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SocietySeptember 10, 2023

The Sunday Essay: Ghosts


Sharing a home with spirits isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Illustrations by Sofia Drescher.

When I was 11, my mum became convinced we had a ghost in our house. 

She’d heard the voice of a small child calling out again and again for his mother. Both our neighbours had teenage children and there was no one obviously outside on the street. It’d been a school holiday afternoon and my siblings and I had heard it, too. But having inherited our dad’s skepticism, our mum was the only one who dared to acknowledge the possibility of a ghost out loud. 

It wasn’t my mum’s first encounter with the supernatural. In fact, despite being both a trained lawyer and an atheist, she’d developed somewhat of a penchant for psychics over the years.

For a while she became a semi-regular patron of the spiritual guide, Charlesh. According to his website, Charlesh actually lived during the era of the Sumerian people, some time between 4100 and 1700 BCE, but is now channeled by a man called Brent and available to give personal readings out of a Mt Victoria villa. A painted portrait of Charlesh in his original form depicts him as a more tanned and windswept Rasputin. Even as a child, it struck me as unusually fortuitous that, if one had to share their body with another, it happened to be a highly monetisable, 6,000-year-old Mesopotamian psychic, and not an 80-year-old retired panelbeater from Lower Hutt.  

According to Mum, Brent would greet her at the door and usher her into his nicely furnished sitting room. I imagined draping red velvet curtains and a plump chaise lounge nestled over a Persian rug. He’d then close his eyes, twitching and sweating, until Charlesh arrived, ready to provide sage advice. 

In the evenings, when my dad was still at work, she’d tuck herself away in the lounge with a glass of wine and re-listen to Charlesh’s recordings. “Alex is a bit of a bitch, isn’t she?” I once heard Charlesh say of me as I crouched in the hallway, my ear pressed up against the door. It seemed such a cruel way for an adult to describe a nine-year-old, especially one with the anal-retentive personality of the oldest child and a mild anxiety disorder. On another occasion, I heard him cautioning that my grandma only had a few years left to live. I resented Charlesh and his supposed insights.  

It was validating, however, when Charlesh later asked my mother why she never pursued a career that harnessed her musical talents. In a family of terrible singers, my mum easily stands out as the worst. On special occasions, for a laugh, she treats my siblings and me to her warbling rendition of Donny Osmond’s ‘Puppy Love’, a version so off none of us recognised the original song when we first heard it. She stopped visiting Charlesh after that.    

It wasn’t until years later, when I was living in New York and in a relationship I was starting to suspect I desperately needed out of, that I began to feel some sympathy for my mum’s psychic curiosity. Unemployed, with my boyfriend working late, I’d take my camera and stroll around the West Village and Manhattan Chinatown, photographing the neon-lit signs advertising psychic walk-ins and tarot card readings. Stuck in a rut and feeling lost, spending the last of my savings to get some answers didn’t feel like a terrible option. 

And in fairness to my mum, her concern that the ghost of a small child might be inhabiting our family home wasn’t totally out of left field. 

My parents had bought the house a few years earlier from an elderly woman who had lived there with her 50-something daughter and her daughter’s husband. The woman had purchased a place in a nearby retirement village, and the three of them were going to move there together. The fact that two 50-somethings would opt to live with their mother and mother-in-law in a retirement village baffled my parents and became a hot dinner table topic.

My parents treated us all to fish and chips our first night in the house. We ate them outside in the overgrown garden because the house itself was practically uninhabitable. Before moving in, my mum had emphasised that the house had “a lot of potential,” and thought we’d all enjoy having a project to work on. It’d be just like Changing Rooms, she reassured us.

The house was unchanged from the 70s when the woman ran it as a boarding house. The floor and walls of the kitchen were still covered with a deep red carpet patterned with mustard swirls. This carpet spread throughout the rest of the house, like a fungus on an indoor houseplant, infecting every branch and leaf. Even the bathroom floors were plastered in a bright green carpet that made me think of AstroTurf on a mini golf course. The only exception was the upstairs walls, which were covered in a faded yellow tongue and groove. On weekends, Mum took deep satisfaction in prying off the dated wood panelling. 

In the kitchen sat a metal safe in the place where a fridge should have been, with a vent to the outside. My siblings and I took delight in buzzing a maid bell that connected the kitchen to what was once a master bedroom halfway across the house. I soon realised it wasn’t just the carpet that permeated the house – every room smelt vaguely of stale cheddar crackers, as if the windows hadn’t been opened in decades. 

Beyond the kitchen, and among the overgrown agapanthus and hydrangeas, was an outhouse that contained a toilet and metal tub for hand washing. My parents had hired builders to knock it down before we moved in, ahead of the rest of the renovations. The builders knocked down everything except the toilet, as it formed a good seat to perch on during lunch and smoke breaks.

My seven-year-old sister and I weren’t fooled by the fish and chips. We cried ourselves to sleep that first night on a mattress in the corner of what was to become our living room. We spent the next year having to explain to any friends we had over why there was a toilet in the middle of our garden. Our dad cried too that night, outside alone in the relative comfort of our Honda Odyssey. 


A few months into our new fixer upper, one of the neighbours told Mum that the couple had once had a son, who died when he was just seven, from meningitis. They’d lived there with the woman’s mother ever since, keeping it exactly as it had been when their son was alive, a physical manifestation of the loss that haunted them. It was as if, unable to move on from such a devastating loss, they’d chosen to sentence themselves to an early death, too.  

Curious and worried we were wrongly occupying someone else’s home, my mum’s dormant dalliance with the mystic was reignited. A friend of my uncle’s, who allegedly had a gift for speaking to spirits, performed a reading over the phone from Masterton. It wasn’t the ghost of a young boy, she said, but a woman whose own son was buried nearby and wanted to remain close to him. There was nothing to be scared of: she liked having us there and even enjoyed helping with the housework. Mum was relieved.

Still, Mum’s a strong proponent of second opinions, and this was no exception. She began making the rounds of Wellington’s paranormal community. She had a session with a psychic from the cold case whodunnit, Sensing Murder, and solicited numerous recommendations from her spiritual-but-not-religious friends. She was most taken with a Chinese psychic who was able to describe the shape of our home with what my mum felt was uncanny accuracy: square and with four external walls. Sharing a home with spirits wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, he explained, but if my mum was worried, he suggested she light a candle in each of the four corners of our home and ask any negative spirits to leave. At least they were obedient.

This was decades before I found myself living on a windy street in southern Taiwan. Tainan is the island’s historic capital and remains its cultural and religious heart. In the evenings, I’d walk along North Gate Road, watching the local restaurants and hawkers prepare breakfast for the next day. In the terraced houses above the steady stream of scooters and street stalls, the magenta and gold from familial shrines would emanate, lingering in the thick, polluted night air. Taoist temples dedicated to the worship of various local gods were dotted down side alleys and between the throngs of Seven Elevens and Family Marts. 

On weekends, the streets became lined with tables covered with oranges, packaged snacks, and incense sticks; offerings to their dead. During the day, families would burn yellow wads of joss paper, or spirit money, in cast iron cauldrons and set off smoky firecrackers to bring about good fortune and ensure those already gone were not left wanting. No one was above ancestor worship and local gang members were some of the most devout temple goers. Spiritual life, and in turn death, was not just the domain of harassed stay-at-home mothers searching for answers, but infused with the everyday.

Despite my skepticism, the night my mum dimmed the lights in our house and carefully placed thin wax candles in each of its four corners, I became increasingly worried. I’d grown attached to the idea of a benevolent motherly figure living invisibly beside us, a non-judgmental witness to our early-2000s familial dysfunction. But more than this, I became anxious that perhaps my grandad’s spirit was with us, too. He’d died seven years earlier just before my twin brother and sister were born. What if we accidentally sent him away?

I didn’t let on about my concern, but my mum must have felt this, too. As she blew out the candles, I heard her whisper under her breath, “Dad, stay.” 

We grew to love this house. The builders became our family friends, and despite my mum’s conviction we were not the only ones there, it came to feel like our own. My parents spent weekends restoring the original wooden floors and stripping the stale yellow paint off the upstairs walls and banisters. The garden toilet was eventually knocked down, and in its place my parents built a deck and installed a basketball hoop and a barbeque, where we spent our long summer evenings.

I somehow convinced my parents to let me paint my bedroom fuchsia. From upstairs, it looked over the motorway below, and the painters joked people would be able to see it from across town in Seatoun. With each coat, they’d bring us up to make sure this is what we really wanted. 

My parents sold the house when I was 21, after they finally decided to separate. My siblings and I weren’t sad about their separation: it’d been a long time coming and, if anything, felt like a relief. But selling the house was devastating. I suppressed tears as my mum, her friend and I did the final clean one inconspicuous Wednesday evening.  

It’s strange driving past it now. The outside has been painted various shades of grey and my bedroom is almost certainly no longer fuchsia. But our old cat, Eddie, is buried in the garden, and I like to think there are other traces of us left behind.

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