For a long time, when I’d hear someone mention anything about a ghost, I thought they were a little “over-imaginative.” These tales of the paranormal usually came from someone like the girl we called “Graveyard Katy,” whose family ran and lived in the town’s funeral home. Or Michael O’Shea, who lied about pretty much anything and was creepy in his own right. The people I believed wholeheartedly, though, were the ones whose stories were corroborated—or the ones who had “family ghosts.”
Recently, when I was crowdsourcing parents to uncover things kids say that spook adults, my inbox was flooded with confessions that started with “My sister and I were in the attic, and….” or “This will sound crazy, but…” Seems that family ghosts not only exist — they exist big time. My thought: if more than one person has seen, heard, or even smelled a singular ghost, their collective revelations are probably not cockamamie, right?
In my neighbor’s family, there are stories of their house on Thornwood Avenue. Long before Joel McGrath was born, his grandmother was hanging up curtains in the kitchen. Joel’s brother, who wasn’t even crawling yet, and his mother were in the kitchen — when his grandma was “shoved” off a kitchen chair.
Other worrisome and undeniable “pushings” happened at the time, and the family collectively attributed the haunting to the work of “Mr. Schuerman,” the original owner of the house. No one was sure where his agitation came from, though he was perhaps trying to protect his beloved home from the new owners, a nine-person-strong Catholic family.
No matter how many crucifixes adorned their walls (one per bedroom at the very least), Mr. Schuerman didn’t retreat. When a priest finally blessed the house, however, its original owner disappeared. He was the McGrath family ghost, or, rather, their first family ghost. Joel wouldn’t talk about the second.
These days, my mother’s house has a family ghost double-whammy — a visitation by my father that many members of our family have witnessed. On the day of my father’s funeral, my brother got a whiff of dad’s signature tobacco near his favorite recliner. Two more of us smelled it too, and no one could ever mistake that soggy, sweet cherry odor.
Most of us would wholeheartedly agree that my father, a decade-plus later, is still there. Doors open and close; door handles turn. There are Ghost-Of-Christmas-Past clankings from areas in the house that are only populated by non-clanky things. We’ve heard footsteps on the basement stairs, followed by faint tinkerings from dad’s workshop. Though it wasn’t his favorite, the house is definitely the meeting hub of some of his favorite people. Our family ghost is generally understated, but sometimes a little surly — and that’s exactly how my father was.
The Myers siblings share a family ghost, though neither of them knew it until years later. In this case, we’re not talking about welcome visitation, and even to relay the story makes my neck tense. Years ago, nine-year-old old Britt was sleeping on the living room couch and woke because she had to use the bathroom. “Suddenly,” she told me, “I saw [a shadow] slowly coming toward me from across the room. He was tall and thin and had no features. But I could tell he seemed to be wearing old-fashioned clothes, like a suit, and a hat. He came closer and closer, very slowly. I was so scared and I pulled the covers over my head and turned the other way so I couldn’t see him coming. I even peed in my pants.”
That is Britt’s entire story — but it doesn’t end there. She never told anyone about the “hat man,” but years later, she and her brother were talking about childhood memories, and “his eyes bugged out of his head when he heard [her] story.” One night when he was home from college he was sleeping in the basement and woke to see his dog staring at something. This “something” turned out to be exactly like the man Britt saw: a silhouette wearing “old-fashioned clothes” and a hat. Britt’s brother touched the shape with his foot, and it vanished (Incidentally, Britt describes her brother as “literally the most even-keeled and logical person” she knows.)
The Spoglios, unlike most people, seem to have individually experienced nearly every type of ghost available to the haunting consumer. Mom Jenn recounts seeing a “bald man with a blue robe” at the first house she and her husband Chad lived in. (A local teacher had died by suicide there years before.)
In their second house, Chad describes bolting out of the shower after a violent banging on the bathroom door — when he was home alone. And the couple’s now-second-grade son, Beckett, once looked out his blinds and saw “a white hoodie guy” picking flowers, in the middle of the night, in a clearing of their densely wooded property.
Though these individual paranormal experiences seem sinister or disturbing, the Spoglios also have a family ghost, and preschooler Rowan assures me that he is a “nice ghost.” When Rowan was three, he came down from his bedroom one early evening and announced that a “little boy is in my bed and he’s sick.” Named “Charlie” by Rowan, this boy is their family ghost, and no one is surprised when he is around. Jenn has been in the basement when toys, even ones without batteries, have started beeping or moving across the floor; Chad and Jenn have both heard “mom” or “dad” yelled out; Beckett says that Charlie sometimes follows him to his friend’s house; Rowan might see Charlie curled up in his bed at any time.
Jenn Spoglio has no idea why Charlie has come to be their family ghost (she has done a bit of research); Britt Myers has always wondered if their terrifying family ghost had something to do with the fact her house was “1/2 a mile away from a cemetery that had graves all the way back from the 1800s.” And Mr. Schuerman? We can make guesses, but they’re not likely educated ones.
Other family ghosts’ motives are a bit more transparent and are explainable to a degree, according to Haunted Orange County. Jenn Spoglio’s “bald man with the blue robe” might be tied to his past home because of his tragic end. (When the Spoglios rolled back their living room carpet, a bloodstain had seeped into the wood floor beneath.)
And my hope for my father is that his presence signals his emotional connection to us. Rebecca Rosen, author of “What the Dead Have Taught Me About Living Well,” explains that a unique odor may be a “departed loved one manifesting a specific scent…to let you know they are still with you.” And that is why the memory of my father’s soggy cherry pipe tobacco, wafting through the air, comforts me — even if it does come from a ghost.
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