When I was a kid and easily as ghost-obsessed as I am now, I used to walk home from school everyday and look over the houses and buildings in my neighborhood, trying to find one that looked like a haunted house. I was always disappointed, and - personifying in true childlike fashion the definition of insanity - I never stopped looking, even though the houses, the apartment buildings, and the storefronts never changed. I take that back. One of the houses down the block from me burned down and that looked pretty ghastly, a ruin of charred brick and wood and not much else. But it never looked ghostly. And it didn't last long anyway. Someone came in and razed the sad remains of the foundation and built a new ultra-modern house where the old one used to be. That shook up the neighborhood appearance a bit, but it still didn't look haunted.
I was so dense as a child that it never occurred to me to stop looking at appearances. I LIVED in a haunted house, for petesake, and it didn't look like one. My parents and my aunt and uncle turned themselves upside down to upgrade our house -a bit of a fixer upper- and by the time they were done, the bricks were all nicely tuck-pointed, the trim around the windows was all newly painted, and the yard was edged in flower gardens that my mother slaved over for hours. My dad grew rosebushes, but they were in the back and not visible from the street. For all appearances, our house was trim and well-kept and actually quite inviting. Except that it was fricking haunted.
As an adult, I sometimes look out my office window, gazing westward down our street, and wonder if any of the houses I see have a particular problem going on behind those immaculate front doors and so-much-cleaner-than-our windows. Houses are self-contained and closed off to the world at large: for all I know there could be a poltergeist intrusion happening right across the street and I would never know. Ideas like that are like catnip to a ghost-story writer.
Now that I no longer look at appearances, and don't go trying to find stereotypical haunted houses, I find myself wondering what could be behind a lot of the closed doors I see. Years ago, my daughter was in school with a girl who lived in a haunted house right on the main street (literally, Main Street) of our little town. The ghost was that of a little boy who had died there and his spirit was playful and mischievous. I don't know if the kids were afraid of him, but none of them doubted that he was around. That house was a big old mansion, beautiful and well-kept and, I think, included on the historical homes tour in our village. And it was haunted.
I guess, looking back to childhood, that there were one or two places on a street perpendicular to ours that might have qualified as looking haunted. One of them was eventually bought by the parents of a classmate, and if that place had ever been haunted, I would have believed that my classmate's family would have chased away anything that was there. My friend was one of nine kids, and the family was a rowdy Irish one, so any spirits hanging about would either have moved on or learned to adapt. On the other hand, they were Irish, so anything is possible.
There was, however, the dark mansion that was next door to my classmate's house. It was a rectory, but not one connected to a church since the priests that lived there were not parish priests. Teachers, maybe. Or scholars paid and provided for by Mother Church. When I was growing up, the house had a reputation as giving away some of the best Halloween treats EVER: little bags of bakery-type butter cookies. Yowsa! But there came a day that the priests moved away from the building, and years later, I heard a rumor that they had left in such haste that the altar stone in their chapel had been left behind (supposedly a big no-no, I'm told), and that the house itself became quite disturbed, full of shadows and a strong sense of evil. It was deserted for quite some time before anyone new moved in. (I heard another rumor that the new owners were part of the Chicago mob; if that's the case, scary is as scary does, eh?)
But I often wonder about that old rectory because the rumors I heard about it, about the forgotten altar stone and the evil that stole into the shadows of the deserted rooms, came not from someone in my own neighborhood but from a woman I met by chance in a college class, who lived in an entirely different part of Chicago but was active with her church. She had heard all about this place, and while she was relating the stories to me, we realized she was talking about the rectory in my neighborhood. Small paranormal world.
I never did learn any more about the goings-on there. I got married and we eventually moved out of Chicago altogether. But I do remember trick-or-treating there on Halloween and gloating over that bag of cookies. The priest who answered the door was always really kind to all the kids who rang that bell. But I wonder, now, if those priests were just teachers or scholars. What if they lived there specifically, for a reason, to keep something born of shadow safely within that shadow? What if they were there to protect and to guard?
And if that were the case, what on earth would have driven them out?