I’ve a story for you about the recent Hill House adaptation and a place I used to live and why I have trouble sleeping if Mystery Science Theater 3000 isn’t playing on the television.
This is a ghost story.
I do not necessarily believe in ghosts, regardless of the following confession or the scar I have but mention no further or the dreams or the sounds I heard or what I saw that last day in the house I once lived.
And I had managed to bury all of that, nice and deep, until recently. Not a total surprise, mind you. I moved on, in life, and moved out of that house, long ago.
The connection—why I play Mystery Science Theater like a lullaby—I hadn’t consciously made until last week. That’s the mark of any good piece of art, though, isn’t it? Good art is capable of giving the audience a bit of reflection, however unintentional the end results may be.
You see, my wife and I decided to watch Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. Social media feeds buzzed incessantly with talk of the program. Some responded to the horror, to the ghosts who haunted the backgrounds and the edges of the frame.
Other people seemed to respond to the familial plot, the drama surrounding grief. Besides, the book resonated with me, personally, and I thought it would be interesting to see how the material mutated from Shirley Jackson’s slim novel to Flanagan’s 10-hour program.
Funny, then, how I rarely found myself thinking of the book. Instead, I found myself remembering what it felt like to be trapped.
“Why don’t they just leave?” my wife asked.
The question is often levied at protagonists in these haunted house stories. But, like any bad relationship, it is never that simple. You are legally bound and, unless you happen to be rich, you have a loan which dictates that you keep up the relationship.
Hotels are expensive. Moving costs a lot of money. A friend’s couch is only available for so long. And have you ever had to look at someone and tell them the reason you don’t want to go home is because your house terrifies you?
I’m here to tell you that, overwhelmingly, your friends and family . . . do not believe you.
Back home you go, to the dark, to the cool spots. If you are lucky, the sounds don’t start right away. You are allowed to settle in and turn on some lights. If you are lucky, you can fall asleep before you start hearing things that you cannot explain.
But not upstairs! No, you will never sleep upstairs, not ever again. In fact, you haven’t slept in the master bedroom in almost six months.
I am getting ahead of myself.
In early 2011, I purchased a renovated two-story home in St. Louis, Missouri. I cannot say whether or not the place had been haunted before I moved in or if I had dragged the ghosts into the house with me.
At the time, my personal life was obliterated. I drank, heavily. During the day, I worked in the funerary industry as a monument dealer. Every day put me in touch with someone who lost a loved one. Every day I found myself in any number of cemeteries. When I went home, at night, I spent most evenings with a cat and a dog. As my personal life continued to dismantle, it was eventually just the dog and I.
Several months passed without any fanfare to speak of. The routine solidified and I stuck to it: wake up; shower; open up the closet door and grab a suit; off to work; wrap up the day and buy vodka; back home; suit in the closet; eventually fall asleep. Weekends were usually spent in the company of family or friends. I wrote a novella during this period of time, Necrosaurus Rex, so those weeks weren’t a total waste.
Then, I found myself startling awake in the middle of the night, usually around 3AM. I dismissed these events as simple nightmares, like any sane person. And it wasn’t as if I hadn’t experienced bad dreams, before. Often, I would immediately fall back asleep, and that was that.
But the dreams didn’t stop coming and they only got worse. I began waking up, screaming, soaked in sweat. The dreams were vivid: I was always in some part of the house; something, a child, or a child-like thing, would be hiding just out of sight, and would run at me if I dared turn my back.
The last of these terrors, I dreamed that I stood in the master bathroom in front of the mirror, shaving. I saw, in the mirror’s reflection, that child-like thing sneak into the bathroom from behind me and it ran its hands up my back.
When I woke up, screaming, I could still feel those hands.
My eyes adjusted to the dark and I could see, across the room, that the closet door stood open. That I was being watched from the darkness therein felt a certainty. The space between my bed and the light switch may as well have been a thousand miles.
I made it to the light switch, but kept going even after I’d turned the light on. I went straight down the steps. Whatever light I passed by I turned on without a thought. And I sat in the living room until the sun came up.
I stopped sleeping upstairs after that. I moved my clothes from the master bedroom to a spare bedroom and I only ever went into the master bedroom during the daytime. The couch, downstairs, became my new bed. I only ever went to the second floor to change clothes.
The screaming and night terrors ceased. In fact, I never had another once I began sleeping on the first floor. But, shortly after, the house made itself threatening in other ways.
I’d woken up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. Amusingly, I had an audience; both cat and dog sat just outside the bathroom door and watched me from the hallway. I’m chuckling to myself when I hear footsteps coming from the ceiling, as though someone were running down the upstairs hallway.
“House settling,” I remember telling myself. Then it happened a second time, and this time both of the animals noticed it and stared up at the ceiling, too. The dog even growled, a little.
Back and forth, upstairs, from the master bedroom to the top of the steps, an unseen something ran. And I couldn’t move. I sat there for a long time, long after the sound had stopped. My legs were numb by the time I managed to get up and go back to my living room. I lay there on the couch for a long time and listened to nothing.
A couple nights later, I woke up to the sound of footsteps coming from the stairwell. The first floor was an open plan, so you could see from the front of the house straight to the back of the house. Of course, that was only during the day. At night, it was like looking into a cave.
The cat arched its back and growled into the dark. About then I decided to turn on all the lights. Another night of little-to-no sleep.
This went on for a while, but it became clear that the activity never made it past the stairwell, and rarely manifested anywhere but the second floor. I decided that whatever walked up there could walk by its damn self, and I’d keep to the first floor. This is the part of the relationship where you find yourself making concessions.
Sleeping with the lights on proved difficult, but more than anything I wanted to drown out the noises, so I turned on the television and put on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I found that if I let that play, then sleeping came easy. Lucky for me, some beautiful soul loaded up episodes into a playlist on YouTube, enabling me to sleep clean on till morning.
And though I have no such fear presently, I still find myself putting on episodes of MST3K before I retire for the night. I’ve done this, now, for so long that I had forgotten how the habit began. Watching Hill House brought it all back to me.
Trauma, like ghosts, manifests in ways that are not always apparent and, like ghosts, are mysterious, however integral the manifestation is to one’s specific narrative.
I put the house up for sale, soon after. I didn’t have anywhere in particular to go, but that didn’t matter to me any longer. The concessions were exhausting and the relationship was over.
The last time I was upstairs was also the last time I was ever in the house. I had saved the master bath for last when it came time to pack up. Like any bad break-up, you save the worst stuff for last, right?
I knelt on the bathroom floor and taped the last box shut. To my left, I saw a shape, like a child, run from behind the sink and into the standing shower. I did not stop to investigate.
I stood up, box in hand, and walked out of that house.
Ghosts, like the fantasy spirits of Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House, are not something I necessarily believe in. At least, not in a way that lends itself to outright superstition. Yet, I cannot explain much of what transpired in my own home. And what I’ve relayed here is a truncated version, at best. The tale won’t be made any better by telling more. Knowing that I was terrified, I think, ought to be enough.
I’ll end this by quoting the opening of “Snow Like Lonely Ghosts,” which was the first story of mine to see print and an homage to Jackson’s Hill House. Though the tale is pure fabrication, the sentiment reflects my own:
“Nobody can deny the existence of ghosts if they possess that thing called a memory, wherein the mind recalls voice, appearance, and even action. Everything that has come before has a potential to haunt… as long as one remembers. And if one is moved emotionally, or their actions easily swayed by memory, by history – because everything that has come before is history, or memory, thus ghosts – then the dead are busy at work in our living world. Many people are haunted for their entire lives, and remain so until they die. Then they have no more room for secrets and become – themselves – a memory. A ghost.”