I love a good ghost story, do you?
I especially love the ones with creaking floors and slamming doors, the ones that have to do with houses.
On yellow paper, Shirley Jackson typed these mysterious words:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
The Haunting of Hill House is an interior tale of both home and mind. A sinister combination.
But it’s just a tale, brief and droll, maybe a three-day read curled up on the couch.
Uncanny glimpses of fear are best enjoyed when no actual ghosts are likely to appear.
I do not (or did not) believe in ghosts until the fall of the last millennium.
Late October 1999, after five years at Saint Luke’s, I was given a three-month sabbatical. On one of my ninety days’ adventures, I ventured north to NYC to visit a friend: Lisa who was a classmate from my Montessori days.
Hotel rooms in NYC were (and are) quite pricey and out of my reach. But there is a little known clergy perk. Being an Episcopal priest, I booked a room at the House of the Redeemer. Not for religious or spiritual reasons but because it was cheap.
There were no vacancies that weekend or, so I was told.
We’ll be very busy that weekend with a big group of important guests, but we can squeeze you into one very small room at the top of the stairs.
Now the House of the Redeemer sits on 95thStreet on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. A 19th century Carnegie brownstone, the four-story home was donated in the 1930’s to the Episcopal Diocese of New York. Donated by a very, very rich family who shall remain unnamed.
I took Amtrak to Penn Station and then a cab to the mansion. Checking in with the desk clerk at dusk, he tells me how to turn on the lights and unlock the doors. Apparently, weirdly, I am the only guest there.
Rev. Peacock, your room is on the 4th floor at the top of the stairs. I’m sorry but you’ll have take up your own bag.
But there was a problem. Just where are the stairs? Well, the stairs were non-contiguous. Like Alice in Wonderland, to find them I had to search for the right door on every floor. Stingy with the electricity, the house’s stairwells were dark. At each landing, I turned on the lights. As I climbed, I paused briefly to check out the rooms.
My hazy memory recalls something like this…
A parlour, a kitchen and a dining room on the first level. Bedrooms with shared baths on the second floor. A genuine medieval library on the third, brought over from Europe during the First World War. Reconstructed book by book, the library even had one of those old-fashioned step ladders to climb the shelves.
And finally, on the fourth was my room. Quaintly appointed with a brass framed bed, hooked rugs on the floor, and an enormous old-fashioned footed tub.The first night passed quietly enough. I unpacked my things, climbed into my pajamas, read a bit of my book and turned out the lights.
The second day rising early, I turned on all the lights as I descended the stairs. Strolling the avenue, I park myself at a sidewalk cafe and drink gallons of espresso from demitasse-cups. Late November, the days grow short as the night grew long. At sunset, I head back to my room to get ready for dinner with Lisa, my Montessori friend.
But who turned out the lights? There were no other guests that I knew of, and the desk clerk had left the latch key under the mat. (And no, this old building did not have automatic light switches!)
I climbed out of my jeans and slipped on a dress. I pulled a hanger out of the closet to hang up my shirt. I closed the closet door.
And then it happened. The closet door opened and closed, opened and closed. Seemingly all by itself. Startled, I was sure there was a logical reason. I took hold of the doorknob and peered inside. A draft maybe? An uneven floor? I shut the door securely listening for the latch to catch.
And then it happened again. The closet door opened and closed, opened and closed. Seemingly, creepily all on its own. Turning on, once again, the turned-off-lights, I fled down the steps to meet Lisa on the street.
Over dinner, I told Lisa what I could barely believe. The closet opened and closed, opened and closed. There must be a simple explanation, right? I confessed that it felt like someone, some invisible someone, did not want me to be in that room. I was unwelcomed there.
Would you like to spend your last night in New York at my place instead? Asked Lisa.
O my, yes, I replied.
Lisa came back with me to pack up my things and while we were there the closet door opened and closed, opened and closed.
F-ing terrifying, we got the hell out of there. And the next day, via Amtrak, I headed back to Alexandria, to my un-haunted house.
Trying to make sense of it all, I relayed my story to a British friend, David Bird (also an Episcopal priest.)
I don’t believe in ghosts but let me tell you what happened to me in NYC!
Now David recommended the House of the Redeemer. David, who on the down- low had incredulously confessed to me that he had exorcised a house. (OMG! NO!)
Were you staying on the fourth floor? The room on the left at the top of the stairs? David asks.
Yes, I was! How, could you possibly know?
The very rich owner of the mansion had a very unhappy son. A young son who ended his life — took his own life in that very same room.
An invisible son who very likely did not want me to stay those three days: October 30th, October 31st, and November 1st.
All Souls Day. All Hallows Eve. All Saints Day.
Samhain, the Celtic Triduum, the time when the divide between this world and the other-world is paper thin.
The time of year that the living walk among the dead and the spirits of the dead walk among the living.
This is my true story, as true as I can tell it. And so, now I do believe in ghosts.
What kind of ghosts?
Fingerprints of lost family. Filmy impressions of lost friends. Faint voices etched in the memory. Glimpses of long-ago-lovers. Unsettled inhabitants of old houses — still knocking about. Wandering spirits with nowhere to go.
So many ghosts trying to find their way home.
The creaking floors and slamming doors reflect the ghosts of our own making. The ghosts who haunt our interior space.
Every one of our souls could use a little exorcism from time to time.
I believe in these ghosts, I do. And maybe so do you.
P.S. Join us for a “Ghostly Gathering” at Emmanuel Episcopal Church located at 1608 Russell Road, Alexandria, VA. Saturday, October 27th at 7:00 p.m. Cocktails, nibbles, silent & live auction to benefit the Parish Foundation. Tickets $40 if you come in costume. And if not, its double the price! You can RSVP to me at the church office.