I originally wrote this years ago. The night before Halloween, it’s a good time to share it again. A compilation of experiences from the Culbertson Mansion State Historic Site, with some artistic liberties. I didn’t change the name because I want to stay as close to the truth as possible. Yes, I once lived in a haunted house.
Do you believe in ghosts? I’m not for sure that I do, but I do know that I once lived in a haunted house. Oh, I had heard the stories of the house, but I didn’t pay much attention to them, not at least, until I had to move into the house as the newly appointed Curator of the State Historic Site.
It was pretty much like any other Victorian house museum. It had large rooms, somewhat overpowering, ornate and ostentatious; with a stuffiness often associated with the extremely wealthy. But it was also different from most in these few ways. First, it had a massive cantilevered staircase which began on the First Floor and wound, uncoiling, up to the Third Floor. Standing at either end and looking up or down caused a dizzying effect. Second, the Third Floor felt odd, it was very dark, dark from years of coal dust. Coal burning to heat the house, dust rising to the third floor, then trapped with no escape the dust particles clung and became part of the walls, ceiling, floors – everything; it was all discolored, smoky-blackness of a moonless night. As you touch the walls you would feel the age-old grime and would swear that your fingertips would be stained, but they weren’t. The third thing about the house deals with another kind of darkness, something indescribable…just a feeling? The house felt as if something was not quite right: a chill, a smell, a noise, a touch, a sensation…something’s just not quite right.
But ghosts? Haunted? (Humph!)
For me it all started with a lost key. The key to the Punishment Room located in the back corner of the Servants’ area. (Yes, I said a Punishment Room, but let’s not judge too harshly with our modern day attitudes. To lock a child in a room or give one a few licks of the strop were common forms of discipline in the 1880’s – the embodiment of ‘sparing the rod, spoils the child.’) Anyway, the key was missing. I went to the closet where the key board is located and where it should have been, but the hook was empty. Upon inquiring of the staff, I learned that no one had seen the key, nor could anyone remember the last time they had been in this locked room. It made no sense; there was no reason for any of us to mislead the other. But they key was definitely missing. We looked for it, but to no avail.
At the end of the work day, I walked across the Master Bedroom to my apartment which was located on the First and Second floors of the Servants Quarters, for some reason, I do not know why, I was drawn to the vanity. I stopped and gazed in the mirror, and then my attention fell onto the vase on top. I lifted the vase as if I had never seen it before and there was a jingle – inside was the missing key.
The next day I confronted the others with what I believed to be an apparently good, although misguided, hoax; they assured me that not one of them had hidden the key. We joked, “It must have been the ghost. Oooo-hoo-oo-uu-hoo.” We started to talk about the ghost and the other unusual, inexplicable, occurrences in the house. We made fun of the ghost. We even gave ‘it’ a name. We called it ‘Cornelia’ after Mr. Culbertson’s second wife. Sometimes we would call her ‘Corny’ for short; we were rather flippant and most disrespectful.
“Corny, did you take the keys? Did you hide them in the vase? Were you in the Punishment Room? Cor-ny. Are we playing a game?”
We made fun of the ghost…it wasn’t a wise thing to do.
Several days later, we had all worked together on an exhausting project. Relaxing for a moment, all four of us were sprawled out on the First Floor hall and stairs. Too tired to talk, we just lay there. It was then that we heard footsteps…overhead…from the Third Floor. But, how could that be? There was no one else in the house – or was there?
By now we were all sitting up, looking up first, then at one another.
“Did you hear that?” From the look on Joellen, Deidre and Todd’s faces I knew they had heard what I heard.
“Footsteps.” “Eight of them.” “Heavy, like a man’s shoes on a wood floor.”
We listened again. Then Deidre said, “It’s the Third Floor.”
I said with resignation, “Well, we need to check it out.”
“You’re the Director, you go,” replied Todd.
The house was dark and eerie, due partially to antiquated lighting, the grayness of a Autumn day; not to mention that the house was just creepy. I started up the stairs, when I heard a creak on the stairs behind me. It was Joellen, she whispered “Don’t go alone, never go there alone.”
We ventured together up the stairs, each step slow, methodical; we were in no hurry to face this unknown. Was there a chill? I balanced each step by putting my hand on the wall; I could swear that there was dirt on the walls that was staining, remaining on my hands. But there was no darkness on the surface. We halted at the top of the stairs, caught one another’s expression of acquiescence, mixed with a fool’s courage.
Together we went from room to room. Nothing seemed out of order. We returned to the hallway then heard “Slam!” from the door behind us. Startled we turned, but no, the door was still open.
From a distance, Deidre hesitantly cried up “Ar–are you guys OK?”
“Yeah, we’re fine,” I called down to her, then more to myself, “but we’re getting the hell out of here.”
“Come on, Jo, let’s go.”
My friend was standing in the center of the Hall, head bowed, arms in the Victory pose, her body swayed in a small circular motion. And she was mumbling something. I cautiously moved closer to her.
“Jo, are you OK? Stop it, you’re scaring me.”
In a vacant tone, she raised her voice “Prince of Darkness, you have no power here. We rebuke you in the name of the LORD. Prince of Darkness be gone in the name of Jesus Christ.” She repeated this mantra several times.
I thought she had gone crazy, maybe possessed, she had dabbled in spiritual hooey-ness when she was younger. She turned to me and emphatically said, “Lisa, listen to me. Memorize these words; you might need them someday.” I sighed and took her arm leading us towards the stairs and the safety of friends elsewhere in the house. Maybe we had been working too hard.
I didn’t memorize the words, they seemed irrational and soon I didn’t give them a second thought. This could all be logically explained: tree branches against windows, drafty old houses, overworked and tired imaginations…
Things started to get worse several months later. There would be multiple people in the house and we’d hear sounds that we knew, but they couldn’t be; mysterious smells that would appear and dissipate; Deidre swore someone tried to trip her on the stairs. Then the dreams began.
Have you ever had a dream that you didn’t know if it was actually a dream or if it was real? You wake up wondering if the events happened, if your worries are true or unfounded. Confusion overpowers logic as to what is reality.
The day was one of those dismal, time and energy-sapping days. The rain was unceasing pelting the house with gusts of wind accenting the angriness of the weather. Leaves were moldering in the gutters, rain leaked through the leaking roof. The house felt confining and oppressing. It was cold, musty, there was a heaviness that we couldn’t shake off; and wee were all in a mood befitting the environment. When evening came, it was a welcomed signal for the others that their day in the house was finally over. But not for me, now I was alone, and all I longed for a good night’s sleep.
A good night’s sleep. (Ha!)
It was late in the night when the dream began. I could sense myself arising from my bed, leaving my room and going across the Master Bedroom – heading up towards the Third Floor. In my mind, I could hear a distant warning from Joellen “never go there alone…” but I was unable to stop the sequence of my actions.
‘I wouldn’t do this; surely, I can’t be doing this…it is a dream?!’ I tried to reassure my sleeping self as I climbed the stairs to the Third Floor. Subconsciously, I balanced myself on the wall, looking at my hands, I wiped the smudge on my nightgown. Upon reaching the last curve of the stairs, I knew that I was not alone. There was something, someone else, there with me. Hesitantly, I looked over by left shoulder and there she was – a young girl. She appeared eleven or twelve in age, slight of build, she was wane, colorless, rather opalescent, yet definitely there. And she was precariously standing on the handrail at the top of the cantilevered stairs.
“Get down from there, honey, you’ll fall.”
“I know,” her voice was hallow and sorrowful.
“Please, get down. Talk to me. What is your name?”
“Minerva,” she looked me straight in the eyes sending a chill down my spine.
“Th-that is a bea — utiful name.” I stuttered, “My name is Lisa.”
“Well, Minerva, please don’t stand on the handrail. I’m afraid you’ll fall.” She looked through me. It irritated me that she didn’t move; she started to sway back and forth and hummed a melodic tune.
“Stop it. Get down from there and tell me right now what you are doing here.”
Minerva proceeded to tell me a sad story of loneliness, hard, long days, fighting and hateful words and actions. She had been taken from the Children’s Home to be a servant for the family, doing all the filthy, difficult chores that no one else wanted to do. When she cried, she was punished. Vile, nasty emotions filled her day; contempt, menace and hatred surrounded her. Her life sounded awful, her heart poured out mournfulness. Minerva wished for death.
I wanted to talk to her of hope and love, but the words wouldn’t come. I was confused.
“Minerva, what are you doing here now?”
“I was lonely, I called you and you came. We are going to be the best of friends. You will come here every night and we will be happy.”
Suddenly I was aghast of this ghostly apparition and her pronouncement. Angrily I said, “No, Minerva. I don’t want to be any part of this.” Then trying more to convince myself than her, I rationalized “Actually, this is all a dream and I am not here, you do not exist; and I am going to wake up myself and you will be gone.”
The once frail specter seemed to grow larger, her eyes shown with both anger and malevolence; she lifted her arms in front of her until they almost touched me. With spite in her hushed voice she spit out “I’ll be back…and so will you.”
With those words, my fear became reality as she faltered, tilted her eyes into the back of her head, and fell towards the opening in the stairs. It was all in slow motion, leaning over the stairs I could see her falling; I reached for her but too late, unable to yell, unable to help. Her body writhed and turned over so that I could see the contorted scream on her face, no sound filled the mansion, but in my mind it filled every crevice with its hideousness — more of a screaming cackle than one of fear and suffering.
As Minerva hit the First Floor, I jerked with an audible gasp for breathe…and found myself in my bed. The nightmare consumed this wakeful state. I listened to the silence of the night.
First at a distance, I heard something, squinting I peered closer into the blackness and tried to focus my hearing. Footsteps. I am hearing footsteps; I follow their steady progression across the Third Floor above me, from the main hall, across the bedroom, in the back hall, then on the Servants Stairs which led to my room. There are eight steps then a landing, then twelve steps. Surely, I am imagining this!?
“No, stop! I’m frightened.” I say to myself.
Then I begin whispering, “it’s a dream, it’s a dream, it’s a dream; it’s only a dream, it’s a dream, dream, dream; this is not happening.” All the while I am subconsciously counting the steps as they come down the stairs. The footsteps are increasingly nearer, louder, more distinct and purposeful. They echo through the house and there is a tremor.
What was that prayer Joellen told me to memorize? I couldn’t think, what once seemed foolish now seemed more than prudent. I tried other prayers, what are the words? Panic was overtaking me as the footsteps crossed the stair landing.
Then an unexpected calm overcame me as I realized that I was powerless to my fear and the pervasive evil that was overwhelming me at this moment. ‘Nine, ten…’ I counted in my mind. Then, they came to me. I got out of bed with a courage that could not be my own; I faced the locked door to my bedroom, rose my arms over my head as a sign of Victory and loudly proclaimed:
“LORD, God, be with me now. Prince of Darkness, you have no power here. I rebuke you in the name of the LORD. Prince of Darkness be gone in the name of Jesus Christ.”
The footsteps stopped. I listened, the steam radiator gurgled, a car passed on Main Street; it was quiet.
The next thing I knew my morning alarm was playing classical music. Wearily I showered and dressed, feeling very vulnerable the whole time; I was beat. At work, the others quickly knew that something was amiss and I told them of my night, the dream’s details spilled out and the encounter with Minerva clearly unfolded, the details were ingrained and related with certainty. They listened without interruption, when I finished I looked at Joellen and saw that she was pale and her face was stricken.
“Jo? What’s wrong?”
“You don’t remember?”
“Yeah, I did, at the end, your words, your prayer, I remember it.”
“No. Not that, you don’t remember…Cornelia’s full name.
She was right, I didn’t.
“Mrs. Culbertson was Cornelia Minerva Culbertson. Her middle name was Minerva.”
Did I know that? The utterance of “Minerva” echoed in my mind, and I knew that we would meet again.
I don’t know if you believe in ghosts, I’m not for sure if I do, but I do know, without a doubt, that I once lived in a haunted house.