Science & Technology

Spirit Vessels

The "Black Thing" gives birth to an art form.


Want to buy a ghost? Someone called teajay101 just sold one on eBay. His sale site included the tale of how he had stumbled on an abandoned cemetery in the early '80s. He found a rotting wooden box that he thought would contain a fortune; instead, there were two jars and an old journal. "The jars had some strange writing and symbols on them," he writes. "While getting the jars out of the ground, I dropped one and it broke. A black mist of something seeped out of it….That night I had my first visit from what I can only describe as 'The Black Thing.'"

The upshot is that teajay is selling the remaining jar and a much longer narrative of what took place, including "to the best of my recollection what was contained in the old journal." The package also includes photos of the jar and the cemetery, some of which are displayed on the eBay site. With all that, he adds, "I am sure you are getting the 'Black Thing' also." All sales are final, he repeatedly warns. And "DON'T bid unless you are seriously wanting to own this as I WILL NOT BE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR ANYTHING THAT HAPPENS ONCE THE TRANSACTION IS COMPLETE!"

In other words, teajay is selling a ghost story.

Old literary forms are always adapting themselves to new media, revising but not replacing their familiar effects. The experience of listening to a story by a campfire is similar to but different from the experience of reading it in a book, watching it in a movie theater, or stumbling on it on eBay. A good ghost story does its best to convince the audience that the tale is somehow real: that it really happened to your scoutmaster, or maybe one of his friends; that the manuscript you're reading was discovered in an attic, untouched for 70 years; that three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkettsville, Maryland, and a year later their footage was found. The Web is an especially participatory medium, which means it allows some especially participatory tales to be told. Not only do you get to hear the tale of the ghost jar from the man who allegedly discovered it, but you can join the story by buying it yourself.

And yes, people seem willing to pay for it. When teajay announced his sale, the starting bid was $99. When it finally sold, the price stood at $50,922.

Granted, the buyer turned out to be an unregistered user who's almost certainly not going to send teajay his money. But another sort of bidding had been taking place elsewhere on eBay: Just as Pamela begat Shamela, teajay's tale was inspiring spinoffs and spoofs. One seller offered a ghost in a pickle jar, illustrated with a priceless parody of teajay's pictures. (Teajay photographed a vessel bearing mysterious writing and filled with some unidentifiable substance. This joker photographed a Halloween decoration crammed into a container.) "I stumbled on it while cleaning out my fruit cellar," the page explained. "I don't know if I should open it, as I am afraid as to what might happen. I do know that my cats don't want any part of this."

If pickles aren't your thing, you can buy a ghost in a honey jar. If ghosts aren't your thing, you can buy toast in a jar. One seller offers the equipment to "keep your 'ghost in a jar' air tight"; another hawks a "'vacation home' for your ghost in a jar." (It's another jar.) More than one person is selling a "jar in a ghost"; my favorite such offer explains that, while on an archeological expedition to Nepal, the seller "had the misfortune of making the acquaintance of a ghost named Herbert. I figured what the hell, Herbert needs a home, I need a roommate right? Next thing I know this ghost's on a plane with me back to the states. Everything was fine for about two months. We would go see movies, go out to dinner, and we even discussed our favorites in corporeal and incorporeal music. Only after the second month of Herbert's residence with me did I make the discovery that haunts me to this day…he had a JAR INSIDE OF HIM."

All this annoyed teajay, owner of the original ghost in a jar, who began adding testy comments to his site. "I just want everyone to know that the person with the other 'Ghost in a Jar' has nothing to do with mine." And then: "All of you game players and others who are bidding on this auction be forwarned…..anyone placing a bid on this auction will be held responsible for that bid as per Ebay policy." And then: "Any one else interfering with this legitimate auction in any way, such as astronomical bids, high bids with bid retraction, or in any other form, will be…in violation of Federal Trade Laws concerning interstate commerce. ALL such attempts will be turned over to the FBI for criminal investigation!"

And so we see another way the Web differs from books and films: The parodies can turn around and influence the original work.

Who could have guessed that a tool for online auctions would evolve into a storytelling medium? Well, who could have guessed that writing would one day lead to novels, or that toys called magic lanterns and zoetropes would give birth to the movies? Arts are unexpected when they emerge, and usually unrecognized for a long time after. There are serious highbrow academic types out there working hard to create "hypertext narratives" and "multimedia art," little aware that much livelier versions of those very plans are appearing spontaneously on auction sites, in video games, and elsewhere online.

Is anyone mirroring these eBay sites for future reference? Literary archeologists of the future should be able to read these early examples of a new art long after the bids are closed and the sites are retired.