It's Not Houses That Are Haunted
A small light, flickering in the dark.
The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. A small light, flickering in the dark.
It burned again the next night.
For a third night, it burned.
Then it was dark once more, and the cabin in the woods was abandoned again, alone and without the light.
This is what happened:
Andrea’s dream had come true. She finally had her cabin out in the woods, to get away from the creeping insanity of the world. To escape the madness of the endless cavalcade of bad news, disasters, deaths, wars, human rights abuses and the vast, sneering indifference to all of it from those rich and powerful enough to make a difference. It got to the point that Andrea (always something of an introvert) began to develop anxiety about going to work, or meeting friends. Meeting anyone, in fact. How could she be expected to sit smiling and taking part in normal, every-day conversations with people when the world was burning around them? Didn’t anyone else realise what was happening, or were they all vacant-eyed cartoon dogs sitting at a table amid the flames, saying ‘this is fine’?
One night, falling down a YouTube rabbit-hole, she watched a couple of videos of people building off-grid cabins in the wilderness. The algorithm decided this was exactly what she wanted, and fed her more, and faster than you’d think it really was exactly what Andrea wanted. To live alone, in a cabin in the wilderness, away from the madness. Alone with her thoughts and her dreams.
Finally, after a small, sad death and a small, sad funeral and a small, sad inheritance, Andrea had enough to make her dream come true. Her mother’s debts had taken most of her estate, but there was enough for Andrea to buy a small cabin, out in the woods.
Now here she was, but the batteries for the solar system were not going to arrive for another week and the plumber would not be here for another five days to hook up the gas heating for the rain-water tank, so until then she was on cold showers and candlelight. Too far out into the wild for phone coverage, no power, no WIFI and as the sun set on the first day, Andrea let out a breath and tension in her jaw and neck and shoulders released, bringing relief almost too sweet to bear.
Night crept in from the woods, and she sat at the small wooden table and watched a large, dark-winged moth fluttering around the flickering candle. It came so close to the flame that she couldn’t stop her hand from moving towards it, trying to brush it away from the light and keep it from burning. But the moth kept coming back to the flame, until Andrea finally blew out the candle and went to bed. She slept soundly in the vast silence of the wilderness – that silence that is actually filled with a thousand small noises and if she dreamed at all, she dreamed of a dark-winged moth flying through the flame and remaining unburned, again and again until finally the fire caught hold of the wings.
The ghost arrived with the shadows, early on the second night. Andrea sat at the small, wooden table, watching the dark-winged moth flapping too close to the flame and noticed something sitting in the chair opposite to her. The ghost was dark, more like a shadow that could move by itself.
Strangely, Andrea was not overly surprised to see it. In a cabin full of shadows, what was one more? It wasn’t quite as opaque as the other shadows, though. At times, it seemed you could almost see through it. Other times, when the candlelight hit it at just the right angle, it seemed to solidify, and Andrea was sure she could see features forming in the shadow’s face. Then the light would shift, the suggestion of features would disappear and all the while, the ghost simply sat there, staring back in silence.
Even more strangely, Andrea was not afraid – at least not at first. It seemed natural, somehow, that this cabin should have a ghost.
“Of course, my dream of getting my own off-grid cabin to get away from the world comes true, and the cabin has a ghost in it. Of course it does. I’ve bought a damn haunted house,” Andrea said. She realised, as she spoke, that they were the first words she had said aloud in the two days since she arrived.
“Oh no…no, no. It’s not houses that are haunted,” replied the ghost. Again, it didn’t seem particularly surprising or frightening to Andrea that the ghost could talk. Of course it could. Before she could ask the ghost what it meant by this response, it asked her a question of its own.
“So, what brings you here, to this cabin?”
With nothing else to do for the evening, Andrea didn’t see much problem in answering. She told the ghost her dream of living off-grid, away from the creeping madness of the world.
“But you’re cut off completely, as you say. How do you know the world is still mad?” asked the ghost.
Andrea laughed. “It has only been a couple of days. I don’t think the world will have managed to unfuck itself quite that quickly.”
“Oh no,” replied the ghost. “That’s not what I meant at all. Perhaps I misspoke – it is a while since I spoke with a living person, after all. What I meant, is that if the living world is clinging so tenuously to the edge of disaster as you say, maybe the disaster has hit. I mean, how would you know, cut off as you are? Maybe this is the dark to end all light. Maybe the endless cavalcade of bad news, disasters, deaths, wars, human rights abuses and the vast, sneering indifference to all of it from those rich and powerful enough to make a difference finally reached a boiling point, just on the day you got out. Maybe it all finally exploded, and you are the last person left in the world. Maybe this little candle is the last light in all the world, flickering bravely its challenge against the hungry dark. And you are the last person. The last living person, obviously. Ghosts hardly count,” said the ghost.
It was an absurd ramble, but for some reason it unsettled Andrea. She tried to shrug it off with a chuckle, treating the whole thing as a joke.
“No, still doesn’t seem likely, I’m afraid,” she said.
“No, of course not,” agreed the ghost. “I’d hardly be the only ghost here if you were the last person left alive. You’d be swamped by us, like the light of that little candle getting drowned under the wings of thousands of moths.”
It was another vaguely unsettling statement, and it reminded Andrea of the first thing the ghost had said that night about the existence (or otherwise) of haunted houses.
“What do you mean by that? And what was that about houses not being haunted? Seems like I’m sitting in pretty conclusive evidence that they can be.”
“I’m terribly sorry,” said the ghost, not sounding terribly sorry, “but that is classic living thinking. Houses obviously can’t be haunted. Who ever heard of a ghost in an empty house? Think about it. You can’t name a single one – for a very simple reason. The houses weren’t empty when people saw the ghosts. They had people in them. Houses have to have people in them to see the ghosts in the first place. Ghosts are attracted to the living, like moths to a flame. You go into a house, and you bring the ghosts with you. We float around in the aether until a life comes into our orbit and then we latch on and follow you inside. It’s not houses that are haunted. People are. So don’t worry. If you were the last person left alive, you can guarantee I wouldn’t be the only ghost here.”
Andrea glanced down, trying to think of something to say, and saw the dark-winged moth drawing close to the flame once more. She brushed it away with her hand and when she looked up, she could have sworn the ghost was staring at her intently, almost hungrily, even though she couldn’t make out any features in the shadow-face. For the first time, fear of the ghost crept into Andrea’s mind.
“Well, I think that I’m about done for the night,” she said, hoping the ghost would take the hint. “I’ll be off to bed now.”
Andrea wasn’t entirely sure how to close a conversation with a ghost, so in the end she settled for an unconvincing “goodnight – and see you tomorrow.” Andrea wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to see the ghost tomorrow, but the empty platitude simply came out without thinking.
“Oh, I’ll be here. Sleep well, Andrea,” the ghost replied, and the shadow faded into the darkness of the rest of the cabin as Andrea blew out the candle. Sitting in the dark filled with the silence of a thousand small noises, she realised she had never told the ghost her name.
As the shadows grew longer in the cabin, Andrea felt a dread creeping in with the darkness. The ghost had seemed quite polite – friendly, even – but there was something about its insistent questioning that churned in her mind. Something about its turn of phrase, and the way she was sure it was staring at her so intently. Even the cheerful sounding farewell felt ominous – “I’ll be here” the ghost had said as it made its goodbyes. Now, Andrea couldn’t escape the feeling that it was as much a threat as it was a farewell.
And yet she still sat down at the small wooden table with the two small wooden chairs, and lit the candle as the light failed. The darkness flickered as the candlelight threw shadows against the walls, and the ghost was there, sitting opposite Andrea and staring at her with its blank shadow-face, as if it had not moved an inch since she blew out the candle the night before.
“Hello again!” exclaimed the ghost, brightly, before immediately apologising. “I’m sorry if I unsettled you at all last night. I just haven’t had anyone to talk with for a long time, and after you said how terrible the world of the living is right now, I’m afraid it sent me down a bit of a darker path of conversation than I would normally open with.”
“Um. No problem,” replied Andrea.
“Oh good,” said the ghost. “perhaps we can avoid the unpleasantness of the world out there in the darkness entirely this evening, and just get to know each other instead. Tell me about your family.”
Andrea didn’t particularly want to go down this path of conversation any more than she wanted to talk about all the problems in the outside world, but the ghost had been so polite about it that it seemed impolite not to. So, she told the ghost that she didn’t really have a family, at least not anymore. An only child, her father had died young. He killed himself because he could no longer live with her mother, a sharp woman who couldn’t speak unless to cut. Scrupulously polite and mercilessly cruel, her mother would find a person’s weakness with unerring efficiency and frankly frightening speed within moments of meeting them, and she seemed unable to help herself from beginning to cut at their psyche, one paper-thin slice at a time. Andrea found herself on the thin end of the blade of her mother’s comments as she grew older, and this led to their eventual estrangement. They had barely spoken for years, and if Andrea was being honest with herself, she was surprised to find out she was the sole beneficiary of her mother’s small estate, after died herself only recently.
“I guess she didn’t have anyone else, either…” Andrea trailed off, suprised at the grief she suddenly felt towards a woman she had always resented. The ghost was staring at her again, and although it sounded dismayed when it spoke, Andrea felt sure it had the same hungry expression she noticed the night before.
“Surely you have someone else, though. Lots of someone’s. What about your friends?”
Andrea had never really played well with others and had very few close friends throughout her life, and now they were all of an age to be starting their own families. She rarely saw any of them anymore. She was certain she didn’t say any of this aloud, but the ghost responded as if it heard her anyway.
“But why aren’t you starting your own family?” asked the ghost with the same exaggerated politeness it always used.
It shouldn’t be possible without a face on which to see expression, but Andrea was sure she could sense a mocking leer behind the polite, friendly tone. More and more, the ghost seemed a monstrous creature. Too late, Andrea wondered why she assumed it was telling the truth the night before, when it said houses couldn’t be haunted. Perhaps this cabin belonged to this ghost, and this was its slow, methodical way of forcing her out of its space. A polite, paper-cut attack on her psyche until she could take no more.
Andrea knew the answer to the ghost’s last question – she thought of it a lot over the years, even though she tried not to. Especially when she tried not to. The thought of her own small, sad family filled her with dread…what if she turned into a parent like her mother, tearing down and filling with resentment those who relied on her to lift them up and fill them with love? What if she turned into a parent like her father, losing her mind and life and abandoning forever those who needed her most?
Once again, Andrea was sure none of these thoughts escaped into words, but the ghost didn’t seem to mind. It knew. It had known from the start.
“I just keep thinking, it seems strange for you to be alone,” the ghost continued. “As a ghost, I can’t fathom the appeal of avoiding life, the way you have. To be here like you…alone. To have, in a sense, chosen your very own solitary confinement. Did you know that studies have proven that solitary confinement can be just as bad for people as physical torture? That it can lead to panic attacks and paranoia and psychosis and hypersensitivity and hallucinations and hostility and just a general worsening of any and all pre-existing mental health problems…and here you are, choosing it for yourself, of your own free will! Astonishing! But perhaps it is just something a ghost wouldn’t understand…you must have your reasons…you must have your reasons. And it’s a terrible thing when you start to doubt your own reasons…to find yourself doubting every decision you have ever made in your life, if those decisions brought you here. To this place. Alone. When you start to doubt your own reasons, how are you to know if you are still sane?”
Andrea said nothing, and the ghost heard all that she didn't say.
“So…grief, anxiety, depression, AND self-doubt. My, you just have the whole package, don’t you?” This time, there was no mistaking now the ugly leer in the ghost’s voice.
Grief. Anxiety. Depression. Self-doubt. The ghost had found its weapons and it attacked and attacked and attacked and there was nothing Andrea could do to stop it.
Grief is an assault on your memories. You wake up one morning and your mind is like Paris in 1940. Blitzed. Taken over. Beautiful sights now despoiled, bringing only pain. ‘These are ours, now’ claim jackbooted thugs, the storm troops of grief, hunting down and crushing joyful memories underfoot, turning love into an instrument of ongoing horror.
Anxiety is a jerking, jangling demon. A demented puppet pulling your strings, leering insanely at your futile attempts to remain calm in a maelstrom world.
Depression is a thick fog of filth. Heavy on your shoulders, weighing down your every step. Clogging your every breath, until all you can do is nothing at all…and nothing at all is the only thing you can do to make it worse.
Self-doubt is the doorway to madness.
In the last, the ghost had found its question, the one it could ask and ask and ask, to feed off the life draining from Andrea’s mind.
Are you mad, Andrea? asked the ghost. Are you mad? Are you? Are you? Are you?
The small hours grew long, and the ghost sitting opposite her grew ever more corporeal. Andrea could see its face for the first time, and in the flickering darkness it was a face she recognised.
And eventually the candle burned out, smoke rising from wasted wick, and wax spilled over an empty table, with empty chairs, in an empty cabin, without life to attract any more ghosts. And the last light was gone, swallowed at last by the hungry dark, and the dark reigned unchallenged.
About the Creator
Read one too many adventure stories as a child and decided I'd make that my life.
I grew up on a cattle station in the Australian Outback and decided to spend the rest of my life seeing the rest of the world.
For more: www.roderickmakim.com
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