BY CHANEL DUBOFSKY
1. When I was nine, my mother, grandmother, and I moved into an old Victorian house in a neighborhood full of old Victorian houses. Ours was painted green, had a wrap around front porch, a butler's pantry, a stained glass window on the landing between the first and second floors. In my grandmother's room, on the wall facing the staircase, there was a stain. It was grey, and if you looked at it from a certain angle, it seemed like it was in the shape of a narrow-shouldered woman, with her hair piled on top of her head. If you approached, it didn't disappear, but it was as though the closer you got, the more difficult it was to find the angles with your eyes.
2. I was afraid of things in that house: darkness, mainly, but also the sounds I heard from upstairs when I washed my hair in the kitchen sink. The possibility of things lurking in the living room behind me while I did my homework. Once, sitting in my room, I saw the clock change too fast, the number flip from a 2 to a 3 before the minute was up. I still wonder about that moment, if what I'd witnessed was real, or the result of hard imagining.
3. I used to read the black and white covers of tabloids while waiting in line at the supermarket. They promised dates of the end of the word,which lodged themselves in my brain and made all my movements panicked and nervous. My grandmother, Jewish when it was convenient, but still fearing the goyim, told me, "They always think they know when the end will come. Only God knows."
4. My mother was afraid of the neighbors, of cancer, of my father, of money, and for a certain period of time in the 1980s, Satanic cults. She asked me about my dance teacher--was he into witchcraft? He was into being a dance teacher, I thought, although I didn't say it. I didn't know what she was talking about, so what I said was, "No."
5. I took books full of ghost stories out of the library. Most of them were boring, but there was one story about a haunted house in England. One morning, after a series of macabre events, the family woke up to find a knife stuck in the kitchen table. That was it for them. Me, I thought, this is the kind of story I prefer.
6. When I am old enough to feel in charge of myself, which might have been 19, or 26, or 32, I start hunting for ghost stories to watch on tv, or to play in the background while I work. I watch an episode of one show in the living room of my apartment, until my roommate comes in and declares that the people who think they're house is haunted are probably schizophrenic. I turn it off. It's the kind of thing you hide, at least in the beginning, because it's weird, but then maybe, you start to give away small secrets.
7. On these shows, there is almost always a family, the nuclear kind, whatever that is. It's the women and children who know first--the women because they hear the children talking to someone who isn't there, or because they're the ones who are home all day. The men tell them they're crazy, they refuse to believe it, until someone levitates, or until blood drips down the walls, and even then, who knows? When they do believe it, they get aggressive--they challenge the thing, they say things like, "I'm the man of the house, it's my job to protect my family." They invite the spirit into them. They make the phone calls.
8. I'm soothed by the voices, the repetition, the never-ending supply of stories. When investigators arrive and they explain it away, a part of me is disappointed.
9. In the town near where I went to college, where I learned how to be alone, I spend an evening walking around with a group, led by a recent graduate who tells us where the haunted places are. In the concert hall, in a bank that is now an upscale clothing store, in a coffee shop I go to constantly, in a dorm. I tell my friends that Sylvia Plath used to check her mail at Seelye Hall, which I know because I had an aggressive Sylvia Plath phase as an undergraduate. We talk about where she lived with Ted, in a certain yellow house. This place isn't haunted by her, though. At least not by her ghost.
10. On Saturday mornings, for a few months, I take a train from Brooklyn to the Bronx, where I stand in front a women's health clinic in a yellow vest and hold open doors and listen to people chanting Catholic liturgy. They carry posters and crosses and stare at us and sometimes try to hand pamphlets to people going in. One morning, a bus arrives, packed with blonde, coiffed Texans. We agree that the younger ones have likely been bribed with promises of visiting Times Square later, definitely the M & M store. The pastor is also young, sweatered, good looking, aggressive. The group gathers in front of the clinic, close together, and the pastor begins to chant. If you are at this place for long enough, you recognize the prayers, they will follow you around. But this thing he chants, it's the exorcism prayer. I know it because I've heard it before, on TV, while a person writhes and growls and sweats and swears, surrounded by priests and family members, who are desperate to bring the demon out. Like a baby. Come out for us, little one/big one/more than one. Out here, it's safer. In there, who knows.
Photos by Chanel Dubofsky