(Inspired by Jodi's post on ghost photography.)
The second place my husband and I lived in together - the place where we were married - was a crappy little townhouse in an apartment complex called Ridgeway Trace. Ridgeway Trace had been a swanky place to live when it was built in the mid 80s, but was on its way down when we lived there. It's been torn down now; there's a Target right where our place used to be.
Not very romantic, huh? Not the place you'd expect to find a ghost, for example.
We had only been living there a short time when we started to notice something odd. Our through-the-wall neighbor, the neighbor with whom we shared a back wall, was harassing us in an odd way. Every time we walked up or down the stairs, the neighbor would walk up his stairs too. Heavy footsteps would follow our footsteps up the stairs. Yet it wasn't an echo, exactly, since if you stopped sometimes the other person would stop too and sometimes he would keep going for a few steps and then stop.
"It doesn't sound like it's across the wall," my husband said. "It sounds as if it's on our stairs. It sounds like someone trying to step at the same time you step, and stopping when you stop, and not doing a very good job."
We decided our neighbors couldn't possibly be that dedicated to creeping us out; the footsteps had to be an illusion caused by a freak of acoustics.
In the years to come, almost everyone who visited our house would hear the footsteps on the stairs. No one ever heard the footsteps when another person was present. Most people would hear the footsteps on the first visit. It was as if the heavy treader liked to show off for strangers. We got quite accustomed to white-faced and wild eyed visitors saying, "Uh, something strange just happened to me..." after the first trip on the staircase alone.
Then there was the downstairs bathroom. The downstairs bathroom was wedged in underneath the stairs. It was a half bath, just a sink with a mirror and a toilet across from a closet. I usually put my makeup on and did my hair there to free up the upstairs bathroom for my husband to shower.
One day I was brushing my hair when a man chuckled in my ear. It was a soft, leering, threatening chuckle, and it was right in my ear. I spun around in a panic but no one was there.
This happened to me a handful of times. In the five years we lived there, it also happened to my mother-in-law at Thanksgiving dinner, our foster daughter, my sister, my best friend at my bridal luncheon, and my next-door-neighbor's girlfriend when she came over to stay with us after a fight. Although the footsteps made people pale and uncertain, the laughing man made women scream and cry. Only women. My mother-in-law, who is not a believer in ghosts, refused to believe there wasn't a man hiding in the coat closet until my father-in-law and husband took all the stuff out of it.
Eventually my husband and I became rather blasé about the whole business. "Oh, yes, you've heard the Laughing Man," we would say, to the latest shaking guest. "He does that to everyone."
I think we both harbored a suspicion that possibly, just possibly, the laughter was an acoustic trick too, the same mysterious defect in the stairwell that created the illusion of footsteps.
My husband and I talked about whether we believed in ghosts, and about whether anyone had died in our townhouse, and how if someone had we would never know. People did die in middling-cheap apartments; one year on New Year's Eve back when my husband was still my boyfriend I was lying in his arms when we heard four gun shots. It was shortly after midnight and we assumed someone was firing off a gun in celebration. But the next morning, we read that two of our neighbors were dead. A jealous husband had heard his wife and her lover were at a party and had walked in and shot them dead with four shots, just after midnight. The murderer turned out to be someone I had met, the friend of an old boyfriend. The world is a small world and crazy things happen in it.
For what it's worth, I don't believe in ghosts, if by "ghosts" you mean restless spirits of the dead roaming the earth. But I do believe in something. C.S. Lewis suggested that what we call ghosts were simply impressions left by strong personalities and events; that there was no person there, simply a recording, and that feels plausible to me. But we weren't willing to state as fact that the events we had experienced were caused by such a phenomenon. There were too many other possible explanations.
Then one day I was brushing my hair, and I leaned forward to smooth my eyelid, and I saw in the mirror someone standing behind me. He was shortish, maybe 5'8", young, maybe 25, but rough-skinned in that way that only manual laborers are. White, with dirty blond, longish hair, and stubble. He was wearing blue jeans and a white t-shirt. He had an expression on his face that went with the laughter - a prurient leer, like he was delighted he'd snuck up on me and knew he was scaring me and he enjoyed it.
I froze for a moment, staring into his face in the mirror. Then I screamed. I'm not a screamer - I had never screamed at the laughter - but I screamed then. And I turned around, and there was no man there. My husband, who was upstairs on the computer, raced down the stairs to ask if I was okay, had I hurt myself somehow.
We lived there another year at least. I never saw the man again. No one else saw him, although people continued to hear the footsteps and the laughter. We were barely on speaking terms with our landlord (we had a locked in low rent and they wanted an excuse to kick us out and bring in new tenants) so I never asked about the history of our apartment. We had been there longer than any of our neighbors, which meant there was no point in asking them, and back in those days, we weren't on the internet, so we couldn't have searched. But I will always wonder who that man was, and how he came to have nothing better to do with his days than scare people on our stairs.