The Haunting of Nacho Sasha

I just had my first free weekend in a year. It wasn’t planned. I was supposed to go to a Halloween party on the 29th, but then we had a freak blizzard. While, thankfully, there was no accumulation in DC, the psychological effect – especially after the last two years of horrific winter storms – was crushing. I looked out at a hard, wet curtain of snow and I knew the weekend would grind to a halt. My friends, who had been planning their party for months, saw their guest list dwindle, and I sat in my bathrobe and allowed myself to devolve into a filthy mess, with a brain dulled by Netflix.

When you work over 100 hours a week, mainly at customer service gigs, the value of 24 hours without having to speak or be presentable on any level is incalculable.

It being Halloween weekend, I started to think about paranormal experiences, which is a great way to spend a cold Saturday night, sleet pounding off the windows, while Netflix is having streaming issues. I’ve only had two…I think. They were underwhelming, all things considered. Mainly because I didn’t react with fear. They weren’t the thrill I’ve always sought. They were inconveniences, at best. One event happened at my dad’s house, after he died, and that’s its own article. The other happened at my weekend job, which has been a hotbed of passive haunting since I started there in April of 1991.

The house I work at on the weekends was built in the 1920’s and saw a family pass through it before being willed, along with 40 surrounding acres, to a podunk little nonprofit group in 1967. With only about 12 staff members at the time, their solution was to rent the property, both as clumsily maintained apartments and for weddings and other events.

The property eventually demanded a full time groundskeeper (we say “property manager” now) who lived on the grounds and, by the time I started, there were 30 full time staffers, an army of volunteers, and five rentals a week that pushed 800 people in and out every weekend.

What should have been a quiet, empty house nestled on a dark, secluded lot was a place of constant light, life, and action. Even in the few quiet moments, there was activity. Usually overzealous staff members spending the night in their offices, or, like me, working four shifts a weekend and not able to enjoy the luxury of going home. You can even run into someone on New Year’s Eve or Christmas morning. Staff members like me looking to get away from it all and sit in the silent, old house, surveying the property through the French doors, perhaps pretending that they’re the lord or lady of the manor.

Or you’d arrive, imagining some alone fantasy time, or with a cocktail waitress in tow, and find an illegal party going on. My favorite abuse of the property is the illegal underground party. As if all the theft and bribery weren’t enough, some of my co-workers have their hands in the illegal event rental business. They charge a fraction of the price, somehow avoid the watchful gaze of the groundskeeper, and have small-scale weddings and other events in the dead of night, or on holidays.

The underground weddings are sometimes brazen – taking place during the day, and complete with chairs, tables, and catering. In these cases, the property manager doesn’t even assume anything is wrong. An old trick, really. A hard hat and a clipboard can get you almost anywhere, even post-9/11. A fully catered event, going the whole nine yards, must be above board.

Most underground weddings are suitably paranoid, though, and stick to the house, running from 1am to pre-dawn. Some of my co-workers have made a comfortable living off of that trade.

With this near-constant activity and human presence, it’s hard to think that the old house would be one of the most haunted places in the area. Yet, since I started in 91, almost every single staff member – and many have come and gone over the last two decades – has a ghost story of some sort. For many years, I collected these stories, compared them, mapped out hotspots in the house. My hope was to encounter…something. It seems like everybody had a story, and I was always jealous that these day-workers got to tangle with ghosts whereas I was alone with the house every weekend, deep into the night, cleaning up after a rental, and never even got a “boo!”

The first ghost story I heard, several months after I started, came from my boss. She told of her hair being pulled. Nothing aggressive – a light, playful tug in the bookshop’s upstairs, corner office. Since then, the shop has slowly lost its space and the upstairs offices have been repurposed, the shop’s old office housing six different people over the last 20 years. All women, and all of them have complained about their hair being pulled.

A theme I often see repeated are people moving their offices to get away from hotspots – such as one of the groundskeepers, who gave up his large, luxurious basement office for a second floor former half-bath. He was plagued by a woman calling out his name, and a figure rushing quickly past his door. He started to avoid the basement and, finally, relocated to the second floor hole in the wall…and then quit without notice a month later.

Lots of staff members have quit because of the ghosts. One woman claimed that she was attacked in the main office, held down by an invisible pair of hands. Another claimed that something tried to push her down the steps. Another – one of my events co-workers – was driven out by slamming doors and stomping boots. She called the police and waited for them in the parking lot at 1am. They explored the house, found nothing, and finished the close-out checklist for her. Which was kind.

Another events co-worker simply fled the house, leaving it wide open all night with the light’s blazing.

The groundskeeper who replaced the quitter reported frequent encounters. He lived on the property alone, patrolling the grounds late at night (a task that’s since been removed from the property manager’s duties), and, eventually, he stopped checking on the house. Used to be, the groundskeeper would make sure everything was locked and the alarm was set after 10pm each night, but he soon had enough of footsteps, slamming doors, and the occasional voice murmuring from the blackness at the top of the grand staircase in the Great Hall.

He downgraded his responsibility to just checking the doors from outside, lazy security guard style, and gave that up after a few months when the lights went up in the dining room as he tested the French doors. The only switch was in the room, and he stared at it through the doors as the lights went all the way up, then dimmed down again. In his last year on the job, he said that he would sit at the gatehouse (where the property manager lives) and look up the hill at the house, watching the lights go on and off in sequence from the top floor to the bottom. Once, he was sitting in the company truck in the parking lot and watched this happen. At that point, he just drove away. No questions asked. He’d given up investigating long before.

The current property manager, a man of reason, is, most likely, complicit in every criminal activity that is being run through the property. The underground weddings began under his regime, and he spends as much time as possible away from the property and generally out of touch. He’s a man much like me. There’s no time for hauntings in our lives. We’ve got work to do, paychecks to earn, and property to steal. We’ve each got a dozen things going on the side, from opening the Dead Box for greedy caterers or turning a blind eye to underground weddings.

He has a few stories, though. And so do I. He’s seen the light show. He’s heard whispering, and footsteps. He keeps an eye open when he’s in the basement in the dead of night. He says he once saw a figure on the roof. A woman. A shadow against the night sky, looking down at him.

He ignores these things, and rarely talks about them.

I, too, have heard footsteps. At the end of each weekend shift, I’m supposed to sweep the house for any stray guests. I long ago stopped doing this, having been spooked one too many times in the gloomy hallways of the second and third floor. A door slamming in one section will draw me only to find every dark, locked office empty. Footsteps elsewhere would lead me to a similar setting. There have been times I’m convinced that someone else is in the house. I set the alarm, the entire building wired with motion detectors, and sit in the parking lot waiting in vain for it to be tripped. This has happened many times over the last 20 years. I’ve given up searching the house and now I just leave as soon as I can, turn on the alarm, wait a minute or so, and then go home. It’s not yet been triggered.

Once, I heard two women fighting. Indistinct, shouting voices. They drew me to the third floor stairs, which made a sharp 90-degree turn halfway up. I called out and the voices stopped. I actually hit the lights and investigated, half-crazy after a 20 hour shift. The third floor was deserted.

The ghosts are mainly women. Two older women and a child, or maybe two children. Three people have complained about an angry male spirit over the last 20 years, but their stories are eclipsed by nearly 100 co-workers who, since 1991, have told me of the women. It’s one of the little girls who tugs hair in the corner office. The same child – or another – is often attributed to the whispering voice heard by nearly half of the people whose stories I’ve recorded. The groundskeeper who fled his basement office heard and saw a woman, as has the present property manager. People who claim to be sensitive in some way or another often see a child out of the corner of their eye, and feel the presence of a domineering female spirit throughout the house. The fight I heard was between two grown women.

I’ve come to be a believer after 20 years of this passive haunting. I’ve learned to listen to the house. Some nights, it wants to be alone. On these nights, I get all my work done ahead of time and leave with the caterers, never alone with the house. Some nights, it’s inactive, it’s just a house. Sometimes it can even be welcoming. Hungry for attention. I’m no longer jealous when I collect ghost stories, and have even stopped the active pursuit of those stories. The house has proven itself to me. We don’t need to push it any further. I don’t need to be chased outside, or tumble down the stairs, or find myself on the floor with a weight on my chest.

Those of us intimate with the house all know – there is anger there. An undercurrent of something darker than slamming doors and electrical shenanigans. Just enough to set you on edge from time to time, to raise the hackles and make you back away from a room, a hallway, a closed door. Enough to make 15 people, over the last 20 years, quit their jobs, often without notice. Four of those 15 were so terrified they refused to return to the house. Most of us ignore these stories. We do as the mood of the house bids us. And, for a few of us, we become the ghosts. We creep through the shadows, whether we’re raiding the Dead Box, hosting an illegal midnight wedding, or breaking several rules and doing our laundry using the property manager’s washer and dryer. We all have the same ritual – we enter the house in the early AM and stand in the dark Great Hall, listening, eyes closed. We speak to the house – we share our plans. I’m going to be here tonight. I’m going to do laundry. It’ll take a couple of hours. Then we wait. There won’t be a verbal response, but there’ll be a feeling. The house will give us permission, or not, and we’ll respect its authority. This won’t stop an underground wedding, but it will dictate how much of the house is made available during the event. The top floors may be chained off, left dark. The basement may remain locked.

Sometimes, even during an official, daytime event, a ripple will move through people. The guests may all fall silent at once, looking around. A bridesmaid may complain about a fight going on in a locked office. A child’s giggling laughter may rush by as you’re in the basement retrieving trash bags and floor cleaner. I smile, lay a hand on the wall, and say, “We’ll be gone soon.” Every once in a while, I can feel the house relax under my palm. But not too often.

   One Comment

  1. gwen
      November 14, 2011

    wow! i really liked this one! i like the idea of listening to the house…