I Grew Up in a Haunted House—Here’s What I Tell My Child About Ghosts

This scary season, one mom decides how to tell her son the truth about the (family) ghosts we learn to live with.

I grew up in a haunted house, here's what I tell my kid about ghosts

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“Ghosts are real, right mommy?” 

It was the second time my son asked. He was four at the time, and we were curled up with a Paw Patrol book.

The first time, a year earlier, I’d paused to construct an appropriate response, and in that two-second silence, my husband had answered. Ghosts were not real, he insisted. Our son was barely three then, so instead of arguing, I’d raised an eyebrow. My husband shrugged guiltily. He knew it bothered me, the line he’d fed our son. He knew I disliked even the word “believe” in reference to ghosts. To me, saying “I believe in ghosts” is like saying, “I believe in mice.” There should be no question. And my husband knew why this mattered. 

I grew up in a haunted house, and memories of the ghosts who shared our home are among my most vivid and valued, because they’re the stories my family tells and retells. The way other families recall a beloved pet, we reminisce about our ghosts, recounting their hijinks, confirming details. So even as many of my early childhood recollections have blurred, the ghosts remain crystalline. And perpetuating the lie that they’re “not real” is the opposite of what I'm about.

Still, I let it go that first time. My son was little, my husband was on the spot, and I knew someday I’d get to tell the truth. 

The Colonial farmhouse in New Hampshire that came into my family in 1837 included all the standard features of a haunted house: Footsteps wandered the hallway late at night, long after we’d all gone to bed. Doors and windows refused to stay open or closed. Lights flickered. Objects moved. 

But our paranormal activity transcended anything you could blame on antique architecture or overexcited imaginations. For example, figures appeared regularly. And we knew who some of them were, because they were our ancestors.

One was a mischievous, 14-year-old poltergeist named Julius. He was the son of my great-great-great grandmother, and he liked to send my mother’s coffee cups and sugar bowls flying across the kitchen. (Ultimately forcing us to replace ceramic with plastic.) When he wasn’t decisively editing down our coffee service, he showed up in odd corners of the house wearing a military school uniform and affably answered our questions via Ouiji board. 

Another we called “The Lady in the Blue Dress.” She wore a high-necked, light blue gown and appeared in our upstairs bathroom, on the stairs leading to the attic. Those stairs faced the toilet, so occasionally someone would be on the john and glance up to see a woman standing there. It was usually visitors this happened to. They found it unsettling. 

The ghost of my great-great grandmother sometimes appeared in the bedroom I shared with my older sister. I saw her sitting in our rocking chair, and one night I woke to find her standing between our beds, searching on the floor for something. It was dark, so I mistook her for my sister and repeatedly asked what she was looking for, until my sister rolled over in her bed, and I screamed. 

If this sounds like the plot of a horror flick, it wasn’t. Yes, my friends avoided sleepovers, and one cousin always packed a flashlight, which he’d leave on all night inside his sleeping bag. And I got spooked from time to time. But our ghosts were generally benign, so we didn’t mind living with them. Indeed, we treated them like house pets: When they misbehaved, we scolded them. When they terrified a houseguest, we apologized for them. When they made a mess, we cleaned up after them. By and large, we cohabitated peacefully. They were, after all, family.  

I always try to be honest with my son, but presenting information to a young child is nuanced, so there are certain falsehoods I do tell him. For example, my husband and I both had fathers who dipped their shoes in ashes on Christmas Eve to create footprints beneath the stockings hanging from our respective fireplace mantles, so we abet our child’s belief in the man in the red suit and his eight tiny reindeer, not to mention Rudolph. And when my son asks if magic is real, I say, “You bet.” At the same time, I’ve told him monsters don’t exist, and there’s no such thing as good and bad guys, only good and bad decisions. I’ve assured him he needn’t worry about us dying, since people generally die when they’re very old and sick. And I tell him the dark chocolate in the fridge is a grown-ups-only treat. When he asks why, I pretend there’s alcohol in it. 

"There's convenience and comfort in these lies, but selfishness, too. Today, more than ever, I want Santa. I want magic. I wish there were no bad guys, no monsters."

There’s convenience and comfort in these lies, but selfishness, too. Today, more than ever, I want Santa. I want magic. I wish there were no bad guys, no monsters. My son understands death (his grandfathers are both deceased), but I don’t want him worrying about us dying, even though as older parents, we may have to be wheeled into his wedding. As for my grown-ups-only treats, I’m unwilling to share overpriced artisanal chocolate with someone who’d just as soon suck down a pack of white sugar. 

Ghosts are another matter entirely. I’ve spent my life defending the truth of them, so making exceptions—even for a child—feels wrong. Especially when that child delights in anything spooky, erupts in giggles when startled with a “boo,” and wishes every day were Halloween. (When asked in preschool what he wanted to be when he grew up, he answered, “a skeleton.”)

Still, my detailed paranormal history was likely too much for his mind to process. As Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

In the Paw Patrol book we were reading that night, Rocky the dog thought an old cabin was haunted, but Ryder, the boy in charge of the pups, didn’t believe in ghosts. That was when my son interrupted the book to ask me the question again, for the second time in his life.

“Ghosts are real, right, mommy?”

Again, I paused. But we were alone this time; his dad wasn’t there to fill my silence. And with Halloween approaching, the question would come up again. I employed a different, tried-and-true parenting tactic. 

“What do you think?” I asked, closing the book on Rocky and Ryder.

He grinned. “I think they’re real. I believe in ghosts. Daddy doesn’t, but you and me, mommy, we believe.”

Children are remarkably open-minded. If there’s a fanciful folktale they’re attracted to—say, a red-suited fellow whose pets whisk him around the globe in one night—they’ll opt in. Hand them a bizarre truth, and if they like it, they’ll accept it. Their minds’ elasticity can turn the implausible to the indisputable.

“A lot of people don’t believe in ghosts,” I told him. “But you’re right, I do. And to me they aren’t scary; they’re friendly. You know how some people are afraid of thunder and lightning, but we love it? To me, ghosts are like that.” 

I made an exception after all, for the word “believe.” Someday I’ll tell him everything. He’s seven now, and each year we inch closer to the whole story; his father and I even brought him to visit my childhood home last summer. But that night when he was four, belief was enough. I’m painfully aware that life will hand my son countless distressing truths; the world he inherits holds realities far more horrifying than spirits. Neither of us were ready for those conversations, but this truth I knew he could handle, told slant.

“Finish the book, Mommy.” 

At the end of the story, our canine heroes discovered ghosts weren’t the ones making the lunch box float, the porch fall down, the lights flicker, and the paintings move. It was only mice, after all. 

“Well, that’s silly,” I said, closing the book.

I knew better. We both did. 

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