This is a work of fiction, and the people in it
are fictitious. The ghosts are real.
There are some events in life that are just beyond explanation. There seems to be absolutely no rhyme or reason for the occurrence, yet, there it is, unfolding for all to see. The problem is that even though several people may witness the same event, each funnel it through their worldview and come up with totally different interpretations. In his novel, The Visitors, Nathaniel Benchley uses this difference in worldview to create a terrifying ghost story that turns popular belief on its ear. Instead of approaching the question of ghosts through the worldview of reason, Benchley approaches it through the lens of common, everyday experience. Benchley’s characters who accept the presence of the supernatural as a plausible explanation appear to be more grounded in reality than the singular character who adheres to a materialistic worldview.
In his novel, The Visitors, Nathaniel Benchley uses this difference in worldview to create a terrifying ghost story that turns popular thought on its ear.
After finishing the story, I had to sit back a moment and seriously contemplate what I had just read. Did Benchley seriously just draw the conclusion that the spiritual was more real than the material? There is no mistaking his intention; when events cannot be rationally explained away, the materialistic worldview begins to implode.
I know this seems like a bit of a digression from the topic I have been writing on, yet, the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that the topic Benchley’s book reflects is the same in which I have been writing. As the story opens, Benchley immediately establishes the difference in perception between Steven Powell and his wife, Kathryn. As they tour an old home with a jaded past, each comes away with a completely different viewpoint. Kathryn admits that the home is a bit dank, dreary, and an need of some serious TLC, but she cannot take her mind off the incredible view it provides of the ocean. Her focus is strictly on the physical appearance and the pleasing aesthetics. Steven, on the other hand, is immediately aware that something is amiss, yet he cannot quite articulate his feelings. Walking into the house he is struck with an unexplainable fear, he feels chills on his neck, and is overcome with a sense of foreboding. He cannot wait to get out of the dark, oppressive house and into the safety of the sunlit outdoors. Try as he might, he cannot convince his wife the house is a bad idea, and, against his better judgement, he agrees to lease the house for the summer.
Turns out that Steven’s initial perception of the house was accurate. Shortly after moving into the home, glasses fly across the kitchen, during the night someone can be heard walking around the house, the cellar door mysteriously opens even though locked, and Steven is continually plagued with an unexplainable sense of dread. These events lack a solid explanation, yet Kathryn is always able to provide a logical explanation that, on its face, seems distinctly plausible. After a conversation at the local bar with some of the townspeople, Steven’s suspicions about the house are confirmed and he ponders a way to break the news to Kathryn. Immediately he realizes a serious problem with this desire. He outlines the problem to himself:
“She was a materialist, who believed what she could see and no more, and her enjoyments came from the readily accessible pleasures. Her capacity for enjoyment was great, and she was usually warmhearted and outgoing, but when she ran against a problem that had no visible answer she tended to tighten up, and fall back on rules of thumb that most likely didn’t apply.” (Benchley 32).
As the unexplainable events continue to occur making the ability to arrive at a reasonable solution harder and harder, Kathryn’s character begins to undergo a marked change.
For Kathryn, the initial events were quite easy to explain away. A glass flying across the room and shattering against a wall could easily be attributed to the temper-tantrums thrown by their teenage son despite his staunch denial. Even when he was on the verge of tears in frustration at not being believed, Kathryn was unwavering in her conviction. Her husband, on the other hand, took the events and the testimony of their son to heart. He had faith that his son was telling the truth and instead of dismissing the facts plainly before him in favor of the most logical conclusion, sought an alternate explanation. His first attempt to persuade Kathryn that there might be an alternative came from the testimony of two Jesuit authors. When Kathryn admits that Jesuits do not hold a belief in ghosts, Steven presents an impressive argument:
“…He says he’s not prepared to explain why they are, any more than he can convince a materialist of the possibility of miracles, but he says the evidence leaves him no choice but to believe that these phenomena can, and do, exist.” (Benchley 37).
Kathryn’s response, however, is not as impressive. Instead of taking the testimony of the Jesuits to heart, she chooses to ignore the conversation and focuses instead on the trivial issues around her. For Kathryn, it was not difficult to dismiss the arguments in favor of a supernatural presence in their house. They had an angry teenage son. The townspeople had lived too long with the legends and were apt to believe anything about the house because it was ingrained in the community’s history. What was even worse, and potentially deadly for her marriage, she began to question her husband’s sanity and urged him to see a psychiatrist.
The more the hauntings persist, the more they begin to defy reasonable explanation, the more Kathryn’s world begins to fall apart. Her unraveling comes gradually. After a particularly intense storm and the accompanying disturbances she struggles to explain, she admits to Steven that something is wrong, yet she does not know what. All she knows is that she can feel her head “getting tighter and tighter and tighter, until pretty soon it’s going to burst” (Benchley 135). Soon she finds herself questioning her beloved husband’s integrity and goes so far as to determine if he is having an affair. She throws herself so completely into planning a costumed party in an attempt to prove normalcy, she almost forgets her son’s sixteenth birthday. While she feels everyone else is losing their mind, she is actually the one whose world is coming undone.
The turning point for Kathryn comes when a man mysteriously arrives at their door claiming to be an expert in exorcisms. His credentials appear impressive and Kathryn decides this what she needs to finally put the whole ghost business out of her family’s mind. The man goes from the attic to the cellar, allegedly driving out the demons before him, with no seemingly adverse encounter. As he prepares to leave, Steven tells him there is one more spot in the house that needs to be cleansed, a cave that runs underneath the house from the cove.
This is it. This is the point where her entire worldview comes crumbling down around her. She knows nothing is there, she has seen the nothingness with her own eyes.
Kathryn, who had explored the cave moments before, is confident that there would be no further problems; however, they hear the man’s terrified shrieks and see him run up the cliff covered in blood. He keeps running, without saying one word, gets in his car and speeds away from the property. This is it. This is the point where her entire worldview comes crumbling down around her. She knows nothing is there, she has seen the nothingness with her own eyes. In defiance to the events she had just witnessed, she screams at Steven, “There’s nothing down there…I have to prove it! I have to prove there’s nothing down there”(Benchley 200-201). In that singular instant, everything she thought she could rely on comes unraveled before her very eyes and she has absolutely no logical explanation.
Jesus confronts this very issue in his conversation with the father of the possessed boy. It is obvious to those in the community the boy is demon possessed. The father acknowledges to Jesus that the boy has been possessed since childhood. For most of his son’s life the man witnessed the demon throwing the boy into fire and water in an attempt to kill him. He witnessed his child writhing on the ground, foaming at the mouth, yet he did not fully believe that the demon could be exorcised. The disciples, confident in their knowledge, were sure they could drive it out and fail. Jesus’ words for both the disciples and the father are harsh. To the disciples he says, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you” (ESV Mk 9.19). To the father he exclaims, “If you can!” (ESV Mk 9.23). This is the same spiritual condition in which Nathaniel Benchley presents his character, Kathryn. Simply put, he places only Kathryn’s worldview in harms way when it comes to this spiritual manifestation, even though the ghosts only make themselves known to other members of the family (Benchley 178). The words of wisdom Benchley has to guarantee her salvation are clear:
“All I can say is this: your only hope lies in belief. Try as hard as you can, and perhaps things will be all right” (178).
These are the words Jesus has for his disciples, the boy’s father and, ultimately, our generation as well. When we stop searching for rational explanations and just believe, all things will be made possible (ESV Mk 9.23).
Benchley, Nathaniel. The Visitors. New York: McGraw-Hill. 1965. Print.
Biblegateway. Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Crossway Bibles. 2001. Web. 20 July 2016.