This last weekend we went on the last camping trip of the year. It has finally started getting easier, this camping with children thing. This resulted in me actually getting time to think, to mull, and to consider. And, of course, to read some ghost stories in front of the camp fire (on the Kindle — ah, the 21st century! How enabling you are!).
I love ghost stories. For a while in college, I extensively read “true”, first-person ghost stories. My favorite site was completely unedited, updated monthly (this was the old days folks) and had lots and lots of tales about ambiguously frightening things happening. As I was also getting my degree in English, I couldn’t help but begin to analyze the form and contemplate what was universal to the first person, claimed-to-be-true ghost story, what separated the good from the bad, what made them interesting, and what made people care about them.
After extensive (and pointless) research into the ill-defined genre, I finally figured it out. The key to a good ghost story isn’t the actual haunting or specter or experience. It’s the back story. You’d hardly ever find a ghost story posted that didn’t include the “I did some research and it turns out that on this spot XXX bad thing happened”. The very best stories are the ones with the strongest back story and the closest ties to whatever inspired the haunting.
This was on my mind in Istanbul. If ever there was a city to be haunted, it was Justinian’s Constantinople.
See this cheerful picture, with the tourist and the little kid tooling around on his bicycle?
This bucolic scene is inside where the Hippodrome stood in Constantine’s fair city. The Hippodrome. It was on this soil, fifteen hundred years ago, as Justinian made to flee and Theodora declared she’d rather die in purple than live in exile, that a mob gathered. It was here that, according to records, 30,000 of them were killed in the Nika Riots. That was a grim and gruesome tale. And it wasn’t just those riots. This same ground was a combination of Fenway and Yankee Stadium. The passions of the racers, flying in chariots behind their quadrigia, bedecked in their factions colors, was a drop compared to the fury of longing and joy and despair echoing from the stands. Emperors were one thing, but the races were the greatest thing. The best of the racers had statues raised to them, and the names of their horses were lauded in song and story. This same Hippodrome saw the height of Constantinople being truly itself. There were the royalty, the common man, the horses, the palaces and Hagia Sophia watching it all from the top of the hill. Here the Venetians came. Here the Crusaders came. Just a stone’s throw away, the Christians huddled in their sanctuary as their walls fell to Ottoman artillery.
If ever there was a place in all human history where the gathered passionate energy of an entire civilization might linger, leaving it’s ectoplasm or psychic imprint behind, surely it was on this soil. I stood there, warm sun on my heads, little kids zooming by on bikes with indulgent parents proudly watching, and waited to feel it. Surely there would be some hint on this storied ground? Surely some ghost stories lurked in the ancient stonework, or swirled above the domes of the city like roosting gulls?
But no. There was nothing. I heard laughter, cell phone ringtones, low music. I saw smiles and tourists and the ever-present children. I smelled moussaka and boiled corn. There was no hint of the history (and bodies?) indubitably buried beneath my feet. There were no ghost stories I could find.
I admit that back in college, I was tempted to take the trope of the true ghost story and expand on the form. Having identified the elements, I felt, I could write some cracking good ghost stories, masquerading as real experiences. (What? It’s the internet. Don’t believe everything you read.) I thought about it this weekend, staring into red embers and listening to the loons singing my children to sleep. I thought about it, reading literary ghost stories which (honestly) don’t all have the form of the ghost story quite figured. And if I did, perhaps I would set it there, in the Hippodrome, between the palace and the church, above the sea.