Ghosts, a story about learning to live with voices.

(Disclaimer: this 100% would be a zine if I wasn’t currently cycling through France, so bear with.)

SPOILER ALERT – lots of chat of the plot of Ghosts

CW: experiences of voice hearing, unusual experiences, liberal interpretation of a comic sitcom

‘Watch this with me, it’s funny and I want to watch it with you.’ My wife Abi said, unfolding  the laptop screen and opening BBC iPlayer.

‘Oh yeah, this looked good.’

We sat and watched the first episode of Ghosts, a sitcom written and performed by many of the cast of the CBBC series Horrible Histories. A young couple, Alison and Mike, inherit a house populated by ghosts from various eras. They intend to turn the house into a hotel, and the ghosts, feeling their home is under threat, proceed to attempt to haunt them. At the end of the first episode, the ghost of a disgraced Tory politician succeeds in pushing Alison out of a window.

Sufficiently entertained, we put on the next episode. Following her near-death experience, Alison can now see, hear and speak to these ghosts, but no one else can. As the episode progressed something felt uncomfortably familiar about the scenes playing out.

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The ghosts attempt to make Alison’s life unbearable to get her and Mike to leave. Mike believes that these visions are the result of the head injury she sustained in the fall. They go to a doctor, and Alison realises ghosts are everywhere. She returns to the house; maybe in some ways, it’s better the ghosts you know. Simultaneously, a large loan Mike has taken out ties them into the house. Alison proceeds to establish what the ghosts want and offer a series of concessions so they can live amicably side by side.

We watched each episode as it came out, and I was struck that Abi and I were watching very different stories. I realised how much of the series spoke to my experiences of voice hearing/unusual beliefs&experiences: the discomfort of the second episode, where Alison is harassed relentlessly; recognising the challenge of maintaining conversations with people when they are being talked over by voices that only you can hear; understanding the feeling of going crazy; learning the importance of bridging those worlds and how ghosts can show you important things, if you acknowledge, recognise and respect them.

I wanted to write something exploring watching and understanding Ghosts as a story about learning to live with voices – even if it didn’t occur to the writers of the series itself – because those sorts of stories are rare, and I’ll take them wherever I can get them.

At the end of the first episode, a series of events lead to Mike believing that Alison can actually see ghosts. His unflinching belief in this totally supernatural thing happening anchors Alison and Mike in the story together. Even though he can not see them, he takes their presence very seriously. This is the central thing which allows the show to be comedic as opposed to tragic and stops the experience being totally isolating for Alison. Mike’s belief in her bridges the world they share together and the strange new world she is now inhabiting.

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It’s not that he doesn’t find this difficult – he struggles to shower and use the toilet in the knowledge that he’s not being observed – but in episode 3 we see the consequences when he absents himself. Alison struggles to even communicate basic things with people who don’t understand her strange behaviour, or can’t see or hear what she is responding to. Social interaction becomes almost impossible.

I felt a particular sadness watching the earlier scenes where Mike still thinks Alison’s experience are the result of head trauma. Although he attempts to be supportive, he is restricted simply by his belief that what’s going on ‘isn’t real’. The tension between what Alison is experiencing, and Mike’s attitude to it, puts a strain on their relationship.

What saves it is Mike’s eventual belief in the ‘realness’ of Alison’s experiences. I think there’s an important statement here about how to be with people hearing voices, or otherwise having unusual experiences that you do not share. At the foundation of your relationship with them needs to be a belief in the ‘realness’ of what they are experiencing – irrespective of whether you are experiencing it or not. I am not debating the challenges of loving or caring for someone who is hearing voices or having unusual experiences, and how hard it is to have things you can not see or hear dominate their, and sometimes your, life. I am saying that thinking of these things as located in the person, as a figment of their imagination, as not real, can be hugely isolating and create an unbridgeable distance.

happy death day

Despite her challenges with communication, Episode 3 also marks a turning point in Alison’s own relationship with the ghosts. Pat is the ghost of a Scout leader killed by a stray arrow in the grounds of the house, and his death day is approaching. On this day, his wife, her new husband (and his old best friend) and his children come and visit the memorial to him. He’s struck that Alison might be able to communicate with them, first to tell them all is well, and then to punish them for his wife’s obvious extra-marital affair. She refuses.

At the end of the episode, as they gather to watch Pat’s family arrive, she offers to take over a message. He doesn’t have anything to say, but she goes over anyway and chats to the family. When she comes back over, she brings Pat news of his baby grandson, also called Pat.

At this point, a bright light shines from the front door of the house – Pat believes he has finally achieved closure on whatever unfinished business trapped him as a ghost, but it was just one of the builder’s lights. This rejection of a tidy narrative speaks strongly to experiences of voice hearing; you may sort all the loose ends in your life, process your trauma, achieve catharsis, and still hear voices

What this moment does represent, however, is Alison learning how to bridge the two worlds she now inhabits and communicate important things between the two.

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My favourite episode of the series is episode 5 Moonah Stone. Robin, the ghost of a caveman who used to live on the land the house now occupies, wishes to perform an ancient ritual in honour of the lunar eclipse. At the same time, Alison and Mike’s neighbours, a wealthy couple, come round to dinner to discuss an issue of access (and swindle them out of money.) Alison finds it impossible to play the role of host with the constant distractions of the ghosts; they end up loudly processioning into the dining room chanting, and crowd the middle of the table. She distracts their attention with the first series of Friends, apart from Robin who stares wistfully at the moon out the window – it is the only thing that has been there as long as him.

Once the neighbours leave (calamity avoided by an off hand comment by one of the ghosts) Pat and Alison decide to make things right with Robin, dragging the sofa outside and Mike, Alison and ghosts sitting together to watch the eclipse. Ghosts doesn’t shy away from the terrible experience of hostile voices, but it also shows that, sometimes, if we listen to our voices, and understand what is important to them, we reconnect with something important and fundamental. Sometimes this gives us experiences we would otherwise have missed out on, and makes our lives richer.

In the final episode, Alison and Mike are offered a buy out by a large hotel chain. They view endless houses until they find one that has no ghosts. Although escaping the ghosts has been her goal throughout the series, Alison feels sad and states that the new flat is quiet not with relief but with a sense of loss. The buy out falls through (through the interventions of the ghosts) with the discovery of a plague pit of historical note in the basement. Alison ends the series with some buried skeletons still to unearth.

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