I have just finished watching Netflix’s new horror series The Haunting of Hill House. I found it intensely captivating and not just because it is smartly written and well produced. No, there is something else that deeply resonates with me about Hill House – an unexpected sense of familiarity. Believe it or not, this TV show – about a large family living in a scary old house inhabited by spirits – reminded me of my own childhood and of my own ghost story, that I was never really comfortable sharing. Until now.
But before you read on, I would like to make something clear – the story I’m about to tell you is not fictional. I’ve not exaggerated or embellished anything in the slightest. I’ve not even changed any of the names involved. I think it’s important to note this because when you hear someone gearing up to tell you a ghost story, your expectations become inflated. You probably expect a tale featuring a disembodied voice bellowing “GET OUT!” followed by a string of bloody murders. Or maybe you imagine a story where everyone living in the house mysteriously disappears, never to be seen again.
No. This isn’t The Shining and this story doesn’t end like that. It doesn’t really end at all. In this real-life ghost story, the gates to hell don’t get opened and there are no slaughters or massacres. I don’t think haunted houses even work like that. They’re quieter and more patient and they don’t have the goal of killing you or even providing you with a coherent narrative. They are just there. And if they show you something, then they show it to you just a little at a time, often in quite random ways. I don’t think you can say that haunted houses have any sort of motivation or intention. They don’t have the goal of frightening you – that’s just a side effect. It’s as if they have stored up metaphysical energy that comes out at random times and in random ways.
In a real-life haunted house, you don’t get intense episodes of supernatural high drama, like in the movies, instead, you experience little moments of confusion. Things that are just a little bit… off. You don’t feel afraid. Just a little bewildered. Uncertain. Life in a haunted house is a series of small teases, little pokes and uncomfortable prods that take place randomly over an extended period of time, until eventually, maybe, just maybe, something more substantial reveals itself to you. Something that goes well past confusing and into the realm of the inexplicable. And that’s when you get frightened. And this thing that might happen, if it’s going to happen at all, will only happen after you have completely let your guard down.
That is how haunted houses work. I know, because I grew up in one. This one:
Spring Street. Upstate New York. Quite a few years ago.
The house I was raised in was built before the American revolutionary war. A hulking seven-bedroom timber frame house with Doric columns, bay windows front and back and fireplaces in virtually every room. Set on nearly three acres of land, it was secluded from its neighbours by distance and a ring of high hedges and trees. A house this grand always has a name and this one was called Springside, as its grounds featured a small pond fed by the spring that gave the street its name. But we never called it that. We didn’t even know it had a proper name until years later. To us, it was just home.
My dad bought the big house on Spring Street in the early 1980s from an elderly widow who had been living there alone for many years. It was far too much house for her and she was keen to sell, but in a small upstate New York village, there weren’t too many people in the market to take on a house that size. But my dad was a fairly successful doctor with his own practice and he was the head of a large, boisterous family. There were seven of us – four kids, dad, my mom and my grandmother who lived with us after her husband had passed away. He was looking for something really spacious that we could call our “forever home” and this house ticked all the boxes, and more.
Springside was a place steeped in history and when the purchase was finalised, it merited a story in the local newspaper. The piece in the Daily Mail talked about the provenance of “the estate” and how it had a connection with Martin Van Buren – the 8th President of the United States. After we moved in, we had heard a rumour that America’s first President, George Washington had slept there. Although we had no way to check if the story was real, it rang true. Once, while placing boxes up in the attic, we discovered a faded old American flag – with only 19 stars. This was a home where the past was never far away – often mingling with the present.
We settled into the house quickly. It was a great space for a large family. No more sharing of bedrooms. Plenty of space to run around. And although its immediate environment was a bit secluded, overall, its location was quite close to the centre of town. The house on Spring Street quickly became a prime meeting spot for all of our friends, with people constantly dropping by. Usually, it was a buzzy, happy place, heaving with people and activity. But this changed whenever the house was mostly empty or quiet, especially at night, when it took on a different character. Nothing threatening or malevolent, just… a bit off. You would get the sense that you were never really alone in that house, even when there was nobody else there. Little things would take place that would make you wonder if you were imagining things.
I thought I had closed that door….
I definitely remember leaving that toy over there and now it’s over here….
Where is that cold draft coming from? There aren’t any windows open in here…
Those kinds of things happen in every house, but they were just a little bit more commonplace on Spring Street. And I wasn’t the only one who noticed. My brothers and my sister have their own stories about our home and the odd things that happened to them there, but for the most part, we didn’t talk about any of it back when we were kids. It was only many years later after we had all moved out, that we traded notes and exchanged our stories. We all had very different experiences growing up in Springside, but the one thing that we did all share… the one common denominator… is that the most troubling and inexplicable things that we witnessed, all took place in one particular room of the house.
We called it the Green Room.
The Green Room was upstairs, down at the end of a long hall separating the northern and southern parts of the house. We hadn’t painted it green – it had come to us that way when we moved in and we never changed it, despite the colour not really matching anything else in the house. Years and years after my family moved out, I came across some online real estate photos of the house when it was up for sale and I could see that the Green Room had still kept its original colour. I honestly feel that this must have been because nobody has ever dared to repaint it. If that room wants to be green, then I’m sure it’s still green today. Positive.
The Green Room was a small-ish space in a house filled with big rooms, so nobody in our family had claimed it for their bedroom. Instead, we used it as a TV and game room – a hang-out space for the kids. My parents rarely ever went up into the Green Room. They had no reason to. It was “our” room.
The majority of unusual things that happened in that house, took place in the Green Room.
One of my most vivid childhood memories is a knocking sound that I would hear nearly every time that I was alone in the Green Room. The sound came from within one of the walls. A loud insistent knocking. When you would try to get close enough to examine the cause or source of the noise, it would cease. Every time.
It’s the kind of thing you might dismiss now with a rational excuse such as “old houses make noises, as they settle in.” Or “that’s just the pipes banging.” But the knocking seemed to come from the middle of a wall that faced the hallway across from my brother Mario’s bedroom. There were no pipes, as there wasn’t a bathroom or radiator anywhere nearby. Just a plain green wall.
CRACK. CRACK. CRACK
I remember mentioning the knocking sound to my dad and he just shrugged it off. I found out later that my siblings had heard it too, but it only seemed to happen when someone was alone in there. Sometimes you could go a whole evening watching TV in the Green Room without hearing anything unusual. Other nights the sound would be almost relentless.
CRACK. CRACK. CRACK. CRACK. CRACK. CRACK. CRACK. CRACK.
The other disturbing thing about the Green Room was the huge amount of houseflies. The room was frequently infested with flies – the only room in the house that ever had any – even though the windows in the Green Room were screened and rarely ever got opened. There was a fireplace in the Green Room so, for a while, we assumed they got in that way. There was just one problem with that theory:
All of the flies that we ever saw in the Green Room were always dead.
They’d be littered around the windows, in small piles on the sills. It just didn’t make sense that a large group of flies would somehow find their way down a chimney, fly over to a window and then promptly die en masse. We closed the flue to the fireplace and it made no difference. The dead flies somehow just keep accumulating.
You would go and get a dustpan and some paper towels, sweep off the flies, discard them and when you came back there would be more in the same spot you had just swept clean. Did I just miss these? I must have. So you’d clean them up again. You would never see a fly that was alive in the Green Room. They were all dead.
Now, I can look back on these incidents and ask myself – why did I ever hang out in a room with creepy knocking and mysteriously murdered flies? But when you’re young, you don’t really think like that. You think you’re just being a ridiculous scaredy-cat and that you’re overthinking things. Of course, you think it’s creepy, but you talk yourself out of giving things any supernatural significance.
Also, these kinds of things weren’t one-off occurrences, they happened over the course of years and that gives you time to get used to them. Sure, there was a part of me that was frankly a little bit afraid of the Green Room and the strange things that happened there, but another part of me really liked that room, enough to overcome any fears I had.
As spacious as our home was, it was a busy place without a lot of privacy, and my dad had final say over what we watched on the main TV down in the living room. If I wanted to watch the shows I wanted to watch, I had to do it upstairs. Sure the Green Room had wall-knocking and piles of dead flies, but it also had HBO. I suffered from insomnia, so I often wound up in the Green Room alone, late at night, watching action or horror films, killing time until I felt I was tired enough to fall asleep. The knocking in the walls was a lot more distressing if you were in there on your own in the middle of the night, but as I said before, mostly, I had gotten used to it.
So I let my guard down.
One night, I was in the Green Room alone at around three in the morning, watching a film on HBO called “Knightriders” – a strange and terrible movie directed by horror maestro George Romero, about medieval-style knights who rode motorcycles instead of horses. I was thinking of turning it off and trying to go to bed when I heard the sound of someone quietly whistling.
It was coming from within the house. Downstairs.
I turned down the volume on the TV and strained to listen more carefully. I could just make out the melody. It was “Dixie,” the civil war-era song that was the unofficial anthem of America’s old south.
I remember feeling frozen in place when I heard that whistling. What should I do? I knew that nobody else was up at this time of night. Should I go out of the Green Room, down the hall and down the stairs to find out where the whistling was coming from? I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what the source was. I turned the volume on the TV back up in the hopes that I could ignore the sound, but I was too nervous to pay any attention to the film, especially as I could still faintly hear the whistling over the noise of the TV. I decided that I was just being ridiculous. What was I afraid of? Probably someone had just left a radio on, or maybe someone had woken up and was watching TV downstairs. A civil war movie?
I left the green room, walked down the long hallway, and down the creaking stairs, stopping just short of the living room, but at this point, I couldn’t hear anything. The whistling had seemed to fade away as I approached.
Maybe it had all been just my imagination? I started creaking back up the stairs and as I neared the top, I heard the whistling again, coming from the area I had just left.
Whoever or whatever had been whistling had been waiting for me to leave.
That was my last year living in that house.
That was the year that I turned 17, and soon after, I moved out to go to college in New York City. Once I no longer lived in the house on Spring Street, my notions of the place changed. I didn’t think much about the strange things that happened there, but when I did, I convinced myself that I must have been a ridiculous and immature child to have thought, even for a second, that there was something spectral or otherworldly going on in the house I grew up in. The longer I lived away from home, the more I became a busy, cynical New Yorker – one who didn’t give any truck to the notion of haunted Green Rooms with ghostly knocking, dead flies and phantom whistling. So that was the end of my ghostly experiences and my ghost story. For a while.
Fast forward a few years later. I had graduated from university and I was still living and working in New York City and only going upstate to Spring Street for holidays.
My girlfriend Susan and I had been dating for nearly eighteen months. We were getting quite serious about each other -we had even just moved in together. I wanted to introduce her to my family.
My sometimes quite-old-fashioned Italian mother – who I’ve profiled in some detail in another blog post – did not approve of me “shacking up” outside of marriage. When I rang to tell her about our planned visit, she told me, in no uncertain terms, in her accented English: “you can come up and visit witha your girlfriend, but no way am-a I gonna allow you two to sleep inna the same bed under my roof.” My mother was a very sociable and friendly lady, but she was very Sicilian when it came to her family. You really had to earn her trust over time.
The visit went ahead, but it was tense. Susan sensed my mother’s disapproval of our living together and interpreted it as dislike. When it was near bedtime, my mother again emphasised that she had prepared separate beds for us upstairs, across the hall from each other.
Since I had moved out, my mom and dad had converted the Green Room into a guest room, with twin beds, both placed against the wall facing the hallway. That was where Susan was meant to sleep, with me across the hall in my brother’s old bedroom. Before we went to sleep, I made sure Susan was set up with sheets and pillows and then suggested to her that we didn’t really need to listen to my mom. I could sleep in there with her, in the other twin bed. “Absolutely not,” she said “I don’t want to give your mom any more excuses not to like me.” So we separated and I went across the hall to go to bed. Just before I fell asleep, I thought I heard something – a short loud noise, like a screech or a squeal, but I barely clocked it and I was tired, so I drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, Susan was not herself. As we went down for coffee and breakfast, it was clear that something was really wrong.
I thought she was upset about getting the cold shoulder from my mother. She looked exhausted, as if she hadn’t slept at all. I prodded and prodded until she took me aside where nobody else could hear us and she told me what was bothering her, quietly relaying the details. It wasn’t about my mother.
“Now I know this is going to sound crazy, but I saw something last night. Something that I don’t even really want to talk about and that I can’t explain. And I’m worried that you’re going to think I’m insane but I feel like if I don’t tell somebody, then I really am going to go insane.
“After you and I said goodnight, I was in bed reading and I was starting to get sleepy, so I reached over to turn off the light, and just after the lights went out, but before I even started to go to bed, I turned and there was someone there. I saw a man in the room with me. He was just there, sitting on the foot of the other bed, looking at me. He was like a silhouette, dark, but he had a physical presence. The bed sagged under his weight. He wore old clothing and even the way he sat, it wasn’t like one of us, as in someone from now, but like somebody from long ago. I don’t know how to explain it and I don’t know if I’m making sense. I couldn’t really see his face – it was dark, but there was a man and I could see him right there. I just froze.”
Her voice was shaky and the look on her face was deadly serious. I asked: “What do you mean? A man was in the room with you? Are you sure you weren’t dreaming? What did you do? Where did he go?”
“I am absolutely sure I was not dreaming. I was not asleep, I hadn’t even been trying to fall asleep yet! I had just turned off the light and he was just….there. I didn’t know what to do, because I was really scared. I didn’t feel like he was threatening me or anything like that, but he was there as much as you are there next to me now, he was just in the dark. I had never seen anything like it before and as ridiculous as it sounds, the only thing I could think of to do was to pull the covers over my head, like something a little kid would do. I think I screamed a little when I did it.
“After a while – I don’t know how long – I slowly lowered the covers and then the man who was there just wasn’t there anymore. I was completely freaked out. After that, I was too frightened to go to sleep, so I turned on all the lights and stayed up reading my book until the morning. I think I did eventually sleep a little.”
This wasn’t at all like Susan. If you were asked to manufacture a person in a factory to the strictest non-ghost-believing specifications, you’d want to use Susan as your blueprint. Rational. Sensible. Scientific. Cynical. She didn’t even watch sci-fi movies. But here she was, telling me that she thought she had seen a ghost, an actual disembodied, unmistakable apparition – a sighting that took place right in the house I grew up in, on the very first night she had ever spent there. In the Green Room no less, the very room I spent years and years trying to convince myself wasn’t haunted, despite all the weird things that happened there…
At that moment I realised that I had never mentioned any of this to her before.
“Oh my God Susan, I just realised, you were in the Green Room!”
“What does that mean, the Green Room? What are you saying?”
“I never thought to mention it before, because I never really believed it, but that’s the room that everyone in my family believes is…well… haunted.”
I then told her all about the Green Room and the many strange things that had taken place there over the years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she wasn’t happy to hear any of this and a string of curse words followed, that I won’t repeat here. For that one moment, it’s like all of Susan’s rationality dropped away and she was a different kind of person, the kind of person who was furious with her boyfriend and cursing him out for not having warned her that she was going to bed in a haunted room in a haunted house.
I attempted a defense.
“Are you sure you weren’t dreaming? You must have been dreaming. If that’s what really happened, and you actually saw a ghost, or thought you saw a ghost, why on earth did you spend the rest of the night in that room? Why would you stay there, instead of coming right across the hall and telling me about it and spending the rest of the night there with me? Why spend the entire night in a haunted room where you saw an actual ghost?”
That’s when the old, logical and practical Susan came roaring back:
“Let me be perfectly clear. I was not dreaming and I was absolutely not going to go sneak into the bedroom with you.
I was more afraid of your mom than I was of any ghost.”
So that’s my ghost story.
It may not be as terrifying or gruesome as The Amityville Horror and it doesn’t feature the Grand Guignol chills of The Haunting of Hill House, but the advantage it has over those tales is that the Haunting of Spring Street is entirely true. You can ask Susan about it yourself if you don’t believe me. I did – just now – to make sure I got the details right. Our relationship somehow survived her anger at me for neglecting to warn her about the ghosts of Springside and we eventually got married. I think her experience in the Green Room may have even brought us closer. It was a shared secret. And the whole thing was actually quite validating for me. It proved that I hadn’t been crazy to think there was something unnatural about that house in general and that room in particular.
To this day, Susan still firmly contends that every aspect of her ghostly encounter happened exactly as I’ve described above. She still doesn’t know quite how to make sense of it – she’s as scientific and rational as ever. But she knows what she saw and she’s not about to deny that it happened.
My parents sold the house a few years after that and to my knowledge, no one ever slept in the Green Room again. As I mentioned earlier, my siblings and even my dad later revealed their own ghost stories to me. Those are their stories to tell and as I don’t have their permission, you’ll have to ask them yourself. But rest assured, we found out later that Susan’s experience was not a solitary one and there were other spectral sightings of ghostly figures that moved freely through that house.
In fact, there was only one person who lived all those years on Spring Street who claimed to have never seen anything supernatural or unusual at all. The only one who never saw a ghost, or heard any mysterious knocking, whistling or experienced any kind of paranormal interference at all in that house: my mom.
I wonder if the ghosts were afraid of her too.