If there’s one thing I like about Halloween, it’s a good ghost story.
Told well, a ghost story does more than just make the hair stand on the back of your neck. It captures a slice of history and leaves it for the ages. These stories recall great battles, where the valiant perished in such a terrible way that their souls relive their final torment year after year. They remind us of horrible crimes, unsolved murders whose victims cannot rest until justice is done, the wicked brought to judgment and the innocent vindicated once and for all.
I’d had great success finding local haunted tales to tell in my prior professional attempts over the past several years. Once I spoke with a woman who claimed the basement of her house in Highland Park was haunted by a malevolent spirit that stared at people when they weren’t looking. Another time I heard the tale of the wozzlebug, a monster from Union County that killed chickens and savagely clawed dogs.
So, in a fit of journalistic fervor, I resolved to track down some of Highland Park’s ghost stories. After all, how hard could it be?
Municipal historians usually are a great source for this sort of story. So I wrote to Highland Park Borough Clerk Joan Hullings and asked where I could find the borough historian.
She wrote back at once: “There is no borough historian at this time.”
Well, it had seemed like a good idea at the time.
I had learned about that evil spirit in the basement 15 years earlier. At the time I was managing editor of The Manville News and was looking for story ideas by typing that borough’s name into the Yahoo search engine to see what came up. I tried that approach again now, only this time I used Google.
A number of results I found were about haunted places in the Highlands, but I did hit the jackpot on one paranormal site in Highland Park. Investigators with South Jersey Ghost Research once had visited a house in Highland Park, from 8:30-11:50 p.m. April 28, 2007.
Their case file revealed the following: “During the course of the investigation, investigators felt the presences of both male and female spirits, some of which are believed to be residual in nature. It was felt at least one female spirit is protective of the family, the children in particular.”
Now this was a ghost story worth writing about. Unfortunately, there is no identifying information on the web site, although it does include two pictures of a finished basement with orbs of light – telltale signs of otherworldly activity, according to paranormal investigators.
Even worse, the site states point-blank that they protect the privacy of their clients without exception.
My next break in the case came from Ghosts of America, a web site that allows readers to share their own paranormal encounters and experiences. An anonymous visitor reported seeing something strange going on at the Highland Park Post Office, something that had nothing to do with Forever stamps.
“In front of the post office on Raritan Avenue you can sometimes see a strange shadow that is cast by something that is not there,” the visitor wrote. “You can see the shadow moving at the speed of a person walking but there is no person there casting the shadow.”
I visited the post office on Mischief Night to verify the phenomenon. I did see a shadow there, and more significantly there was a tremendous cold spot where I was standing.
Alas, the shadow moved when I did, and the cold spot seemed to be wherever I walked. I suspect it had more to do with the weather than with anything supernatural.
It was becoming obvious that if I wanted to discover the local ghost stories, I would have to consult with the experts. My daughter’s friends informed me that there is a bona fide haunted house in Highland Park, and it sits on the corner of Felton Avenue and Harper Street.
“People live in it now, so they kind of fixed it up,” said 12-year-old Isabella. “But before it was really creepy-looking.”
Sometimes creepy is all it takes. The house in question fell into disrepair during its vacancy. Old pictures of mirthless, unsmiling people filled the windows, and both Isabella and Eleanor, an eighth-grader at Highland Park Middle School, recalled disturbing evidence of haunting.
“If you were walking down Felton Avenue, you could see a light in the attic,” said Eleanor. More sinisterly: “Someone said that she had seen a six-fingered handprint on the window.”
How the house came to be haunted, neither girl could say, though Eleanor recalled an older sister telling her once that the previous owners had died there. Perhaps their spirits had lingered until new owners fixed up the old house, or perhaps some unclean spirit saw the desolate old house and decided to move in.
It didn’t matter. It had taken me considerably longer than I had expected, but I had done it. I had found a local ghost story. Just to be doubly safe, I talked with Eleanor’s mother about it, to see what she knew.
“Her sister just made the story up to scare her,” she said.
Oh well. Maybe next Halloween.