A couple of weeks ago I had a delightful time taking the HWA’s Horror University Online class “Building Your Very Own Haunted House” with Gwendolyn Kiste, who was a fabulous and enthusiastic instructor.
As she talked about how to make your fictional haunted houses unique to your own experiences and fears, I thought back to the haunted house I stayed in several times as a child, teen, and young adult.
Yes, I’ve spent time in an actual haunted house. The funny thing is I don’t think anybody in the family but me ever had any strange encounters there. I’ve brought it up a few times at family gatherings and nobody’s ever said “Oh wow—that happened to me too!”
Now, most of these incidents were nothing like what you see in the movies. No Amityville horrors here. No bloody apparitions in the bathtub. No horribly disfigured ghosts trudging around. Thank goodness.
I’m going to be a bit vague with the details about the place for privacy’s sake. To start off, this house was definitely not what you’ll picture whenever I say “haunted house.” It was a perfectly nice, normal-looking suburban home built in the 1950s or thereabouts. Our relatives were the first owners, so there was no possibility that the energies of any previous owners could be hanging around.
I almost always stayed in the same bedroom, a cute room with a four-poster bed, a window seat, and overstuffed bookshelves lining two walls.
I was probably around seven or eight the first time I was woken out of a dead sleep by someone sitting in the corner by the bookshelves and staring at me.
If I turned the light on, I saw nothing unusual in the room. But I could feel that stare, the two eyes fixed on me, unwavering. I could envision the shape of the person sitting there watching me. Even though there was nothing specifically malevolent about its gaze, it scared the hell out of me. If I had to pee in the middle of the night and couldn’t hold it until morning, I’d hug the opposite wall and scurry to the bedroom door as fast as possible lest the thing reach out and grab me.
If you want to see an image that’s really, really close to what this presence was like, I made a Pinterest of it here.
What’s that, you say? Surely this was just the invention of a child with an overactive imagination sleeping in a strange place?
Well, sure, you could be right. Except that this kept happening into my cynical teen years, well after I stopped believing in monsters under the bed. I’d be fast asleep in there and boom, the staring thing would wake me up. And at some point I started being curious about this presence in the room. I even tried asking it about itself and what it wanted.
I never got an answer. It just kept watching.
And then there was the other guest room.
During one visit when I was in my late teens, I was put in a different bedroom from my usual one. I forget why, and I’m not even sure I was given an explanation. It’s possible I mentioned the presence in my usual room to someone and it got back to the relatives who owned the house. They weren’t the sort to look kindly on such talk.
But the bedroom I was moved to was even more haunted.
When I turned the lights out and tried to sleep, the room filled with wild energies that kept me wide awake. Imagine trying to sleep on the floor of a really busy subway station during rush hour. That’s what it felt like, as if people were rushing back and forth, back and forth, all around me, all night long.
At some point in the night I felt a cat jump up on the bed and walk across my body on its way to the other side of the room. The last cat to live in that house had passed away several years earlier.
Eventually I managed to fall asleep, only to be woken up in the morning by someone tugging at my fingers. They gently pulled each of my fingers in turn. They placed their palm against mine. At first I thought a relative had come in to wake me up for some reason, but no.
Did that scare me? A little bit, but the touching felt like childlike exploration rather than malevolence. At some point it occurred to me that the entities in this space were as curious about me as I was about them, and that alleviated my fear.
The only thing that happened that felt like a standard Hollywood horror trope took place in my late teen years when I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of a piano playing. I don’t know what the specific song was, but it was a very vigorous classical piece. The kind my dad always liked to play.
There was a piano downstairs and the music resembled my dad’s playing, only my dad wouldn’t have been playing in the middle of the night after everyone was in bed. More importantly, my dad died a year or two before this happened. Nobody left in the house could play like that, and even if they could, they wouldn’t have been doing it that late.
Even though I’d long since accepted there were things happening in this house I couldn’t explain, the piano music gave me a case of the cold creepies. I stayed in bed and didn’t move until the music faded away. I asked if anyone else had heard it the next day at breakfast and got a round of blank looks, but I know what I heard. My relatives sold the house when I was in my early 20s, and so I never did get a chance to try to solve the house’s mysteries.
I’m sure the skeptics out there could present me with perfectly logical explanations for all of these things, and I’d generally be inclined to think they were right. I tend towards skepticism myself.
Except that nothing like this has ever happened to me anywhere else. No unexplained middle of the night music. No beings staring at me. Nothing touching my hand. No wild energies keeping me awake. All of that was incredibly specific to this house.
So what the hell was going on in there? I’ve tried researching the general area where the house was (and still is; sometimes I pay it a visit via Google Earth) to find out if anything happened there that could account for all the energies centered in that spot. I’ve looked for all the standard horror explanations: does it sit on an old battlefield? An abandoned cemetery? A spot where something terrible happened? Is that area notorious for paranormal activity? Other than reports of a ghost that’s turned up in some film locations nearby—this place is located in a part of the country some filmmakers love using as a rural America setting—I’ve found nothing.
I wish this story was more dramatic and exciting, but it’s what I’ve got. I’ve tried using aspects of these situations in different stories and novels, but since they weren’t actually frightening to me by the end, I don’t know how useful they are as horror stories. Nothing was out to kill me, or even hurt me. I don’t even think they wanted to scare me. They were just there, trying to figure out who this person in their space was if they even acknowledged me at all.
I wonder if they’re still there now. I miss them.