Chasing Specters: Ghost Hunting in Beijing and a Long, Slow Ascent

Written by Life

Posted from: Beijing, China

Wang Wei took me ghost-hunting last week, some famous haunt off of 3rd Ring Road, built and neglected by a Hong Kong developer. We weren’t supposed to be there. I know that anything’s a nightmare if you listen to it at the right pitch, but there was an honest-to-God dark stairwell with unmarked floors, and scrabbling hand prints, and flawless red spatters where I guess someone got really excited about their gaifan and made exit wounds on the wall in tomato sauce. And at the very top, a single light and a locked engine room door, behind which there are definitely Outer Gods holding court at the center of the universe.


















Sorry to get abstract on you for a sec, but humor me, and consider the high-dive cannonball. You hit the water and the impact knocks you a couple inches out of your own head. Go on, try to do anything but shake the roar of froth out of your ears. Try to do multiplication tables or respond to interview requests in a timely goddamn manner. You can’t. Your bearings don’t point north again until all the bubbles fuck off and effervesce, or chatter up back to the hivemind, or do whatever it is displaced air does on its day off. And after they’ve gone, several kinds of quiet, one after the other.

This is a new kind of quiet for me, but hazy morning by hazy morning, a little patch of Nat-Geo snow melt timelapses into spring. I dug out the pre-China playlist and dusted off some shoegaze tracks I haven’t thought about since the last time I was wearing flannel and rolling around on the floor with boys. I got all worked up over popsicle recipes in a manner unbecoming. I derived deep and genuine pleasure from buying really big towels. They’re like hotel cabana towels. They go around me three times.

Purple Court, or whatever ???? translates to in English, wasn’t one of Beijing’s Four Haunted Mansions, but it’s got its spectral share. There are apocryphal stories of furniture rearranging itself and kids speaking to a woman that no one else can see. The real haunted houses, though, the places like Chaonei #81, where a suicidal Kuomindang military widow took her own life, and the former residence of Qing Dynasty author Cao Xueqin in Stone Tiger Alley, where neighbors hear the rasping of a dark orchestra and poetry bitterly recited, those places are legend. Hardly a mention, though, of Taiping Lake, into which the playwright Laoshe threw himself, punctuating a fit of intellectual despair in the wake of his public beating during the Cultural Revolution.

Ghosts of drowned men aside, no one stays under forever. It’s just physics. Sooner or later the air in your lungs makes a bunch of decisions for you and up you go. In that very last submerged second, sounds come in from above, though round and dampened, and there’s a swelling in the water where you’ll soon break surface, laughing.