By John Gilstrap

When I was younger, I thrived on horror stories. I read every word Stephen King wrote, and I’d be first in line for the slasher movies of the ’70s and ’80s. I lost my taste for them during my fire service years, and abandoned them entirely once I started a family. I don’t know if there’s a nexus in there, but that was the timing of it.

That’s also about the time when I realized that energy lives on past the lives of some, and that those energies are drawn to me. Or, maybe it’s the other way around.

Two stories (of many I could share):

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail

Ten, maybe fifteen years ago, I signed on for a midnight tour of Moundsville State Penitentiary in West Virginia. It’s supposed to be one of the most haunted spots in America (aren’t they all?), and I thought it would be a hoot. I talked Jeffery Deaver into coming along. We climbed onto a bus around 6 pm and drove off into the night.

The tour was led by a self-proclaimed ghost hunter who channeled Van Helsing, complete with the floppy fedora and flowing great coat. When we arrived at the prison grounds, Van saw ghosts everywhere, just hangin’ around the yard. “There’s one! There’s one!” Jeff and I thought it was a hoot.

Then we entered the hospital wing of the abandoned fortress. If you’ve seen One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, you know what the place looks like. There’s a common room that was overseen by a nurse’s station, beyond which there are a couple of operatories and then another common room. This repeated five or six times.

Remember, the only lighting we had were the flashlights that we brought with us, so eerie doesn’t quite touch the atmosphere at zero-dark-early. We walked into the first one or two of the operatories, looked around, checked our watches and began talking about how we might work our way back to the bus.

The mood of the evening changed when we crossed the threshold of what I believe was the third operatory. I stopped about three steps in and could not go any farther. A dark energy surrounded me–that’s the best way I can put it, a nearly electrical feeling on my skin, but more than that, I felt so terribly sad. It was the kind of sadness that comes after the loss of a loved one. It was unbearable.

I turned and walked back out into the hallway, and the feeling vanished, as surely as if a switch had been flipped. Deaver reported feeling “something” but he night have been humoring me. Everyone else seemed to be fine. I went to Van Helsing and asked if that room was particularly energized? His response: “You notice I stay in the hallway, right?”

As the tour moved on, I told Jeff that I needed to go back. I needed to know if it was some kind of trick that Van was pulling. We parted from the group and walked back. This time, when I crossed the threshold, my knees nearly buckled. The feeling was beyond awful. It felt soul stealing.

That was the only notable incident on that tour, but later research showed that that room was used to perform lobotomies back in the ’50s or ’60s.

Now, fast-forward a few years. I was in Boston, staying at one of the fancy chain hotels to attend a board of directors for the trade association I worked for. (I’m not sandbagging on the name. I really don’t remember which one, and given the story to come, it’s best not to guess and be wrong.)

About 2:30 in the morning, I was sound asleep, alone in my room, sleeping on my left side, as I am wont to do, when someone grabbed my shoulder with both hands and placed his face about an inch from mine.

I shot out of bed, ready for war. I don’t think I’ve ever been so startled, before or since. Nobody was there, but I could still feel the imprint of his hand on my shoulder. I turned on the light, and the first thing I did was check my door. Not only was it closed, it was locked on the inside.

This was not a dream. It could not have been a dream. I saw him, for God’s sake. But several thorough searches revealed that I was still alone. The most vivid goddamn dream in the history of nightmares.

It takes a while for the body to process that much adrenaline, but ultimately, I fell back to sleep. Shortly after the sun came up, I rose, showered, tied myself into a business suit and headed down to the staff breakfast room. I was the last to arrive, but that wasn’t uncommon, given my relationship with mornings. As I sat down with my banquet eggs, I relayed the story of my nightmare, and conversation stopped.

My boss paled and asked, “What room are you in?”

“Twenty-one forty-four,” I answered. (I don’t remember the real room number.)

A gasp went around the table. By boss was staying in 2244, and one of our VPs was staying in 2344. All of us had the exact same “nightmare” within minutes of each other.

Creepy, eh? Okay, there’s a coda to the story. I was on the hook for a very important, very serious presentation to a filled ballroom at 8 am the next morning. After an endless string of meetings, I returned to my room at around 11 pm. Out loud, I said, “Okay, look. I know you have a job to do, and I respect that. I respect that I am in your space, but I really need to sleep tonight, so I’d appreciate it if you’d leave me alone.”

In general, I’m not a deep sleeper in a hotel, but that night, I slept like, well, the dead.

I haven’t studied this stuff, and I don’t pretend to understand it, but I’ve come to believe that something about what makes us human projects energy, and I think that some people are better tuned to it than others. I think I’ve posted here before that I have a very strong Spidey sense about others. My first impressions of people rarely prove themselves wrong. (Truthfully, I can’t remember a single time.)

When my son was 14 or so, he got separated from the group on a camping trip and became the focus of a National Park Service search party. (In case you’re wondering, parents are not informed of ongoing searches when they are in their early stages.) He and a buddy were lost in Washington National Forest all night. Everybody turned out fine, but he tells a great story of what it’s like being in the middle of nowhere on a moonless night as the batteries in your flashlight begin to die.

We learned about the search after he returned home a week or so later. Here’s the thing, though: On the night he was lost–at the hours he was lost–I couldn’t sleep. Instead, I got up and wrote about a young teenager lost in the woods.

Okay, now that I’ve revealed my crazy card, what say you, TKZ family? In this season of spooks and witchcraft, do you have any stories to share?

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

22 thoughts on “Hauntings

  1. Thanks for sharing, John. I wrote a post for TKZ a decade or so ago about the hauntings of my home. They continue to this day. I also live about an hour away from the Old Mansfield Reformatory (where Shawshank Redemption was filmed) and which is reputed to be haunted.

    The biggie, however, is the hotel room I occupied during one visit to New Orleans. The establishment had been remodeled from the shell of a department store. I would at odd times each day feel fingertips gently brush down the back of my head and travel south. The odd thing was that it didn’t bother me (okay, it was a bit disconcerting, but that’s all).

    Happy Halloween!

    • Most people don’t realize how many deaths happen in hotels. People go there to kill themselves so the family doesn’t have to find them, and business men of a certain age drop dead from heart attacks with alarming frequency. Then there are the murders. It’s a rare hotel/motel that isn’t haunted.

  2. My great-grandfather’s house is haunted but it’s all family. We all have stories about that.

    A few years ago I was in On Golden Pond, waiting for my cue. I saw a tall man in the opposite wing on the monitor. I didn’t think anything of it at first, then I realized the rest of the cast, our director, and the lighting and sound tech were all accounted for. The theatre was locked. I looked in the wing. Didn’t see him. Checked the monitor. He was there, but could only be seen in the monitor. I mentioned it after rehearsal and found out we got some costumes and props donated from the opera company and apparently he came with them. One of my castmates grew up in a ghost-hunting family and he somehow sent the ghost on his way. The ghost never did anything but watch the show. I think he was probably a stage manager.

    • I have friends in the theater industry, and they tell me that it’s rare not to have at least one ghost in the theater. Some are former actors and behind scene staff, and others come to be entertained. The afterlife can be boring. Movie theaters are even worse because they offer even more entertainment.

  3. Interesting encounters, John. I’ve had a few, and mostly I can explain them away, but some are more eerier than others. I got out of bed one night to separate two cats who were tumbling together and chasing each other around. They ran into the bathroom and immediately quieted down. I climbed back in bed (where our cats sleep) and noticed only ONE cat was missing. We’ve had cats who died and who are buried in the back yard. I guess one of them had come back to play.

    • Last time I had to put a dog down, I was a mess. JoeDog (now immortalized as Jonathan Grave’s pet) was part of the family. The night that we had her put to sleep, I had an extremely vivid dream where she was a puppy again, sitting with me on the floor. She gave my face a lick and she disappeared. I took that as a sign that she was okay on the other side.

  4. When I was a kid we went on vacation and left our dog in a kennel. On the second night of our vacation I was falling asleep and dreaming about petting dog. It was like he was laying beside me. As I went to sleep he seemed get real, like his body was generating heat.

    When I woke up the next morning I was looking for him. I thought some how we brought him with us.

    However, when we got back we found out the dog died. It was a sad event but freaked me out.

  5. Great—and scary—stories. Thanks for sharing, John. My wife and I visited (during the daytime) the old Missouri State Penitentiary back in 2019. Sections of it date back to before the civil war. No ghost encounters but there was a creepy ominous feeling in the buildings. Oddly, we had visited the old Wyoming Territorial Prison just a month prior and I got none of the same feelings of creepiness.

    In 1985, the ink on my degree not yet dry, I began pastoring a small country church. It had been built in 1877. Talk about a creepy place. I hated going in there alone after dark. We have several stories from our two years there. Most are the innocuous feelings of being watched but no one is there type of things, but a few where more. Goes to prove that holy places aren’t haint free.

  6. Gripping tales, John. I don’t have anything nearly as scary.

    However, I did work at an allegedly haunted library in North Portland in the early 2000s. It was a lovely old Carnegie endowment building built in 1913, in the Jacobean style with a peaked roof. The upstairs level where offices and the meeting room were seemed to be the places mostly likely to have spectral apparitions, especially at night when the lights were out in the offices and after the computer lab in the meeting room had closed. Usually the apparitions were “just” noises, but sometimes people claimed the touch of something invisible, or the sensation of someone close by only to discover no one there.

    The ghostly epicenter in that library was, of all places, the upstairs restroom. A wall mounted hot air hand dryer would suddenly turn on when no one was in the restroom. The unit was serviced several times, including being taken off the wall and to the shop once. Nothing faulty was found with the dryer any of the times it was examined. Yet, it continued to turn on at odd times, often at night.

    The sound of the dryer’s blower echoing down the dark walnut staircase and into the main room of the library sent a chill up my spine the first time or two I heard it, but the veteran staff were used to it and just shrugged at the noise.

  7. Dang, WordPress is being annoying again, and I can’t see comments. I’d really love to see the stories offered.

    Anyway, as a very young girl, I was told in a dream that under no circumstances should I ever open the paranormal door because it would be life destroying. The dream was very vivid, I still remember it, and I’ve never chosen to open that door for over sixty years. So no ghost hunting, Ouija boards, etc.

    But I’m surrounded by family, two and four legged. Mom has been very vocal to me and the rest of the family about family matters. A crystal clear voice in our ears. Dad died a year before his first grandchild was born, and he appointed himself one of her guardian spirits. She chattered about Grandpa and knew things she shouldn’t know about him. She last saw him as an adult. Now that Mom has joined him, they visit the whole family.

    The collie my family had when I was little appointed herself my dream guardian, and she stayed with me in my dreams to keep me safe from whatever that warning was about until I was old enough to have my own protections. The family dog pack still patrol the family home place to check in, and Mr. Kitty is still in charge of checking for boogers. He left Mom and I a small mouse in her bathtub on his first death anniversary to let us know he was still patroling.

    Not all ghost stories are scary.

  8. I’ve felt odd things at times, like I think everyone has, but I only had one verifiable incident. I need to preface this by telling you I am married to the mentally strongest, almost humorless, engineering type man’s man you’ll ever meet (yes, I love him). And he was only 50% as tough as his dad.

    We took a pilgrimage to his childhood home every Christmas. The year after his father passed, we slept in the same room we always had – his room when he was young. In the middle of the night, someone knocked on the window over our heads. Not a branch’s brush, the knock of knuckles on glass. This house iis out in the country – the closest house a 1/2 mile away.

    We snapped awake. My husband hopped up, opened the curtains and looked out, but of course there was nothing there. He laid back down. I whispered, ‘You know that was your dad, right?’

    He whispered, ‘I know.’

  9. Good morning. We’re in Eureka Springs, watching the autumn-colored trees shiver in the breeze. Typing this on my phone, so it’ll be short.

    John knows we had a cute little child-ghost in our last house. We called him Casper, and he was fun. Turned the TV off and on for grins and played bells in the kitchen. I’d catch sight of him out if the corner of my eyes, but once my brother came to stay and saw Casper in his fully glory.

    Little Brother knew nothing about him, so it was a hoot when he called and asked, “What haven’t you told me about this house?”

    I asked for a description of what he’d seen, knowing what Casper looked like from my own experiences and tales from the locals about the land our house was built on.

    “He’s about four feet tall, black, in faded overalls.”

    Yep, that was him.

    Then again there’s the authenticated story of a pair of ghosts I saw when I was ten. Great story, John.

  10. Halloween 1979 my history class took a “field trip” to see the EXORCIST. In the days before VHS, it was playing at a theater college, Webster College (now University). Webster is built on the grounds of an old convent. The theater students working as ushers were in gothic makeup and the screen was in what was a chapel.

    The next day in class, the teacher told us the real story of the EXORCIST. How it was a boy, not a girl, and the big finish was in a hospital. The rumor was that the room at the hospital could not hold heat, it was turned into a closet, That floor always had heating and electrical issues and was eventually left vacant. That building was eventually torn down.

    When I was a student at St. Louis University the story was that the room on the top floor of Jesuit Hall that always had the lights on was the room of the priest who performed the exorcism.

    The real exorcist story, SLU: https://www.slu.edu/news/2019/october/slu-legends-lore-exorcism.php
    Old Alexian Brothers Hospital: http://stlouispatina.com/st-alexius-hospital-dutchtown/

    The original ghost story book by Jim Longo, former high school social studies teacher: https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=22606990414&cm_sp=SEARCHREC-_-WIDGET-L-_-BDP-H&searchurl=an%3DJim%2BLongo%26kn%3Dghost%26sortby%3D17

  11. I work for the “safety net” hospital here in Atlanta (my day job…), and there are some places in the ca. 1958 hospital that give off that “vibe…” I doubt there’s a room that hasn’t had someone pass in it in the last 63 years, though there are some where this has happened more often than in others (the ICU’s, the ER, the OR’s), and sometimes during my rounding something will make me pause and turn this thought over in my mind a time or two…

  12. Great piece of writing, John. I felt like I was right there with you. I’ve never had any personal experience with “ghosts” but my UK writing friend has a whopper of a true story. Caroline Mitchell is a former London detective who is now a highly successful indie writer. Her book Paranormal Intruder documents a truly terrifying case of a family’s horror in their own haunted house. I’ll give Caroline’s book a well-deserved link: https://www.amazon.com/Paranormal-Intruder-Terrifying-Story-Family-ebook/dp/B00GURVKHY/

  13. Chiming in late owing to busy work schedule to say I am right there with you. For 10 wonderful years when I was young and single, I did PR for British Airways. A fantastic fringe benefit was leading US travel writers on tours to promote destinations served. This involved staying in many haunted old castles (cum-B&Bs) over the years. Let’s just say it was the beginning of an ongoing dialog for me with those who came before…..having said that, the most haunted place I have ever been was not in the UK. It was the Great Wall of China. There is blood baked into those stones, no question. I felt a pressing weight 10 times the force of gravity climbing a section of that wall just outside Beijing. Left me convinced it was as much to trap those poor people in as keep invading forces out. Mingus warriors, my eye.

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