Light Cafe, Circular Congregational Church graveyard
Before moving to Charleston, I was fascinated by haunted houses. My brushes with lost souls were few and mostly vicarious, but they served their purpose. I’d feed my morbid pastime regularly, holing up in a bookstore reading “true” ghost stories or peppering friends with questions about sightings of a late aunt.
As for my own experiences, my small town in northern Florida had little to offer. Its primary role in history was setting the market on moonshine through the 1920s. There was a Civil War battle or two fought there, but I’d guess that any leftover visions in white were crowded out by our annual gaggle of reenactors.
It took a family road trip to find my first haunted house. I was 13 when my parents carted us all up to Lake Ontario and parked us in front of an old mansion formerly used as a summerhouse for nuns. We joined a dozen or more cousins and aunts and uncles who would be staying there too, just down the road from my grandparents’ house, and immediately ran rampant over its wraparound porches, grand stairways, and giant dormitory-style rooms upstairs.
I don’t recall exactly when the horseplay gave way to fear, but it didn’t take long. Perhaps it was the newspaper article we found in a scrapbook on the death-by-shotgun of a former resident, the fire that killed the deceased's father, the knowledge that several nuns had met their demise in the rooms upstairs, or the electricity going out our first day there—the power company powerless to find the problem. Doors moved on their own, lights flickered, and even my father would later hint that he was scared.
I’m still not ashamed to admit that the sun had barely set that first night when I marched through Grandma Josephine’s front door, pillow in hand, in search of new sleeping arrangements.
And yet I continued to follow the antics of the netherworld with interest. Perhaps I figured that at the end of the day—particularly when darkness descended—I could take the hauntings or leave them.
What I’ve learned since is that in cities like Charleston, you take them and, well, you live with them. A few years ago, I moved to the Holy City, where I rented an apartment on the second floor of an old Victorian on Rutledge Avenue. The paint was peeling, the floor creaked with every step, and bats had set up camp on the third floor. Scattered about was furniture from the former tenant.
“He has passed on,” the property manager said, with a sad smile. Then, perking up a bit, he added, “But if you want any of this stuff…”
The deceased’s personal effects weren’t all the rental came with. I spied the 14-foot ceilings, giant windows, two fireplaces, and screened-in side porch and asked—pleaded, even—to move in right away. And if it was half as haunted as it looked, well, the more the merrier.
For $700 a month South of Broad, I’d lay out the welcome mat for the whole cemetery.
I was still moving boxes in when I realized I had company. The rental agency had left several space heaters in the apartment to get me by until the heat was turned on. Just as I stepped into my new bedroom, I heard a gentle whir strike up from the other side of the room. I looked down to find the glow of a space heater cranking into high gear. The knob was still in the off position.
More antics followed, though most not nearly so considerate. Once, a pair of overnight guests slept through what I can only describe as a light show in the bedroom I put them in. I’d seen the lamp glowing through the glass transom several times during the night, and then it would be off—the next time I awoke, on again. I assumed one or both was having trouble sleeping. Not so, I learned the next morning over coffee. "We slept right through the night," they told me, cheerfully. Then I told them about the lights... Funny, I haven’t seen hide nor hair of them since.
As for me, I would often awake to the sound of pebbles dropping next to my bed. They were so close that, if they were real, I could have reached out and caught them. But they weren’t. And neither was the cigarette smoke blowing into my face that, on two occasions, sent me hunting down a rogue smoker in my attic, outside, and even at my neighbors’ houses. That had to be it, right? I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe that my phantom roommate would do such a thing. Surely a Charleston ghost would have better manners than that.
To add insult to injury, I was sitting on my front porch one day when a boy and his father walked by. The boy looked up at my rickety old house and said, "That's the haunted one, right Dad?"
"No!" I shouted.
Yes, I conceded. And now it had a witch living there, too.
I moved out at the end of my lease, likely the only ghost hunter in history who makes her exit every time something goes bump in the night. Since then, my interest in lost spirits has waned, my activities of that ilk limited to snoops around my little farm town in Florida, where chances of me actually encountering something other than an old whiskey still are small. The thing is, real ghosts are truly fascinating creatures. But in real life, they're pretty f&*^ing scary.