecs, on behalf of Cortes and the Spaniards. It is because of this, she has been labeled by many to be a traitor; playing a role that led to the downfall of the Aztec empire and enabling the rise of New Spain. She is further accused of using her beauty and charm to seduce Cortes. Their union, between a European man and an indigenous woman, led to the birth of a new people—the Mestizos. According to writer Octavio Paz, La Malinche quote, “has become a figure representing an Indian fascinated, violated, and seduced by the Spaniards.” Now, she is condemned to roam the earth as a spirit, where she can be heard and sometimes seen weeping with regret for her actions.
[00:20:54] Woven within all these stories is a subplot, that often goes unnoticed—it’s that for people of color, the real monster to fear is white folks.
[00:21:09] I imagine our centuries old ghost stories now taking on new incarnations with modern narratives:
[00:21:16] La Mano Peluda—the hairy hand—will now come and steal your parents away and put you in a cage. You may never see them again.
[00:21:27] La Carretta Chillona now has a siren on top. It is easily summoned by women named Permit Patty, or Barbeque Becky, and fashioned from the bones of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Jesse Romero and countless other victims like them.
[00:21:46] Then, there’s the loud, orange monster who is the new El Cucuy—a terrifying boogeyman, who has the ability to enchant people with his lies, and his wife, who is the latest manifestation of La Llorona. She no longer wears a white dress but an army green jacket that asks, “I really don’t care, do you?”
[00:22:15] Although folklore, ghost stories and superstitions are often dismissed as silly and frivolous, they are so much more than this—they’re so much more than this. They reveal our cultural values, beliefs, and history. Perhaps, most of all, they expose our fears—not only about the monsters among us, but within us as a nation. Our lives are full of stories that have the power to reveal various truths, if only we are willing to listen.
[00:22:51] [Music plays.] [note to self check to see if it’s Louise or Caitlin talking to Sarah below or both…]
Louise: [00:22:51] So, Sarah, actually, out of the three of us, has the most ghost experience.
Sarah: [00:23:20] That’s actually listed on the special skills portion of my resume—extensive ghost experience.
Louise: [00:23:28] Oh, and has that helped you find work?
Sarah: [00:23:31] Wait, yes. Strangely enough, I started working in historic preservation and later became a museum curator because of ghosts. Well, okay sort of.
Louise: [00:23:43] Oh, did the ghosts communicate that to you?
Sarah: [00:23:44] There was this old railroad hospital in the area where I grew up, and like any empty, dilapidated structure in a neighborhood, it’s probably going to have a few resident ghosts.
Louise: [00:23:54] Because if it looks old, it must be haunted, right?
Sarah: [00:23:58] Exactly.I first started hearing ghost stories about the hospital from people my family worked with in the entertainment industry, because the hospital was frequently used as a filming location—essentially my whole childhood was spent on the soundstages of studio lots, and at celebrity parties, so as a pretty quiet kid, I got to hear (and see) a lotof… things.
Louise: [00:24:24] And what kind of things did people say were happening there?
Sarah: [00:24:27] Your textbook ghost pranks—people would hear their name being called, or felt someone grab or touch them when was no one around. There was a couple stories about weird voices or laughter being caught on audio, that were not coming from the actors.
Louise: [00:24:43] Ooh, I love me a good disembodied voice story, tell me more!
Sarah: [00:24:47] So, like you, Louise, I’ve always loved ghost stories, but the reason that I ended up getting involved was because of my frustration with people fabricating the local history and demonizing the surrounding community on all those ghost hunting shows that were really popular a few years ago.
Louise: [00:25:04] Ugh, yeah.
Sarah: [00:25:04] So, on these shows, a lot of really harmful and inaccurate narratives were being put forth by people who had never stepped foot in the predominantly Latinx neighborhoods where I grew up. For me, and the folks that worked there, we all really felt an obligation to provide accurate history, with context that truly honored the rich, diverse community the hospital is part of.
Louise [00:25:29] Ok, but did you have any experiences there?
Sarah: [00:25:33] Let’s just say that I have had things happen that I couldn’t explain, but that doesn’t mean I think they were paranormal—and that’s what is so compelling to me about these so-called paranormal experiences… why are people experiencing these things, and what drives certain people to invest so much time and money into either having one of these experiences, or proving that those experiences are real? So, I went to school to find out!
[00:26:05] There’s a fringe field of study called Parapsychology, that examines phenomena that falls outside of currently known or explainable science.
Louise: [00:26:14] Explainable science? So,you study stuff like ghosts and what else? Aliens? Bigfoot?
Sarah: [00:26:21] Ghosts, yes, Aliens and bigfoot… big—bigfeets???
Louise: [00:26:24] Bigfootses? Big—I don’t know.
Sarah: [00:26:26] Okay, aliens and bigfoots, no. The focus is more on consciousness—Near Death Experiences, psychic experiences, psychokenisis—you know, Carrie type stuff…
Louise: [00:26:39] Ah, like throwing knives and start fires just by the power of your mind?
Sarah: [00:26:45] Exactly. But mostly trying to answer the question—can our consciousness exist after we die and is communication possible in some form? There are a couple universities in the U.K. that offer courses or allow you to specialize in parapsychology, and you could even get a degree here in the US, up until I think, like, the early ‘80s. Duke University had a program, which is now known as the Rhine Research Center, and I applied there, and got accepted and took some really fascinating classes. Just to be clear, I have a degree in Physics, not Parapsychology, but, after all of that, I don’t know that I believe in any of it, but I respect that for many people, the things they experienced were very real to them, and often bring them comfort.
Louise: [00:27:38] That’s fascinating. I’m actually a little jealous that you got to go to school for that.
Sarah: [00:27:42] Let’s go to ghost school together, Louise.
Louise: [00:27:43] I’m there. I would love that.
[00:27:46] [Music plays.]
Louise: [00:28:00] As we’ve learned today, where there’s a ghost story, there’s somebody who has been wronged. And very often that somebody is a woman. Japanese ghost stories are no exception.
Caitlin: [00:28:10] Growing up, all my ghost stories were Japanese ghost stories because I’m from Hawai’i where they have shapeshifting ghosts, the island version of the woman in white, obake. Which is from the Japanese, right?
Louise: [00:28:21] Yeah, it is. I actually remember—I lived in Hawai’i, too.
Caitlin: [00:28:24] Not at the same time.
Louise: [00:28:25] No, not at the same time. But, I actually remember there’s that famous obake story about the ghost at the drive in.
Caitlin: [00:28:33] The ghost in the drive in that’s no longer there.
Louise: [00:28:35] That’s right.
Caitlin: [00:28:35] So, who knows where she’s—maybe she’s flushing some toilets somewhere.
Louise: [00:28:40] Well, I hope so.
Caitlin: [00:28:41] Yeah, if she’s reached peak ghost success, that’s what she’s doing.
Louise: [00:28:45] Yeah, right. Mark of success is toilet flushing.
Caitlin: [00:28:48] Plus being featured in a made-for-TV movie.
Louise: [00:28:51] Oh, God. Anyway. There are so many different classes and categories of ghosts in Japan. Like the Inuits having 50 different words for snow. The Japanese are serious about ghosts and spirits. It’s not just: ghost.
Caitlin: [00:29:06] Is there a specific name for a wronged female ghost?
Louise: [00:29:10] Well, it’s not gender specific, but Onryo is a vengeful spirit that can inflict harm upon the living. No surprise that most vengeful spirits in Japan and Asia, are women. Mistreated in life, women are feared by the men who hurt them. Well, really all men. One of the great ghosts stories of Japan is Okiku’s Well, which partially inspired the book and the movie, The Ring.
Caitlin: [00:29:35] [In a spooky voice.] Will I have seven days to live after I hear this story? We’ll find out.
Louise: [00:29:42] So, depending on which version of the story you go with, and there are many, Okiku’s story took place as early as the 16th century or as late as the 18th century.
[00:29:54] Okiku was a young servant living and working at Himeji Castle. A samurai, Aoyama, took a shine to her. He repeatedly asked young Okiku to be his mistress, but she repeatedly said NO.
Caitlin: [00:30:09] Good for her.
Louise: [00:30:10] Yeah. So, one day, Aoyama decided to try and trick Okiku into yielding to his desires. He hid one of the master’s plates—one of the golden plates Okiku was charged with caring for—and told Okiku, “Um… I think one of your plates is missing.”
Caitlin: [00:30:29] You’re in danger, girl! You’re in danger!
Louise: [00:30:30] Right? So, Okiku counted the plates over and over, but she kept coming up short. She searched high and low, but she could not find the missing plate!
Caitlin: [00:30:41] Careful…
Louise: [00:30:42] Right. So now, Okiku feared for her life. Aoyama came to Okiku and told her that he would rescue her from her master’s wrath if she agreed to become his mistress. Despite her fears, Okiku still said NO.
Caitlin: [00:30:59] Good. Nothing but respect for my Japanese ghost.
Louise: [00:31:02] In a rage, Aoyama beat Okiku, tortured her, killed her, and threw her body into a well on the grounds of Himeji Castle.
Caitlin: [00:31:11] Why did that have to escalate so quickly. It went from a missing plate to, “You must die.”
Louise: [00:31:16] Mm-hmm. I’m gonna throw you in the well. But it wasn’t long after Okiku’s murder that her ghost returned. For centuries now, it has been reported that Okiku can be heard counting, counting, counting those plates for all eternity.
[00:31:31] And, as the legend goes, if you hear her counting, you will fall ill. If you listen to her counting for too long—if she gets to nine—then you die.
Caitlin: [00:31:41] Where is her body? Where is this well?
Louise: [00:31:44] There isa well on the grounds of Himeji Castle that is known as Okiku’s well, though the probability that it is the ACTUAL well that Okiku met her demise in is rather unlikely. There are actually wells all over Japan, claiming to be the REAL Okiku’s well. One of them is even on the grounds of the Canadian embassy. Regardless, the ghost story endures as both a beloved tale that has been adapted into plays, books, and movies, as well as a warning to young women and horrible men.
Caitlin: [00:32:06] A haunted Canadian well. It makes sense that we fear women in death because of all the cruelties we inflict on them in life.
Louise: [00:32:16] It’s—yeah. It’s interesting because Japanese ghost lore is heavily populated with stories women who only gained autonomy and POWER after death. Not just in Japan, but there’s this cultural understanding—across many patriarchal cultures—that there is nothing more dangerous than a woman who is wronged by a man. But, that being said, it still centralizes the figure of the man.
Caitlin: [00:32:40] I remember a ghost tour I did of a historical home in Savannah, GA, and their vengeful ghost that lives there, as they told it, was a black female servant who was murdered after having an affair with the white boss. But they never really made explicit that the “servant” of course, really meant slave and the “affair” meant forced assault by the master. And the women in these stories lack control and say over what happens in their own lives. So, they get some small amount of power back in death. Which can sound thrilling, theoretically, but if you don’t believe in ghosts that power has just come WAY too late. Like, for me, it’s like, oh, they get some metaphorical post mortem power, wheeeeee. Congratulations. Here’s your gift basket.
Louise: [00:33:32] So, yeah we have the trope of the vengeful woman ghost, which imparts power to women in cultures where women don’t traditionally have much but the questions still remains if we are so afraid of women scorned, why not just, I don’t know, stop giving them things to scornful about?
Caitlin: [00:33:49] Like murdering them or harassing them for sex. Or, how about this one: making them count plates for eternity.
Louise: [00:33:57] Brilliant—
Caitlin: [00:33:57] At the bottom of a well.
Louise: [00:33:59] Brilliant idea. But then, I guess, what would our death legends be about?
Caitlin: [00:34:03] You may have to convince me that there are ghosts flushing our toilets, but you don’t have to convince me that there are too many wronged, dead, women. And, frankly, I’d love it if our ghost stories were all about happy women and happy people of color who visited you to impart recipes and tell you stories about kittens, but that’s not what happens.
Louise: [00:34:25] Well, I’ll try to do that for you when I’m a ghost.
Caitlin: [00:34:27] Even though I don’t believe in ghosts.
Louise: [00:34:29] Well, then you’ll get nothing and you’ll like it.
[00:34:31] [Music plays.]
Caitlin: Death in Afternoon was written by myself, Louise, and Sarah. Engineering by Paul Tavener at Big City Recording Studios. Editing and original music by Dory Bavarsky. See you next week, deathlings, for our final episode of the season.
[00:35:00] [Music plays.]
[00:35:12] [Toilet flushes.]