An Instagram story plays Dead Man’s Bones’ “My Body’s a Zombie for You” over a Nickelodeon-esque logo. Reminiscent of both Aaahh!!! Real Monsters and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, the white bubble text reading “Aaaah! Real Ghosting Stories” bleeds into shots of Taylor Lee Nicholson eating Halloween candy, nervously checking her phone for a text back. A common theme of her project, Nicholson’s new performance piece focuses not on ghost stories in the traditional sense, but the horror, the audacity and the absurdity of ghosting.
Nicholson moved to Charlotte from Raleigh three years ago and has spent 2020 working on collaborative projects with local artists from a safe distance. Pursuing an online Masters of Fine Arts in painting through Savanah College of Art and Design, Nicholson became a full-time artist in 2016 after leaving her job and starting her Instagram, leaning on the money she’d saved working at The Chocolate Factory.
“Ironically, painting is now the medium I use least,” Nicholson says.
With a leaning towards the immersive experience, Nicholson’s focus has been on projects like “Be Wild Inside” on display at The Artist’s Palette, which features fiber arts, photography and sculpture in conjunction with Jillian Mueller and Hamilton Ward. Likewise, she is working with Kat Sánchez Stanfield on an interactive experience called Play Date for which they are currently seeking venues.
Her love for immersive experiences and collaboration has crossed over into the digital world and has been the backbone for Ghosting Stories, an IGTV visual experience focusing on people who have both ghosted and been ghosted and the horror therein.
A play on Halloween themes and childhood television relics, Nicholson explores with humor the phenomenon of ghosting. This concept of leaving relationships in the dust without any indication or communication has grown far more prominent in the internet years, with the blanket of anonymity on our sides. We can exit relationships with no more than a delete button, the barrier of human interaction avoided by the closing of a screen.
Where ‘Ghosting Stories’ Began
In April, Nicholson began Ghosts, the unknowing precursor to Ghosting Stories. A self-proclaimed “reformed ghoster,” Nicholson sought to express her thoughts on the death of friendships through bracelets she crafted in response to her losses.
The project reached its culmination in GIF form, with Nicholson’s arms hanging and turning, covered in beaded friendship bracelets. “Best Friends Forever” was replaced with phrases like “Best Friends For Now” and “Sorry For My Loss.” An in-depth caption accompanied the post, explaining in detail her thoughts on friendship and the pain from her past, taking responsibility of her part in failed relationships.
Followers reached out commiserating over these shared and relatable experiences. One follower, Kristen Thomas, slid in the DMs. A friend from high school, Thomas had herself been ghosted. By Nicholson.
As teens the pair could often be found at their local Bojangles, set up in a booth writing Harry Potter and National Treasure fan fiction (yes, the Nic Cage National Treasure) on legal pads. As senior year drew to a close, Nicholson describes her then-self as a “garbage person,” ill-equipped to handle life’s transitions like graduating and heading off to school. She thus became avoidant. Thomas confronted Nicholson, who consequently blew her off and moved away, ghosting her back before the word had meaning.
Now, years after the ephemeral fading of their relationship, the two rekindled the flame and expanded their collective creativity beyond afternoon fan fiction. Thomas and Nicholson spoke all summer and concocted the concept for Ghosting Stories.
In September, via a secret submissions page deep within her website, Nicholson asked a few friends and small groups for their experience with ghosting. Thomas took these stories and crafted scripts that Nicholson would perform.
The Stories Come to Life
Nicholson stands over a jack-o-lanterns and a paper fire while music spooky music by Josh Ryan plays in the background, her face illuminated from below, just like the weekly hosts of The Midnight Society. Written in first person, Nicholson then tells the tales of haunted relational pasts, beginning with a story from Ryan himself called “Driving Someone Away.”
In high school, Ryan’s crush expresses a desire to come over. As an introvert with hyper-conservative parents, he avoids the topic, knowing the litany of questions from his parents that awaits her and recognizing his own inability to handle such a spectacle. Ryan slinks around the topic until it can be avoided no further; she’s on the way. Though deep in the throes of Myspace font coding, Ryan slams shut his Motorola Razor phone, runs to his mom’s Subaru and drives away, all unbeknownst to the girl he admires as she heads to his home.
Stories of this sort have been published daily since October 25 and will continue through Halloween. They’re also archived in Nicholson’s IGTV, spanning beyond the realm of romance. In “Abandonment Issues,” shared anonymously, a girl seeks out a therapist in order to address her abandonment issues before ultimately being abandoned by the therapist himself. “I’d talk to my therapist about this but…” Nicholson trails with a shrug, “Now I had to face the worst part of being ghosted by your therapist. Who was I going to process these abandonment issues with?”
Though existing to provide catharsis to those experiencing the guilt of having ghosted, this campy, cringey ode to relationships past has opened up an overarching question to Nicholson: Why do we ghost when it hurts people so badly?
Though campy in production, the stories at their core are gut-wrenching. Nicholson has taken the creative license to sensationalize the stories, focusing on the “nuggets [she] finds most interesting.” But some could not be performed with a humorous twist.
One story, what would have been “Holy Ghosting,” speaks of a girl who was abandoned by her church, people she’d known since childhood.
“This one was too traumatizing,” Nicholson says. “I wanted to perform it but I couldn’t find a way to make it funny.”
The project confronts avoidant attachment head-on. Through eight years of therapy, often twice per week, Nicholson explored her own issues of avoidance.
“I learned that ignoring issues doesn’t make them go away. Eventually you have to process it. It never remains truly buried,” Nicholson says.
Nicholson Confronts Her Own Mental Health
Therapy first started for Nicholson in college when she was admitted to rehab for an eating disorder. Once complete, she headed back to school before ultimately failing out as her mental health took a toll on her. This story is included with twists and turns as Nicholson pokes fun at herself but ultimately, she says, the issue is very serious.
“I used to be the biggest flake and very unreliable,” Nicholson says. “I was a huge liar. I’d like to get out of anything.”
Nicholson would skip work or make excuses as to why she couldn’t go in.
“I didn’t say, ‘I’m dealing with depression today’ because it didn’t seem valid enough,” she recalls. “I had to make it about a physical illness in order to be understood.”
Struggling with agoraphobia and newly diagnosed bipolar disorder, Nicholson rarely left the house. After moving to Charlotte three years ago, she spent the first two years avoiding the public, hiding behind her newly-formed Instagram identity. The first catalyst for getting her out of the house was the Making Arrangements exhibit at Goodyear Arts in January, for which curator Rebecca Henderson asked Nicholson to create a few pieces.
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Though almost too nervous to attend the show, Nicholson gently led herself into the public eye and began meeting people, many of whom wanted to hang out. In person. Over coffee.
“My agoraphobia made it hard to bond with people,” she says. “If these people wanted to get coffee, I’d make excuses instead of just saying, ‘I don’t want to be in a coffee shop right now.’”
Managing her mental health is a priority and has become a lighter burden through her therapeutic process and the support of her partner. The twice-per-week visits have dwindled to one as Nicholson learns to face her fears and address their roots.
“It was so difficult to be vulnerable and honest for fear of being judged so I just said nothing and wondered if my excuses made sense,” she says. “But now I’m reformed and very reliable; it’s better in the end if you’re just honest.”
A Therapeutic Project
This pulse behind Ghosting Stories gave life to her vision. With firsthand experience of both sides, Nicholson has taken a deep dive into her theories on society’s reasoning behind this.
“The internet has caused an atomization of society; we are parts rather than a collective whole. Our society has made it much easier to self-isolate. If someone waves in person, you wave back, but if they text you, you can ignore,” she says.
“Social media has given us the luxury of curating our lives, treating people like files you can delete,” she continues. “We have the impulse to avoid uncomfortable situations but now we take it further with more tools to make it feel like we have actually deleted a person as opposed to just their profile on a timeline.”
It sounds like the premise of a Black Mirror episode and often it doesn’t seem we are far from that. The anonymity of the internet allows us to avoid eye contact and human interaction and thus reality. We block things that makes us uncomfortable and remove those with whom we disagree from the friend list.
Though Nicholson is an advocate for boundaries and self-protection, her experience has led her to believe this avoidance runs the risk of keeping us cut off from others, often over misunderstandings that could be cleared up with a conversation.
Likewise, the fear of being ghosted keeps people from saying things and true self-expression.
“It’s negative reinforcement,” Nicholson says. “It’s about our reward centers in our brains; if we don’t get the reward we want [of authentic human connection] we stop trying.”
Seeing beneath the ghosting itself sheds light into the human condition and our current vulnerability on each end. Regardless of the side you’ve been on, ghosting has a way of haunting you. Why did he stop talking when I told him I was drawn to him? Why did I pretend I wasn’t home even though he’d sent me Blink 182 CDs?
Turning off an app means nothing. A profile blocked does not make the person cease to exist. Our own fears follow us even if we’ve left people behind. Left unaddressed, it can make us behave in ways that artificially preserve ourselves as we avoid rejection and vulnerability.
What if we could embrace this? What if we leaned into our humanity and were just fucking honest?
The stories will follow us and the best we can do is be up front when it’s over and accepting of those who leave us behind.
Like Nicholson says, “You can’t delete everything. Some of these things will haunt you forever.”
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