You hear a creak here. You see a flicker of light there. Maybe an unexpected door slam makes you startle. Are you starting to wonder if the things that go bump in the night are more than your house’s quirks that can be rationally explained away?
Depending on where you fall on the I-believe-in-ghosts scale–from “That light just flashed! Greetings, afterlife residents,” to “Yeah, sure, get an electrician”–you may take these mysterious happenings around your home to be indicative of a haunting or the presence of a passed loved one. Before you shrug it off, consider this: Nearly one in five people say they’ve seen or been in the fact of a ghost, according to the Pew Research Center. “Paranormal activity is more common than you think,” adds Cathy Towle, a spirit medium who performs home blessings and ghost cleansings at properties across New York City. “Especially in a dense area like New York, where so many energies intermingle.” And even if you aren’t a believer, let’s be honest: We’ve all wondered about the possibility.
“Paranormal activity may be more common than you think,” affirms paranormal investigator and Kindred Spirits host and co-executive producer Adam Berry. “The question is how often do we recognize ghostly encounters when they happen rather than brush them off as something else.” Towle agrees, adding that her experience with paranormal activity is not like the movies portray it as an evil presence. “That’s very Abrahamic-fear-God kind of thinking that’s perpetuated in media and movies and exaggerated for dramatic effect,” she says. “As I experience it, spirits are rarely scary. They just need help with something or want to tell their story.” Though they’re not without their faults, she adds. “They can also be super judgmental, so there’s that.”
As for why a spirit might reach out, Towle says there are many possible reasons. “A loved one may want to visit you, guide you, inform you, or protect you; a spirit might have died in that spot and needs assistance crossing over; or a more mischievous spirit needs to be dispatched outside,” she explains. “Homes are sometimes built on burial sites, or something happened there, historically, and the energy prevented a spirit from moving on.” These things need to be spiritually addressed and cleansed before things can go back to normal. The visitor might even be sticking around for a more logistical reason. “A business could be haunted by the original founder, who’s around to make sure the place is running smoothly,” Berry adds. These things need to be cleansed before things return to normalcy.
If you’ve started to question whether those creepy noises are signs of something more palpable than an overactive imagination, check out our chats with three spirit mediums–Towle, Barry, and Maureen Hancock, a teacher, lecturer, and author–who know a thing or two about the things that cannot be explained. Whether you believe in the supernatural or not, read on for signs you have company and what to do about it to regain control of your living space–that is if you dare!
Signs Your House Is Haunted
YOU SPOT AN INFINITY NUMBER
Is something odd happening with the clocks in your house? The deceased often make themselves present in the form of infinity numbers, Hancock tells ELLE DECOR. These are basically times that display the same number on the clock. “Your loved ones will let you know they’re around in a few different ways, one of which involves setting the clock to 11:11,” Hancock explains. “That means infinity. It’s never-ending. It’s them trying to tell you ‘I’m right here.'” But fear not, she notes. It’s often the case that the presence is trying to give you a subtle nod that they’re in the room. Nothing more.
YOU SMELL A SCENT THAT DOESN’T BELONG
Perhaps it’s cigarette smoke, even if you’ve never smoked in your life. It could be a dish your grandmother used to cook, suddenly present in your kitchen. These are known as “phantom scents,” and they’re something more than a sadly neglected fridge. “It can be any type of scent, but it will bring you back to a memory of a passed loved one,” says Hancock, noting that it’s often an odor with an unidentifiable source. “A big one for people is the smell of Old Spice, where you’ll think of your dad.” Again, this is often the case with a loved one who is trying to comfort you with their presence, she says.
YOU HEAR NOISES THAT AREN’T STANDARD HOUSE CREAKING
Of course, some spirits can be a tad more mischievous, says Hancock. “A loved one’s spirit will never do things in the home to scare you, but they’ll make their presence known in a loving, gentle way,” says Hancock. “A mischievous spirit, however, might do things that make you afraid. Sometimes a mischievous spirit will turn the water on and off, or they’ll slam doors.” These are spirits that have a connection to the home you live in–to them, you don’t belong there.
“There are some homes, especially older homes, that sometimes have residual energy from the original owners, perhaps someone who built the home,” says Hancock. “They might stick around for a while and let their presence be known. Perhaps there’s an old man, and you keep seeing his shadow or his face in the window.”
In fact, Hancock says she notices an increase in haunting incidents when new owners do work on the house. “I have people who contact me from all over the world who say, ‘We’re doing some renovations, and now doors are slamming, and my husband’s being woken up at night,” she says.
And if, in fact, you are hearing things–footsteps, voices talking or singing, a tinkling bell–that others are missing, there might be an explanation. “No, you are not crazy,” Towle explains. “Sometimes you actually hear things that others do not. It’s called clairaudience.”
YOU HAVE UNEXPLAINED PLUMBING OR ELECTRICAL PROBLEMS
Spirits also tend to manipulate electrical devices and disrupt technology (hence the mysterious flickering light in every single scary movie). If you frequently experience unexplained flickering lights, appliances turning on or off by themselves, or electronic devices malfunctioning without any logical cause, it could be a sign that something otherworldly is at play. “A lot of times they’ll choose the same light,” says Hancock. “Even when you change the lightbulb or have an electrician come in to check on the wiring, it’ll still be affected. People will often go to any degree to make sure it wasn’t just a coincidence.”
YOU WAKE UP AT WITCHING HOUR
If you wake up at three o’clock every night, you may need to lay off the caffeine in the evening. Or, of course, spirits in your house might be nudging you awake. “The veil [the plane of existence on Earth that ghosts inhabit] between here and the spiritual world is thinnest between 3 and 5 a.m., but most often we are woken up between 3:15 and 3:30 a.m.,” says Hancock. “Because the veil is so thin, spirits can wake you up or nudge you or even come to you in a dream.”
Towle, however, says she doesn’t subscribe to the ideology that the veil is only thin at one particular hour. “Waking up in the middle of the night is very common,” she explains. “You might feel like something woke you up because it most likely did! More likely we are in a receptive dreamlike state, and spirit lives in that realm too. Makes it easier to communicate when our thinking brains are at rest.” Is that comforting?
Maybe you aren’t waking up at night, but your dream world is equally restless. Towle says that nightmares about things you don’t normally dream about, in tandem with other signs, can also be indicative of a presence.
YOUR HOUSE HAS COLD SPOTS AND ABRUPT TEMPERATURE CHANGES
We’re not talking about your always-cold guest bedroom here. “If all of a sudden, chills go up and down your neck and the temperature seems to change, there may be a spiritual presence,” says Hancock. “You’ll literally get goose bumps, and you’ll feel like somebody is behind you. This is also true if a room feels heavy and dense, or you feel anxious just by walking in.” Seeing shadows or flickers in the corner of your eyes is also a common sign of a spirit, Hancock adds. Cue:
ITEMS AROUND THE HOUSE RELOCATE THEMSELVES OR DISAPPEAR
Maybe you’re not losing your mind. If a beloved object, like a ring that belonged to your great-grandmother or a cherished photograph, keeps going missing, don’t rule out a friendly neighborhood ghost, Berry says. “You may put something down, only to come back and it is gone; however, you find it right where you left it after a frantic search of your house,” he explains. “This could be a spirit trying to get your attention or just having a little fun.” “This can be funny at first, until it’s your keys,” Towle muses.
YOU HAVE TRIPPY DREAMS
Are you having nightmares that are weirder than the usual naked-at-school dream? Some paranormal investigators believe that ghosts can affect your subconscious, too, when you’re sleeping. “Taken alone they might seem innocuous, but nightmares about things you don’t normally dream about, in tandem with other signs, can signify that something is going on,” Towle says. Some signs to look for are nightmares that are more intense than usual, dreams that involve someone chasing or attacking you, or night terrors that are very vivid and intensely realistic. Of course, nightmares can also be the result of stress or a sleep disorder, so be sure to look for additional signs, Towle advises.
YOU FEEL AS IF YOU’RE BEING WATCHED
You know that feeling you get when you sense that someone is watching you, and you turn around, and someone is? Sometimes your intuition is spot on, with people and ghosts, Towle says. “You feel a presence, or something seeing you that you can’t quite make out, or you catch glimpses out of the corner of your eye,” she explains. Don’t be too quick to chalk it up to your mind, playing tricks on you. “It’s the hide-and-seek of the spirit world,” she adds, noting that those who have a bona fide haunting often feel constantly uncomfortable for obvious reasons.
YOUR CAT IS ON SOMETHING MORE THAN CATNIP
You awake in the middle of the night to your dog’s threatened growl, only to discover that there’s no one there…or so it seems. Pets have a super sense that might go beyond reacting to the emotions of people around them. Suppose your four-legged friend is displaying nervous behavior, aimless pacing, decreased responsiveness to people, or barking at a seemingly ordinary corner of the room. In that case, your furry roommate might be trying to tell you something. However, Towle tells pet owners not to jump to any conclusions. While your pup’s senses indeed might be signs that there’s something spooky afoot, behaviors of nervousness and paranoia can be attributed to underlying mental health conditions in your animal, like anxiety disorder, dementia, or Sundowner’s Syndrome.
Convinced You’ve Got a Ghost? Here’s What to Do About It:
So, you have a haunted house. No need to list it on the market. Naturally, most people find comfort in sensing a passed loved one, but if the hauntings in your home seem more devious or just plain bothersome, further action might be required. “Only you can decide what you want to live with,” Towle adds. “If it doesn’t bother you so much, then good, you have a friend. If it’s too much, then hire a professional.” In the meantime, here are a few things Towle and Hancock say you can try first.
1. TELL THE SPIRIT TO LEAVE
It would be best if you showed those sassy spirits who’s boss. Hancock’s suggestion: Have a conversation with the ghost. No Ouija board is necessary. “Say, ‘Hey, we’re in this home, we honor the work you did, and we’re going to make some changes in a very respectful way,’ and they’ll feel validated,” she says. “People may laugh when you say that, but there are so many experiences where someone just says, ‘I have to sleep; you need to leave,’ and it stops.” Barry agrees. “It’s best to take a kind and understanding approach to your haunting,” he adds. “After all, if the roles were reversed you would want the same respect.”
In fact, if you suspect a presence, humanizing the spirits is a key shift in perspective, Barry explains. “Ghosts were people too, and I don’t think you lose your personality as a ghost,” he says. “If you liked to have fun in life, you might like to have fun in death. On the other hand if you were a jerk in life, who’s to say you won’t still act like a jerk when you’re dead. I think this is a big reason why some hauntings have aggressive or negative activity. It’s not a demon, and no, you aren’t in your own version of Poltergeist. It’s just a really grumpy ghost.”
If you’re feeling really brave, you can even ask them what they want, Towle advises. “Let the spirits know that you hear them, asking if there’s something they want you to know,” she explains. “You can even tell them what sign to send you, something easy like a song or a bird feather or a phrase.” So, pull up a chair. Get comfy. Chat with your ghost guest over coffee and open up a dialogue.
2. MAKE A FOOD OFFERING
Apparently, spirits can be bribed. Making an offering of food and alcohol–“usually beer or some kind of scotch or gin,” Towle recommends–can be a great way to establish contact. “I like to offer sweets as well because they have the effect of sweetening spirit to you,” she says. “Tell the presence you want to live peacefully. You are offering out of respect and hope they accept your offering. This can quiet things down fast.” She recommends doing so periodically, about once a week, until things settle down, and then you can ease off to every few months.
3. IF YOU’RE RELIGIOUS, HAVE SOMEONE “BLESS” THE HOME
Who does this for you obviously depends on your personal beliefs, but Hancock says a priest or someone else who is a spiritualist can get the job done. “I always tell people to hang crosses and sprinkle holy water because I’m a Catholic medium,” says Hancock. “Not to get all Amityville Horror, but I feel like when you bring in the light, you get rid of the dark. Spiritualists can also do other things like put salt in certain areas of the room and use crystals or perform other ceremonies.” Thinking of this scene from The Conjuring 2? If you’re not into the idea of hanging crosses throughout your room, may we sheepishly suggest opening all your curtains? Because, let’s face it, everything is way scarier in the dark.
4. WAVE SAGE AROUND LIKE A SPIRITUAL GODDESS
That’s right. These suggestions may seem like classic horror flick solutions, but according to Hancock, they can work. “Get some sage and smudge your whole house with it,” says Hancock. “Wave a sage wand around each room, which is called smudging. It’s supposed to clear out any negative energies, or anyone who isn’t welcome.”
5. BRING OUT THE SALT
If things are really uncomfortable with your spirit visitors, then you might want to take stronger action by whipping out the DIY ghost repellent: salt. Towle recommends putting a bowl of salt next to your bed at night or placing it at the four corners of the bed or in a circle around it. Towle recommends. “Spirits avoid salt–they don’t like it,” she asserts. “Some are compelled to count the grains. Either way, they will leave you alone, and you can get some sleep.”
6. LEARN THE HISTORY OF THE HOUSE.
Conducting some research on the house might provide insight into its history. Maybe something happened historically in that apartment, or maybe there’s a story about its previous residents that would explain a lingering presence. “The real takeaway is connection,” Berry explains. “The living thrive on human connection and interaction, and I think that’s one big trait that carries over into the afterlife.” Comb through property records, deeds, and historical databases like newspapers to get to know your house’s former tenants. Perhaps you, too, can have your own generous Sixth Sense moment and right some wrong.
7. DO NOT ATTEMPT SPIRIT REMOVAL
One word to the wise. Towle says that unless you know what you’re doing, attempting spirit removal could make matters worse. “Be careful out there, baby witches,” she warns. “If spirit is really getting in your way, harming you, or creating close calls, get a shamanic professional.”
Ready to take things into your own hands? Whether you’re looking for an electromagnetic frequency meter to confirm what you already suspected or you’d like to capture a presence onscreen, here are a few tools for your Ghostbusters handbag.