I Grew Up in a Haunted House
By John F.D. Taff
I am a believer in ghosts. Let’s get that out of the way right up front. I believe. I have often stated that my childhood was built on a strong foundation of reading, and much of that reading was of ghosts and monsters and UFOs and other strange stuff. My mother was a horror fan and got my brother and sister and I into the genre through reading and through viewing of old Universal and Hammer horror films.
But I am also a fan of science. My childhood was congruently marked by an intense interest in science, particularly space and astronomy. I am an avid fan of NASA, at least the NASA of years ago, when we actually did neat, exploratory stuff. I also have a large telescope that I love to rake the sky with on an evening.
Anyway, I was a solid child of science and ghosts. So when I tell you that I am a believer of ghosts, it comes with a huge amount of caveating. In other words, I believe in ghosts, but… A great deal of my belief comes from my actual, physical experience with them growing up in a house that was haunted.
My family moved from our original house in a quiet, comfortable St. Louis suburb in 1979. We moved from this typical tract subdivision house into a newly built typical tract subdivision house some 40 miles away, in an even farther out, fairly rural community on the edges of St. Louis County. It was a bucolic, very small town. The new subdivision was atop a hill (creatively called Hilltop), and its big marketing hook was that they only cleared enough trees on the property to plop down the house. In an age where most new developments seemingly nuked the area from orbit, leaving nary a tree in sight, this was unusual. Each piece of property, therefore, had some old growth trees in the yard. This, among other things, sold my parents on the place, and they contracted for a house to be built forthwith.
We moved in the summer of 1979—my parents, a brother, two sisters, a dog and a cat. And me. And speaking for the kids, we weren’t at all thrilled. I was 15, my brother 14, my sisters 13 and three. We’d grown up, gone to school, made friends in our original home, and weren’t all that excited to be uprooted and hauled out to the country with the hicks, cattle and pigs. At least that’s what we thought at the time. I’ve since come around that it was one of the best things to happen in my life.
The haunting stuff didn’t start in earnest until around 1980 or 1981. Between the time we moved in and then, my brother and I learned that—and I am definitely not making this up—that those lovely stands of old woods in most people’s yards contained something unexpected. Graves. Yes, graves, in many cases complete with big, elaborate tombstones. Most from the mid to late 1800s. All tucked away in copses of woods, right behind your lovely two-story, with its deck and vinyl siding. Ahh, suburbia.
My mother didn’t believe us when we told her…I mean, who would? But then we showed her. We didn’t have a stone in our backyard, but plenty of neighbors did. It seems as if the developer, desirous of the prime location, was vexed (at least momentarily) by a pesky 19th century cemetery. Rather than go through the annoying task of moving the graves, they opted to build around them. I guess leaving the actual grave sites undisturbed was enough for the city fathers, and the development went in post haste. As you can guess, this salient point was not mentioned in the subdivision’s sales literature.
So, stuff started happening when I was around 17. Noises in the house. Stuff moving around. At first, we noticed these little, insignificant things and reacted with shrugs. Then, things started to ratchet up. Most of the big things happened in a fairly brief window, about four or five months, culminating in a big event around Christmas 1981.
Here a few of the things that happened in the house during the period.
- Doors opening and closing. We heard it all the time, complete with footsteps. We woke up one morning to all of the doors in the house being opened, including the garage door.
- Stuff turning on and off. Lights, television, etc. My mother was watching TV one night in the living room, and a microcassette recorder in my dad’s closed roll top desk turned on all of a sudden, at top volume, screeching on fast forward.
- Voices. I, personally, never heard voices. Frankly, I’d have shit if I did. But others did. My mother came into my room late one night to say she heard voices down on the deck, which my parents’ bedroom overlooked. A search produced nothing, but she was spooked.
- Phone tricks. I had a telephone in my room, which was a big deal in an age where each telephone in a home was billed for. The phone company could tell how many phones there were by the resistance on the line when the phone rang. So, I being of a slightly technical bent, opened up my princess phone (Yeah, I know. It was what they were called), and disconnected the bell and discarded the wire. So, my phone never rang. Until, that is, one afternoon when I had a few friends in my room and we were talking about all of the stuff that was happening. In the middle of that discussion, the phone rang. I answered the phone. Of course, no one was there, but there was no dial tone, either. Just dead air.
The thing that got me believing, though, was the kitchen cabinets. Early on, we started hearing strange noises downstairs after we’d all went up to go to sleep. Hollow bangings, over and over, repetitively. We thought it was the cats, at first. Then, after a few nights, I remember going to the foot of the steps leading downstairs. I could hear the sounds plainly. Thump-thump-thump.
It was the kitchen cabinets opening and closing. You know as well as I that your kitchen cabinets make a very distinct sound. It’s immediately recognizable, and nothing sounds quite like it. Here’s the thing, though. Each time I went to check, the sound would stop as soon as I put one foot on the stairs. It would start again when I stepped back to the landing.
This went on every night. Every. Single. Night. For months. More than anything else, this made me a believer.
On Christmas Eve, we had my grandmother staying with us. My father was home. I was out with my girlfriend, got in late. Our living room had a couch against one wall. On either side were end tables, each with a brass lamp, the kind you touch to turn on. Brass. Pretty big. Above the couch was an enormous framed print of Custer’s Last Stand. It was a marketing print put out by Anheuser-Busch in the last years of the 1890s. My father had picked it up somewhere and insisted it be hung. My mother loathed it.
So, I got home a little after one in the morning. I turned the living room lights off, went to bed. Now, my father slept like a log usually. Very hard person to wake up. My mother, on the other hand, was a very light sleeper. For some reason, after I’d gone to bed, something awoke my father, but not my mother. He was concerned that perhaps my grandmother had gotten up and fallen in the dark.
In the hallway, he saw light from downstairs. Thinking I’d forgotten to turn off the lights, he went down. He was confronted by these two brass lamps, on the floor, turned on. They weren’t knocked over, mind you. They looked as if someone had simply lifted them off their respective end tables and placed them on the floor. My father doesn’t stop to ponder this. He simply picked the lamps up, set them back, turned them off and returned to bed. Cursing me the entire time no doubt.
After a few minutes in bed, he heard a crash. He got up again, checked on my grandmother—sleeping peacefully—then saw the lights on downstairs. He went down and found the lamps back on the floor and turned on again. Now thinking it’s the cats—those diabolically fiendish creatures—he righted the lamps, returned to bed.
Almost immediately, he was startled by another crash. This one, he says, shook the house. But no one else was awakened. He leapt from bed, and went right back downstairs. He’s greeted by the displaced lamps, but something new. The huge, framed print of Custer’s Last Stand had lost its own battle, this one with gravity.
The frame was hanging on the wall, but the print and the backing and the glass had fallen out, the huge pane shattering on the floor. OK, late-night framing incident, no supernatural stuff there, right? Well, as you might know, these kinds of prints were usually placed in frames and backed, then the whole thing held in place with staples. This particular piece being something like two feet by three feet, there were a lot of staples holding. A lot.
In cleaning up the mess Christmas morning, we found plenty of glass shards. But no staples. None. And in the years since, my parents have remodeled the room numerous times, eventually pulling up the original carpet and replacing it with hardwood floors. Not one staple was ever found.
After that, the incidents tapered off. My parents still live in that house, and even now on occasion, things happen. Odd noises. A collection of music boxes all going on together at odd hours. A strange photo of an unknown older woman, circa probably 1920 or so, turning up in the closet of my old bedroom, again after countless remodelings. My infant daughter’s matter-of-fact retelling (and again, rest assured that I am not making this up) of her late night experience with a ringing phone in her nursery (again my old room, and at a time when there was no phone in there) and (hold on) a black dog with red eyes under her crib. Yes, my mother and I were freaked entirely out, but my daughter was calm and rather meh about the whole thing.
All of this I have related, and a few I haven’t, are absolutely true. Most experienced directly by me. It has definitely altered my belief system. I was already a believer, but skewing more toward skeptical. Now, after all this, I’d say I’m on roughly the same place in the belief spectrum, perhaps just a skosh closer to the belief side of things.
As a writer, these experiences have proven invaluable. I know how it feels to stand in a darkened house after midnight, listening to some unexplainable sound. Dreading going to check to see what it is. It’s informed my empathy of the characters I write about experiencing similar things, such as the folks in my historical ghost novel The Bell Witch.
And I intend to put this all to even better use. My next novel will be my haunted house story, a fictionalized combination of my experiences, the story of a local murder in my small town, and one of my favorite legends of all time, the haunting of Borley Rectory in England. No title yet or even a projected finish date, but I can assure you it’s coming.