Ask Mommy: How Do You Know Your House Isn’t Haunted?

Ask Mommy: How Do You Know Your House Isn’t Haunted? November 7, 2018

I was convinced our house was haunted when I was fourteen & fifteen. We lived in a century-old bungalow near what used to be called Subiaco Oval in Perth, Western Australia. We’d moved from Canada at the beginning of 1992 on a teacher’s exchange. An Aussie teacher was to take my mom’s job and house back in Canada, while my mom took her job and house in Australia.

On our way to Perth, we travelled through South East Asia for about a month. In the pre-cell phone and pre-email era, there was no foolproof way for anyone to contact us while we bounced from one city to the next and so when there’d been bad news, we had no idea until we landed in Perth. As we waited at the luggage carousel to collect our bags, we were approached by people from the exchange organization. They told us that the woman who was to go live in our house in Canada could no longer go because her fiance had been thrown from a bus on New Year’s Eve – the only one standing, having given up his seat for someone else – and killed. We wouldn’t be moving into her house.

It struck me as a little odd, because a year prior, we’d been planning the same sort of exchange with a family in Sydney, Australia. It fell through just weeks before we were to leave when the mother was diagnosed with cancer.

It almost felt like the universe just didn’t want this exchange to happen.

However, in the time we’d been snorkelling in Thailand, shopping in Indonesia, and wandering the narrow streets of Hong Kong, the exchange organization managed to find us another suitable exchange partner. And so, we collected our bags and headed to Wembley, a suburb of Perth.

As soon as I entered the creaky, old house, I felt a chill. The door had a stained-glass window that cast an eerie glow on the century-old hardwood floor inside. There was the main house, built in 1904-ish, which had ornate crown moulding and elaborate ceiling medallions around each light fixture. Off the dining room, there was an addition with two extra rooms. This addition was built sometime in the 70s.

The master bedroom and my brother’s bedroom were in the main part of the house. I was to sleep in the addition, separated from the main house with a large wooden door, another haunting stained glass window and a deadbolt lock. Of course, my parents would never have locked it on me, but it made me feel uneasy, nonetheless.

As we toured the house that first day, I felt afraid and I didn’t know why.

The first night was no different. It was the middle of summer in Perth which could reach 40° C some days. Sat there right on the balmy Indian Ocean, it was almost always hot and humid. There was no air conditioning in the old house and so there was no reason why, in January, that house should have been cold at all, but that first night I slept out in the addition, it was freezing. I felt as though I was not alone. I swore I felt eyes on me. I shivered under my covers all night, without getting a wink of sleep and when I woke up the next morning, I told my parents I couldn’t sleep out there anymore.

I was a fourteen-year-old girl and I voluntarily chose to share a bedroom with my 9-year-old brother for an entire year. This is how truly afraid I was.

As the year unfolded, I would experience increasingly unsettling things. There was the wailing in the pipes. There was the window that smashed spontaneously next door. There was the image of a woman holding a baby that I was convinced I saw in my full-length mirror. There was the one morning when the door that separated the main house from the addition began swinging back and forth rapidly and unnaturally as my brother and I ate breakfast before school. We ran to my dad in the living room for comfort, both of us terrified.

By the time I left to move back home to Canada, I’d had enough. I was done. I needed out. To this day, twenty-six years later, I still cannot explain to you what I’d seen, heard and felt in my time at that house in Australia. I shared these stories with my friends as I grew into adulthood, scaring them with the idea of ghosts and poltergeist and other unexplained phenomena. In greater detail, these stories are extremely unsettling.

Of course, I always left out the bit about me not wanting to go to Australia at all. I left out the fact that I was angry at my parents and felt as though I was being done horribly wrong by being dragged to Australia just as I started high school. When I told these ghost stories, I didn’t think to tell people how totally certain I was that the entire year was going to be a disaster, even before we left Canada.

I also neglected to tell people that I was miserable at school in Perth. That I was bullied and depressed and got so down that I contemplated ending my own life. I had a dog back home I missed more than I could express in words, and friends who would write to me from Canada but just not often enough. When I told people the stories of our haunted house in Australia, I didn’t think I needed to tell them how totally committed I’d been to being miserable that year. I didn’t think these things were related.

As I got older, though, and my skepticism began to blossom, I started to question my own memories. Had they been real memories? The lady in the mirror, for example. I recall waking up and looking across at the full-length mirror in the room I shared with my brother and seeing a woman holding a baby. How awake was I, though? Could I still have been sleeping? Could I have seen a shadow that merely resembled the figure of a woman holding a baby? How accurate was my perception of this event when it happened and how accurate is my memory of it, now?

Thanks to science, we know that our memories rewrite themselves. They shift and morph and change. That’s why the same stories you’ve heard your mom or dad or best friend say over and over again, seem to change slightly with each retelling. They’re not trying to deceive anyone with their minor edits, rather, their memory of it is just changing.

It wasn’t until I was in my 30s, though, that I began to suspect my state of mind played a huge part in the haunting of our house in Wembley. My misery was desperate for company. I had huge voids left by my friends and my dog and my extended family back home and I needed to fill them with something. Perhaps I was seeing these events the way I wanted to see them, rather than in an objective way.

The fact is, there were strange things that happened in that house but they probably weren’t as strange as my memory would have me believe. In the time since moving back to Canada, I’ve also realized that by saying “I cannot explain these events, therefore they must be paranormal”, is the equivalent of saying that I expect to be able to explain everything myself. This is utterly ridiculous. I don’t have the education nor skill to investigate these events scientifically. It’s true that I cannot explain them, but it doesn’t mean they are inexplicable. It doesn’t mean that we can’t investigate and discover the answers.

Yesterday, I got a question from a reader who has been experiencing phenomena in his home that some might describe as a poltergeist. Just general trolling of the living, breathing humans who occupy the home. Cupboards flying open, lamps hovering in mid-air. The person who wrote to me also explained that he is an atheist and then described a few traumatic events he’s experienced in his lifetime. He wanted to know my opinion on the activity that has been going on in his house.

My opinion is that there is a natural explanation and it’s right there for you if you choose to investigate it with an open mind. Can you capture this activity on camera? What happens if you bring in a skeptic to investigate, preferably one with a science degree of some kind? Have you considered that your own perception could be flawed, perhaps based on your state of mind, as I am sure mine was?

If you go through all of this, honestly and objectively, and you find that there is still no explanation, then the answer is simply “I don’t know”. It’s the single greatest phrase in all language because it is the springboard from which all human knowledge begins.

When I asked my Twitter followers what their reaction is to strange phenomena they cannot explain, @alanpdx gave me the absolute best answer. He said:

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  • Polytropos

    Back when I was a student, I lived in a flat which my flatmate believed was haunted. It was certainly cold, but this was a Wellington student flat. We would have suspected mysterious forces were at work if it wasn’t cold. And then one night I saw a ghost standing in the corridor outside my room. She had dark curly hair and a white dress like a nightgown, but I couldn’t make out her facial features because most of her face was rotted away.

    It was a disturbing sight, but I’m proud to say it didn’t bother me particularly because 1) somewhere in the back of my mind I realized it was likely related to the ridiculous quantity of hash cake I’d recently eaten, and 2) I’d recently eaten a ridiculous quantity of hash cake.

  • Kevin K

    There was an abandoned dorm at my college that was “haunted”. I did feature report about it for the campus TV station — we even got in to film at night. It was a little creepy, but mainly just dilapidated. They tore it down the following year. No reports of poltergeist moving into the TV sets.

  • Jim Jones

    What people back then thought was ‘luxury’ or ‘fancy’ to us now seems ugly.

    If you ever get the chance, tour an old theater or the like. Especially back stage or up above the ceiling, everything seems weird. Same with some very old churches.

  • Illithid

    It may seem odd, but I can recall no incident that even made me wonder about any supernatural cause. I don’t think I’m unimaginative in general; I run D&D sessions that friends and even strangers enjoy, I’ve had elaborate fantasies and written stories, and sometimes conduct hypothetical conversations in my head with fictional and historical characters. But no ghosts, no ESP, no weird premonitions.

    I don’t know that my house isn’t haunted, but if it is the spectres are very quiet. Unless you count cats. Now they sometimes freak out for no reason I can tell, but my naturalistic explanation for that is that they’re crazy.

  • Some guy

    Oooh, my cat was looking right at me as I read that! What are the odds? (Well, OK, her food dish WAS running low.)

  • Some guy

    I’ve had the same reaction to old toys that I can’t imagine any child going anywhere near, let alone playing with them.

  • MadScientist1023

    Back in my early 20s, when I was a devout New Ager, I would have said the best thing to do is try talking to the ghost. See what feelings you get from it and try having a discussion with it to see what is wants. I had a few friends of similar views who claimed to have ghosts in their house. They claimed to have chatted with them often enough that the ghosts weren’t disruptive in any way. Supposedly, you could help them move on if you got them to look up.

    These days, though, I’m not really sure where I fall on the whole ghost issue. I experienced enough weird stuff when I was a practicing New Ager to make me think there’s something to it, but it never ended up being all that useful for anything. I feel a bit like GM in that regard. Some of it defies easy explanation, but I can’t help but wonder how much I missed back then.

  • BlueBlazeSpear

    Near my childhood home, there was a hillside that had been sheared away so that the highway could pass by it without having to go around, over, or under it. So driving down that highway, you’d pass by a bare face of sandstone.

    There was one time in my childhood when my mom drove past that hillside and as I looked at it from the back seat as our car passed, I remember seeing a solid stream of lava running down the sandstone. It’s something that I remember to this day. It seems worth noting that this hill is not and has never been a volcano or a hot spring or any other natural wonder that might have lava coming out of it. It’s an ordinary hill. There was no news report that night about a spontaneous local lava flow that would defy everything we thought we knew about geology.

    And yet I have this childhood memory that is just as real to me as any other memory from that time. Could I have seen a rock slide happening and not know how to interpret what I was seeing and my brain concocted the lava story to make sense of confusing input? Sandstone is notoriously crumbly. Had it just rained and maybe I saw a river of muddy water running off the hillside? I can’t say. The objective truth is lost to history.

    But here’s what I can say with confidence: There was not lava running down that hillside. But my mind has a memory of that ridiculous event happening in spite of this fact. So when someone tells me that they have a memory of seeing a ghost or experiencing some other supernatural event, I believe that it’s possible that the person has an absolutely “true” memory of that event, while that event is simultaneously untrue. It’s amazing what the human brain can do in an attempt to make sense of confusing, contradictory, or otherwise-incomplete data. And it does it with a bunch of mechanisms that the conscious brain isn’t even aware of.

    In my younger years, I was part of a ghost hunting group. After some time, I became the persistent naysayer of any of the “experiences” we thought we had. People started hating having me along because I could deflate the mystery just by simply not actively participating in the agreed-upon narrative that we were in the midst of something paranormal. I think that this was my last vestige of belief breaking loose because I hit a point where I thought “What’s more likely: That this is real, or that we’re experiencing mundane things and transforming them into something more because we’re looking at them through a certain lens?” Once I started applying that sort of critical thinking to all of my beliefs, it was like opening my eyes to the world for the first time.

  • Connie Beane

    When I was in high school, I woke up one night and heard heavy breathing coming from UNDER my bed. I was terrified. I lay there paralyzed for several minutes, totally convinced that if I moved so much as a muscle–much less attempted to get out of bed to flee the room–a fearsome monster would dart out and devour me. Then, quite suddenly, I realized that the sound wasn’t coming from under my bed, but was in fact my father in the room across the hall, doing some heavy breathing just short of a full-on snore. It was a watershed experience: I learned that your mind can play tricks on you and make you believe in the existence of things that are not really there. It took me several more years to understand that that held true for everything, up to and including the ultimate make-believe–God. This is the main reason I like about being an atheist, because while there are many, many bad things in the world, it’s a relief to know that I don’t have to worry about imaginary monsters under the bed, too.

  • Martin Penwald

    Most common explanation for these phenomenons : sleep paralysis, which appears often during teenage years, and can be triggered by brutal lifestyle change, anxiety, stress, irregular sleep schedule (like the one due to jetlag), etc.
    Plus the fallibility of the memory, and one can genuinely think to have had a supernatural experience.

  • I work in a building that was built in 1725. Many generations of people lived and presumably died there. It was also a stop on the Underground Railroad. If we talk about it enough, we can imagine a dozen things that may be “ghosts”.

    The first house my husband and I bought was previously owned by a young couple with a toddler. The husband OD’d and died in the bathtub. I never encountered ghosts.

    I don’t believe in supernatural activity which is probably why I never encountered activities I associated with ghosts or the supernatural in either situation where I certainly could have.

  • adhoc

    This one was easy. I told my daughter if she caught a ghost it was worth a million dollars via the James Randy Foundation. If she didn’t want to catch it, to call me, I would split the cash with her.

    How do I know there are no ghosts? Randy still has his money.