by Christopher Dow
I call him Smiley. Maybe he’s an it, but it looks like a he. He pays regular visits to our house, but it’s not as if we’ve ever invited him. We’d been living in our house for something less than a year before I noticed him and a couple of other uninvited guests. Actually, maybe we were the uninvited guests.
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The house on River Drive is fairly old, the original part built in about 1910. It has two stories and was one of the first houses in the area, which was incorporated as the small town of Park Place, Texas, a few years later and subsequently annexed by the city of Houston in 1934.
The original builder remains unknown to us—the signature on the oldest document in the hall of records is too faded with age to read. But the second owner—who added the second floor to the house—was Captain B, a pilot for ships plying the Houston Ship Channel, and the house was known for many years as the Captain’s House. Indeed, the house is on Sims Bayou, one of the many shallow estuaries that drain into the Houston Ship Channel, which is just a couple of miles downstream. Captain B could have taken a boat to work had he wished.
In its heyday, the house was one of the better in the area. Several weddings took place there, including that of George Marquette, a prominent Houston city councilman of the mid 1900s. But a series of owners let the house fall into disrepair, and a fire that destroyed one of the upstairs rooms seemed to spell the end.
The house lay abandoned for nearly ten years until a local businesswoman purchased it for her mother to live in. The businesswoman performed basic repairs to the burned section of the house, but to no avail. Her mother didn’t like the house and wouldn’t stay there. The businesswoman then rented the house to a succession of tenants who were not kind to the old place, including a group of biker drug dealers who painted all the trim and hardwood floors black. Seeing potential in the property, Julie and I bought the house in 1994 and began the lengthy process of renovating it.
Our two daughters—Sydney and Mariko, then eleven and ten, respectively—occupied the two upstairs bedrooms, and Julie and I took one of the downstairs bedrooms. We used the second downstairs bedroom as our office. This second bedroom had a glass door to a side porch, but because we weren’t using the door at the time and I needed more wall space, I fastened a sheet of plywood over it.
A few months after we moved in, a friend asked us who the old man with the beard was. She’d been driving by and seen him standing behind the living room window, watching the street. At the time, we had to say we didn’t know, but we soon started noticing him ourselves.
Both my daughters and I occasionally felt his presence in the living room and caught faint whiffs of pipe smoke. Once Sydney actually saw his dim and transparent form. And a visiting friend, who knew nothing of the apparition, said he felt a strong presence of a bearded seafaring man smoking a pipe and staring out the kitchen window, which overlooks the backyard and the bayou. Also, often our cat would meow and move back and forth in front of one of the living room doorways, all the while looking up as if at a person who was blocking her way.
I later learned that Captain B had fallen ill during his last few years and had been confined to the house. I can only surmise that he wandered around the lower floor, watching out the front window for guests and out the back at the tributary of his beloved waterway.
The Captain seemed completely oblivious to us, like a faint residue, and indeed, he has faded considerably during the years we’ve lived in the house. And after I made renovations to the living room, he seemed, for a time, to vanish completely.
Three other spirits that we know about have occupied our home at some point, though two of them have not been perceived in a long time. One of these was BD, so named because he specified those initials on the Ouija Board, not only to my daughters but to some of their friends who didn’t know about him. He seemed to be in his mid twenties. Mariko occasionally felt his touch, which was quite cold, and he could bend the flames of candles lit in the girls’ bedrooms. BD, too, began to fade after a few years, and Mariko said he’s no longer around.
A more durable spirit was a little girl, whose apparent age was six or seven. This particular spirit was confined almost solely to Sydney’s room, though she occasionally entered Mariko’s. I have never experienced this girl, but Sydney tells me that she is conscious of living persons occupying her space. To catch Sydney’s attention, the little girl moved very light-weight objects, scooting, for example, empty plastic bags across the floor. Apparently, the little girl is shy, but one thing became certain before she eventually faded: She was terrified of Smiley.
I first became aware of Smiley about the time I started noticing the Captain. I say “became aware” because, initially, I didn’t actually see him. I’d be working at my computer in the office, when I’d catch a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye, right where the boarded-up door was. This began to occur with greater frequency—maybe twice a day. Enough that I started seeking a reason. And the more it happened, the more I became aware that, each time, I’d feel a presence move around behind me before it went through the door that led into a small hallway and the rest of the house.
The presence didn’t feel very nice. It had a sort of nasty, furtive glee about it, as if it was cognizant of my discomfort and was happy to increase it. It followed a specific pattern of movement or, perhaps, simply lurked in some areas of the house but not others. It would enter through the boarded-up door and go around behind me, sometimes pausing there a few moments to try to creep me out. Then it would disappear through the door into the hallway. I didn’t know where it went after that, and I never noticed its presence anywhere else in the house.
This went on for a couple of years, along with other, mostly aural, manifestations, such as the sound of footsteps walking the upstairs hall. Once, after I was well into home renovations on the place, I came home from a longish trip out of town. It was late afternoon, and the house was empty when I got home. I came in, put my luggage in the bedroom, then went into the living room to sit on the sofa and rest for a few minutes. No sooner had I sat down, than the air was filled with a multitude of creaking, popping, and bumping sounds. Multiple sounds came all at once from all over the house, and they went on for more than five minutes, gradually subsiding over the course of the next ten minutes. The house seemed almost like a dog joyfully bouncing around a returning owner, and I had the distinct sensation that it was glad I’d returned to continue fixing it up.
Not wanting to make my family uncomfortable, I didn’t mention any of this to them, not realizing that both my daughters had become quite aware of Smiley on their own.
Then one day, I was sitting at my computer but hadn’t yet turned it on, so the dark screen was like a dim mirror. I caught Smiley’s furtive entrance out of the corner of my eye, but this time I didn’t turn to try to follow it. Instead, my eyes were riveted to the computer screen because I could actually see Smiley mirrored there, creeping around behind me and heading toward the hall door.
At first glance, his tousled shock of dark hair made him look like a skinny boy in his late teens or early twenties, but he actually seems much older—from his mid thirties to his mid forties. Later, Mariko told me she thinks he’s forty or so, the illusion of youth imparted by his short to medium height, slight build, and the way he crept like a ghoul or haunt in a classic horror film. He was wearing black trousers that may have been jeans and a dark gray T-shirt.
As Smiley crept around behind me, he was hunched over and taking exaggerated tiptoe steps, and his hands were held out in front of him like bony, clutching, hooked claws. It was just the sort of creeping gait that a teenage boy might use to frighten his younger sister. His mouth was pulled back in a hugely distended, horrible, and nasty grin reminiscent of the main character in the movie Mr. Sardonicus, and his dark, overly bright eyes were looking right at me!
I wasn’t frightened, exactly, though a chill did tingle my spine. For one thing, he’d sneaked around behind me too often for me to be particularly disturbed. Though the fiendish glee gouged across his face did take me aback, after a moment, it seemed a little too theatrical. But the overall impression he projected was pretty creepy.
As he disappeared through the doorway to the hall, I thought: What a nasty fellow. He obviously delights in scaring people.
A few months passed. During that time, I never saw Smiley directly, though I occasionally caught brief glimpses of him reflected in my computer screen. Then one day, both my daughters came in and said they needed to talk to me. Had I noticed anything peculiar in the house?
I told them of my experiences with Smiley and the Captain. Both were relieved that I, too, had noticed our unusual tenants. They were familiar with the Captain, and they told me about BD and the little girl in Sydney’s room. But none of the three bothered them, at least not the way Smiley did.
Sydney said Smiley would hide in the hall, and when she came through the living room and turned to go up the stairs, he’d jump out at her, body hunched, hands hooked, and that fiendish grin smearing his face, and chase her up the stairs, clutching at her with those hooked fingers. Not that she could see him at those moments, but Smiley has a very strong and visceral presence. But she had seen him once, reflected fairly clearly—if only momentarily—in the upstairs bathroom mirror. Her description of his appearance jibed with mine, right down to his clothes, the shock of dark hair, the fiendish grin, and the hooked, bony-fingered hands.
While Mariko never noticed him jumping out at her, she often felt him creeping up the stairs behind her. At the top of the stairs, Mariko could hurry into her room, shut the door, and be safe, because Smiley never seemed to come in but would simply hover in the hall outside her door.
For Sydney, it was a different story. Smiley would enter her room, though he seemed confined to the corner right by the door. Hidden by the door when it’s open is a short, cupboard-like doorway that leads into a small storage attic, and Smiley would disappear through that. Later, during my renovations of the house, I found a cache of old boy toys—a couple of small metal cars, green plastic army men, and insect-eaten baseball cards—hidden in a nook in a back corner there.
Sometimes, when Sydney was in her room, she’d sense Smiley come in and pause before going into the storage attic. During those times, the little girl spirit would either cower behind Sydney, begging for protection, or hide in Sydney’s closet. On one occasion, Sydney woke in the middle of the night and heard a sound like footsteps stomping on her floor, and then the bed began to shake back and forth. She knew who the culprit was.
Even Mariko wasn’t completely safe in her room. Her bed also shook on occasion, and that continued to happen every few months for a couple of years. One night, she was talking on the phone to a person who claimed to be psychic. This person lived in Upstate New York and had never been to Houston, much less to our house, yet he accurately described its interior, the arrangement and color of the rooms, and the placement of furniture. He even mentioned that the front door had a wreath, though it wasn’t Christmas. My wife had a decoration on the door that resembled a wreath.
The friend sensed BD, but Smiley was the focus of his attention. He tried to talk to Smiley, but he said that Smiley wouldn’t talk to him and only mumbled sullenly in reply to his questions. Apparently, Smiley didn’t appreciate the attempted contact because he immediately knocked numerous books from the bookshelves in the upstairs hall, pounded on the bedroom doors, and made the telephone answering machine in the hall go haywire, turning it on and off and causing it to beep and play messages at random.
After comparing experiences, we agreed that the Captain, BD, and the little girl were ghosts confined to their respective spaces. Smiley, however, seems to be something else. I speculated that he might be a poltergeist, considering the ages of my two daughters at the time, but Smiley has proved more durable and well traveled than the average poltergeist.
Although Smiley has a favorite pattern of movement through our house—he generally comes in the boarded-up door, goes around my desk and into the hall, then up the stairs and into Sydney’s room, where he disappears into the storage attic—he has been sensed elsewhere, most frequently in the yard on the east side of the house, which is the side onto which the boarded-up door opens.
We talked to Julie about our experiences, but she’d had absolutely no inkling of Smiley’s presence or of the presence of the other three spirits. But then, her area of the office was off Smiley’s usual path and behind a partition of filing cabinets, and she never spent much time on the staircase or in the upstairs bedrooms or bathroom, so there was no reason for her to have encountered him.
Breaking the ice and talking about Smiley made him an open topic of discussion, and oddly, his behavior became a bit less sinister, as if dampened by our frank appraisal of him. I was of the opinion that Smiley isn’t especially dangerous, though he is a nasty fellow who likes to creep out people.
My daughters were more unsettled by him. Mariko, in particular, believed that he’d be dangerous if he could interact with us on a more physical level. And she believed that he has a certain power of suggestion and that he sometimes “whispered” to her, trying to get her to harm herself or others. This suggests that he is a more ominous character than I give him credit for and reminds me of another sinister entity that I encountered when I was in my twenties. (See: “Haunted: No. 10.")
Another of Smiley’s peculiarities seems to indicate that he isn’t a ghost but some other sort of entity. Unlike the Captain, BD, and the little girl, who seemed to be inhabitants of the house, Smiley frequently disappears for periods of time. In fact, there were long stretches during the next few years that Smiley would be entirely absent or make only occasional raids on our house. And then he’d be there in full force for weeks at a time, making daily incursions.
Both my daughters had the impression that our house isn’t the only place in the neighborhood that Smiley visits—that he has a regular route he follows beyond our property and into the surrounding neighborhood. This idea remained pure speculation for several years, but subsequent incidents reinforced it for us. In the first, Mariko had mentioned to her then-boyfriend, Ronnie, that we had various spirits in our house, but she’d never described them or detailed Smiley’s behavior, description, or movements.
Even so, Ronnie had his own encounter with Smiley after he developed an interest in American Indian culture and had been studying it. One night, while he was in his living room at home—a mile or two from our house—he looked up to see a slightly built, hunched-over, dark-haired man enter through one of the doors and look right at him. The figure had a fiendish grin and bony, hooked fingers. It wore a feathered Indian headdress, and it was performing a patently fake Indian dance, as if mocking Ronnie. Ronnie saw this for several seconds, then the figure vanished. Smiley didn’t returned to Ronnie’s house after this episode—at least not so obviously—but Ronnie later sensed him at our house.
Over the years, other information on Smiley and the Captain came in. A young neighbor named Sandi Trojanowski had lost her job and moved back in with her parents, who are long-time area residents. Sandi grew up in their house, which is two doors down from ours and was built about the same time. Julie hired her to work at the dog daycare business Julie manages, and in the beginning, because Sandi wasn’t then in good financial shape, Julie often gave her a ride to work.
During one of those rides, Julie asked Sandi how she liked living with her parents again, and Sandi responded that she didn’t, but not because of her parents. Then she reluctantly admitted that she’d been repeatedly disturbed by a ghost or spirit when she’d lived there as a teenager. I asked Sandi what had happened to her.
“The summer before I turned seventeen, my brother, Philip, and I had bedrooms upstairs. But the weather was really hot, and we couldn’t cool them enough, so we moved downstairs. There wasn’t bedroom space down there, so we slept on single beds in the living room. I never had any problems while I was upstairs. I don’t know what was different. But I woke up one night thinking somebody had come in the house and sat down on my bed.
“I started screaming and woke everybody up. My dad looked around the house, and there was no way anybody was in there. But when it happened again, I opened my eyes, and there was nothing there. It sat down on the end of the bed, and I could feel the pressure of it sitting. I don’t remember how long it took me to do anything but just be terrified.
“We eventually had our own bedrooms downstairs, but moving into another room didn’t matter. This thing sat on the end of my bed for years. At some point, I’d be scared and would put my feet over where it was going, but that was no good because the feeling would move closer to me, and I didn’t want that, so I’d just scoot over and say, ‘Okay, you can stay right there.’
“I would go without sleep for days. It would just keep me awake. I wondered about it, and I’d try to think of questions to ask it, then I’d go the other way and ignore it. I remember times when I’d be lying there, and I’d feel it sitting on the end of the bed, and sometimes it would be trying to get my attention. I don’t want to say it was malicious, but it was impish at the very least.
“I’d try to question it. I asked it, ‘Are you my grandmother? Bounce one time for yes or two times for no.’ Well, then I’d get one, then, ha-ha, two! It happened for years and years of my life. All the time I was in my parents’ house. Sometimes I tried to drive it away by saying, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan,’ or reciting the ‘Prayer of St. Michael,’ but nothing worked.
“It also happened when I fell asleep on the couch. It happened all over the downstairs. I moved out briefly on a couple of occasions, but I mostly lived with Mom and Dad until I was twenty-six or twenty-seven, and it never stopped happening.
“I got to where I cared less, but it never stopped scaring me, and it wouldn’t leave me alone. Even when I didn’t live there but would visit and fall asleep on the couch, it would happen. I worried that something was wrong with me. Why would something like that be drawn to me? But I did get better at dealing with it.
“When I lost my job and had to move back in when I was in my thirties, my cats were with me, and it never happened when they were in the bedroom with me while I slept. But if they weren’t with me, it did. The cats scaring it away gave me confidence. I talked to a friend about it, and he said, ‘Dogs guard your body, but cats guard your soul.’ That made me feel better.
“Mom said it’s happened to her since then. When it first started happening to me, I don’t know that she was skeptical, but she seemed to me at the time to be pretty hard-hearted. She’d say, ‘Just tell it to get the hell off your bed.’ I was never scared to tell my parents about it. Mom’s attitude was, ‘So what? Just tell it to get off.’
“So, when it’s happened to Mom since then, that’s exactly what she says: ‘Just get the hell off my bed, and leave me alone.’ I don’t know what Dad really thinks, but it’s not like him to believe in something like that. He never accused me of making it up, though.
“It seemed to happen every night—or five nights a week, say. It got to the point where if it didn’t happen, I say, ‘Oh, my gosh. Where is it?’ Then I’d think, ‘You’d better stop thinking that, or it’s going to come back.’ If it didn’t happen on any given night, I’d be shocked and count myself lucky.
“I can’t pinpoint the exact time it stopped, but it definitely stopped when I moved briefly to Iowa in 2000. After I moved back, it resumed, but a lot less—something like once every week or two.
“It was really hard to believe that it was anything but malignant. I can’t overstate how terrified I was when this happened. After a while, it seemed more like a poltergeist or trickster. I did also have small things that belonged to me, like pieces of jewelry, that would disappear and get moved around.
“After a while, I got the idea that it was just attention seeking. Just wanting to make a connection. I took a philosophy courses at San Jacinto Junior College, and I was talking about it to a classmate, and he asked if I’d ever thought about putting my arms around it. I said, ‘Oh, no! I don’t want to encourage it to stay.’ It seems to like young girls. It doesn’t seem to bother my mom at all.
“I never saw it, though I wondered what it might look like. Why can I not have some sense of what it is? I asked it to show itself, but it always gave ambiguous answers. In my mind, I saw it looking like the green ghost from Ghostbusters. I imagine it had to have a butt since it was sitting down.”
Since Sandi mentioned that her mother, Kitty, had experiences with the ghost/entity, I asked Kitty about what had happened to her.
“When we were moving in many years ago, a neighbor’s son, who was about twelve, rode up on a bicycle and told me, ‘You know that house is haunted, don’t you?’ So I knew from the beginning. I prefer to call them spirits rather than ghosts. It just sounds better. And many I’ve encountered aren’t bad, anyway.
“But in our house, it was Sandi who suffered most. She was young, and I think the spirit just wanted to pick on her.
“Nothing ever happened to me until Sandi moved out. Except for noises. People walking upstairs when nobody was there. That sort of thing has happened all the time we’ve lived there. After Sandi moved out, they/he/she started picking on me. But I wasn’t scared. It was always the same thing. And it happened just a couple of weeks ago. I’d be in bed, almost asleep but not quite, and one part of the bed would sink down. And I’d just slap my hand over it and say, ‘Get out of here. I’m going to sleep.’ And whatever it was would leave and wouldn’t bother me again that night.
“I do have a lot of bad dreams, and have for years, and I always wondered if somehow that’s connected. And I’d hear bumping on walls. Stuff like that. It doesn’t drive me crazy or anything, but it’s always noises that don’t seem normal. I don’t really fear them, although Sandi sure did. I always figured I had the power to tell them to get out. I never heard any vocal phenomena. It sitting down on the bed is the creepiest thing.”
There’s no direct indication that Smiley is the same spirit responsible for the manifestations at the Trojanowskis’ house, but it it interesting that occurrences of Smiley at our house increased in about 2000, the same time that Sandi’s troubles decreased. In addition, in 2000, my daughters were nearing the same age that Sandi was when the spirit that troubled her began its visits.
Finally, there are clues that Smiley—or his ilk—might not be limited to our immediate area. After the original appearance of this article (which ended before the material from Sandi and Kitty Trojanowski), I received a letter from a man living in California. He told me that when he was a boy, he’d had experiences with a similar entity with a fiendish grin and hooked fingers who visited him in the night and lurked about his room.
And even more recently, I’ve seen that there is a phenomenon called the Grinning Man that has been seen/experienced by many people. The Grinning Man, dressed in many types of clothes, always has a manic and sardonic ear-to-ear grin, and most people who have experienced it have felt a nastiness emanating from it. And, according to Sydney, there was an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, titled “Hush” that featured a group of similar figures. Some link the Grinning Man to aliens and UFOs, but I’m more in the camp that associates it with Shadow People, of which there are several types.
I tend to agree with Sandi that it likes to frighten young people, especially girls, but it gets as little satisfaction from Julie or me as it does from Kitty. In fact, on one rare instance that Julie perceived Smiley’s presence lurking behind her, she asked it, “Why is it you never bother me.” In her head, she heard the distinct reply, “Because Aunt Teet protects you.” Aunt Teet was Julie’s great aunt, a strong-willed black woman from Louisiana who radiated a sense of inner power right up until her death at ninety-two.
Periodically, I’ll catch Smiley’s movements out of the corner of my eye and sense his presence, which often is accompanied by rustling sounds and creaking floorboards right where the visual phenomenon is located. I almost always say, “Hi” or “I know you’re there.” He never responds, but on rare occasions, he has actually vocalized a word or two. The best such instance was when he uttered a loud, masculine, and completely sarcastic, “Ha-ha,” right in my ear when I made a foolish mistake. I was on the stairs at the time. And I still frequently hear distinct footsteps in the upstairs hall and other bumping and knocking noises from various places around the house. As happened with Sandi, small objects around our house sometimes disappear, only to later reappear elsewhere.
Recently, we’ve also had another visitation from the Captain. During my home renovations, I opened a section of wall that had originally been a doorway between the kitchen and the adjacent room when the house was young—back when Captain B resided there. The very next day, Julie’s sisters, Von and Nina, paid a visit. Neither Julie nor I had ever told either of them about the spirits in our house. For a time, the three of them sat in the living room, talking, with Julie’s and Von’s backs to the door to the kitchen and Nina facing it. Abruptly, Nina’s eyes shifted to the doorway, then she looked at Julie and asked, “Who’s that old man with the beard?”
She’d clearly seen an old man with a beard pass the doorway as if he was going across the kitchen then out the back door.
“That’s the Captain,” Julie replied with a smile.
The world, it would appear, is filled with various types of noncorporeal entities. Some may be lingering spirits of the deceased, some shadows of the past, and some beings with awareness, will, and the ability to interact with those of us living in three-dimensional space. Whatever Smiley might be, he was for my daughters an unwelcome presence, and they wouldn’t have minded in the least if he’d never returned from one of his periodic jaunts away from our house.
They’ve moved on, as grown children do, but Smiley still visits on occasion, hangs around for a day or two or three, then he’s gone again for a couple of months. As usual, he doesn’t bother me much, though I can tell when he’s here. I consider him to be a somewhat amusing puzzle rather than a threat, and to tell the truth, I’d probably miss him if he ceased to visit.
Excerpted from Book of Curiosities: Adventures in the Paranormal.
Excerpted from Book of Curiosities: Adventures in the Paranormal, by Christopher Dow