It’s a perfect afternoon, the ideal convergence of early fall sunshine and sweater weather. There’s something unexplainable in the air — a definite, palpable excitement. Halloween night (or, for most college students, the whole stretch of weeks between when the leaves start falling to the early days of November) marks the one time of year when we embrace dark capes, masks and lurid makeup. Dressing up as someone else, costuming our true identities in a Nicki Minaj wig or cat ears, is a universally appealing idea, the closest that actual American society gets to the plot of the “Purge” movies — the one time of year when we can be anything, and anything can happen.
But underneath that party store mask, there’s a darker side to Halloween. Besides being the one night a year for consequence-free party fun, Halloween is a night to remember the dead. It’s a night for avoiding ouija boards, jumping at mysterious taps on your ceiling and a whisper coming from the graveyard across the street. It’s a night to put aside skepticism and honor tradition — to heed that unexplainable feeling in the air that might be something powerful and terrifying, feeding off the chilly autumn wind and crackling leaves like the blood of an unsuspecting victim.
Halloween is a night for ghost stories. But the following accounts are not just stories. These are the actual experiences of University of Michigan students who have had unexplainable encounters with the supernatural. They have requested to remain anonymous, but though their names have been changed, the mysteries they recounted are 100 percent true.
Knocking, knocking at my hotel room door
LSA freshman Lily McConnell is an only child. One night, on vacation in South Carolina, Mr. and Mrs. McConnell left their (then) 12-year-old daughter by herself in the hotel room, leaving little Lily with a bunch of cool movies to entertain her in their absence.
“I was watching a movie when I heard knocking on the door. I was like, ‘What the heck?,’ so I got up and looked through the peephole,” McConnell said.
She tiptoed to the door. Through the peephole, Lily saw nothing but the empty hallway, an expanse of identical closed doors on either side of hers. Lily shut the door, but upon doing so, the knocking immediately resumed. The door rattled from the sheer force of the person knocking at it, and McConnell began to become afraid. She hid behind the bed, hoping the noise would stop before she had to call her parents at the hotel restaurant downstairs.
Her prayers were answered when the rattling finally stopped.
“And then, like any other scary movie, what does the girl do? She goes and opens the door,” McConnell recounted.
Lily went to the door right after the tapping stopped, but again there was no one in the long and empty hallway. No regular human could possibly have run from the McConnells’ door to the end of the hallway in so short a time. She resigned to go back to watching her movie.
“A little while later, the knocking started again. But this time, it was more violent and more intense, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is scary. And I called my parents, crying and screaming,’” McConnell said.
Mr. and Mrs. McConnell left their dinner in panic as their young daughter sobbed on the phone upstairs. They hurried to find a shortcut to the second floor of the hotel, where Lily was stuck in the room terrified as some stranger beat down her door. The McConnells ran through the restaurant’s kitchen, and the chef pointed them in the direction of a staircase that would lead to their daughter.
As they raced to her rescue, Lily’s parents stayed on the line and tried to coax their daughter from her hysteria.
“The whole time I’m talking with them on the phone, the knocking is happening and they can hear it through the phone,” McConnell remembered.
Eventually, Lily’s parents made it down the hall and stood at the door where Lily waited, paralyzed with fear but still holding the phone with mom and dad on the line.
When they approached the door, the phone fell silent. The knocking had stopped. When her parents came back to the room, the McConnells didn’t hear anything again from the mysterious stranger who’d rapped so intently at the door earlier that night.
Today, Lily looks back on that night as an unequivocally supernatural encounter. She affirms that she believed in ghosts before her stay at the hotel, and keeps her faith that beings other than humans exist. As for characterizing the creature that visited her that night, Lily’s experience emulates that of the paradigmatic scary story.
“It exemplified my belief in (the supernatural), so that kind of changed my perspective. I was like, ‘I definitely believe in it’ instead of, ‘Eh, there might be.’”
Humans have a natural aversion to being alone. Something about the absence of another person’s warmth creates an ideal environment for the demons haunting us to come alive, for voices to leap from our minds and translate into strange noises that we try and convince ourselves we didn’t hear. Many times, the fear is a trick of the mind. But on other occasions, the spirits of the darkness prey when we are most vulnerable.
LSA sophomore Grace Holden has always believed in ghosts. Well, not exactly ghosts, per se — Holden grew up in a religious family, where she was raised with the belief that intangible, often benevolent spirits share the earth with us humans. Usually, mediums (people with the special gift of being able to decipher the presence of the spirits) and young children are more perceptive than the general population, and are more likely to encounter the supernatural. But sometimes, when the connection of the dead is strong enough, they take the initiative to make themselves known.
“It’s common for spirits to use technology or leave little signals or signs just to send positive messages and tell you that they’re OK,” Holden said.
When Grace was 16 years old, her grandmother passed away. Nan, as Grace calls her, was also a strong believer in the supernatural. After her death, Grace looked for a sign from her nan, maybe a glass of water moved to the other table or a lucky penny on the ground. Sure enough, the lights started flickering, and Grace knew it was a message from her nan.
“I went to the washroom, but I asked one of the guys who worked at the funeral home if they’d been having electricity problems, and he said that it was just that day — that morning — that the lights started flickering. They said that the lights actually started flickering pretty much the same time that they brought my nan in to prepare for the funeral,” Holden said.
Echoing in Grace’s head was her mother’s advice not to be afraid to talk to spirits. So she went into the bathroom, asking for another clear sign.
“Nan, if this is you, flick the lights twice right now, just so I know it’s you.”
The lights flashed on and off twice, quickly but noticeably. She also felt a pressure on her forehead, a reassuring kiss come straight from thin air as Grace stood at the bathroom sink. Grace experienced a rush of conflicting emotion.
“I fell down, started crying and all that stuff, but it was a kind of reassurance, a good thing,” Holden said.
Since Holden is so open with her beliefs, her friends often confess times they’ve encountered signs or images of the supernatural. She says that most of the stories she’s heard have been similar to her own — benign spirits who don’t mean to haunt their loved ones, but just let them know that they’re still watching.
“I believe that there are good spirits and bad spirits, but I believe that the majority of them are good spirits,” Holden said.
Holden’s experiences shed light on a powerful misconception about ghosts. Not all spirits are so mean-spirited as popular lore would suggest, but could also simply be trapped between this world and another and waiting for the closure necessary for them to pass. Any room could be populated by a number of them — evidently, their scope of movement isn’t just limited to the house they died in. The possibility that deceased grandparents, neighbors and friends could be watching at any moment isn’t terrifying as much as it is powerful and haunting. There could very well be shadows lurking invisibly behind us without our ever knowing.
The witching hour
LSA senior Dan Wyatt has always been a huge fan of horror movies. He’s always been drawn to the dark and unexplainable, getting his fix through watching it onscreen instead of risking peril with a ouija board or a nighttime cemetery trip. Like many young teens, Wyatt’s favorite sleepover activity was to pop in a scary DVD and let his imagination take over.
Late one night, 12-year-old Dan and his best friend Omar watched “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” The movie was scary, but nothing Dan hadn’t seen before. It was a typical movie night — until the television screen went black.
“Our power was on — the lights were working, everything was still working — but the TV just went out. Just, randomly,” Wyatt said.
Dan and Omar grabbed the remote, assuming maybe one of them had sat on it or pressed a button in the dark. The TV stayed mysteriously dark.
Dan tried taking pictures with his phone, thinking maybe the photos would expose something he couldn’t see with his eyes alone. There were no mysterious shadows, no orbs or ghostly glow. A few minutes later, the screen flashed back to life, and Dan and Omar finished watching the movie without a hitch.
The two boys went to bed around 3 a.m. According to “Emily Rose,” this is the “witching hour,” a time that mocks the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity and when malevolent spirits can wreak havoc. At the exact moment Dan’s digital clock struck three, they heard a loud banging noise from upstairs.
“We both heard it, too. It’s not like one of us was going crazy or anything.”
The boys went completely quiet, listening for any other outstanding noise. There was only silence — until 3:15.
Bam bam bam bam bam bam bam. Dan and Omar heard heavy feet running upstairs. Dan tried to think of an explanation this time, but the logic just didn’t line up.
“My mom slept upstairs, but it was running, and loud, and she definitely wasn’t awake then,” Wyatt said.
At 3:30, the sound inched closer to the boys in the basement. They heard a loud bang from somewhere downstairs. Dan tried to explain it, whispering to his friend about what the sound could be, but the symmetry of the noises with the clock were too conspicuous to be a coincidence.
Fifteen minutes later, the toilet in the basement bathroom flushed. Dan and Omar wonder if it could be Dan’s sister, who also had a room downstairs. But Dan’s sister claimed that she slept through the entire night; she missed all the noise and certainly didn’t flush the toilet at 3:45 a.m.
“Nothing happened at 4:00, but it’s just maybe ironic that all this happened at 3:00, 3:15, 3:30, 3:45,” Wyatt laughs.
Stories like these can’t be easily attributed to an overactive imagination, the sounds they heard sheer coincidence veiled in post-“Emily Rose” terror. Those who actively engage with the paranormal, whether it be through the tradition of religious belief or of enjoying horror movies, are more attuned to the spiritual world around them. People who know what signs to look for — who listen in the night for strange sounds and have a reverence for the echoing unknown — are more often the ones who actually hear something.
Yes, Halloween is a time for dressing up and eating cheap candy. But it’s an unequivocal opportunity to become attuned to the vibrant world of spirits, and maybe even connect with the world beyond our own.
At the request of the sources, all names have been changed.