When my family finally fled the West Side neighborhood of Austin in Chicago in 1968 like all the other white people were doing, we moved to Logan Square. My uncle had bought an old two flat house that had been built in the 1890's. He took the top floor and we took the bottom. The house (and the one next door) had been owned by the same family for decades and it was in pretty good shape. It was bigger than the apartment we had had before and the neighborhood was quieter and definitely more stable than the block-busting racial tension of the one we had come from.
The only possible downside to the house was that it turned out to be haunted.
Irish culture in Chicago, at least on the West Side where I grew up and where my family had lived since the Great Fire was steeped in the presence of death. The dead were around us, sort of waiting while we did our jobs of getting them out of Purgatory. We visited cemeteries regularly, collected the Mass cards from decades of funerals and prayed for the people, and people had dreams and sometimes signs from the dead. But actual hauntings were as rare as they seem to be now. So they scared us. In part, because they seemed so tangible and in part because these dead people were strangers.
The first evidence of a ghost was in a small, creepy little room off of my uncle's living room. This room was not really large enough to have ever been a bedroom and we weren't really sure what it was originally supposed to be. My aunt and uncle put some furniture in it but didn't use it very often. However, one day, my aunt noticed that if one stood very still, one could sometimes hear the sound of a woman softly humming. She mentioned this to my uncle, and soon enough he started hearing it too. The humming wasn't a song. It was like someone just humming to themselves. Over time, all of the adults heard it in that room. No one believed at first that it was a ghost. It was just an oddity of the house. Maybe the plumbing was picking up a radio signal somehow or maybe it was coming from the house next door.
But then it got much worse.
Hearing the voice made people think about ghosts even if they didn't think the sound was a ghost. It became a family joke for a few weeks. But then one night, my aunt and uncle were awakened in the middle of the night by some kind of shape standing at the foot of their bed. This terrifying development was enhanced in the telling by the fact that each of them had been too afraid to see if the other was awake. So they both stared at whatever it was (it lasted for only a minute) without knowing that the other one was seeing it at the same time. It was only after it was gone that they checked on each other (or so they said). This might have also have just turned into a strange anecdote, except that my parents reported something similar happening (they said) on the same night at close to the same time. And again, my father didn't know that it had awakened my mother. They all described it the same way. No noise. Just a form, the size of a human, but vague in its outline.
They were now far more than half convinced that there was a ghost. And from that time, for the next seven years that we lived there, there were lots and lots of sightings, mostly in my uncle's apartment. As time went on, the sightings became more corporeal. There was an old man who would appear behind people in a hallway. He had no feet. There was a child who would walk into the living room from the kitchen, a little girl. There was a man who could sometimes be seen sitting in a chair next to the room where the singing woman was. There were footsteps, knocking on the walls, windows that opened themselves, taps that would turn on. And other things.
Outside of my parent's experience, we never saw anything in my apartment. But once while I was sitting in the kitchen with my mother talking one night, the doorknobs of all of the doors entering the kitchen (back door, two bedrooms, dining room, bathroom) rattled in order like someone was walking around trying them. And once, a friend of mine who was interested in ghosts (so he said) visited me. The house was otherwise empty. While we were talking about the ghosts, there was a sudden very sharp rapping on the wall close to the ceiling. We paused.
It started again.
I was very curious about all of this, of course, and I found that unlike most everyone else I wasn't afraid of the ghosts. I didn't really believe in them, to be honest. And while I had witnessed sounds, I never actually saw one of the actual spectres. I decided to keep a journal of the sightings and eventually I think I figured out what was going on.
The sightings went through cycles. There would be nothing for two or three months, and then a great deal of activity that would last two or three weeks. Aside from what people saw and heard, an odd type of proof that was added was the behavior of the cats that lived in the two apartments. Everyone believed that the cats could "see" things that the people couldn't, so when someone saw or heard something, they would immediately look to see what the cats were doing. If they heard something in the other room and if it looked like the cats didn't want to go into that room, it was accepted that the cats had "verified" that there was a ghost there. Another "proof" was the temperature in the room during the sighting. People would report that the room was colder or that there was a cold spot there. And finally, people would depend on how they felt at the time. If they felt afraid, then it followed that there must have been something to be afraid of.
What I think was happening was that some sound or glimpse of something would trigger a new cycle of ghost sightings. When this happened, people immediately told everyone else about it. From that point on, people would start listening more closely and I think naturally would start hearing, and then seeing, new things. Even when a spectre appeared, it was always for only a moment. There was no talking Marleys in this house. As more things were reported and people became more scared, they would pay very close attention to things and when they started doing this (wishing that there was in fact no ghost, since it was all so stressful) the sightings stopped and didn't return until people relaxed.
While the families did like to tell people that the house was haunted, they were also embarrassed about it. This embarrassment, I think, is what eventually caused the ghosts to vanish.
At some point after we had lived in the house for years, a squirrel or a rat got caught in the walls. It moved throughout the house, very clearly tapping as it tried to find a way out. Because it might have been a rat, people were afraid of it and didn't know what to do about it. I think that people hoped that it would either just die or that it would get out the way that it had gotten in. But it was a robust animal and it just kept coming.
One day I heard it in the pantry, trying to force its way up through the bottom of a metal cabinet that we had whose metal bottom was flush with the floor. It was hitting the bottom of the cabinet pretty hard in its desperation. This was no ghost. I had forgotten that under the cabinet was an old icebox drain. The floor was cut around the old pipe and the animal had found its way there. I went to the store and bought some rat poison and a sheet of tin. I came back and banged on the floor for a while to scare the animal away and then I dumped the poison into the hole and nailed the tin over it. In about a day the tapping stopped.
When I told everyone what I had done they were pleased. But I noticed from that point on, whenever the ghost was mentioned, people started to claim that there had never been a ghost at all. All along it had been a rat or squirrel in the walls. I found this amusing, because their accounts didn't match anything that I had observed with this animal. But there it was. Something natural and tangible had occurred to replace the ghost, who was thus exorcised. It never came back.
It was a good education for me to live in a place where people believed in something with all their hearts, on the basis of what they felt was direct observation, that did not in fact exist. It was a good education to see how quickly people could rewrite their own history when they had to. The experience has made me quite the skeptic, but it also made me see the humanity of these people who were terrified of the ghosts of their own making. And aside from the fact that every other person I know seems to have a ghost story of their own, it has surprised me no end to see how many ghosts of a different kind inhabit our world and infect our dreams.