Monday, October 04, 2010


by Gina Sestak

The theme for this month is scary things, and I'll tell you right up front, one thing that scares me a lot is ghosts.

I try to tell myself that ghosts are just unfortunate departed souls, trapped in the liminal space that separates the living from the dead.  I try to tell myself that ghosts are only snapshots, memories of those who were.  The one thing I can't tell myself is that there's no such thing as ghosts.  I know that isn't true because I grew up in a haunted house.

My family moved a lot when I was young.  My father worked for Westinghouse, which meant that he was often out of work - laid off or on strike.  When I was an infant, we lived in Wilkinsburg, PA, then he took a job in an auto factory in Detroit.  My mother and I moved there to join him, then returned to Pittsburgh when my grandfather was dying.  My father came back and went to work at Westinghouse again.   We stayed with my grandmother in the Lincoln-Lemington neighborhood at first, then rented an apartment in the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh.  Then back to Wilkinsburg again, where I started school.  When I was in first grade, we moved to the house in Lincoln-Lemington where the family remained until after I left for college.  The house that was haunted.

We didn't know the house was haunted when we moved in.

It was an old house, yellow brick, the last house on the left on a dead end street.  Beside it was a dahlia field, separated by an iron fence from St. Peter's Lutheran Cemetery.

We occupied the second and third floors at first, while another family lived on the first floor.  My mother had grown up a few blocks away, in a house her father built himself.  My grandmother still lived there.

We didn't realize that the house had a non-corporeal inhabitant at first.  Two adults and three children crowded into a two bedroom apartment meant that nobody was ever there alone.

As I got older, my mother decided that I couldn't continue to share a room with my little brothers, so my parents rented the whole house.   The living room, dining room and kitchen took up the first floor.   Our former living room became my parents' bedroom, while my brothers slept in the former kitchen.  I got a room alone on the third floor.  The other attic room, the back room, was used for storage.

My mother went to a lot of trouble to make my room look like everything a little girl should want - pink and white curtains and matching bedspread, freshly painted pink walls.

The noises started shortly after I moved in.

I woke up one night, hearing something scratching on my window.  The window was at the front of the house, three stories up.   There were no trees anywhere near it.  I hid my head under the blankets and prayed.  That would become my standard response.  [Remember, I was attending Catholic grade school at the time.]

The scratching sound came back again.  I prayed.  It went away.

Then the noises started coming from the other room.  There were two rooms on the third floor, separated by a small square hallway at the top of the steps from the second floor.

I heard something moving in the other room.  It pounded on the door.  I hid my head and prayed.

The pounding kept up almost every night.  Then one night the door from that room creaked open.  Footsteps came into my room and walked up beside my bed.  I stayed under the blankets.  After awhile, they went away.

The pounding and the footsteps continued after that.  Not every night, but often enough that I started sleeping on the couch down on the first floor.

I told my mother what was going on, and she put a hook-and-eye lock on the outside of the back room's door.

The pounding and the footsteps continued.  I would get up in the morning to find the lock and door both open.  In my room, things began to fall.  My mirror crashed to the floor.  The alarm clock on the bedside stand fell off.  Other things.  I stopped sleeping in my room at all.

I don't think my parents really believed me about the haunting.  I already had a reputation in the family for being weird.

After they had moved out, my grandmother mentioned that the house had a reputation.  She said she hadn't wanted to say anything while we were living there, but no one would live in that house in the 1930s.  Only the housing shortage brought on by World War II prompted people to inhabit it again.  She said a man who had been injured in a work-related accident had lived there on the third floor, confined by his disability.  He killed himself up there, in the back room.


Jennie Bentley said...

That sounds amazingly like another story I heard this weekend about another house somewhere in Pennsylvania - not sure where exactly - and another little girl, who heard knocking on the window, and squeaking of the rocking chair, and steps, and other noises growing up. They packed up tout de suite and got outta there. Can't say I blame them. As a very smart man once said, there's more between heaven and earth than anywhere else.

PatRemick said...

This gave me chills!

Laurie said...

Scary stuff, Gina!

Ramona said...

Yikes, Gina. For some reason, the mention of the dahlia field creeped me out.

I have never seen a ghost or apparition or anything other-worldly. I can't decide if that makes me feel fortunate, or deprived.

Gina said...

Jennie -
I wish my family had packed up and got out! I lived in total terror for many years.

Ramona -
The dahlia field was actually kind of neat. It belonged to our landlord, Mr. Gumto, who also owned a greenhouse. Every spring, a man would come with two huge draft horses and plow that field the old fashioned way. Watching those horses work was one of the high points of the year.

Gina said...

Did everybody click on "old house" to link to a Google Street View picture of the house? The little map in the lower right corner of the photo shows how close it is to the cemetery.

Kathy said...

Wow Gina, ONE night in that room would have been enough for me! It was fun to see a picture of the house too.

Laurie said...

I hadn't realized the link, Gina, but just clicked on it and based on your description and being a bit familiar with the area I pictured the house to be exactly as it is. Great descriptive writing!

Patg said...

Nothing like being spooked! I grew up in a house in Wilkes Barre across the street from a cemetery and there were two others, one block down and one block up. I always my imagination to being surrounded by the dead.

Karen in Ohio said...

That really would have freaked me out, too. You're a braver woman than I am, Gina!

We lived across from a large cemetery when I was growing up, and it was truly my favorite place to be, especially when teenaged angst would send me looking for someplace to cry it out. There was a lovely pond with a couple of weeping willows, and I could sit there for hours, right near the war casualty area. Very peaceful, and no weird noises unless someone honked their horn on the street behind the war graves.

Dave S. said...

Huh, sounds like it'd make a believer out of just about anyone....

Do you think it changed your life in any major way -- besides in your believing in ghosts, that is? I've wondered if something happened that seemed inexplicable, whether it'd tend to throw everything else one thought one "knew" also into question....

-- Dave S.

Gina said...

Dave -
At the time I was in Catholic school, so the bizarre non-corporeal stuff seemed normal. Being that scared for so long, though - I think that had an impact.