October Hauntings: The Ghost of Chris McAndless, the anti/hero who never got a chance to be a leader

This Halloween month, I’m looking at some of the nightmares of leadership myths that drive us a little crazy. The ghost of Chris McAndless is first on my list!

Anyone who knows his story loves/mourns Chris McAndless with a passion, either celebrating his tragic end isolated in the Alaskan wilderness as American individualism redux, or wondering why he was so unprepared and careless to cause such a tragedy, given his courage and independence. Into the Wild (book and film) explained just enough to make him an anti/hero. And his continuing posthumous celebrity makes him haunt our imaginations even more.

What’s with our continuing fascination with him? Is he a leader, or just someone who has become an urban legend, a mythic figure that teaches us not to go there, or to go there more carefully? I don’t know who is clicking on his many fan sites, but I wonder, why do they still care? School assignment? Boy scouts? Just saw the movie, or read the book? Or longing to escape, like he did, but hoping not to die because of it? And what does this have to do with leadership?

His ghost is animated by the dream of the hero leader, juxtaposed with the harsh reality of risk, the battle of man against nature (his own or the bigger wild world, depending on the myth he excites. He will never disappear again.

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His bus is like Christine, Steven King’s living car, except that instead of being demonically possessed, it’s become a pilgrimage where young, dispossessed hikers go to work out their inner demons.

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They pose in front of it, unconsciously flaunting their health and “honoring” his tragedy as if in praise of his sacrifice. If Christine is a remnant of an evil driver, that bus is a symbol of a sanctified martyr.

I hope his spirit doesn’t actually haunt the bus, and that he rests from his troubled, short life. But even if his ghost is in our heads and not incandescent in the long Alaskan night, he’s invoked as a constant presence, raising a lot of questions I wish he could answer for us.

  1. What would he have done, if he had returned from his retreat into the wild, and chosen his life path? What did he want to contribute, in real-life leadership roles?
  2. What would he say, if given the opportunity to speak to his admiring followers?
  3. What does he think, if he thinks at all now, about the myth of the rugged individual that fuels his after-death leadership role? Does he wish he’d depended more on other people, built a stronger community, brought a buddy?

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For my part, I wish he could rest in peace, haunting us no more. I hope that he found some measure of healing, and that his tragedy will never be repeated. Let’s exorcise that myth of the martyr in our leadership beliefs. It serves no one, and we lose too much when visionary leaders are seduced by its righteous sorrow.

2 comments

  1. […] October Hauntings: The Ghost of Chris McCandless […]

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  2. “…incandescent in the long Alaskan night” what a beautiful phrase -I love this ghost story!

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