Someone wise once told me that ’shoulds’ lead to anger, and that if I ever found myself experiencing irrational irritation or annoyance I should look for ways I’ve decided someone or some thing ‘should’ be behaving, then decide if that ‘should’ is rational. This has proven a very useful technique for me, since I can pretty much chronicle my life through a series of frustrations with how the world behaves, in contrast to the way it behaves in my fantasies. ‘The World Is Not Enough’ would be a good title for the story of my life, had it not been taken already by the James Bond franchise.
A fairly recent exception to my chronic state of dissatisfaction, one that leaves me hopeful that I may have at last conquered my demon, comes in the form of smartphone applications (apps). What makes me especially hopeful that I’m cured is the massive potential for disappointment the smartphone presents. If you think about it, a device that can access the internet wirelessly, take high-resolution photos, talk, sense touch, recognize speech, know exactly where it is in the world (including which way is up), know whether it’s moving and how fast, and recognize the direction and strength of magnetic fields should be able to accomplish some pretty amazing feats.
To my surprise, I find that smartphone apps that should exist, often do. For instance, I take comfort in the fact that there is an app that finds the cheapest gas near my current location, and one that listens to a song whose name I can’t remember and identifies it for me, and one that overlays the constellations over the sky when I point my phone at any part of it.
Even when my search for obscure apps seems fruitless at first, generally I only need to wait a few months and search again to get satisfaction. That app that allows you to take a photo of your meal and then tells you how many calories and grams of carbohydrate are in it?: currently in development. The one that compares a photo of an antique store find to a database and then pulls up its history and value?: someone thought of it already, and is plugging away at making it happen.
When things get most interesting is when I search for one app, only to find an even better one. That’s exactly what happened to me recently.
For the benefit of those of you who don’t know me, I am co-owner and innkeeper of a 10-room B&B visited by—according to multiple paranormal investigators—a very shy Native American female ghost with an intense interest in my well-being. While thinking of Jade one day (that seems to be her name. Or Jane or Janet, we’re not 100% sure), I wondered if there was an app that finds haunted places near a user’s location. I figured I could list our inn in whatever database is accessed by such an app, and those who are so inclined would find us and get a chance to meet my shy, thoughtful friend.
In hindsight, this is not the coolest idea I’ve ever had, but before long it didn’t matter because I had stumbled onto Ghost Radar Classic, an app that promises to do something way, way cooler: “Ghost Radar attempts to detect paranormal activity by using various sensors on the device on which it is running.”
In case you didn’t get that, I’ll rephrase it: There is an application you can download to your phone that claims to be able to detect anomalous quantum fluctuations in various energy fields around you. Those energy fluctuations are interpreted as paranormal activity and shown on a radar-like graphic display as dots of varying colors, depending on the strength of the signal. As if that weren’t enough, this particular app goes further by offering these paranormal entities a way to manipulate energy fields, in an attempt to form letters and words. I’d have been quite impressed if it stopped there, but Ghost Radar then enlists the aid of the text-to-speech function on your phone. With the same dispassionately helpful tone she uses to tell you to “turn right in 1,000 feet”, the robotic but pleasant female who lives inside your phone will now forcefully utter words like “careful”, or “happy”, or “kill.” You have to admit, the promises are lofty.
Now, before you settle too comfortably into your chosen stance (and it’s likely you have chosen a stance; tentatively or adamantly, you are either skeptic, believer, or agnostic), let’s first talk about a couple of reasons—having nothing to do with the legitimacy of its claims—that Ghost Radar is intriguing and noteworthy:
(I) Whether or not you agree with what comes afterward, the first couple of sentences under ‘How does Ghost Radar work?’ on the developer’s FAQ page can’t easily be disputed and should not be taken lightly:
“Modern mobile devices are amazing devices filled with sensors and transceivers. To name a few, there is a WiFi transceiver, a touch sensor, an accelerometer, a phone transceiver, a microphone, and a magnetometer.”
Someone (actually, quite a few someones) had the vision and tenacity to move an unprecedented number of powerful technologies onto one shockingly small device, and many more someones are beginning to harness all the useful ways these technologies can work together for good. As a result, we are alive at a time when we’re suddenly able to dream like 7-year olds (“Mommy, why can’t you just point that box of glass and metal and plastic at your food and then ask the box if the food will make you fat?”) and not flinch, be dismissive even, when our wildest dreams come true. It’s an exciting time to be on the planet, and what happens next will undeniably be interesting.
(II) Despite the implausibility of its claims, Ghost Radar is insanely popular. With downloads in the millions (at least), and very high overall user ratings wherever you look, this ‘for entertainment purposes’ app has, it appears, managed to capture the attention—mostly positive attention—of a large and diverse audience. Oh sure, there are plenty of online reviews and articles dismissing the app as rat bait for the tragically gullible, but the tragically gullible pretty consistently get their revenge by drowning the comments below said articles with personal evidence that the app is legit. The developer itself (Spud Pickles) has a large and ever-growing section on its website for users to post ‘ghost stories’, and there seems to be no shortage of willing participants.
An anthropologist taking this all in would likely come to one conclusion: this idea of being able to sense and talk to the no-longer-living seems to be strong and deep-seated in many, most, perhaps all of us. This fact is, for me, even more intriguing than the recent convergence of powerful technologies and our capacity to make use of them. While one fact tells us a great deal about the nature of the human brain (at this particular stage in our evolution), the other tells us about the nature of the human soul (since the beginning of civilization, and possibly forever).
When I showed my partner Ian the app for the first time, just before we sat down to dinner after yet another long day of inn-keeping, his interest peaked but didn’t last very long. “Please tell me that was free.” His tone was skeptical and dismissive. I returned an expression that clearly communicated, “Of course it was”, but I failed to mention the cost of precious smartphone battery life. Or the time I’d lost staring at the screen looking for red, green, or blue dots, and waiting for that robotic female voice to say something that felt significant (or dramatic, at least).
To be clear, it’s not that Ian has a problem with the idea of communion with the dead. He just has unusually low tolerance for bullshit from the living. But I suspect that even skeptics like Ian have a need, no matter how deeply buried, to believe that their loved ones are not truly gone from their lives once they have ceased to be there physically.
I suppose for me, the fact that I have been told all my life that there are supportive and fiercely protective ghosts around me, but that I have never directly experienced any of them (at least not in the way others seem to), has a lot to do with my own interest in communicating with ghosts. Like most people, I’ve felt the feeling of being watched, followed, even protected. It’s probably safe to say I’ve felt those feelings often, and felt them quite strongly during some of the most crucial turning points in my life. But I’d be lying if I said I had ever seen an outline of a person who wasn’t there, heard a strange noise that couldn’t be explained, or seen pictures fly from the wall when there wasn’t an earthquake. Although they feel very real to me, my relationships with the ghosts around me have been a bit on the boring side.
Recently, when I lamented this fact to a woman who was part of a group of healers holding a weekend retreat at our Inn, the woman told me that my brain relies very heavily on logic to process the world around me, and that it would never allow anything illogical to be processed, much less perceived. The way we got on the subject in the first place was that I was asked to tell the group the story of how Ian and I ended up in Idyllwild with a B&B. It’s a story I’ve told at least a thousand times to curious guests, and although it still brings out the “I’m going to quit my job Monday” look in the listener’s face every time, I have to admit it has grown a little mundane to me.
After I finished my story, this same woman approached me cautiously to tell me that while I sat at the head of the dining room table talking, she saw a tall, slender man with a cane standing behind me and to my side, resting his hand on my shoulder. According to her, the look on the man’s face, and his body language, both conveyed intense pride, and there was no doubt in her mind that his pride was directed specifically at me. As she described in more detail the man she saw, a photo of my 2nd great grandparents Cook and Julia McBryde King, both born slaves in Talbot County, Georgia circa 1838 and 1848 respectively, came very clearly to my mind.
My great uncle had found the photo in a stack of other photos and documents years ago, and although he couldn’t even make a guess at the identity of the couple in the photo (his grandparents had died before he was born, and his parents when he was very young), I knew instantly the first time I saw it. By that time, I had been doing genealogy research for a year or so, and Cook King was one of those ancestors who always stood out from the rest. I saw much of myself in him (I often catch myself sitting exactly as he does in the photo, and every single male on that branch of my family tree also sits that way), and documents related to him always seemed to readily step forward—not all that common for Black men of that era.
When my great uncle showed me the photo for the first time, it conveyed so perfectly what I had imagined about Cook King that I just couldn’t see how it could have been anyone else. It was only in the last year or so that our family has been able to confirm with some certainty that it is indeed Cook and Julia King in the photo. In the photo, my great-great grandfather is seated, and his wife is standing with her hand on his shoulder exactly as the woman now said a man was doing to me. After convincing myself that there was no way this woman could have known about this photo, and that I wasn’t going to get much more in the way of descriptions out of her, I excused myself to log onto Ancestry.com, then pulled her into the kitchen to look at the photo on my laptop. “Yes, that’s him,” she said, more calmly than I would have expected, as if having her visions confirmed by physical realities was now old hat for her. Did I believe her? Yes. Did I physically see my great-great grandfather, that night or any other time? No.
I could bore you for days with stories like this (other people seeing ghosts around me), but I don’t have a single ghost story of my own, at least not the kind our society deems worthy of telling, the kind where something unexplainable registers to one or more of one’s physical senses: sight, hearing, touch, perhaps smell.
Given my apparent lack of ability to corporeally experience ghosts despite feeling quite a strong connection with them, I suppose my particular fascination with bridging that gap using technology makes perfect sense.
In the early afternoon of Sunday, August 12, 2012, I was sitting on our back deck staring at Strawberry Creek, taking a short break between check-ins, breakfast prep, phone calls and paperwork. Having just recently downloaded this new app with supernatural claims, I was looking forward to finally taking a moment to see what wisdom it had in store for me. After a minute or two, red dots started showing up on the radar screen. The dots were popping up in several directions, but it was clear they were coming closer, and they were doing so very quickly. When the dots got very close to the center of the radar screen (representing the exact place where I was sitting), they disappeared suddenly and the readings went blank. A second or so later I heard ‘ship’, ‘Africa’, ‘east’, ‘prize’ in rapid succession coming from my phone. I sat for a few more minutes waiting for more dots, or more words, but they never came.
Earlier that day I had turned on the app a couple of times while in the kitchen and preoccupied with other tasks. I remember seeing the words, “Bob”, “beat”, “dawn”, and “accident”, but I don’t remember the order, or how closely together they appeared, or if there were other words (if you download the paid version of Ghost Radar you can save your readings to refer back to later; I haven’t yet brought myself to take that step). Sitting on the back deck that day was the first time I tested the app while I could focus on what was happening and explore my thoughts and feelings. I remember thinking:
“Those words [‘ship, Africa, east, prize’] seem pretty random.”
“But they’re kind of related to each other.”
“If this app is just picking random words from a dictionary, picking ‘Africa’ for the African-American man seems statistically improbable.”
“But it’s far from impossible.”
“This might be a little harder to dismiss than I thought.”
The next day, after the guests checked out of the room our resident ghost Jade seems to prefer, I ducked in quietly, sat in the wingback chair, and turned on Ghost Radar. The app was silent, no dots or words, even when I changed it to the most sensitive setting. Somewhat disappointed, I stood up to leave the room after a few minutes. Just as I stood up, the app starting getting strong readings and, exactly as happened the day I sat on the back deck (except the words were different), I heard “picture”, “block”, “post”, “lost” in rapid succession, then nothing.
Two days later I was driving on the 215 freeway. Prolonged sleep deprivation brought on by a busy summer of revolving guests, combined with the hypnosis caused by monotonous freeway driving, caused me to nod off to a complete sleep at 60 miles-per-hour in heavy but fast-moving traffic. It still feels odd typing that, but it is, in fact, what happened. The noise and impact of my car hitting the guardrail woke me up, and the force of the impact knocked me back into the speeding traffic, the car taking at least one complete spin along the way. Suddenly a part of my brain that was determined that I would not die (nor would anyone else), and that was confident it could figure out how to achieve that goal, took over. Calmly and miraculously, in what felt like extreme slow motion, I managed to steer a car that should not have been steerable (due to the damage to the wheel carriage and axle) through two lanes of speeding traffic and onto the freeway shoulder.
When I finally got out of the car to assess the damage, after taking several minutes inside the car to partially recover from the shock, the sight of the mangled car made it clear that there was no logical explanation for why I was still alive, not to mention why I had not so much as a scratch anywhere on my body. I found out from the insurance company days later that the car was a total loss, and by the laws of physics and probability, so should I have been. Rather than typing full sentences somewhat effortlessly on a laptop right now, I should be struggling from the other side to manipulate the smartphone of some unsuspecting thrill-seeker to eek out a few words that would, sadly, make no sense to the recipient of the message. “No”, “Sleep”, “Don’t”, “Drive” would probably be good choices, but who would be able to (and make the effort to) decipher such a cryptic message? It reminds me what a crucial role sentence structure, punctuation, and pronouns play in allowing us to understand each other.
Later that night I turned Ghost Radar on to distract myself from the flashbacks of my car hitting the guardrail and of the moments after. I had just gotten off the phone with a staff member; we discussed the wildfire that had started earlier that day, causing evacuations in the neighboring town of Aguanga. Although our small town, Idyllwild, was not in danger, the air was smoky and a thin layer of ash was starting to cover everything. “Smoke”, “exchange”, “Billy”, “France”, “troops”, “leaving”, “garage”, “ill”, “two” were the words I heard from my phone this time, more words in close succession than I had seen and heard before.
I found some relevance to mundane details in my life in each of the words, and I could even string them together in various ways to suggest very different messages. But despite my attempts to understand, I couldn’t escape the inescapable mystery, a mystery that suddenly seemed to permeate everything around me. None of us is in control of our own lives to the extent we like to believe, and none of us has a clue about all the forces that have to be orchestrated just to make things turn out reasonably well for us. I had an overwhelming sense that we are all, in some way, asleep at the wheel, and that what keeps us from crashing into the guardrail, or from dying when we do, is invisible and unknowable.
This sense, that living fully means being constantly at risk of dying, that we only survive because—and as long as—we have unfinished business, that we owe our survival to guardians of many types, haunts me now. It haunts me in a way that has nothing—and everything—to do with ghosts, and for once—for now at least—I don’t need for life to be logical.
Rodney Williams is co-owner, innkeeper, chef, and resident genealogist at the Strawberry Creek Inn B&B and Strawberry Creek Bunkhouse Boutique Motel in the alpine village of Idyllwild, California. He is also a writer who authored Memorable Mornings from the Strawberry Creek Inn, a coffee-table-style photo and recipe book about breakfast and brunch entertaining. When he’s not playing with his latest app find, Rodney tweets (@StrawberryCreek) from his HTC Incredible 2 phone.