The most popular theory, later, was that the afterlife was reaching capacity. After eons of human life and death, playing out among a rising population, the great beyond was finally running out of room. The gatekeepers, the theory went, had become more selective about who got in; those who were denied were stuck in limbo among the mortals. Earth was, for the first time, a place where souls both embodied and disembodied coexisted.
The first person to discover this was 48-year-old Monica Dalton, in the small town of High Springs, Ohio. While on her way out of the house to check the mail one summer Sunday, she heard the sound of shattering glass coming from the living room. Running back inside, she found her husband Robert’s body on the living room floor, having crashed through the coffee table, apparently of a heart attack. Glass was everywhere; the legs of the buckled table jutted out on either side of him. In the middle of the room was a floating figure, a pale-blue replica of Robert, also looking down at the body, apparently just as stunned as Monica was.
Monica froze. She felt compelled to act, but was terrified to take her eyes off the blue figure. When the figure finally lifted its gaze from the corpse and looked her in the eye, Monica let out a whimper, stumbled backward, turned, and ran out of the house. She drove to the edge of town and pulled into a turnout on a country road. There she sat, iron grip on the steering wheel, struggling to process the competing emotions of fear and grief.
Sometime in the witching hour, she gasped awake to the heavy rush of a truck driving by. Then she returned to the house to find the ghost sitting on the couch, reading a magazine and looking, honestly, a bit bored. She loosened up at this sign of ghost-Robert’s benevolence. She called the coroner’s office, and while the ambulance was on its way, it hit her. “Um. Robert,” she said. “I can’t…well, how do I say this…it probably wouldn’t be wise to have the paramedics come in here and see you.” Robert looked at her impatiently and mouthed What, then? “Well I don’t know,” said Monica, her newfound comfort having already cleared the way for the return of marital argumentativeness. “Maybe go up to the bedroom. I’ll let you know when they’re gone, or meet you there later.” He rose and started out of the room, but stumbled backward, as if having hit a wall, at the threshold between the living room and the hallway. It appeared her husband’s ghost was unable to leave the room in which his corporeal form had expired.
Unable to think of a less awkward alternative, they agreed he would crouch behind the sofa until the paramedics left the house with the body. When they did, Monica pulled the curtain aside and watched them drive down the road, around the bend, and out of sight. “Robert?” she said, turning away from the window. “Are you okay?” Robert rose from behind the couch, and they looked at each other for a few beats. Then Robert smiled warmly, and she felt reassured.
Over the next few days, she began to take pleasure in Robert’s company. They’d do crosswords together and watch TV. Robert did not speak, but his smile and mannerisms were familiar. Monica wasn’t a dull woman: She knew that a mute, room-bound version of her husband couldn’t offer her the fulfillment that Robert had in life; on a semi-conscious level, she understood her complacency with this domestic arrangement for what it was: the product of the denial of her grief.
One morning, as Monica came downstairs, she discovered three neighborhood children outside the window, cupping their hands over the glass to get a clearer view inside, their mouths agape at the sight of the ghost. They scattered when they saw Monica, who ran to the front of the house and stood in the doorway, shouting after them to mind their own business. But the next day, the kids were back — this time in a group of five. The day after that, their numbers had risen to ten.
Monica bristled at their nosiness. But she also felt a spark of entrepreneurship. Robert was dead, after all, with half of their household income gone with him. So she returned to the print shop downtown and had a sign mocked up: $10 to see the ghost. She closed the living room blinds, hung the sign next to the window, and the next time the kids showed up, she collected the fee from each of them, opened the blinds, and gave them a five-minute show. Soon kids would show up with their parents in tow, who stood bewildered upon discovering that the ghost was real and not, as they’d of course assumed, a figment of their kids’ imaginations. The first mother to arrive, a stocky woman Monica had seen in town, cautiously approached Monica on the porch as the kids stared through the window, her brow ruffled and eyes narrowed. “So what did…” she started. “How did you…what exactly is occurring here?” Monica, high on the hustler’s confidence, simply smirked, tapped her sign, and held out her hand for the cash.
The money piled up; by the end of the first week, she’d made over $2,000. For the most part, Robert played along, smiling dutifully at the wide-eyed visitors. Sometimes, though, between visits, or while an onlooker turned momentarily from the window to exclaim his awe to his friend, Robert would shoot Monica a sideways glance of sad consternation. These glances triggered, in Monica, pangs of guilt and memory, which she’d chase away by mouthing defensive justifications about all the money they were making, and pretending she was too busy tending to the visitors to give it much thought. At night, as they idled on the sofa, she could see in his eyes a hint of degradation at the exploitative nature of it all. In these moments, she found herself crudely grateful for his muteness, which usually made her feel lonely and sad, saving them from having to get into arguments over the issue.
One night, about two weeks in, she turned to him on the sofa and broke the silence: “Robert?” she said. “Are you okay?”
Robert turned to her. He smiled warmly, and she felt reassured.
Things continued this way until, inevitably, it happened again. Jill Wilson, 81, died in her bedroom across town, and her ghost remained, lingering in the window or napping above the covers on the bed. Ben Montgomery, 44, choked at the kitchen table, and his floating blue ghost haunted the room from then on, making pancakes for the kids on weekends. The more it happened, the more people learned about the rules governing the paranormal. The spatial limitations, for example, seemed only to apply if the person died inside a domicile; deaths in hospitals or in car accidents resulted in the ghosts rising from their corporeal entities and simply flying off into the sky, never to be seen again.
Monica wasn’t the only enterprising bereaved in High Springs. Others, noticing how lucrative her hustle had proven, began setting up their own attractions. A cottage industry emerged. Attractions sprung up all over town, and in towns across the country. “Ghost zoo,” a term describing a municipality with a particularly high number of attractions, entered the lexicon. The proliferation sparked a surge of competition, and proprietors began to orient their efforts toward finding a niche: some ghosts would do mime routines, others would perform drag shows or juggle.
The attractions consistently drew large crowds, even as it became apparent that the ghosts weren’t in on the fun. They’d gaze vacantly past their visitors, their smiles unconvincing when posing for pictures. It was increasingly clear that while the ghosts had lost their physical life, they were still emotionally sensitive: they seemed all too aware that their cherished loved ones, with whom they’d grown up, or raised children, or who were themselves those children, now saw them as nothing more than monetizable assets. They were hurt, and people started to notice. Media coverage of the industry began to sour; paranormal rights groups sprung up online, calling for an end to what they saw as the inhumane treatment of an exploited class.
The industry, though, carried on. National spending on hospice care plummeted, as people instead opted to have their dying relatives expire at home — preferably in a first-floor room with a large window — where the deaths would result in a profitable haunt. Those whose family and friends were all healthy and risk-averse began to get FOMO amid the gold rush. People would booby trap their basements and ask their obnoxious visiting in-laws to run down for a case of beer. They’d cover their bathroom floors in Vaseline, have their friends over, get them drunk, and wait for nature to call.
It wasn’t long before the activists had had enough. Many of them had personal stakes in the matter, having experienced the insult of trying to mourn a lost parent while the surviving parent tried to make a buck. As these family fissures festered, the activists’ numbers grew. Eventually, a group of activists in New Jersey turned to the occult in search of a way to empty the ghost zoos of their attractions. The idea came from a college student who, browsing used books in a basement store in Camden, had happened across a black leather-bound book titled, in gold lettering so elaborate he could barely make it out, The Communer’s Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. He brought the book to his friends, and they poured through it until they found a spell that might hold the key. Two nights later, they and several hundred other paranormal activists convened deep in the Pine Barrens, where, under the pale moonlight and the towering silhouettes of the trees, they joined hands and recited the spell.
Monica Dalton was watching late-night talk shows with a resigned Robert when suddenly a rumble coursed through the neighborhood, rattling the windows. Robert’s back stiffened and his eyes widened, as if suddenly conscious of a powerful innate knowledge. He rose and turned to the wall behind the couch. Monica, breathless, watched him. “Robert?” she managed, her voice quaking. “Are you okay?”
Robert didn’t turn to her; he didn’t say anything. Instead, he took a step forward, then another step, and suddenly he was walking through the couch, through the wall, and all the way out to the lawn. Monica ran from the den and out the front door. She stood on the porch and continued to watch. Robert walked forward until he stood in the middle of the street, and tilted his head toward the sky.
Down the street, Monica heard shouting. She glanced in the direction of the sound to see her neighbor’s ghost also standing in the road, her husband chasing her, screaming at her to get back inside. Then, slowly, Robert began to rise. He rose and rose, and Monica followed his upward trajectory. More ghosts emerged above the tops of the houses and trees, until the sky was full of all the ghosts of High Springs. They hovered for a moment, their blue lights illuminating the sky until, in a flash, they all darted upward, leaving blue streaks behind them, and were gone. Robert hadn’t turned to look back at Monica even once.
Monica felt a tightness in her chest. Her eyes welled with tears. A sob escaped her. Her income, her jackpot, was gone. But this wasn’t why she wept. The tightness, she realized, was a symptom of something that had been there all along, but that she’d been too busy to notice. Without the ghost, and without her attraction, she was now finally beginning the work of mourning her husband.