Ghost Catcher

Old House Journal, April 2004

I don’t believe in ghosts. That being said, there’s something going on in this old house of mine—or was, until my five-year-old took matters into his own hands.

When we first moved in, around three years ago, we were told that the wife of the former owner had died there. This gave us sad pause as we took down her wallpaper and painted her walls. Neighbors spoke warmly of Helen, and we developed a fondness for her and for the odd repairs that Ed, her husband, had made. We have now returned the place, which became a rather rundown rooming house after Ed moved out and rented it to students he knew, to the point of being comfortable and functional. Some of it is still a little scary, scarred, and bizarre, like the Byzantine backstairs and the warren of rooms in the basement. Other aspects, however, are truly beautiful, like the long palladian window that stretches up from the entry to the second-floor landing, and the wide white-paneled window seat, almost a room in itself within the living room. I think Helen would have liked the way it is now, clean and full of light, and that she would be pleased to see it filled once again with a happy family.

For that reason, I don’t think it’s Helen who visits us at night and occasionally scares the daylights out of us. I think Helen is at peace, but I wonder if someone else who lived here is not.

The house is a Shingle-style Victorian built in the late 1880s for John Cabot, a bachelor. This would explain the prevalence of heavy, masculine woodwork that I don’t dare brighten with white paint. I don’t know who else may have lived—or died—here, but there is at least one person, a woman we believe, who seems to come to the staircase landing and certain areas of the second floor. There may be someone else, perhaps a child.

Only my husband saw the woman. Being a scientific type, he normally has no affinity for the paranormal or need to confer with ghosts. One morning, however, awake before anyone else and taking his coffee to the window seat, he saw someone that he thought was me on the stairs. When he looked again, no one was there. He told me after I woke up; we shuddered about it, then shrugged. This stuff isn’t real, right? It was a trick of the light or something.

When my five-year-old told us quite plainly that he saw a little blue ghost in his room, we didn’t think much of that either, beyond our concern for this new fear of his. There’s a blue fire hydrant in the street outside his window, and we thought that this strange stumpy object was Benji’s ghost. We assured him that there were no ghosts. Nevertheless, nearly every night for months he would come get me because of the ghost and I had begun to despair of ever again getting a good night’s sleep.

I consulted with Benji’s teacher, a sweet young woman with good instincts. She suggested a “dream catcher,” those pretty, abstract objects that Native Americans have used to catch their dreams. She felt that if Benji had some control over the matter and designed it himself—literally took things into his own hands—we might put an end to this nightmare. So Benji and I carefully constructed a dream/ghost catcher out of a paper plate, sparkles, and an old bed sheet. I figured this would work because he had had a big hand in designing it.

One night, shortly after the ghost catcher was set up, I heard footsteps and whispering out in the hall. “Benji’s up,” I murmured despairingly to my groggy husband. I got up to help. But when I got to his room, Benji was in bed, fast asleep. I stood outside in that dark second-floor hallway, my heart beating fast, and looked around to where it curves around behind the backstairs.

There, something moved, and then slipped into the darkness. I crept back into bed, shivering, and lay very still; I don’t know for how long. Today I believe someone—something—does visit us now and then. At least she/it is friendly and merely keeps very bad hours. Benji, of course, was always a believer, but ever since he made that ghost catcher, the little spirit stays out of his room. He feels completely safe and sleeps peacefully. I wish I could say the same for me.