The hauntings of Helderberg houses

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Stories abound about this house with a tower in New Salem.

The mist-enshrouded history of Ireland is replete with stories of ghosts and other supernatural manifestations. I have Irish ancestors on my mother’s side, and from the time I was very young I became aware of the fact that some of them believed in ghosts the way the rest of us believe in traffic lights: They are there and we have to deal with them.

When I was in college, I attended the wake of an elderly Irish family friend in a small town in the Adirondacks and one of my great aunts approached my mother to express her grief and then said, “Oh Mary Jane, it’s so sad. But I knew someone was going to die. A few nights ago, I woke up and there was a ghost rattling rosary beads against my window.”

You had better believe that that story got told and re-told at family gatherings for years afterward!

But whatever part our family history might play in my interest, I have had a fascination with tales about ghosts from a very early age — I wrote my first ghost story when I was 10. But in my later years, my interest has centered on the stories and psychology of people who believe in ghosts.

That undoubtedly played a large part in my decision to write my doctoral dissertation in American literature on the fiction of Shirley Jackson, whose short story “The Lottery” and whose novel (subsequently a film) “The Haunting of Hill House” made her famous.

One critic characterized her works as combinations of “sorcery and psychiatry,” which nicely nails them down.

And over the years, my cave-exploring activities and my work with the Heldeberg Workshop have occasionally introduced me to perfectly reasonable-seeming, rational people who will tell me point blank that they have had an encounter with something other-worldly, that they live in a haunted house or that they know intimate details about one.

But my personal contact with stories of several reputedly “haunted” houses and sites in the Helderbergs began a good number of years ago when I was teaching a course at the former Vincentian High School in creative writing. At the time, the “Foxfire” series of books were very popular, detailing as they did folk tales and ways in the back hills of Appalachia.

I set my senior students on a project to track down interesting people and stories from the Helderbergs and write them up. As a result of my summers at the Heldeberg Workshop, I had become friends with Frieda Saddlemire, the legendary school teacher and historian from Knox, and she had suggested several contacts.

While all of them turned out to be interesting and earned the students who wrote about them respectable grades, two of the stories the students had ferreted out were remarkable, though one — of which much more later — never got written up by the students who had uncovered it.

It got shot down fairly quickly as a result of an interview I had with a person connected to the story. Subsequently, I elaborated on the events I heard about in that interview and turned them into a novel I am struggling to get published.

(The other story tracked down by two students is one I have been attempting to gain more information about for many years with virtually no luck. It involved a fantastic tale that they dug up as a result of a meeting with a source who insisted on remaining anonymous. While it did not involve ghosts, it was the sort of thing that a writer with the mentality of H.P. Lovecraft might have conjured, and it deals with that very peculiar-looking vine-covered building that looms darkly on the west side of the Knox Cave Road between Warner’s Lake and the village of Knox. But as I am still in hopes of someday tracking down the truth. I will say no more at this juncture!)

A dozen or so years afterward, I had confided in a few friends and associates that I was at work on a novel about a haunted house, based on a story that a pair of my students had uncovered in that folklore assignment. But I guess that kind of confidence — like a bit of juicy gossip — is very difficult to keep under wraps, and before long I was being contacted by various people who claimed to have been involved with ghosts or knew someone who had been.

Most of the stories seemed to involve spirits of remarkably uninteresting character. But a couple were intriguing.

One concerned a venerable old Victorian-style house on a road south of the village of New Salem in which one of the officers of the Heldeberg Workshop lived. She had invited the workshop’s board members over one fall night for a gathering, and a number of us admired the beautiful antiques she and her family had collected over the years.

She then informed us that her house had what she described as “the most interesting antique of all: We have a ghost.”  Or more precisely, they had a “poltergeist,” which is described as a “mischievous spirit.”

She asserted — and her husband and teen-aged children backed her up — that soon after they had moved into the house, they would sometimes come home to find furniture moved around and drawers pulled from dressers and the contents — usually socks and underwear — would be spilled onto the floor; rugs would be found rolled up, and locked doors would open and close on their own.

Curious events — but somewhat silly and not particularly threatening. The events had become less frequent in recent months, and the family had arrived at a theory: Before they moved in, the house had stood empty and somewhat dilapidated for a number of years. They concluded that a spirit in the house had felt lonely and the arrival of living, breathing humans with children had sent it into paroxysms of joy, which it was expressing through a series of mischievous acts.

Well, perhaps.

Another, creepier tale came to me by way of a self-described psychic — whose name I will not mention because I have always believed she derives way too much publicity by mentioning it herself! In any event — hearing that I had been at work on a novel about a haunted house — she contacted me and told me that a very old home in the beautiful valley of the Onesquethaw Creek south of Clarksville had once harbored a malign spirit.

Every Christmas Eve — precisely at the stroke of midnight, she told me — the windows in one upstairs bedroom exploded outward, sending shards of glass and wood flying to the ground. She asserted that the owners of the house had called upon her to perform some kind of exorcism and that, as a result of it, the events had stopped.

She also insisted that under no circumstances should I approach the owners as they did not want any publicity and, in any case, would deny everything.

Again — well, perhaps

But then — why had she contacted me in the first place? However, I am getting ahead of my story.  Something had been brooding in my mind for a number of years.

Back when I had been teaching that creative writing class at Vincentian High School, two young men among my students had come to me with a tale they had gotten from a relative of one of the students who lived in New Salem.

There was a house there, they said, that had long had the reputation of being haunted and, although it was at the time unoccupied, they had the name and telephone number of a woman who had lived there not long before with her husband.

The young men wanted me to contact her and ask if there was indeed anything to the story and if so if she would be willing to be interviewed so they could write up their folklore project. Therefore, one school day before classes began, I called the number; I got an answering machine and left my name, the school’s phone number, and a rather vague reference to the fact that I had been told she might have an interesting story to tell about a house in New Salem.

Less than three hours later, while I was just wrapping up a lesson before the bell rang to change classes, the school secretary knocked on my classroom door and told me I had a visitor. As it happened, my lunch period followed, and so I was able to meet and speak with her.

She proved to be a young, attractive woman perhaps in her early thirties, quiet, composed, cordial if rather formal, and not at all seeming to be a nervous type. There was a small conference room where we could talk; she had requested that we speak privately and I anticipated that she was about to tell me that the young men who had given me her phone number were prying into something that was none of their business.

She began in a rather offhand almost bland manner, telling me that she had gotten my phone message and that it was really not a good idea for the young men to go knocking on the door of the house in question.

But her demeanor changed rather abruptly. She began to recount a series of increasingly hair-raising events that she insisted had happened to her and then to her husband and within 20 minutes she was literally in tears and shaking, beseeching me to tell the young men to stay far clear of the house.

Her tale was punctuated with the refrain that has probably been spoken by everyone who has had a bizarre experience that might involve the supernatural: “I know you will think this is crazy, but you must believe me.”  After all these years, the interview still gives me goosebumps when I think about it.

The two students who had uncovered the story were disappointed when I gave them a vague reason not to pursue it — something to the effect that the current owners would deny everything and certainly would not allow the students to poke around. They subsequently found some other topic to pursue the nature of which I have long forgotten.

But the story of the house in New Salem had planted itself in my mind and — no pun intended — began to haunt me. I took a drive out Route 85 to get a look at it and noticed at once how it stood out from other houses in the village.

It had a tower on it — commonly called a “widow’s walk,” which indicated it had been built in the 1800s.  But most striking was its color: Unlike most of the other houses in New Salem, which were painted white or yellow, this one was chocolate brown with turquoise trim.

But unlike the stereotypical image of haunted houses, it appeared well-maintained, with lawn and shrubbery neatly trimmed. And then there was its location. Obviously being in a hamlet with “Salem” in its name is evocative — but this house, unlike the haunted houses of Gothic thrillers, did not stand alone on a wind-swept moor or surrounded by dense forest.

It sat comfortably surrounded by close neighboring homes with their potted plants and bird-feeders and flower beds — in no way seeming to be the setting for the frightening story the woman had told me.

And the story was this: She and her husband had moved to upstate New York from a fairly rural area in a neighboring state. Her husband was, I believe, an insurance agent and worked in Albany, eight or nine hours a day, Monday through Friday and occasionally on weekends.

She was an artist and from time to time had worked as a substitute art teacher in various private schools as she was not certified in her former state or New York but on moving had decided to take a year off and concentrate on her paintings — acrylics and watercolors.

They had rented the house because they enjoyed the quiet of a home town and it was roomy and partially furnished. Previously, they had lived in an apartment and did not have a great amount of furniture of their own.

Rent was low, the house was conveniently located on a good road, and the views of the Helderbergs from the house — especially from the tower where she set up her studio — were gorgeous and inspiring.

Shortly after they moved in, some odd things began to happen — ominous music please!  She would go up to her studio to find her easel knocked over and paint daubed onto a partly-finished canvas or onto the floor.

If she went out to shop, she might come home to find furniture moved around. (Poltergeist?) She contacted their landlord who insisted that he had not been in the house but that vibrations from heavy traffic on the highway might have caused things to spill or move around. (As the kids say — “Yeah, right!”)

On a couple of occasions, she would look out of a window and see a young auburn-haired boy, perhaps 12 or 13 years of age, in their backyard, staring up at the house. When she would go outside to ask him what he wanted, there would be no one there. (More ominous music!)

Then things got more unsettling. On one sunny fall afternoon, she was in the backyard of the house picking some late-blooming flowers for a bouquet when she looked up at the house and saw the boy inside — watching her from a window.

She dropped the flowers and raced inside — but the boy was gone. The front door was locked from the inside and the only other entrance was the rear door through which she had come in.

She called out and searched every corner of the house, including the basement but there was no sign of him. Shaken, she went to a neighbor’s house and inquired about the boy and later reported the incident to the sheriff.  But her description did not fit that of any kid living in New Salem at the time and no one else had reported seeing him.

Now — in any ghost story, this is the moment of decision, or as a character in a Shirley Jackson story says, the moment of discovery of “the disembodied hand in the soup”— and generally the humans involved make the wrong decision.

Why would anyone stay in a house in which such things are going on? And, when I had asked the woman this question during our meeting, she gave the expected answer: The house was conveniently located, it was airy and roomy, it was well-kept-up, and the rent was very reasonable.  (“And now we know why!” exclaims the reader.)  And none of these events had taken place when her husband was at home.

Then things got much nastier. While she was taking a shower one morning, she heard the door to the bathroom suddenly open a crack and she swore she heard boyish giggling coming from just beyond.

She screamed and lunged for her bathrobe, but of course there was no one there when she opened the door fully and both doors to the house were locked from within. She hesitated to call the sheriff to report an intruder because she had not actually seen anyone and saying she “thought” she heard laughter would not be taken very seriously.

One day when she was vacuuming the living room, she looked out and saw a group of three or four kids sitting on the steps in front of the house with their bikes lying on the lawn. She went out and asked the kids if they knew of any boy in the area who might fit her description.

She said the kids had snickered and told her that other people living in that house had reported seeing such a boy. Their story was that, in the early 1900s, a family had lived in the house whose adolescent son had been climbing on the cliffs above New Salem with some friends and had fallen to his death.  From that moment, his spirit had haunted the house.

Convinced that the kids were simply trying to scare her, perhaps having heard her stories about the boy from their parents — such news gets around pretty quickly in small towns — she was determined not to be driven out of the house by a disturbed adolescent. But, of course, the kids’ tale now began to loom large in her mind.

There was one climactic incident that finally drove her and her husband to leave. On a brilliantly sunny Sunday afternoon, she and her husband were in the living room. He was lying on the sofa, watching a football game on TV, and she was reading.

Although the room was cheerfully bright, she had a reading lamp on behind her. Suddenly the light went out and the TV clicked off. Just as she was about to say, “The power’s out” to her husband, the room went black.

Now — understand, the window shades were up and the views out the windows were the usual ones:  other houses, the street, the cliffs above the town. But no light was coming in.

It was as though the windows were nothing but illuminated paintings on the wall. The interior of the room was black as pitch and she could see nothing. She called out to her husband, but there was no answer.

Incredulous, she got to her feet and groped her way toward the sofa, tripping over a small footrest on the floor. She swore she heard again the boyish giggling and suddenly the darkness went away and the room was light again.

However, her husband was lying on the floor writhing as though he were having some kind of seizure. When she knelt next to him and called his name, she reported that the writhing suddenly stopped.

With his body contorted, his face broke into what she called “the most hideous grin I have ever seen in my life.”  He then began to speak in an eerily smug, adolescent boy’s voice punctuated with a demented-sounding giggle. He told her that the house belonged to him and that he wanted her and her husband out now.

Terrified, she stood up incredulous of what she was hearing — when suddenly her husband’s body relaxed and blinking his eyes rapidly he said something like, “Honey?  My God, I fell off the sofa!  Did I fall asleep?”

He was not aware of the episode of blackness nor of the events that had followed.

They left the house that night. If she explained to me how they had managed to break their lease, I have long since forgotten. Her husband had supervised the moving of their furniture as she refused from then on to set foot in the house or for that matter in the hamlet of New Salem. And once they were out, she had never experienced any such events again.

I remember telling this story to Frieda Saddlemire — well, parts of it, anyway — and she nodded and said that stories had abounded about that house for years, some quite different and less threatening than the ones the woman had told me.

“You know,” she said — lowering her voice though only the two of us were there —“people up here in the hills really believe that kind of thing.”

But, of course, if a viewer flips around cable stations one by one it becomes obvious that there are millions of people in this country who believe — or want to believe — “that kind of thing,” given the number of ghost-chasing, haunted-house investigating shows that are on the schedules.

My novel is called “Come From the Star Lands,” taking its title from an eerie poem by John Greenleaf Whittier about a ceremony that calls back the departed.

It grew from being a novelette to quite a lengthy novel, and in it I have incorporated several of the other ghostly tales about the Helderbergs — called the “Helder Hills” in my book — and have managed to bring in some of the other non-supernatural tales of local folklore I picked up along the way.

The Helderbergs have a history and a folk tradition as rich as that of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, though his stories involve ghosts of quite another kind.

That house in New Salem looks now rather different from the way it looked when I first heard about it and the stories surrounding it. Painted a light shade of green with dark green trim, it sits comfortably among the other rather New Englandy-looking houses in the village — though that tower still seems a bit foreboding.

I know many people in the area, and to my knowledge whatever scary reputation the house once had has long passed, perhaps remembered only by some of the oldest residents of the hamlet and surrounding lands.

As I pass it, I am reminded of the closing lines of Emily Bronte’s classic novel “Wuthering Heights.”  To paraphrase: Seeing today this well-tended, rather dignified-looking dwelling, it is hard to imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in the quiet earth.