The Moth – Haunted (Chicago, 10/23/2016)
The title of this story is “Haunted, Nazi Hoarder House.” Stop me if you’ve heard it before.
I’m Polish-American. I have some Jewish ancestry. I’m gay and OCD. So this is the scariest story I have.
I was a young attorney in Royal Oak, Michigan at the time. She wasn’t making any sense during the initial client interview. My new client had inherited a house with a foreclosing mortgage. She was worried that the auction price would be too low to cover the mortgage balance. That she’d be sued. But how could it be possible? This was before the housing crisis. I had never heard of a home selling at foreclosure for less than what was owed.
If you don’t know Royal Oak, it’s in metro Detroit. Even though Detroit has a bad reputation, Royal Oak is an upscale area. I mean, we have the world’s largest penguinairium. They don’t put those in bad neighborhoods.
She assured me the place should be condemned. The prior owner had trashed it in ways I could not imagine. And something else was wrong with it. It was haunted.
“I can take you now if you’d like. It’s not far from here. You have to see it to believe it. I can tell you don’t believe it.” It was the end of the day, so I figured why not?
During the drive, she told me more about the prior owner. How he emigrated from Germany in the late 1940’s. How he had been rumored to have worked in the Sobibor Nazi death camp. He had two hobbies: hoarding and schadenfreude. “Schadenfreude” is a German word for the act of taking pleasure from others’ misfortune.
It was a late autumn day. She parked her car on the street. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” I didn’t understand what she meant until I opened my door. I was expecting crisp, cool air and maybe a scent of burning leaves. But the smell hit hard. It smelled like … death. “Yeah, the neighbors hated him,” she said. The yard was overgrown with weeds. Through the chain-link fence to the backyard, I could see piles of metal and children’s toys peeking through thick weeds and bushes. “You didn’t mention that he had children,” I observed. “He didn’t.”
As we entered through the front door, we had to push our way through stacks of garbage. “That’s strange,” my new client said as she flipped a light switch. “The power has been shut off.” I’d seen enough horror movies to know this was a bad sign. It always starts with the power going out or cell phone reception not being any good. Before I could speak up and suggest that we leave, I was startled by the slam of a door upstairs. “Don’t worry, it’s probably just the wind. He only comes here at night.” As she said this, the sun was setting outside.
We pushed through the mess, and I asked “Why does the garbage smell so terrible?” “That’s the dead animals you’re smelling.” “What? Did he set traps to kill mice or something?” As I spoke, we could hear scurrying all around us in the walls and ceiling. “He set traps, yes. He wasn’t so concerned with killing animals as much as making them suffer.”
She slowly guided me, room by room on a tour through the house. Our feet stuck to the floor, which was covered in feces and urine. My client explained that it was as if he had kept every item he had ever acquired over the years. She was sure if she ever had the means to clean up the place, the last thing she’d likely find at the bottom of the piles would be his placenta.
“I’ve saved the best for last,” she said as we stood at the top of a long, dark staircase into the basement. The staircase was crooked and collapsing underneath us. The handrail broke and fell when she touched it. We each held onto the walls as we made our descent downward.
“What’s in the basement?” I asked as the smell grew more severe. “That’s where he keeps the dead animals he’s collected over the years. He keeps them in plastic bins, and they decay into something like soup.” And still I followed her down the steps.
As she reached the final step, my eyes adjusted to the dim light. You could see a dark gray cement floor at the bottom of the staircase. “You’re not going to believe this,” were her final words as she took the last step.
And then … time stood still. It was as though she hovered over the floor for a split second before … the floor swallowed her.
A moment later, she emerged, from the black water we both thought was a floor. The basement, that was full of decaying animals, had flooded. The rotted animal corpses were bobbing in the freezing cold water all around her as she gasped for air.
I’ve seen horror movies. I knew you’re supposed to get the hell out at this point. But against my better judgment, I went forward and struggled to pull her out. We both ran out of the house and through the piles of garbage that had slowed us earlier.
Well, the dead man got his moment of schadenfreude at our expense that night. But my client got her own moment of schadenfreude months later. The house did sell at auction. But, to our surprise, it sold far above the mortgage balance. A bank bought it, sight unseen, based on property values in the neighborhood. My client walked away from the property debt-free. But the new owners got much more than they imagined.