Yes, it’s hot outside. It’s summer, so hopefully no one is shocked by that. But it’s still awful, a travail that everyone expects but nobody likes. But do you know what’s cold? Or, what will be cold in a short minute? Your blood will be cold, because we have gathered legitimately scary ghost stories guaranteed actually to have happened! And they’re scary!
They’re not as good as central air, or winter, but it is you, the reader, that we love, and one small way we can show our appreciation is to scare you with real-life stories of the unexplained to the extent that you forget about your earthly-plane problems, like sweating and dehydration. The stories are from writers Cusi Cram, Emily Rems, Christopher Conry, Lori Horvitz and me. Enjoy (if that’s the appropriate response to actually scary things).
My mother is from Scotland, and there’s a castle in her family. She wasn’t raised there but her father inherited it when she was in her twenties and she grew up going there every summer. It’s a very castley-castle, with turrets by a loch in the western highlands. The castle is apparently very, very haunted. Her family has been in that part of the world, more or less in the same place, since the 12th century. So that means there has been plenty of time for a variety ghosts from lots of different periods in history to settle in and set up shop.
Now when I was very small, she didn’t really tell me about all the ghosts, knowing that when we would come from New York to visit her family, no little kid wants to go stay in a haunted castle.
One time we were there, and I was six, about the age when you have imaginary friends. Or I did, at least. And I had a lot of them, and they were very active and social. Someone in the group was always getting married, or throwing a ball of some kind. It was an interspecies group; there was bear named Fred, who was the ringleader and lots of beautiful woman with Italian names like Francesca and Mary Luca and a family of royal cats.
There was a garden at the castle, and the garden was kind of French, with very tall manicured shrubs. I was there with my usual non-existent crew, having a little picnic to celebrate someone’s wedding. And then I saw this lady, who I had never seen before. And she was grey, completely grey, and dressed in Victorian clothes. Not that I would’ve been able to say that at the time. I think I thought they were “old fashioned” clothes. And she was sort of roaming around the garden, almost gliding, as if she didn’t have feet under her petticoats.
I think I kind of acknowledged her, but I was having a picnic with my friends who looked a lot more fun than her, and for some reason I did not invite her to sit down. I watched her watch us, and then she suddenly disappeared.
It was a strange feeling, because, as a child, you’re in charge of your own imagination. But this time it was in charge of me.
Anyway, I went inside and I spoke to my mother. I told her “I was having a picnic with my friends, my imaginary friends, and there was this woman there, and she was all in grey, and I know she wanted to sit down with us, and I didn’t feel like asking her.” My mother’s face went totally white. I said, “What, what’s wrong?”
My mother, in a very dramatic British accent said, “You’ve seen the Grey Lady in the garden.” And I said, “What’s that, what’s that?” And she told me about the ghosts that had been seen around the castle for centuries and that the Grey Lady was one of the most famous ones.
And suddenly I realized that what I’d seen was a ghost, I hadn’t made her up. And then my mother, perhaps not very perspicaciously, read me diary entries of ancestors and other people describing the Grey Lady. I tried to figure out who she was and where she came from. I can’t remember many of the details about her but she did have a complicated, sad story like most ghosts. If I remember correctly, she died in childbirth and she was named Elisabeth. No one seemed to know why she was gray.
Over the years when I went back to visit, I’d feel things, spirits, chills, doors would suddenly close, sometimes I would hear voices of people who weren’t there. I became very aware that the castle had this whole other set of inhabitants. Even now when I go back to visit, I find it extremely hard to sleep at night.
I’ve looked for the Grey Lady again but ghosts seem to play by their own rules. Maybe she’s still angry I didn’t invite her to the picnic.
Cusi Cram did not grow up in castle but rather in a rent stabilized apartment in NY. She’s thrilled to have found a way to make a living continuing to speak to imaginary people. She’s an award-winning playwright whose work has been presented at theaters around the country, and is currently a staff writer on the grown up show The Big C. Her plays are available at Samuel French.
When I first moved into my Emerson College freshman dorm—a massive, crumbling old structure called the Charlesgate—in 1993, I had no idea I would be staying in one of Boston’s most notoriously haunted places. But during orientation week, the rumors about occult activity were inescapable. Older students told stories about an unusually high suicide rate among Charlesgate residents, about a cloaked apparition who appeared to women at night, and about the ghost of a little girl who allegedly died in a fall down the elevator shaft who could still be heard bouncing her ball in the halls. Built in 1891 as Boston’s premiere luxury hotel, the Charlesgate fell into disrepair and had a long stint as a welfare hotel before it was converted into dorms, first for Boston University, and then for Emerson. Even without the ghost stories, the place was overwhelmingly creepy. Battered by time, rowdy students, and neglect, this labyrinthine former showplace was infested with rats that would scuttle and scrape in the walls at night and chew through any snacks we happened to keep in our rooms. As a student stage manager, I would often be sent alone to the ornate ballroom to turn on the lights so the hundreds of cockroaches breeding there in the dark could scuttle out of sight before the more squeamish actors arrived for rehearsals. And the basement, where the stables for 19th-century guests’ horses still stood, was deemed strictly off limits because an intricate series of dangerously unstable tunnels was said to snake away from it into the depths of the city.
Thanks to the reputation of the Charlesgate as a haunted place, occult enthusiasts were always trying to get students to sign them in so they could explore. And because my floor, the third floor, was said to be a hotbed of paranormal activity, it was not at all unusual to find goth girls huddled over ouija boards in the halls at night, sometimes right in front of my door. I thought their spiritual experiments were cool and would often get freaked out watching them commune with the dead. But other than terrifyingly vivid nightmares of a dark figure standing beside my bed, I didn’t experience anything paranormal until halfway through the semester.
It was almost dawn one night in the middle of winter when I got up to use the communal bathroom down the hall. When I entered, I heard someone crying hard in one of the stalls. I wanted to be discreet and give the girl her privacy so I ignored it. But when I left my stall to wash my hands, the weeping got much louder and sounded almost desperate, so I called out, “Are you OK?” At the sound of my voice, the crying abruptly stopped. In the mirror above the sink, I could see the door to the stall where the crying was coming from was ajar. I crossed over and gave it a little knock to see if the girl needed help, and at my touch, the door swung open, revealing that nobody was inside. I was so startled I screamed, and then I ran back to my room where I woke up my two (saintly) roommates who comforted me while I cried and shook with fright.
Back in 1993 there were plenty of stories like mine circulating at Charlesgate, but they were passed by word of mouth. Now, thanks to the Internet, former residents are finding each other online and sharing their paranormal experiences on sites like this one. You can even watch a re-enactment of Emerson alum Gina Gershon’s ghostly Charlesgate experience as part of the TV show Celebrity Ghost Stories.
Emily Rems is a feminist writer, editor, rock star, playwright and occasional plus-size model living in New York’s East Village. Best known as managing editor of BUST, Emily is also a music and film commentator for New York’s NPR affiliate WNYC, and is the drummer for the horror-punk band the Grasshoppers. Her writing has appeared in the anthologiesCassette from my Ex and Zinester’s Guide to NYC.
Every New Yorker worth their salt knows of and respects the history of the Chelsea Hotel with its vast hellish neon sign hanging over 23rd Street, a lamp for moths such as Dylan Thomas, Holly Woodlawn, Robert Mapplethorpe, Sid Vicious, Edie Sedgwick and William S. Burroughs. It’s a ship for lost souls, a sort of Noah’s Ark of the damned—and the parties can be a lot of fun. Seeing those glowing letters 40-odd feet high through a fogged or rainy night can send a thrill up my spine rather reliably.
A friend of mine has a large apartment on the 10th floor of the Chelsea, with a roof-deck, that he inherited from his mother who lived there at the height of the place’s notoriety in the ’60s and ’70s. Every year in the spring he throws a rooftop party where friends and his neighbors all gather to eat, drink and smoke joints on the roof, and there are usually more than a few photographs and Super 8 movies being taken as some of the most notorious New York artists mix with some of the most notorious New York derelicts, and for a few hours in June everything is as it should be.
About a year and a half ago in the late fall, the friend and his wife were out of town for a long weekend and he had asked me to stop in once or twice to feed his cat for him. In exchange, I was welcome to hang out at his place and spend the night if I wanted. On the Saturday night of this weekend my friend Lauren and I had gone to see Milk at the Chelsea Clearview, and as we left I said, “Hey, I have access to an apartment and rooftop at the Chelsea Hotel, why don’t we go hang out there?”
After quickly shopping for pâté and two bottles of Prosecco, we were in the elevator (which the ghost of Sid Vicious has been rumored to haunt). Then we were having a cocktail on the antique leather sofa and making a plate of snacks to take out onto the roof.
A brief interjection: there is a particular ghost which is supposed to haunt the 10th floor of the Chelsea is known as the Gray Man, and he is (to put it mildly) not predisposed to kindness, so to speak. He lurks in the stairwell of the 10th floor and tries to get people (mainly children) to leap to their deaths. Keep in mind, I was not thinking of this legend and Lauren had never heard of it at the time.
The roof of the Chelsea Hotel is a dark, twisty and rambling place with towers, odd little doorways to rooftop apartments, narrow alleys and idiosyncratic cornices, and many many dark and shadowed corners. Being up there at sunset with a large gathering of people is an entirely different experience then say, being two waifs in skinny jeans scurrying around a gothic rooftop in the dead of a November night.
Lauren is a very level headed, critical person, not prone to flights of fancy. We were talking about the hotel’s architecture and various events in our lives when she stopped mid-conversation and turned and looked at me with a puzzled expression on her face. “Chris! Did you hear that?”
I hadn’t heard anything except for the traffic down on 23rd Street and the occasional jet engine, and when I asked her what it was she said, “I keep hearing a man’s voice saying ‘jump, go on jump. You’ll be fine, just go ahead and jump.” She then said explained a bizarre and inexplicable urge to jump off the roof had entered her mind that would not be shaken. She asked that we move away from the edge of the roof where we had been perched, which is when we saw it.
A few yards away, half-obscured by a chimney stack, was the darkened silhouette of a man, watching us from an inkwell of a corner. It could have been my eyes playing tricks on my mind and I tried to convince myself this was the case. That is up until it moved, stepping back into the darkness behind it.
Lauren and I quickly gathered our things and made our way across the roof, through coal-black alleys that felt filled with eyes all the while feeling a menacing presence following behind us, just out of our field of vision—and it was not until we were safely back inside with the sliding glass door closed and locked behind us that we began to feel safe.
My friend has told me before that he feels his mother is still in the apartment she left to him, and so perhaps she kept at bay whatever angry presence dwells on the 10th floor of New York City’s answer to The Overlook. Lauren was visibly and deeply shaken, and we quickly finished the first bottle of Prosecco and did considerable damage to the second before our nerves began to calm. We left soon after.
Later I shared with Lauren the story of the Gray Man, who lurks in the 10th floor stairwell and urges people to jump . Having never heard the legend she became positively aquiver and dropped the phone when I told her.
As a final footnote, two years later I had been devouring Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which recounted her life with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe; a large portion of which was spent in the Hotel Chelsea. On pages 197-98 (paperback ed.), she mentions the composer Lee Crabtree, a fellow resident: “…after several days I asked around for him, and Anne Waldman told me that, facing the loss of his inheritance and the threat of institutionalization, he leapt to his death from the roof of the Chelsea.”
Is Lee Crabtree the Gray Man or just one of his victims? One of the many casualties of the Chelsea. The incident has never left Lauren’s mind and to this day she is absolutely terrified of the Chelsea Hotel and refuses to set foot within its walls. Others, it seems, never leave.
[A version of Christopher’s story first appeared in This Is FYF.]
Christopher Conry is an artist and filmmaker living in Brooklyn, and is preparing to workshop his second screenplay. Like everyone else on Earth he has a tumblr, and can sometimes be found here and here. He will draw for money.
On my first morning at an art colony, a poet who lived across the hall asked if I heard someone typing in the mansion’s attic above my room. “It was so loud!” she said. “All night long!”
I didn’t hear the typing, but I had used a deafening fan and earplugs to block out the classical music in the distance.
“I can’t believe you didn’t hear it,” the poet said. “It sounded like one of those old electric typewriters. The ones you can change the ball on.”
“A Selectric?” I said.
“Why would anyone,” she asked, “want to work up there?” She heard classical music too, also coming from the attic. After we finished our coffee, we opened the door to the attic and walked up the creaky steps. Crammed with old costumes spilling from big trunks, antique furniture, paintings and yellow-haired porcelain dolls with life-like eyes, it would have been impossible for anyone to work up there. At the top of the steps, a red Selectric typewriter sat on the floor, its unplugged cord a wiggly snake. A few feet away, a dusty record player rested atop a trunk, a Beethoven record cued up on its turntable.
At dinner, a painter said she’d been to the colony 20 times before and knew each room intimately. When I told her the name of my room, her eyes looked downward, her face immobile. “Oh,” she said, then stuck her fork into a chicken cutlet.
I slept well for the first two nights, but on the third night, I couldn’t sleep. Queasiness took over my body. And mind. My back hurt. Even though the idea of eating repulsed me, I gorged on food. For the next ten days, I kept eating but barely slept. I sat in front of my computer to write but couldn’t string a sentence together. I walked the virgin prairies outside the mansion and cried from exhaustion. Sometimes I’d scream. I was at the colony to write, to think, to relax, but instead I felt stupefied and starved.
A fellow resident, a Japanese composer who played the cello, often spoke about the spirit world, so I asked him for advice. He had recently spent time at the Millay Colony in upstate New York. There, after making a snide comment about Edna St. Vincent Millay, a pebble spewed from nowhere and hit his face.
“There is a spirit in your room,” he said, the lenses of his black horn-rimmed glasses magnifying his eyes. “This is why you are sick and can’t sleep.” He told me he saw the spirit when he looked out the window at night from his bedroom. “You’re an easy target,” he said. “You’re too open.” He said the spirit entered my body from the back of my neck and tried to synchronize with me. “The spirit is sucking your energy,” he said. “You are eating for two.” Now, he said, I needed to tell the spirit to go away. “Don’t be nice. You are too nice. Be forceful.”
That night I sat up in my bed and yelled, “Get the hell out of here and let me sleep! Leave me alone! It’s time to go!” I waved my arms. “You are not fucking welcome here anymore!” I sneered and pointed both index fingers. “It’s time to leave.” Within the hour, I fell asleep. When I awoke, I felt great.
At breakfast, the composer, hunched over and sweaty, asked how I slept. “The spirit,” he said, “came to me last night. Because I told you to be forceful, the spirit is very angry. And now I am sick. I didn’t sleep.” He wiped his forehead. “It’s okay,” he said. “Only for two more days. Then I go.” He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “You need to be more discerning,” he said. “You are too open, but not open enough. You’re only 70 percent open. You need to close bad energy out, let good energy in.”
Before I left the colony, I asked the painter-woman who’d been a resident 20 times about her experience in my room.
“I never slept too well,” she said. “But I always blamed it on the lumpy mattress.”
The room in question is known as the Blue Room at Ragdale, an artist residency located just outside of Chicago. According to Ragdale’s website, “…the Blue Bedroom is the favorite haunts of the Ragdale ghost, purported to be Sylvia Shaw Judson, Howard Shaw’s middle daughter and sculptor of the famous Bird Girl of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil fame.” Not sure why ol’ Sylvia did such a number on me though.
Lori Horvitz is an Associate Professor of Literature and Language at UNC-Asheville. She is completing a collection of personal essays titled Shiksa in My Living Room.
Years ago, when I was about eleven or twelve, my little sister and I would mess with a Ouija board. We’d gotten one for Christmas once, but we were asked to burn it by our grandmother, who was certain, on the advice of The 700 Club, that it was an instrument of the devil and not such a good thing for our moral development. But we were not to be prevented, so we took an old piece of plywood and tarted it up with a lipstick alphabet and YES and NO and such, and then wadded up a piece of aluminum foil to use as a planchette. We’d sit in the backyard—it was summertime—and call up all sorts of interesting spirits and have facile conversations with them.
During this period of time, I came in from mowing the lawn one early evening, and my mom informed me that I’d had a phone call. A girl. I was at an age where phone calls from girls were desired but rare, so I was taken aback. Who had called? “Kay,” Mom said, “her number’s on the fridge.”
This was weird. There were no Kays in my junior high circle of friends, in fact no Kays at all that I could think of. But, the previous day, my sister and I had Ouija’d up a Kay, supposedly dead at a young age. This was very weird.
So I hustled up to the parent’s bedroom, which was the place to make daylight private phone calls, and dialed the number. Kay answered. The connection was fuzzy and full of static, like in a wind tunnel, but the voice was clear. “Do you know who this is?” she said. I responded that I had a pretty good idea.
So what did we talk about? I wish I could tell you. It happened pretty fast, and I, in my boy detective ways, would press her about where she was calling from and that kind of thing, but she was glancing, almost flirty. I don’t recall her answering any questions directly. I do recall at the end of the conversation, she broke off by saying that someone was coming and she had to go. And there was a change in timbre, a swelling, of the background noise, and she clicked off and was gone.
Now, surely this was fake, a prank played by my sister. Best I can tell, no. I established my sister’s whereabouts, playing in a different backyard. And I called the number every day for two weeks, thinking that if it were a pay phone or someone’s parents’ phone, some one would pick up eventually. No one ever did. And at a certain point I stopped trying. Probably school started, or I had a crush on a girl, or both of those things. My brief episode of lilting Ray Bradbury subsided into my otherwise bucolic youth, when there were worlds to conquer and/or to pine for.
And that would’ve been the end of it, a funny story for one-upping spooky stories. But, as the years went by, the three times I was near a Ouija board, at parties, in the dorm, Kay would ring in and ask for me. And I was never part of the Ouija team; I swore it off. But Kay didn’t, and she wanted to speak with me, and I never did. It’s pretty much only now that I’m curious about what she wanted. Back then, I was creeped out, and then irritated at being bothered.
I don’t know what it all means, or if it means anything at all. I’ve always been mildly interested in the paranormal and the occult and general high and low weirdness, but oddly I’ve divorced that specific event of weirdness from the reading that I’ve done. It was what it was, and still is, I guess, so I don’t know if that was a phone call from the other side, an overactive adolescent imagination, or even a prank played by my sister that somehow took on a life its own.
I don’t know. But isn’t it neat?