When I was about 14, my brother and I brought one of our two matching radios down to the kitchen. It was around 1 o’clock in the morning; we’d cooked snacks — some variety of frozen, breaded meat, probably — and poured cokes over cloudy ice cubes in inexplicably square glasses. George Noory, then the host of late-night syndicated radio show Coast to Coast AM was, that night, considering using a ouija board for the first time. For fans of late night paranormal radio, I remember it was like a prizefight in terms of anticipation — though it doesn’t, for the record, take a great deal of coaxing to get fans of paranormal radio to tune into a live ouija board session. It felt sublime. I can still recall the feeling of disappointment when Noory talked himself out of it, fearing what would happen if he toyed with the spirit realm. I remember telling myself that I saw his point. I remember being transfixed.
It is the kind of experience that is inseparable from where it takes place. It was a shared experience that took place in my kitchen, in our kitchen. I see and experience that memory in situ; the outlines of kitchen counters, the squeaking of the kitchen chairs, the yellow glow of the kitchen lights. Now that house has been sold, and staying up chasing ghosts by proxy occupies is one of a finite number of memories I get to have there. That memory, like all the rest of them, will become its own kind of ghost.
Art Bell, who died on April 13th — a Friday the 13th, as almost every obituary of him pointed out — at the age of 72, is a ghost now too. Bell started Coast to Coast in the 1980s, a call-in radio show that was tuned to fringe politics and conspiracy theories. By the late 1990s, fringe politics had been mostly replaced with more paranormal, spiritual, and downright wacky topics. A caller claiming to be Jim Morrison calling from either heaven or hell, or claiming to have proof of aliens, would not be uncommon on any given night.
Broadcasting from his home deep in the Nevada desert, Bell was, in a way, the ur-text by which we can understand more contemporary examples of fringe conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones. If nothing else, they are similar in their unmistakable, unique, and deep conviction that there’s more going on than meets the eye. It was his distinct lack of hate or judgement here, though, that made Bell different: Coast to Coast, and any of the subsequent radio shows that he hosted after handing the reins over to Noory in the mid-2000s, was never about drumming up anger, but offering a judgment-free forum for what were, at times, obviously insane ideas. That was its value, even for a fourteen-year-old listener staying awake later than he should: Coast to Coast was simply a place you could go every night, alone or with others, to be weird.
To say that Bell was an icon, a seminal figure in the genre of paranormal entertainment will seem like an overstatement here. This is probably because for most people, paranormal entertainment is not something that they ever think about. Bell’s death was marked by most of the media, so it’s not as if he’s a forgotten figure. But he was, in life and death, an oddity; he was always understood through one’s base understanding of paranormal stuff. Most people, I submit, are turned off of the paranormal because they view it through a literalist lens. They view it as a sort of alternate reality that people construct for themselves in order to absolve their responsibility for trying to understand their place in it. They don’t ever come around to what I think is a more accurate way to understand the paranormal: it’s not a different reality, but a different, more allegorical and metaphorical way to explain things we otherwise can’t.
People may not think a whole lot about the paranormal but lately, I have been: a fascination with the paranormal is something that, perhaps as an antidote to a very modern, psychological influenza, I have rediscovered in the last two or three years, quietly and personally. As such, my memory of Bell now is, really, just me remembering the feeling of growing up to the warm and scratchy sound of an AM radio signal. Hearing the news of Bell’s death affected me because it reminded me how far away that childhood is from me now.
In a sense, there is something reassuring about the idea— whether I believe it in a literal sense or not (and I usually don’t) — that operating in parallel to our own reality is a set of forces we simply can’t understand. It is simply because so much of life is defined by the struggle against things that are already bigger than us, things that we can’t possibly understand (let alone change) that the idea of doing so differently, more metaphorically, is appealing. Getting to suspend disbelief in concert with others is a reminder that you can be both weird and not alone at the very same time.
It’s a reminder that life gets a whole lot easier if you stop trying to live it in a straight line.
None of this has anything to do with Bell or his death, per se, and there is a crassness in using the death of an elderly man to think about my own stuff. I have no real authority to eulogize in any way on Bell’s death. But all of this started with Coast to Coast, in some way; it all goes back to being shown into a different way of understanding life. And so his death, it got me thinking about loss. Loss, and the way we navigate it in the 21st century. The loss of Bell is the same as the loss many people experience when they lose musicians, or celebrities. It is a loss you experience in the public square; collectively one way, privately another.
Truth is, though, that this is just how we experience loss now. Things swirl around you, making you and remaking you, until they exit on their own terms. In the 21st century, the most universal experience of loss is to stare at your laptop and wonder what it was that meant something to you in the first place; you aren’t sure exactly what it is you lost, or if you really lost anything at all. It will happen when people die, and it will happen to you when people grow distant, and it will happen to you when people simply disappear on you without ever saying why. And all you can do is trace the outlines of whatever memories you have, running your hands on them over and over again, slowly rounding their edges until they can’t hurt you anymore. It can be hard to understand, but that’s what acceptance is: feeling something until you are able to forget about it. Maybe this is good, maybe this is bad. Maybe not losing things forever is what ghosts are for.
- April, 2018.