I Don’t Believe in Ghosts (So How Did the Empty Dog Kennel Break Down Our Door?)

by Dana Liebelson

I do not believe in ghosts. That’s the first thing people usually want to know, after I tell them about the-things-that-happened-that-one-summer. I’m a vegetarian and I sometimes attend sweaty yoga classes, but for the most part, I’m not superstitious. I’m a reporter. I like facts. I get down with climate change, Inspector General reports, and the pill. So let’s pretend that the-things-that-happened can somehow be explained by warming weather, coincidence, and a yet-unnamed mystery particle that straddles the border between matter and anti-matter.

Or, you can just say I’m crazy. But I’m not, really. Probably.

The story takes place in my former childhood home, where my sister and I spent the first three quarters of our lives. Buried deep in the mountains of Montana, the house was surrounded by trees, packed together so dense that they blanketed off sunlight and sound. Moose lived there, bears and mountain lions, too. When I was a kid, my mother used to tell me the woods belonged to the forest trolls, beasts with mud-caked hair and cracked skin, and I believed her for way longer than I should have. Our closest neighbors were a quiet Christian family who lived miles down the road. The father was a doctor, and he once stitched up my bloody leg in the backyard. Past them was bearded Bob, who hunted and stripped elk of their skin, and shot the lions who crept too close to his menagerie of wild peacocks. None of these neighbors were within shouting distance. There was no cell phone service.

I had a fairly normal, boring childhood until I turned 16, when my parents decided to part ways and the house was legally bestowed on my mother. That’s when the whole place started getting a little … restless. Perhaps the house could sense the anger, the nervous, raging hormones coursing through its two teenage residents. I won’t speculate, I’ll simply relay the facts.

It started with cliche horror-movie foreshadowing: lights flickering, stereos spontaneously playing the blues, faucets springing to life when we entered rooms, the shower deciding to bathe invisible people. But those were all things easily explained: My mother hadn’t been in charge of a whole house before, and she wasn’t so great at paying bills on time, or ar making sure plumbing and electricity were in tip-top shape. But she immediately blamed the supernatural. A perpetual night owl and avid taurus, my mother would tell us each morning over breakfast about strange, midnight happenings: bumps and groans and heavy things moving in the attic — and worse! (She won’t even tell us about the worst part, to this day.)

We thought she needed to get some sleep.

Then, one sunny spring afternoon, my sister and I were sitting in our bedroom, reading stupid girl magazines, when a perfume bottle — a sickly sweet Victoria’s Secret kind that we used to believe was the height of sex and sophistication — flew from the dresser, six feet across the room, to land at our feet. We looked at each other. “Dude,” my sister said. “What the fuck,” I added. And that’s when the ghost I didn’t believe in decided to go all Heathers on us. It needed a little attention.

One morning a few days later, when I was getting ready for school, my sister tore through the door crying and screaming. She was 13, though, so this didn’t exactly strike me as abnormal. But finally I extracted the words from her lips: There was someone vomiting, upstairs, outside the bathroom window. She could hear it. So I took my sister’s hand, we trooped up there, and, indeed, there was an awful upchucking, nightmarish and loud, coming from the other side of the wall. We ran like hell.

“It’s gophers,” my father said, safe in his house in town, with the lights and DVD player and the spotless driveway. “They make all kinds of weird sounds.”

Weeks after that, the three of us were all in the basement when we heard a crash, followed by the sound of shattered glass scattering across the floor. Together, we went upstairs. What we found was a heavy dog kennel, which appeared to have been thrown violently through our glass front door. This was the same dog kennel that previously had sat about 30 feet from the house, down by the gate. I opened the door frame and took a deep breath of evergreen air. There were no cars. There wasn’t a lick of wind. We didn’t have a dog.

I don’t believe in ghosts. But I also didn’t want to get steamrolled by unidentified flying objects. My father’s house was starting to take on a certain appeal: It was clean and orderly, and we could play Halo and eat popcorn. Any ghost there would have suffocated to death on Windex. But, alas, the two week schedule was enforced by some faceless judge, and we packed our bags each weekend and headed to the mountains, to fend off the impossible.

The basement started flooding. Constantly. For no reason that any plumber could explain. I was home alone one evening — something I vaguely avoided, like trying not to shake hands with a person who had just sneezed — when I heard a commotion in the next room. It was like a Great Gatsby party or something: the click-clicks of high heels, the heavy clomp of men’s dress shoes, laughter and voices. Convinced that my sister was home — and had brought along her entire 7th grade class — I flung open the door, to nothing. Silence. I went back to my room, and the laughter sprung up again, the voices, whispers. I couldn’t make out a single word. I called my father, and he didn’t pick up. I started crying. Not because I believed in ghosts, but because I wanted to be somewhere harmless, sterile, and safe. Not this wild den of a house, where leftover plates were piled high in the sink, mice ran freely from room to room, and I had to put up with this imaginary crap.

I finally acquiesced to my mother’s idea of holding a seance, in the deep nighttime heat of mid-August. We lit every candle in the house. My best friend came. We giggled like crazy. I think I may have pricked finger blood into a bowl, but that was more for posterity than an actual devotion to the dark arts. My sister apologized to the ghost. My mom apologized to the house for leaving it in such a sorry state. And, silently, I apologized to my mom for wanting to live with my dad.

And after that, the things stopped happening. Just like that.

Today, the house is empty and for sale, and has been on the market for a long time. People who move to Montana now want to live near the organic food co-op, and the hipster coffee shops, and the climbing gym. They’re not so interested in being far away from civilization, deep in the woods, where the wild things are. And, truthfully, neither am I. But I still dream about it. I recently asked my mother whether she actually blamed the ghosts for that summer, and she said: “I don’t know, I mean — probably not. But there’s just no explanation for that dog kennel. After all this time, I still can’t figure it out.”

Dana Liebelson is a reporter for Mother Jones and The Week. Bouncers in Washington, DC, still think her Montana driver’s license is fake, because it has holographic bears. She’s working on a novel about a secret group of Berlin mind-hackers, and plays in the band, Bellflur. She tweets more scary stories @dliebelson.