Tales of the Unknown: Learning to love the Supernatural

By Nithya Thiru

Halloween approaches, a holiday that is a piecemeal amalgamation of distorted culture—a Frankenstein of belief, if you will (pun intended). Each year, we indulge in cheap thrills, donning strange, fantastic costumes to become someone other than ourselves, to celebrate the darker parts of humanity that we don’t fully understand—death, evil, magic. In communities governed by logic and reason, we spend most of our lives choosing to ignore what we can’t understand, but on Halloween, for a single night we let ourselves as a community slip. We open ourselves up to the possibility that there is something out there in the beyond. I have always loved Halloween, the idea of transformation, and as of late, I’ve become increasingly drawn to the idea of magic, spiritualism, tarot, and astrology. Through this exploration, I have found that beneath the facade of everyday reason, supernatural experiences are not relegated to the fringes of society, but are ordinary, even ubiquitous among perfectly logical people.

A few weeks ago, as the stress of the semester began to kick in, I stopped by a spiritualist shop and bought a pack of tarot cards. I did a series of readings for a group of SIPA friends all eager to hear their futures, and as we sat answering question about future loves or what sort of jobs we’d get after SIPA, we also discussed the cultural traditions that we come from, and the beliefs and practices that have guided these cultures for centuries. The conversation left me wanting to hear and share more stories of the unknown, and so, I set out to talk to SIPA students around campus.

Rendy, a friend from Indonesia described an incident in which he accompanied his friend to a cave to meditate, and as he stood at its mouth, a ball of blue fire came towards him. “I know you all might be questioning my decision to accompany him,” Rendy texted to our whatsapp group, “but I was tricked by him which at that time made me a bit mad at him. He said that we will have dinner but instead of going to a restaurant we went to a cave.”

Another friend, Mia from Thailand told me that although she has never had a supernatural experience herself, she can’t not believe that spirits exist. To her, spirits are part of her religious and cultural belief system, rooted in the Buddhist tradition. “We have spirits everywhere,” Mia said, “So in general, we would want to pray for spirits so they can be reborn...It’s kind of embedded in everyday life.”

Wandering into the bowels of Lehman, I came across my friend Shameera in group study. When I asked if she knew of any supernatural experiences she laughed, “Of course!”

Shameera explained that in Singapore ghosts stories have always been common, particularly during the 1960s and ‘70s when the city remained less developed. She had one particularly eerie tale to tell of her uncle, “He was driving one night, really late after he had dropped somebody off and he was driving and suddenly in the middle of a deserted road his car wouldn’t start...and then suddenly he hears laughter,” Shameera explained, “He started praying because we have this folklore, which is called the pontianak, and it’s essentially like a banshee, a woman in white, usually you can tell she’s near because she has a very specific kind of laugh...He was trying to start his car and then he realized that the thing was on the tree in front of the car. And she usually perches on a tree.”

For me, growing up in Alaska, stories of ghosts and spirits abound. These stories are often built around the myth of the frontier, of conflict and contestation in the isolated wilds of the North. From imps hitching rides on the back of snowmachines to ghosts in old mining towns, most Alaskans have a story to tell. A good friend of mine grew up in a house where a murder-suicide occurred and recounts hearing someone walking down the hall in the middle of the night, feeling his bed shake inexplicably, and a voice speaking his name softly into his ear.  

Another friend who has traveled extensively in rural Alaska has told me that in many villages, everyone believes in spirits, and it is so common to see them, that often villagers will forget to tell you a place is haunted. “Oh, that’s just Ernest the old, ghost,” they’ll laugh.

For most of my life, I have attempted to avoid the supernatural at all costs. I still remember as a kid, going over to a neighbor’s house and my friends whipping out a ouija board. I remember looking on, horrified as my friends asked it if there were any spirits in the room. The piece on the board moved to point to the word “yes.” We asked the spirit its name, and through the board it told us his name was Al, and that he had died in a fire. Shortly after, I came home and burst into tears, trying to explain to my mom is gasping breaths that ghosts were real, and that we were all going to die. She attempted to comfort me. Al wasn’t real. My friends were only playing a trick.

But years later, when my grandmother died, my mom, the reasonable, logical woman who had assured me that Al didn’t exist decided to put out food  for her mother’s spirit. I remember my dad rolling his eyes at the idea that a spirit would show up to eat. But my mom remained resolute. The tradition of putting out food for those who have passed is one that Shameera says is common in Singapore as well. I think in part, it comes from this idea that feeding people is a way to express love.

On another occasion, I walked into the kitchen to find my mom staring out the window at a rabbit sitting at the edge of the tree line in our backyard. She looked at me, “That rabbit is your grandmother.” I wasn’t sure what to make of what she said, but there was a pull in me to believe her.

Rather than ask  myself, “why should I believe this?” I have begun to ask myself more and more, “Why shouldn’t I?” My disbelief has never done any good, and the more that I let go of fear, the more I realize that spirits are everyday, they are a part of us, imprints of humanity seeking acknowledgement of their existence. In that sense, the supernatural is a humbling force. I like that it is something we cannot fully comprehend, that it is elusive and maddening and wild and uncontained. I like that Halloween is a reminder of all that. That for a single night we tip our hats to the idea that there is so much we do not understand about ourselves, and that the unknown is worth unleashing. The more I read tarot for people, the more I surprise myself with the ways in which the cards somehow always manage to be accurate, to connect to those who come to it with questions. I’m not sure that I wholeheartedly believe in its power, but I do believe in the ways that it forces people to consider who they are, what they want, and what matters most to them. There is a power in that. And there is a freedom in letting go, in exploring what we cannot control. To me, this is what Halloween is about. It is a brief moment when we can let the barriers of reason fall and explore the darkest recesses of humanity without having  to logic away what we feel and experience every day, hovering just beyond the borders of what we know as reality.