Anatomy of a Ghost

Nonfiction / Brian Clifton

:: Anatomy of a Ghost ::

A young woman bolts out of her house; she appears to be chased by some­thing invis­i­ble. As she zigza­gs around the street, her focus shifts from some­thing fol­low­ing to what is in front of her. She gazes at the cam­era. Her face is both ter­ri­fied and des­per­ate. She looks simul­ta­ne­ous­ly at the view­er and her invis­i­ble chas­er because, for a moment, they are the same. She jukes and darts back into her house, and the cam­era pans to fol­low her. Almost imme­di­ate­ly, she reemerges and runs to a car. She peels out and down the block.

This is the first scene of It Fol­lows—a movie that fol­lows a young woman, Jay, and her friends as they are ter­ror­ized by an invis­i­ble mon­ster whose blood­lust seeks the newest per­son added to a long chain of sex­u­al encoun­ters. The mon­ster is slow and relent­less. It can imper­son­ate any­one, but often it takes the appear­ance of those famil­iar to its tar­get. Through­out the film, char­ac­ters sub­tly break the fourth wall—both in the pres­ence and absence of the imposter that follows.

In the film’s next scene, the cam­era is perched in the back­seat as the young woman dri­ves down a high­way. She white-knuck­les the steer­ing wheel. As if by twitch, she turns to look behind her.


                              she’s   in disguise. 
                              she’s   in disguise. 
                              There’s a 


One night, after crash­ing my bicy­cle, I booked an Uber to dri­ve me from West­port, the swift­ly gen­tri­fied bar dis­trict of South Kansas City, to where I lived in the His­toric North­east. My apart­ment lurked behind the inter­sec­tion of Glad­stone Boule­vard and Inde­pen­dence Avenue, which put it very east of Troost (the street that the Nichols fam­i­ly used to red­line Kansas City in order to keep African Amer­i­cans and Jews pinned between high­ways and sep­a­rate from the WASP‑y pop­u­la­tion they desired) and a smidge east of Prospect, which was often cit­ed, despite the inter­mit­tent opu­lence and pover­ty east and west of the street, as the bound­ary between those who had and those who had not.

I loaded my bike into the Uber’s van and got into the front seat. The dri­ver cruised down Paseo, inch­ing clos­er and clos­er to my neigh­bor­hood. We drove under a high­way; the dri­ver looked around as gourmet donut shops were replaced by pay­day loans, as bars dis­ap­peared and con­ve­nience stores filled their places. He looked at me. He said, This is not you.

Yes, I respond­ed. He pushed fur­ther, repeat­ing this-is-not-you like a hook. At first, I tried to explain that I did in fact live in this part of town. Unable to con­vince him, I qui­et­ed, try­ing instead to con­vince myself—a sit­u­a­tion made more dif­fi­cult by my recent accep­tance into a grad­u­ate pro­gram, a return to the insti­tu­tion that I had fled years before. 

Is this me? I asked myself as I wheeled my bicy­cle into my apart­ment. Is this me? I asked my stu­dents when I lec­tured about “the the­sis.” Is this me? I asked my plan­ner, its days filled with “assign­ments.” Is this me? I asked my school email address, its seams split­ting with the uncat­e­go­rized waves of announce­ments, ques­tions, adver­tise­ments, and surveys. 


“Even Bri­an has been pub­lished!” I over­heard one PhD stu­dent say to anoth­er. It was at night. We were at a bar. My first year of the pro­gram and fresh from a string of man­u­script rejec­tions, I already had a bad case of Imposter Syn­drome. Approach­ing 30, I was often embar­rassed by it—I thought I should have grown out of the feel­ing by now, but here it was like a sheep­ish child peer­ing out from behind me. 

I con­tin­ue to social­ize with this man. He is a poet I admire. Our con­ver­sa­tions are slight­ly awk­ward, but no more so than any two peo­ple who have only a vague connection—a base­ball fan and a beach vol­ley­ball fan bond­ing over their love of “sport.” He is nei­ther hos­tile nor resent­ful; I nev­er hear him say any­thing sim­i­lar about me or any­one else again. 

Some­times, I won­der if that was what was said at all or just what I heard. Oth­er times, I won­der if that dis­tinc­tion matters.


Baby, baby, baby, oh, baby, baby, baby, no. I whis­per-sing on a friend’s bal­cony. These are the lyrics to Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” a song that lands rel­a­tive­ly ear­ly in Bieber’s oeu­vre. I have nev­er heard the song: not on the inter­net, not on the radio, not at par­ties. Yet, the hook, which I’ve tak­en to whis­per-sing when I need to vocal­ize but have noth­ing to say, is some­how ingrained in my mind. My friend says that I’m singing it wrong and pulls out her phone to find a video of the song on YouTube. 

Please, don’t do that, I plead. Baby, baby, baby, no, baby, baby, baby, oh. I con­tin­ue to say the words out of sync as the song’s first bars twin­kle through her iPhone. A man sticks his head out of the apart­ment and calls for her. She leaves. I stay on the bal­cony, say­ing again Baby, baby, baby, oh, baby, baby, baby, no.

I think about the moment’s uncan­ni­ness. What is more sim­i­lar to Justin Bieber, his record­ed voice, dig­i­tized and squeezed through the air, some cir­cuit­ry, the almost mol­e­c­u­lar sized iPhone speak­er, or Bri­an Clifton whis­per-singing the hook to a song Bieber had sung near­ly a decade ago when puber­ty had not yet carved away his boy­ish­ness? Which enti­ty is the imposter?


Between my first and sec­ond year of my PhD stud­ies, I had two jobs. I was a teach­ing assis­tant for a lit­er­a­ture class. I washed dish­es to make ends meet over the sum­mer. My sched­ule was Fri­day through Mon­day 5:00pm to 2:00am. The work was short, rep­e­ti­tious, and gru­el­ing. Often, I found it hard to grip things dur­ing my days off because my hands were so sore. My feet shriv­eled from being con­stant­ly wet. Because I lived in a col­lege town, most of my cowork­ers attend­ed the uni­ver­si­ty I attend­ed. One of the servers, Fran­cie, I knew from the lit­er­a­ture class I taught direct­ly before I washed dishes. 

When Fran­cie came back to the dish pit, we would talk about lit­er­a­ture, her immi­nent grad­u­a­tion, and the oth­er stu­dents in the class. At first, we orches­trate this show each shift we have togeth­er. Slow­ly, our words become clipped. Slow­ly, there ceas­es to be a need to express ourselves.


In sev­enth grade, AOL Instant Mes­sen­ger (AIM) enthralled my friends. We chat­ted online; we made away mes­sages from the lyrics of our favorite songs; we sent each oth­er the screen names of strangers. One evening an AIM win­dow popped up on my com­put­er, “hey.” “hey. whos this?” 

The gener­ic screen name, bedaz­zled with punc­tu­a­tion marks, responded—it belonged to a girl (was her name Mad­die?). We chat­ted for weeks. We divulged secrets. We devel­oped some­thing akin to feel­ings. We agreed that we were dat­ing. We had nev­er met each oth­er. We were text bounc­ing through cir­cuit boards. 


Anato­my of a Ghost was also a screamo band from the ear­ly aughts. The group nev­er achieved wide­spread suc­cess, dis­band­ing after their first album in 2004. A cou­ple mem­bers went on to start Por­tu­gal. The Man, an indie pop out­fit that now crafts com­mer­cial-ready licks. Their fourth album, The Satan­ic Satanist, is a col­lec­tion of down-tem­po soul­ful indie pop. 

One day after dri­ving my car, my dad runs into our house and demands I burn him a copy of what­ev­er CD was play­ing in the dash. As I do, he raves about the band’s sound, about how it is music. I give him the Mem­o­rex disc, “Por­tu­gal. The Man – The Satan­ic Satanist,” writ­ten in Sharpie on it. 

My dad nev­er speaks of this album or them again, and so, in our brains, the band returns to its pre­vi­ous oth­er-life: a dis­mem­bered specter, a dia­gram of a memory.


We   hear
the   night
click   his 
ask if it’s 
him      or 


After Jay and her para­mour have sex in an aban­doned park­ing lot, he drugs her, ties her to a wheel­chair, and brings her into a dilap­i­dat­ed build­ing. Jay ques­tions her lover, who explains the monster’s motive and the sim­ple rules by which it abides, name­ly that it fol­lows who­ev­er had sex with the most recent­ly cursed per­son. The two then see an approach­ing fig­ure. As the boy wheels Jay around, the two face direct­ly into the cam­era. Jay screams, “What do you want?” 

Soon, Jay real­izes that the boy was not lying. The mon­ster enters her home, caus­ing her to flee to a park on a bicy­cle. Her friends and her neigh­bor, Greg, run after her. They tell Greg some­one had bro­ken into her house. Sob­bing in close-up, Jay says, “I need to find him.” The cam­era shows Jay and her friends fac­ing the view­er while Greg’s right tor­so fills the left side of the frame. It is as if the char­ac­ters are hud­dled, delib­er­at­ing, in a cir­cle under a street­light and the cam­era hangs in the space between being occlud­ed from the group and com­plet­ing the hud­dle. Respond­ing to Jay’s demand, Greg says, “The per­son who broke into your house.” His inflec­tion makes his words both a state­ment and a ques­tion. He removes his hand from the pock­et of his den­im jack­et and ges­tures behind him. His thumb points into the camera. 

The group finds the boy who had cursed Jay with the mon­ster. Real­iz­ing the mon­ster is real, they dri­ve to Greg’s family’s lake house. When the mon­ster arrives, it chas­es Jay and her friends into a boat shed. It busts a cir­cu­lar hole into the shed’s door. The group looks through it as if through a viewfind­er at the beach where they had just been. The only dif­fer­ence between what the group sees and what the view­er had just seen is the absence of themselves.


No Brain­er” fea­tures Justin Bieber—his voice being more impor­tant than his lyrics, which any­one can find online. Dust­ed by post-pro­duc­tion mag­ic, Bieber’s vocal track is otherworldly—simultaneously strain­ing to sound con­fi­dent and sex­u­al while remain­ing lock-step and mech­a­nized. Life­less yet relent­less, Bieber’s vocals are a mall pop­u­lat­ed by replicants. 

The uncan­ni­ness that envelopes Bieber’s voice increas­es through­out “No Brain­er,” cul­mi­nat­ing in an intri­cate war­ren of Bieber’s hook with a slew of falset­to har­monies and trilling whoas. The tan­gled melodies ghost mul­ti­ple Bieber’s and mul­ti­ple, frag­ment­ed moments with­in Bieber’s serenade. 

Lis­ten­ing to the song is to under­stand that its mes­sage doesn’t come direct­ly from one (or many) human beings but instead is a string of sounds pro­duced to imi­tate human con­nec­tion via lan­guage. “No Brain­er” is a love song sung by no one to no one.


I read a book of gar­ish sen­tences. I do not bring up my judg­ment in class (or I do). Even I roll my eyes at this type of performance.


In morn­ing traf­fic between Dal­las and Den­ton, I sit at a stand­still in the left-most lane. I am alone. The sun has come up (I know by the time I get back home it will have gone down). On the shoul­der, near the con­crete bar­ri­er between I‑35 North and I‑35 south, is a dead pit­bull. Its body is rigid but not bloat­ed. Its fur is gore-stained. I think, because it was hit on the high­way, it must have died near instan­ta­neous­ly; I do not know how these things work. 

The dog corpse is next to me. We hov­er near each oth­er for what seems to be an eter­ni­ty. The dog’s pelt does not appear bro­ken, though its insides jut angu­lar­ly, sug­gest­ing the chaos that the col­li­sion must have ini­ti­at­ed with­in the pitbull’s body. As I stare at the dead body, I bring my hand to my mouth and my eyes water—my mind still sting­ing from, weeks before, believ­ing my own pet was about to die. 

Traf­fic lurch­es for­ward, dis­si­pates. I speed off to drop off rent and then to teach fresh­men the neces­si­ty of a the­sis. I hear myself say, Why did you cov­er your mouth? Go through the per­for­mance of tears and then not cry?


Fran­cie was not the only stu­dent I worked with. As I would find out in the fall, Claris­sa would also be a stu­dent of mine. Over the sum­mer, Claris­sa watched me dance to songs about how sex on a sofa can be a type of yoga, about want­i­ng men in Timb’s, about basic bitch­es think­ing I’m a head case. 

On the first day of class, I walked into class and see Claris­sa in her black, cat-eyed glass­es. She sat near the back. I told her specif­i­cal­ly hel­lo. I imme­di­ate­ly became a dish­wash­er mas­querad­ing as a pro­fes­sor. I tried to restart my per­for­mance of a “laid back” prof. I stum­bled. I got through class. After­ward, I asked Claris­sa if she is alright being in my class. She said she was. Great, I said. 


In my ear­ly twen­ties, I saw Por­tu­gal. The Man play a small venue in Lawrence. I had dri­ven there from Kansas City with an ex-girl­friend and her new boyfriend who was a friend of mine. We smoked weed in the car. I was unsure what to say, so I drove faster, hop­ing soon the venue would be so full of music I could feel safe­ly alone. When the band struck up, I snuck into the crowd and twitched like a sad virus.


After work, I dri­ve an hour home. My car’s check engine light flash­es at me (indi­cat­ing mis­fires). Anoth­er light on the dash informs me my airbag sys­tem is mal­func­tion­ing. For the past four­teen miles, a small orange gas pump has shone next to my fuel gage. When I pull off the high­way, my car strains and rat­tles; things grate against each oth­er; met­al squeaks when I stop. My car is its own imposter, and a poor one at that. 


I am that 
I'm-a that 
bih,   yeah 
You  know 
I'm     that 
bih,   can't 
get  off   of 
this      dih, 


I tilt­ed my head and bobbed it back and forth. I said with a smile, “Nice.” I let my body go slack. I repeat­ed this action, say­ing var­i­ous pos­i­tive phras­es: fuck yeah, sick, that’s rad. It was dark. Dal­las unfurled into bits of halo­gen. I con­tin­ued to imi­tate the friends I believed sup­port­ed everyone.


It Fol­lows ends with Jay and Paul hold­ing hands and walk­ing down a neigh­bor­hood street. The mon­ster that fol­lowed had not been defeat­ed so much as rerout­ed; scenes ear­li­er Paul dri­ves to a seedy and indus­tri­al part of Detroit to vis­it a sex work­er. It is implied the plan was to pass the crea­ture to some­one who rou­tine­ly had sex with a vast array of people. 

One of the most com­pelling ambi­gu­i­ties of the film, for me, is its mes­sage. Is It Fol­lows anti-sex? There are plen­ty of indi­ca­tions that this is the case—a mon­ster that is sent to pun­ish the sex­u­al­ly active, the reduc­tion of human sex­u­al­i­ty to a trans­ac­tion for sur­vival (the sex scenes in the film play out self-seri­ous and duti­ful with more des­per­a­tion than pas­sion). Yet the sex­u­al con­tent of It Fol­lows is shown neu­tral­ly. Nei­ther Jay nor Paul are shamed for their sex­u­al­i­ty once becom­ing sex­u­al­ly active. And in one scene the two char­ac­ters rem­i­nisce about find­ing pornog­ra­phy and look­ing at it as a group on one of their lawns. Paul says, “We had no idea how bad it was.” 

This sen­ti­ment, cou­pled with how often the fourth wall is bro­ken, seems to push the film’s mes­sage away from being anti-sex into being a more nuanced cri­tique of social­ized sham­ing. Maybe the film’s mon­ster then becomes not a pun­ish­ment for sex but an embod­i­ment of the inse­cu­ri­ties Jay and Paul project onto indi­vid­u­als of their repressed and repress­ing society—what would my neighbors/mother/cousins/friends think if they knew I had had sex? Or maybe it is the inse­cu­ri­ties these peo­ple have of per­form­ing sexually—did I enjoy this encounter enough or was my plea­sure a show? 


I pulled into our dri­ve­way around 2:45am. I had fin­ished a clos­ing shift wash­ing dish­es. The radio’s rapid twitches—extreme met­al-click-Viet­namese lounge-click-bub­blegum pop-click-neo-lib­er­tar­i­an con­spir­a­cy theories-click-trap-click-advertisement—wafted like dust around my still and silent hatchback. 

I show­ered and drank a Topo Chico. I sat, my hair wrapped in a tow­el. I refreshed my email. I checked my bank account. I stum­bled into the dark bed­room; Rowen, my part­ner, was curled on her side, already asleep. We spooned in the way long­time lovers must on a full mattress. 

My body still vibrat­ed from the quick suc­ces­sion of repet­i­tive tasks I had done for the past eight and a half hours. I won­dered if, even while sleep­ing, Rowen could know I was the one in the dark with her. Was there an essen­tial aspect to me, my touch that let her know I was there and not anoth­er? Was this the case with every­one? If so, why did my eyes watch the door ready for a ter­ror to waltz through when­ev­er Rowen left to use the bath­room, why did I imper­cep­ti­bly jump when she clutched my body in the dark? 

As I thought and thought, I sat up and craned my head over so I could see around her shoul­ders, her hair. In the dark, I squint­ed at her, find­ing what made this sleep­ing face hers. Yes, the body next to me was Rowen. Yes, I am myself. I fell asleep.


A few days before a mid­dle school mix­er, I mes­saged Mad­die, “we should meet at the dance.” 


… ☺”


I wait­ed, but Mad­die didn’t show. Our par­ents arrived. Mad­die dis­ap­peared from AIM. A few weeks lat­er, a friend told me Mad­die was real­ly Justin, a boy in our class, the whole thing was a joke, and many peo­ple were aware of it. 

I looked at Justin, at the oth­er kids in the class—aware of the dif­fer­ence between how they saw me and how I had seen myself in the past weeks, aware of the dif­fer­ence between how I had seen them before and how I saw them after. 


Years after first see­ing Por­tu­gal. The Man, I rode my bicy­cle around Kansas City and came across a free con­cert series on top of hill that ris­es between I‑35 and Broad­way Boule­vard. Head­lin­ing the event was Por­tu­gal. The Man. I locked up my bike and made my way to the front of the stage. I hard­ly rec­og­nized the band—the singer, who used to posi­tion his mic side­ways so he wouldn’t have to look at the crowd, direct­ly addressed us, his hair recent­ly cut short, his lips accen­tu­at­ed with a neat moustache. 

Por­tu­gal. The Man played songs I did not rec­og­nize. All around me were peo­ple I did not know bop­ping along in flip-flops, cut-offs, tank tops, and ungod­ly flu­o­res­cent rimmed sun­glass­es. I drift­ed back, watch­ing the space I had occu­pied in the crowd slow­ly dis­perse, like a ghost into the stained walls of a haunt­ed house.


A man mes­sages me on Face­book. He tells me Rick Barot sent him a per­son­al rejec­tion for a group of poems he sub­mit­ted to the New Eng­land Review. He, this man, men­tored me dur­ing my first stint in grad­u­ate school. 

In a pre­vi­ous mes­sage, he asked, “Do you know an edi­tor there? Or is it just that your poem was THAT good?” A year pre­vi­ous, he told me that it was great that I was using my per­son­al con­nec­tions to get published. 

I con­grat­u­late this man. I say good things are coming.


For a time dur­ing my com­mute, I repeat, Why did you cov­er your mouth? Go through the per­for­mance of tears and then not cry? It is true: there was no one else in my car and I doubt any­one in traf­fic was mon­i­tor­ing me, I felt no con­nec­tion to this ani­mal oth­er than the one all ani­mals feel, I will not be both­ered by this expe­ri­ence a year from now. As if by twitch, I look behind me. I switch lanes. I look in the mir­ror and see myself look­ing back. Maybe every­one per­forms a lit­tle for them­selves, for the micro­scop­ic feed­back loop between the synapse and the eye, the ear, the hand, the nose. Maybe this per­for­mance is nec­es­sary, but why? And for whom do we bring our hands to our mouths—the future self or the past? Are they so distinct? 


Yeah,   I’m 
—pull    up 
to          the 
scene   with 
my   ceiling 


A pro­fes­sor posts a ques­tion in an online dis­cus­sion board. I answer his ques­tion with a series of ques­tions. In class he ref­er­ences Rosen­crantz and Guildenstern’s game of ques­tions. I don’t get the ref­er­ence, but I laugh and say I hadn’t thought of it that way.


Mov­ing up an onto­log­i­cal lev­el, It Fol­lows unspools like a dream, a pro­jec­tion of the viewer’s inse­cu­ri­ties onto the suc­ces­sion of dig­i­tal images. The sound­track aids this effect. Crys­talline and dis­tort­ed synths dis­solve into ethe­re­al amor­phous swells; it is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a prod­uct of a Vase­line-smeared 80s aes­thet­ic and dis­tinct­ly sep­a­rate from it (a ghost of the future the 80s pre­dict­ed that nev­er came). The sound­track becomes most haunt­ing­ly poignant in the film’s final scene. Its syn­thet­ic tex­tures fade into crisp ren­di­tions of birds and yard work—close yet uncan­ni­ly dis­tant from sound­ing nat­ur­al like how a voice in a dream booms with­in the dream-self’s mind rather than emanates from the mouth of its speaker. 

Jay and Paul walk, hold­ing hands. Their heads casu­al­ly rotate from each oth­er to the cam­era, to the side­walk, to the hous­es around them as does ours—another instance of the bro­ken fourth wall. Like the sound­track, they become immersed in the nat­u­ral­is­tic sounds. Jay’s sex­u­al his­to­ry is known to us, the view­er, and to Paul. Paul’s sex­u­al his­to­ry is known to Jay and to us. We exist, the three us—Jay, Paul, and viewer—aware of each oth­er, con­clu­sive­ly our­selves as we gaze as if there were noth­ing before our eyes—absences ready to be filled. 


One night dur­ing clos­ing, I put on Dead in the Dirt’s The Blind Hole. The songs pum­mel their feed­back-laced riffs and snare-heavy blast beats into every­thing 50 sec­onds at a time. I tow­el melt­ed ice cream from the dish rack. I hose bits of bacon and grilled chick­en cling­ing to the side of the dish­wash­er. I squeegee a grey-white liq­uid from where the walls meet the floor to the drains in the cen­ter of the room. Dead in the Dirt grinds. Dead in the Dirt screams. “I was a dog on a short chain and now there’s no chain.”



From the writer

:: Account ::

Between semes­ters of the PhD pro­gram I was a dish­wash­er at a restau­rant where two of my stu­dents also worked. I had been feel­ing like I didn’t belong in acad­e­mia and this, to me, fur­ther insin­u­at­ed that. I want­ed to show a mind wrestling with the con­stant­ly mutat­ing per­for­mance of self that is asked of a per­son in pub­lic no mat­ter where that is. Who am I in the car? Who am I at my job? Who am I at the gro­cery store? Are all these selves compatible?

I also thought using song lyrics from musi­cians that had gone through dra­mat­ic per­sona shifts—Shakira’s move from Span­ish-lan­guage to Eng­lish-lan­guage pop star, Bob Dylan’s chameleon-like iden­ti­ty, Qveen Herby’s move from Dis­ney star to raunch rap, 2Chainz’s move from Tity Boi to trap star—would trou­ble the idea of per­for­mance and authen­tic­i­ty. What does it mean when the peo­ple whose words infil­trate a lot of my day are play act­ing as some­one oth­er than themselves?


Bri­an Clifton is a PhD stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Texas. His work can be found in: Pleiades, Guer­ni­ca, Cincin­nati Review, Salt Hill, Prairie Schooner, The Jour­nal, Beloit Poet­ry Jour­nal, and oth­er mag­a­zines. He is an avid record col­lec­tor and cura­tor of curiosities.