|Octagon House, Washington D.C.|
In 1967 I enrolled as a freshman at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and moved into a dormitory on 19th Street between E and F Streets. Like a lot of new residents of the District my new-found college friends and I took joy in roaming this fascinating city whenever we had the chance. One night in October, around midnight, following a late night walk, we found ourselves behind a colonial mansion two blocks away from my dorm. The mansion had been converted to offices, and behind it were park benches. We sat down gazing up at the three story building and after several minutes we noticed something decidedly eery. Someone dressed in a white gown was walking through the building and up and down the winding stair case that connected the three floors carrying a lighted candle. We watched, transfixed, for several minutes, until suddenly the figure disappeared.
This was long before the age of the internet and instant knowledge gratification. So when we decided to look further into the history of the building we did so by hitting the university library the next morning. The house we had sat behind, and watched as that candle moved from window to window, was (and is) Octagon House, the headquarters of the American Institute of Architects and, more importantly for our purposes, purportedly one of the most haunted houses in Washington D.C.
Octagon House was built by Colonel John Taylor in 1801 and served as a temporary White House for James and Dolley Madison following the sacking of Washington D.C. and the partial burning of the White House by the British in the war of 1812. It was in Octagon house that President Madison eventually signed the Treaty of Ghent, finally ending that war. And the ghosts that reportedly reside in the house? Well, according to legend the most prominent of the spirits are the two daughters of Colonel Taylor, each of whom separately met their deaths falling down the circular stair case that is the architectural centerpiece of the building. But also, over the years, a gambler reportedly shot to death on the third floor of the house, a British soldier, and various slaves, who lived in shacks behind the house, have all been observed in the dark of night frequenting the building.
It’s a funny thing with ghost stories. Ask me if I believe in ghosts and I will say “no.” Ask me if I have seen any and I’ll look a bit embarrassed and say “perhaps yes.” And I wouldn’t be referring only to those candles.
My mother died in 2010, and thereafter my brother and his wife rehabbed her St. Louis house for sale. When we visited St. Louis that Christmas we went by the house to examine the miracles they had wrought. As I was getting ready to leave through the front door I turned around and there was my mother, standing next to me and putting on her coat. She smiled, I blinked, and then she was gone.
Several years earlier my elder son Devon worked for the summer in my wife’s hometown of Vincennes, Indiana. He stayed with my wife’s sister and husband, who lived in a beautiful old Sears house, lovingly restored, in the heart of town. The house is also, purportedly, haunted – an elderly lady is frequently seen walking through the rooms. One evening Devon had the house to himself – my in-laws having left it in his care while they lit out on a camping trip. Devon, lonely and perhaps a bit nervous, called us long distance that evening. In the midst of the conversation he screamed. “What happened?” we yelled into the mouthpiece of our phone. It took several seconds for Devon to compose himself. He had sensed something behind him, and when he turned there was a huge face leering at him several inches away. The face, it turned out, was on a balloon. The balloon, in turn, had been left downstairs in the dining room – a leftover reminder from my sister-in-law’s birthday. The balloon had (somehow) floated through the dining room, down a short hall and then up the back “servants" staircase,” coming to rest right behind Devon as he spoke on the upstairs phone.
So. A simple explanation. The balloon was carried by air currents, no doubt fueled by the air conditioner returns, through the house and then up the back stairs. But why, one wonders, did it stop right behind Devon? And why with the face turned just so?
The episodes recounted above share a thread common to most "ghostly" encounters – the evidence of the ghost itself comes down to wisps and shreds. It’s all potentially explainable – over active imaginations, stimulation brought on by atmospherics, coincidences that align just so. Actual evidence of a haunting is pretty hard to come by.
But not always. The day that this article posts we are in Bardstown, Kentucky -- en route to a family reunion back in Vincennes. There is a stretch of road in Kentucky, just outside of Bardstown in the midst of the Bourbon Trail that has long been reported to be haunted. As cars come around an “s” turn in the road a flickering figure can, at times, be discerned hovering in front of the car. Eventually, in an attempt to prove that something really is out there, some local amateur paranormal investigators set up a camera on a hillside overlooking the road. The camera recorded many cars rounding the curve for days, and showed nothing. Nothing that is until the clip below was filmed. Watch very carefully, paying close attention to the area right in front of that car as it rounds the turns.
Okay. Deep breath. Gotcha, didn’t I? (Yet another example of framing the pitch!) By the way, that road isn't even in Kentucky.
Having moved, I would hope unexpectedly, to the realm of ghost fiction, let us tarry there a while. Like many, there is nothing I like better than a good ghost story. American ghost stories tend to follow the British model, which is really a bit rigid. In "Some Remarks on Ghost Stories" (1929), the British ghost story writer M.R. James identified five key features of the classical English ghost story,:
• The pretense of truth
• "A pleasing terror"
• No gratuitous bloodshed or sex
• No "explanation of the machinery"
• Setting: "those of the writer's (and reader's) own day"
The video clip I think manages to hit every one of those notes.
There is something about a well-turned ghost story that hooks me pretty easily. Particularly at this time of year, when the pumpkins ripen and the evening winds begin chilling the woods. Some personal favorites that you might want to try as Halloween approaches are these:
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson One of the few novels written by the queen of short story horror fiction. Terror is built superbly around ghosts that are never seen and a group of innocents, each with some background in the paranormal, who are assembled in the name-sake house by a scientist intent on providing proof of the existence of ghosts in a paranormal experiment that goes horribly wrong.
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Shetterfield. This gothic treasure intertwines the ghost stories of a famous and reclusive ghost story author, the mystery of her long-lost thirteenth ghost story, and the secret aspects of the her life.
The Séance by John Harwood Another great gothic ghost story. Set in Nineteenth century England, the story of a woman who returns to the site of tragedy to attend a seance with the hope of curing her mother of a strange malady. What is not to like when ancient mysteries and castles collide?
Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel by Audrey Niffenegger When Elspeth Noblin dies of cancer, she leaves her London apartment to her twin nieces, Julia and Valentina. The two American sisters move to England and become enthralled with life after death. The title is from a William Blake poem -- need we say more? This novel was not particularly well received (the author previously did better with The Time Traveler's Wife.) Perhaps this one pushed the envelope just a bit too far. A real horror story. Not for the faint of heart!
The Thirteenth Child by David Dean I admit that I haven’t yet finished this new volume by my Tuesday partner in crime – I was waylaid from fiction the last two weeks as I prepared to teach an annual class at the University of Denver – but I am far enough in to recommend the tale wholeheartedly. What’s not to like about a mystery involving three centuries of disappearances and a terrifying boy who appears only between dusk and dawn—a creature that lures children from their homes for his own dark purposes?