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.")

Boo! You have to leave! Photo courtesy picture-newsletter.com
Boo! You have to leave! Photo courtesy picture-newsletter.com

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.

*   *   *

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 séance 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.

*   *   *

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 séance people down there and we had to wait our turn.

So I asked the security guard if he'd ever seen a ghost. Nah, he said. I started asking a lot of Queen Mary employees if they'd ever seen a ghost and that was it: nah, they'd say. But the GhostFest people were great customers, said one waitress. They tipped so well, she said: "I think a lot of them were waitresses, too." So I asked the ghost guide some of the hard questions the GhostFest website promised we could ask—What is a ghost? Is a ghost a thinking thing? Has your own experience with ghosts changed the way you think about life and death?—and to his credit he just looked up into the fluorescents and said he didn't know.

And then I kind of started drifting away from the tour because I was more into these empty parts of the Queen Mary anyway. Right after they docked her, they scooped her out to the last layer of skin and sold the guts for scrap, and if ghosts imprint on physical surroundings then a whole nest of them must've ended up haunting an asbestos-abatement landfill. Poor ghosts. I went back as far down and aft as I could get, to the very pinched little tail of the ship where nobody else was, a room so deep in the ship it hasn't seen the sun since the day they sealed over the ceiling, and thought about the day somebody would get the bright idea to redevelop the Queen Mary out of bankruptcy, and the day after that when someone would finally run a torch through 70 years of rivet and steel and every last hidden part of the ship would unfold out to the light. I was with this girl who had heritage going back to old England and she stopped and stretched out her hand when she saw a name stamped on a beam above us: "Oh my god," she said. "This is my family."

At that moment I realized we were not alone—but it was just security calling down from outside with the usual politic yer-busted instructions. Excuse me, sir: you can't pester ghosts by yourself. So out we went, and I didn't look behind us and so I didn't see a ghost. But as they were scooting us out the gangplank, I asked if any of the security people had seen a ghost, and of course they all said "Nah" except the no-nonsense girl leading the way. It was 4 a.m. and I'd been on that boat for 12 hours and the creepiest thing that happened to me was when I felt a breeze from an empty elevator shaft. So I had to ask again.

"You really saw a ghost?" I said.

"All the time, sir," she said.

"Really?" I asked.

"Sir," she said, "You have to leave."

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