A pale young woman is frantically looking for something along a bannister — then she disappears.
An incoherent whisper in a childish voice announces a presence that saps you of your energy. Then scratch marks appear down your side.
A little girl wakes in a storm to see a beautiful lady hovering by her bedside. She tells her mother to light a lantern — and soon, a muddy robed man is knocking on the door.
Peter Kreeft says it is reasonable to believe in ghosts, because reasonable people report seeing them. He even classifies them into three different kinds. You’ll find all three in my neighborhood this Halloween.
Atchison, Kansas, bills itself as “the Most Haunted City in Kansas” and each year alongside the crowds of trick-or-treaters dressed as ghouls, zombies and, disconcertingly, clowns, you’ll find crowds of tourists lining up at the Depot on 10th or at the Sallie House on 2nd.
The Haunted Atchison Trolley takes them around town to see haunted houses and hear stories about Kreeft’s first kind of ghosts.
These are “the most familiar kind: the sad ones, the wispy ones. They seem to be working out some unfinished earthly business.” Ghosts like the young woman forever searching one of the town’s old Victorian houses. Or the ghost that screams at midnight in Molly’s Hollow. Or the male figure in 19th-century garb who is said to follow pedestrians down brick-paved Atchison streets with a quizzical look on his face, before vanishing.
Which are legendary and which are real? It’s hard to say, but they all seem to fit Kreeft’s description of Purgatorial souls caught between earthly attachments and heavenly freedom.
The Sallie House on 2nd street is another Atchison tourist spot — and another kind of “ghost.”
The little white house is said to house an impish spirit who torments male residents. Cable television ghost hunters claim to have filmed scratch marks appearing out of nowhere on a man’s flesh in the house.
Sallie sounds like Kreeft’s second category of ghosts — “malicious and deceptive spirits. … These are probably the ones who respond to conjurings at seances. They probably come from hell.”
Or maybe she’s a demon. Years ago when I did a Satanic possession story for Crisis I conducted a harrowing interview with an exorcist from India. He told me about “infestations” — places or objects that demons have associated themselves with. I slept (actually, failed to sleep) with holy water by my bed for a week after that.
But demons seem scarier than they really are. Getting hurt by a demon is like getting hit by a car on a walk. Yes, it can happen. But not if you stay off the road.
Thankfully, Atchison has at least one example of Kreeft’s third kind of ghost, which again isn’t exactly a ghost.
It all started in 1856 when the pioneering Benedictine monk Father Henry Lemke was disoriented, thirsty, exhausted, lost and alone near here as flood waters rose around him in the darkness. The German Lutheran convert had always been wary of Marian piety. Now he uttered Benedictine College’s “founder’s promise” to Mary: “If you help me out of this difficulty, I shall always call on thee!”
His prayer was answered. He saw a light in the distance and stumbled to safety. The mother there explained that a “Lady dressed in white” had appeared to her daughter, waking her, so she lit a lamp in the window. He called it “a Miracle of Our Lady” and two years later, the Lady Dressed in White appeared to another girl in a small town — Lourdes, France — the year Lemke’s monks founded Benedictine College.
Kreeft says examples of this third kind of ghost are not limited to visits of Jesus or Mary, however. They can include “bright, happy spirits of dead friends and family, especially spouses, who appear unbidden, at God’s will, not ours, with messages of hope and love.”
In other words, these ghosts are more fitting on Nov. 1, when we remember All Saints, than Oct. 31.
And the first kind of ghosts, anxiously looking for a way out of Purgatory, fit better with Nov. 2, All Souls Day.
So what about Oct. 31?
As séances, Ouija boards and neo-pagan celebrations proliferate, Oct. 31 is a good day to remember that second kind of “ghost” and pray for deliverance … because tormented denizens of hell are bent on dragging you and your family into their den of misery and despair forever, one way or another.