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Wade T. Smith

Nov 1, 1999, 3:00:00 AM11/1/99

Embracing the concept of the friendly ghost

By Jessica Fein, Globe Correspondent, 10/31/99

Halloween is undoubtedly the strangest holiday of the year. On what other
evening, after all, do we encourage our children to accept candy from

When else do we sanction what is, in essence, a mild form of extortion:
''Give me a treat, or else?'' And when, in our health-obsessed culture,
do we allow children, and yes, ourselves, to gorge on mounds of candy?
(One for you, two for me.)

But perhaps the most peculiar aspect of Halloween is the focus on things
that go bump in the night - on ghosts and goblins and other ghoulish
beings that chill our spines, at least a little bit.

If movie box-office receipts are any indication, clearly we are a society
that enjoys being scared, that will even pay for a two-hour dose of
terror. Witness the success of ''The Blair Witch Project,'' which, as of
mid-October, had made more than $100 million in the United States. The
mock documentary, in case you've actually been living in the woods for
the last several months, tells the story of three film students who
become lost in the forest while making a movie about a legendary witch.
Or, think of the success of films such as ''Halloween,'' ''Friday the
13th'' or ''Nightmare on Elm Street,'' which are just as frightening
after numerous incarnations.

We'll pay money and endure long lines to spend 15 minutes in a haunted
house. And we feel cheated if it isn't sufficiently scary. We want to
emerge a little worse for the wear, with goose bumps and white knuckles
attesting to our fear.

So it's not surprising that we embrace this holiday with origins that can
be traced to ancient Ireland, where it was believed that, at the final
harvest, the souls of the dead roamed the land of the living.

Personally, though I am somewhat reluctant to confess it, I find the
notion of ghosts to be comforting rather than scary.

Having lost, in recent years, a couple of the people to whom I was
closest, I welcome the thought that maybe, just maybe, they can return -
in whatever form - to the land of the living.

I was never one to pay too much attention to the world of the occult. I,
for one, did not see ''The Blair Witch Project'' or, for that matter, any
of the other aforementioned horror films. But I did see ''Ghost'' and I
must admit I was glad that Patrick Swayze was able to communicate with
and protect Demi Moore.

My involvement with the supernatural never really grew beyond
grade-school encounters with the Ouija board. And truth be told, even
though I feigned surprise when the letters spelled ''Jon'' in response to
the question, ''Who will ask me on a date?'' it's not entirely impossible
that the pressure of my fingers had something to do with it.

When my friends and I grew tired of the Ouija board, we did make one
attempt at conducting our very own seance. But when our clasped hands,
nonsensical chanting, and lit candles failed to cause my friend to rise
from the table on which she lay, we gave up on witchcraft and went out
for pizza instead.

But now I find I'd like to be able to believe that the barrier between
our world and whatever lies beyond is permeable. And judging by the
five-year waiting list for appointments with mediums such as Suzanne
Northrop, I'm not alone in the desire to communicate with the loved ones
I've lost. And more: In a 1994 USA Today-CNN-Gallup poll, nearly 70
million Americans indicated they think it's possible to communicate with
the dead, as reported in a recent cover story in People magazine that
focused on the booming medium business.

To be sure, there are more plausible - and indeed more reliable - ways of
being in touch with people who have died than either psychics or
Halloween. Not a day goes by when I don't think of my sister, who died
nearly four years ago. I often find myself wondering what she would do in
situations in which I find myself, and the answer helps guide my
behavior. I speak of her all the time, bragging of her brilliance,
telling stories of our childhood antics and how as adults we became the
best of friends. I try to emulate the traits in her that I so admired -
her ability to listen and her compassion, for instance. And I have to
believe that in doing all this I am, in some small way, keeping her alive.

And yet, I can't help but wonder if that's all there is. I'd like to
believe there's a way of getting real feedback from ''the other side.''
Is there really anything wrong with at least being open to the idea?

I suppose there are risks in permitting yourself to engage in this kind
of magical thinking. It's one thing to have idle thoughts about the
possibility of interacting with those who have passed; it's quite another
to be preoccupied with the deceased. (Think of Sally Field in ''Kiss Me
Goodbye;'' she jeopardizes her relationship with her fiance because she's
still involved in one with her dead husband.)

All this is, of course, a long way from the benign spookiness of
Halloween. But things that go bump in the night tend to remind me of
things that go tug in the day.

Framingham resident Jessica Fein is a regular contributor to West Weekly.
Readers with comments, questions or ideas may e-mail her at

This story ran on page 18 of the Boston Globe's West Weekly on 10/31/99.
Š Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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