The Case of the Haunted Wardrobe
When I was 15, I went shopping for new furniture with my father. The last time I had chosen out furniture was when I was eight years old. We bought a furniture set off of someone in the classifieds in Tucson, a pink canopy bed with two matching dressers in ivory trimmed with gold, very 1970s rococo. I adored it, especially when I got to combine it with real photo wallpaper that looked a lot like this.
The only time I had ever seen real photo wallpaper was at the dentist’s — he had a scene from the rainforest in his office — and, at 8, it seemed like the ultimate pinnacle of cutting edge style.
Side note: I’ve been told numerous times from other dentists that the fillings he gave me were masterfully done, and they lasted a good while. I’m in my 40s now and I still had one of his original filling until a few years ago. Apparently, he was an exceptionally skilled dentist as well as up to date on all the coolness-factor 80s must-haves, like real photo wallpaper.
Anyway, by 15 I lived in the Bay Area and left my real photo rainbow wallpaper behind in Tucson along with my heart — I never did get over that move or feel at home in California, not really, but that’s a story for another time. I wasn’t a baby anymore and it was the 90s, which meant the 70s rococo had to go.
I can’t remember if I finagled going shopping with my father instead of my mother or if it happened by chance, but either way it was definitely the right move. When my sister got new furniture for her room around the same time, she went shopping with my mother. They went to Target and she got nice, sensible, affordable furniture in tasteful white, perfect for a teenager’s room at the dawn of the 90s.
But here’s the thing about my father: he was absolutely and completely obsessed with money, but never had any, or at least never enough in his mind, even though he earned a very nice salary as a chemical engineer. He was constantly stressed out about money, and even asking her for 50 bucks to pay for a year book could send him into a tizzy. “You kids, always asking for money, you’re going to put us out on the streets! The streets!!”
When it came to my father and money, I learned early to tread lightly and never take his hysterics seriously.
But my father could also be a big spender and incredibly generous in remarkably impractical ways, hence the money issues I suppose. He especially loved random big ticket items, which is why, when we went shopping for new furniture for my room when I was 15, he said, “Let’s go to the antiques expo in San Francisco!”
Um, sure dad.
The antiques expo was at George Moscone Center, or some place like George Moscone Center, I can’t really remember. I was only 15. What I do remember is that is was really cool. Lots of vendors, both pros and amateurs, selling antique and/or high quality antique-like furniture, an exciting place with lots to discover when you’re in the mood to burn some money, and that day my father definitely was.
Our first find was a beautiful and very large carved Chinese chest made of cedar. The scene on the chest depicted a Chinese village in the mountains. “This chest is special and not the kind you’ll ever find in Chinatown,” the sales lady told us. “The carving is three layers deep and the cedar inside is perfect for storing sweaters and wool blankets.”
This last detail seemed to especially impress my father, although I’m not sure why. We lived in California, where sweaters were mostly made of acrylic or cotton and scarves were a fashion accessory, not necessary for survival like I found out they are when I moved to a place which actually has Winter.
“We’ll take it!” my father said, and shelled out over 300 bucks, if memory serves.
The chest I liked, but the wardrobe, that I loved.
The man selling it was an architect who had lived in England for a while, which is where he bought the wardrobe. It looked a little bit like this one, only not quite as wide and with different decorative carvings in the wood. Apparently, the more proper name for this type of wardrobe is an “armoire.”
The architect had had the armoire fitted with shelves, which were full of copies of the magazine Architectural Digest. “I had it shipped from England when I came back to the US, and it was really expensive, but I loved it so much, I couldn’t leave it behind.”
You could tell the guy was telling the truth, and he seemed really reluctant to sell it. I guess he must have been strapped for cash or something, who knows. But my father turned on the charm. “This wardrobe would be perfect for my daughter, she loves this kind of thing.” They started negotiating a price, and my father didn’t try to talk him down.
“Is this for your first apartment?” the man asked me, which made me super happy. Funny that there are times in your life when you’re thrilled if people think you are older than you are. Definitely no longer the case once you hit 30.
When we got back home, sans furnitures, which was delivered later in the week, we told everyone about our little shopping spree. My mother scoffed and said “Oh, Bobby,” her voice tinged with anger and despair, like it always was whenever my father did something crazy and/or impulsive, with money or otherwise.
As for my sister, she got really upset. “This is so unfair!” She got a couple hundred bucks worth of practical furniture and I got over a thousand bucks worth of fancy antiques I didn’t really need. For Christ’s sake, I was only 15! I felt bad, because I knew she was right, but also really excited, because my new room was going to be cool.
If this were a movie, the haunting stuff would have started right away and I would have known right away that it was coming from the wardrobe. But that’s not how things happened.
Here’s what did happen: I started having this eerie feeling at night sometimes, like someone was watching me, someone who seemed angry and menacing but also like they were holding back, keeping in the shadows as it were.
If I had to go to the bathroom or leave my room for any other reason in the middle of the night, I had this sinking feeling that when I turned the knob this angry and menacing man would be standing there; when I opened the door, I always had this freaky feeling that he was rushing towards me down the hall.
As scary as this sounds — and it was scary — I didn’t take it very seriously. In our teens, my sister and I were big fans of Matt Groening’s Life In Hell and School Is Hell comic series. We used to get a kick out this comic, The 16 Types of Sisters.
My sister said, “Oh my God, you are so the Spooky Poet sister with a bit of Sulky sister mixed in.” I agreed and we laughed, until I said she was the Bossy sister and the Little Mom, which annoyed her. Or maybe it was the Manners Monitor and Ms. Perfect that pissed her off, that would make more sense because in that case I was just being mean.
Anyway, as the Spooky Poet sister suggests, I was known for having a very (over)active imagination. This combined with the fact that I never actually saw anything, meant that I didn’t take these scary feelings anymore seriously than I did when my father said us kids needing lunch money meant we would soon be landing in the “poorhouse”.
I was very afraid of the dark as a child and, though my fears in this case were rather specific, I figured these occasional nighttime creepy feelings were just leftover from those days. I never told anyone about any of it and certainly never thought that I might be dealing with a ghost.
Fast forward to my 20s, when I was already living in Berlin.
My father snored so loudly it sounded like a helicopter coming in for a landing, which had driven my mother crazy for years. My old room was kept the same as when I lived there, including the wardrobe and Chinese chest, and at some point he moved in or my mom kicked him out of their bedroom, I’m not sure which. Since my old bedroom was on the opposite side of the house from where my mother and younger brother slept, this was the perfect arrangement for everyone to get a better night’s sleep.
When I came home for a visit after he had been sleeping in my old room for a while, I asked him if he liked it.
“Yeah, it’s nice, only sometimes I have this creepy feeling like someone is watching me while I sleep and if I get up in the dark I’m scared that person will be standing on the other side of the door. If I look down the hall I’m always afraid I’ll see him rushing towards me. What’s that about?”
Holy. Fucking. Shit.
Again, I had never told anyone about my experience before and yet my father had the exact same, extremely specific fears and feelings. This was the first time it occurred to me that we might be dealing with a ghost.
It seems strange to me now that I could simply sleep in my room alone that night, but I think some part of me still didn’t take things very seriously. I mean, come on, who believes in ghosts, right? But when I lay in the dark that night I could sense that menacing presence I remembered, only it was much stronger and larger, like the ghost, or whatever it was, had grown in stature.
My father was not a person who had very clear boundaries. Could it be the ghost was feeding off of him? Something had to be done.
A few year before, my mother had done some shamanic training, so she decided maybe it would be worth a shot to see if she could contact this “ghost” and get it to move on. The next day, she lay down on my bed and listened to shamanic drumming on her earphones to put herself into a trance, me and my teenage younger brother sitting beside her to see what happened.
Nothing much did happen, at least at first. My mom lay there with her eyes closed, breathing deeply and evenly. But after a few minutes things started to happen. The curtain swayed a bit although the window was closed, the slide flap of a moving box full of some of my things started vibrating. If my brother hadn’t been there, I may have later thought I was imagining things, but my brother saw this happen too.
Neither of us spoke and no actual ghost appeared. My mother remained unchanged, although her breathing quickened a bit.
When the drumming stopped, the ritual was over. My had a story to tell.
In the journey she saw not one ghost, but two. The second ghost was the ghost of a woman who cowered behind the wardrobe, hiding from the other ghost, which was a man, like I had always sensed it was. My mother coaxed woman ghost out of hiding and convinced her that it was safe to move on now, and so she did.
But the man, he was a different story. He was furious that she set the woman free and so he stood in front of my mother, over seven feet tall, and pointed a gun in her face. My mother was scared, but she also knew he couldn’t actually hurt her. The only power this ghost had left was the the power of intimidation.
The man ghost refused to move on, maybe because whatever waited for him on the other side was not going to be very good. In the end, my mother got some help from her spirit guides who swept him out of there.
“I was told to cleanse the wardrobe with lemon oil,” she said.
Years later, I read somewhere that ghosts sometimes attach themselves to objects, especially when they died in a sudden or violent way. Is this true? The ghosts as I experienced them and my mother saw them in her journey suggested that what we were dealing with here was a murder/suicide that happened near this English armoire sometime after 1924, which was the year it was made according to the little plaque on the inside of the door.
Did the architect or any other owner sense this haunting, or only me and my kooky family?
Like I said at the beginning, I don’t “believe” in ghosts. Ghosts either exist or they don’t exist and this has nothing to do with belief on my part or anyone else’s. Could this whole story be some kind of strange, collective family psychosis, specific and dramatic in detail, that descended upon us for some reason?
All I know is that none of us ever sensed that ghost or nighttime terror scenario again, although both my father and I slept in the room with the armoire many times after. It’s now at my mother’s new house, just an ordinary piece of antique furniture my father once bought me on a money burning whim.