There were plenty of frightening things when we were growing up in the countryside of Southeastern Pennsylvania. There was an abandoned tumbledown log cabin in the woods with the door swinging on its hinges. The interior was still furnished with rotting sideboards, beds and a rusty old pot bellied stove. We crept inside expecting to find dead people. Then there was the old man who lived alone in an ancient shack he’d inherited from his crazy mother. They found him dead in there like Huck Finn’s father. Two miles down the road was a rundown village where we’d cycle for popsicles on a summer day. The hag who ran the village store hated kids and yelled at us for taking so long to choose our treats.
On summer nights we’d sleep out under the stars and shiver at the creeping noises of nocturnal beasts. Most frightening was the report of our little sister Denise that she’d seen something strange outside her bedroom window. The best horror stories involve children and spooks, and this was a real corker.
Denise said she saw a boy in colonial style garb running along with a little dog dancing by his side. There he was in knee breeches, a puff sleeved shirt, buckle shoes and a three corner hat—just happily running through the woods.
Like Lucy in Narnia, our little sister was not a liar. We had no reason to disbelieve her. Mom had learned some local history and, in colonial times, our mountainside had been a vacation location for well off people from Philadelphia.
Denise saw the ghost child several times and was more bewildered than frightened. I still wonder what she witnessed. Ghost hunters generally distinguish between “apparitions” and “hauntings”. An apparition is the appearance of a dead person. A haunting is what my sister saw—a seeming slip in time—a psychic replay of an event from long ago.
While I was an Anglican priest in England I had more than a few calls to rid a home of a haunting and less frequently an apparition. In one case the family reported that their daughter woke up most nights to witness a ghostly man come through the wall and walk across her room. The most frightening thing about her night vision was that he was only visible from the knees up.
The family lived in a centuries-old house in the village, and after some investigation it emerged that the original floor level of the girls’ room was two foot lower. Furthermore, where the specter seemed to walk through the wall there was an old door that had been blocked up. She was experiencing a haunting, not an apparition.
On the other hand, in a different parish a woman stopped me while I was walking home from evening prayers. She was embarrassed to talk about it, but reported that in the back room of her house there was an inexplicable smell of cigarette smoke. She was not a smoker nor any of her family members. None of the family would stay in the back room very long. They said they “sensed an evil presence.” Furthermore, the woman reported, “I have to leave my two small dogs at home when I go out to work, and when I left them in the back room they chewed and scratched through the solid oak door to escape.
It turned out that a previous owner—a heavy smoker—had taken his own life in the room. Although they didn’t see the ghost, the experience would be categorized as an apparition not a haunting.
While paranormal investigators have theories about the reality of ghosts—belief in ghosts is not incompatible with Scripture or the teaching of the Catholic Church. While there is not much authoritative teaching on the subject, it is possible to believe in the reality of departed spirits being able to manifest to our senses. What, exactly a haunting is remains open to speculation and debate. Is it a slip in time? Often the person viewing the haunting is a child. Are children more psychically aware? Do the dead connect with the living more effectively through children?
My own view is that it doesn’t much matter what causes the bumps in the night. Rather, what matters is what we can do about it. In my experience any sort of apparition, ghost or haunting is cleared up by a priestly visit, prayers and a house blessing. While Catholic priests are not the only ones who can perform this ministry, it is usual to ask the local Catholic priest, and most often here in the Bible Belt, the Protestant pastors, when confronted with such phenomena, will tell their people to call a Catholic priest. “They know more about this kind of stuff…”
Indeed. I was called some time ago by a local woman and because I visited the home after Sunday Mass I was clothed in my full cassock and armed with my holy water sprinkler and prayer book. When the good Baptist woman opened the door and saw the man in black she gasped, “Ohmigosh. You’re a real Catholic priest!”
In her case the teenaged babysitter had been fooling around with a Ouija board and the daughter’s bedroom was infested with a poltergeist. So we prayed together, blessed the room, blessed the people and the Lord delivered them from evil.