Some Advice About Ghosts and Ghosting, From a Paranormal Investigator
Amy Bruni talks about her job as if she’s a guest sitting next to you at a dinner party, making small talk about the common way she earns a check. She works in ghosts, she writes in a matter-of-fact tone that elicits a “Huh! How’d you get into that?” as if she’s just mentioned she’s a proctologist or something, rather than the co-host of the smash-hit Travel Network show “Kindred Spirits” and one of the best-known paranormal investigators alive today.
The way she downplays a career that’s more extraordinary than not has a purpose, especially when trying to bring a wider audience to her debut book, “Life With the Afterlife.” Bruni doesn’t want to spook you (too much). She doesn’t want you to be wowed by ghost hunting, or to force you to believe in ghosts by being too obvious about the awe-inducing presence of the spectral world. If you do, you do, and if you don’t, you don’t: One need not take ghosts literally in order to benefit from the lessons Bruni’s learned serving both the haunted and the haunting.
The book starts with a fascinating portrait of the ghost hunter as a young woman, casually gobbling up books by the Austrian parapsychologist Hans Holzer (the investigator of the “Amityville Horror” house). She grew up with parents who believed, and who reported witnessing their own ghosts, in a house where bumps in the night were normalized: “Sometimes there are ghosts, the thinking was in our family, and sometimes they’re in our house.” Bruni was raised to be receptive to the idea that there are things in the universe that we can’t easily understand, and over 13 chapters she lays out how this has informed her philosophy of ghost hunting. She doesn’t fetishize hauntings; she approaches the work with empathy and compassion. It’s more like social work. She wants to help the people being haunted, but she wants to help those doing the haunting almost as much.
The ghost-skeptical, or those who don’t watch her show, might wonder what this book could possibly offer them. Especially because the industry secrets aren’t exactly juicy (this is no takedown of, say, the rock-star parapsychologists who inspired “The Conjuring”), and the ghost stories she tells are more chill than chilling. But the questions Bruni asks bear relevance to all of us, haunted or not: What does it mean to live with ghosts? When we think or talk about ghosts, it’s never about the ghost, really. They’re more of a mechanism to talk to one another about the way the world is inexplicably weird sometimes, and about the deep emotional experiences we feel living in it.
I thought of this recently. I should note that I do believe in ghosts — or at least am willing to sometimes wonder, when I make eye contact with strangers on the subway, if I am the only person who can see them. Maybe it’s because of the one childhood summer I spent rooting around the ESP section of my local library, but I tell a lot of ghost stories — both actually ghostly (ask me about the time I was awakened by a really horny ghost in a house in Hudson: spooky) and metaphorically ghostly (ask me about recently being ghosted by someone I was dating for four months: also spooky). But what are we to do with ghosts both literal and figurative? Take the ghost of the man in my phone, who will occasionally arise during demon hours with a truly haunting “u up?” and then disappear, leaving me little evidence of existence. What would Bruni have me do with this demonic poltergeist?
As she writes, we cannot force a ghost to cross over into the world of the living (i.e., leave me alone or text me during normal times). It is egotistical to think we know what a ghost needs — we can barely figure out the “means, motives, thoughts and desires” of physical people sitting across from us, she writes. Instead, we should realize that every ghost has a story to tell, if we listen, and if we just confront the ghosts, we’ll learn what it is they need to leave our world and return to theirs.