Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I Ain't Afraid O' No Ghosts: Reviewing "Holy Ghosts"

What many of the faithful thought was lost after these reforms [the Second Vatican Council, 1962-65] was a sense of the supernatural--of an unseen, invisible world, the world of spirit. This is not to say that spiritual matters were abandoned. Far from it, but as the Church shifted its focus in the latter years of the twentieth century, did belief in angelic and demonic forces have a place in the modern world any more? Did miracles really happen or could science explain them away? Or, for that matter, was heaven a real place or a state of mind? As these issues were debated over the next few decades, the idea of a spirit world for many people began to lose power. And, many critics believed, so did God.
In a sense, this is the true heart of Holy Ghosts by Gary Jansen. While on the surface it is the story of a decades-long haunting, underneath Jansen begins wondering whatever happened to what everyone used to "know" about the supernatural world existing alongside our own tangible one.

Jansen begins as a hard-headed skeptic who was trained in ignoring the odd noises and quirks of his childhood home. Doorbells that rang with no one there, the sound of smashing glass in the middle of the living room where there was no glass to be smashed, and creaking stairs that sounded as if someone were walking on them when no one was there ... these were all standard occurences as he grew up; as the family gave reasonable explanations, he accepted them and learned to do likewise. However, when he is living in that same house as a married man with a child, the oddities grow worse and eventually neither Jansen nor his wife can ignore them any more.
The lamp was off in the toy room, which was just beyond our dining room, but there was a soft blue glow from the computer screen illuminating the wall I stood up and slowly walked across the floor, and the church bells had been replaced by the sound of drums. And it was getting louder. I stepped inside the toy room, where there was music coming out of the speakers. iTunes was on, and metallic guitars were pumping to the beat. It took me a brief moment, but the song registered in my head. It was "Hells Bells" by AC/DC. I remembered leaving the computer on before I stared reading but I was positive there wasn't any music playing. The vocals kicked in and, as I stood there listening to the sound, I felt the electric surge that I had mostly only felt in Eddie's room roll over me as lead singer Brian Johnson intoned, "I'll give you black sensations up and down your spine. If you're into evil then you're a friend of mine."

"You've got to be s******g me," I said to myself. "There is no way this is happening." I switched off iTunes, shut down the computer, waked upstairs, and got into bed with Grace. Eddie was sleeping soundly next to her. I put my arm over the both of them and, for the first time since all of this began, I felt afraid.
There are more things revealed in that house than are dreamt of in their philosophy, until Jansen begins wondering what the Catholic Church teaches about angels, demons, ghosts, and spirits. He is surprised to learn that the Church takes these things seriously and does not treat them as products of imagination. As we watch Jansen strive to understand and rid his home of the often terrifying ghosts, we also travel with him on the journey of discovering what it means to acknowledge the unseen world of the supernatural.

I truly enjoyed this book, although I used very bad judgment in reading it before bedtime. I don't think it would have bothered me as much as it did, except for the fact that I have had two experiences with ghosts or spirits myself. This confirms one of Jansen's comments on the accompanying publicity materials, which is that it is very common for him to share his story only to have the listener pipe up with an experience of their own. Like synesthesia, this is something that people rarely speak of, but may experience a lot more than we are led to understand. Reading this made me think of my own experiences again and that was an uncomfortable thing indeed.

Jansen offers his story with no apologies for taking a rather unorthodox route in dealing with the problem. He lets us see his indecision, his questions, and the reason he ultimately chooses the path they took. A more orthodox Catholic, what Jansen might call a "good Catholic" probably would have gone to a priest at some point and asked for a rite of exorcism or some other sort of aid. It is difficult to say what one would do in such a situation until one is faced with it. Theories are very fine until one imagines facing a priest and talking about ghosts. So much depends on the personalities of the people and their preconceptions (yes, even priests have preconceptions.) I think that Jansen made the best decisions he could with the information he had at the time and, ultimately, that is what we all do when dealing with crisis situations, for better or worse. (For those who have come to me with "pastoral concerns": I don't advise taking Gary's route and would have gone to my local priest or some other Church official who would have done an exorcism or whatever was called for.)

My only quibble with the book is that occasionally Jansen uses language which, frankly, surprised me not so much because it was just this side of swearing, but because it felt at odds with the rest of the flow of the book. It was as if he were trying to push for "edgy" language, but honestly that was not needed. The story itself, told in all honesty, is edgy enough without those lapses which always took me out of the book and stopped me for a second before I would plunge back in.

Jansen's honest tale is one that I highly recommend. What I appreciate most is the way that he used his supernatural encounters as a springboard to look for what the Catholic faith teaches and for a way to incorporate it into his everyday life. This is how Catholics should live, no matter what we encounter, and Jansen gives us a fine example of it. As he points out, the Church is reacquainting us with some of the things that were inadvertently ignored or misplaced in the reforms after the Second Vatican Council. If we believe in God, then the Bible has much more to say about other supernatural beings. It is something worth pondering and Holy Ghosts is a well told tale that is a good reminder of those truths.


  1. I don't understand how " synesthesis " is a " ghostly " experience. As I pointed out in your blog on that topic, I think it is perfectly normal.

    I confess that I have never had a " ghostly " experience of any kind that I know of. Though I am sure I have kept my Guardian Angel very busy. I think the experiences we need to worry about are the ones we are unaware of - the ones where an evil spirit causes a temptation to be placed in our way.

  2. No, not that synesthesia is a ghostly experience, but that many more people have had it than will admit it ... just as many more people have had ghostly experiences than will admit it.

  3. Thanks for your review. My pastor spoke briefly once about having dealt with things like this. There ARE priests who take these things seriously and can effectively address them - but it's true that they can be difficult to find. However, one tactic that I would suggest to "good Catholics" would be that they at least ask a priest to bless their house, and see if that helps. If it doesn't, they can contact the diocese to ask for an exorcist. A diocesan exorcist is not likely to laugh at them, since he will have dealt with demons before, and possibly quite extensively.

    While you're right that theory doesn't always work out in real situations, I mention it just so that Catholics reading this will know what the options are. Many probably do not know that every diocese is supposed to have an exorcist assigned to it and these priests are specially trained for such situations.

  4. I work night shift at a printing plant and I experience odd paranormal things all the time there. I'll be running one of the machines when I see someone walk by the machine next to it, and there are only 2 of us working there. I once was walking to turn off another machine when I swear a dog or small animal ran across my path. I can go on and on with stories about this. I thought maybe I was experiencing these things due to sleep deprivation but during a recent talk to others working there, They've experienced similar things. I've almost gotten used to it, it happens so much. I have experienced things in my life which make me believe there is more than just the physical to this life.

  5. Hilary, good point. Gary does mention in the book that at one point a priest had blessed their home. However, a counterpoint was raised to him, that the blessing included the ghosts. That is not Church doctrine and I don't know how valid it is, but you are right that it would point to getting a priest more involved on a specific level.

  6. Since this book has put you in the right frame of mind, I suggest you check out the movie Lake Mungo (2nd time in as many days I've recommended this film to someone). It's completely lacking in blood and other horror tropes, but will have you looking for ghosts for days to come :)

  7. How have I missed hearing about that movie? It is going on my list!

  8. Awesome review. I've often wondered what to say to my friends when they tell me their ghost stories. I look forward to reading this to find out! Thanks!

  9. I got this book via Amazon today, and I JUST finished reading it. I couldn't put it down! I had to know how it ended. I see what you mean, about the language. It didn't strike me as odd, though... maybe that's b/c I, too, have been known to curse like a sailor without provocation. (Yeah... working on that...). Anyway, I've often had convos with friends who say they've seen this or heard that. I never knew what to say to them... I always said "the Church doesn't believe in ghosts..." But now I feel like the answer isn't so cut and dried. I love how he relies on Father Hardon. He really does his homework. It makes me want to read his other books (and beg him for freelance editorial work... but that's a whole 'nother story). Anyway, thanks for the recommendation!

  10. I didn't mind the language so much as just language. It was that it appeared so randomly. Or so it seemed to me. Either use it or don't! :-D

    So glad you liked the book too. Try his rosary book. It is the one that introduced me to him and is a good 'un.

  11. Julie, Julie,

    His language is a trivial matter.

    You liked the way his experience served as a springboard to his faith? Huh?

    No, he used his faith --or rather, some Catholic practices-- merely as adjuncts, hedging his bets, as it were. The real story was his adventure in spritualism, with the assistance of this Cleveland Seeress. A new age cafeteria Catholic goes ghost hunting. When did he ever seriously approach the Church for help? Was he afraid it would ruin his book deal?

  12. That's the cynical take on it. I didn't read it that way.

  13. Then I guess the question is, why didn't you read it that way?

    Have you bothered to check out the Winkowski creature's website, with its magical wealth-producing advice and astrology? Are you aware that Gary edited one of her books --no full disclosure for him. Did you even notice that he neglected to seek help from the Church to which he claims allegiance? This is not cynicism, Julie, this is prudent pastoral examination of a text that may lead some of the faithful astray. People are hurt by this sort of crap all the time, and the most powerful lies are those that have just enough truth in them to make them plausible.

  14. Mike ... I am not a pastor nor am I qualified to give pastoral advice.

    I am a reader who is also a Catholic. I know tons of people who, like Gary Jansen, are not-very-good-Catholics (as he, himself, admits) and who would have taken such methods with the best will and intentions in the world. As I said in my review, I don't know all the other circumstances and didn't care to speculate, though you obviously feel that you do. Does he have a crappy priest who won't give him the time of day? Has he been laughed at before by clergy when broaching such issues? I don't know. Neither do you. Those would be my guesses, having encountered bad "priesting" before in my time ... just mention our previous bishop's name to most of the Catholics in Dallas and you'll find that practically everyone would have walked over hot coals carrying a dead chicken in their mouths to avoid bringing up such a subject to hom.

    The point is that I don't know. Neither do you.

    I do look at the fact that Gary was interested enough to look into what the Catholic Church teaches and to point it out. That's more than a lot of those not-very-good-Catholics I know would have done.

    That is how I read the book.

    I was simply commenting on the book, which is the point of a review. However, I will amend the review with a sentence.

  15. Also, Mike, calling someone a "creature"? Really? Stop it.