Disclaimer: The Stranger can neither confirm nor deny the existence of ghosts, spirits, haints, poltergeists, or any other entities likely to cause ectoplasmic emissions.
The worst part of a haunting is waiting for the next stupid thing to happen.
Once fear gets you, you’ll see shadows in the corners of your eyes all the time.
At night, in the afternoon, in the morning–time doesn’t matter–you’ll be washing dishes when–bam–you don’t feel alone anymore. Whip around and there’s nothing there. Even if there were, a soapy knife wouldn’t protect you.
I didn’t believe in the supernatural before I moved into the Biltmore Apartments–I don’t know what I believe–but I do know I will never step foot in the building again.
At first, the rent was the scariest part: $1,485 for a 500-square foot studio. I’d just moved to the building from Chicago, where I could lease a three-bedroom for that price. Still, I fell in love right away.
The apartment, long and narrow like a shoebox, was always bright and smelled of warm dust. In the morning and at sunset, light painted the cream walls gold. The front door opened to the coat closet and the living room, where a radiator lined the far wall. To the right, an old fridge groaned behind a swinging door to a kitchen with peeling linoleum floors. The two doors on the left led to the closet-like bedroom. You’d hit your head on the cabinets if you weren’t careful.
From the outside, The Biltmore looked like a castle. It rose from the hill at a sharp angle and cut an imposing silhouette against the sky. Emerald ivy, thickest in the courtyard, snaked along the dark brick.
My favorite part of the building was a community free room in the basement, a shelving unit tucked into an alcove at the bottom of the stairs lined with boxes of secondhand books and clothes, canned food, and, for whatever reason, broken vacuum cleaners and household appliances left by their optimistic former owners. Management interrogated anyone they caught using the room. Every couple months, they hired a crew to haul it all away. Within a day or two, there’d be a new stash. I checked this alcove when I did the laundry, as the machines sat only a few steps from the stairwell.
While I loved so much of the building, I didn’t like the hallways on my floor, especially at night. A prickling sensation like a freezing mist on the back of my neck gave the distinct impression that someone–or something–was watching me. As I wrestled with my keys at the door, an anxious pressure forced air from my lungs.
The walnut at the center of my brain screamed danger, an impulse that’s saved me twice before; a shiver once alerted me to two men before they could trap me in a train turnstile, and another made me aware of a bear that lumbered in the dark. I had nothing to fear in this empty, well-lit hallway, but I felt the same way as I did during those two close calls. I figured living alone in a new city had put me on edge–the visceral fear dissolved the instant I stepped inside my apartment.
One night, after I’d thrown my sheets in the wash and ran a load of wet clothes through a defective dryer a second time, my partner and I peeked into the room and found a small library spilling from the shelves onto the ground.
Under a pile of dried flowers sat a frayed copy of Gardener’s Art Through the Age, a pricey art history textbook I’d loved in high school. I plucked it off the shelf, dusted off the flowers, and cradled the book beneath my arm. I was bent over, reaching for a hand-painted orange shelf on the ground, when my partner called my name. I turned to see her thumbing through an old brown book. We brought these finds upstairs with us into the apartment and sat down at the kitchen table to examine the book more closely. It was a diary.
Water stains had blotted out some of the writer’s neat cursive, but the name and dates in the back aligned with government census records. The book’s likely owner was a woman who moved to the United States from England in the 1800s after missionaries convinced her to convert to Mormonism. Based on the year of the diary entries, she was probably in her early twenties and expecting a child. She practiced a few girls’ names in her loopy script, one of which was her first daughter; she’d drawn cartoons of women in profile wearing hoop skirts and dresses. We couldn’t trace this book to anyone in Washington. I wish I’d written down her name because we ditched the book a few hours later.
It happened as we headed downstairs to the laundry room, right after I called the elevator to the sixth floor and asked my partner if she thought the diary was worth anything.
The cold felt like stepping into a pile of snow without shoes on. There was a total absence of heat in the air. I thought I felt a person standing behind us.
The elevator dinged and the doors opened. We stepped inside and rode down in silence. I pried open my mouth in the laundry room, and tasted the bitter zing of adrenaline.
I asked if she felt anything. She described the same cold and the presence behind her. With a knot in my stomach, I removed the tangle of soaking sheets from the washing machine and threw them into the open dryer.
The sixth floor was much colder when we returned. I rushed into the apartment and slammed the door shut behind us, sat on the couch, and stared at a blank television. I tried to ignore the feeling that someone was staring at me from the open kitchen door, but when I closed my eyes, I could almost see the silhouette. I was scared; I thought it was ridiculous that I was scared.
I asked my partner if–theoretically–something was in this room with us, could she point at it on the count of three? She shook her head yes. I counted, looking away to not subtly influence her answer. “Three,” I shouted. We both pointed to the kitchen, and I frowned. “We have to get all of this shit out of here,” I whispered. I am still entirely uncertain if those objects from the free room had anything to do with what I was feeling, but at the time, I couldn’t think of a better solution.
I marched out the front door, with the items held away from my body like a trash bag about to burst. As we bounded down the hallway, my partner gasped. Her face was drained of color. Something tugged her hair, she said. Twice.
The flowers were the only thing left at the bottom of the stairs. All the books had been taken. Returning them made no difference. Back in the apartment, I scraped my memory for any spiritual wisdom from my Irish-Catholic upbringing. I landed on a pagan solution.
I retrieved a bundle of juniper I’d bought from a goth store (I’m not witchy, but I liked the smell). In ancient times, my Gaelic ancestors burned the plant in a purification ritual called Saining. I didn’t believe in that, I’m not even religious, but what choice did I have?
A thin tendril of white smoke slithered toward the ceiling after I lit the bundle. I improvised the next steps and traced the molding with smoke. I asked for anyone I hadn’t invited to leave the apartment. The white haze clouded the room, and with each step, the cold dissipated. I could swear that something whooshed from behind me toward the door, but it could have been my imagination.
I extinguished the embers in a glass of water on the coffee table, placed a shaking palm on my chin, and exhaled.
On my way out the next morning, I checked the free room to see if the diary had moved from the place where we’d left it. It hadn’t. I considered writing a flier and taping it to the wall down there, going as far as opening a Word document and typing something like, “Did you experience something strange after taking things from here? Call me” before thinking better of it. After that night, the creepy feeling from the hallway persisted even after I entered the apartment.
A week after Thanksgiving, I was talking with my partner on the phone while driving from Snoqualmie Pass to Seattle. I was describing how beautiful the snow was, and I was telling her we should make it out here before the roads got too bad–when I heard a bang and a surprised yell through the receiver.
A candle had nearly hit her on the couch. It had sailed ten feet across the room of its own accord and landed a foot from the radiator. When an object falls, especially a heavy object set in glass, gravity sends it plummeting. When it’s tossed, the object should fall to the ground in a slight arc. This candle levitated in a straight line before it fell to the floor with a thud.
A few days later, we were watching Speed on a VHS television perched on a stool in the corner of the room. This TV shuts itself off automatically at the end of a tape, and you can see your muted reflection in the glass. In the dark, there’s little detail, everyone looks like a blob.
When the movie ended, my partner saw me sitting next to her on the curved surface of the tube, upright with my back against the headboard. But when she turned to ask me a question a moment later, I wasn’t upright. I was dead asleep on my side. She whipped her head back to the screen and saw only herself.
I didn’t realize how much the apartment was affecting me until I went home for Christmas. I really didn’t want to go back. I was finally sleeping well. Two friends who’d agreed to water the plants while I was away texted me after the kitchen door had not swung but slammed shut on them. They asked my neighbor about ghosts, and he told them, why yes, there was a ghost cat on the sixth floor.
The activity died down after the holiday. The front crystal doorknob fell off a few times, and I had to use a screwdriver to get out, but that problem boiled down to poor craftsmanship. I believed the whole thing was over until one night in spring.
I was sitting at the foot of the bed, scrolling Instagram, and both doors were closed. Suddenly, I heard a sharp rapping on the bedroom door a few inches from my ear. But I was alone. Nobody could have been knocking on this door, so it must have been the front door, or the apartment below me. But it was midnight. I heard a second faster knocking at the door. I decided not to react. I selected a podcast, turned the volume all the way up, and pretended to fall asleep in my clothes. Eventually, I fell asleep.
I moved out that summer, motivated in part by the weird shit I’d experienced there. Standing at the open door, holding my last box of things, I gazed into the dark, empty room. Part of me hoped I’d see something move.
I’m not the only one who's had strange experiences at The Biltmore.
Three months ago, Courtney McBride moved out of the second-floor apartment she shared with her partner and a friendly ghost–if that’s what it was.
McBride is a skeptic, and she is not sensitive to the paranormal. She’d heard odd rumors about flickering lights in the hallways–nothing very scary–but she certainly felt “vibes” in her unit. Her most persistent experience was the feeling that someone was peering at her from around a corner as she sat on the couch after her partner went to bed.
A friend who stayed over felt more than vibes. She’d been sleeping on the couch when she awoke to a man standing above her, gently shaking her by the shoulder.
“He’s basically saying, ‘You can’t sleep here, you can’t sleep here,’ McBride said. “She described it as a middle-aged white man from the 1950s or ’60s, but he seemed to have a very protective feeling over me and my partner.”
The friend dipped without waking McBride. The next morning, she texted her about what had happened, but never came over again.
Twenty years ago, a woman living on the upper floors of The Biltmore called paranormal investigator Ross Allison about the strange knocking on her bedroom door and window, a room that was always cold.
Allison founded Advanced Ghost Hunters of Seattle and Tacoma, or AGHOST, in the early 2000s. He’s in the middle of a lecture tour of east coast colleges and universities, teaching “Ghostology 101,” an abbreviated version of a class he taught at the University of Washington and Tacoma Community College.
During a preliminary walkthrough of the building to rule out any noises from neighboring units, Allison said he spoke to a building manager who told him the residents would hear a child they couldn’t see playing in the lobby early in the morning, and that some people reported feeling a presence and hearing strange voices in the laundry room.
Allison said he was ready to investigate when the owners caught wind of it and shut them down. He said back then, people didn’t want to attract rumors about a haunting in their building. The popularity of paranormal television and true crime has changed that dynamic somewhat—haunted hotels can be big business. It’s also changed how people regard his choice of career.
“Back in the day, you kept it to yourself,” he said. “Otherwise, you were pretty much, you know, hanging out at the party by yourself.”
In the 1990s, David Latimer, who performs as drag queen Jackie Hell, lucked into assistant managing The Biltmore, where he was a tenant.
Bill and Dortha Smith, an eccentric couple who lived in an apartment plastered with Elvis merchandise, ran the building in 1993. Although he had zero experience with building maintenance, Latimer inquired about the job. They hired him on the spot because he always paid rent on time.
He’d heard stories about haunted apartments at The Biltmore and he noticed when one person brought up a bizarre experience in their apartment, someone would chime in with stories about theirs; Latimer was open to the idea.
He’d seen something strange in Soap Lake, Washington, when he was in elementary school. A glowing blue boy with black hair ran across the road in front of him into a forest, but the kid vanished by the time he and his friend Missy reached the trees. They still talk about the experience to this day.
When the Smiths hired Latimer, he and his longtime roommate Jonona lived in an apartment in The Biltmore Annex, which is across the street from the main building. Today, Pretty Parlor occupies the ground floor.
One night, Latimer, Jonona, and her boyfriend at the time, Craig, were talking over beers when a glass of water began slowly sliding across the kitchen table, moving about an inch every five seconds. They sat stunned for a moment before Craig got down on his hands and knees and examined the table for a tilt. He then dragged a hand across the surface to check for moisture. The table seemed normal.
The door to Latimer’s bedroom closet opened and closed on its own. A tapping on his hand woke him one night on the couch. He once left his apartment terrified after he heard heavy breathing from behind a shower curtain, accompanied by the strong sense that someone was standing behind it. He was too scared to scream and walked out of the apartment as quietly as he could.
Latimer and his roommate thought about calling the National Enquirer when the flames from an exploded pot of melting wax burned an image of Jesus on the wall behind the stove, but he wasn’t sure that one counted.
As assistant building manager, it was his job to prepare units for incoming tenants. One day, he was cleaning a kitchen in an upper-floor studio when he heard the clap of boots on the hardwood floor of the living room. Bill, the manager, would mosey on in when he was working. He always wore boots. Latimer called Bill’s name, and when he didn’t hear a reply, he peeked around the corner but found an empty room. He shrugged and returned to cleaning–until he heard the boots again. After the third time, he dropped his cleaning supplies and left the room.
In his apartment later that evening, Latimer recounted the story to friends from the building. When he’d finished, a woman asked for the unit number. When he gave it to her, she said a young man had died in that room years ago, in some kind of fire. There is at least some truth to that. According to a 1992 article in the Seattle Times, a 22-year-old had died from smoke inhalation in his Biltmore apartment. Latimer knew why people dismissed ghost stories like his, but he didn’t know how else to explain his experiences.
“If ghosts aren't real, then what?” he said.
I've had the same thought, but you can’t negotiate with fear. A 2021 YouGov poll found two in five Americans believe in ghosts, and one in five say they've seen one. Despite what I felt, I don't know if I count myself among the believers. I can see the illogical patterns in ghost stories.
Have you ever noticed how much ghosts seem to bother sleeping people? Or that while one spirit is a conscious entity that can touch people and throw objects across rooms with terrifying power and speed, another is stuck in an endless loop, totally unaware of the world around them, more like a projection than a person?
Do ghosts prefer a building that's as spooky on the outside as they feel on the inside, or something? They always seem to haunt the buildings that look haunted, the abandoned asylums and Victorian mansions of the world. Shouldn't hospitals and highways be extremely haunted? Has anyone seen a spectral caveman emerge from a dig site, and at precisely what point in our evolution could we remain on earth forever? For some reason, a lot of ghosts seemed to have been alive in the 1800s, which we surmise from their outdated clothes, because ghosts wear clothes. I'm sure plenty of people die naked, but I've never heard of a naked ghost. Perhaps that's why so many never show themselves. They're just modest.
Every culture has different interpretations of how the spirit world functions. We Americans seem obsessed with the ghosts of horrible people and people who died in horrible ways. For example, In 1944, The Journal of American Folklore published a study that found a third of New York City's “ghostlore” included violent or sudden deaths.
And we wouldn't be American if we didn't figure out how to use ghosts to make a quick buck. After the mass death of the Civil War, the pseudoscientific quasi-religion of American Spiritualism exploded onto the scene. Hundreds of thousands of people were grieving the estimated 620,000 soldiers who died on battlefields far from home. Mediums offered the bereaved a chance to speak with the dead one more time (or two, or three, depending on how much you were willing to spend on a seance). Levitating tables got old, and advancing technology aided unsavory mediums in bamboozling their clients, such as photographs doctored with ghostly images, and, in the 20th century, trickery with radio waves and electric light.
In 1922, the venerable Scientific American offered a $5,000 prize–$85,000 when adjusted for inflation–to anyone who could provide the magazine scientific proof of ghosts after Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a major proponent of spiritualism, urged the publisher to take an official stance on the practice. Mediums demonstrated their abilities before a committee of two scientists, two psychic experts and illusionist Harry Houdini, a skeptic who viewed spiritualism as an immoral scam and enjoyed exposing its practitioners as charlatans. (He and Doyle had been friends until Doyle arranged for a medium to contact Houdini's dead mother; wires didn't fool the master magician). The magazine kept the contest going until 1941, and they never did find any conclusive evidence supporting the existence of ghosts. Moreover, contemporary neurology has offered some explanation for "felt presences," or the eerie sense an unseen entity is watching us.
I’ve examined the possible explanations for my experience. Had a strong wind blown through an open window? Had we traded fear back and forth between us, creating a shared delusion? Did I need a carbon monoxide detector, given the fact that the gas can cause intense hallucinations? Did I get a face full of spores from the moldy diary? Was algae growing in my Brita?
Maybe some of that is true. But I still can’t rationalize how a candle hurled itself across the room at my girlfriend. That’s a fucking ghost.