A San Francisco Ghost Story

For a brief period of time, I lived in a house in San Francisco that had two ghosts who appeared late at night. I was haunted by one of these specters that frequented the attic, which had pitched walls and ran almost the entire length of the house, and was also my bedroom.

There’s a famous photograph of a row of Victorian homes in San Francisco, The Painted Ladies, right on Alamo Square Park. The house I lived in is the old Victorian mansion on the corner of Steiner and Fulton Streets, but since the house hadn’t been gentrified yet, it never made it into any of those famous photos. The owner lived on the middle main floor, while she rented out the top two floors to Monica Stevens, who then rented out the four other bedrooms to a cadre of friends -- Steven Adams, Michael Ahearn, and others.The girl tenants would get the rooms on the main floor, while guys who rented got one of the two rooms one flight up, in the attic.

In your 20‘s you are on the move, cycling through jobs, school, traveling, and romances, so there was often a room on one of the floors open for rent. It was a carousel of young adults in their 20’s, coming and going, who were all part of an extended tribe.

This was over twenty years ago, so rent was cheaper, especially by the room. I remember it was well under $1000 a month. Rent for any one-bedroom in San Francisco in any neighborhood is $3000 a month now, so I can’t imagine what rent for a Victorian on Alamo Square would be today. Back then, Hayes Valley was in transition, so there were hip restaurants and coffee shops, but car alarms were often going off after 9 p.m., and there was yelling in the streets.

The apartment itself was fun and funky.

It had high ceilings with electric wall heaters, thick coats of paint on ancient molding, and long staircases that led up to small rooms with squeaky doors and loose doorknobs. When you walked in the front door you’d climb twenty steps to get to the first landing, where there was a plastered-over hole in the wall molding. There was once a wooden lever that filled that hole, and when you yanked on it, it pulled a metal band that would unlatch the locked door down below, so you didn’t have to walk down twenty steps to let someone in.

I remember seeing those levers in old San Francisco homes when I was very young, but they’re gone now, and now the plastered over holes and the rusty mechanisms inside probably don’t even exist any more. But the ghosts were still there. And when they were in the world of the living, they probably yanked on the levers all the time to let in visitors and loved ones ringing the bell twenty steps below.

Monica’s place had good parties, and cocktails on Friday afternoons before the fun began. The English Beat, and The Smiths were on the turntable. Yes, turntable. You get the idea.

I had already moved to Los Angeles to attend film school, but I would return to San Francisco when I couldn’t find work, or because I couldn’t fully commit to life in Los Angeles yet, and I would end up living in the city again for three to four months at a stretch. Twice I got lucky and got a room at Chez Monica.

For seven months I had the upper room on the East side of the building, overlooking downtown and the bay. It was a small room, but it had a big window and you could step outside on the roof and stare at the city, and even climb up on the pitched roof and read a book -- until the cold drove you back inside.

During another brief time the attic room came available for rent. It was the largest room in the house, but it was not high in demand, because of the rumor that it was haunted. Both men who had lived in the room before me had encountered ghosts.

Steven Adams lived in the room the longest, and was most plagued by the haunting. He recounted how there was a malevolent male spirit in the room who would throw books at him while he slept, and who would hold him down and try to suffocate him.

I heard that Steven and Monica and others had once held a séance in the house, in an effort to appease the spirit, but I don’t think that it worked.

There would sometimes be raucous parties in the house that went late into the night, with couples crouching in corners having heart-to-heart conversations, or people arguing politics in the kitchen over beer and cigarettes. It was after these parties that the other ghost would appear.

Michael Ahearn, who also lived in the upper attic room for a while, said the floating image of an older man with gray hair and a beard would appear on the staircase or at the entrance to his room and block his way. The specter would stand there pointing and silently shouting, as if scolding him for his behavior.

Therefore, I was excited when the attic room was free on my next rotation through the house. Both Steven and Michael casually warned me about the ghosts. I shouldn’t put books on the built-in bookshelf right under the window -- the ghost would knock them down on you. And leave the window open. The noises of the traffic would keep me awake and the room would get cold, but I’d have peace.

The room had pitched sidewalls because of the roof, so there was no choice but to put your bed in the middle of the room and against the west wall of the house -- under the window. And right under the small window was the one shelf built into the wall.

I put books there, of course, and I waited. Nothing happened. Several weeks passed, and my room was warm and uneventful, and I forgot about all the stories.

Then, one night, all six books landed on my head while I was sleeping. I assumed there had been an earthquake. Growing up in California, you know not to hang a painting or a mirror over your bed or headboard, and the same goes for books on a bookshelf, so I blamed myself ... until I found out there had been no quake.

I put the books on the shelf again, and they were swept onto my head again the very next night. That’s when I felt the twinge. I started hearing creaks, and started to feel I wasn’t alone in the room at night. I stacked the books on the floor after that, and played my clock radio after sunset.

Then the night came.

I was sleeping and then had a dream that someone was sitting on my chest, until I realized I wasn’t dreaming. I was awake. I tried to sit up, but I couldn’t because the person then pushed me down even harder. I opened my eyes and saw nothing except the empty room, but I felt that someone was there. He was male, young, in his 20’s, around the same age as me, and he was enjoying crushing the air out of me. When he knew I was awake and scared he laughed, in fact, but I couldn’t hear it except in my mind. I tried to yell but couldn’t -- eventually I shook him off and he disappeared. I turned on all the lights and paced for a while, and then finally got back to sleep.

From then on, I slept with the window open and I didn’t encounter the same problem again. I mentioned it to the other people in the house, and they confirmed that I had met the same ghost who bothered Steven so often, but for me it was only once.

I’ve always loved ghost stories, so I did some research on the phenomenon, and it turns out that the haunting I experienced is the most common haunting there is. In fact, it’s so common there may even be a scientific explanation for it.

Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon in which people, either when falling asleep or wakening, temporarily experience an inability to move. You are in between waking and sleep, usually disrupted REM sleep, which is when you dream. While sleeping, your body is smart enough to have muscle atonia, or muscle weakness, which is what prevents you from acting out your dreams. It’s a good thing we have it; otherwise we would all be sleepwalking every night. Sleepwalking, in fact, is when muscle atonia hasn’t kicked in, and people start wandering around while in REM sleep.

The opposite is when muscle atonia lingers too long at the end of a dream, and that becomes sleep paralysis. You are waking up in the middle of a dream, before you have fully recovered your ability to move.

Your dreaming brain is very good at creating imagery to explain outside stimulus, which is why when you are dreaming and someone shakes you, you often incorporate that shaking into your dream. You feel a tug on your arm, you look over and your brain creates an image from Star Trek, let’s say, of Spock grabbing your arm. Only after you emerge from REM sleep into wakefulness do you realize it’s your wife shaking you and not Leonard Nimoy.

So what does your brain do when it’s still dreaming with protective muscle atonia, but then is suddenly awake? It creates a dream image to explain why it’s temporarily paralyzed, and we create an image in our brains of someone or something holding us down.

It’s so common that it’s called the “Old Hag Syndrome,” and people would say that “the old hag visited you” when you experienced this feeling. There are paintings and sculptures through the centuries of demons and monsters and hags sitting on people’s chests and paralyzing them in their sleep.

There are a lot of explanations to why you get sleep paralysis -- most of them having to do with difficulty sleeping or exhaustion, which is when your brain chemicals go wacky. Being active, sleep-deprived, alcohol-drinking men in our 20’s, this answers some questions about our mutual sleep paralysis, but not all.

Why did Steven and I experience paralysis only in that room? Why did Steven experience it more often than me? Why did our brains create the same image, of a young angry man who was gleeful as he punished us? How does that explain the books falling on our heads? How does it explain the angry older man who would shout at Michael on party nights when he tried to bring girls upstairs?

There have also been studies that show that many hauntings have been linked to a build-up of carbon dioxide in homes.

When there is too much CO2, it’s poisonous and it can create hallucinations. In older homes it’s more common. Because heat rises, I speculate that that rising carbon dioxide rose with the warm air and collected in higher concentrations in the attic, the last room in the house. When you opened the window, the cold clean air would enter, and the noises would stop.

This explains more -- perhaps that is why just one room was haunted in the house.

At the same time there are still enough questions about my experience in the house to make me unsure about what really was going on. My next step in this investigation is to research, if possible, who lived in the house over the years. Perhaps an angry young man and a scolding older gentleman were previous tenants.

I will keep you posted. If you have any thoughts or information, let me know!