Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Brainstorming Ghosts for Writers: Towards a Science of the Supernatural

When the Large Hadron Collider collides with our need to believe.

A couple of articles (I could only pick one for the link) appeared in popular science news sites describing an interview broadcast on BBC’s Radio 4 with a physicist from the Large Hadron Collider. For some reason, the subject of ghosts came up, and how the Large Hadron Collider had disproved their existence. 

Based on what I read, spectral activity would create an energy signature. Spirits would also require a mechanism for transmitting energy in order to become spirits in the first place. At the moment of death, vast amounts of information—the physical appearance, the memory and personality of the subject, et al.—would need to be translated from the dying body to its eventual spectral form. No such mechanism has been noted by the Large Hadron Collider, so, ipso facto, there are no ghosts, QED. The physicist stated emphatically at the outset that there was no debate on the matter. So why was this brought up in the first place?
The Ghost by Joseph Mandi. Now go away, your existence is impossible.

Aside from that obvious question, I was inspired to ask others. As a writer who works with extra-normal entities in a post-apocalyptic setting, I’ve learned there are tremendous benefits to having one’s pseudo-science worked out. For instance, I determined that what caused the dead to rise and eat living flesh in my DEAD SILENCER series was a highly developed flesh-eating bacterium that hijacks human cadavers as a mechanism to deliver that living flesh to the colonies of bacteria within the corpses. 

Having something different than the dismissive and overused “zombie virus” provided me with options and opportunities denied to less imaginative writers. Most importantly, having my own origin for the outbreak of the living dead enabled my investment in the story in a way that an ordinary tossed-off “it’s a virus” would not. Although I still engage many of the common tropes involved in zombie apocalypse fiction, this much of the story is mine and mine alone.

One of my next projects after finishing The Wrong Kind of Dead is a small collection of supernatural stories I wrote years ago. My star novella is a ghost story I wrote in 1989-1990, so the recent articles about the Large Hadron Collider disproving ghosts conveniently provide me with points to ponder before I go about remastering my manuscript.

Ghosts, then. How do they work?
Attending his own funeral? Actually, it’s a Photoshop-doctored photo by an Australian artist who goes by the name “pyrotech,” for entry into a ghostly photos contest on DesignCrowd.

I’ve always imagined ghosts as Mr. Spock described the dikironium vampire cloud in my third favorite Star Trek episode, “Obsession,” that is, “in a borderline state between matter and energy.” As such, they’re not something you can shoot, stab, or even shut out, but they can exert enough force on you to make for a decent horror movie.

Energy will be expended in the course of the most basic spooky business, such as knocks from the closet, or exerting a malignant presence over you as you lie in bed. Icy fingers around the throat, causing objects blunt and sharp to fly at you, etc., would require even greater amounts of energy. This energy has to come from somewhere. Which means a ghost has to eat...what? Ghosts are the one supernatural entity that doesn’t make a meal of your blood or flesh. They have other reasons entirely to hurt or kill you. 

The dikironium cloud creature exsanguinating two hapless redshirts in the second season original (accept no spin-offs) Star Trek episode “Obsession,” written by Art Wallace, and directed by the great Ralph Senensky. At least this amorphous beast has a food source, and therefore a clear motive for its predations.


So how does a ghost acquire and channel the energy to do this?

Infamous 1936 photograph of the
Brown Lady of Raynham Hall.
Assume as given that ghosts exist in an existential gray area between the realm of the living and whatever dimension the souls of the dead wind up. To interact with the living, they require a conduit into the spectral dimension to draw its energy, as our own physical plane makes too much actual sense for a disembodied spirit to have anything it could use. 

I would declare that conduit to be scientific concept of dark matter. No one knows what dark matter really is, save that it presumably makes up much of the mass of the universe. The concept is no more than a delightfully named speculative placeholder until someone finally figures out what they’re talking about. Therein lies the opening for the fiction writer to move in and make up stuff.

So, borrowing from physics’ speculations regarding parallel universes, let’s say there’s an extradimensional Underworld closely tied to our own reality. Let’s say it’s got some infernal battery that powers all the supernatural shenanigans in our mortal plane, and dark matter is how its energy is is that battery powered? What if there was a way to hijack the signal?
Hijack this signal. I double-dog dare ya.

That’s only one train of thought, and from my own peculiarly limited imagination, at that. The point is, I was able to take articles using physics to debunk ghosts, and twist the science to “prove” them in my fiction. 

That’s not the only useful irony here. A wonderful paradox I have observed in the course of crafting my zombie post-apocalypse saga is that the more I restrict the parameters of the possible in my fictional world, the more possibilities for narrative invention reveal themselves.

It’s not a matter of knowing what the rules are so you can break them. Breaking the rules defeats the purpose of the rules, and therefore renders your narrative ridiculous. What you want to do is test your rules. It’s in these challenges to authorities real and imagined that we generate the conflicts that comprise the metaphorical flesh and blood of our stories. 
A strutting spectre in the Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Louisville, Kentucky.