Do ghosts from the other world keep tabs on our living world? If so, is the surveillance driven only by personal angles and concerns or does it stem from altruistic concerns, is it motivated by a desire to ensure that all is well on the earthly plane? Is it such angles and concerns which result in places being haunted? Do the rich and powerful dead have any advantages on this score? It may sound spooky but from all accounts the answers to all these questions except the last are in the affirmative. Both micro and macro levels of happenings on earth seem to matter to denizens of the other world, which incidentally, is partly why so many of the world’s iconic and historical buildings are haunted. Obviously, the “what happens on earth” aspect goes beyond spirits being present at the time a loved one dies.

 Take the White House for instance, the Washington Post recently carried a spooky photo feature on the White House headlined “Is the White House haunted? A history of spooked presidents, prime ministers and pets.”  Theresa Vargas wrote: “…Whether one embraces or mocks the paranormal, the many accounts that have spilled out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue over two centuries give ghosts an undeniable place in the country’s history. They also make that address arguably the nation’s most famous haunted house. The sightings, which have been documented in eerie detail by scholars and newspapers, involve a former president who appears when the nation needs a leader most, a daughter who pleads in vain to help her doomed mother and a first lady who is, sadly, perpetually stuck doing laundry….”

Jared Broach, the founder of the company Nightly Spirits, which offers tours of haunted areas across the United States said: “The White House has the best ghost stories, and I’d call them the most verified.” Asked if he believes in ghosts, Broach said “for sure” and then pointed to more prestigious authorities. “If I said no, I’d be calling about eight different presidents liars,” he said. One of them would be Abraham Lincoln. He reportedly received regular visits from his son Willie, who died in the White House in 1862 at age 11 of what was probably typhoid fever. Mary Todd Lincoln, who was so grief-stricken by the loss that she remained in her room for weeks, spoke of seeing her son’s ghost once at the foot of her bed.  There are also reports of Mary Todd Lincoln hearing Thomas Jefferson playing the violin and Andrew Jackson swearing.  After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, he apparently joined his son in his phantasmal roaming. First Lady Grace Coolidge spoke in magazine accounts of seeing him look out a window in what had been his office.

Many more sightings would come in the decades and presidential administrations that followed. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands was sleeping in the Lincoln bedroom in 1942 when she reportedly heard a knock on her bedroom door, opened it to see the bearded president and fainted. Two years earlier, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, according to accounts, had just stepped out of a hot bath in that same room and was wearing nothing but a cigar when he encountered Lincoln by the fireplace. “Good evening, Mr. President,” Churchill reportedly said. “You seem to have me at a disadvantage.” Many other fascinating ghostly encounters in the White House are on record.

 Both micro and macro levels of happenings on earth seem to matter to denizens of the other world, which incidentally, is partly why so many of the world’s iconic and historical buildings are haunted. Obviously, the “what happens on earth” aspect goes beyond spirits being present at the time a loved one dies. 

Here in India too, many historical buildings are known to be haunted, like Writers Building, which was designed by Thomas Lyon in 1777 to accommodate  junior employees or ‘writers’ of the East India Company and  now serves as the secretariat building of the State Government of Bengal, is said to be haunted. In Mumbai, the Bombay High Court, one of the oldest High courts in India—its construction started in 1871 and was completed in 1878 is also said to be haunted by a “bilingual” spirit who seems to have a preference for murder trials.

In Delhi too the Karkadooma court is said to be haunted and even the installation of CCTV cameras has been unable to resolve the “is it haunted or not” question, with many lawyers averring that the camera footage confirms spooky happenings while others lawyers dismiss it as inconclusive. At Dehradun’s beautiful Circuit House, where former Prime Ministers Jawahar Lal Nehru and Indira Gandhi always stayed, an old time mali or gardener often talked about how their ghosts sat, relaxed and at peace, every now and then in the flowery lawns. However, in these and other cases, even where the identity of the ghost has been “established”, the motivation, the “why” behind the haunting has remained open to various interpretations.

Across the length and breadth of India, in urban as well as rural areas, I have rarely come across a family which does not have a “family ghost” and in many cases more than one. A large proportion of these ghosts seem to be driven by a desire to protect loved ones. I happen to suffer from heat migraines in the summer and at times when the migraine is particularly excruciating, my mother is always by my side even though she passed away twenty years ago. My father, who passed away in 1988, always returns to warn me of danger.

However, one thing is evident: ghosts and haunting are not “limited”—whether you were an illustrious, powerful or rich personality in life or an inconsequential, ordinary or poor commoner makes no difference in ghost land or indeed to becoming a ghost and haunting or keeping tabs on one’s old environs on earth. In that sense, ghosts and “haunting” are great levelers.

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