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Where Every Day Is Halloween
When you live in one of New York City's oldest farmhouses, you think about ghosts all year round.

“What’s that noise?” The cat. “There it is again! Coming from over there now!” Its the other cat. Its always a cat. Go back to sleep.

Sure, I was a little jumpy the first few weeks I spent living in the attic of New York City’s oldest Dutch Colonial farmhouse. It's three centuries old. It looks old. It feels old. It sounds and smells old. Since Hendrick Barents Smidt first broke ground on the place in the 1660s, this place has seen a lot of living. And consequently, a lot of dying.

Generations of early American settlers eked out a life on this plot of land on the border of Brooklyn and Queens. They fought in wars, kept slaves, farmed, and endured blizzards and droughts. They played hide-n-seek, read books, dusted, swept, and cooked food in huge hearth stoves. They got married, had babies, lost babies, got sick, prayed, and died. All under this roof and within these walls. Who once slept in the bedroom I sleep in? This question could be asked of any of my previous New York apartments. But I’ve become particularly curious about the former occupants of the Vander Ender–Onderdonk House. Who were these folks? I know some names, but what were they like? And might they, could they, would they have unfinished business with the living?

This broken doll head is on display at the Onderdonk House. It was dug up in the backyard during an archeological dig in the 1970s.When my boyfriend Keith and I applied to be caretakers of this historic landmark, I, of course, did a little Googling. Turns out, the house does have a bit of a haunted reputation with the children in the neighborhood. Previous Onderdonk caretakers have reported hearing inexplicable sounds, like heavy footseps and tinkling bells [shiver]. So naturally, I pseudo-casually mentioned this in the interview for the job. “Ghosts? No, we don’t have ghosts” was the reply. “Yeah, I didn’t really think so,” I said, laughing it off. Sort of.

Then, a few weeks after we moved in, one of the volunteers told me his friend had seen what she thought was an apparition a couple years ago. She was helping him decorate a Christmas tree in the Victorian room when she turned around and saw a man dressed all in black, standing in the corner of an adjoining room. The curator, who had been in the basement at the time, came upstairs and found his friend in the gift shop waiting for him. “Her face had gone completely pale,” he told me. Hogwash. Who’s this friend? I want proof! Still, I don’t go into the museum after sundown.

More in this series: This Really Old House

During the day, I don’t believe in ghosts. Alone at night … I’m more open-minded. Having an imagination, after all, is more fun than lacking one. So when the mood strikes, I might hesitate before walking into a dark room or avoid looking into mirrors for fear of strange reflections. I’ll even admit to double-checking to see if the expression on the face of the mannequin in the museum has changed. Just in case.

I wasn’t having a fun time the night after I saw The Conjuring. Yes, I went and saw a new horror flick about a demonically haunted Dutch Colonial farmhouse, while living in a Dutch Colonial farmhouse. Yes, I regretted it. Yes, I would do it again. But why? Why do I intentionally waste emotional energy fearing things that, as far as I can tell, don’t exist?

This place has seen a lot of living. And consequently, a lot of dying.

There must be a rational reason for craving the irrational and scaring ourselves sleepless with highly unlikely horrors. For instance, when the zombie apocalypse arrives, Keith and I will be sitting pretty in our gated home, eating vegetables and farm-fresh eggs while the rest of New York eats each other. I’ve got it all figured out (everything except how to load the antique musket hanging over the fireplace). So, could it be that we frighten ourselves to prepare ourselves? For anything?

The former occupants weren’t likely frightened by this house (of course, it was newer back then). The Dutch-style farmhouse was a familiar piece of the old world transplanted in a new one. It gave the settlers some semblance of shelter against the perils of colonial life: war, blizzards, smallpox. The threats they faced emerged mainly outside these walls, rarely from within. The same could be said of today.

On the evening of June 3, three weeks after we moved in, a young couple living two doors down from us was murdered. Someone came into the apartment of Beatrice Morris and Franco Montoya and tied them up. Then this someone strangled and beat them to death. No one seems to know why. For a week or so, the cops put up reward posters on the block ($2,000), but we haven’t heard about any arrests. Four months later, a makeshift memorial—veladora candles and an empty tequila bottle holding dried roses—still sits on their doorstep.

That is the story that should give me nightmares. But it doesn’t. I feel sadness for these neighbors we never met and am bewildered something that terrible could happen as I watched television fewer than 100 yards away. But when something goes bump in the night, I guess I’d rather imagine it’s a ghost, all mute and misty, than another human being who has come to kill me. Maybe the neighborhood kids who tell creepy tales about the old house on the corner feel the same.

Dutch children don’t celebrate Halloween. But on St. Martin's Day on November 11, they go house to house, singing songs and asking for goodies. I would say it’s like trick-or-treating without the horror (no vampire costumes, no threats of vandalism), but the tradition does arise out of fear, preparation for the worst, and something frightening lurking around the corner. It hails from the days when poor families would visit neighboring farmhouses asking for any surplus harvest.

Winter is what kept the Vander Ende and Onderdonk families up at night. Will we freeze? Will we starve? Will we “catch our deaths” outside? The real world can be one bad bogeyman.

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Melissa Mahony is OnEarth.org's senior editor. She previously worked at Wildlife Conservation magazine, blogged about energy for SmartPlanet, and has written for many publications about science and the environment. MORE STORIES ➔
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