4 Lessons You Learn While Trapped In A Haunted House (For Work)
Hello, boys and ghouls! Welcome to my Haunted Column of Horror! Get comfortable; we're going to have a scream! Would you like some devil's food cake? Maybe some deviled ham? Maybe some -- some, uh...
...okay, look, usually I get super stoked around Halloween, but when it really feels like the world is ending, reveling in fear seems a lot less appealing when, you know, going to the grocery store has become so tense it feels like it was directed by David Lynch. Usually this is the time of year when I write a spooktacular spooky column, but this time, instead of speculating about the intractable horror of the unknown, I'm going to tell you about the time I confronted the unknown directly and it was extremely goofy.
I'm going to tell you about the time I was locked, voluntarily, in a house that was reputedly full of ghosts as part of my job. If you're interested, you can see the finished products here:
It's Pretty Easy to Set These Things Up If You Can Find the Owner
Yeah. So, before I wrote jokes about boners on the internet as my job and moved to Los Angeles, I worked for a PBS affiliate station based in Bloomington, Indiana, a city most famous as the home of Indiana University and a place where an entire town gets fall-off-the-roof drunk to celebrate a bike race. Mainly I was in charge of a show that interviewed bands and musicians with an emphasis on the excellent local music scene. My show was part of a larger show that could broadly be described as local interest, and honestly it was a really great experience and I learned a lot.
Anyway, one day my boss asked me if I had any ideas for pieces for their spooky Halloween-themed episode, and I told her "It's about to get mad spooky up in this bitch," but in a more professional way. I probably just said "yes." Anyway, have you ever seen a show like Ghost Adventures? It's where a bunch of weird bros get locked in a scary mental asylum or some shit overnight and threaten to fight ghosts, mug at the camera, and scare themselves silly. It absolutely rules. Honestly, it's a mystery to me why TV is still being made because it's all downhill from there. One time they investigated a house in my home town and concluded that the reason the town is so fucked up isn't actually because of decades of neoliberal social collapse, but actually because of demons. Then they bought the house -- because it's Gary, Indiana and a house costs sixteen bucks and half a can of Skoal -- and fucking tore it down. To free the demon? Destroy the demon? I'm really not sure? Anyway, it was rad.
I'm getting off track here but I wanted to do the Ghost Adventures thing. I did some research and realized one of the most famous haunted houses in America was pretty close to Bloomington. "One of the most famous haunted houses in America" is of course relative in that it's actually a pretty niche term that only has significance to a handful of really dedicated weirdos, like "most jack-offable-in Dairy Queen."
So I emailed the owner of Whispers Estate, the haunted house, got my crew together, and a few weeks later we arrived for an overnight stay with the best film equipment a nonprofit affiliate station in rural Indiana could buy. My crew was myself, my camera op, and my grip. We got there just before sunset to film b-roll of the outside of the house and shoot the interview, then at night we followed around a crew of amateur ghost hunters, which is another weird term because I don't see how anyone can be better than anyone else at pretending signal noise is actually your dead grandma trying to make your swear a blood oath to avenge her from across the grave.
As you can probably tell, I'm pretty skeptical about the supernatural. I tried to go into the lockdown with an open mind: after all, I have some pretty flexible ideas about what qualifies as "reality," but I just really, really don't believe in ghosts. I just don't think it makes sense from a physics perspective and the whole concept relies on some pretty huge philosophical questions being taken as a given. I don't know, if there IS an afterlife, and it's possible to bridge the endless chasm separating Life and Death, and you could somehow communicate across it, wouldn't you say something more meaningful than "blarrrghghghghaaaarrrrgh *radio static sounds*"? Like "Hey, All of Humanity, you know that question that every single one of you has been obsessed with since the beginning of consciousness? Yeah you can all stop worrying, there IS life after death, and it's pretty good. The restrooms are clean, the slushees are free, and it turns out the correct religion is Latter-Day Shinto" or maybe "dude seriously DO NOT JACK OFF IN DAIRY QUEEN God REALLY does not like that, oh no oh no there are carnivorous eels in my urethra, LEARN FROM MY MISTAKE!!!"
What can I say? I'm skeptical by nature. For example, I also don't think anyone has ever seen a Sasquatch (because those are actually caveman ghosts).
The People Running These Things are Really Goddamn Weird
So I don't believe in ghosts. That much is clear. But the people who ran the house ... extremely did. There were two women who worked at the haunted house, and they were both a particular kind of Midwest person that I cannot really describe to you if you haven't lived there. They seemed like the kind of people who have strong opinions on the relative merits of Applebee's and Chili's. One of them had a large decal on the back window of her car that said COWGIRL in pink cursive font. They seem like they own several seasons of Dog the Bounty Hunter on DVD. They seem like they're nostalgic for "the K-Mart." They seem like they might have a tattoo of an energy drink logo somewhere on their bodies. They seem like the kind of people that can and have pontificated on the dangers of Ouija boards, a toy made for children. They seem like people I could riff on for another paragraph but I think you get it.
Ultimately, they were both Professional Ghost Believers-In. I'm not really one to mock people for their employment because I both believe in working-class solidarity and also I get paid to write things like "my asshole is so hairy that when I stand up it pokes out from between my buttcheeks like someone using a wig as a bookmark," but there's something inherently comical to me about people having to wear custom t-shirts because the house where they work that's a portal to the Screeching Abyss requires a uniform. Bless their hearts, they took their job really seriously.
Now, you can't really see me in the videos, with one notable exception...
...but I was there the whole time. At PBS we tried to remove ourselves from the story as much as possible, so we edited ourselves out. But I'm the one conducting the interviews with the employees. Also, if you noticed the rocking chair on the porch moving, I was crouched out of frame and making it move. As I was trying to coax some good sound bites out of the employees, I realized this piece would be a lot more impactful if we knew why this house was haunted. So I asked her "Where do the ghosts come from?", expecting to hear about how this house once belonged to a notorious horse arsonist or how the County Orphan Butcher died of Tropical Brain Worm Infection there one hundred years ago this very night or something to that effect. Seems like a pretty normal thing to ask when in a haunted house, right?
Well, apparently not, since when I asked her where the ghosts came from she kind of sneered and said, in a shockingly condescending tone, "Uh, the Vortex?" Oh, fucking stupid me, right? DUH! The Vortex, you blithering goddamn idiot. God, how did you even manage to open the door to the haunted house if you're this unspeakably stupid? How does anyone stumble all the way through life into adulthood without having even the most rudimentary knowledge of where ghosts come from? You think you can just have some sort of non-Vortex ghosts? That they can just come from the...I don't know, the Ghost Store? Ghosts "R" Us? You drooling feeb.
I was, understandably, kind of taken aback. So I said something along the lines of, "Uh, no, I mean, uh, where do the ghosts actually come from?" And she said, "Oh, the Vortex is in the attic." Later, when I was relating this story to my mother-in-law, and when I told that last part she snorted and said "That's insane."
"I know, right?" I said.
"The Vortex can't be on the second story, that's too far from the ley lines," she said matter-of-factly. WHAT. How do so many people know about the fucking Vortex? Where is all this Vortex lore coming from? Are there heated symposia debating how high the Vortex can or cannot be? Where does the Vortex go in a haunted bilevel?
Eventually I was able to convince / trick the employee I was interviewing into talking about how the house used to be a doctor's office, and the family that first lived there in the 1800s had several children die there, and also a lot of bodies were held in state there. Which, sure, that's all pretty morbid -- but also seems like pretty standard stuff from history? Because people just fuckin' died all the time in history. Oh, you have an ingrown toenail? Well it got infected and now you are dead. Sorry, Obajesiah Wroothwright Crutherford IV! If you read literature from that period it is just absolutely rife with people who, like, accidentally drink a glass of water slightly below room temperature and then die from a Sudden Upsette of the Vigors.
One last note on the employees. As it got dark and we started going through the house to get some spooky b-roll before the ghost hunters showed up, one of them sat in the kitchen and ate nachos and watched YouTube on her phone. Which is all well and good, but it kind of spoiled the whole haunted vibe for me. Like there was one part where there was a single chair in this little crawl space-type area that they said was a hotspot of activity (Vortex-adjacent, maybe). I volunteered to get shut in for a few minutes. But as I was in the dark I wasn't scared: I couldn't stop thinking about how just a few feet below me, separated only by some planks of wood and asbestos, there was a woman just absolutely going apeshit on some gas station nachos and watching JERRY SPRINGER BEST FIGHTS COMPILATION SET TO "COTTON-EYE JOE" (RE-UPLOAD). I was sitting in a dark room, alone, giggling quietly to myself. Which, if you were a ghost, was probably pretty alarming.
But these ladies didn't hold a candle to the guy who owned the place, who was a whole different brand of weird. Because:
The Whole Thing Feels Like a Facade
So when I was setting up this film shoot, I was exchanging emails with the guy who actually owned the house. I was under the assumption that I'd be interviewing him directly -- you know, maybe getting some stories about how terrifying it was to live in a haunted house, how the walls leaked blood, how the ghosts didn't even pay rent, stuff like that. I was pretty surprised when he told me that he didn't live there and that I'd be interviewing some tour guides he'd hired. He told me he used to live there but moved his family out when one night every single lightbulb in the house exploded at the same time. Perhaps the ghosts just wanted him to switch to CFLs?
If this paints a picture of the house being a chintzy tourist attraction, well, your suspicion is probably going to be confirmed. You can tell in the videos that the owner of the house intentionally staged it to seem spooky. They painted all the windowpanes matte black so that it's always dark. There's a bunch of random "spooky" shit just thrown haphazardly around -- something tells me the little girl that lived there while Rutherford B. Hayes was president didn't collect Bozo the Clown dolls, mostly because Bozo didn't exist until 1946.
I feel like if you're trying to capitalize on your haunted Victorian mansion it's not asking too much to have a little consistency with your art direction. Between this and the giant banner hanging outside the mansion advertising itself, it really starts to feel like this place is set up with the sole intention of making money. Filling your quasi-decrepit house with a bunch of creepy thrift-store tchotchkes isn't a genius marketing strategy, but it IS the decorating aesthetic of every girl I've ever dated. I don't find it eerie or frightening that this house is full of ostensibly "creepy" things thrown together with virtually no regard for consistency or even logic; I find it kind of funny, like a child trying so hard to be a cowboy they wear three cowboy hats AND a horse costume. You shouldn't be this desperate to prove yourself, haunted house. You're over-selling. People can pick up when you're compensating for a lack of self-confidence, house.
A lot of the rooms also seemed to be mid-renovation. This next part is complete speculation on my part, but I think maybe some dude bought a Victorian-era mansion with the intention to live in it and learned pretty quickly that converting old houses to modern standards is like trying to teach your dog to fly a helicopter: incredibly frustrating, probably dangerous, and ludicrously expensive. So my working hypothesis is that this guy got halfway through renovating an old house, realized that the electrical system relied on a conductive material made from a combination of uranium and racism, and decided "fuck this nightmare, I'm going to charge people to see this vaguely creepy old house" and moved out. Maybe he really thought the house was haunted, maybe he didn't. I don't know. But honestly, which is more cynical: trying to recoup the loss on your shitty house by marketing it as being full of ghosts to separate hobbyists from their money or actually exploiting the tortured spirits of the damned to pay off the loans on the helicopter your dog crashed?
Here's a little coda to my theory. When I was getting the links together for this article, I came across an interesting tidbit: earlier this year, Whispers Estate was put on the market for $130K, fully furnished. This makes me think converting it into a tourist attraction didn't really pan out, but for legal reasons I have to point out I am a medical-grade dumbass and you shouldn't take anything I say seriously.
It's Really Easy to Get Swept Up in the Moment
At the end of the night we went with the ghost-hunting crew that was there at the same time as us and filmed them doing an EVP session. For the uninitiated, EVP stands for Electronic Voice Phenomenon, and it's where a bunch of spooky nerds listen to fuzzy audio playback and pretend they can hear a ghost talking. I'm pretty skeptical of that, because as anyone who's worked with mid-to-low-budget audio equipment can tell you, a Zoom recorder can barely record the living, much less the dead. I've written before about how the human mind has the remarkable ability to project patterns into chaos, so I'll spare you that lecture.
Let me set the scene for you: we went to the highest room in the house, which was purportedly a hotspot of activity, possibly due to its proximity to the Vortex. Or maybe not? As I've established, I am not a Vortex Scientist. The room at the top of the house wasn't what I was expecting: it was full of bare plaster, partially painted walls, particleboard flooring, and exposed insulation. It was clearly in the middle of a renovation that was taking much longer than planned. Pretty much every house owned by someone under 40 in the Midwest has a similar room, but it's usually for smoking pot in. So we all squeezed into this hot, stuffy room at the top of the house -- my videographer, my key grip, two ghost hunters, and myself. The two employees of the house were in a separate room behind us. We turned off the lights on our cameras and we started the session.
Before they started asking questions, we all just sat in the dark for a few minutes. And I've gotta say, in those few minutes? It really did feel kinda weird. Not just the weirdness you'd expect of a group of strangers stuffed into a dark box, but something else. I'm guessing this sitting-in-the-dark-in-total-silence part was meant to make us feel anxious, and thus less rational in our explanations, but I'll be damned if it wasn't pretty effective -- humans love ritual. The darkness started to feel palpable, malicious -- thick and suffocating, like black honey. The illusion was ruined, however, when Mitch, my grip, ripped one of the loudest, wettest farts I have ever heard in my goddamn life. I managed to resist the nearly all-powerful urge I felt to scream "WAS THAT A GHOST???", and instead we all continued to sit there quietly, unified by an unspoken agreement to pretend we weren't all inhaling what was until very recently another man's lunch.
A few minutes after the fart, the ghost hunters started asking questions of the ghosts that were allegedly there, then we would play back what we'd just recorded on our equipment. Nary a spectral whisper to be heard, sadly, so the ghost hunters moved on to the next tactic, which is when some spooky stuff started happening.
What they did was take a flashlight and unscrew it slightly so that the connection between the battery and the bulb was unstable. They claimed that ghosts could manipulate this connection and use it to communicate. Which, sure? I guess? I wasn't aware that that was one of pre-agreed upon powers of ghosts, but then like the slackjawed dumbass I am I didn't know that ghosts came from the Vortex, so what do I know?
Anyway, the ghost hunters would address questions to the flashlight, which would sometimes flicker in "response." This was admittedly kind of freaky, and part of the way through this there was a loud PING sound in the hallway behind us, and believe me when I tell you in that moment I questioned everything I ever believed. It's difficult to describe the terror of having everything you thought was true inverted in an instant. Ghosts are real. Aliens killed JFK. There is life after death. My buddy Choad actually did make a horse do a backflip while running from the cops who wanted to arrest him for "gettin' too much gash in one night." We immediately left the room and went to see what caused the sound and we found a penny near the wall, if it had been thrown. My heart was fucking pounding like I just ate a Little Ceasar's Salt-N-Cheese-Simulacra pizza or went up half a flight of stairs. The session went on for about another hour or so, and while I was quietly going insane like I just dropped bad acid and watched Ron Fricke's Samsara by myself, nothing else really of note happened.
When the Moment's Over, The Spell is Broken
When you see the Ghost Bros on TV screeching and carrying on, maybe they aren't acting. The human brain is extremely fallible and susceptible to suggestion, so maybe they really believe they're seeing ghosts. Maybe it's not acting at all. Even skeptics like me can get caught up in the moment: when they bring a skeptic in on these shows and they become visibly afraid, well, there's a reason they do their interviews immediately.
After shooting wrapped, when my crew and I were driving back, the spell wore off. It was like waking up from a nightmare: as immutable reality set in, the dream started to seem more and more ridiculous. Sure, a penny was thrown at the wall -- but it came from the direction of the room where the two employees of the house were sitting by themselves. So did a ghost try to bribe us by giving us what was in the 1800s enough money to purchase a subtropical archipelago, or did two people whose continued employment was dependent on others believing a house was haunted whip the contents of their pockets at us? Because that place had a vested interest in expanding its reputation.
And the flashlight thing? Are you kidding me? I had a suspicion that the light was just flickering on and off on their own, and literally one second of Googling "ghost flashlight" yielded a completely solid explanation. Basically: as the flashlight heats up from its bulb it will pull itself slightly apart, breaking the circuit. Then, as it cools and shrinks, it reconnects itself and lights back up. So this is some classic 1850s-ass medium chicanery. They may as well have sold me a vial of heroin to calm the sea monsters in my teeth that cause cavities. I mean, if you watch the video, it's pretty obvious what they're doing. They're "talking" to the spirits the same way exhausted parents talk to a toddler gleefully throwing handfuls of Fruity Pebbles into the air at a grocery store but they don't want to scream at their children in public: 'Okay, turn the light off if ghosts are totally real forever no take-backsies on the count of three. Okay? One, two...two and a half...thhhhhhreeeeeee...three. THREE! Three. Three? C'mon, buddy, please. Three. Three. Th -- oh! The light went off!' What I'm saying is that they just kept prolonging their questions until the light turned itself off or on.
But for a second in there, I believed. And maybe part of me wanted to believe: not just to assuage my fear of death being the total end of consciousness, but also because I am a capital-R Romantic and desperately want there to be some magic in this miserable, leaden world. Because that's the essence of every good con: you're selling the mark something they want. So I guess the lesson here is that horror movies are correct: if you want to find ghosts, you should try to find them in dangerous abandoned places where no one can save you if you get in trouble.
And if you do find the supernatural, maybe you can throw up some crappy antique dolls and clown posters and charge people fifty bucks to stumble around in the dark. When Marx said that capitalism is the specter that haunts us all, I don't think he meant it quite this literally.
William Kuechenberg, somewhat ironically, had a supernatural horror script finish in the Top 50 of the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship and is seeking representation (HINT HINT). You can check out his work on Script Revolution or view his mind-diarrhea on Twitter.
Top image: Kochneva Tetyana/Shutterstock