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The ghost in the story, Part II

I presented in Part I a personal ghost story of growing up in a haunted house. This second and final installment will examine the “forces” at work in the haunting experiences that were recounted in that essay.

The first thing that must be clearly understood is that the kids involved did not embrace the factual existence of ghosts. We did, however, sincerely believe in the possibility of ghosts and we reveled in the emotional and physical excitement of experiencing the manifestation of this possibility.

In short, we loved being scared by the possibility and when we couldn’t experience that, we loved scaring the younger kids (who for the most part, loved being scared).

The commitment to our belief in the possibility of ghosts could be expressed with “they are just as likely to be as not to be.” We were children of the ’50s. We were fans of the old horror films (Frankenstein monsters, werewolves, and vampires) as well as the new creature features (atomically mutated monsters and space aliens). Our juvenile novels and comic books were full of these images plus the post-apocalyptic visions of nuclear wastelands where mindless zombies with pustule producing sores roamed irradiated ruins in search of rancid flesh. We also believed this future was just as likely to happen as not.

Science played an interesting role in all this. On the one hand it allowed us to question the outright existence of ghosts, vampires, etc., but on the other it opened a whole new universe of horror with the advent of the atomic age. We were more comfortable with the fears of the former. The familiar, relatively benign and localized nature of ghosts was a safer form of fright to employ in our play than the universal horror of nuclear holocaust. Using ghosts to scare, and in turn, being scared of ghosts was an ongoing source of entertainment. And we learned to play our parts exceptionally well.

Essential to this play, of course, is the proper stage. The old farmhouse was perfect. It was the requisite age, it set on a hill above water and in the wind it creaked and groaned like a like a lamenting corpse. It was outside a town with wonderfully creepy folklore, some of it “real” (as in stories that townsfolk actually told) and some of it made up by us.

For instance, the story of the young girl buried alive was real while the one about the escaped circus ape was made up by borrowing ideas from Edgar Allen Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” The tale of the woman searching for her drowned and lost son was crafted wholly by ourselves in order to give an eerie explanation for the lights sometimes seen on the shore of the lower reservoir at night. The lights, in fact, were the flashlights and lanterns of poaching fishermen my Grandfather would have to shoo off. We told the younger kids that he was going to confront the ghost and tell her that her son’s body was likely stuck in the huge inlet pipe the led to the filtration plant (a real possibility for anyone who swam near the spillway at the wrong time and the reason we put up with the leaches in the creek).

There was an Indian burial mound nearby (long since obliterated by generations of the curious) and every slightly jagged pebble we found was immediately christened an arrowhead. But the idea that Indian spirits roamed the countryside and could be both heard and felt was an artifact of the house and it’s central heating system. The coal furnace moved heat by convection through huge ducts with grates that lay flat in the floor. This type of system produces extreme hot spots around the grates and ones that are unevenly cool or warm when you move away. And they exist in a very pronounced manner. A walk through the house on a winter’s night would find one passing noticeably from cool to hot, from warm to cold. Sitting in any one place would subject you to the same variance as the air currents flowed by.

Another novelty of the heating system was it’s acoustic effects. The large ducting (some four times larger than the normal forced air system of today) was a conduit for sound. Voices in one room would echo and tremolo through to others.

On those occasions when we were ordered to stop “rammin around” and sit quietly, every sound the house uttered or contained would come to our notice. We would take great delight in telling the younger ones that the scratching on the exterior walls and windows were gorilla nails (actually the branches of pine trees moving in the wind) and that the muted “war whoops” (the excited exclamations of the card-playing grownups in the central dining room) signaled the approaching Indians who would be reclaiming the “arrowheads” in our pockets. Sooner or later we knew a cold draft would appear and we reminded everyone to be aware of the Indian spirit’s lifeless touch.

There was an additional side effect in presenting this scenario to the siblings. In the stillness, while you were straining hard to hear anything you could use to strengthen your narrative of fright, you would begin to feel as your audience did. Sounds that would be instantly familiar in the cacophony and light of day became not so quickly deciphered in the silence and the darkness.Your initial reaction to any sensory stimulus became identified with the ghostly identity you were about to give it. The cold touch of a draft would cause a shiver that was not just due to the temperature change, but also to the thought of an icy vengeful hand on your neck; a thought you were about to put into words for your audiences benefit. In that moment, all was perfect. You were both scared and scaring at the same time.

The house constantly cooperated in the staging of this living theatre. And the play it loved to present most was the saga of that tragic woman who fell down the front stairs and snapped her neck.

There was no question among us that those stairs could be deadly. They sloped steeply from the second floor to a long and railed landing in the parlor. Like many old farm homes, this one had been built in stages. The parlor with its attached front room was actually sunken in relation to the rest of the house and the landing. The steps were wide but not deep and the risers were non- standard. Every kid fell on them sooner or later. Fortunately this happened more often going up than coming down.

But the other frightening thing to note about them was that sometimes, you could hear footsteps even when you could see that there was no one on those stairs. It was truly creepy. The thump and creak of each individual step could be heard and when you looked to see who it was, there was no one there. The story of the poor woman who fell (a tale that we had not made up) became more real with each stairway episode. During the day, we felt no fear in confronting the phantom noise, but in the night, you would run to some other part of the house.

And that’s eventually how we figured out the true cause of the phenomenon. One evening while the older kids were playing poker in the kitchen, one of the young ones came screaming in with another ghost on the stairs report. At that moment, one of us came down the back stairs from the upper bedroom where they had just gone to get a fresh deck of cards (poker is a serious business in our family). As the footsteps descended, the young child yelled, “it’s coming, it’s coming.” There was a kind of eureka moment. Given the house configuration, uneven and with only a partial basement, the sound of a person on the back stairs could be mistaken for muted steps on the front ones.

What we eventually discovered was that this effect was even more pronounced when the stairs to the basement (which were directly under and in the same space as the back stairs to the second floor) were used. You might wonder why we had not noted it earlier but the main purpose of the basement was to house the coal furnace and it was tromping heavily on those stairs that produced the best result. Sturdy boots helped radiate the sound and it was really only during the winter when some adult would come in from the outside and go directly down to stoke the furnace that the sound on the front stairs would really manifest itself. Of course the older kids incorporated this effect in our efforts to scare the younger ones. That is until we were instructed to “stop making so damn much noise and quit fooling around on the stairs”.

The kitchen, however, still held one more ghostly secret- the back door. It truly was riveting to see. Late at night when a group of us would be sitting at the nearby table (likely playing cards or some board game) the outer door would sometimes open and then as it nearly closed, the inner heavy main door would swing in only to hesitate for a moment and then whisper nearly shut. We would think immediately of the fallen woman and her trysts in the nearby buggy shed and on occasion the one feeling bravest among us would get up and latch the storm door, lock the main door only to have the same thing happen all over again. At this point we would leave the kitchen no matter how interesting the game.

We really didn’t think that the phenomenon could only be explained as caused by ghosts of the unfortunate woman and her lover. We knew it likely that something else was involved but we weren’t sure what. The part about the failure of the latching and locking of the doors didn’t bother us much because the latch hardly ever held and the lock was one of those old external box types that had been nearly worn out from overuse (after all, this had been the door that lead to the outhouse). Trembling hands trying to work fast were not the best guarantors of success with the antiquated hardware.

Finally we noted that the phenomenon happened most often when the screen of the outer door had been replaced with glass for the winter. We suspected that the wind was involved but it was only some years later when looking at the demonstration of a plenum effect that I realized exactly what was happening. When the wind was blowing just right it created a low-pressure area that effectively sucked the unlatched outer door open and when the now slack and rusted spring (meant to hold the door shut) caught, it closed it again. The increased pressure between the doors caused by the closing outer door would open the inner door a few inches. That door refused to stay open (it had to be propped with an old iron doorstop) and would then slowly close on its own. Decades later I would observe the same effect in an old farmhouse of my own.

I can’t say that we were all that interested in “solving” the phenomenon we were observing at the time. It was much more satisfying to become part of those old movies (like “The Uninvited”) that we sometimes watched on late night TV in that same house. The atmosphere was perfect and the chills it gave us exquisite. Perhaps it’s why we somehow misheard the location for the story of the woman falling to her death and that it had not happened in this house, but in the one across the road. We wanted it to be in our house, our own private haunted theatre. The perfect place for our private little horror plays, achieving that perfect moment when we would become both author and audience.

Today, most of the children involved would say that their belief in the 50/50 possibility of the existence of ghosts has diminished. In my case, it approaches zero. This is because of an understanding of both physics and human nature that was beyond those tender pre-teen years.

I’ve returned to that house a few times over the years because my uncle and his family still reside there. The latest visit was last summer. Most of the outbuildings are gone now. The lower reservoir is filled in and the old filtration plant that my Grandfather tended has been replaced. And the house itself has changed much inside. It’s brighter now and not nearly so foreboding. This despite the fact I was witness to a horrible death that actually did take place there.

One day, my Grandfather entered the filter plant only to be confronted with a building full of chlorine gas from an exploded tank. He donned a supplied gas mask, dialed the emergency numbers and did his best to cope until help arrived. The mask, however, was defective. It took him three years to die and when he took his last tortured breath it was in that ground floor room off the parlour. He was the same age as I am now. There have been no reports of his ghost over the intervening years but his memory haunts me always. He was a kind and decent man and I miss him every day.

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