Featured Essay   

I See Dead People (Well, Not Exactly)

by Anna Mantzaris                                                                                                                   

It started more than a decade ago when I lived in a studio apartment in the Mission District of San Francisco—waking up in my Murphy bed I’d see a table that wasn’t there, a plant I had never purchased, a stack of books that didn’t belong to me. Maybe I had been in Northern California too long but I immediately credited the images as lingering energy, remnants of years past. I told a handful of friends—the kind who would drive to San Rafael for psychic readings at Aesclepion, an “intuitive training” school with a well-known clairvoyant program that hosted trancemedium retreats—who were happy to back my theory. The place was haunted.

My Greek-American family had numerous “tales from the dark side,” like my yia yia, who on more than one occasion, would wake to relatives and friends sitting at the end of her bed, later finding out they had died during the night. It wasn’t unusual for us to make the trek to New Jersey from our Hudson Valley home to visit relatives where I would have my tea leaves read in the kitchen by a theia who had powers from the Old Country. So when I started seeing things from the “other side” I simply accepted it. Did I catch the occasional episode of “Ghost Hunters”? Sure. Did spirit objects really seem so implausible? No. Am I embarrassed to admit this now? A little.

After a series of moves in and out of state and back in again, I found myself, five years later, living with my partner in a San Francisco Edwardian flat, built circa 1922. I was happily enjoying domestic bliss and a new neighborhood. One night I dozed off on the couch. I woke up, looked down and saw a man sleeping on the floor. Wiry, with long hair, he was curled up and looked like part of the aftermath from a pretty good party we hadn’t hosted. I had forgotten about the sightings in my previous apartment but was quickly reminded over the next few months when I saw a small woman floating by the bedroom window, a large crest hovering above a mirror, a chandelier we didn’t own hanging over our bed. The images were usually in white, and would dissolve as I watched and my heart raced. My partner, a creative yet rational man, suggested I was still asleep.

I gave his theory a lot of thought but there was no delineation from seeing the objects to me screaming and getting out of bed. Each time it happened I would go over the experience again and again. I was definitely awake. After I saw a large button-down shirt making its way around the room, I was convinced this apartment was haunted too. While we thanked our urban stars for the square footage, the lack of direct sun made for dark rooms and strange shadows, which even our collection of bright paintings and red sofa couldn’t offset. We’re talking spooky vibe, even at noon. I did rough calculations of all the people that must have lived in our apartment (my rudimentary math equation was 2-3 people every 3-5 years over nearly 100 years = a lot of people who were probably dead and haunting us now).

I kept the circle of who knew about my visions small. I had mentioned sightings to my sister (an overworked New Yorker who suggested I was overworked myself and needed a spa day) and mother, who didn’t think twice about a daughter who told her she had seen a small glowing angel wings flapping around. Giving me close to a, “That’s nice, Dear,” before asking me if I’d tried her lemon syrup recipe (yes) and if I was using the dustbuster she had sent (no). The few friends who knew would occasionally ask me if there were new sightings, and I felt obligated to update on the spot as if I were an investigative ghost-hunting reporter on a deadline, usually texting my accounts at absurd hours, breaking polite, adult punctuation rules by using multiple exclamation points. OMG!!!SAWTWOHEADED BIRD IN BEDROOM!!!!!

Over the years, I had become increasingly interested in hauntings. I joined ghost tours in New Orleans, St. Augustine, Florida, and in San Francisco, where the guide, outfitted in cape-like coat and top hat, lived up to his promise of “three hours of unearthly fun!” and wasn’t afraid to shake an oil lamp to prove his point as he led me and a group of graduate-school pals by parks, hotels and spooked-out Victorians in lower Pacific Heights. We did all have chills down our spines, not from aberrations, but from the whipping wind and fog that had rolled in.

“Ghosting,” as I liked to call it, became my hobby and the truth was, having seen things made me feel, well, special. I had always considered myself a sensitive, open-minded, and intuitive person, and growing up in the 70s I didn’t think it was so crazy that things like the Loch Ness monster, Yetis and even aliens might exist. If a giant furry ape-like man running through the woods was possible, then why not a flying coffee pot in our home?

When we got our first iPad, I used the Hipstamatic app and “hunted” in the house with the thermal camera. “I can’t believe that’s what you’re using it for,” said my partner. (FYI: only our dogs glowed and I was half-kidding). I started DVRing old episodes of “Celebrity Ghost Stories” (I was so distracted by Janine Turner’s wacky bleach blonde hair I barely paid attention to her story of an Italian hotel ghost she encountered when filming Cliffhanger with Sylvester Stallone). I couldn’t stop myself from asking shopkeepers and hotel clerks if “the place was haunted” whenever I picked up a “weird” energy on a visit. When a friend told me her husband had seen the ghost of a Victorian woman come out of their living room wall, I practically ran over with a sleeping bag and Ouija board and started reciting the childhood levitation chant, “Light as feather, stiff as a board” in my head.

I prided myself on not going overboard. I wasn’t getting all black magic or claiming to channel spirits. I liked to think in my A-line skirts and bright-colored cardigans I looked more peppy than creepy. I was someone who snagged some good bargains at Nordstrom as opposed to a Freaky Friday who lurked in the Occult section of bookstores.

Then for several months the sightings ceased and I felt somewhat disappointed. Had the spirits moved on? My friends seemed disappointed, too. “Anything?” they would hopefully ask. “Nothing,” I would say, reminding me of fruitless whale watching trips I had endured on summer vacations as a kid. After a while, my “fun hobby” shifted from ghosting back to scouring flea markets. All things were quiet on the spooky front, but just when I thought I had lost my Sixth Sense, I awoke to a small round glowing object near an electrical outlet. Shortly after, I saw a stack of stuffed animals near the ceiling, and the outline of a man near the armoire.

Seeing things now suddenly created a new sense of terror. I saw a number of objects over the period of a few weeks and I became increasingly afraid to sleep for fear I would wake up to another image, often slipping out of the bedroom once my partner began a steady snore, to sit on the couch and read late into the night or surf the web. After one incident, I Googled a variation of phrases about seeing objects upon waking. I don’t know why I had never done this before. I had gone Ghostbusters with an iPad and yet ignored the most obvious medium, the Internet. What I found left me more stunned than a floating Ficus. Discussion boards (for some reason this was a hot topic in the UK) gave various accounts of people waking to objects including floating dragons, “an orange thing” and for some reason, a lot of people saw spiders. I spent hours online, which led me to the word hypnopompia, hallucinations upon waking—the kind Salvador Dali and Edgar Allan Poe fostered to spark their creative lives. According to the Sleep Association, hallucinations can be found in 25% of people (usually in females).

With a history of night terrors and sleep walking (as a teenager, I had often taken showers in the middle of the night, woken up with juice stains around my mouth from forgotten, early morning kitchen visits, and was once found in a closet) it should have occurred to me that it wasn’t the occult I was dealing with but hallucinations. At first I refused to believe I had a sleep disorder. I slept a minimum of eight, sometimes ten hours a night, if I had time. If there was anything I had been consistently good at throughout my life, it was sleeping.

I took an online quiz to check my Epworth Sleepiness number (designed by an Australian doctor to check daytime sleepiness) and make sure I didn’t have narcolepsy since hypnopompia is one of the signs. I thought about contacting my doctor—the logical step—but worried she already thought I was a total neurotic and weren’t we all diagnosing ourselves online now anyway? From the accounts I read, other hallucinators with no other symptoms had come up empty after nights in sleep clinics and MRI’s (and the thought of doing either of these things sent me into more of a waking panic), ergo, no call to doctor and more research.

I learned that anxiety could also cause waking dreams and realized the images had appeared at stressful times in my life (after moves, when I was buried in work). I, who had always been well rested, joined the ranks of those who suffered from sleep problems. I scoured websites and magazines for happy, healthy stress-reduction ideas. I refused to write in a nighttime journal (someone, unknowing of my problem, gave me one all powdery blue with quotations like, “A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow” – Charlotte Brontë) or give up my afternoon espresso, but I made sure not to miss my Pilates class and even relented to doing some yoga breathing. We went on a major bedroom overhaul, taking out the clocks and buying insanely fluffy pillows.

I still let myself watch shows like “The Haunting Of” but try to avoid them before going to bed (such shows are not nearly as scary on a Sunday morning over waffles). This has led to more peaceful nights and for now, no hallucinations, but every once in a while—usually late on foggy, chilly nights—I still get a sense there just may be something beyond what I can see.


 

Anna Mantzaris is a San Francisco-based writer and editor. Her writing has appeared in publications including McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Cortland Review, Ambit, Poets & Writers, and Salon.com. She has been awarded writing residencies by Hedgebrook and The Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. Visit Anna at her website.

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