Something Strange in Your Neighborhood

How I moved to Hawaii and learned to love ghosts.
John Heckathorn

In 1980 or ’81, a fellow I didn’t know, a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies named Glen Grant, called me in my office at UH Manoa. Back then I taught standard literature and writing courses, but every once in a while I got permission to teach film.


Grant wanted me to join a panel at a conference he was putting on called Obake, a word new to me. But I got it: Ghosts. Spirits. Spooks. The conference was about ghost stories.

He wanted me to help analyze spooky movies in general and in particular The Haunting, which was going to be screened that afternoon. The Haunting (the 1963 version with Julie Harris and not the lame ’99 remake with Catherine Zeta-Jones) was based on a classic gothic novel, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

Oh boy, I thought, I can talk about the history of the gothic haunted house. I’d start with Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otronto in 1763, waltz through examples like Jane Eyre and The House of Usher and end, with a pop culture flourish, mentioning Dr. Frank N. Furter’s transvestite lair in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

To me, the whole supernatural thing was a metaphor. As far as I knew, nobody educated thought ghosts were real, they were just a literary device to explore psychological depths (toss in a few references to Henry James’ Turn of the Screw).

You see, I grew up in Northern California, where, sure, the older kids tried to scare the younger with spooky stories round the fire at camp, but those stories were just … entertainment.

Photo Illustration: Sanford Mock/RJH Inc.

Imagine my shock when I hiked up to Moore Hall for Glen Grant’s organizational meeting for the conference. We were in an American Studies classroom, full of more or less serious folks. I expected academic theories. Instead, everyone started telling ghost stories: Queen Liliuokalani’s statue. The ghost at the Waialae Drive-In. I realized they believed or at least half-believed these stories.

At that moment, I learned something about Hawaii: People here cherish their ghost stories, they take them seriously. Glen Grant went on to make a career of them.

Since Grant died last year (see “A Ghostly Legacy,” p. 15), I had to check my memories of that first Obake conference with a fellow panelist-Dr. Floyd Matson, who still teaches pop culture and cinema at UH. We caught up, chatted. Matson had a number of insights about how multicultural ghost stories had a way of reinforcing each other here. But then he said, “There’s another way to look at it. There are four or five places on the globe that just seem to be charged electrically with the paranormal. England, Japan, and definitely Hawaii.”

So do I now believe in ghosts? Not exactly, but I hardly trumpet my skepticism. My hope: If I don’t mess with ghosts, they won’t bother me either.

Does this issue’s cover story-writer Cedric Yamanaka’s retelling of contemporary ghost stories from real Islanders of all ages and ethnicities-mean we’re messing with ghosts?

No, no. If there are any spectral readers of this column, the story is an affectionate tribute to you.