Oct 30, 2014

Haunted

Dennis Conrow was stuck. After a brief stint at college, he’d passed most of his 20’s back home with his parents, sleeping in his childhood room. And just when he finally struck out on his own, fate intervened. He lost both his parents to cancer. So Dennis was left, back in the house, alone. Until one night when a group of paranormal investigators showed up at his door and made him realize what it really means for a house, or a man, to be haunted.

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Speaker 1: You're listening to Radiolab from-

Dennis: WNYC.

Speaker 1: -and NJPR.

Dennis: I think there's a lot of moments in your life that you find yourself doing something.

Brittany: Is there anybody in here? My name is Brittany. I'd love to be able to talk with you.

Dennis: You take that moment and step back from it.

Brittany: Are you here?

Robert: And you realize-

Brittany: Come through join us.

Dennis: -"What the fuck am I doing?"

[laughter]

Dennis: What just happened was this real? I think that was one of those moments.

Jad Abumrad: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert: I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad: This is Radiolab and today on the podcast, a ghost story.

Robert: Really? We're going to do a ghost story?

Jad: Yes, it's Halloween, dude. You don't even know, just listen. Just let's listen, okay?

Robert: Okay.

Jad: This one comes from our producer, Matt Kielty. I first heard this story from a buddy of mine. His name is Dennis Conrow.

Andy: Dennis?

Dennis: Andy?

Andy: Hey, what's up dude?

Jad: That's producer Andy Mills. You guys are all buddies, total buds.

Andy: Anyways, back to the story. All right. Well, Dennis.

Dennis: Yes?

Jad: It's about a lot of things but in particular, a house.

Andy: Let's start with the house. When did you move back in?

Dennis: Well, let's see. I was probably, I don't know, age 20.

Jad: Dennis had been going to college.

Dennis: By the way, what did you study?

Dennis: Creative writing, but I just got bored there, stopped going to class. [laughs] I think once my parents realized that they weren't very happy.

Andy: I would assume so.

Dennis: I was asked to come back home.

Andy: Back to a town just outside Kansas City.

Dennis: A little town called Grandview.

Andy: Did you grow up in this house?

Dennis: I did. The house was-

Andy: Fairly old?

Dennis: Yes, it was about 105 years old at the time.

Andy: Two-storey white house, nice little porch, awning over it.

Dennis: Typical farmhouse style.

Andy: You were at your parents' home back in your old bedroom?

Dennis: Yes, in my old childhood bedroom. There was always a sense of, "I need to get out of this house. It's holding me back somehow from things."

Andy: You got a job.

Dennis: Worked a job and got laid off.

Andy: One year turned into two and then three, then four, and then five.

Dennis: It was not a great time to be there.

Andy: In what way?

Dennis: Just that I felt like I was still 16.

Andy: He says he'd overhear his mom telling people on the phone.

Dennis: "Well, he's never going to move out, is he?"

[laughter]

Andy: Then she started circling classifieds.

Dennis: Jobs for typists, printing press, sales rep, typesetter. I don't know. I think everything in my life, however I mean for it not to, moves at my own snail's pace.

Andy: Eventually-

Dennis: I was fairly old, like 27 maybe.

Andy: Actually, he was 28. After eight years in this house, Dennis gets a steady job, finds this cheap apartment.

Dennis: This ratty six-plex apartment.

Andy: He starts packing up his things, but right when he set to move out, to finally leave home-

Dennis: My mom got really sick.

Andy: Dennis's mom had been in remission from breast cancer for nine years, but that summer her doctors told her that it had returned.

Dennis: Had spread quite a bit. I said to her, "Do you want me to be here or do you want me to go?" She was like, "Well, if this is my time," she wants to go knowing that her kids can take care of themselves.

Andy: Dennis moved out. About five months later, his mom died.

Dennis: She went pretty fast. About a month or so after my mom died, my dad found out he had stage four prostate cancer.

Andy: Wow.

Dennis: He was really too sick to take care of the house and just be the guy by himself at that point.

Andy: Now, Dennis pretty much had to come home.

Dennis: I'd take care of him-

Andy: Three, four times a week.

Dennis: As he got worse, he had said to me, "Hey, let's try to find you a house to buy so that I can teach you how to do all of the stuff that one has to do. Men know how to do things, like change out plumbing, all this kind of stuff." We put an offer on a house.

Andy: That fell through. Before they could find something else-

Dennis: The cancer from his prostate spread to his brain and the last week of his life, he was really not there. I can remember, one day, maybe a week or so after he had died.

Andy: Dennis was walking through the empty kitchen.

Dennis: There was so much stuff. Papers all over the place, junk mail all over the kitchen floor.

Andy: Down in the basement.

Dennis: Tools all over the place. I had this moment of, "Here are his tools, now I have them in my hands." I just remember picking up this claw hammer and just crying because this is now my hammer, this is now my house, this is now my problem.

Andy: A few days passed and he starts thinking, "I can handle this. I've just got to get in there clean it out, sell it."

Dennis: Clean and flip, that was the plan.

Andy: At the age of 32, moves back in.

Dennis: There was all this just junk in the basement.

Andy: Put that stuff on the curb.

Dennis: Sale after sale after sale.

Andy: One day he finds himself standing in the downstairs bathroom looking at the nasty floor tile.

Dennis: It was just horrible.

Andy: His dad had meant to replace it before he died but couldn't finish.

Dennis: My thought was, "Just do this one bathroom so that it looks pretty good to sell."

Andy: The problem was his dad had never showed him how to do any of that stuff.

Dennis: It was at that point that I was like, "YouTube."

Speaker 2: Now hold the tile in one hand firmly and begin with your ceramic tile.

Andy: He went online, learned how to tile, do some plumbing, and he redid the bathroom.

Dennis: It turned out pretty good, it was fun. Then the next thing I knew I was taking the wallpaper off in the kitchen, that's got to go. Hardwood floors, insulation in the attic, glass block windows in the basement.

Andy: Pretty soon-

Dennis: That turned into the whole house.

Andy: How long did that take?

Dennis: Five years.

Andy: Actually, it was six.

Dennis: Wow.

Andy: He says the whole time he was doing this renovation at night-

Dennis: I would have these dreams where my parents just came through the back door and it was just like, "What are you doing here? That's right, you're dead." Then I would turn my back and then they would have somehow undone all of the things that I did.

Andy: They had brought the house back to the state it was in when they were alive?

Dennis: Yes, and I probably had this dream, I'm not kidding, at least 100 times.

Andy: Night after night, after night.

Dennis: That would have just kept going on and on and ultimately it drove me crazy.

Andy: One day after yet another one of these dreams, Dennis is finally like, "All right, I'm selling it." Puts it up on the market, starts waiting for a buyer, and then something strange happens.

Dennis: Well something kind of strange. I had made this friend and she came over for the first time.

Andy: It's like a date, a lady friend?

Dennis: Yes, it was a lady friend.

Andy: You've gone on a date you've taken her back to your house. Denis was giving her a tour, showing her all the improvements until-

Dennis: She was in the kitchen.

Andy: Right by the basement door in the kitchen, when-

Dennis: She was like, "There's some kind of weird presence here." I was just like, "Okay." That was a sign that I was not going to last.

[laughter]

Andy: Fast forward a few years.

Dennis: I didn't really think too much about it.

Andy: Until one day Denis's realtor is having an open house, no one shows.

Dennis: She was in the house by herself.

Andy: Denis starts getting these text messages from her.

Dennis: "Dude, your house is haunted. I can hear people walking around."

Andy: She texted that there was definitely something weird going on.

Dennis: Right by the basement door.

Andy: Wait, that's the same spot?

Dennis: Yes. I'm just like, "That's kind of weird." Then here's the crazy thing.

Andy: Not too long after this, Dennis bumps into an old friend of his and he's like, "Hey, funny thing. Two different people, two separate occasions, had come over to the house and they said they felt this weird presence."

Dennis: She was like, "Wait, right by the basement door?"

Andy: Get out.

Dennis: I was like, "Okay." I've got Heather, I've got Stacy, I've got Carla, all three who say they feel this weird presence.

Andy: Did you consider yourself a bit of a skeptic about such things?

Dennis: I would say so. Rationally, I'm just going to say no.

Andy: You don't believe in ghosts?

Dennis: No.

Andy: What happened next?

Dennis: This also happened to be right at the time that I sold the house.

Andy: Dennis had finally put some pen to paper, signed the contract, packed up all the stuff.

Dennis: Carla, the girl that first felt this thing-

Andy: The girl he went on a date with, they stayed friends.

Dennis: -said to me, "I'm really curious about this. Would you mind if I call these ghost people to come and check out this place. I was like, "Well sure. I don't care, why not?" Very shortly, in a few minutes actually, we are bringing paranormal investigators to find out what's in the basement. I'm just walking through the house, I think I got this on tape,, of just me walking through the house. I'm like, "Well, this is probably a waste of time," but I'm still curious about it.

Andy: It's Friday night, what else are you going to do?

Dennis: Right. It's a Friday night, mid-November.

Andy: Around six o'clock.

Dennis: I can see some cars parking on the street. I go downstairs.

Andy: People start following in.

Dennis: Maybe 10 people.

Brittany: We all have different specialties. Larry's our tech guy.

Dennis: About four techies. Two sets of clairvoyants.

Brittany: Chantelle's the psychic-

Katie: -she's very gifted.

Andy: Who are all these people?

Dennis: Can I get you to just say your name?

Brittany: My name is Brittany Elaine.

Dennis: Well, they're part of the Kansas City, paranormal investigators club, or some kind of thing.

Andy: Pretty much right off the bat-

Dennis: When you guys came in and you were saying you could talk.

Brittany: When we first got here, we both saw a woman looking out the window at the top.

Dennis: What did she look like?

Brittany: I didn't really see what she looked like. Katie can describe her.

[00:10:51] Katie: She had long hair. It was like gray. She was wearing one of those weird old-timey dresses.

Andy: Dennis was like, "Whatever."

Dennis: They set up cameras in the basement and then in the kitchen.

Andy: The clairvoyants decided they wanted to try to talk to this woman or maybe any other spirit in the house. Brittany-

Brittany: I don't know if I even explained to you we do.

Andy: -was the ringleader of the night.

Dennis: She explained how she does things. She was like, the best way that she could get them to talk to them was through flashlights.

Andy: What they do is they take a few flashlights, turn them on, and then they unscrew the tops of them just enough so that they turn off. Then they just set the flashlights that are now off in the room by themselves. The idea is that if the ghost or the spirit wants to communicate, they can just touch the top of one of the flashlights with their ghostly finger and that'll turn it back on.

Brittany: It's barely connected. All they have to do is either push or pull a tiny bit of energy.

Speaker 3: I see. It's not that hard.

Brittany: It's obvious, for them to do.

Dennis: I was like, "Okay." She took three flashlights and we all sat in this dark room in a circle.

Andy: Brittany sets the flashlights in the middle of the circle by themselves. No one's touching them.

Dennis: She says-

Brittany: If there's anybody in here, my name is Brittany. I'd love to be able to talk with you. Can you turn one of those lights on?

Dennis: We sit there and we sit there.

Brittany: Are you here?

Dennis: Then all of a sudden this light barely blinks on. Then she said, "Okay."

Brittany: Thank you.

Dennis: "Please turn it off." Then it goes off.

Brittany: What we can do with these lights here, is if I can ask them-

Dennis: Then she says, "We have three lights here. The one you just turned on, we'll call, yes. Please turn on one more and that will be no."

Brittany: If you could do that for us, that will be wonderful.

Dennis: Then a second light comes on.

Andy: No way. Are you scanning the room, looking for somebody who has a little switch or something?

Dennis: Yes. We didn't pay these people. They have no reason to fake this, I suppose. I just keep thinking, "Well, the house is really close to the train tracks and maybe the train-"

Andy: Vibrations of the train? That makes sense.

Dennis: All of a sudden they were like, "Can you hear that? Footsteps?"

Brittany: There is somebody walking right here in front of me.

Dennis: They're going towards the kitchen. I could hear dishes rattling on the countertop in the kitchen.

Andy: No one's in the kitchen?

Dennis: No one's in the kitchen.

Brittany: If you're in the kitchen right now can you turn one of these lights on?

Andy: They sit and stare at these three flashlights. Then-

[screams]

Dennis: I am just leaving the room.

[laughter]

Robert: What happened?

Jad: Well, actually everyone in that room died except for Dennis.

Robert: Oh God.

[laughter]

Robert: I have no idea why I even invited you into this building.

[laughter]

Robert: They did not die.

Jad: What happened to them?

[laughter]

Speaker 4: You scared me.

Andy: Actually, they're fine.

Speaker 4: Was that you?

Andy: It turns out that there was a guy downstairs in the basement, one of the techies walking around, pitch-black down there, and he just like bangs his head into an air duct and the sound is reverberated throughout the whole house.

[laughter]

Andy: Scared them a little bit. It was very Blair Witchy. Anyhow, the techies-

Dennis: Decided they to get the three psychics down in the basement by themselves. These three women go down in the basement by themselves. We hear them downstairs talking, but we don't really know what's going on.

Speaker 4: That was interesting.

Dennis: They come back upstairs.

Brittany: How did it go?

Dennis: They said-

Katie: The girl was downstairs.

Dennis: She was definitely down there.

Andy: The old woman that they first saw when they got to the house. They said that she was standing down in the basement next to where the old furnace used to be. They told Dennis that she said that she'd lived here for a long time. Dennis was like, "Wait a second. He knew that back in the '30s or something a woman had lived in this house."

Dennis: Who was not all there.

Andy: One day she had gone down into the basement.

Dennis: Thought she was picking lice off her chickens and throwing them into this big furnace that was downstairs in the basement at the time.

Andy: She got a little too close to the furnace, the story goes.

Dennis: Caught herself on fire and then died there in the basement.

Katie: Then there was another man downstairs who showed himself to me, but he won't talk and he just completely disappeared.

Dennis: What did he look like?

Katie: He was bald. He was about this eight but it wasn't right.

Dennis: Did he have a build like me?

Katie: Yes.

Dennis: A lot like me?

Katie: Not a lot, but similar. Definitely.

Dennis: If I were just to show you a picture of my father, would you have any sense of this was him?

Katie: If I saw a picture of him. Yes, maybe.

Dennis: I found this the other day.

Andy: Dennis goes and gets this photo of his dad that he had, that was left over from his memorial service.

Katie: Yes. That's man I saw.

Dennis: Really?

Katie: Yes.

Dennis: Wow.

Katie: Yes, that's the man I found.

Dennis: Let's process for just a second here. She's very hesitant at the beginning. It's like, well-

Andy: I should jump in here really quick and just tell you that this was actually the first time that Dennis had ever listened to this tape.

Jad Really?

Andy: Yes. The reason is because for a long time, he didn't want to listen to it.

Robert: Why?

Andy: Well, I think part of it had to do with this moment because-

Dennis: This was the point where my skepticism kicked off.

Jad: Part of it had to do with what happens next.

Andy: That's coming up when we return.

Jad: This is Radiolab. Let's get back to Matt Kielty's ghost story. We'll pick up with our main guy, Dennis Conrow, having just heard from the ghost hunters that they encountered a spirit in the basement of his home who looks remarkably like his dead father.

Katie: Yes. That's the man I saw here.

Dennis: He's here?

Katie: Yes. He's here.

Dennis: Can we try to talk to him?

Katie: We can try to talk to him, absolutely.

Dennis: Is he in the basement or here?

Katie: I feel like he went upstairs, not in the basement anymore.

Dennis: Can we go upstairs and just talk to him?

Katie: Yes, absolutely.

Dennis: I hadn't really told them a whole lot about what the different rooms in the house were, but they led me upstairs to what was his room.

Brittany: Let's do this.

Dennis: To the corner of the room where his bed was.

Andy: They had no idea that they used to be there?

Dennis: They had no idea. I said to them, "Well, if he's going to talk, he'll just talk to me." All right, Dad, are you here? You could turn on the lights if you are. Thank you. Thank you, Dad. We're going to call that yes. You can turn that one off now and turn on the, no light, any other light, please? I need to know that you're here.

Brittany: There you go.

Dennis: Thanks, dad.

Brittany: Do you want us to leave?

Dennis: Dad, would you like these people to leave and just talk to me?

Brittany: Yes. That's okay, let's leave them alone.

Dennis: Dad I'd want to know, are you in a good spot? Are you okay? Are you okay? Are you okay, Dad? Yes? Good. I'm glad to hear that. Everything off. Everything's off almost. Almost, Dad. Thanks. Hey, I'm going to ask you this. Is Mom here too? Is Mom here too? The other of the three flashlights lights up. Yes? She is here. Hi Mom. Now that you're both here, I love you very much and I miss you both. I have so many questions for you, I can't ask them all. They're just yes or no questions. I said, "Have you been able to see the things that I've done to the house?" Both of the lights lit up very brightly, "Yes." I've lived here for six years, redone the house. I've gone and done a lot of things.

Then I said, "What do you think, are you happy with this? Are you happy with the things I've done with the house?" They both lit up very brightly, "Yes." I said, "Are you proud of me?" Are you proud of what I've done, who I am, how I'm doing? That's weird. [chuckles] That's a very bright yes. It means a lot to me. In a few days, guys, I'll probably never set foot in this house again and I don't want you to stay here and feel like you belong here. I want you to go out and be free. Can you let go of this house, to finally move on? That's fine. I'm going to leave you guys. You've been haunting my dreams a lot about this house. I know it's very important to you. It's very important to me. It's time we leave, right? Yes. All right.

Katie: Are you okay?

Dennis: Yes.

Katie: Do you want a hug? [laughs]

Brittany: I think you need one.

[music]

Andy: That's where it ends?

Dennis: Yes. That's how I recall it being. Exactly like that. I teared up.

Andy: Keep in mind that this was the first time that Dennis had heard this tape and so we played it back to him because we just wanted to see how he remembered that experience.

Dennis: I guess part of my fear of listening to it was that it would change it and that it would be a different experience. It would be a little more hokey and it would be a little more unclear what was happening, but listening to it again, it was as I recalled it being.

Jad: In the end, does he believe he was actually talking to his dead parents?

Andy: No. I ended up actually calling this guy who explained to me how this whole flashlight thing works and that there is a perfectly nonparanormal explanation as to what's going on with the flashlight.

Robert: It almost feels bad manners at this point to have a practical explanation, but I'm very curious to hear it.

Andy: What's going on is you turn the flashlight on. When you turn the flashlight on the bulb gets really hot. Then you take the top of the flashlight and you unscrew it just enough that the flashlight flickers off. The flashlight's off and the bulb, it got really hot so the inside of the flashlight also got really hot. There's this little piece of plastic inside the flashlight, that when it got hot, it expanded. Since the flashlight's off, that piece of plastic, it starts to cool down and starts to contract. When it contracts, it pushes these two tiny bits of metal together, these two little bits of metal come into contact. That's your circuit. The circuit opens the light bulb, it goes back on.

Robert: Then it warms again and cools again.

Andy: Then it gets hot, this little piece of plastic it starts to get hot. it starts to expand it pushes the two pieces apart.

Robert: These people chose this flashlight because it had that particular property?

Jad: Do you think it's like a con or something?

Andy: No, I don't think so. I even talked to Dennis about this. He's like, "I think they're just trying to make sense of randomness. I don't think they necessarily know that this flashlight does this thing and therefore they can manipulate people."

Robert: Here's why I don't think it's a con, because in this case it's such a strange coincidence that whenever he wants his mom and dad, his ghostly mother and father to approve of him and congratulate him and honor him with a yes, it's random he could get a no but he gets a yes.

Andy: It's just chance.

Jad: You told Dennis all this?

Matt: Yes, I told Dennis because you told me to tell Dennis.

Jad: It's true. I forced him. When you told him, what did he say?

Andy: On one level, it didn't faze him. Dennis basically said, "Look."

Dennis: Look, I know that the way that the world works is the way that the world works. People don't come back from the dead. People don't talk to you through flashlights."

Andy: He also said that he's not going to let go of that experience. He wants to have it both ways.

Dennis: I guess so. I guess I want to have both yes, this didn't happen and yes, this absolutely happened.

Robert: I understand that.

Andy: Because even if you are the world's biggest skeptic, if you don't believe in ghosts. There really aren't that many ways to talk about these sorts of things. These sorts of things that we all feel. Guilt for the things that we've done in our past, the loss of those who we've loved. Ghost stories seem to stick around because they are an experience, albeit a metaphorical experience, but an experience that lets us talk about these things that we can't adequately talk about. That feeling of being haunted.

Jad: Did he eventually sell the house move out?

Andy: Yes. He sold the house, moved out. No more dreams of his parents haunting him. Well-

Dennis: It's been odd in the time that I've sold the house now. I thought the dreams would stop. Now the dreams are that I am the one haunting the house of the new people. [chuckles] Where I will just walk in and just be like, "Hey, I'm here."

Andy: Are you going around repairing things?

Dennis: No. I'm just being somewhat shocked at what they've done to it. [laughs] It's like it never stops.

[music]

Jad: Thanks, Matt.

Matt: No problem.

Jad: Matt Kielty.

[music]

Jad: If you want to know a little bit more, a little more detail about the flashlight trick. It's not really a trick, the flashlight phenomenon, you can check it out on our website, radiolab.org. Matt's going to put a little post there that explains it in greater detail. Also, you can see some pictures of Dennis's house.

Robert: That's all we can say at this holiday moment.

Jad: Indeed. Except our names I guess I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert: I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad: Thanks for listening.

[music]

 

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