I was 23 and newly married to a man as hollowed out by his past as any house left to decay and stand forsaken. He had filled those hollow spaces with religion, and as religion was all I had ever known, it didn’t occur to me to see the red flags marking the territory of fanaticism. I was not skilled in the nuance between skepticism and paranoia, between criticism and abuse, between redemption and a mask. I was young, and desperately wanted to be a grown-up. When I met Greg, he was sure of everything — and he had two small children who needed a stable and loving mother. I knew I could do that — be a mother. I was born for it, and I loved them honestly and fiercely.
When I first saw the house, I laughed. It was the scariest one on the street. I was driving by with my mother, looking for his address. The house was a dilapidated yellow — chipping with age and neglect. The stairs are what caught my attention first. They were painted yellow to match the house, but the paint was peeling and revealed a dark red underneath. “It looks like the stairs are bleeding,” I told my mother. We both laughed about how crazy it would be if that were his house. Then it was. I’m honestly not sure what drew me to Greg in the first place. In the movies, dark places draw the victims in with potential, with curiosity. I guess the same could be said for my relationship. Greg was a dark place with these beautiful children bobbing like fairy lights in a forbidden forest. I followed, forsaking every instinct I had for self-preservation. He was fun. And he loved me immediately. And he was a man of God — so though the house spoke its warnings to me through bloodied steps, stained-glass crosses, and cracks that ran across the walls like veins, I believed it was my imagination because evil could not thrive where good lived, right?
First: I realized I was making a mistake even before I married Greg. I cried the night before I said my vows, but I didn’t know how to end it. I felt obligated, pulled by my own cowardice and pride. Every time I was in that house before the marriage, I felt it take something from me. Once, I was making out with Greg on the couch and looked up to see his friend watching us through the window. He was leering at me like I was behind the curtain of a 25-cent peep show. That moment stuck to me after I left. All of his friends looked at me like I was dinner. I should have known then. They were all warnings, like ghosts in a house I failed to recognize — looking out at me from darkened hallways in a home that never felt like me.
My friends all told me they couldn’t picture me there.
Another part of the sickness of the house was the addiction that festered there. Greg’s brother was living in the garage. He would come in and pass out on the grimy couch, usually with garbage strewn all about. I had walked into, married into, a home that screamed “run away,” and I still can’t articulate why I did it. Why I thought I owed myself to it. I sacrificed myself on the altar of that house again and again, hoping to redeem it, and the people who lived inside of it. Then, I ran — hoping to save myself and my children. Some parts of us will always live there though. Another vein in the wall telling its sad stories over and over again.
Second: At first I thought it might be okay. Greg was devout. The children loved me. I managed to make the house feel comfortable. But not too long after I moved in, I had my first encounter. The master bedroom was on the first floor. The bed was situated so that I could see into the short hallway that led directly to a long narrow staircase. At the top of the stairs was a glass-paned door that was nailed shut. It was painted a dark brown and several squares of glass were also painted to look like a cross. One night as I was sleeping, I was startled awake. It is hard to explain, but to the right of that door, there was an energy that had a dark shadowy quality. It came rushing at me from the staircase and I started to gag. Wide-eyed, I prayed until I felt it lift. I told Greg about it — that there was something hateful here. I can’t remember if he believed me.
My brother and sister-in-law came to live with me for a while after that. They had a small daughter. She was two. They took a room upstairs. It was good to have them there. My brother taught me how to drive, and I experienced my first tendril of real freedom with a driver’s license. Things in my marriage were hard though. Greg had told me he had a vasectomy but promised to reverse it if we got married. I wanted children of our own to add to my step-babies. I had taken on full-time care of them, but it was hard and I was often very lonely. My brother and his wife provided me with a sense of real family, but there was discord between them and my husband, and I didn’t know what to do with any of it.
One day as I was making dinner, my sister-in-law asked me if any children had died in our house. I said not that I knew of, but my heart started beating wildly, knowing what was next. She said that she heard children singing sometimes from their bedroom. She and my brother didn’t stay long. There were two scary incidents on their way out — both explainable, but also real enough to feel like warnings. First, there was the baby monitor. It was downstairs with its match in their bedroom. As we sat around downstairs one night, it suddenly started playing “Jesus Loves Me.” Stephanie ran upstairs to see what was making the noise and it went quiet. When she got back downstairs, it started again. The final straw was when Sierra fell down the long staircase. She wasn’t hurt, but the stairs were steep and wooden. Between the accident, the weird noises, and the disquiet between them and Greg, it was destined to be a short stay.
There was also the matter of the man I married. Once devoted to church and amicable, he was becoming more and more distant.
Once his brother moved out, Greg practically lived in the garage. His moods became less predictable. He often was tinkering in the garage or basement until the wee hours of the morning and I was left alone and scared in the house. One day, I was making pies for a Thanksgiving with his family. They were homemade apple pies. He came in and asked what kind of apples I was using and became enraged when he saw they were the wrong ones. He threw everything I had made so far in the garbage. That kind of behavior was nothing new. He often called me stupid, ridiculed me for eating wrong, or scolded me for disappointing him in some way. Then he would turn on a dime and beg for forgiveness, asking me to marry him all over again, sobbing into my shirt.
He was taking on a darkness that I didn’t expect and had no idea how to handle. I threw myself into my children, prayed for a miracle baby of my own, and tried to fill the house with as much joy as possible. I refused to be afraid. I played hide and go seek in the dark with the kids, laughing our way past any shadow that dared to seek my ruin. I lived on this edge for years. My house was haunted by more than ghosts. It was a burial chamber for all of my best dreams. The way I had always hoped to be loved, the clean clarity of a wholesome life — it all felt defiled and ugly. And I was glad for the shadows because my shame took comfort there.
Third: Greg finally agreed to a vasectomy reversal and I got pregnant. But as the baby took root inside of me, the darkness took root in my husband. He became paranoid. I received a call early on from a doctor's office. He had gone in to have his sperm tested. They had called to say that the sperm was viable. He had doubted if the baby was his, even though I rarely left the house. We didn’t even have friends and we had stopped going to church. I was isolated from everyone I had known. Despite everything, I was always good to him. Even when he was so ugly. It broke me to know that he had so much distrust for no reason. And it scared me.
One day, he called and told me to meet him on the sidewalk outside. He was going to pull up in his car to get me. I waited in the cold, about 3 months pregnant. Parking at the curb, he told me to get in and not to say a word. He drove erratically, weaving through traffic with the music blaring. Finally, he parked and told me we were being followed by the Russian mafia. Everyone we saw was planted to spy on him. My heart hit the floor. I wasn’t safe at all. And it wasn’t because of the mafia. My husband was not okay. In my fear, I began to seek out “prayer warriors.” The first woman I came across was part of a group of fanatic Christians who believed strongly in spiritual warfare. I went to a meeting and asked for one of the “prophets” to pray over me. She said that there was “something hidden” — that my husband was hiding or guarding something. The day before that, my mom had called and told me that her friend had a dream about Greg the night before and that in it, Greg had found something hidden and it had caused an evil to enter his life. I took it as a sign and asked if I could bring him the following week.
I begged Greg to go with me to the meeting. He was still saying he was a Christian, and we had started to attend another church, so I was hopeful. When we arrived, the prophets began to pray over him. They stopped and said, “The spirit is telling us your house is filled with an evil that is devouring you.” They said that they normally didn’t send prayer teams to people’s homes, but they felt that this was too big for just us. We waited a week. During that time, I had a horrifying experience. It was the middle of the night. I had woken up and looked over at Greg. He had his back turned towards me. Suddenly, the spirit of a man rose from where he was sleeping. It turned towards me and, leaping on top of me, began to choke me. I could see my hands reaching out to try and pry the fingers off of my throat, then I saw myself die.
I sat up suddenly, gasping for air. Greg woke up. He played some Christian music and I remember calming down and accepting it as a nightmare. When the prophets came to pray over the house, they brought three strangers with them. We all sat in a circle in my living room. One of the women I had never met said “I have been feeling a tightness around my throat all day. Someone was violently choked in this house and I think they are buried here in the basement.” I thought to myself, I saw that. We moved all throughout the house, praying in every room, but there wasn’t any resolution. No feeling of freedom or even any attack. They just prayed and basically told us we should move. I wholeheartedly agreed.
Finale: Somewhere in this shit storm, my daughter was born. My mother came to stay with me for a month. Thank god. I was at my end. Greg had torn apart the laundry room and hadn’t put it back together. My daughter’s room wasn’t ready, and Greg was on the brink of losing his job. The first night my mom was there, she told me about a dark spirit coming to her in the middle of the night trying to choke her. I told her about what was happening. I don’t know why we stayed.
Months later, I was visited again by the choking spirit and woke at the same time as Greg. He rolled over and told me he had just dreamt that he killed our son with an axe. I told him again that something murderous was in the house and that I wanted to move. But he was unwell. He was in bed sick almost all of the time. I thought he might be dying. I was driving him all over town talking to different doctors to see if we could get any answers. During this time, two weird things happened. I received a phone call from a stranger trying to book my brother to speak at her church. I told her I didn’t know if he could but I could give her his number. Before she hung up, she asked to pray for me because she was practicing her gift of discernment. Sure, I said. As she prayed she said that my husband was brilliant but was suffering a major demonic oppression. I started bawling and asked her to come pray with us.
The second thing happened at the church we were going to. One day we went up for prayer at the end of service and the pastor came and prayed over us. Laying his hands on Greg, he said he “rebuked the spirit of insanity.” I asked for a meeting, hoping there would be an exorcism. Instead, the pastor had forgotten what he said and tried to do a marriage counseling session. There was all this mounting evidence that my husband and my home were unsafe, but I felt utterly trapped. There were many nights that I fled in terror to my mom’s best friend’s home to sleep with my daughter there. My step-children stayed more and more with their mother, who was starting to get her life together. I missed them desperately but was also so scared for them to see what was happening to their dad. Also, they had told me about the little girl in the walls who talked to them at night, and I didn’t want them anywhere near the house.
The doctors found a lump on Greg’s thyroid and for a minute I thought all could be explained by hyperthyroidism. But after the surgery, Greg’s moods continued to be erratic. One of the doctors told him he was bipolar. I was so angry. I wasn’t willing to accept it at first. I think I had that reaction because possession was terrifying, but could possibly be taken care of through prayer. Mental illness seemed incurable, and that was unpredictable and scary. I wanted it to be a medical condition that could be solved with something simple and concrete. And I didn’t know enough about mental illness to understand that the explanation fit. It didn’t matter anyway. Greg lost his job and we went on unemployment, but found a place to rent first. I was so relieved to be in a new home and earnestly hoped it would be a new start. But Greg was always at our old house. He was trying to fix it for sale, he said, but he rarely came home.
I was left at the new house with no food or money, and often no way to get ahold of him. I sent the police there a couple of times out of fear something had happened. I would inevitably get a condescending phone call about being a worried wife whose husband was staying out too late. Silly me.
After many sleepless nights, my mom came to see me again. I was crying and telling her how scared I was, how broken I felt. She said, “You know, you can leave.” It was honestly the first time anyone had offered a solution outside of the name of Jesus. It was an epiphany. And I left the next day.
I wish I could say that house stopped haunting me, or that the abuse I endured there lost all it’s power, but it has followed me like a shadow throughout my life. The house was sold, yes. I left the marriage and my beautiful step-children moved in with their mother, but I was utterly heartbroken to leave them. I felt I was the only truly stable person in their lives and I knew my departure would devastate them, and it did. But I had this daughter to protect, and I didn’t see any way to make it out with my life unless I left. So I did. I drove away as my son watched me from the driveway of his mother’s house. I wanted to scream at the injustice of it all. Saving myself felt like sacrificing them, and there is a part of me that will never forgive myself for that.
Greg spent the next 12 years in and out of jail. He was a drug addict — which explained a lot of his behavior. But he was also mentally ill. And maybe demonically oppressed. All of it is true, and all of it is a question. My step-children went on to lead turbulent lives. I kept in touch with them throughout the years. I loved them desperately, in the way you love all the people you cannot save. My step-daughter Alissa ended up traveling the country, homeless, until one night she was struck by a car and killed. My stepson has wandered the streets since he was 17. Every time I see him, he talks about our haunted house — as if he is not a haunted house as well. He drowns himself in alcohol to try and forget, forget the house, his sister’s death, and his dad’s betrayal and abandonment. Forget that the one person he felt safe with left him too. He’s forgiven me, but he wears the pain of it in his eyes every time we meet.
Then there is my daughter. The last of the story. Born to a haunted home, to a mother with a hollowed-out heart. I can’t even remember the first two years of her life, I was so steeped in terror. Born to a father who was engulfed by sickness, insanity, and addiction. She was a bright light — full of all the life that was suppressed within the walls of our once home. But she struggled sometimes with self-hatred. With her own mental health. In those times it felt as if the hands of the home were stretching up from a chasm long thought closed. Like every horror movie, the monster grabbed her by the ankle and tugged. I always stood on the precipice trying to pull her back up.
She would rally, and step into the light again. And I would have peace that maybe she would escape the darkness that spread across the rest of her family. But again, a tendril would rise unseen and wrap around her heart. She fought. And her father recovered. He cleaned himself up. He worked for her love and forgiveness. And he earned it. Then she got sick.
This sickness, ME/CFS, spread across her like tar, weighing her down and robbing her of everything. I watched helplessly as she lost her ability to walk, to sing, to be in the sun, and to play with her brothers. After three long years of it, she died from Sepsis. She refused treatment, so I stayed with her while she was in hospice care, doing all I could to usher her out with love and kindness. But she was plagued by dark visions and a terror I couldn’t abate. It tore me to pieces. My darling girl.
I can’t explain what has happened. Sometimes, it feels like a curse and I am filled with terror and dread. Other times it is easily explained away by addiction, mental health, and illness. A string of bad luck. The terrible sadness of life. Everything tied to my life at that house seems lost. I wander through my memories there like darkened hallways. In some ways, I am still there. I’m a light in a dark place, making a road where there isn’t one. But I’m not free of it. These ghosts travel with me — all the despair, fear, and regret clinging to me for reasons I have yet to discover. A haunting is never just a haunting. It’s a longing, a mourning, a fear, a desire, a secret. It is my past and my regret. It’s my daughter gasping her last breath, and it is my powerlessness.
I am in the dead of winter now. Everything around me is in various stages of dying. But there is also hope. I have two beautiful boys. I have a good life here. I am no longer tied to that house in any way, and my daughter, my beautiful girl, is free from her suffering. So, I am learning to walk without looking for shadows, to leave the past behind. And though there be monsters, I am learning I do not have to live in fear. I am here. I am loved. And I can choose to be free.