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There often comes a moment in a young girl’s life—somewhere between the time when you start making your Barbies bone each other and the time when you start holding a furious vigil over your vulva looking for your first pubes—when things take a turn for the spooky. A brief, golden phase marked by an interest in Ouija boards, witchcraft, and playing Blood Mary at a sleepover until one girl cries so hard that she has to call her mom and go home. You know, girl stuff.
It makes a lot of sense that girls around this age get into ghosts, since the transition from childhood to adulthood is so fucking bizarre and nonsensical that it might as well be the transition from life to the beyond, right?
And adulthood seems so stuffed with secrets, you might as well turn to ghosts—our grand cultural ambassadors of secrets!—for some insights. Ghosts, we’re led to believe, know not only the secrets of space, time, and existence—they also know whatever secrets they’ve picked up while watching all of us cry and masturbate all the time. Ghosts know important facts, for instance that you should make unselfish life choices, or that your uncle killed your father, or that you shouldn’t disrespect ancient burial grounds by building mid-priced suburban homes on top of them. Ghost, much like popular girls in high school, are so far on the inside track that they don’t even have to run.
According to the many tween books I read in the early 90s, it is easier to make friends with an actual ghost than an actual popular girl, who most likely is too busy attending rainbow parties to let you in on her secrets. And in fact—according to many of those same books—it was easiest of all to make friends with a ghost of a girl your own age, one who passed from this mortal coil before she could even figure out if she was cool enough to be invited to rainbow parties. And the greatest of all these pre-teen girl-ghost friendship books was Mary Dowling Hahn’s 1986 novel, Wait till Helen Comes.
Here is what I remembered this book being about: These kids are on some farm, and there’s this ghost. The littlest kid is obsessed with the ghost, even though everyone else sees that this ghost is bad news. This ghost is like the friend you make in high school who gets you into shoplifting and gateway drugs—she’s cool because your family hates her. But then the ghost does something weird, and the older sister has to figure out how to make the ghost go away. My takeaway from the book then was that ghosts were scary and could accidentally kill you, but were also probably more fun and interesting than anyone else you knew (again, like your friend from high school).
Here is what it turns out that this book is actually about—and I am about to throw a bunch of girls names at you, so let’s just establish who’s who with some mnemonic devices up front:
–Molly is the good girl, like Molly Ringwald in any of her fine 80s films.
–Heather is angry and starts trouble, like Heather Locklear on Melrose Place.
–Helen is the beautiful, otherworldly, all-powerful one, just like Academy Award–winner Dame Helen Mirren.
Got it? OK, let’s go!
So there are these two—let’s not mince words here—total fucking self-involved artist assholes with children from previous marriages. The mother has good girl tween Molly. The dad has Heather: a seven-year-old girl who watched her mother die in a fire four years ago. No one seems to have taken Heather to a psychologist, or even talked to her about what happened, so of course she is an emotionally disturbed nightmare baby.
She becomes even more of an emotionally disturbed nightmare baby once these two asshole parents take their blended family away to start a new life way out in the countryside, at the very beginning of the summer. What the fuck are these kids supposed to do out there all alone all summer? Their semi-negligent hippie parents could give an uhhhhhhh. They’re just sooo happy to finally have the space to build a studio and throw vases that they’re gonna sell at the craft fair. And you just know these vases look like giant withered clay vulvas. You can FEEL it.
Heather, the little girl, then befriends Helen, a little girl ghost. Molly thinks the ghost is bad news, but why would these parents listen to her about a ghost? The parents think ghosts are a myth, just like Bigfoot or the need for a child suffering from PTSD to be under the care of a licensed mental health specialist. Crazy talk!
Eventually, Molly realizes that Helen is trying to lure Heather into a spooky pond, so that she will die and become a ghost, too. Helen proves her loyalty to Heather by breaking everyone’s shit, including the vases the parents were going to sell at the craft fair. (Nooooo! Not the vases for the craft fair!)
So then Helen tries to lure Heather to the spooky pond, Molly saves her, and—through a lucky combination of magical intervention and microfiche research—Molly and Heather figure out that Helen accidentally started a fire that killed her mom and stepdad when she was alive, and no one ever found their bodies.
Molly and Heather then discover the charred bones of Helen’s parents and show them to Helen. Helen apologizes to the bones, and then she gets instantly raptured away, Left Behind–style. Heather then admits to Molly the real reason she was acting like an asshole was: She accidentally set the fire that killed her own mother. But then she confesses it to her father, and everything is fine. The end.
Now, in our traditional thinking about ghosts, ghosts are powerful because we imagine death as this moment of really intense psychotherapy, where all your hang-ups just kind of glide away, leaving you able to absorb wisdom and knowledge beyond the boundaries of your previous corporeal existence.
The idea that ghosts don’t actually learn anything from being liminal beings from beyond space and time—that they’re just the same shitty, petty losers that we all are in life, stuck with the same baggage for eternity—is the most horrific premise I have encountered in a lifetime of horror fandom, and this alone makes Wait till Helen Comes one of the scariest books that I have ever read.
And we’re not even touching on Heather. I mean, I’m pretty sure that the intended takeaway of this book is like that old recovery motto, “You’re only as sick as your secrets”—uncovering them gives you strength and power.
And reading this book 20 years ago, I would have believed that Heather’s quick confession to her dad would have fixed up all her problems. But as someone who’s blown a solid chunk of her own adulthood spelunking into her own family secrets, I’m not sold. Heather’s life isn’t hard because she kept a secret. It’s hard because almost everyone around her, from the man who sired her to the ghost who befriends her, is a selfish dick. They both just want her to sacrifice her whole existence to give them what they believe is their ideal lifestyle, be it that of a kooky artist or an angry ghost. What if even after her big confession, everyone Heather trusts still keeps on mismanaging her trauma anyway? What if by the time she’s an adult it’s too late and she can’t dig her way out? Will she be the one luring people into whatever her own spooky pond turns out to be?
What if she doesn’t get raptured up to heaven as soon as she figures out her family secrets? What if none of us do? What if we’re just stuck with our families and our secrets, stuck staring at a pile of old, scorched bones, and spending the rest of our lives trying to make sense of them, and not even spooky little dead girls in Victorian nightgowns can help us?
And I mean, this is fucked up, but we’re all thinking it, so I’m just gonna say it: Isn’t the main selling point of death that you’ll stop being so lonely and neurotic and full of shame about weird texts that you sent while you were drunk? If you carry all that shit to the other side, if you’re still as much of a needy and nervous and self-conscious wreck as you ever were, well, Christ—you might as well live.