Appalachian Horror Story: My Own Ghost Story

It’s that spooky time of the year again, and I’ve just started watching the new season of one of my favorite television shows, American Horror Story.  Each season has the same very talented actors, but a completely different story and location.  This season is set in New Orleans, it’s about witches and voodoo, and so far it’s a truly rich and detailed story, as expected.

Since I love horror stories so much, I thought October was a good time to tell you some Appalachian horror stories, including some which have been passed down from generation to generation.

First, I’ll start with my very own ghost story.  What I’m about to tell you, I absolutely believe to be true, and I still believe it really happened to this very day.

My mother died very unexpectedly when I was 16 years old.  Over the years I had visited with her, sometimes staying for a little while, though I was raised by my grandparents in the little house on top of the hill.  About a year before her death, mommy lived with all of us at Mammaw and Pappawa’s house.  She was more like a big sister to me than a mom, since she was a teenager when I was born and Mammaw had raised me from the time I was a baby, but I loved mommy dearly.

Yes, we kids always called her “mommy”, and we all still do; though in other areas people tend to change “mommy” to “mom” at school age, it’s extremely common around here to always call your mother “mommy”, no matter how old you may be.

Shortly before she died, mommy had been hospitalized after being pistol-whipped by her ex-husband, who she was back with again (she went back and forth with him repeatedly like many abused women do, sadly).  Nobody knew about it because she didn’t call; she was understandably embarrassed, and didn’t want us to see her that way.  We found out only because my best friend’s mom, who worked in housekeeping at the hospital, told us she was a patient there.

Of course I went to the hospital to see her right away.  She had been beaten to a pulp, and as a 16-year-old kid who had been pretty sheltered by my grandparents from the harsh realities of my mom’s life, I was shocked by it.  When I asked her who did that to her, she just looked at me and said, “You know who did it”.  From what I understand, she had been beaten so viciously because he had told her to get his poker buddy an ashtray, and she told him to get it himself.

I went to see her every day, usually walking the four mile round trip to and from the hospital since I hadn’t yet saved up enough money to buy a car; I started working the day after I turned 12, first as a volunteer candystriper at that same hospital, then later in a minimum-wage position at a local sporting goods store, as soon as I was old enough to legally get a real job.  While I was leaving the hospital one day after visiting her, walking down the creepy but familiar dim hallways old hospitals had back then, I passed my stepfather, the same one who had beaten her.  I don’t think he saw me, or maybe he did and thought better of saying anything, since obviously I knew what he had done.  As I passed by him, I looked back just because I was so surprised to see him there, and I saw a sawed-off shotgun sticking out from under his sport coat.  I was kind of hysterical, I have to admit since I thought he was going to actually kill my mom, so I ran to tell the first security guard I could find and begged him to do something, anything, to protect my mother.

Not surprisingly, since I was just a kid and it was pretty unbelievable that someone would bring a concealed sawed-off shotgun to the hospital, they didn’t believe me.  I swear to this day that it was true, though.  Not only was he carrying that sawed-off shotgun into the hospital, stuck down the back of his pants with the butt of the gun concealed by his sport coat (though the split at the bottom of the sport coat moved when he walked, which is how I saw it), he was known to carry weapons, and he was also known to have killed several people (though the cops later told me, as an adult, that though they knew it was him, they could never prove it).  So what I saw that day wasn’t even that unusual for him, but no one believed me because I was just a kid, and they probably thought I either had a wild imagination, or had seen something else which I mistook for a shotgun.  I knew exactly what his sawed-off shotgun looked like though, because I’d seen it many times before.  The hospital didn’t even bother to look for him, though I told them exactly where he was going.  When I asked my mom about it the next day, she refused to discuss it at all, but she also didn’t deny he had brought his sawed-off shotgun into her room.  I think he did that to scare her away from pressing charges, and it worked.

When mommy was discharged from the hospital a couple of weeks later, my best friend (who had a family car she was allowed to use) and I picked her up because she didn’t have a car.  I begged mommy to come stay at Mammaw and Pappaw’s house, because obviously I was worried about her returning to such a dangerous situation, but she refused to even consider it, probably because she felt like she would be placing all of us in danger.  So with a very heavy heart, we took her back to the rented house where she lived with her ex.  She didn’t want us to come inside, probably because she didn’t know how he might react.  I’m sure she was only protecting us by not inviting us in though, because normally we were welcome.  I watched her walk inside, and she peeked through the curtains and waved, as if to say she was okay.

That was the last time I ever saw my mother alive.

A few weeks later, Mammaw got a phone call from her sister.  Her sister and brother-in-law had a police scanner, and they’d sit and listen to it for hours on end.  Back then, the cops around here didn’t really use radio codes like they should have, they mostly just said what they needed to say, so anybody listening in knew exactly what they were talking about.  She had called to tell Mammaw that my mother had been found dead in an old rundown residential hotel downtown.

For the first time in my life, I saw Mammaw – the strongest woman I’ve ever known – have a complete breakdown, but at the time, we had no idea why.  She dropped the phone and started wailing and crying, screaming incoherently, and she even physically collapsed.  Pappaw was trying to figure out what was wrong, and we kids just stood there in horror, not comprehending what could possibly cause Mammaw to react that way.  We were very, very scared to see Mammaw that way, and we clung to each other for dear life.  My younger sisters were crying hysterically, and I was hugging them and desperately trying to calm them down while terrified myself, and attempting to understand what had happened.  That evening, Mammaw and Pappaw sat us kids down and told us that our mother – her youngest daughter – had died.

To this very day, I don’t understand why my aunt didn’t come to our house and tell Mammaw that awful news in person, so she could break it to her gently and be there to comfort her.  She just lived on the other side of the hill, so there was nothing stopping her from doing that.  I thought telling Mammaw something like that over the phone, just blurting it out like it was exciting neighborhood gossip, was one of the cruelest things I’d ever known anyone to do.  I still think that.  It was just sick, as if she got some kind of thrill out of being the first one to relay such horrible news.

Needless to say, after that day, I never liked my aunt, and I finally understood why Mammaw had never really liked her.  She was a very cruel-hearted woman, and though she’s long gone, I still have never forgiven her for the way she handled that situation.  She traumatized all of us, but especially poor Mammaw, who to her dying day never really got over being informed so callously about the death of her youngest child.

The next day, Mammaw, Pappaw, and Mammaw’s older daughter (my favorite aunt, she’s just wonderful) went to the hotel to gather my mother’s things, which were few.  They were told she’d checked in earlier in the week.  Though she had been told there were no rooms ready, she promised to clean it herself, she just needed a place to stay immediately.  Since the lady who owned the hotel knew my mom and liked her (pretty much everybody around here knew everybody else back then), she agreed to let her have the room.

The hotel residents told Mammaw that they had heard my mom cleaning the room, but that night they heard heavy footsteps in the room for hours, which they said was obviously a man, and there was a lot of noise, which they described as sounding like furniture being moved around.  That was the night, the medical examiner determined, that my mother died.  The next day, the man who lived across the hall realized her room was unlocked, and he had stolen the television from her room (because the one in his room wasn’t as nice, he told the police), along with a few other things.  He had just walked around my mother’s corpse, still clinging in death to the bedpost, but didn’t bother to tell anyone what he had seen, because then they would know he had stolen from her room.  So it was not until days later, when one of the residents complained of an odor and the landlord realized she hadn’t seen my mom since she moved in, that anyone (other than the thief and her murderer, obviously) realized what had happened.  However, since the crime scene had been compromised by that lowlife thief who stole from a dead woman, the man who murdered my mother would never be brought to justice.

Evidence being compromised wasn’t the only problem with the investigation, though.  A very big part of the problem was that my stepfather was a well-known criminal who had connections in the police department, and he used to pay cops to look the other way; I know this for an absolute fact, because I was with him more than once when he was doing it, they were basically on his payroll, and he considered it a part of “doing business” (though none of his “business” was legal – he was a gambler and a pimp, and owned a private club downtown where large quantities of drugs were sold, and his hookers plied their trade).  In the end, there was no real investigation into my mother’s death, and one longtime detective actually resigned over the way the case was handled.  So exactly what happened to my mom is something of a mystery to this very day, and people still talk about it.  I even saw a question someone (who said they were her friend) had left on a local gossip website about a year ago, asking if anyone knew what had really happened to her.

The coroner ruled her manner of death undetermined, because she had taken pills of every imaginable description.  However, the police officer who resigned didn’t believe it was even possibly a suicide, and neither did the man who owned the funeral home.  He told me many years later, because I specifically asked him what he knew about my mother’s death,  that she was nearly decapitated, that her head was barely attached when he received her body.  That obviously doesn’t happen from popping pills (which my mom was known to do), nor does it suggest suicide.  What the coroner didn’t know is that my stepfather had bragged many times about killing someone else, by forcing them to take a bunch of pills to make it look like a suicide.  I guess we’ll never know exactly what happened to her, but at the same time, we know enough to know she was murdered.  Her ex actually tried to have her cremated, though nobody in our family has ever been cremated and he had no legal right to do that, and poor Mammaw had to prove that they weren’t married anymore, in order to stop that from happening.  My family thought he wanted her cremated to hide evidence of what he had done.

At the funeral, things only intensified.  My uncle on my dad’s side refused to let me go into the room where my my mom’s casket was, because despite the best efforts of the funeral home, and despite her high-neck dress covering up the damage to her neck, she still looked like she had been beaten to death.  He said that since I look so much like her, I didn’t need to have that picture in my head (and he was absolutely right).  When Mammaw went in to see her body though, she started screaming over and over again, “No, that’s not my baby!” because she had been beaten so horrifically (and her body had lain undiscovered for so long) that she didn’t even look like herself anymore; and I can still hear her screams of horror in my mind to this very day, just as I can still hear the screams on the day Mammaw was told about her death.

Undercover cops were everywhere at the funeral home, supposedly to protect the family (though some said it was to protect her ex, who’d been paying them off for years, from our family).  Mammaw’s baby brother was a tough-as-nails truck driver, and he came in from out of state for the funeral; he not only intended to kill my mom’s ex-husband if he showed up at the funeral, he even brought his gun to the funeral home and made no secret of it, he wore it right out in the open in a holster on his side.  Sure enough, her ex showed up, but the police quickly surrounded him and escorted him out before my family could get near him.  Though Mammaw was adamant before the viewing that she didn’t want him there, when she got wind that he was actually there, she started screaming, “Let him in!  Make that sonofabitch see what he did to my baby!”  It was just absolute chaos, extremely frightening and traumatizing, especially in the eyes of a sheltered 16-year-old girl.

The scariest part didn’t begin until long after her funeral, though.

Months later, I started hearing strange sounds in the house that would wake me up at night, though normally I’m such a deep sleeper that even an alarm clock won’t wake me up.  One night I remember waking up to footsteps walking through our little house, from the living room over the metal floor furnace (which was right by my bedroom, and made a unique sound when you’d step on it), and into the kitchen.  I heard the silverware drawer being opened, and moments later, closed again.  I was always too scared to look, to be honest, though I probably could have seen them from my bed since our bedroom door was always open.  At the time I told myself that a thief was breaking into our house, but nothing was ever missing.

That happened every night for months, the same exact thing over and over and over again, always at exactly the same time.

Then one night, my younger sisters woke me up.  They were both wide awake, sitting on the sides of their beds, and talking excitedly to somebody in whispers, but loud enough for me to hear since their beds were very close to mine.  They were obviously talking to our mom, which shocked me to the core.  When they realized I was sitting up in bed looking at them, they whispered, “Look, Mommy’s here!” and pointed to the area in between their beds.  I still didn’t see anything, though admittedly it was very dark in our room, and thought my sisters just wanted to believe she was there, maybe from a dream, and had just let their imaginations get away with them.  I didn’t say anything to Mammaw about that, because I didn’t want to upset her or get my sisters in trouble.

Those kinds of weird goings-on continued in that house for well over a year, with me always coming up with a logical explanation for it.  Then one day, I had an experience of my own, wide awake in the middle of the day, and there was no denying it anymore.

I had gone for ice cream one afternoon with a boy I liked, along with his older married sister and her husband (I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere with boys, unless there was an adult chaperone).  When they dropped me off at home, no one was there.  I knew Mammaw and Pappaw and my sisters had gone for ice cream too, which is something Pappaw liked to do to get Mammaw out of the house (though she’d never go inside, so he’d bring her cone to her – always vanilla – in the car).

Now, back then, nobody around here ever locked their doors.  So I just walked inside, like any other day.  As soon as I was fully inside the house with the door closed behind me, I heard my mother’s voice, loud and clear and plain as day, saying my name.  My head immediately turned to the right front corner of the living room, where we kept the telephone, because the voice was so clear that I knew exactly who it was and exactly where the voice had come from, just as I would if somebody was sitting there talking to me.  However, I saw no one there.  All I saw was a shadow, where no shadow should have been.

I backed out the front door and, scared half to death, waited on the porch for Mammaw and Pappaw to get home.

A few days later, I was still really scared by it, so I finally got up the guts to say something to Mammaw, not knowing how she’d react to it.  She listened quietly, then she just looked at me and said, “Don’t worry, your mommy won’t bother you anymore.  She didn’t mean to scare you.”

To this day, I firmly believe my mother spoke to me from beyond the grave.  I also now believe she had been talking to my sisters, and that Mammaw knew she was there too.  I think her spirit came back to that little house on the hill where she would forever be safe, just as I had begged her to do the last time I saw her.

Others who lived there after Mammaw moved said that they heard and saw strange things in that house as well, and it came to be known as a haunted house.  Today, the house has been torn down and there’s nothing there, it’s just an empty lot.  Sometimes I wonder where my mom went after the house was torn down, or if she went anywhere.

Try though I did to come up with alternate explanations, I now actually believe that mommy came home to our little house on the hill after she died.  I just wish I hadn’t been so scared by it, because I have never again heard her voice or seen or heard any sign of her, just as Mammaw said would happen.  i still wonder what she wanted to tell me, though.  Maybe she just wanted to say “I love you”, but maybe she wanted me to know how she died, since she went out of her way to get my attention, and did so in a way I could no longer deny.  I guess I will never know.

So, that’s my personal ghost story.  Do any of you have a personal ghost story to share?  If so, feel free to put them in the comments section.


2 thoughts on “Appalachian Horror Story: My Own Ghost Story

  1. Thanks for sharing your story. I know it will help people down the line who have had phenomenal things happen to them. I am so sorry for your loss and hope you can someday forgive yourself. That is a vital part of your make up.

  2. Beautifully realized story-telling. Well done. Thanks for sharing such a melancholy part of your life.

    I think your mother just wanted you to know she was still with you, so you wouldn’t feel so sad that she had passed into spirit. It’s a gift on another level: death is a transformation. She showed you that there’s no need to fear it. .

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