Anyone who owns an old house, it’s safe to say, has given at least a passing thought to its being haunted. In my case, that’s an understatement, particularly during a time when I was obsessed with historic ghost stories by American women. In these long-forgotten tales, the dead—always female—pops back to stir things up for a widowed husband, nosy sister-in-law, or just the next poor gal to inhabit her earthly abode. The stories held real creeping horror for me, but fascination, too. How would I react if some spectral sister dropped in?
By the time we bought our first old house, I pretty much took it for granted that I’d see a ghost. When weeks passed without a sighting, I went on the offensive and sat in the parlor at dusk, conjuring all the women who’d “kept house” before me. No luck.
Then it hit me: the ghost was waiting for my husband’s absence! The evening of his first business trip I sat expectantly in the unlit parlor. As twilight darkened into night I knew it was time and held my breath…then a gravel-throated neighbor hollered for her offspring. The spell was broken.
We moved next to a remote farmhouse in the country. The oldest part dated to 1780: one stone room, low-beamed and dreamily dim, with a fireplace in which you could roast an ox. Here, surely, would reside my destined ghost.
Then the previous owner returned something he’d inadvertently packed. He’d discovered it hidden up on a ledge inside the chimney: a piece of board, feather-light with age. Barely discernible in silvery old pencil was a trace of handwriting: “David Kirk, Carpenter and Betsey Han was as dirty as any old Sow. July 8, 1847.”
My research later showed that Hann was the name of the farmowners at that time. In a flash my haunted chamber became the setting for flirtatious romps between the farmer’s daughter and her carpenter beau. Soon after, I gave way to the intrusion of a television set. Now when I sit in the stone room, I picture “David Kirk, Carpenter” kicking back with a beer to watch the game.
When even our restoration work failed to stir things up, I fell into daydreams about my home’s past inhabitants, imagining their lives, straining to detect their murmurs.
In the end, it took a thunderstorm to bring us in touch.
One afternoon’s power outage lasted into the night. As I slowly made my way upstairs, learning the knack of lighting the way with a hand-held candle, I suddenly felt my ghosts crowding around me. There they were: all the other women who’d climbed these stairs by candlelight after a long day’s work, who’d balanced both taper and sleeping baby, who’d held her husband’s hand as they went to bed.
I’d found the secret, and it was continuity. Feeling the spirits in the house did not come from imagining something or someone, but from the repetition of a simple act, the repetition of something my predecessors had actually done.
I realized then that the women’s ghost stories weren’t really about the natural and the supernatural. They were about that thrilling flow between present and past that all old-house owners know. From that moment I ceased to be a spectator in my home, and became part of its long, gently moving story.
Catherine Lundie is the editor of Restless Spirits: Ghost Stories by American Women, 1872–1926.