That One Time I Saw a Ghost (For Real)
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
It’s a question I hear all the time. Frankly, I’m getting tired of it. As a scientist--physicist-in-training by day, paranormal investigator by night--it’s more than a little insulting. Nobody asks Stephen Hawking if he believes in black holes. So why do people think it’s okay to ask someone with a professed interest in the paranormal if they believe in ghosts?
Not only do I believe in them, but I saw one when I was eight.
Back when I was in elementary school, my family lived in a small suburban enclave in Battle Creek, Michigan. Does the name sound familiar? It should: Battle Creek is Cereal City, USA. Its name is printed on over half of all cereal boxes sold in the United States. Depending on which way the wind was blowing, our neighborhood would smell like either Apple Jacks or Fruity Pebbles.
Not everyone was a fan of the sugary smells permeating the city. Among the chief critics was a mean old lady who lived right next door, who could be heard ranting and raving about the air quality even on the clearest of days.
Now, to a kid, every adult is “old.” I remember thinking my parents were ancient, even though they were only a couple of years older than I am right now. The woman next door, however, was old by anyone’s standard. Her thin, white hair sprouted in sparse patches, like a poorly seeded Chia Pet. Her wrinkled skin had more spots than a Dalmatian. In fact, she looked so much like the villain from 101 Dalmatians that the neighbor kids had taken to calling her “Cruella.” I’m ashamed to say I joined in. I had no other choice--nobody seemed to know her name, not even my parents . . . at least not until we read the obituary.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start from the beginning.
My story starts late one October day in 1985--the day before Halloween, to be exact. In Detroit, the evening before All Hallow’s Eve was known as Devil’s Night. It was a night of vandalism for the sake of running wild. At least that was the story. In our little corner of suburbia, far from Motor City’s dangerous streets, October 30 was just a fall night like any other. After school, my parents asked me to rake the backyard with Jimmy and Kate.
The twins were a couple of grades above me. Whenever there was yard work to do at the Gilberts, Jimmy and Kate would show up, gloves in hand. I labored under the delusion for years that they were my besties, before discovering that my parents were paying them a dollar an hour--not only to help out with chores but to be my friends.
I hadn’t yet wised up to my parents’ scam in 1985, so the three of us BFFs were busy raking the leaves into piles and then jumping in. The leaves would scatter, and we’d re-rake them and start all over again. Give a child a rake, and they’ll never be bored. Or maybe that was just me, seeing as how my friends were paid to have “fun.” Either way, we were making too much noise for Cruella, whose back door banged open.
The old woman flew onto the porch with supernatural speed. I gripped my wooden rake handle tightly. The rake was taller than I was, and it felt like I was clutching onto a sturdy tree to prevent being blown away. None of us dared say anything, even under our breath. Cruella’s hearing, unlike my grandparents’, was undiminished by age. Her eyesight was sharp as a hawk. The only sense affected by age appeared to be her sense of humor.
She cleared her throat, which sounded like someone trying to start a lawnmower. “If a single leaf ends up on my side of the property line, there will be hell to pay,” she hissed. “Hell. To. Pay.”
After she had disappeared back inside, the three of us did the most thorough job of raking and bagging leaves that anyone in southern Michigan had ever seen. Thank God it wasn’t windy--who knows what would have happened if the wind had blown our leaves across Cruella’s backyard, which was as barren as a postapocalyptic wasteland.
We hauled the bags to the curb, where the trash men would pick them up at the end of the week. The twins took off, and I hurried inside.
All Hallow’s Eve
Every Halloween, I dressed up as the same thing: a ghost (Figure 1.1). When I was five, my mother cut a couple of eye holes in a white sheet and tossed it over me. The sheet was fitted for a king-size bed and trailed behind me on the ground like a bride’s train. It was stained with dirt and grass, like . . . well, like it had been dragged around the neighborhood. My parents never washed the sheet between Halloweens--either they forgot, or just figured it wasn’t worth the Tide.
While my costume didn’t change the year in question, something did: I got to trick-or-treat without an adult chaperone for the first time. The twins, dressed as a witch and a werewolf, offered to take me around, giving my dad the night off.
We hit up about forty homes before the porch lights started going out. With the temperature dropping by the minute, I asked Jimmy and Kate if they wanted to call it a night. They shook their heads, and we marched on. Soon, practically every house had gone dark. It seemed pointless to continue trick-or-treating. If only I’d known then the real reason we were out so late: It was a holiday, so my “friends” were getting paid time and a half ($1.50 an hour) to escort me around.
We finally returned to our street sometime after ten o’clock. As we neared my driveway, Jimmy hoisted up one of the bags of leaves from the previous night. He turned toward Cruella’s house. His eyes, just visible through his werewolf mask, glinted with mischief in the moonlight.
“Oh, no,” I said from underneath my off-white sheet. “I’m not doing this.”
“That’s right,” Kate said, picking up another bag. “You’re not doing this--we are. That mean old witch deserves it.”
It was a funny thing to hear come out of a pretend witch’s mouth, but I let the incongruity slide. Cruella could have been a real witch, for all anybody knew. Not that there was anything wrong with that: My parents taught me to respect others’ beliefs.
I pleaded with the twins to let it go, but they wanted retribution for her barking at us.
“She doesn’t want a single leaf in her yard? She won’t get a single leaf--she’ll get hundreds of them,” Jimmy announced, marching across the lawn to Cruella’s darkened porch. I’d never seen the porch light turned on--not on Halloween, not ever. Cruella seemed to live in darkness.
Jimmy and Kate ripped open the bags and dumped the leaves on her doorstep. All I could do was stand there on the sidewalk, waving my arms in protest like an invisible, powerless specter.
Suddenly the door rattled open, sending the twins scattering in opposite directions. I didn’t know who to follow. The only thing I knew was that I didn’t want to run home, because then Cruella would know exactly who I was under my sheet.
Cruella busted out onto the porch. She pointed a bony index finger straight at me, singling me out from my fleeing friends. The wind picked up, sending the leaves at her feet into the air. They seemed to swirl around her, as if driven by unseen forces. Mentally, I prepared for the worst. Just because Cruella had never shot lightning bolts from her fingers before didn’t mean it couldn’t happen.
The porch light at my house clicked on. My mother stepped outside and saw me standing in front of Cruella’s house. She followed my eyes to Cruella’s porch, which was now empty. The old woman had apparently gone back inside.
I stared at her closed front door. Had I imagined the whole thing? No, my friends had been spooked too. One of their pumpkin baskets was overturned in the bushes at the edge of our yard. Candy lay dumped in the grass. Any other time, I would have scrambled to pick it up--any other time but right now. All I wanted to do was get home, and get under the covers of my bed where I would be safe. I prayed the blinds on my window would be enough of a barrier between us. Little did I know, even the greatest of barriers could not prevent Cruella from getting her revenge.
The Death and Afterlife of Gretta DeMille
Days before Christmas, I heard a bunch of commotion next door. I cautiously opened my blinds for the first time since October to see a dozen neighbors on Cruella’s front lawn. An ambulance and fire truck were parked in the street. The old woman must have been sick. I waited for her to be stretchered away, like the old man down the street who’d had a heart attack the previous year and gone to the hospital.
There would be no stretcher. After a couple of hours, two men carried a black body bag out through the snow and dumped it unceremoniously into the back of a hearse. Sad to say, but I felt an enormous sense of relief--not that somebody had died, but that the old woman would never frighten me again.
As we all later learned, Cruella--real name: Gretta DeMille--had broken her hip in a fall a week or so earlier. She’d been lying there in the living room ever since, wasting away. In fact, the coroner believed she died the morning her body was discovered. Gretta was no witch. If she had been, she would have been able to heal herself or, at least, cast a spell to call for help. She was just a lonely woman with no real friends or family to speak of.
I don’t remember what time I went to bed--probably around eight--but I remember what time I woke up: 2:06 in the morning. That was the time glowing red on my alarm clock when Gretta appeared at the foot of my bed.
The old woman was wearing her favorite house dress, a shapeless green-and-white-checkered sack that looked like a tablecloth. Except . . . something was different. There was a faint phosphorescent glow around her, which seemed to indicate she wasn’t of this world.
I was obviously having a nightmare. Still, that didn’t make the sight any less terrifying. I tried to scream. Nothing came out of my mouth.
The apparition, however, wasn’t so speechless. “Hell . . . to . . . pay, young girl,” she whispered. “There will be . . . hell . . . to . . . pay . . .”
She began choking, as if she were trying to cough up a hairball.
It was no hairball.
Blood spilled out of her mouth, pouring down the front of her dress. It kept coming, too, cascading down her chin and neck like a crimson waterfall. She rose over the end of the bed, dripping blood onto the bedspread as her feet left the ground (Figure 1.2).
I pulled my covers over my head and shut my eyes tight. If I could only will myself awake, the nightmare would be over. Unfortunately, as the assault dragged on with no end in sight, I started to worry that I was already awake.
The sound of the blood pounding the sheet like rain on a tent kept me up until my alarm sounded for school, at which time it abruptly stopped. My ears popped, as if the air pressure had suddenly shifted. Cautiously, I lowered the sheet and peeked over the edge. The old woman was gone. So was the blood. The waking nightmare, or whatever it had been, was over.
Restless Nights and Anxious Days
I didn’t say a word about my spectral encounter at the breakfast table. In the daylight, the whole event seemed outrageous. Ghosts weren’t real. They were just silly things that kids dressed up as to go trick-or-treating.
However, as the sun set after dinner that night, the fear began to creep back in. Maybe Gretta’s ghost had been more than a hallucination. Once I was tucked in and the lights were out, the corners of the room seemed to come alive. My heart rate spiked as the shadows danced. It was all in my mind, but even the most rational amongst us can be spooked in the dark. Our senses are easily tricked.
I switched the bedside lamp on. Immediately, the shadows disappeared. I’d been freaking myself out about nothing. I turned the lamp off and closed my eyes. After a while, I fell asleep.
Six minutes after two, my slumber was shattered once again. The ghost was at the foot of my bed. Before she could start spitting blood, though, I turned on the bedside lamp. It had worked to dispel the shadows . . .
. . . but it didn’t work to dispel Gretta.
She grinned at me, showing off a mouthful of empty sockets. The terror struck me even harder than the previous night. There could be no question about it: This was no dream. As she rose up off the floor and repeated her routine from the previous evening, I threw the covers over my head.
I may have eventually made it back to sleep that second night--frankly, I don’t remember. Because it wasn’t the last time the spook terrorized me. Gretta appeared in my room in the early morning hours every single night . . . FOR THE NEXT YEAR. So it wasn’t just technically one time that I saw a ghost--it was hundreds of times.
You’re probably wondering why I didn’t just tell my parents about the ghost in my bedroom. Here’s the thing: I did tell them. The morning after the second incident. They were skeptical, but agreed to take turns camped out in my bedroom that night. Of course, Gretta never showed up with them in the room--but when they left or fell asleep, she would reappear, with a smile even more fiendish than before.
My parents put me in therapy for my paranormal “problem.” Once a week, a therapist named Dick Rockwell asked me about my life. He asked about my parents, about school, and about my ghost. Whenever I brought up Gretta, he simply nodded, and said, “That’s very interesting. Why do you think she does this?” To which I replied, Isn’t that a question you should be asking her? She’s the one that should be in therapy, not me!