Ghosts of the Pandemic | @ghostofchristo1
Guest Column #016
On 26 February 2020, almost exactly a month before coronavirus restrictions entered legislation in the United Kingdom and “lockdown” officially began, Britain’s National Trust reported that the nation was becoming unprecedentedly disconnected from nature. According to the Trust’s research, 90% of British children seldom or never watched the sunrise, 83% rarely or never smelled wildflowers, and 77% were unfamiliar with (or indifferent to) the sound of birdsong. Britons as a whole seldom engaged in pass-times such as watching the clouds, gazing at the moon and stars at night, or observing dates in the seasonal calendar.1 Just over a year later, the Trust was able to report that COVID had seemingly transformed Britons’ relationship with their natural environment. No fewer than 47% of survey respondents now said they had been spending more time in nature since the pandemic began. Significant numbers also claimed to have become more aware of the passing of the seasons and that the simple things outside had helped alleviate the anxieties of lockdown.2
This change in the British public’s orientation to nature—their apparently newfound ability to go outside and, literally, “touch grass”—was mirrored globally. Press reporting during the early months of the pandemic abounded with stories of nature reclaiming urban environments as the normal rhythms of the global economy ceased or shifted frequency. Something similar seemed to happen to the world’s ghost lore. In May 2020, Brandwatch noticed that online searches for the occult and astrology had surged since March. These were accompanied by increasing numbers of claims on social media that users had recently seen ghosts.3 The New York Times contributed to the paranormal discourse with a report on “spectral roommates” in Los Angeles and Manhattan, as newly redeployed home workers started to notice odd presences in their usually overlooked domestic spaces. According to John E. L. Tenney, a ghost researcher quoted by the NYT, the phenomenon may have arisen in part from people being at home during normal working hours and registering (for the first time) the sounds of their walls and floors expanding and contracting with the heat cycles of the day.4 The inside equivalent of “touching grass”—call it “touching walls”—could bring with it, in other words, a sense of intense physical and affective connection with the house as a space and (potentially) a site of history and encounter.
There is a romantic view of ghost lore whereby the site of haunting becomes a visceral, folkish connection with the past. We imagine the landscapes and old buildings around us animated with the spirits of the long dead. We think about the tales that were once told about the fairies of the forests, the encounters that might take place on the roads out of the village. How these things were passed down from parent to child, forming a dense web of tradition—what Marc Augé refers to as a “symbolic universe”—that gave meaning to a location and bound a community together.5 There is a temptation to think that, if we could simply look up from our phones, stop seeing landscapes as the blurry irrelevances lying either side of the dual carriageway, we could find a way of reorienting ourselves in both physical and symbolic space, of finding our way back. Yet this desire carries within it a tacit recognition that “return” to an idealised past is impossible. What we fondly imagine as “reconnection” is simply another form of rupture. To the extent that British schoolchildren are really “rediscovering nature,” they are doing so because the rhythms of their education have been thoroughly disrupted by the pandemic and their home lives turned upside down. Likewise, new homeworkers hearing unfamiliar creaks and groans in their living spaces may simply be registering the conversion of their homes into places of work, as though they could literally hear the walls and ceilings reconfiguring themselves according to this shift in work patterns. The “spectral roommate” in this scenario is the psychic realisation that there may be no return to the office; that the virtual (spectral) workplace is now everywhere, pursuing us wherever we go.
Despite the comforting reassurances of folklore, ghosts and ghost sightings have always been sites of rupture and disconnection. They are points at which the individual is ripped from the familiar world and faced suddenly with the radically other. The sighting becomes a terrifying aporia in conscious experience that sends the witness on a disorienting quest for an explanation—the sense-making solutions of narrative and storytelling. Culturally primed to interpret the ghost as a sudden irruption of the past, Anglo-American witnesses often draw upon the familiar contents of the school curriculum in the stories they subsequently tell. In Britain, it is often the monks and nuns of the pre-Reformation Catholic past, the cavaliers and roundheads of the English Civil War, that provide the archetypal shapes for the otherwise indistinct figure of the ghost to assume.6 For the much larger circuit of ghost-story narrators and listeners (as opposed to first-hand witnesses), these retrospective attempts at historical sense-making provide a reassuring sense of temporal connection. The ghost story suggests that the past is somehow still inside the present, an invisible skein of connection within a living landscape. In other cases, as Roger Clarke puts it in A Natural History of Ghosts, the spirit is more ill-defined still—an “emotion field,” or vague sense of the spooky.7 In this register, the ghostly becomes a way of explaining the spatial vertigo we sometimes feel in places that have seen a lot of history, as though we ourselves were about to lose our bearings in time and emerge somewhere else entirely.
The ghost of Blue Bell Hill is typically encountered by a lone male motorist, late at night. In this part of Kent, nearly midway between Maidstone and the Chatham Docks up on the River Medway, the dual-carriageway A229 runs alongside Blue Bell Hill, a high point in the chalk escarpment of the North Downs. Above the A229, running across the top of the hill, is the old Roman road between Rochester and Lympne. In the days of the stagecoach, this would have been an arduous part of the northwards journey for the horses, involving an exhausting ascent up the steep incline. Excavations and modern road engineering mean that the angles of approach are much reduced now. The ghost takes several forms and may behave according to a number of different scripts. Often described as a fair-haired young woman in her early twenties, stylishly appareled in a white dress, she may emerge from the trees skirting the A229 and stand in the road in front of incoming traffic, her hand raised, her eyes fixed eerily on those of the driver. Or she may simply throw herself under the wheels of approaching traffic. When drivers stop, distraught and convinced that they have hit her, they find no sign she ever existed. If the police are summoned, they will quietly inform witnesses that there have been several such incidents lately, each as mysteriously inconclusive as the last.
The ghost may be glimpsed walking along the sides of local roads well after midnight, an added note of incongruity provided by the jauntiness of her step or (perhaps) the old-fashioned cut of her clothing. She may dart out suddenly from the hedge line, soaking wet, to startle cyclists on the narrow paths on top of the hill. She may place her hands directly on the bonnet of an oncoming car and implore its driver for help. Otherwise, she may be encountered standing in one of the roads running alongside the dual carriageway, perhaps thumbing a lift south to Maidstone. If she is successful in flagging down a driver, she will take the back seat, indicate her destination in a word or two, and sit in silence. When drivers glance up at her in their rear-view mirrors during the journey, they discover that she has somehow disappeared from the moving car.
Or so the stories go.
Running to 534 pages (no fewer than 72 of them occupied by a meticulously presented set of references and end notes), Sean Tudor’s self-published book, The Ghosts of Blue Bell Hill and Other Road Ghosts (2017), is no doubt the most exhaustive reference guide that will ever be written on the phenomenon.8 Perhaps best described as “outsider local history,” The Ghosts of Blue Bell Hill attempts to find some order and explanation in the plethora of eye-witness accounts, press stories, second-hand and friend-of-a-friend tales, and vague rumours that have accrued around the legend over several decades. Yet, the experience of reading the long sequence of case histories Tudor has assembled is itself curiously hypnotic, reminiscent of the long nocturnal car journeys that are “ground zero” for sightings of the phantom. Like the rapid cycling of reflective cats-eyes in the road at night, the accounts begin to resemble nothing so much as each other, a series of fleeting and spectral copies with no apparent original and no obvious point of origin.
Blue Bell Hill is not really a single location, but instead a series of distinct historical (and prehistoric) human places layered on top of each other, each ordering the land according to its own material and symbolic imperatives. Blue Bell Hill and its surrounds were part of a sacred landscape in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, the site of the early Neolithic long barrow, Kit’s Coty House (c. 4000 BCE), part of the Medway Megaliths complex, once some of most imposing stone structures in Britain. It stood above the Weald, which retained post-Ice Age Britain’s dense primordial forest until the late Saxon period. Later came the village of Blue Bell Hill, with its terraced housing for labourers working in the nearby chalk pits, and the centres of its social life—a pub to service the coaching trade, the village hall, and the local Anglican church. In twenty-first century Britain, however, as in so many other places, the social and spatial codes that governed the layout of these kinds of “anthropological places” are overwritten (or, at least, forced to coincide) with the spatial logic of the “non-place” characteristic of what Augé calls “supermodernity.” The radical “reorganization of space” brought about by “bypasses and main motorway routes” threatens to rub the old places off the map, consigning them to obscure turn-offs at the fringes of drivers’ vision as they rush from one “destination” to the next.9 Vast expanses of Blue Bell Hill itself have lately literally disappeared. The vast hollow space of the North Downs Tunnel (carrying the HS1 rail link southeast to the Channel Tunnel) runs directly underneath the site, while just over a million tons of local chalk were carried away in the early 1990s during widening of the A229. North of Blue Bell Hill, the dual carriageway meets the M2 and the classic “non-places”—chain hotels and restaurants—flanking Rochester Airport. The village itself is now bypassed by the main arterial route it served for centuries, its once-busy local pub—itself a focus for sightings of the ghost—finally demolished in 2013.
As Augé writes in Non-Places, “Place and non-place are rather like opposed polarities: the first is never completely erased, the second never totally completed; they are like palimpsests on which the scrambled game of identity and relations is ceaselessly written.”10 We could see the various possibilities offered by Tudor as candidates for the ghost’s “original” identity as the spectral referents or counterparts of these vanished and partially overlapping landscapes, the endless contention between “old” place and the proliferating “non-places” of supermodernity. The bride-to-be and her bridesmaids, killed in a head-on collision in her Ford Cortina on the old road to Maidstone in 1965, the night before her wedding. A cast of female eccentrics and runaways who once took shelter in the woods at the top of the hill. A young woman from the village, murdered by a soldier from the local Army camp in 1916. Various eighteenth- and nineteenth-century murder victims and casualties of the coaching trade and the chalk pits. Fairies, wood-nymphs and terrestrial spirits; the ancient Greek deity Hekate. This cast of victims and mythic entities stretches backwards until it disappears into a haze of historical illegibility. Any long-inhabited landscape acquires its own rich strata of lives, deaths, legends, and ritual, one which can easily disappear once the belief structures and systems of local memory that set them in place erode. Without this stabilising framework, these strata risk dissolving into a jumbled and ahistorical sequence of rumour and garbled recollections that can be described as a unified “local history” only via the parallax error of post hoc historical reasoning. The figure of the ghost, standing in the road with her hand raised, emerges out of this temporal confusion, asking us to remember that events have happened here. She becomes a disembodied “site of memory,” one that signifies continuity of local identity while simultaneously gouging a “break” or “discontinuity” in the experience of whoever is said to bear witness to her terrifying presence.11
Nearly eighteen months on from the start of the first lockdowns in Europe, as we retrospectively survey the impact of the ongoing pandemic, there is something undeniably ghostly about the sequence of events. The disappearance of the victims of COVID into the cordons sanitaires of quarantine and the hospital system, and then into the simulacra of medical modelling and purely numerical representation (“cases,” “hospitalizations,” and “deaths”). The streets emptied of their usual traffic, devoid of the daily rhythms of the working week. The facelessness of COVID masking. The unseen exodus of workers and migrants from the cities as the restaurants and service industries shut up shop. The spectral invisibility of the virus itself. These phenomena could seem both “weird” and “eerie” in the senses identified by Mark Fisher in The Weird and the Eerie: something that “should not be,” but nevertheless was—a weird virus ravaging the global system after we were confidently informed in early 2020 that such an outcome was “unlikely”—while eerie absences and aporias (the things that “should be,” but weren’t) surrounded us on all sides.12 We could see the “spectral turn” in the early months of the pandemic as a psychological recognition that aporias and unasked-for presences are inherently readable as sites of supernatural encounter. Abandoned houses, after all, are commonly believed to attract ghosts simply through the act of being left unattended. And what were our cities now, other than a vast expanse of potentially haunted spaces?
There is another sense in which the spectrality of the pandemic becomes apparent. State and corporate responses to the virus threaten to exacerbate the radical “reorganization of space” and time associated with supermodernity, accelerating the logic and viral spread of the “non-place” into as-yet-uncolonised areas of our lives. At the same time as international air travel becomes unfeasible for most of us, the spatial, security, and sanitary logics of the airport terminal have now become pervasive across all the spaces we encounter outside our homes. The dematerialised and abstract quality of pure “space” injects itself into the most intimate aspects of our private lives in the form of “social distancing.” The admonitory signs and prescriptive instructions characteristic of the “non-place” (“EU passport holders only”; “services 1 mile”) proliferate in the form of arrows on the floor, social distancing indicators, and masking warnings in places once free of them. The non-place seeks to bypass the old places, creating instead a series of prescribed journeys and engineered trajectories that render the traveler fundamentally transparent to surveillance, market signals, and external direction. As we stand on the uncertain threshold of a radically reorganised post-COVID world (or simply one where COVID is perpetually present), the sense of the ghostly registers our sense of what Augé calls a “willed coexistence of two different worlds,” the old and the new, and our psychic unwillingness to sever ties entirely with what has gone before.
As you start to accelerate to take the right-hand bend on the climb up the hill, you see her. Illuminated in your headlights, she stands casually in the road, as though she had been waiting all this time for you to come by. She is taller than you would have expected, with sleek, shoulder-length black hair. She wears a long-sleeved black velvet frock. You don’t remember any shoes. Her face is pale, her eyes huge and absolutely coal-black. After you stop for her in the lane, she glides over to the car, opens the back door on the left-hand side, and takes the seat behind you. You don’t have to ask her destination; that would break the spell. You assume she simply wants to go where you’re going. You drive together in silence until you reach the outskirts of town. At the edge of the warehouses, before the orange lines of sodium streetlights start and the first of the new housing subdivisions are going in, you bring the car to a gentle halt. She slides out the door and vanishes into the darkness.
This is @ghostofchristo’s second contribution to Covidian Æsthetics. His first one was Guest Column #04, “Reference and Repetition in Conspiracy Theory,” which you can read here.
Chessum, Victoria and Ben Ashton. “Blue Bell Hill: The last time people thought they saw Kent’s most notorious ghost.” Kent Live News, UK, 10 July 2020.
“National Trust launches year of action to tackle ‘nature deficiency,’” press release, National Trust, UK, 27 February 2020.
“Britons report ‘massive boost’ in nature connection since pandemic started, as #BlossomWatch gets underway,” press release, National Trust, UK, 17 March 2021.
Covid-19 Daily Bulletin, Brandwatch, 11 June 2020.
Fitzpatrick, Molly. "Violating Spectral Distancing Rules." New York Times. 17 May 2020, p. 6L.
Augé, Marc. Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. London / New York: Verso, 2008, p. 27.
Davies, Owen. The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts. London: Palgrave, 2007, p. 42.
Clarke, Roger. A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof. New York: Penguin, 2012, p. 25.
Tudor, Sean. The Ghosts of Blue Bell Hill and Other Road Ghosts. White Ladies Press, 2017.
Augé, idem, p. 55.
Augé, idem, p. 64.
Augé, idem, p. 49.
Fisher, Mark. The Weird and the Eerie. London: Repeater Books, 2016, p. 61.