Guest Star

Contagious Hauntings: Pandemics and Ghost Stories

This week Guest Star Aditi Sen writes about ghosts and plagues.

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When a galley ship docked in Messina with all its crew members dead, the villagers quickly decided to take the crew’s belongings, either for themselves or to barter. The year was 1347; within a year, the plague had spread all over Sicily. The plague came to Italy through a ghost ship. We know that ships played a major role in spreading the plague. While there are endless stories of apparitions of sunken galleys appearing on the sea, ghost ships in many ways were literal too. If the epidemic started in a ship, within two weeks the entire crew could be dead. And one could witness ships with dead bodies aimlessly floating on the Mediterranean. There is a similar story about the plague coming to Bergen when a ghost ship landed there full of dead bodies covered with buboes. Every time you read a tale of a phantom ship filled with spectral bodies floating about and spooking unsuspecting people, remember—they are all legacies of the Black Death.

The Black Death has created many horror tropes. Haunted catacombs, haunted cemeteries, haunted lazarettos and manors … our landscape has become completely haunted. Yet we seldom consider ghost stories as an important source for building historical narratives. We often forget that ghost stories may have been the only way people could record their collective trauma. After all, what could poor villagers do? They couldn’t write and keep records, and the parish records remembered them only as numbers and were often inaccurate. Many of them never got a burial or ended up in mass graves. All people could do was tell a ghost story—a story about their suffering, fear, and loss as the grim reaper visited one house after another. Sometimes, ghost stories are all we have.

“The Memory Palace” by Mrinalini Sen

Now let me tell you a popular ghost story from India. Once upon a time, a young boy had to catch a late-night train. The station was empty, not a soul was around. Even the station master’s office appeared deserted. He was surprised that there were no other passengers. He assumed, upon hearing that the train has been delayed, that they had found other transport to reach their destinations. Still, the uncanny silence of the railway platform truly disturbed him. Soon he saw the train coming. The train halted very briefly; in fact, just as he climbed up, it started almost instantly. He went in and found people quietly sitting and looking out of the window.

No one looked at him or made any sound. They all seemed to stare quietly into a vacuum. He found himself an empty seat and sat there. A family of three were in the opposite seat, and next to him was a middle-aged man. He tried talking to the people around him, but no one acknowledged him. They all sat quietly. From the moment he had entered the train, he had felt fear, that only became more intense. He tried to read a book because falling asleep was out of the question. After few minutes, the ticket checker arrived. He took out his ticket and handed it to a man with the hands of a skeleton. He was looking at a skeleton dressed in ticket checker’s clothes. He had caught the ghost train from the ghost platform. And now the train would never stop .…

“The Empty Station” by Mrinalini Sen

This story comes in different forms; it’s a popular trope in Indian folklore, but the structure remains the same. Sometimes the protagonist is rescued, sometimes we don’t know his fate. The story is predictable. We know our hero is destined for doom the moment we learn that the platform is empty.

In 1918, Punjab’s sanitary commissioner wrote, “The hospitals were choked so that it was impossible to remove the dead quickly enough to make room for the dying; the streets and lanes of the cities were littered with dead and dying people: the postal and telegraph services were completely disorganised; the train service continued, but all the principal stations dead and dying were being removed from the trains….”

Historian David Arnold further states that trains arriving with bogies full of dead people were not uncommon. India lost more than 12 million people to the Spanish flu. Again, ghost trains are literal. People boarded the train and never made it to their destination. I am not saying this ghost story is about the flu; it could be about train accidents, even partition ordeals. As Simon Hay says, ghost stories are about the irreducibility of trauma and ghosts are an integral part of our historical memory. A dead station and a train filled with the dead was a reality during the flu—and a memory that has been largely forgotten. Celebrated historian Alfred Crosby, too, writes about completely empty railway stations during the flu, and how people were often found dead in platforms and inside the carriages.

Cholera is also bound to create terror. In some ways, the symptom of the disease is designed to create maximum dread. One could be fine in the morning and resemble a cadaver by night. Its victims often turn blue, and the symptoms are sudden and violent. There are many stories about blue-coloured spectres that are definitely linked to cholera. Yet my favourite cholera story is from Bengal, the home of this disease.

“The Abandoned Village” by Mrinalini Sen

The village where my grandmother lived had a shrine of Ola Bibi who was the goddess of cholera. In Bengal, many village deities are secular since they are connected to pandemics and protection from diseases. Ola Bibi protects the village; she has no religious affiliations. In fact, worshipping her had nothing to do with one’s religious identity. They were separate entities altogether. A lot of Bengali culture refers to cholera because it played havoc and killed thousands.

Now let’s move to the ghost story. The story takes place in colonial Bengal. In those days, it was fairly common for men to work in cities like Calcutta and live in temporary lodgings often called “messes,” while their families remained in rural Bengal. The men would work all week, go home on Friday evenings, then catch the Sunday afternoon train to get back to the city to work. Sometimes, when there was a lot of work, they would not be able to go home for a month or so. In this story, our protagonist—I will call him Gopal Das—also lived in a mess and had been unable to go home for almost a fortnight.

Gopal took the early afternoon train home. When he reached the station of his rural town, it was almost dusk. His home was a mile-long walk away. One thing that caught his attention was the eerie silence at the station. There would always be a few people sitting there, but this time it was completely empty, something he had never seen before. The little shanty around the corner that sold tea was closed, adding to the silence and creating a strange sense of unease, as if the whole village had fallen asleep. It was already night when he reached home. The house seemed unusually dark and quiet. Electricity had not reached his village yet, but there were always oil lamps outside the door. His mother opened the door. She had a small lamp in her hand, that hardly lit anything; he could barely see her. She seemed extremely reluctant to answer his questions, mostly replying in monosyllables. But she did inform him that the rest of the family wasn’t feeling too well, so they had all gone off to bed early. She was waiting to serve him his dinner, and she, too, would go to bed afterwards. He washed himself quickly and sat down to eat. Dinner was rice and dal (lentil soup). After a few bites, he realized that the dal was unusually bland. His mother was sitting by his side, waiting for him to finish his meal. He asked her if there was any lemon to flavour the dal. She nodded her head and stretched her arm to fetch the lemon. It stretched, stretched, stretched, and stretched … first it reached the window, opened it, then reached the lemon tree, plucked a lemon, and came back inside and gave it to him. End of story.

“Dinner is Served” by Mrinalini Sen

There is a post-script to this tale. The entire village had died of an epidemic. It was now a ghost village. The mother’s ghost was waiting to feed her son, who she knew was coming home that day. This a very common theme in ghost stories, villages where everyone is dead and ghosts reside in every house. My grandmother told this story to me when I was a child; later, I heard it from many others. Th›e context differed, but the core idea was always the same. Plus, this story is not uniquely Bengali; other parts of India have their versions too.

Another contagion that has captured our imagination greatly is tuberculosis, or consumption. Recently, I read a novel by Laura Purcell called, The House of Whispers. The story takes place in Cornwall where a doctor sets up a unique hospital for consumptives. He believes in a cold regimen, where damp sea air and a nourishing diet are the main cures. He sets up his hospital inside caves by the sea because he believes that will ensure sea air all the time. Soon, we discover the locals are afraid of fairies who plant changelings and induce madness if one isn’t careful. While the novel is about mental illness too, the backdrop is consumption and wicked fairies who cause illness by planting changelings.

Purcell’s story reminded me of changeling folklore from Bengal. There are evil spirits called Nishi who deceive children by imitating the voice of their loved ones and calling out their names. If you reply to their call, they trap your prana (it’s like qi, the life force that keeps us going) inside a green coconut and replace it with the prana of someone who is sick. As a result, you die. In the Bengali version, black magic is involved. Nishis are controlled by evil mendicants who sell healthy prana to rich people, if they have someone ailing at home. Nishi are linked largely to tuberculosis. What truly surprised me was the similarity of the technique in these two tales. Both the evil Cornwall fairies and the Nishis used the voice of loved ones to attract children.

Frank Snowden called tuberculosis “a pandemic in slow motion.” Consumption often took many years to kill its victims. But many patients were cured too. Sanitariums were primarily built to cure consumptives— so naturally, we have endless haunted sanitariums. However, consumption ghosts are seldom large in number. They haunt like the disease, in slow motion. These ghosts manifest in more insidious and unpredictable ways.

Finally, I want to talk about AIDS spirits. AIDS ghosts were urban and sexy. A very common theme revolved around attractive women who seduced men. After a night of intense carnal pleasure, the women sent them notes saying, “Welcome to the world of HIV.” The men would never see these women again. They were like wicked fairies, HIV fairies. There was something quasi-mythical about them. Also, they never fit really the definition of ghost stories; they were more like urban legends.

As we go through the real horrors of a pandemic, it is important to remember that in an era when there was no other way of preserving memories, when those memories refused to fade away, we told a story. Next time you hear a ghost story, keep in mind, ghosts are real. They are the products of our failure to be humane, compassionate, and kind. Perhaps ghost stories are to remind us about how we failed to be there for them, how we never responded or were too late to do something. Ghosts don’t go away, they keep piling up.

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This week’s Guest Star Aditi Sen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Queen’s University, Canada. When she isn’t working or watching horror films, she likes to collect Bollywood cakes.

Illustrations by Mrinalini Sen. Find her Instagram here.

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