BY MELISSA MADARA
It was a chilly, late-fall evening when I broke into my childhood home. The process felt mechanical, even trancelike. I used a screwdriver to pop a window frame on the porch, while my friends hung back at the edge of the property until I gave the all-clear. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I tumbled through the porch window into the house- now silent, cold, and dark, yet still heartbreakingly familiar- but it definitely wasn’t ghosts.
We sold the house in 2013, as a stipulation of my parent’s divorce agreement. It sat empty and decaying for two years afterward, the gutters falling off and the lawn overgrown, before it was leveled for new construction in 2016. It was always strange seeing the house like that in the frequent visits I made back to the lot, but it always remained a talismanic object for me- symbolic of the entire lives lived within its walls, and often seeming to breathe with a life of its own.
In a way, this was true. For as long as I can remember, the house had been haunted. I don’t mean this in some metaphorical, poetic way. I can count on one hand the amount of times my best friend agreed to sleep over, and she still recounts stories of sleep paralysis, disembodied knocking, and the unsettling sound of movement within the walls. My mother’s boyfriend once ran screaming from the house in the middle of the night after seeing an apparition seated at the foot of my bed. If I invited boys over for teenage shenanigans, they would find a way to leave by dusk. Our house had a storied reputation, and there were always more stories being written.
The earliest memory I have of experiencing our haunting (or hauntings, perhaps, because it took so many forms) was of the footsteps on our staircase. This was always the most obvious and consistent aspect of the haunting, and occurred nearly every night until we finally left. They were the heavy footsteps of the last patriarch of the house- a toweringly tall man we knew as Walter. Every night, Walter methodically plodded up and down our stairs, as if on patrol. The door of my childhood bedroom opened right to the top of the staircase, which gave me a unique vantage of the footstep phenomenon, and the absolute nothingness attached to the sound.
There was also disembodied knocking from within the walls. Lights would flicker on cue, especially when discussing the haunting. Sleep paralysis and night terrors were common. Certain rooms would give off icy chills, or the unsettling feeling of being watched. Objects would move, vibrate, throw themselves across rooms, or even disappear completely, only to reappear in plain sight months later. Apparitions were frequent occurrences- from previous tenants, to strange and horrifying patches of living darkness, to unfamiliar characters- human and animal alike. We had a particularly odd three month stretch where every guest to the house would repeatedly ask “when did you guys get a cat?” We never did.
It’s amazing what you can normalize over time. As a family, we engaged with the haunting on a near daily basis, but except for a few rare and animated occurrences, I don’t recall us being scared or unsettled at home. We even frequently engaged with the haunting, though this mostly amounted to yelling “SHUT THE FUCK UP” at Walter’s ceaseless all-night stair climbing. The supernatural nature of our house was integrated into the mundanity of our lives.
That was, until the Black Thing arrived.
I’ve always been prone to exceptionally high fevers, usually breaking 104 but once rising to a life threatening 107. These temperatures have brought vivid and terrifying hallucinations since I was a teenager, but the first time I saw the Black Thing, it was no hallucination. I was a senior in high school and up very late with a fever, perhaps past midnight. My mother woke up to give me medicine to reduce the heat, and she had just slipped back to bed. In my delirium, I was absently staring out my door and into the hallway, when the darkness seemed to gather and coalesce, densely and thickly, like ink in water. The seething blackness gathered into a vaguely humanoid shape with arms and legs- well over six feel tall. The Black Thing took what could be called a step forward, and placed what might have been a hand on the frame of my doorway, using it to let itself in. It then appeared to crouch next to my bed, staring eyelessly into my face. I summoned my strength, flicked on my bedside lamp, and called for my mother as loud as I could. She immediately ran into my room, eyes wide, and asked “You saw that, too?”
Whatever it was, the Black Thing became an unwelcome fixture outside my bedroom door. Its presence spread an uneasy air through the house, and seemed to affect the mechanics of our interpersonal interactions, as well as the original haunting in the home. We fought more as a family, and felt driven apart. I fell into an acute depression. We began to hear Walter’s footsteps not just at night, but following immediately behind when we ascended the stairs, as if chasing us. Living, dead, or otherwise- the Black Thing’s presence affected us all.
It became so severe that my mother tried to exorcise it herself once when my sister and I were at school. She began by issuing statements of intent, stating that the house was her domain and she wasn’t about to let some shifty shadow prick scare her children. She used burning herbs and sea salt to begin cleansing the house, but only got so far. In the middle of the process, she recalls the TV flicking on to static and then shutting off, after which she fell violently ill, vomiting in the kitchen sink until she was exhausted and could not continue. She was still visibly shaken when we returned home that afternoon.
That week, I took a free period to cross the street from my high school to a Passionist monastery, where I consulted a priest on the issue. He blessed a crucifix for us that I still have in my home, sent me on my way with some holy water and a pat on the head. I took these objects home, and while they seemed to help us set up stronger boundaries with the Black Thing, it never fully disappeared, though never troubled us so severely again, either. I wish there was a more cinematic ending to this story, but there isn’t. It’s existence faded into something we experienced and coped with, but were never again terrorized by. As I said earlier, it’s amazing the kind of things you can normalize and learn to live with.
As an adult, I’ve done my share of research about what the Black Thing could have been. I have my theories, but ultimately I don’t think I’ll never know. Could it have been a “shadow person”- a common yet unexplainable figure of spooky folklore? Could it have been an egregore- an autonomous manifestation- of the shared trauma of my parent’s divorce? Could it have been a demon, or something more sinister? Was it the spirit of a person who had died? Had it ever been alive? While I don’t have answers, I do have the experience that we all shared in that house, and it’s something that I hope will embolden and prepare me should I ever encounter a similar fiend again.
When I revisited the house that fall and broke in, I wasn’t driven to reconnect with these old haunts. I was nostalgic for my youth, and wanted to curl up in my old bedroom and spend a night feeling at home for the first time since I moved out. When I clumsily tumbled in through that window and dusted myself off, I wasn’t thinking about ghosts. But as I looked up and through the windows that peered from the porch into our old living room, sure as shit, there they were- as if I had just interrupted a tea party. There were several faint and humanoid shadows, facing me, all leaning at odd and unsettling angles like crooked teeth. And smack in the middle, of course, was the towering Black Thing. They were all just as I remembered experiencing them, and now seemed a bit harmless- maybe even welcoming. There was something very familiar in that moment that erased anything that might have been spooky for someone else. We always shared that house with other worlds, and it felt almost nice to come home to a spectral welcoming committee.
I called for my friends and helped them through the window, and when I looked back, the ghosts were gone. Maybe they were just for me to see, who knows? We turned on our flash lights and I opened the unlocked porch door, which swung open into familiar darkness. I was blessed to be able to spend one final night exploring the haunted house I grew up in before it was demolished. Most importantly, I’m grateful that I had the change to finally say my goodbyes- to my youth in that house, the years we spent living there, and the numberless strange creatures we shared it with.
BY MELISSA MADARA