One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Tell me your ghosts. The things that follow you down hallways like a whiff of lavender hidden in the folds of your grandmother’s scarf, the things that flicker among the shadows when you glimpse them from the corner of your eye. Make me a list of things that haunt. Things that make you wake, gasping, in the small, cramped hours of the night.
Tell me your ghosts, and I’ll tell you mine.
When I first moved into The Cat House, it seemed a dream come true. After years living with a controlling boyfriend followed by a brief stint back in my hometown, there I was, finally moving into a place that would be more of a home and less of a jail.
The Cat House was an apartment on the top floor of a 1900s-era building in Roscoe Village, Chicago. I stayed there often before I moved in. Though I was temporarily living with my parents in Wisconsin, my job and my school were in Chicago, and it was often easier to stay with friends than make the two hour commute. Other times, I just didn’t want to leave the city, so I crashed at The Cat House.
On those nights, my roommates-to-be and I often stayed up late and got drunk on butterscotch Schnapps mixed with cocoa, or dumpstered wine served in mismatched mugs, or got stoned. We made art out of mutilated Barbie dolls, read each other’s runes or tarot cards, had dance parties in our vintage slips, ate frozen pizza drenched in hot sauce. And we talked and talked, about Love and Art. On those nights, I only ever got a few hours of sleep. It was glorious. I thought that when I moved in, our magic nights would become my whole life. A dream come true, for a while.
I have been obsessed with ghosts and other hauntings since I was very young. I was fascinated by tales of girls possessed, of houses whose ghosts wouldn’t let the living stay for long. I spooked myself delicious with urban legends—Bloody Mary appearing in bathroom mirrors, slumber party seances and light as a feather, stiff as a board levitations. Those stories made me shiver, made me pull my comforter up to my chin and white-knuckle it. I loved them.
I felt haunted all the time by things only half-seen; things so spectral that I couldn’t describe them and even if I could, no one would have believed me. It was years before my specters materialized fully enough for me to tell my own tales. Those stories of ghost girls and haunted houses were a way for me to relate to my own ghouls before I could name them.
I could say I had premonitions of what was to come in our apartment, but it’s easy to look back and see signs you didn’t see at first glance.
I could tell you about Dolores’ collection of porcelain dolls, the ones she’d made to look like dead girls and corpse brides. How they jiggled in their glass display case any time anyone walked past, and sometimes even when no one did. How their dead-doll eyes seemed to follow you around the room.
“I felt haunted all the time.”
I could tell you about the All Hallows/Day of the Dead party, how I sang a cappella to a living room packed with punks and drunks, artists and freak-bike builders. How the song I chose was “Dirt in the Ground”: Your spirit don’t leave knowin’ / your face or your name / and the wind through your bones / is all that remains. Everyone said my voice had raised the hair on the napes of their necks, prickled their skin into goose pimples. How, yes, it did feel a bit like I’d summoned something.
I could tell you about the night Maggie and I discussed suicide, gave each other the details of how and where we would do it if we were ever ready for that final disappointment.
But the truth is, none of those things seemed like bad omens. They were the opposite—they were un-premonitions. Dolores’ dolls were part of why I adored her, her art-goth weirdness personified. When I sang that song at the party, if I thought I’d summoned something it was only the power of music. And my discussion with Maggie was simply a twisted form of camaraderie. I never saw it coming. Does anybody?
It all began to happen after I moved in. Or it all became more noticeable, that is.
Dolores had been someone I’d looked up to, someone I hoped to be like one day. She was thirty, and a mom, yet she still made art, had wild love affairs, and wore the coolest vintage gothabilly clothes. She had wisdom that I did not, and gave advice when asked for it, but never came across as condescending. Then, shortly after I moved in, she quit drinking and drugging. She said she wanted to get her head right, but without the self-medication, she grew mean and paranoid.
She tried to turn Maggie and I against each other; told Maggie I was band news and when that didn’t work she flipped it, told me Maggie was not a good egg. Maggie and I had become good friends when we lost our Rocky Horror virginity together, and our friendship had solidified when we saw each other through some nasty breakups. By the time I moved into The Cat House, we were closer than sisters or lovers, and couldn’t be easily torn apart. Since she couldn’t turn us against each other, Dolores turned against both of us.
And Dolores may have gotten sober, but meanwhile, Maggie and I doubled down on our imbibing. We sucked down any booze we could get our hands on, plus weed and pills and any other drug that came our way. We listened to The Cramps a lot, blasted them at two a.m. when no one else was home, did stompy hip-twitch dances and growled along. Let’s get fuuuuucked up was our frequent battle-cry.
I’m always searching for reasons why things are as they are. Over a decade later, I’m still wondering why The Cat House turned into a house of horrors.
Did we curse ourselves? We christened our apartment The Cat House, as in brothel—and it was true that nearly every lover we brought into that place eventually decided they only loved our willing bodies and didn’t give a damn about our tender hearts. And did Maggie and I further curse ourselves by naming our shared bedroom? We called it The Sick Room, and we did suffer a lot of mental and physical ailments while living there.
Or did we attract bad juju with our weird goth mysticism? Dolores had spent eight years in New Orleans and studied voodoo while she was there. She had veves painted all over her bedroom. She also kept dead birds in the freezer, and had a human skull (stolen from a New Orleans cemetery) on her altar. I know voodoo is not evil in and of itself, but I’m pretty sure it’s never a good idea to have an ill-gotten human skull hanging around.
Maggie made hair dolls from the hair of her friends and lovers and hung them around The Sick Room. I painted the cracks in the ceiling so that they looked like they were bleeding. And we had our own altar, adorned with dead roses, plastic skeletons, holy candles bought from the bodega down the street, a Freddy Krueger action figure, a Celtic cross, and photographs of our personal deities—Bruce Campbell, Iggy Pop, and Nancy Spungen. Sometimes, we held bloodletting rituals. We took swigs from a bottle of Jameson and opened our veins; we offered our whiskey-laced plasma to the dark gods of punk rock and horror flicks.
I dropped out of school, and Maggie and I both quit our jobs.
Dolores’ daughter, who lived with us when she wasn’t with her dad, had epic tantrums and nightmares. I could never bring myself to tell her that she wasn’t imagining the oppressive energy, the dark mist that resided there with us. I didn’t tell her she was crazy, either; I just held her and reassured her she wasn’t in any danger. Her room seemed to be the nexus of the haunting. Sometimes, when she stayed with her dad, overnight guests slept in her bed, and in the mornings they reported what they’d felt and seen—a feeling of choking, of something pressing down on their chests so they couldn’t breathe or move. If they opened their eyes, they saw a misty shape blacker than shadows hovering above them. Or it seemed like the canopy over the little girl’s bed had turned into dozens of knives—knives aiming downward, ready to fall.
(I’d stayed in her room, once, before I moved in. I’d felt the presence and seen the knives, but I didn’t see it as a sign of terrors to come. It was only a nightmare, that’s all.)
All the pets that shared the apartment with us turned vicious and wild. Maggie’s marmalade cat had been the kind that would curl up on anyone’s lap and purr itself to sleep, but it began to hiss at the corners of rooms. If you tried to pet it, it would claw your arms to shreds. Maggie sent it back to Iowa to be a barn cat. One of Dolores’ rats killed and cannibalized the other. Maggie and I awoke one morning to find the murderous rat tearing open the dead one’s stomach, eating its entrails.
Once, we’d all been away for over twenty-four hours. I was first home, and I found Dolores’ collection of crosses had fallen off the wall. Most of them had shattered into dusty shards.
And we saw things. The little girl’s room was center of the haunting, but the thing had the run of the place. It manifested as a misty, amorphous gray-black shape, and it floated down hallways and hid in the shadows. The only room it didn’t seem to be able to enter was the room I shared with Maggie. We had keys nailed all around the doorframe, and Maggie swore they kept the thing out. We often saw it hover near the doorway, then float on. But the keys were no match for the negative energy our haint exuded; that clung to us and followed us into our room. It also made our room feel like a kind of prison. We hermited ourselves away in there because the rest of the apartment made us feel even worse.
Again, I return to why. Did the former owner of the skull come to seek vengeance against the one who stole it? Did something live in that apartment long before we ever did? Did we curse ourselves?
Or did we all bring our own demons with us? I wasn’t the only one haunted by trauma. All three of us had experienced things before we were teenagers that no one should ever have to experience, and we’d only amassed more as we’d gotten older. We all courted sad and scary things. I’d been going through a dark time right before I moved into The Cat House, and I fueled it with the media I consumed. I listened to Nick Cave and Tom Waits and various gloomy post-punk bands. I read Geek Love and Wise Blood, and the only television show I watched was Carnivale. I had nightmares every night, and when I was awake I felt anxious, like something was following me.
(Another un-premonition: less than a month before I moved in, I wrote in my journal: I feel like God is about to show me something terrible, I’m just not sure what it is yet.)
And I return to what. What was it? A vengeful ghost, an eldritch horror? Or the sheer force of an unholy trinity of crazy spooky witches who brought with them their own personal devils—a force so great it manifested into a semi-corporeal form?
I think ghost means more than one thing. A ghost can be the spirit of a dead person, but I think more often it’s a memory. A psychic energy that attaches itself to a person, place, or thing. And the more traumatic or intense the memory was, the more likely it is to leave a residue. In this way, you can be haunted by a person who is still alive. You can be hounded by a memory that replays itself over and over, like a psychic tape loop.
Did we curse ourselves?
You may never have seen a black mist floating down a hallway, but not all entities are visible. Not all phantoms are bound by floorboards and walls. Don’t you walk around like a haunted house, too? Don’t we all have demons beating their fleshy bat wings against our ribcages, ghosts moaning and rattling their chains inside our minds?
The brain has corridors surpassing material place.
These are some of my ghosts. Now, tell me yours.
Jessie Lynn McMains is a writer and zine-maker. Recent publications include 10 Poems By, an e-chapbook published by Hello America, and It’s Like The ‘Watch The Throne’ of Tender Punk Poems, a split chapbook with Misha Bee Speck. She’s the owner/editor of Bone & Ink Press, a small press which publishes limited-edition chapbooks of poetry, non-fiction, and experimental genres. She was the 2015-2017 Poet Laureate of Racine, Wisconsin, and she teaches workshops on memoir, poetry, and zine-making. You can find her website at recklesschants.net.