Alex Beam | May 23, 2019
I will never forget the scariest ghost story I ever heard. I attended summer camp in Nova Scotia, on a crescent-shaped promontory overlooking the Bay of Fundy. Then and now, this part of the world is thinly settled. In the pine forests descending to the rocky coast, we could see only one house for miles around. Dr. Magnuson’s house.
As a nominal adult, I can assert that there never was a “Dr. Magnuson,” and that he never had a young son, William, who grabbed the family shotgun from the mantel and killed the red-uniformed Mounties sent from Digby to arrest his father. Dr. Magnuson had been accused of medical malpractice. William was hanged for his crime, but his father retrieved his beloved son’s body and used his medical black arts to bring the boy back to life.
As so often happens in stories like this — here’s looking at you, Mary Shelley — something went terribly wrong. William returned to life as Little Willy, the dwarflike werewolf with hideous fangs and a taste for the flesh of farm animals, random wildlife and young campers.
It is true, we would earnestly explain to the campers as the last campfire embers turned from red to ash-gray, that these events took place a long time ago. Dr. Magnuson may no longer be alive. As to Little Willy’s precise age and whereabouts, who can say? Did you hear about that mutilated deer carcass they found over by St. Margaret’s Bay? It’s really time for you campers to go to sleep now.
What is a ghost, you ask? Let’s go with definition 5(a) in the Oxford English Dictionary: “an incorporeal being; a spirit.” That artfully dodges the purported malevolence or beneficence of the specters, and also avoids the thornier question of whether ghosts actually exist.
According to a 2013 Harris poll, about 42 percent of Americans believe in supernatural beings, and half don’t. If you happen to attend church, as I do, that poll’s headlined conclusions were darkly comic: “Belief in God Down, Belief in UFOs Up, Study Says.” (Ghosts were lumped in with astrology and extraterrestrials.) In a nutshell, Stephen King stock rising, New Testament stock falling.
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