“The greatest way a man can stand up to his fears is by punching them square in the face.”
I’m not sure who said this, or how drunk he was at the time, but truer words have never been spoken. Facing your fears is an important pilgrimage in the journey to manhood, necessary to remind us that we cannot, nor should not, be governed by our weaker instincts, and that even the least of us can stand tall when called upon to do so. The punching part is there because sometimes fear needs reminding that you know kung-fu.
Now that Halloween is upon us we face an entire season of fear, where we populate nameless existential dread with the faces of ghosts, witches and evil deads. Scary stuff; but how does a man punch what might not exist? Is that why children dress up on this holiday? So that we might punch evil through the medium of child face? Our lawyers suggest: definitely not.
It seems that, as men, we have little choice if we are ever to allay our ghostly fears and sleep soundly as the winter months draw in. We must go forth and prove the existence of supernatural horrors, track them down, and cold-clock them upside their ghostly heads.
As Man Cave Daily’s only registered Ghostologist (a title and certificate I downloaded for a surprisingly low fee) it fell to me to volunteer for this thankless, heroic and approachably handsome duty. I would turn from the warm and comforting hearth of fact and reason, and seek out the unknowable in the shadowy corners of man’s domain. I would become a ghost puncher.
Luckily I’m based in England, which is widely believed to be one of the most consistently haunted places in the western world, shortly behind Ireland and where ever the hell it was that Stephen King grew up. There’s not a single town in England that doesn’t have at least one place where the fabric of reality has become frayed and stained with what I can only hope is ectoplasm, and in my town it’s the abandoned, half-demolished hotel The Hunting Lodge.
With parts of the Hunting Lodge complex standing since the 16th century, the building is said to be the home to The Floating Maid, who was apparently pushed by a butler from an upstairs window and killed. This happened, presumably, before she could float. Now, it is rumored that her specter haunts the area.
Another ghost is said to be a stablehand, who allegedly haunts where the stables once were, probably wondering to himself “Where have the stables gone?” or something to that effect.
After visiting the site manager of the premises and explaining to him my mission, he stared at me in silence for about twenty-seconds and then told me to get out of his office. I took this to mean that I was to be allowed access to the most haunted areas of this deeply haunted place.
The only stock ghost-hunting equipment I keep to hand is the homemade Ghostbuster’s costume that I assume every thirty-year-old man keeps in his closet. I would need to acquire a camcorder for logging any video evidence of ghost sightings. I would have to make sure it was the grainy, low-quality kind of camera that most other ghost-hunters use. I assume that wandering spirits are deterred by the prospect of high definition.
Finally, I would need a weapon with which to fight the ghosts. As the Man Cave Daily budget doesn’t extend to researching my experimental proton pack, and because my experimental proton pack has been deemed “a crayon drawing with very little in the way of scientific credibility”, I would have to make do with something a little more low-tech. I opted to soak a boxing glove in holy water overnight to create a formidable, if somewhat squelchy, ghost hunting weapon.
I approached the Hunting Lodge at dusk, because supernatural encounters rarely happen at noon. The moon was, if not entirely full, then full enough to be pretty damn ominous. The night was cold. Cold like the grave.
I traversed the leafy drive, past the tightly locked security gates–locked against opportunistic scroungers of copper wiring, or locked to keep the restless dead at bay? Probably both, I reckoned.
Keeping my eyes peeled for supernatural activity, and maybe some copper wiring, I entered a door closed to the public nine months since. The lobby beyond smelled of damp and fear, though, realistically those smells could have been emanating from both myself and my soggy ghost-punching glove. If this were a horror movie, here would be the point at which everybody split up. Since I was by myself, this would prove difficult. I scanned around with my torch, picked the most foreboding corridor, and strode boldly forward on my tiptoes. The corridor turned out to be filled with toilets.
Needless to say, this kind of weirded me out. I felt like whatever PS2 era survival horror I was stuck in had suddenly glitched, with results that only a lunatic would find amusing. I pressed on…
The hotel had a palpable atmosphere of dread and sadness, like attending a funeral where Christopher Walken is giving the sermon. It occurred to me that there were a lot of practical reasons to be wary of the dark, but it wasn’t the possibility of tripping down some stairs and landing on my neck that bothered me. No. I found myself becoming worried about the possibility that the two little girls from The Shining might be hanging out around the corridors. Proof, if ever proof was needed, that while reason might be man’s strongest tool, the power of stories is a close second.
In short, I was becoming nervous about something that I was fairly certain didn’t exist as little as five minutes ago.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I didn’t suddenly believe that the dead come back to haunt us and generally behave like a§§h#!£s. It just occurred to me that, deep down, we all have our ghosts, and that within a prism of shadow and isolation, a phantom of the mind could be more so terrifying than any ghost, ghoul or hobbit.
Or maybe I was just being a giant baby pants.
I knew I needed to man up. Stuff needed punching, and I was the man with the holy boxing-glove. I went upstairs, looking for a window that may have been convenient for pushing a maid out of. I found instead room after empty room; silent, secret witnesses to the comings and goings of a thousand souls or more, heavy with a maudlin sense of loss, thick with dust and sadness. It occurred to me that a lot of illicit sex probably happened in these rooms, and the thought gave me renewed courage.
I came to another stairwell, and then, going down, I came to another. My keen sense of beer empathy told me that this one led to the cellar, statistically the most likely room to contain evil. I switched off my flashlight and activated my crappy camera’s night-vision mode. I was going full out Blair Witch on this sucker. That is, I would have, had my crappy camera supported a night-vision function. It didn’t, and I was left to contemplate the musty black equipped only with my flashlight that, in accordance with ghost-hunting tradition, had a faulty battery connection.
Deep into that darkness peering, I stood there wondering…fearing…maybe peeing a little. Then I descended.
I’d love to tell you that I found a ghost and punched it. I really would. To call into question our scientific understanding of the universe and then pick a fight with a physical impossibility? That’s got to be worth a few free beers on anyone’s tab.
And maybe there were a few creepy things– such as the staircase to nowhere, or the flooded boiler-room where somebody’s forgotten halloween decoration lay in wait to make innocent ghost hunters cry. But all I really found down in the shadows were the phantoms born of my own imagination; warped cartoon masks for primeval, instinctual anxieties. There were no monsters here, just the echoes of stories amplified by a racial memory that still remembers wolves pacing in the dark. Or else perhaps the twisted hope of a lonely ego who cannot bear the thought of nothing. And those are things that cannot be punched with mere fists. I stepped back into the night air, fired up the SteveMobile and left the Hunting Lodge behind me.
Now I am home. The heating is turned up, the lights turned on, the television loud and blaring. Outside it is dark, and children in masks will soon caper about the streets, playing at monsters with predictable, punchable faces. Perhaps I will give them candy, but perhaps I will place into one of their bags a soggy, sweaty boxing-glove. The receiving child will look up at me with puzzlement in her eyes, and I will say nothing, knowing that destiny will tell far more than I ever can. In the complex tapestry of the human psyche there can, and perhaps must, be monsters, but so too must there be people to punch them. The legacy of the ghost puncher will live on.