He Says That He Will Never Die

What’s it to haunt? There are the two main interlinked definitions, obviously, one the verb and the other a noun: (a) to linger in a place, like a spirit, and (b) a regular stop where one lingers for a while, becoming a part-aesthetic-part-functional fixture not unlike a particularly compelling lamp or the Cheers sign.[1] But is there a way to get the two definitions operable at the same time? We’d need a spirit, but not one trapped by some sense of purpose but by a regularity—a ghost that wanted to but couldn’t leave, and had no magical set of conditions whereby that were possible, because the binding’s not a Minotaur-like trappedness or anything like that, but just an inability to think of some other way to be. So McCarthy’s judge, who “says that he will never die,”[2] haunts even if the facts of his claim are true, and even if he’s corporeal forever. Or even if he’s not and doesn’t become some sort of Great White Hairless Poltergeist floating around the saloon.

What about memories? They don’t have the misfortune of being stuck in cartoonish disorienting demi-presences that cause shock / fear / &c upon their appearance. In fact, the rememberer knows they’re there all along. It’s their propensity to be recalled without purpose, their persistence in tormenting, reminding, pointing, that sharpens up the knife. The ghost of King Hamlet’s final injunction to his dear son is “Adieu, adieu, adieu, remember me.”[3] He asks for revenge for his murder but doesn’t specify the eye-for-an-eye-for-the-eyes-of-basically-everyone-in-the-room-during-the-swordfight-in-Act-5 thing that Hamlet ends up going with.[4] The Ghost is stuck wandering the Earth in penance for his sins and isn’t really getting anything out of the revenge except possibly some ethereal satisfaction, but whatever God-mandated penance he’s undertaking most likely excludes that. Maybe the Judge from Blood Meridian really wants to die, like the Cumean Sybil hanging in Eliot’s jar, but can’t, because he will never die, and is stuck dancing in the saloon with the dead bear for all eternity. Cassandra was at least lucky enough to die and head on over to the Elysian Fields after a lifetime of unbelieved foresight; these ghosts aren’t so lucky. Memories are one step further gone; they’re not even beings, so they don’t have the luxury of being able to control when they appear to the viewer or make demands and injunctions and things like that.

But anyways, on the topic thereof: Kevin Carter, the South African photographer responsible for that stark photo of the little emaciated African girl curled up on the ground being watched by a vulture that you’ve definitely seen and remember even if you haven’t heard of Carter himself or the fact that, three months after winning the Pulitzer for the photo, he killed himself at the age of 33. He passed ten years ago yesterday, on 27 July 1994.[5] It’s hard to conceptualize what a person more haunted than Kevin Carter would look like, or have to have gone through to be so. And even beyond whatever he witnessed in his mind’s eve constantly, perpetually, unendingly, he also had to look at it with his physical eyes everywhere, and be celebrated by others for it, and win fancy prizes for being in the right place at the right time to capture one of the most graphic images ever put to film. There’s nothing worse than being celebrated for what you most hate about yourself. You’re not allowed to let it go, and forever people who walk up to you on the street and try and make friendly small talk about it and it kills you every single time it happens and you want to tell that person that no, there’s nothing there to celebrate and in fact it’s condemnable, but the people that hate you don’t have any sympathy for you because you’re some kind of monster, which you kind of are but monsters aren’t melodrama villains and Kevin Carter didn’t go out into the desert in attempt to let vultures consume the recently-dead flesh of children and document it for his own lurid pleasure. Monsters are monstrous because they make mistakes, big and terrible and crucial ones that are all the more hideous because a human being, just like you or me, made that poor choice. And the monsters aren’t allowed to get away from what they’ve done, because of Memory. We treasure memories often, the good ones, that make us feel whole and connected to ourselves. But sometimes they become the cruelest ghosts, because they don’t need to bite and scratch and tear and roar to inflict bloody and grievous wounds. They just have to be there. They pop up when there’s nothing else going on, and the mind doesn’t have a way to occupy itself otherwise, turning up when you’re bored as well as when you’re happy, lurking behind the wall or in the cupboard or at the park. They’re unwanted. By themselves, for the people remembering them, and yet they cannot leave no matter how hard anyone tries. And for Kevin Carter, everyone got to see that, from the lovers who didn’t understand to the haters who didn’t care, and he gave up.

It’s tricky to think of a good word for the thing signified by “horror” that hasn’t been beaten flat and clichéd by decades of cheesy horror movies or constant declarations of this or that being “horrifying” or “terrifying” on the basis of its capacity to do pretty alright in some theoretical Platonic Form of Halloweeniness Contest. But for whatever that word is, it’s hard to think of a situation that embodies it, and the friendless, unwelcome, and self-hating spirits that are its handmaiden, than this. Perhaps we’ve struck something going towards a functional meaning of “haunting,” that is able to unite the ghost-and-accoutrements definition and the dive bar definition, into something far worse than either understood alone. And maybe it’s why we found ghosts so scary in the first place.[6]


[1] Interesting to note, as well, that the nounal form of the first definition, the verb, is “haunting” instead of “haunt.” The second can be used for ghosts, but only derivatively from the dive bar sense.

[2] Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West (Vintage: New York, 1985), 335.

[3] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (Arden: London, 2006), 218.

[4] You could probably also stage a pretty interesting, only-very-slightly-tweaked version of Hamlet where you don’t cast the Ghost at all, and just have Hamlet dialogue with himself. It would play up the bad Hamlet-is-crazy reading a bit, but would also reinforce the memory angle in cool ways.

[5] His NYT obituary can be found here. To this day it’s one of the most bizarre obituaries I’ve ever read—short, jarring, only very lightly touching at the circumstances of his work in south Sudan and of the time leading up to his death. The one line of the thing, one of two sentences of the piece that in any way give context to the reason the obit existed in the first place, scrapes pretty deep: “Afterward, he told an interviewer in April, he sat under a tree for a long time, ‘smoking cigarettes and crying.’”

[6] A word of thanks to my friend Ilan for getting me to think more about ghosts recently.


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