Things that go bump in the night

Finding Disneyland

As genealogists and family history researchers, we deal with what our ancestors have left behind. But what about the ancestors who stayed behind? We all know that when we blissfully, stoically, and persistently work at finding and understanding our forebears, they will look over our shoulders, tweak our brains, and sometimes yank on our chains to get their stories told. Mine serve up apple pie and coffee!!

When I was awaiting the birth of my son, I worked a crewel embroidery scene of a small boy kneeling at his bedside reciting the old Scottish children’s prayer “From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us.” It’s also a Halloween prayer once said by children to ward off grasping Beasts-Under-The-Bed or those gruesome Closet Monsters. (It doesn’t work on my Despicable Dust Bunnies.) My Scottish ancestors must have been at my shoulder while I worked, plotting and planning fodder for my stories.

“From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us.”

Very old houses like mine are seldom quiet; mine whispers. Sometimes it shouts. My blind and audio-oriented husband knows where I am in the house because the floor boards holler most footfalls, every door has its say, and the stairs creak predictably with every step. It is impossible to enter this house without being heard; even less possible to walk in it without a sound.

We’ve learned to differentiate between its normal sounds and its whispers. Being awakened at three in the morning by the smell of fresh coffee and bacon isn’t all bad, even if we live alone and don’t rise until six. We happily enjoy the aroma of fresh apple pie even if we’re not baking and the oven is cold. Such are the whispers of My Old House, whose antique wooden beams have absorbed centuries of scents and aromas. Its shouts are a bit different.

Understand here that although I loathe and detest house painting, I do most of it because giving my very capable husband access to paint in any manner defies common sense, logic, and my courage. Therefore, he remained working at his office desk across the hall from my living room paint project on a day when we were alone and no one arrived.

He didn’t look up when he heard me come in the back door, through the kitchen, down the hall, and into the living room, doors opening and closing and footsteps clunking all the way. As the living room door closed, he immediately heard me once again come in the back door, through the kitchen, and down the hall to the living room door, and asked if I had just come in and gone out again.

I hadn’t. I had just then come in with my tools, and I was wearing somewhat paint-squishy, non-clunking sneakers. The living room was empty of everything but paint and tools.

Husband looked a bit peaked at that moment.

Whenever I worked in the chamber over my kitchen, I was careful not to let our two Siamese cats into the area they see as Disneyland. I saw them outside the room when I finished, and secured the door’s deadbolt. An hour or so later, my indoor cats were absent. In an increasing blind-panic (no pun intended), I started another thorough sweep of the upstairs when I had a “nudge” to unbolt the chamber door. There were both Siamese, complaining, impatient, and looking worried. Disneyland had lost its attraction. I had lost my patience and gave vent to a loud “scolding” of house and ancestors.

Disneyland had lost its attraction.

An occasional “misunderstanding” with My Old House does little to diminish its pleasantries, but it is important to be clear about who owns whom. It claims superiority by attacking my checkbook on a regular basis; I assert ownership by complying – loudly, and with expletives. The house responds to a good scolding by keeping floorboards quiet when no one is walking on them, or silencing unmoving doors. Apple pies return unbaked to the cold brick oven and the coffee pot remains quiet. We make repairs and amends, and soon the house whispers again, silently considerate of guests, shouting only for its prodigal “caretakers.”

If my ancestors are baking and brewing coffee, we have no apparitions, no visions of previous occupants, just antique wood reacting to modern atmosphere, and old energies of sound and smell that seem to have learned not to trifle with me when I am caffeine-or-sleep-deprived (or covered in paint)! Any really old house has its own sounds and smells. Mine serves up apple pie and coffee! That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

These are some of the stories of My Old House that I’ll keep for the generations to come, filed under “Family Going Bump.” It is perhaps not those nighttime noises of my ancestors’ past but my own which are truly the scariest of all:


About Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr received a B.A. degree in Sociology/Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and spent a long career in the legal profession while researching her family history. She has recently written and published articles for’s Cognoscenti blog: “Labor of Love: Preserving a 226-Year-Old Family Home and Preparing to Let It Go” and “The Value of Family Heirlooms in a Digital Age.” Jan currently lives with her attorney husband in Augusta, Maine, where she serves two Siamese cats and spends all her retirement money propping up a really old house.

9 thoughts on “Things that go bump in the night

  1. I love your stories about your old house! As someone who has nothing left from my ancestors, I can only imagine the pleasure of enjoying something that was once part of your family for generations.

  2. My family and I were touring the Fairbanks House in Dedham, Mass., and our docent had told many stories of ghostly activity in the house. My daughter and I were already downstairs, as our tour was ending, when suddenly my four granddaughters (ages 4 to 10) came pounding down the stairs, screaming that a rocking chair in the upstairs bedroom had started to rock, even though no one was nearby. I assured the girls that, even if it was a ghost, it was an ancestor of ours who was very happy that we were visiting their house and keeping their memory alive. That was six years ago. Last year, I returned to the house by myself, and texted a photo to the family. Immediately I was besieged with answering texts:
    “Did you see any ghosts?” The girls will never forget that old house, or their Fairbanks ancestors!

  3. I remember distinctly that the stairs to my old house in Wollaston, Massachusetts had 17 stairs that creaked one after the other as if someone was coming up the stairs…scared me half to death, until I got used to that sound. You have put into words the descriptions of the things that “haunt” your old house, and it is a beautiful thing that you still live there. My old house was torn down to make way for apartments, as the city of Quincy, Massachusetts had “too many historical houses” to take just one more.

    1. Hi Sylvia. I have 13 stairs from bottom to top, everyone of which thwarted my teenage efforts to sneak in after curfew. Even learning where the solid parts of the treads were didn’t help: my mother never slept until I was home. Busted!

  4. Disruption – that’s what the spirits of an old house don’t like.
    While regrouting and polishing tiles in an upper bathroom of our old house, the workman was startled to see an elderly woman, small in stature, wearing a blue dress, her white hair neatly tucked into a bun on the top of her head. She didn’t speak, just looked around and left.
    Other workmen were in the outer hall, but when asked about the “little old lady,” they had not seen her pass through.
    When I was told about her and asked if I knew that she had been in the house, I thought, “Ah, that may be Mrs. L,” for whom the house was originally built. I knew her granddaughter, Mrs. M, and asked for a description after telling the story.
    Mrs M described her grandmother just as the workman had seen her – right down to the detail of her favorite housedress. The bathroom was just off her dressing room where she usually sat to put on her stockings – many, many years ago.

  5. The late Lady F., of the Scottish Borders, toldus some 20 years ago, that in the old manor house where she grew up and where, when she was a child, electricity was slowly replacing gas in the lighting fixtures, that when her parents were away and the children acting up, the staff went to the gas controls and moved it up and down, making the lights flicker…telling the children the house’s ghost was upset by their mischief-it usually sent them right to bed. The house and its “ghosts” were demolished after WWII.

  6. I once lived on the second floor of an older house that had been built as a two-family home, with the upstairs apartment connected to the downstairs with an open stairway, which could be closed off if the downstairs occupants weren’t friendly with those upstairs. That stairaway also split partway down so that the upstairs occupants had access to their own outside front door down a longer set of stairs. But the most unique part of the house was the attic that went across the entire length of the house, with a fully finished wood floor and 8-ft ceiling down the center.

    The downstairs people happened to be a couple I liked and had known for years. The husband had installed a tanning bed in the attic, accessed by yet another set of fully finished stairs (with a landing halfway up) from the hallway connected to my living room by a wide, open archway. I always kept the door at the bottom closed; open it would block the doorway to my infant daughter’s room. Several times when the couple downstairs were both at work, I’d hear adult-wearing-shoes footsteps cross the attic, come down the stairs, then stop at the bottom, where the “person” would politely knock on “his” side of the door. Tap-tap-tap…pause…tap-tap-tap. Of course, I’d never open the door, and soon, the footsteps would reverse back up the stairs and cross the attic to wherever.

    One afternoon an acquaintance I wasn’t particularly fond of had dropped in uninvited (again), the type who only leaves when she’s ready and not before. We were in the living room having coffee when the Attic Ghost – perhaps to “rescue” me? – decided to take a stroll. Then knock on the door, but I remained sitting on the sofa. “Who’s that?”, Visitor asked. “Nobody lives upstairs, right?”. Seconds after I calmly replied, “Oh, that’s just the ghost in the attic”, the woman had grabbed her purse and shot out the back door, never to darken my door again.

    Was never sure the ghost in the attic was the same one who’d turn on the blender at 3 a.m. Unplugging the blender before I went to bed wasn’t a deterrent, nor was disassembling it and hiding the various parts in different places in the kitchen. At 3 a.m., I’d be awoken to “whirr, whirr, wrhirrrrrrrrr”, and go into the kitchen to find the blender fully re-assembled and plugged in. Always empty, of course. I learned to just sleep through it, as did my daughter. Every now and then, there’d be a “light show” in the evening – a ceiling light going off, then coming on again several times, but apparently that didn’t hold the fascination of the whirring blender in the wee hours.

    That wasn’t the last apartment in an old house I lived in that was haunted, but the only one with a “polite” ghost and perhaps another with a fascination with blenders!

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