Cover Photo: I Have This Theory About Ghosts by David Cotrone

I Have This Theory About Ghosts

“I breathed the air, as a place and its people became ghosts.”

If you’ve watched TV shows about paranormal activity, then you’ve seen the grainy black-and-white footage and the glare of night vision. Teams of self-professed investigators, armed with elaborate equipment, narrate the scene. There are sometimes matching outfits. There are pinpricks on shoulders turning to shivers down backs. There are falling shelves of kitchen plates.

When I went searching for ghosts, I started with a question: What would it take? I wanted to use my phone and a roster of free ghost-hunting apps that would, in their own words, serve as sonar and radar. I knew these apps weren’t going to provide answers. They weren’t going to work. But they were the tools at my disposal. And I have this theory about ghosts: that they’re at once always with us and never with us. In Episode Four of Cosmos, host Neil deGrasse Tyson explains how astronomer William Herschel was the first to peer through a telescope and see the light as already past, the stars as having possibly already died in the time it took for the light to travel. “For those stars, we see only their ghosts,” Herschel said. “We see their light, but their bodies perished long, long ago.”

Given Herschel’s telescope, I could see starlight that would carry with it the burning exquisite momentum of having lived. In ghost hunting, there’s vocabulary to describe the act of dredging for afterlife communications: Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP), electromagnetic field (EMF) and quantum fluctuation. These are, at their core, movements of energy and electricity— what makes up the life-shadows of stars, the same thing that pulls planets. Except in looking for ghosts, I didn’t have a telescope. No zoom of the lens to bring them into focus. I had a phone.

I downloaded a handful of apps promising ghost detection, the most popular ones I could find in Google’s Play Store, including Ghost Radar Classic. A reviewer promised: “I installed it and then I was standing in my room and it got cold.” Additional apps I used were Ghost Detector Pro (“If this app works, I have dozens of ghosts in my house”) and Ultimate EMF Detector (“If you need an EMF reader, you’ll be pleased with this one”). Ghost Radar Classic alone has been downloaded over five million times. That’s more than the number of people who live in Los Angeles. More than who live in Chicago, and in Dallas. More than half of New York.

Ghost Radar Classic is exactly as it sounds. When you open it, there’s what looks like a submarine’s sonar system on the screen: a green circle that fluctuates as a detection rod spins from the middle. You can choose for detection to occur according to low, medium, or high sensitivities—the higher the sensitivity, the quicker the spin, the more alleged the pick-up of paranormal energy. In its about section, the app says it measures and analyzes quantum fluctuation. It says its detection is effective for up to fifty yards in each direction.

In Manhattan, on March 26, 2015, three different buildings exploded on Second Avenue. They fell. Restaurants and apartmentsone hour they were there, and the next they were not. There were two deaths. This was exactly a street over from where I lived and still live in the East Village. That night, on my walk home from work, I expected a path of caution tape and first responders, of news vans. There were all those things. I told the police I lived on the adjacent avenue; they lifted the caution tape blocking the road. There was smoke in the air. For some reason I’d expected it to have turned yellow. I asked myself: Should I be breathing this air? I breathed the air, as a place and its people became ghosts.

West of my apartment, in Washington Square Park, I sat cross-legged in the grass close to the seventy-seven-foot-high arch marking the park’s entrance. I opened Ghost Radar Classic and toggled through sensitivity options. There were no blips on the radar. I opened Ghost Detector Pro, which has an almost identical interface. The difference is that it looks more like a cartoon. The detection rod spun and revealed several blips on the screen, and then one. I held out my phone in front of me, wanting to believe. I got up from the grass and walked. The blip remained, light traveling from between thirty-five and fifty-two minutes away, and then dropped off.

Washington Square was once a burial ground. The same is true of the space seven blocks north (Union Square Park), seventeen blocks further north (Madison Square Park), and then thirty-five blocks still further (Bryant Park). In Washington Square alone, there are still 20,000 bodies in the land. I switched on Ultimate EMF Detector, which is similar to a seismograph that measures earthquakes, to take a reading of the magnetic field. The app explained that a normal field has the strength of between 20 and 60 microTeslas. Throughout the park, the app didn’t jump above 70. I held my phone up to my arm and read that I was between 35 and 36. I stared hard into the park as if a spirit would reveal itself. We’d have a conversation about what it means to live and what it means to live after life, what it means to look back at what once was and if there’s a term ghosts use for looking ahead.

There’s no smoke in the air of Second Avenue now. That air, like Herschel’s stars, perished long ago. The week of the explosion, I began to watch TV on my computer in order to fall asleep. My brain switched off as I listened to Tony Soprano threaten the lives of others, fight with his family, and say things like, “‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.” I watched one episode and a quarter of another. The next night I would watch the three remaining quarters of the episode that had finished playing as I dreamed. I repeated this until I finished the series.

There’s a chain-link fence set up around the perimeter of the property of the buildings that are no longer there. Beyond the fence are dirt and weed patches, and in the middle of the land there are flowers. Pinned into the chain-link are pictures of the two who died. There are posters with messages from family and friends, each with their own handwriting: 

Miss you so much.
I will be seeing you soon
We have great memories.

According to Ultimate EMF Detector, the sidewalk reads 75 microTeslas. Inexplicably, from the side of the building next door, there’s a pirate flag waving, skull and bones and all.

I’m not using Ghost Radar Classic anymore.  I’ve deleted the app from my phone, along with Ultimate EMF Detector and Ghost Detector Pro. Like the TV I fall asleep into, they’re for entertainment purposes. They come with a disclaimer that there’s no scientific accuracy guaranteed. In movies, characters say to their ghosts—a deceased husband, or wife, or daughter—that they don’t want them to ever leave.

Construction workers in Washington Square have dug into two burial vaults dating back to the 19th century. There are archaeologists on the scene who, from outside the vaults and with hi-res photography, have counted up to twenty coffins. Across the park, there’s a fountain with a waterspout in the center and from all sides more water pouring in. On the fountain’s inner ridge, in a circle, there are steps leading down to the basin where people sit. I use my phone’s camera and the photo comes out bright with refractions in the water. There’s a fourth poster curtaining the chain-link of Second Avenue: You will always be in my heart and mine every moment. There are ghosts we’re looking for and then there are those created before our eyes.

David Cotrone’s writing has appeared in The Rumpus, TechCrunch, Harper Perennial’s Fifty-Two Stories and elsewhere. You can find him @DavidCotrone.