As haunted as I’ve been all my life, I had only one instance when I felt I might have really seen a ghost.
In 1984, my sister, then 14, and I were headed to a vacation in Virginia Beach. Since we were driving, I wanted to break up the long journey, so I planned an overnight stop in Lexington, Virginia. I’d reserved a room at a small motel just outside town. I’d never been to Lexington before and knew nothing about it.
When we arrived, I was mesmerized. Sometimes when I visit someplace old, the past overrides the present, and I feel almost as if I’m in a struggle to maintain a connection to real time. It happened on my initial visit to Ireland a few years later, but I first experienced it in Lexington. There was something about the old architecture, the paving stones along the curbs, a general sense of antiquity that overwhelmed me. We discovered an old cemetery and stopped to stroll and read the stones. Later that afternoon we visited Stonewall Jackson’s house. (I’m ashamed to admit that at that time I often confused Stonewall Jackson with Andrew Jackson; I wasn’t a Civil War buff yet. When the guide told us about Jackson’s role as a great general of the Confederacy, I was stunned.)
The motel was the old-fashioned one-floor kind that might have gone back to the ’50s or ’60s. Our room was basic, similar in layout and decor to rooms in more modern motels. We had dinner at the restaurant out front and took a drive in the Virginia countryside. It was nearly dark when I pulled into the parking lot, from which we could see peaks of the local mountains. The weather was unsettled, with lightning flashing in the distance around and behind the peaks. I’ve always been sensitive to storms; the combination of eerie lightning with the time-warp sensation that had gripped me all day made me uneasy.
After some television, young Diamondqueen and I went to bed, probably around 11 p.m. I’m not sure how long I was asleep when I awoke to see a figure at the foot of my bed. I knew it was a man, and I knew he was wearing a long-sleeved white shirt. I thought the sleeves were a bit puffy, similar to a “pirate” shirt, and I sensed rather than saw dark hair. I didn’t see a face.
The vision didn’t startle me so much as the overpowering sense of a presence. My first thought wasn’t, “Ack, I’m looking at a ghost!” It was, “Jesus, there’s someone in our room! How am I going to get us out of here and to the car?”
Our bed was beside a wall; to the left beyond the end of the wall was the sink and mirror, with the bathroom beside that area. Before I became fully conscious, the figure seemed to dart to my right and toward the bathroom out of my view. It wasn’t the gliding of a phantasm but a duck and dash as if the figure didn’t want to be seen.
The realization that the figure wasn’t human overrode my terror that we had an intruder in our room. My heart banged, and I threw myself down with the blankets over my head.
I don’t know if I’d just drifted off or if it was much later, but Diamondqueen awakened me talking out loud. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she kept mumbling. I peered from under the covers to ask, “Who are you talking to?”
She replied, “That guy.” I said, “What guy? Where is he?” She pointed toward the foot of my bed where the white-shirted figure had fled toward the bathroom.
I told her to go back to sleep, then reburied myself under the blankets. Nothing else disturbed us the rest of the night, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the encounter.
“Do you remember when you were talking last night?” I asked Diamondqueen next morning. “What was that all about?”
“I was hitting this guy with my elbow,” she said, “I kept telling him, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.'”
“What did he look like?”
“I think he had on a white shirt.”
Diamondqueen now says she’s dubious about the whole thing, including the details I insist she gave me. She says she doesn’t remember that. (It’s not that she’s a dedicated non-believer. In fact, she recounts on her blog earning her “paranormal investigator” license. She also received a ghost meter that she and the Hooligans often have taken to supposedly haunted surroundings on some unsuccessful ghost hunts.)
I know what I saw and felt. If my belief in the occurrence were based only on the sighting, I’d be more doubtful. It was that convinced feeling of someone else being in the room that frightened me profoundly. You could even say I was more scared when I thought the “ghost” was human, which is kind of ironic. I do believe in ghosts, but I’m not afraid of them. I think.
I’ve never had an experience like that since, although I’ve had plenty of opportunities. I’ve stayed in haunted hotels, slept under several different roofs in Gettysburg, had lunch in a well-known local haunted restaurant, and took a ghost tour, sponsored by the Cincinnati Historical Society, of reputedly “haunted” locations. I even used to go for nights out at Bobby Mackey’s back in the ’80s; I didn’t know it was supposed to be haunted at the time and I never saw anything frightening except for some of the patrons. The nightclub was part of the historical society’s ghost tour; I tried hard to pick up a scary vibe. I took a photo that seemed to show an orb, but I’m not convinced by that, either.
I’ve also returned to Lexington, Virginia, several times—not in pursuit of ghosts but because I fell in love with the town. As my knowledge of the Civil War grew, I became even more fascinated by Lexington. I’ve visited the chapel where Lee is buried, gone back to the cemetery several times, and revisited Stonewall Jackson’s house, this time equipped with full knowledge of his biography and his role in the Civil War. My mother and I stayed a couple of times at that same motel. I never felt so much as a quiver of anxiety. However, I still think we had a visitor from the past that unsettled June evening in 1984. I know what I felt.
NUDGE: The obvious prompt would be to write about any ghostly encounters of your own. Or, if you think it’s all a bunch of bunk, you could write about why you don’t believe in ghosts.
If you’d like to get creative, though, do this instead: Make up a haunting and see if you can avoid the usual bells and whistles (or chains and groans, if you prefer). Be original in the setting—no gothic mansions, full moons, or pasty-faced phantoms. See how well you can purge your haunting of stereotypes. Maybe you don’t even want a scary haunting but something more moving and emotional. What are other ways spirits can manifest themselves or communicate with the living? What’s the sunniest haunting you can image?
Here are some sentences you could use to get you started; delete them later once the words start flowing:
- Scary? Poe wouldn’t have found it so…
- I always thought hauntings involved disembodied spirits, but…
- Such a bright day, such a cheerful spot, but…
- A haunting doesn’t have to be scary to be disturbing…
- Have you ever been afraid when there was no reason to be?…
Or something like that. Let loose your imagination and make it your own.
See this blog post about a much later visit to Lexington, Virginia. sans ghosts.