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Do I believe in Ghosts?
A personal ghost story for Hallowe'en
After reading Dead Seas, subscriber Ben Godwin sent me a simple question:
Do you believe in ghosts?
What better day to answer this than the spookiest day of the year?
So, what’s my answer? I would have to say, I’m… not sure.
If you forced me, gun to my head, I’d say, no, that I’m a rationalist. I love ghost stories, both fictional and ‘real’.1 They’re my favourite form of entertainment, especially in winter and always at Christmas!2
But I don’t think I truly believe, even though there is a nagging doubt at the back of my mind.
Maybe it’s because I once lived in a haunted house.
Or should I say an allegedly haunted house?
It was back in the early ‘90s when I was living it large as a student at Manchester University. In my second year, I moved out of the hall of residence and rented an old two-up / two-down terrace house with a couple of friends, right in the middle of the city.
Everything seemed fine and dandy until, about four weeks after we moved in, strange things started to happen. Belongings would vanish, only to reappear moments later in the last place you looked. I’d put down my keys on the dining room table, turn around and they’d be gone. I’d look for them on the floor, and go trawling through other rooms in case I’d been mistaken and had left them elsewhere. Then I’d walk back into the dining room and there they would be, on the table, exactly where I thought they should’ve been and where they definitely hadn’t been a few minutes before.
This particular example happened twice and —yes, before you ask — I was alone in the house both times.
It happened to all three of us, with all kinds of things. Wallets. Books. Cutlery. Even once, a full cup of tea. Each time we shrugged it off, saying we’d been mistaken, but never quite able to explain it.3
Then there were creaks on the ceiling when we were watching telly even though there was no one upstairs, sudden bangs and even the sound of a baby crying when there were no babies in the street.
Because yes, I checked.
At the time I put most of it down to overacting imaginations, the age of the house, or even my housemates playing tricks (although the same things happened to them too!) Besides, none of this was particularly original. Creaking floorboards, sudden noises and the wailing of mysterious infants. It’s the stuff of a hundred-and-one ghost movies.
Then, one evening, something happened that really scared me.
My bedroom was on the ground floor by the front door. It was late and I was upstairs, brushing my teeth in the bathroom, when I started to feel uneasy. I turned off the tap, left my toothbrush on the sink and opened the door, looking straight down the stairs to the hallway below. It seemed impossibly dark down there. I was sure I’d left the light on in my bedroom, but the door was open and there was no light spilling out on the hallway carpet.
My housemates were in their rooms upstairs, one listening to the radio, the other to records. Maybe all this was one of them playing a joke. I had pulled pranks on them if I was completely honest, writing ‘BOO’ on the kitchen window with my finger so the secret message would be revealed when they were doing the washing up, the window steaming up. Highly mature. Maybe this was their revenge?
But that didn’t explain the overwhelming sense of dread I felt at that moment, the sensation that something wasn’t right downstairs and I shouldn’t go back down to my room.
That was when my bedroom door slammed shut.
I banged on my housemate’s doors, checking that they were both upstairs and they were. What’s more, they said they’d felt it too.
Someone. Was. Downstairs.
We stood at the top of the stairs and stared into the gloom, utterly terrified, before agreeing that we’d go down together. Safety in numbers! And so we crept down, me leading the way. My heart was thumping as we reached the bottom. The door to the dining room was open and there was moonlight spilling through the window, illuminating the table where my keys had gone missing only to reappear again, but the hallway still seemed impossibly dark, the solid front door in shadow.
Rachel, one of my housemates, flipped on the dining room light switch and light spilled into the hallway. Scurrying past my bedroom, I checked the front door, but it was locked, the chain still thrown, meaning we would have heard someone coming or going that way. Neither was there anyone in the dining room, or the kitchen, the back door that led out to the yard similarly locked. All that was left was my bedroom, the door still shut tight. By now, the three of us had scared ourselves silly. Who - or what - had slammed my bedroom door? Was there someone in there? Something?
There was only one thing for it. Muttering ‘this is stupid’ to myself, I reached out, grabbed the door handle and thrust open the door.
The room was exactly how I left it, the light still on. The light that had definitely been switched off when I’d looked down from the landing. Oh, and there was one other, slightly odd, thing.
My toothbrush was lying on the pillow of my bed.
The toothbrush I’d left on the sink upstairs.
That night I slept on the sofa in the dining room.
In the cold light of day, I came up with all kinds of theories to explain what had happened. The light bulb was on the blink. A gust of wind had blown the door shut.4 I’d accidently used someone else’s toothbrush.5
Whatever the explanation, we never experienced any other weird stuff after that night. Nothing vanished only to reappear again and the creaks and the bangs stopped, along with the screaming baby. We’d probably imagined them anyway, right?
Eventually, we moved out and, by chance, halfway through my final year, I met one of the people who moved into the house after us. During the conversation, I asked where they lived and couldn’t believe it when they rattled off my old address.
‘Like living there?’ I asked, not thinking too much of it, and they nodded, before, completely unprompted, they asked me if anything weird had happened to us when we were living there. They went on to explain that, for the first few months, things seemed to go missing only to turn up again. There were weird noises culminating in one evening when they were all upstairs and the door of the downstairs bedroom slammed shut for no reason. They looked down the stairs to see that all the lights had turned off.
I didn’t ask about their toothbrush.
So what about now? All these years later, do I think that terraced house in Manchester was haunted? I’m still not sure, although that conversation with the guy who lived there after us still gives me chills.
I guess the question is do I want to believe in ghosts?
In many ways, a belief in ghosts is a form of hope. Perhaps that’s the real reason we’re so fascinated with ghost stories. Yes, they can scare the bejesus out of us, but they can also be a strange form of comfort, a suggestion that there’s something beyond this mortal coil, surviving death.
I just wish they hadn’t kept stealing my keys!
What about you? Do you believe in ghosts? Have you had any spectral experiences? Share them in the comments.
My favourite source of ghost stories these days is Danny Robins’ wonderful Uncanny podcast - now also a TV show from the BBC. ‘Harry Called’ is one of the creepiest things you will hear this year and I also recommend Danny’s long-form investigations, The Battersea Poltergeist and The Witch House. Not to be missed!
It’s no secret that my favourite novel of all time is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I am beside myself with excitement to be seeing Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston play Scrooge next month!
One of the strangest ‘missing then re-appearing’ objects was the house’s slightly squashed but pretty-damned-bulky washbasket. I was on crutches when most of this was going on, having injured my foot. In the midst of the so-called haunted activity, I hobbled into the dining room and flopped on the sofa to watch afternoon telly. (Hey! I was a student! Don’t come at me!) A minute later, one of my housemates followed me into the room and tripped over the washbasket that had been left upside down in the middle of the doorway. There was no way I could’ve made my way past it, not on crutches. To this day, I’m convinced the washbasket wasn’t there when I entered the room.
Although none of my windows were open. It was a freezing cold November night in Manchester. I may have been spooked, but I wasn’t nuts!