I was about eleven when “The Exorcist” came out and probably fourteen or so when a censored version of it first aired on one of the three channels then available on television, and I can’t recall a movie that caused more extreme responses among young people. I knew a set of sisters who were so frightened by it that after they watched it, for two or three weeks they insisted that their mother sleep with them. One guy old enough to drive told me he could sense the devil riding shotgun beside him when he left the old Sipp Theater after the show, but one or two others, brighter than most of us, would laugh all the way through the movie and watch it again and again for the tight hugs they always got from their terrified dates. Ah, those were the days. When “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” were in regular syndicated reruns on those three channels and “Night Gallery” and “Ghost Story” were still on prime time, demons and ghosts and what not—what our grandparents, and sometimes our parents too, would call “haints” after the old pronunciation of “haunts”–could be a very grave business, no pun intended, of course all the more serious at this season of the year.
I don’t know how much my old man knew about child psychology, but the stories he told me about haints when I was a little kid somehow helped me cope with my fears in a way nothing else did. Back then I didn’t know that Dad only believed in what he could see and about half of what he heard, but he sure could recall how a young boy’s mind worked. Our home was an old coal company crackerbox built in 1902, just like those of most of our neighbors, and those houses had seen dozens of tenants over the years and a lot of births and deaths. So when I’d get scared about the possibility of ghosts roaming the place, Dad would simply say not to worry: likely they were only house haints, and house haints never caused trouble. They were quiet and wanted to be left alone. It was the field haints outside that were full of mischief, the kind that would throw things at you and try to trip you up. Dad’s story about field haints may have been his plan to try to keep me indoors at night, and I guess it worked, but somehow his Linnaean classification of haints (backed up by Grandma, who believed in them a lot more literally than Dad ever did) served to make the ghosts, or at least a kid’s fears, more manageable for me. Sort of like his story, when I was even younger, of “the tater wagon a-goin’ up the road” when I’d be startled by loud thunder. And of course I eventually learned the truth about haints: to quote Dad again, hain’t none, really.
Maybe that’s the function of myth in general, to help humans cope with what they don’t understand until they’re mature enough not to need the mythical explanations any more. There’s a moral there, folks. But, that said, I must warn you that if you’re looking for skeptics about the supernatural don’t bother poking around a hospital staff. Many healthcare workers have college degrees in the applied sciences and there are individual rationalists among us, but collectively I never saw a more superstitious bunch in my life. Every patient care unit I’ve ever worked with harbors its own collection of eerie stories, my coworkers choose their words carefully to avoid jinxes, and once years ago when my union was on strike a gaggle of my college-educated professional colleagues traveled all the way to another county to ask a fortune teller when the labor dispute was going to end. The very laboratory where I now work is supposed to have a haint lurking somewhere in it, the ghost of a technologist who died in a car accident not too far from the hospital, and although some of my coworkers have sworn they’ve seen her—and we even have one instrument that’s named for her—I’ve never seen or heard so much as a peep out of her, even around midnight. If she exists at all, I feel sorry for her. How much fun can it be to have to haunt a laboratory, of all places? Maybe I’ve simply scared the poor thing off, hopefully to better haunts. Pun intended this time.
Or like Dad used to say, perhaps she’s just a quiet house haint who hain’t no harm. Happy Halloween.