Dead and Living It

A dollar a minute to hold your hand at GhostFest 2006

So I was talking with some dead people on Saturday night, and inside five minutes they were already cussing at me: "You need to get fucking serious," said this darling little teddy bear of a fortune teller, and then she shook her head real quick and said, "I'm sorry—sometimes my spirits get a little nasty."

"It's very okay," I said. I was kind of drunk. This was GhostFest Expo 2006, on the Queen Mary, and it was a great time to be alive and those are also and always great times to be drunk; we all get spiritual in our own individual ways and by early evening I was plenty spirited. It cost about a dollar a minute for someone to dial up some ghosts for you, which seemed fair to me even though it scientifically amounted to paying darling little ladies to hold your hands. ("I'll hold your hand for a dollar," one guy offered. "Hers or mine?" I said back because I was standing next to a nice girl. "Either-or," he said. "I'm bisexual.")

But GhostFest was a lot more dignified and spiritual than other places where you can pay for basic physical contact, and there was no two-drink minimum, though I made sure to always have a bottle in-pocket because I operate at all times under a strict two-drink minimum of my own, which makes me really good at holding hands. And which is probably why my spirit guides started cursing: that next world is the ideal reflection of our own and so there was my personal cosmic counterpart with his own bottle in-pocket, speaking a language I would understand plus making darling little ladies say "fuck" out loud, too. So it was then I felt my fear of death dissolve: "Should I buy a new car?" I asked. "Late-model used," the spirits said. And that was my $10.

Boo! You have to leave! Photo courtesy
Boo! You have to leave! Photo courtesy

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I have always been curious about how the other half doesn't live. I was a pretty credulous and misguided kid and so I got heavy into ghostie crud before anyone figured out how to do re-enactments on cable; I was all about the Bell Witch and Mothman and other stuff you get into when puberty comes too late, and I hid but didn't abandon the affectation as I grew up. And so I wanted to go to GhostFest to see a ghost. Nothing ghostly had ever really happened to me, and if it wasn't for a million witchy girls I know getting possessed more often then they'd visit their (living) grandparents, I would have long ago eliminated personal belief in anything besides the second law of thermodynamics. But as it was, I was somewhere between baptized and agnostic with a strong streak of inborn caveman animism, and as such my heart held plenty of room for plenty of crazy crap. Plus I wanted to have a sťance with Buck Owens. I guess you could call me a seeker.

GhostFest was a real spread—seminars with all the most noted ghost folks, screenings of ghostly films, the ghost expo where you could get fortunes told and aura portraits portraited and you could purchase luck-enhancing pyramid frames (which the smarter entrepreneurs had hovering over their stacks of business cards) and then those ghost tours that would take hopefuls into the real dark places inside the ship. And what an adorable crowd: curious, cheerful and open-minded, particularly once I started sharing some whiskey, with friendly welcome for anyone dissatisfied with the usual ideas about death, though certain staff members would prefer you had a paid admission ticket, too. It was $150 for the very spookiest post-midnight events and GhostFest sold those out at 4 p.m., which is good for the cause but . . . the privatization of the unquiet dead is kind of discouraging, especially from a copyright perspective, since you know none of the next-of-kins are getting royalties from entrepreneurs charging full-release-massage prices to chase their deceased relatives. Not even Rolling Stones tickets cost $150, and most of those guys are still alive, too.

But since those 30-some people decided to get killed on the Queen Mary, they can reasonably be expected to pitch in work as long as they stay there—ghosts got jobs now, and they can get it done or go to hell, same as the rest of us. When I found the back of a tour in the abandoned pool at 1 a.m., I felt guaranteed an experience—the collective entitlement of 40-some paid admissions couldn't be denied. Plus as soon as they noticed me, they tried to narc me out to the guide for not having a ticket. A perceptive group. Good sign.

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But the ghosts were hiding the same way I hide when the Grand Prix comes through town—nobody, dead or alive, likes tourists. The guides had permission to unlock doors I'd never seen unlocked and so there we were in the middle of the night in long crooked rooms just furry with dust, 40-some of us expectant ghost people clanging up and down the corrugated stairwells chaperoned by one security guard—you could spot him because he was the only guy who had a flashlight. He took us to the cargo hold—they called it "the pit"—and opened the kind of door they'd bang on in Das Boot and wiped the light over a bottom 10 or 20 feet down: thick rusty ship ribs and unfriendly wild dark that looked deeper than the water outside. There was a ladder but oh, oops: walkie-talkie gurgle and we had to leave because there was a bunch of $150-per sťance people down there and we had to wait our turn.

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