Archives for the month of: May, 2015

Ghosts in the basement: closeup of The Morris

After the three clocks in my apartment provided a horrifying insight, the ghost hunter I met sold me a sage stick. I had no idea what to do with it—or really, what exactly was in my apartment. So I invited Annette, a close friend who was sensitive to the paranormal, to come and assess the situation. She meditatively walked around the rooms and eventually concluded, “There are a lot of shadows in here.” Not quite getting her point, I explained that the east-facing living room was usually dim, receiving only a stingy triangle of light during the day. Annette shook her head and said, “No, by ‘shadows’ I mean … human remains.”

Then she pointed to a corner of the kitchen ceiling and said, “That’s your problem right there.” I noticed that area was where my boyfriend’s eyes had taken on a sinister cast in a photo and where my new desktop computer kept freezing up. Annette told me she saw an emaciated, very angry young man hanging there. He might have been a former leukemia patient from the turn of the century, when my building had been a hospital for the then-incurable disease.

Annette continued exploring the apartment and observed, “There’s anger in the main room and anguish in the bedroom.” I joked that those are the two emotions I do best at, but she turned and looked at me, her eyes speaking worlds I didn’t understand. Chastened, I realized that what she found could never be translated into human terms. A panic reared up in me. How could I spend another night in this apartment, knowing it was crowded with tormented, undead spirits? Dave, the on-site manager, had warned me about this, but he’d quit and moved out, claiming the building was killing him.

Taking the sage stick from me, Annette volunteered to rid my apartment of its bad energy. She opened all the windows, cabinets, and drawers, and told me to wait outside the building. I huddled on the sidewalk curb, wondering how effective the smudging process would be.

401 Meth Ave
View from my apartment (halfway house across the street and meth labs in brick building next to it, among other neighborhood attractions)

About 15 minutes later, Annette came and told me it was safe to go inside. Walking into the apartment, I didn’t feel much difference in the space. Annette left, and I laid out small bowls of salt (another gesture in this new superstitious vocabulary I was acquiring), hoping for the best.

The shadows had not left. Things only got worse in the apartment and more bizarre.

September 11 had occurred a month before, and the world seemed upended. One evening I had watched a TV program on biochemical weapons—including anthrax—and was reading a magazine, when I turned the page and stuck my thumb in some white powder. Freaked out, I called the non-emergency police line and sheepishly mumbled, “I’m sure it’s nothing, but …” I’d barely finished my sentence when police sirens came wailing up to my building. The Hazmat guys came to my door in their space suits and confiscated the magazine. A few tense days passed, and I eventually found out that it had been only talcum powder, used to keep the pages of glossy publications from sticking. (I did get my letter recounting the incident published in Paper, the magazine I’d been reading, and they courteously sent me a replacement issue–talcum free.)

As if that weren’t enough, a few weeks later, I returned home to find that my apartment had been broken into. Ironically, I lived in the most inconvenient unit to rob: on the top floor, nowhere near the ramp or emergency stairs, and directly across the hall from the manager. The break-in happened while I had stepped out for a slim length of time in the afternoon. The burglars had taped a small circle of white plastic bag over the manager’s peephole and then chiseled a rectangular hole into my door with a sharp blade. They pushed aside the deadbolt and made off with all the CDs I’d lovingly collected while living in Seattle, Philadelphia, DC, London, and Seoul. To add insult to injury, they also grabbed my stash of laundry quarters. The police officers shook their heads and said they’d never seen an apartment entered this way. They never found out who did it.

401 breakin
The strangest break-in, according to police officers

Afterward, I kept my blinds shut and hung a piece of white gauze in front of the bay window, blocking out the surrounding apartments. The burglars could have lived in any of them, watching me leave my building. I felt violated and under surveillance, both from those outside and from whatever was continuing to monitor me inside my own home.

After less than five months of living in the cursed apartment, I was done. The angry guy in the kitchen, the anthrax scare, the break-in … it was time for me to leave. I broke my lease and was not surprised to hear that the tenant before me had too.

I found a small studio apartment in an entirely new neighborhood, Belltown. My new apartment manager told me that the building, the Stratford on 4th, was constructed in 1916 as an army flophouse. According to a retired fire marshal, it “used to burn down weekly.” But unlike the apartment I’d fled, this place had a neutral, even cozy, feeling to it. Plus it had an elevator–and no ramps in sight.

After moving the bulk of my belongings into my new studio apartment, I went back to The Morris to pick up the last few items and return the keys. Then I called a cab and waited in the empty, preternaturally silent apartment. The air was thick. I was still there and so were they. Sitting uneasily by the door, I felt a tension mounting in my chest and my throat starting to constrict. My fingers tightened around my backpack. They wanted me out. Now.

Fine, I thought. I gingerly picked up my bag, using all the self-restraint I had, and managed to exit the unit without breaking into a sprint. People say that energy travels up and outwards in a building, so naturally my corner top-floor unit was ground zero for paranormal activity. I left the apartment to its occupants. They had resided there for decades, beginning in the dim hours of the early twentieth century. They are probably there now.

On the street I waited for the cab as a disoriented, shirtless man in pyjama bottoms wandered around the block, mournfully repeating, “Danny … Danny … Danny …”

A few minutes later, the cab pulled up, I turned my back on the apartment forever, and we drove down to my new life in Belltown.

401 interior
Interior of my haunted apartment

The ramps should have been a warning. The apartment otherwise looked normal—just old. But where the stairs or elevator should have been were long, carpeted ramps, zig-zagging their way up the four-story building. As someone new to Seattle, I marveled at how the city seemed so politically correct; even the apartments appeared to be wheelchair accessible. I didn’t realize that my new apartment building had been a leukemia hospital at the turn of the century—back when the illness was a death sentence—and subsequently a hospital for wounded soldiers. The ramps were necessary for wheeling an endless succession of bodies out of the building.

Last week a robbery and a shooting took place on the corner where the apartment building, The Morris, still sits in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. That area has always been down and out; in fact, that part of Summit Avenue was once christened “Meth Avenue” because of all the homemade labs lining the block. People may think it’s scary to have a shooting—and there had been other gunshots while I lived at The Morris—but the thing that frightened me most was what lived inside the building: animated, unseen, and always there.

401 apt
The foreboding facade of The Morris, May 2015

After I moved in, the on-site manager, Dave, told me about the history of the building and the ghostly activity inside it. I was skeptical, but could feel there was something unsettling about the interior, particularly its basement. One time Dave had seen a panel of glass, which was propped up against a wall, silently shatter on its own and slowly slide down until it folded into a sitting position. He and his live-in boyfriend also heard voices, but struck a cavalier attitude. Dave told me he was part Chippewa, so he had psychic abilities and had seen scarier things. As a child, he had run inside an old frontier hotel in Oregon and immediately seen a cowboy’s lifeless body hanging from the tall, rickety staircase. His family looked but didn’t see a thing.

My own apartment unit seemed normal, but strange things began to happen around me at The Morris. I wasn’t sure how much was a result of the paranormal, but the building definitely seemed to contain some perverse, dark energy. I discovered that Dave, who was a burly guy in his mid-thirties, was regularly beaten up by his delicate-framed boyfriend, Shea. Shea had a wandering eye and apparently slept with a knife under his pillow. A few months later, Dave had a heart attack after biting down too hard on a Dorito and cutting his gum deeply enough to drench the entire bed mattress with blood. “This building is killing me,” he confided to me afterward.

Dave managed to convalesce and kick Shea out, and then one day he informed me that a corner unit on the top floor opened up. Since I hadn’t encountered any ghosts in my unit—and I wasn’t even sure I believed in them anyway—I decided to take a chance and move in. And that’s when the trouble began.

At first glance, the apartment was a charming one-bedroom with a bay window and a beautiful wall of exposed brick. Sure, it looked out onto a couple of seedy halfway houses and an all-night drug drive-thru window, where a morbidly obese man sat at a first-floor window and dispensed small white packets day and night. That didn’t faze me, but my first night in the unit, I felt something was wrong. As a single female, I felt vulnerable and was afraid to even leave the bedroom to get a drink of water out in the kitchen. It had nothing to do with crime; it was something inexplicable.

401_brick wall
The beautiful exposed brick wall in my living room

The next day I instinctively set out the little ornaments and drawings that friends had given me, almost as protective talismen. I hung my photographs and artwork in an effort to make the place more familiar and comfortable. But the apartment never felt like home because, as I later found out, it was already inhabited by something else.

Soon I began to pull long, blond—almost white—human hairs out of the carpet. They didn’t belong to anyone I’d invited over. They were unrealistically long, as if they had grown for decades. Dave told me the former tenant had short, brown hair and the carpets had been cleaned after she moved out.

Weeks went by, and I constantly felt like I was being watched. One particular corner of the kitchen seemed thick with a heavy, unwelcoming atmosphere, so I hung my favorite photos there. One day my glance fell upon a picture of my boyfriend and me laughing at the camera. I was shocked to see something unexpected staring out at me through his eyes. There was an arresting, and unmistakably evil, glint in them that made me instantly take down the photo and shove it in a drawer.

401 wall
The photo mentioned above is the horizontal one right next to the postcard hanging by itself

The same thing happened again, this time with a self-portrait I’d made in the living room. Using a mirror and charcoal on paper, I’d drawn myself peering at the viewer over one shoulder. Creating a self-portrait—or any piece of art—is the ultimate act of ownership. However, this drawing didn’t belong to me. One day I looked at it and realized the eyes were someone else’s, staring unerringly at me. A chill immediately entered my heart. The drawing went straight into the trash.

The bedroom was not a safe sanctuary, either. A family of rodents skittered across the ceiling all night. In the daytime, pigeons would alight on the roof, their calls amplified into loud, unearthly moans. “Nngrhh nngrrrhhhh nngrrrhhhh”—it sounded eerie and inhuman, like a raunchy sex session between lost souls. The animals created so much dander that my boyfriend could not breathe in the room and would wake up gasping for air.

The most unnerving thing about the apartment was how it made the most familiar objects and people unrecognizable to me. I once woke up in the middle of the night and thought my boyfriend’s thumb was an enormous insect that had strayed onto the sheets. Another day I was applying my makeup in a mirror when I spotted a long, gray snake hanging from the exposed pipe along the wall. A terrifying second passed before I saw that it was one of my favorite scarves that I’d hung as decoration.

It was becoming apparent to me that my apartment, formerly the nurses’ station in the hospital, was haunted. I casually mentioned this on a phone call with my mother, who didn’t believe in the paranormal, and tried to act unconcerned about it. Gazing idly at the exposed brick wall, my eyes locked onto one of its many deep cavities. From the pitch-black hole emanated an intense and forbidding coldness that halted the laughter in my throat. I heeded it as a warning to never make light of the spiritual world.

Then three of my clocks stopped at the same time. They all had differing power sources: electric, battery powered, and manual wind-up. My favorite clock, which had a brand-new battery, would break in that position and never move again. I seeked counsel at Travellers, a nearby shop that sold all kinds of esoterica. The soft-spoken man behind the counter was an official ghost catcher. He told me, “The time your clocks stopped was probably significant to whoever is still in your apartment. It was probably when the person died.” Then he sold me a sage stick to “smudge” the apartment and wished me luck. I looked at the fat bundle of dried leaves in my hand and desperately hoped it would work.

To be continued.

Glass shatterer

One day, shortly after the chamber pot incident—which had been my grandmother’s ultimate revenge on her husband’s philandering ways—my grandfather was drunkenly prowling around the house. He was hunting for his wife, who had taken to hiding from him in different areas in the spacious compound: in closets, the servants’ quarters, even the rooms occupied by her first-born son and his family. (After marrying, my parents lived in that house for seven years, following Korean tradition.)

Entering a room, my grandfather thought he saw his wife’s diminutive silhouette through a frosted-glass screen. Sure enough, he thought, she must be sitting quietly behind it, wearing her traditional hanbok with her hair tucked into a demure bun. This was his opportunity to avenge her; he could feel the blood throbbing through his veins and an imminent satisfaction so rich that it felt like a heavy slab of raw meat in his mouth.

Tiptoeing up to the screen, my grandfather took a deep breath and swung his wooden cane with all his might, smashing through the glass. Splinters and shards flew everywhere, a blinding, never-ending shower of crystals. Then, with a gasp, he realized that the woman behind it was not his wife. It was his daughter-in-law—that is, my mother—nursing her baby daughter. Glass covered my mother’s hair and a tiny fragment even made its way into her eye. Miraculously, my sister was unharmed, and my mother would recover from the trauma, although barely.

My grandfather never apologized, because men of his status and generation didn’t waste their words that way with women. But if my mother, ever the dutiful daughter-in-law, brought him a vegetable dish for dinner, he didn’t complain about the lack of meat the way he usually did. Instead of bellowing, “What the hell is this? Am I a COW?” and flinging the bowl out the window, as he was inclined to do, my grandfather just tilted his head in thanks and picked up his chopsticks to eat. As in all Asian families, silence speaks volumes—even entire, unabridged libraries.

Chamber pot
Like many Korean men at the time, my grandfather Lee had a mistress whom he’d visit in the afternoons. Ignoring his wife’s protests, he’d clench a cigar defiantly in his teeth and march out the door, wearing an Italian fedora on his enormous bald head. My grandmother would continue to scream after him, making all kinds of threats, but he was used to this.

People who had seen his mistress claimed the young woman was so beautiful that a room became instantly brighter when she entered it. She was decades younger than my grandfather but was attracted to his imposing height, debonair style, and the money he lavished on her. My grandmother, a talented but thwarted artist, was beside herself at her husband’s infidelity.

One day, my grandmother came up with the ultimate revenge. She climbed up into the darak, a tiny attic above the front door of the house, and crouched like a coiled snake in the cramped, musty space, waiting for her husband to return from his mistress’s house. Her nose stung and her throat constricted, but she stayed put and peered through the narrow window. After several hours, my grandmother spied her unfaithful husband returning, his gait a little looser, his hat tilted at a more rakish angle.

As he strolled to the front door, my grandmother flung open the window, lifted a chamber pot from their bedroom—brimming with foul contents from the night before—and dumped it onto his head. My grandfather’s blood-curdling scream and murderous curses caused the neighbors to come running. My grandmother then did the sensible thing, which was to scurry away and tuck herself into a hidden spot behind the kitchen. She smiled to herself as he thundered about the house and managed to avoid him for days.

Eventually, my grandfather’s affair came to an end when he ran out of money to give his mistress. The young woman ordered him to leave in an imperious voice. When he didn’t, she hurled a heavy ash tray at his head and barred him from entering her house, which he’d bought for her. My grandmother accepted her husband back with a triumphant smirk and let him know she’d just sold his big, expensive car so he’d never be able to visit that fucking bitch (she used even more colorful words in Korean) ever again.