As I mentioned last week—I have a collection of 101 letters from people describing ghosts they have encountered in their homes. These letters came to me 25 years ago when I was working for Country Living Magazine and we asked for reports on hauntings. But because the subject proved so controversial with readers of the magazine—especially Christian fundamentalists—the editors told me to write a brief and up-beat article and not go into any frightening detail.
But I’ve saved the letters all these years because I thought they were an invaluable source of information about: What is a ghost? And except for one letter, they all seemed to come from responsible and sane people, who included a police officer, a librarian, a minister, a psychiatrist and a host of other evidently reliable correspondents.
Last year-- on Halloween day-- my local paper (Worcester’s Telegram & Gazette) reported on a nearby haunted house, where the owners invited a team of “paranormal investigators” to study their home while the family was away. They set up cameras connected to DVD recorders and digital audio recordings to capture “electronic voice phenomena”. Aside from some mysterious voices and the unexplained turning off of the recorder, and film showing two paper lanterns that revolved in opposite directions, these ghost hunters found nothing much, but I was interested that they later said, there are two types of hauntings — “intelligent hauntings” in which purposeful actions are observed—like rearranging the china cabinet—and “residual hauntings,” which pick up and relay random events, such as a radio broadcast from the 1930’s.
I had already worked out for myself, from reading my 101 letters, that “hauntings”, “ghosts” or “paranormal activity” (as in the blockbuster film) can represent many different kinds of phenomena.
Instant Replay Traumas--I believe that one kind of “haunting” is the re-enactment of some traumatic event that happened in that place long ago. It’s periodically re-projected—like an instant replay in a football game. One example of this was the reader from Fogelsville, PA who reported that every now and then in the middle of the night, they hear a horse trotting up, the locked kitchen door flies open and woman screams “Oh no!” (This reader has seen five separate ghosts in her house including a Civil War soldier “hanging” in their barn.”) I believe that these ghosts all qualify as “residual hauntings” and that they represent no danger to the living. The woman from Pennsylvania ended her letter: “Holidays are the most active seasons. Whether the ghosts like it or not, we’re staying.”
Lost earthbound spirits-- On TV programs like Medium, the ghosts encountered are usually people who don’t realize that they’re dead and they have to be coached to go on to the next world, or move toward the light or whatever is the next stage. Among the ghosts described in my letters, most of these lost souls were children and a few were elderly people who remained in the room where they had spent their last years of life. These old people, who don’t know they should move on, tend to get very angry at newcomers who have invaded their space. They get most irritated when renovations, restoration or re-decorating happens. One woman in Virginia used to encounter the voice and tricks of an elderly lady who once lived in the attic—where the reader would hang her laundry on rainy days. The “ghost” could often be heard rocking in her rocking chair . She opened doors and took a door off its hinges and leaned it against the wall , One day, in exasperation, she cried “Oh, just get out of here!” In many cases, according to the letters, angry lost spirits were helped to move on by a helpful priest, minister, exorcist or psychic.
More pitiful were the ten child ghosts who truly seemed lost and confused and often interacted with the living children of a household. (I learned that animals and small children are almost always more likely to see and interact with ghosts than adults. Often the small children don’t realize the spirits are ghosts and ask “Why won’t the little girl come back and play with me?” and “Why is that little boy playing with my trains?”) One reader from Wilbraham MA, called on ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren who contacted a “9-year-old earthbound boy who apparently died in the farmhouse in 1898, named Alfie. He told them he was concerned over his dog Dodo, and when he died his father was away from home in the army. Every year on July 16—the day he died—there would be a flurry of ghostly activity.” Visitors have reported seeing the little boy looking out the window of a front bedroom and waving good-bye.
From the letters I’ve read, I believe these earthbound child ghosts are unlikely to cause any harm to the inhabitants of a house, although they sometimes smash china and play havoc with electrical appliances—they have also been known to cover sleeping children with blankets and to close windows in a sudden rainstorm. Lucy Ensworth of Louisburg, Kansas who died in 1863 at the age of 12, has done both the pranks and the helpful gestures, stealing things and putting them back, and causing a visiting granddaughter to say, “It’s hard to sleep with that lady walking around—she’s sort of a big girl.”
In two cases ghosts have seemed to known and react to a sickness in the family: A reader in Sandston, VA wrote they have a woman ghost “seen only twice, both times in the fall when someone in the family had been hospitalized.” A man in New Berlin, Wisconsin wrote “As a pastor I’m not supposed to believe in ghosts, but I do.” He described the experiences of friends who live in a country barn house with a poltergeist. Ferns would spin and chairs would rearrange and a cousin who scoffed at reports of a ghost had a fork fly off the table and prick his cheek. “When Jennie’s mother fell down the stairs, her arm was held so that she didn’t plunge headlong, but slid down. On her arm were bruise marks of four fingers and a thumb.” They had a three-year-old daughter who had an allergic reaction to the anesthesia during an emergency appendix operation. The night Jenny died, her bedroom pictures on the wall—mattress, etc—were hurled all over her room. After that, there were no more messages from the ghost.
Animal ghosts—I believe that spirits often return to the place where they lived before moving on—this makes more sense than ghosts in a graveyard hanging around their remains. Many readers described animal ghosts, especially cats, walking on the bed—sometimes their own deceased pets or an unknown pet. I know when my own dog died at the age of 11 years (I was away at college), my mother, who had never liked the dog that well anyway, kept seeing it out of the corner of her eye in the kitchen. A reader in Willoughy, Ohio, described her terrier named Bonnie who would run up the stairs, her nails clicking. One night, several weeks after Bonnie was put to sleep, she was awakened by the familiar sound. “Bonnie just dropped in to let me know that, wherever she was, she hadn’t forgotten about me and our many cozy nights together.”
Evil and dangerous ghosts—Most of the writers said that they view their ghost as a kindly, rather than malevolent presence. Eleven of the 101 correspondents specifically said they consider the spirit a friend. But eight people said they felt their ghost was an evil presence, and a few described the kind of dangerous evil spirit of the type made famous in The Amityville Horror (a true story) —the kind of ghost that would make you immediately put the house on the market at any price.
In each case the spirit was specifically attacking a child in the family. A couple in Surprise, New York described a ghost named Sarah who started out being helpful—caught the woman when she fell down stairs, covered the babies with blankets, put old hand-stitched baby clothes in an empty trunk. But “She hates our oldest son Eric. She threw his bed around the room one night with my husband and myself on it. We have now moved him to a bedroom downstairs. One night she choked him as he was walking in the hallway. He had red handprints around his neck…whenever she comes, our room gets ice cold and a terrible wind comes up. There is a tin-lined closet in the hall where she lives. One night we locked her in with a chair propped up against the door and taped the entire door shut with masking tape. About three a.m. a crash woke us up. The chair was flung downstairs, and the tape wadded up in a ball.”
Instead of moving out the next day, “We were at our wits end and so finally we put a bottle of holy water in our bedroom. She has been back twice since then in the last two years, but both times comes and goes very quickly. We love the house and have now finished restoring it.”
Two more writers described some sort of “monster ghost” that would terrify and torment a child in the family, sometimes trying to bite him—and both used crucifixes and holy water to protect the child and keep the ghost out of the room (in one case it was still looking in through the window.)
I’m very tempted—now that these letters are 25 years old—to write back to the addresses of a few of the most interesting haunted houses to see if the ghosts still are active there. But that might be asking for trouble.
To sum it up—I think most of the paranormal activity described in the letters was NOT dangerous to the homeowners, nor was it directed at them. And in most cases I don’t think there was an actual ghost interacting with the living, but in some cases (of “intelligent response”) there was, sometimes from children or old people still haunting the place they lived. And these spirits (which are sometimes poltergeists) are particularly agitated by re-decorating, construction, moving furniture or illness in the family.
I was amazed at how many readers mentioned: odors and aromas (pipe tobacco, a horrible stench, perfume) and a pocket of freezing air when the ghost was near. And electrical appliances acting up! Clearly, whatever ghosts are, they embody some sort of electrical energy. Fourteen readers reported spirits that played havoc with electric lights and appliances, monkeying with water faucets and setting off doorbells, phones, stoves, radios, TVs—even after they were disconnected.
Here’s a reader from Brevard, North Carolina: “Constantly bizarre happenings: we would find all the lights ablaze, an empty dishwasher swishing away, doors opened or closed. The old turkey platter hanging on the wall was smashed in the center of the room, although the nail and wire hanger were intact. Shower water goes on and off, a vaporous form comes through the bathroom door. Smoke detectors go off constantly. As I write this the lights in the office have gone off and on twice.”
(And that was before computers—wonder if ghosts can type?)
So that’s my last word on what I learned in the Country Living letters--, although I’d love to hear anyone else’s theories on “What is a ghost?” I live in a house that dates back to (at least the oldest section) 1722. Daniel Rand, the first white child baptized in Shrewsbury, MA (in 1722) lived to be 80 years old and is buried nearby. We have his tombstone on our porch.
I’m happy to say that I personally have not encountered any paranormal happenings in this house—although others have—and I’d like to keep it that way. Hopefully the spirits of all the families who have lived here for the past three centuries (and I know all their names and stories) can continue to coexist peacefully, without any paranormal activity or things that go bump in the night.