When I was little I used to play in the old ravines that dotted my grandparents’ neighborhood in Charlotte, North Carolina. I can’t say for sure, but those ravines were probably not where streams had once been. More likely they had been dug out from the dirt as shelters during Civil War battles.
One of the ravines was particularly large and deep, and I remember as a kid we used to play everywhere except there. For some reason, it just seemed so creepy, especially to me. As a kid I was always sensitive to feelings I’d get about a place, or a person, whether good or bad. I would just feel certain things, and sometimes I would see them too, hazy shapes in the half-light—shadows, outlines that could have been nothing… or something.
Ours was sort of a strange family. My grandparents and their children messed around with Ouija boards pretty regularly, and they believed in the supernatural. There is one story that my mother used to tell me often, which has become in some ways a symbol of my childhood.
It involves a painting of a Spanish woman that my mother bought when she was starting her household. Although she’d already had my sister and me, she was still very young, in her early twenties. Spain and flamenco culture was very romantic to her.
Pretty soon after my mother hung the painting up in our house, she started to feel really uncomfortable around it. She said she felt like it was always watching her. Before too long she wanted to get rid of it, but her sister, Pam, who lived next door, said she wanted the painting. So my mother gave it to Pam, and before too long the same thing started happening to her.
My grandparents used to host dinner every Sunday at their house, which was very old, just like ours. Everyone would come over: our family plus Aunt Pam, my Uncle Jerry, and their kids. The evening would always end with the grownups probably drinking too much and then they would get out the Ouija board and start having conversations with whoever was out there to talk to.
There was one spirit in particular who was very much a presence in my grandparents’ house. They called him “Christof” and he relayed to them through the Ouija board that he was a Confederate soldier who had died on their property. They thought of Christof as a guardian spirit. I think of him as helping to keep things from getting out of hand.
At one point they started talking with Christof about the painting and how they felt scared by it. He told them there was a malevolent spirit attached to the painting. He also said that I was a good witch (unbeknownst to me since I was three years old) who was helping to protect everyone, but they still needed to destroy it.
Christof was clear that only certain people could be involved. My mom couldn’t go, but my Aunt Pam and Uncle Jerry could, and they had to burn the painting at the top of the road where my grandparents lived, where there were woods and a big open field.
When Aunt Pam and Uncle Jerry came back they were totally freaked out. They told my mom that when they started to burn the painting, it started moving around and they could hear a woman’s voice screaming and crying as if she were being burned to death.
That was the end of the painting, but not the story. It’s something I’ve heard so many times that I’ve internalized it as my own story. In my mind’s eye, I can still clearly see the painting even though there is no way I was old enough to actually remember it. As an adult, I know the painting was really a cheap print, a reproduction bought at a local department store, not a rare, rich oil portrait with some deep, significant history attached to it. Yet everyone else in my family believed.
Were our experiences with the supernatural simply the power of shared suggestion? Or was my “sixth sense” part of an innate connection to the spiritual world that I neither chose nor wanted?
When I was about eighteen, I was in college at UNC, and my mother was living in Raleigh with my stepfather in another old house. I’d often visit on weekends and stay with them. After hanging out with my friends in town, I’d come back to the house at like three or four in the morning and sometimes I would hear noises as I was trying to go to sleep. It might sound like someone in hard soled shoes was walking around upstairs. I often thought it must be my stepdad—who was kind of an asshole—just fucking around with me.
But then one night, I came home after being out very late. Just to be clear, I was pretty much a straight edge kid. I was not drinking or doing drugs. I was just tired. And I was about to fall asleep when suddenly I snapped back awake, realizing there was something in the bed behind me—not a person, but a presence. It was pressed up against my back. It felt like a weight in the bed.
I didn’t want to turn around and look at it. I didn’t even want to move. So I just lay there with my heart pounding until somehow I finally fell asleep. But I was really, really scared, and the next day I said to myself, “I have had enough! I don’t want this to happen anymore!”
More than that, I realized I had the power to stop it from happening, and that realization was more powerful than anything that might have been there in the room with me that night. Just as my family believed they could conjure spirits, I was able to dispel them. By broadcasting that I wasn’t open, I was never “visited” again.
As an adult, I’ve found a house of my own where I feel comfortable. I have an eleven-year-old daughter who hasn’t had the experiences I had when I was growing up. I’m glad for that, but I’m also not as scared by ghosts as I used to be. In fact, these days I love telling and hearing ghost stories, and I always want to hear more. They can give me the chills, but also make me smile. We all live with ghosts, but it doesn’t mean we have to be haunted by them.
Wanted/Needed/Loved: Musicians and the Stuff They Can’t Live Without is an illustrated column where musicians share the stories behind meaningful objects. As told to Allyson McCabe and illustrated by Esme Blegvad.
Laura Ballance is a founding member and the bassist of Superchunk. Along with singer-guitarist Mac McCaughan, she is also the co-founder of Merge Records. Ballance and McCaughan started Merge in the summer of 1989, at first to release 7-inch singles and cassettes from their own band and music created by their friends. Over its 25+ year history the much-loved label has proven a major force in the indie world, with an artist roster that includes Arcade Fire, Spoon, and the Magnetic Fields.