Ghost in a Jar Haunts Writer

(originally published June 11, 2003 at Moving Target)

On bad days, I see myself as having been hijacked from my own creative projects.

On good days, I see myself as a Ghost in a Jar Early Adapter.

I intended to do a sensible thing, namely set up a storefront on eBay. I started reading the appropriate discussion board, and in it one person mentioned that when he is in consumer mode, Weird is the only eBay category he routinely meanders through simply to window-shop.

Well, it would be, wouldn’t it. While the majority of auction buyers may be goal-oriented, heading straight for “laptop” or “used shoes”, there must be plenty of people who check out the Weird stuff just for its entertainment value.

In fact, the suggestion was also made that a market-savvy seller should list a couple of auctions in the Weird section now and then, even if the items are mundane, just to reach the eyes of those buyers who have the leisure to poke around.

So okay, I took a stroll through the Weird stuff. Some items were so unusual, I had to copy their URLs into an e-mail and sent them to a couple of friends. One of the things I found that day was the Ghost in a Jar.

This red and black jar with white symbols written on it was offered by a person called Teejay, along with a whole big complicated story about how it was found, and the curse attached to it, and so on. The prospective buyer was warned not to accept any substitutes. The bidding went up to a ridiculous amount, probably from people who had no intention of entering eBay again and didn’t care what happened to their reputations. (Being an auction deadbeat is grounds for expulsion.)

Then Teejay’s auction was removed by the management.

I looked up Ghost in a Jar in a search engine, and read some blogs and discussions. The whole cultural phenomenon has attracted lots of attention. Two or three people have referenced Expiration Date by Tim Powers, who is the godfather of the Ghost in a Jar. His book pioneered the concept, with the ghost of Thomas Edison contained in a glass vial. Now would be a good time for Powers collectors to auction any spare copies of Expiration Date they might have lying around the place.

Meanwhile, spinoffs appeared on eBay by the score: baby ghost in a jar, jar in a jar, ghost fart in a jar. Holy Ghost in a Jar (a Bible.) A “vacation home” for your ghost in a jar - which was, as might be expected, another jar. Bumper stickers from the Ghost in a Jar Liberation Front. A sweater for your ghost in a jar - hand-knit, blue, with a ducky on it. Jar-jar in a jar. People for the Ethical Treatment of Ghosts in Jars.

Of course there had to be "I bid on Ghost in a Jar and all I got was this lousy tee shirt." Someone offered a funny story about a jar in a ghost - I forget what the product was. One item description acknowledged itself to be full of typos, but with the excuse that the writer was so emotionally drained and upset by recounting the experience, it couldn’t be helped. Most endearing, and also one of the most polished presentations: two Beanie Baby ghosts in a fancy Oreo jar. The seller speculated in pictures about what they might be doing in there all day. The pair were posed playing a hand of poker, also playing jacks, dividing up cookies, and being affectionate.

Everyone has their own vision of how the Ghost in a Jar’s logo ought to look. One entrepreneur has hooked up with the company that transfers your custom artwork to actual objects. This source offers a whole line of Ghost in a Jar accessories: tote bag, mug, thong panties, etc.

On eBay, the Self-Representing Artists really got behind it. The description for one painting “I labored in my studio for minutes to bring you this work…” Mothers put drawings by their kids up for auction. One showed the ghost of a pet goldfish. Another offered a cloth ghost with a long purple pony tail and sparkly bikini, described by the mom as “a must-have for any serious ghost-in-a-jar collector!”

Some people just don’t get it, like the seller of the “Ghost in a Jar Purse” which is nothing but a regular denim handbag. The ad copy makes no effort, either clever or lame, to connect the item with the trend. Blatant opportunism. Unlike the Ghost in a Jar Lunchbox, which is right on target.
After his original auction was removed from the site, Teejay made a comeback, offering a signed limited edition of business cards, or something.

Naturally, hopeful speculators rushed to register GhostinaJar-dot-every possible extension. There might even be hope for "TheGhostinaJar" - the exclusivity angle - but I don't think "GhostinaBottle" is gonna make it. That one's a losing bet for sure.

The world may be overstocked with fascists and torturers, but here is a good reminder that it’s also well supplied with people whose young minds were molded by National Lampoon, Mad and Saturday Night Live. Commentator Jesse Walker sees all this as an emerging art form, analogous to the clay tablet or the zoetrope; a true, spontaneous hypertext narrative such as serious writers can only dream of.

I myself was inspired to conceptualize several related products.

1. Tired of wedding receptions and other events where you are expected to buy your own drinks? Bring along this product and never take out your wallet again!

2. Tickets to the unveiling of Christo's latest art work:

3. For the well-equipped campsite, a vast improvement on solar cooking:

4. Ever found yourself in the marketplace of a foreign city, wishing you knew the finer points of protocol for dickering with the merchants? What's the proper way to come to an agreement with the seller on a price?

5. You know how it is when your band is playing out. It's break time, you hit the john, grab a fresh drink, chat up a couple of chicks, and before you know it, it's time to get back up on stage. Suddenly you realize how hungry you are! Never starve through a set again:

Like the immortal slogan “This is your brain on dope,” Ghost in a Jar is a meme destined to be seized by the mass consciousness and transmogrified into a thousand permutations. At this writing there are 116 Ghost in a Jar-related items listed on eBay and 1120 results on Google, and no end in sight.