Curiosities On Ghosts, Gender, and Who Gets to Be Believed
Like most women and AFAB people, I’ve been trained from birth to mistrust my perceptions. Then I spent the night in a haunted house.
I didn’t always believe in ghosts. I started out as a skeptic and then changed my mind, which feels important to state upfront. It shows I’m a rational person. It shows I can be trusted to tell the truth.
In 2018, armed with a Ouija board and bundle of sleeping bags, my partner Jake and I drove across Iowa for an overnight stay at the Villisca Ax Murder House. It was early October, and the sweeping fields and patches of woodland were still a lush green. This marked our first trip as a couple, and to ease us across the gap between friendship and love, Jake had selected a purposefully unromantic destination, one that had piqued my interest since I was a child. He arranged for us to sleep in the farmhouse where, in 1912, an unidentified assailant bludgeoned the Moore family and two visiting neighbor girls in their beds. The property is folded into a tiny rural town on the western edge of the state, a site of unspeakable violence that resulted in the deaths of eight victims, six of them children.
Horrible as it was, I felt pulled toward a grief that was not my own. I needed something terrible to distract me from the fresh wound of a bad breakup and the barrage of texts alternately calling me a bitch and begging me to come home. Jake had surprised me by making the arrangements from start to finish, the first time a partner had ever gone out of their way to tend to my emotional well-being. It was an odd destination—and more than a little tasteless—but I was eager to focus on a nonsensical, low-stakes task: ghost hunting.
Miles of corn and highway stretched ahead of us on the drive, endless nothing and then suddenly a town . Farmers driving battered pickup trucks lifted two fingers from their steering wheels in the customary Midwestern salute . They were polite to us because we are white and middle-class, but I’m curious what they really thought of the interlopers who had come to their struggling community to gawp at tragedy.
The house had been reverted to its original construction for tourists—the locale is a favorite of paranormal enthusiasts. It had no running water or electricity, so as long as I stayed off my phone, I could avoid the news updates surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s recent appointment to the Supreme Court the day before. I was anxious, and searching for ghosts in the Ax Murder House provided the same outlet as horror movies did—when it’s under my control, fear is a comfortable state. And because I didn’t believe in anything supernatural at the time, I approached the excursion with a cool, distant logic.
Perched on a raised plot of land, the little white house with red-accented windows looked almost quaint. There was nothing to signify it as haunted apart from a pristine white sign with the name of the house printed in stark black font, and the sensation in my chest as if someone had pressed all their weight on my ribcage. The feeling was surprising. I hadn’t expected the house to have an effect on me. I turned to Jake and placed my palm on my sternum.
“Do you feel that?” I asked. My heart had started thudding, hard and laboriously slow as if struggling to keep me alive.
He nodded carefully. “I do.”
Jake is severely rooted in the physical plane, and I feel both better and worse when he validates what I’m experiencing. Like most women and AFAB people, I’ve been trained from birth to mistrust my perceptions until they can be verified by an external source, or at least to perform this second-guessing even when I’m certain . What has been loosely coined the “Confidence Gap” between female- and male-presenting individuals relates less to one’s self-confidence and more to how one’s presentation of confidence is interpreted by others. In work and school, I’d learned to avoid the labels of arrogant or bossy by talking less, and when I did speak, I softened my voice, lilting the end of my sentences up so they came off more like questions. This, I’d learned, meant I was reasonable .
I didn’t always believe in ghosts. I started out as a skeptic and then changed my mind, which feels important to state upfront.
The caretaker who greeted us at the house was in his midthirties and wore a band T-shirt and a full beard. He smiled easily, like a cool, competent dad, and gave us a tour of the sparsely furnished house.
“I took the job because I was interested in the history,” the caretaker told us. “The ghost stuff came later.” He showed us the ground-floor bedroom, known as the Blue Room, where Ina and Lena Stillinger had been murdered. Loose change was scattered across the dresser, and bells dangled from the handles to signal when the drawers opened and closed on their own. The caretaker listed the paranormal happenings he’d witnessed with the flatness of a shopper reciting a grocery list: footsteps, disembodied voices, items moving of their own accord.
Visitors reported the most activity upstairs. We followed him into the hot, humid main bedroom, where parents Josiah and Sarah were murdered before the killer moved to the children’s room, shared by Herman, Katherine, Boyd, and Paul. In the narrow hallway between the bedrooms, a small door opened into the attic space where the killer had allegedly hidden, unnoticed, waiting for his victims to fall asleep.
The caretaker handed us a key attached to a headless axe handle and told us to have fun.
The night before our trip, Jake and I had celebrated my twenty-eighth birthday at a restaurant that my grandmother, the family matriarch, had selected for its convenient location. In between appetizers and entrées, my younger brother asked what we’d thought of the sexual assault allegations presented during the Kavanaugh hearings.
“Can we not talk about this?” I asked. But in my family, occasions that were supposedly about me were often not about me at all. I listened to the women at the table offer boring, unoriginal excuses: She’s making it up. There’s no way her memory’s accurate after so many years. Even if she’s telling the truth, it’s not like he raped her. He was just a stupid boy. Hell, when I was young, do you know how many guys I had to slap for grabbing my ass?
Jake sensed my discomfort and held my hand under the table. But it wasn’t so much the content of their words that shocked me as the virulence with which they denounced that woman . The women in my family had endured black eyes and broken noses, had been stalked by jilted exes, and knew firsthand the capabilities of men who did not see women as people—men like Brett Kavanaugh, who supported overturning Roe v. Wade from the beginning. But when women are raised to mistrust themselves, they mistrust each other too. And even though Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was a woman they’d otherwise respect—a wife, a mother, a professor—nothing could persuade the women in my family to believe her voice over that of a powerful man.
I wanted to ask them, Would you believe the same story if it had happened to someone you knew? A similar thing had happened to someone they knew, and like the allegations against Kavanaugh, it wasn’t technically rape when I was drugged at a bar in my early twenties and a much older acquaintance tried to have sex with me even when I said no and pushed him away. If I told my family, they would believe me, of course, because I’m someone close to them. But to others, I was a slutty party girl who had no business being believed, and my acquaintance was just a boy being a boy being a man being a man.
The fading October light seeped through the windows and caught on the furniture, throwing shadows against the walls as Jake and I explored the house. After dark, we switched on camping lanterns and flashlights and piled our sleeping bags to make a nest on the living room floor. The Ouija board stayed tucked into its box. We’d put ourselves in danger by bringing it, inviting the entities in like Linda Blair did in The Exorcist —although in our case, we’d done so knowingly.
We coaxed one another up to the second floor, promising, I’ll protect you . But I would go no further than the top of the stairs. In a matter of minutes, the sweltering air had cooled to an almost wintry chill.
“Come check out the attic with me,” said Jake, beckoning with his flashlight.
“Absolutely not,” I said.
He didn’t push. “Okay, that’s fine.” He disappeared through the door and was only out of view for a moment when a loud crash sounded downstairs from the guest bedroom in the far corner of the house. Jake screamed. I sped downstairs to the kitchen and out the side door to the safety of the backyard, leaving my partner to his fate. He met me seconds later with wide, shining eyes. It had started raining. The mist glittered like gold dust caught in the light of the streetlamp.
“A man breathed in my ear,” Jake said.
“Yes! I swear!”
I hesitated. I’d heard the crash myself and felt the earlier temperature change from hot to freezing, inexplicable in the mild night, but hearing the truth voiced aloud made it harder to believe despite it being my truth too. I tilted my flashlight beam to the sky, illuminating one side of Jake’s face. I leaned in and searched his expression for signs he wasn’t lying to me.
Shortly after I was assaulted, I started dating a guy who positioned himself as progressive, a feminist. Drinking wine together in his apartment, I told him what I could remember: My acquaintance had pushed his penis into my mouth even though I’d said no, and then tried to have intercourse with me, but his erection was too soft to fully initiate the act.
“Technically, it doesn’t count as rape if he didn’t penetrate you,” my boyfriend informed me.
“Well, that’s a relief.”
He shook his head at my sarcasm. “I mean, you don’t seem too broken up by it. You’d had sex with him before, so was it really that big of a deal?”
I’d told the story with no crying, no screaming, but without the performance of emotion, my boyfriend could not believe that I’d been afraid or saddened or disgusted by what had happened to me. If I showed too much emotion, I was hysterical; not enough, then whatever happened was probably not as bad as I claimed. Either way, I was not to be believed.
That same night, my boyfriend asserted he’d taken part in an exorcism in a Walmart parking lot as a teenager. “Me and my friends were driving around late at night when we passed this cemetery we’d never seen before. My girlfriend at the time started writhing and speaking in tongues in the back seat. Freaked us all out.”
“And she wasn’t just making it up?”
He shook his head. “Something clawed her back to hell and left big bloody holes in her shirt. We all saw it. That’s when we knew she was possessed. One of the guys called his cousin who was in seminary school, and he came and exorcised the demon.”
“Don’t you need the Catholic Church’s permission for an exorcism?”
“There wasn’t time. We winged it, but it worked. She’s been fine ever since.”
The expression on his face was open and sincere, and I couldn’t tell if he knew he was feeding me bullshit or, if after repeated tellings, the tale had solidified into something resembling a memory. Either way, he’d expected me to trust him by default. My story, which was tragically more commonplace—one in six women experience some form of sexual assault in their lifetime—had been met with skepticism and the insistence that I’d somehow gotten parts of it wrong. I wondered how he made himself believe in what he’d supposedly seen, and to what extent he struggled with it. Or maybe he’d given himself the benefit of the doubt without any second thoughts at all.
I’m not a crier, but I experienced bouts of impenetrable sadness while in the house. To give ourselves a break, Jake took me to McDonald’s and treated me to McFlurries in the well-lit restaurant. When we returned, I refused to get out of the car.
“You don’t have to go in if you don’t want to. I can get our stuff, and we can leave whenever you want,” Jake said.
I considered his proposition for a moment and then sighed and opened the car door. “No, we should get our money’s worth.”
Any energy we’d gained from our respite was immediately sucked away as soon as we stepped inside. We huddled in the kitchen and brandished our flashlights at the stairs.
“You go first,” I told Jake.
“Why do I have to go first?”
“Because you’re a man, and I’m choosing this one and only scenario to embrace traditional gender roles.” But neither of us moved. The atmosphere grew heavier, and I suddenly knew a young child was by my side.
“There’s a little boy next to me,” I said, and a tingling webbed across the back of my skull. In the gloom, Jake’s eyes focused on something—or someone—behind me.
The voice of a young woman or a girl whispered, as clear as if she’d spoken in my ear. I was ready to convince myself I was only hearing things when Jake caught my expression.
“You heard that too, didn’t you?” he said.
And at 12:45 a.m., the estimated time of the murders, a bell jangled from the Blue Room.
We’d fled to a chain motel off the highway not long after we heard the bell, but the house burned in my memory for weeks after returning home. I’d pivoted from someone who did not believe in God or ghosts or the metaphysical at all to someone who had little doubt that what I experienced was real. Even though roughly half of Americans are reluctant to completely write off the possibility of ghosts, it’s a risk to admit this, because it raises the question of my rationality. In my professional and personal life, I cultivate the presentation of credibility; to be believed is to be protected.
I combed through the pictures and videos on my phone for retroactive proof that what happened happened , but everything could be explained away as something else: orbs were just specks of dust in the light, the face in the window just my own reflection. On YouTube, I found an episode of a ghost-hunting show that featured the caretaker. In the episode, he told the same story he’d told us, but with wild, frightened eyes and a trembling voice. The entities in the house, he claimed, followed him home and tormented his wife and children. This version of the caretaker was entirely different from the one we’d met. The caretaker we’d met had been matter-of-fact about his story, and I’d been much more inclined to believe what he’d told us. Emotions are their own form of intelligence, but we’re conditioned from a young age to question the influence they have on decision-making.
In my professional and personal life, I cultivate the presentation of credibility; to be believed is to be protected.
But if the frightened caretaker was the real version, something might have followed me home too, clinging like lint to a sweater. I studied my cats’ reactions to me and charted their idiosyncrasies as if they were fuzzy ghost detectors, and when Jake kissed me, I pulled away and peered into his eyes. There were ways to tell if someone was under the influence of evil. In sixth grade, I’d written a report about the Salem witch trials and the nonsensical tests the magistrates issued to prove that a woman they’d already decided was a witch was a witch. Most of these tests involved torture and recitations of religious passages from memory.
Torture would have been frowned upon, so I commanded Jake to say the Lord’s Prayer. He made it a couple of lines in, and I made it almost to the end, but I faltered after “deliver us from evil.” Jake did not seem alarmed by these results.
“I didn’t go to church much as a kid,” he said. I didn’t either, though I once knew the prayer by heart, having memorized it as protection against vampires after watching ’Salem’s Lot at an impressionable age.
Every so often, I ask Jake about the murder house. Now that it’s far away in both time and space, Jake has decided he doesn’t believe it was ghosts and that what we experienced was instead cleverly hidden recordings and motion devices, though we’d searched the house and found no evidence of either. His reluctance to believe baffles me, infuriates me, even though the compulsion to doubt one’s own perception is familiar. But Jake does not try to convince me that I’m wrong in my interpretation. He does not imply that I’m stupid or crazy or full of it. He does not believe in ghosts, but he does believe in me.
But still, not everyone is like Jake, and when I relay the story of my night at the Ax Murder House, I couch my tale with all the believability tactics I’ve learned. I pepper in little laughs here and there to acknowledge that I, too, see the outlandishness, and I remind the listener that, when this happened, I didn’t even believe in ghosts. Sometimes, I feel desperate for the listener’s belief, for someone to say they’ve had similar experiences, even though I know I would react to their story with the very same skepticism others give me. But when I tell stories about other experiences, I’m learning how to shed that compulsory presentation of self-doubt. When I talk about unremarkable traumas—my sexual assault as a young woman, harassment in the workplace, abusive relationships—I speak as if they already believe me. Because why shouldn’t they give me the benefit of the doubt?