The Haunted Attic

Father and daughter ghouls march in the annual North Bennington, Vt., Halloween Parade.

For a brief time my sister Honor was famous.  It wasn’t her wit, her sense of adventure or even her heavy blonde hair that drew the crowds. She had the good fortune to be born the day before Halloween and to live in an old Victorian house with a raftered attic, creaking floorboards and a reputation for strange occurrences — all of which collided to spark the ghoulish imaginations of three of her siblings.

For as far back as I could remember an invitation to her birthday party was the hottest ticket in town. Kids scrambled for them, knowing what their parents didn’t: that this wasn’t a child’s Halloween party with Casper-like ghosts and hovering adults trying to pass off a bowl of peeled grapes as eyeballs. This was a test of nerves and a chance to be scared. Really scared.

I can’t claim to know how my two brothers and oldest sister took control of the attic tours — an event that quickly eclipsed all other games, even a prize-laden scavenger hunt — but every year they got progressively more creative. It began with a story, inspired by my grandfather the sea captain. But it was my oldest brother Marty’s artistry that fictionalized and embellished an already dramatic life.

Born in 1844, my grandfather went to sea at 17, a Yankee cabin boy in the Civil War. By the time he was 25 he was captain of his own three-master schooner, building and sailing six more in quick succession. He built the house where my siblings and I grew up for my grandmother, his fourth wife. Thirty years younger than her husband, she gave him four children, the last born when my grandfather was 80.

Marty and my sister Megan knew a great story when they heard one and used the bare bones of this one to craft their own grisly yarn. The sea-captain angle was irresistible and they concocted a tale involving a lost leg, a tragic death rounding Cape Horn and a ghostly return to the only home Captain Randall ever knew. Marty got to play the Captain, hidden in one of the attics shadowed alcoves with a wooden peg leg and a mariner’s costume that got more sophisticated with each passing Halloween.

Guests were led one by one up the vertical staircase, some retreating before they reached the top. I can still remember standing on the last step, the late afternoon sunlight gleaming through the oval attic window, it’s colored panes turning the dust motes a sinister shade of red. It was Megan’s idea to add sound to the scene by playing an old recording of King Lear on slow speed. The voices, more like moans, were as good an imitation of a ghost as anyone could imagine. Kids were led from station to station, where they pulled on a “corpse’s” leg and heard the gory tale of how they died. When they reached my oldest brother, they would duly pull his peg leg, only to have it come off in their hands to ghastly howls from the ghost.

Once they’d been at it for a few years, a new recruit was brought in. Jim was our nextdoor neighbor, one of four boys, an extraordinary athlete and a reckless daredevil. It was his inspired idea to drop down from the rafters with a noose around his neck, scaring one girl so badly she famously leapt down the attic stairs all in one go. That was the year, and presumably the antic, that brought the haunted attic to an end.   

Stories of Honor’s Halloween parties have been fodder for our family narratives for decades, following a script we’ve all practiced since childhood. As the youngest of the six kids, my recollections tend to be heavily discounted. I look back on those events through the eyes of a six-year-old, in awe of what my siblings were capable of creating. Was that attic as terrifying as my memory still insists? Probably not. But even if the physical details are blurred, the emotional power of that haunted space stays with me, a story that never dies.

Happy Halloween!

2 thoughts on “The Haunted Attic

  1. I remember those parties. I think I wet myself once- I always ran past that staircase when I was going to Grandma’s apartment from the girls’ room

    1. I still remember that staircase with a tinge of anxiety. Was it really that steep? That scary? Funny how childhood memories amplify all kinds of emotions. We’ll have to dissect it all next time we meet.

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