Having problems with a ‘filmy’ apparition? You’re not alone
House Calls | Michael Good
My grandmother loved people. She managed to spend her entire life in the company of others. Four husbands (at least), two children, a lifetime of work in crowded factories (Showley Candy, Convair), big holiday family gatherings and even bigger holiday parties meant she was never alone. She even took on boarders.
So it came as no surprise that, after she died, her presence was still felt by those who knew her. When the door of her china cabinet mysteriously swung open of its own accord one morning, her last boarder, who was packing up to leave as we were packing up her belongings for an epic estate sale, said, “That’s your grandmother letting us know she’s still around.”
A week or so later, as the house filled with excited people – she had a ton of interesting stuff – Grandma was still on our minds. But I didn’t really feel her presence. What I did feel was the presence of her house. With the blinds open and a stream of sunlight and humanity filling the place, I realized the old house had some life in it still. So I surprised myself and just about everyone else by deciding to buy it.
A few months after that, when the cabinet door swung open again, and stayed open, refusing all attempts to keep it shut, the heating and air conditioning guy weighed in with his opinion.
“You know what causes that?” he asked. He’d been crawling around under the house all day so I was willing to indulge him.
“Ghosts?” I ventured.
“No, earthquakes. Thousands of tiny little earthquakes.”
This was my introduction to the wisdom of the aged, contractor edition. Fifteen years ago, anyone with experience working on old houses was at least past retirement age. And their home repair theories teetered on the edge of folk wisdom. Science, engineering, logic and education: these were not familiar fields of inquiry to the old guys who patched together my old house.
Though I’ve since changed professions (I now restore old houses), I haven’t changed houses, and it’s still not paranormal. I’ve worked late at night in many darkened, empty, even a little bit creepy old houses where bad things have happened – people have died, cried, gone a little crazy and had moments of desperation, and those are just the tradesmen working there – but I’ve yet to see an apparition.
In fact, the houses I’ve worked on are the opposite of haunted. They are pleasant, nice places to be. That’s why I work in them (just don’t ask me to venture into the crawl space).
An informal survey of the homeowners I’ve worked for yields a similar conclusion. No one has seen so much as a wisp of a ghost. But that’s not to say they haven’t seen some pretty weird stuff. Most mysteries have fairly mundane explanations, however.
A circle of pinholes in the middle of a bedroom door? Someone had a dartboard. Scratches at the bottom of a door inside a closet? Someone locked his dog in there. Frequently. Writing on the wall? One local builder signed his houses by writing on the head casing in the hallway, but most writing is just identifying marks used in construction.
I once found writing on a door I had stripped. I tried to decipher the surprisingly florid cursive: “Clos… I think it’s French… Closay?” That’s when I saw the letter “t” and remembered where the door came from: closet.
Not that the dead aren’t trying to communicate, they just did it while they were still alive.
I’ve found post cards and memorabilia enclosed in walls, newspapers showing the date the house was built, a union appointment book showing when the electrical work was redone, a message from the 1970s explaining the history of a 1880s Victorian, much of which turned out to be wrong, and a surprisingly well-preserved rat. I think the exterminator left that for me.
Speaking of which, if you sometimes feel you’re not alone, you’re probably not. That creepy trifecta – rats, cats and bats – do a pretty good ghost impersonation. And they’re not alone. Mice scamper through walls, squirrels race through attics, skunks make some unearthly sounds and possums (the world’s dumbest animals) scratch stupidly at everything.
Houses can seem alive, not only because animals are living in them, but also because they are constantly on the move. It’s not just the earthquakes; it’s the steady expansion and contraction of the clay soil beneath raised foundations.
Wood takes on moisture, too, and then dries out again. Termites do their work and nails eventually rust and come loose. Nothing stays the same. Our houses, like us, are slowly aging. Unfortunately, they aren’t aging as fast as we are, and will likely outlast us, just as my grandmother’s house outlasted her.
If it’s any consolation, San Diego does have some certified haunted houses. The Travel Channel’s “America’s Most Haunted” has named the Whaley House the most haunted house in America. But don’t expect levitating chairs and rivers of ectoplasm. Listen for the knocking boots of Yankee Jim, a guy lynched on the property in the 1860s for attempted grand larceny (imagine what they would have done to him had he actually succeeded).
Then there’s the minor meltdown by Regis Philbin, who tried to spend the night there in 1964 but couldn’t quite cut it after seeing a “filmy apparition.” He is, after all, in the film business. “You know, a lot of people pooh-pooh it because they can’t see it,” he said at the time, “but there was something going on in that house.”
You’ll find the Philbin quote on the San Diego Ghost Hunter website, along with details of the Whaley House Halloween ghost tours, which take place on Oct. 12, 13, 19, 20 and 29.
If you do encounter something filmy this Halloween, here’s a word of advice: magnetism. On my “haunted” cabinet door I attached a small metal plate. On the opposite shelf, I screwed in a small magnet. When the two meet, something mysterious happens. The door stays closed. Score one for science.
—Michael Good is a contractor and freelance writer. His business, Craftsman Wood Refinishing, restores architectural millwork in historic houses in San Diego. He is a fourth-generation San Diegan and lives in North Park. You can reach him at email@example.com.