In 1995, my parents and I moved into the house my great grandma grew up in. It was an old Victorian in St. Paul, Minnesota, built in 1902 and neglected for half a century by my hermit great uncle Frank, who never cleaned or threw anything out. When we moved in, the rusted metal siding was falling off, and the lot was overrun with trees, weeds and trash.
Inside the house, the peeling wallpaper and chipping lead paint were hardly visible behind the piles of junk that lined the walls. My great-great grandfather Joseph Renz had bought the house in 1905. Over the next century, several elderly members of my family passed away inside. I didn't know this when I moved in. My parents knew better than to tell a six-year-old with an active imagination of the bodies that once lay cold under our roof.
But it didn't matter what I knew. I suffered from crippling insomnia, and every night for years, I'd watch sleeplessly as a veritable menagerie of ancestral phantoms tromped through my room. There was the sad woman in my closet, who would whisper to me through my row of patterned Hanna Andersson jumpers. When I could sleep, I dreamed of her at the end of my bed, dressed in a long white dress, her long brown hair done up in a bun. She'd sing to me, and I'd wake to hear the song still coming from the closet.
The sad woman was nice. But the footsteps of whoever was also haunting the attic weren't. They paced back-and-forth above my bed. A restless spirit stomping the sprawling, unfinished attic, full of cobwebs and accessible only through a steep, unlit staircase with a trap door. Sometimes I could feel cold hands creep up my legs beneath my covers, and I'd often be shaken awake by a dark figure who'd evaporate upward, toward the attic, the moment my sleep-blurred vision cleared.
At first, I woke my parents, screaming. They'd put me back to bed and tell me that old houses are creaky by nature. Any sounds from the attic or the closet were just wind, or rotting wood, or mice. I tried to believe them, but I knew what I heard.
I didn't talk much about the ghosts when I was young. I was an only child, so I grew up around a lot of adults, and quickly learned that any mention of the paranormal would be humored, but never truly believed. I grew to despise that knowing smile most adults got when I tried to talk about the woman in the closet, or the man in the attic. They were always polite, but I could hear their titters when I left the room. "What an imagination!"
Talking to my friends, at least early on, was also risky. We weren't a religious family, so I had no concept of demonic lore. When I was nine or ten, I made the mistake of telling a very Christian friend about my experiences, and she freaked out. She told me this was evil, I was probably being possessed, and that I needed to repent and give into Jesus's love. We weren't friends for much longer.
It's amazing what you can get used to. After a few months, I wasn't so afraid of these nighttime visits. They became a comfort, as though those who lived before were watching over me. I stopped screaming. I stopped running to my parents. I started sleeping through the night.
Things continued like this for years.
My parents were often out of town when I was in high school, which made my house a prime party location. Mix teenagers, alcohol, and a haunted house, and spooky things are bound to happen. My friend Ellen passed out on the couch in the living room and woke up to see a figure of a woman, rocking back-and-forth, in the corner of the dining room. Laura once slept in the guest room and complained the next morning that my boyfriend, who didn't stay over, had spent all night sitting at the end of her bed.
These experiences vindicated my own. For years, no one listened when I talked about the ghosts. My parents told me I was dreaming, that I was too imaginative, that I needed to stop reading so many horror stories. But when my friends saw the same things, I knew I wasn't crazy. I could finally relate my childhood experiences to a sympathetic audience, to people who actually believed what I was saying.
I liked being known as the girl who lived in the haunted house. At first glance, I was just your basic high schooler in ripped Hollister jeans, but the swirling rumors of the haunting lent me an air of mystery. While most people showed up at my parties to drink without adult supervision, some came for the novelty of partying in a haunted house. So many of those drunken nights ended with a motley crew of classmates sitting in a circle in the living room, talking about ghosts and trying to contact the great beyond.
I don't remember when it stopped. I moved out when I was 18, and ever since, the ghosts whose company I once counted on as I drifted to sleep no longer seem willing to make their presence known. But I remember. I'm aware that human memory is faulty, and that many of my experiences might be explained away by childhood fantasy, or sleep paralysis, or critters in the attic or walls. But I refuse to stop believing.
Every so often I go home for the weekend, and at night, I lie awake in the dark. I listen intently for so much as a whisper from the closet, but she never says a word. That sad woman has grown tired of talking to me. Maybe kids are more open to these things, and my ability to sense them dried up with my childhood. Either way, the silence is deafening.