HAUNTED HOUSES: LIVING WITH THE FEAR AND TRAUMA OF RESIDING IN A HAUNTED HOUSE
Sara Johnson* of California knows the fear of living in a haunted house. Several years ago, the St. Louis, Missouri home her family resided in had a healthy case of a haunting. Doors would open and close, sometimes locking members in a room, a picture of Jesus would reverse on the wall or fall off, apparitions appeared to be standing behind people in mirrors and water faucets would turn on and off. “I can’t answer those questions and I'm not sure I want to,” Johnson said, when asked to offer quotes for this article. “They are disturbing and I don’t think I can do it.”
Indeed, still today, Johnson is haunted by the memories of living in this house. Only 13 at the time, the incidents occurring left an indelible mark on her past, sometimes resulting in nightmares. Today, after nearly 20 years, she is still unable to confront them. “I can’t go there, not yet,” she said.
It’s trauma such as this that can stay with residents of a haunted house. Most people learn to live with the unusual incidents associated with living in a haunted house but for some, the trauma can be very real, even permanent.
“In a typical haunting, all these things [nightmares, insomnia, depression, addiction, etc.] can be caused by the anxiety many people feel over the events they are experiencing,” Dave Juliano, Director of South Jersey Ghost Research (http://www.sjgr.org/),founder of The Shadowlands: Ghosts and Hauntings (http://theshadowlands.net/ghost/) and author of the books "Positive Energy for Haunted Homes" and "Ghost Research 101: Investigating Haunted Homes," said. “They cannot explain what is happening and the basic fear of the unknown kicks in and the anxiety starts. In other, less common circumstances, some of these things may be caused by a non-human or lower level spirit with malicious intent.”
“The mind is an amazing organ. If one allows outside interferences to control their way of thinking, a haunting can produce disastrous effects,” said Lisa Cox, of MAJDA (http://majda.net/). “You are as strong as your mind. And it can play tricks on you, if you let it. One must look upon (the) paranormal with an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out. It is absolute that sleeplessness and nightmares can occur. This would be quite normal. However, if depression, addiction and other symptoms of this seriousness occur, something more is going on. It could be some form of a medical problem or (to dare to venture into another spectrum) possible possession of another spirit wreaking havoc on the individual's mind causing a change in personality.”
“Residents who are stressed out about their haunting can experience widely differing levels of trauma, depending upon how they deal with stress,” Kristyn Beaty, Acting Assistant Director of South Jersey Ghost Research, said. “People who are better at dealing with stress will be more able to cope with a haunting, and keep it in perspective.”
Both Juliano and Cox have been on cases where residents experienced trauma from their hauntings.
“Each situation is unique but I usually will let them know what I have experienced and then point out that I now purposely go into strangers’ haunted houses to try to help them,” Juliano said. “If things were really that bad I would not be doing that. With people who are traumatized by a ‘regular’ human-spirit haunting, I will also try to point out some ‘Hollywood type’ scenarios and make the person see that what they are experiencing is nothing compared to the horror movies that the frame or reference for many people.”
“This is a pretty sticky subject, in that yes, we have come across some people who have had these symptoms,” Cox said. “However, I have found no evidence to support that their depression or the other symptoms were caused by the haunting itself. Unfortunately, we have found this sort (in our investigation) to be more of a mental instability rather than a haunting. In each of these cases, we found no scientific evidence of paranormal activity. We let the person know this, and in some cases it eased their minds.”
Living in a haunted house can have its interesting moments. Residents have learned to live with furniture moving about or lights flickering, common characteristics of a haunted house. Yet some may perceive what they see, hear and feel to be worse than it actually is, perhaps even bordering on the intolerable. “Since the fear is often based on things that the person has seen on TV, read in books, etc., it is often exaggerated for no reason,” Juliano said. “I will work with the person to better understand their situation, to allow them to come to a realization that there is no reason for the extreme fear. Teaching the person that negative emotions like fear can increase the activity, and positive emotions may help alleviate some of the problems, is key.”
Positive emotions weren’t on the mind of Dominic Samson*. His wife, Wynonna*, recounted their experience to me. “In the Fall of 2000, my husband and I moved into a charming little house. We rented this house from a woman whose mother lived there for 20 years or so. This lady died in the house, not once but twice! She called her daughter one morning to say she wasn’t feeling well and by the time her daughter arrived along with an ambulance, she had died. The paramedics revived her, but she died again in the same spot. It was almost a year after the mother died that her daughter decided to rent out the property. We had never met either woman, and only met the daughter while house hunting.
”Before we moved into this house, we had a lot of cleaning to do. Every afternoon my husband and I would go to the house and spend several hours working there. This is when we first noticed something was definitely strange. My husband would get a case of hiccups as soon as he stepped onto the bottom step leading into the yard. This was a city house on a hill with several steps leading into the yard, and more leading up to the porch.
“The first time this happened, we laughed about it because I had never seen him with hiccups. It was funny. But when we left that day, as soon as he stepped off that last step onto the street, the hiccups stopped immediately. Since he was plagued by them for hours, it was noticeable when it stopped.
“The next day, the exact same thing happened. As soon as he stepped onto the bottom step the hiccups started and as soon as he stepped back onto the street they would stop. This went on until the day we moved in, so we were already joking about how the lady didn’t like him and didn’t want him there.
“The first time I actually saw the woman, I was in the very spot where she died. I looked up, like when you can just ‘feel’ someone watching you, and there she was…peeking around the living room corner at me. Bear in mind that I had never seen a photo of her and had no idea what she looked like in life. This woman did not look at all like her daughter. Later that evening, I spoke with our landlady and told her what I saw. She and I were becoming friends, and she had my husband and me over for dinner. I described the woman as tiny and rather stern-looking, with short curly hair. She was wearing a light blue house dress with a pink floral design. Our landlady teared up and told me that I had described her mother to a ‘T’ and that the dress I described was her favorite…she wore it all the time before she died. She brought out a photo of her mother and I was floored. She was definitely the woman I saw. This was only the beginning.
“For the next couple of months, I saw the woman from time to time. She never interacted with me, but just seemed to be watching. My husband’s experience was quite different. He has always been prone to migraines, but he would get them so bad that he would be incapacitated. He would feel her pulling his hair and tugging on his beard. When these things happened, he didn’t hear her voice but he seemed to understand that she was saying she did not approve of him at all. He says it was more like words in his head.
“We kept our landlady updated on these things. She had actually tried to make contact with her mother since her death with no success, so she was very interested in any details we could give. When we told her of the hair-pulling and beard- pulling, she told us that her mother had always been very vocal about not liking men with long hair or beards. My husband has always had very long hair and a long goatee, so that made sense.
“I continued seeing her around the house, and my experiences remained benign. My husband’s experiences worsened. A stack of 5 or 6 books flew off a table at him even though they had been in that same spot for a week or more. I watched this happen and the only way to describe it is that they slid off the tabletop and went straight out about 3 feet to hit him. I never had problems with the windows in the house, but when he was in the bedroom alone in the evenings with the windows open, they would slam shut.
“Now here is what happened the night everything came together and finally ended. My husband got another migraine. This was the worst I had ever known of him to have, and he hasn’t had another like it since. He was lying down on the floor with a cold damp towel wrapped around his head. He couldn’t bear that for long, so I sat by him in a sort of yoga crossed-leg position and he rested his head in my lap. That way, I could support his head without the pressure of it being on a pillow. He tossed and turned, wrapping his arms around his head and kept saying the strangest things. ‘YES! I HEAR you!’ and ‘PLEASE stop. I WILL!’ It was like he was having a conversation with someone I couldn’t hear. I later learned that this was exactly the case. He heard the woman’s voice as if she was in the room with us, although I didn’t hear her. He told me that she kept yelling at him, directly into his ears.
“He kept this up for hours, always saying something to the effect of ‘Yes, I will do what you ask. Please leave me alone now.’ He was feverish so I feared he was hallucinating or something like that, but his medication didn’t help at all. Then out of the blue he rose up and looked at me. He said, ‘Tell Jane* to get the ring out of the box and wear it. You have to remember to tell her.’ I agreed, and then he grabbed his pillow and fell asleep on the floor.
“The next day, we went to our landlady’s house very early. We sat in her dining room, right across from the box containing her mother’s ashes. When we told her what happened the night before, she started crying and left the room. We were both afraid we had stepped over the line in telling her but when she returned, she held out her hand. She was wearing a big ring with several different types of stones. She called it a ‘Tree of Life’ ring, and then told us the story behind it. “She owned a ring that her mother liked, and her mother owned a ring that she liked. Every so often they would trade and wear each other’s ring. When her mother died, she placed that ring in a box and never wore it again. After she put her mother’s ring back on, my husband never had another migraine in the year we lived there, he never felt the hair pulling or beard pulling, the windows never slammed shut and I never saw her again.”
Even though Wynonna’s husband experienced trauma during this time they lived in their home, he tells me today, "At the time this happened, I was teaching Magick classes both publicly at a store and privately with appointments. I just thought she wanted me to leave the house. I didn't really think she was trying to communicate. It affected me directly by the fact that I never wanted to be at home and the migraines and of course the incessant hiccups that would cease as soon as I placed my feet on the street. The hiccups alone were difficult to tolerate, but the hair pulling, beard pulling and migraines were worse. Looking back, I wish that I could have been better able to communicate with her. Maybe she wouldn't have been as hard on me then."
He added, "When we lived in that house, it was very uncomfortable for me to be there. During the first two weeks it was constant...whenever I was in the house, but after the first two weeks it was only occasionally. When she told me about the ring and how she wanted me to tell her daughter to wear it, that was at the end of the first two weeks. Afterward, I only heard her and felt her presence once in a while."
Thankfully, the experiences the Samsons had in their home hasn’t resulted in any long-term trauma. “I think the torment was actually a by-product of her trying to communicate, although I think she didn't like me, anyway. The only long-term effects of this situation on me are the unpleasant memories and a slightly entertaining story about it all. Because I was familiar with the esoteric world before all this started, I was able to go through it without being scarred.”
This is exactly the kind of attitude Beaty says will help someone who has experienced supernatural episodes while living in a haunted house. “I think that the way people deal with stress is the bottom line,” she said. “If someone is able to maintain a positive outlook on life, the person will not be as dramatically affected as someone who is constantly feeling stressed.”
Keeping a positive outlook is a good way of dealing with strange happenings while in a haunted house. But for Julia Daniels*, of Red Oak, Texas, the experiences in her new home compelled her and her husband, Thomas*, to seek help in getting rid of their ghost. While moving into their new home, the couple and even some visiting in-laws kept noticing a strange body odor by the front door. Julia’s mother-in-law even commented that she saw a man standing by the door, watching with interest as they painted the new home. Since they didn’t perceive him to be a threat, nobody said or did anything concerning their ghostly roommate.
Then things took a big turn.
“About 2-3 weeks ago, my husband saw him in the master closet,” Julia said. “He seemed to be wearing a brown suit from the '70s. Thomas came out of the closet with goosebumps all over his body, scared. He is 6'2" and 250 pounds, not scared of anything, but the ghost scared him. Neither one of us wanted to go back into the closet alone for a few days.”
Not long after, Julia was visited by the ghost, too. This time, the ghost crossed a line. “This last Wednesday, I was relaxing in the bathtub, when I started feeling like I was not alone,” she said. “I began feeling what I thought was bubbles going up my back but then I got very scared because it was like fingers rubbing my back. I got out of the tub and was leaving the bath when the water stopped draining. I went to go move the stopper so water could drain. When I reached in the tub, the stopper was all (the) way in the drain! I have never had a bath/sink stopper that has been pulled turn over and reinsert back into the drain.” She added, “If he had not ‘touched’ me while I was in the bath, he could have stayed, but that was crossing a boundary so that is why we are asking him to leave.”
It’s personal boundaries getting crossed like this which Juliano points out as an indicator a resident should seek advice or help in coping with their haunting experiences. “I would say that if their everyday life is being adversely affected, then they should go to speak with someone,” he said.
“Contacting a paranormal investigative group in good standing is one way to try to confirm the haunting,” Cox agreed. “It often helps to speak with others who can understand what it is you are talking about, and may relieve some of your concerns.”
The question remaining, though, is who exactly to talk to about this experience? Paranormal investigators are a good choice but some may believe that, because the trauma they experience can often result in problems such as depression and panic anxieties, a psychologist would be their best bet. Yet some may be under the impression that a parapsychologist, and not exactly a regularly certified psychologist, would be the better choice since what they are dealing with is, by nature, of the paranormal variety. Parapsychology is not a recognized field in the mental health world, yet it is a title popping up in magazine articles and on the streets. However, even as the University of California at Berkeley offers a course on the subject, it is not something Juliano recommends. “What I and most ghost research groups do is not parapsychology,” he said. “All my views are opposed to the field of parapsychology. The two fields are often thought to be the same but they are quite different. I am dealing with spirits. Parapsychologists deal with events that are unexplainably being caused by the human mind. Anyone who is traumatized by a haunting should never talk to a parapsychologist unless they want to (be) part of their research. They do not offer help. They would be better off simply talking to others who have had similar experiences. In severe instances, they should not be afraid to talk to a therapist.”
In addition to reaching out to talk to others about their experiences, the experts have other suggestions for coping with the trauma of living in a haunted house.
“No matter what the level of stress, people need to remain upbeat and keep a positive outlook so that things do not spiral up to the level of extreme trauma,” Beaty said. “It may seem difficult, but it's the most important thing that they can do.”
Why the stress on maintaining a positive outlook despite their frightening circumstances? Ghosts, especially negative entities, can feed on fear. They can pick up on energy from fear and anxiety and make it worse. “It is possible, which is why I tell people that even though it is easier said than done, it is utterly important that they maintain a positive and calm outlook on life,” Beaty said. “As I said, spirits use energy to manifest, be that electrical energy or nervous energy. If they find a small supply of nervous energy, they will find it difficult to stay and manifest.”
Cox agreed. “It is quite possible for the entity to pick up on this and try to make it worse for you,” she said. “Perhaps as in life, they may have been a prankster and get a kick out of scaring you. Or worse yet, you may come across a darker entity that gets its strength from your fears.”
Beaty offered further advice on some positive things a resident can do to help cope with a haunting. “Meditation exercises can help, as well as the usual healthy habits -- for mind as well as body (get enough sleep, exercise, watch what you eat, for example). Another thing for residents to keep in mind is that if the occupying spirit is a more cranky one in a positive living environment, the spirit will move on to a more sympathetic environment. People tend to keep the personalities that they had while they were alive, and if someone was generally grumpy in life, he or she will not feel like they want to stay in a home where everyone was happy and positive. Like attracts like, is what we believe.”
“Either way, in any type of haunting, it should be investigated, especially if it is interfering with the person's life and causing problems of any sort,” Cox suggested. “Don't wait to contact someone for their opinion if there is a viable problem.”
She added, “Keep in mind, a spirit generally is quite harmless. After all, they are only human also, just in a different form. Keep your wits about you. Remember, you are the living entity in your home. They are long gone.”
After the experiences come and go, after residents have moved out and years pass by without any further problems, some, such as Johnson, may find it difficult to find closure with what they went through. Some haunting experiences can have long-term negative consequences such as insomnia and nightmares. This is when the issues and memories must be confronted so that the person may make peace with their past and move on. “They have to learn to accept what they have experienced,” Juliano said. “By not coping with the anxiety of the situation, they will (be) prolonging any post-traumatic stress they are experiencing. Talking to others who have had similar situations is a great way to work through any issues that the person may still have.”
*Names have been changed.