When I was a boy, my great-grandmother filled my head with excellent ghost stories that she or someone she knew personally experienced. One, for instance, recalled the headless ghost that hid on the side of the road near her house –before the pavement, cars, and street lights– and jumped out at horse-drawn carriages as they drove past. It happened to a friend of hers one night.
But her best story was about the haunted house she lived in as a young girl.
It was on Farview Mountain, and it sat precariously close to the train tracks that carried coal down the mountain to the weigh station in Waymart, PA, my hometown. So close, in fact, that the sparks emitted from the train tracks would burn out right on their front yard. Other than that, everything about the house was quaintly normal when she and her parents first moved in.
And then the knocking started.
KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK. Always three knocks, never more nor less. It was impossible to know their origin; they echoed throughout the entire house. My great-great-grandmother, I was told, contemplated calling out “What do you want?!” to the knocker, but was too afraid she’d get an answer.
Then there was the blood on the basement stairs. Just a few drops, easy enough to clean up. But no matter how often and how hard they cleaned it, the blood would reappear.
My great-great-grandfather decided to investigate the origins of the specter. The locals hinted that a few years earlier two kidnappers on the run with their victim, an infant boy, broke into the house one night while it was vacant. They killed the boy there, and buried his body in the dirt basement. My great-great-grandfather dug up every square inch of the basement, but never found any bones.
Frustrated but not deterred by the disturbance, my great-grandmother and her family stayed in the house for a while. But then the knocking picked up in frequency –KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK, KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK– several times an hour, throughout the day and night. Eventually my great-great-grandfather had enough, packed his family’s bags, and moved into a new house that would one day become my childhood home.
Just a few days after my great-grandmother and her parents moved from the haunted house, a spark from a passing train landed on its front porch. The house caught fire, and burned to the ground in minutes. Much later, my great-grandmother heard a story that another house had earlier stood in the same spot. It also burned to the ground from a flying spark. Tragically, a school teacher lived in that house, and died in the blaze. Was the knocking the school teacher’s warning? That was my great-grandmother’s theory, though she never confirmed the story of the other house or the teacher’s death.
What is it about haunted house stories that people find so interesting? I think the answer lies in what makes scary stories in general appeal to so many people: the corruption of the safe and mundane. Whether it’s a serial murderer who invades the sanctity of summer camp, “reliving” dead loved ones, or the invasion of one’s home by a ghostly presence, scary stories, whether told in books, films, or by great-grandmothers, create a version of the world that’s an easy escape from the banality of the day-to-day. At the same time, they help us appreciate the day-to-day by making us think “I’m glad that’s not me being chopped up” or “I’m glad my wife isn’t a zombie.”
Oh, and of course there’s always the awesome gore.
Regardless of what makes scary stories appealing, take a moment this Halloween to appreciate some. Here are some more good haunted house stories to get you started.
By the way, a few years ago I found the site where my great-grandmother’s haunted house once stood. The trains no longer run there, of course, but the tracks remain. And just beyond the lot where the house’s crumbling foundation peeks quietly from the ground, hidden amongst some brambles I found an old tombstone with a death’s head carving, and a barely discernable inscription that read “Ida May Smith, 1893-1915.” Ida May Smith was one of Waymart’s first school teachers…