Now don’t get me started on whether ghosts exist. Frankly, I don’t care who believes what. All I can write about are those specters I’ve personally experienced, and I am convinced German ghosts are the best. So let’s see what you think…
31 October of 1971, and the German region of Swabia was cold and dank. It seemed winter just wouldn’t hold off much longer. And here I found myself with my friend Dave and two sisters from the Ulm art guild (along with a bottle of red, still to be opened), traversing the rolling hills as we wended our way into the countryside to visit a ghost. Or perhaps, if we were lucky, ghosts.
Wisps of fog were beginning to gather in the hollows, the farmhouses sent aromatic wood smoke into the clear evening sky, and the moon…well, I don’t remember the moon, but I’m pretty sure there was one back in ’71. And I was doing the driving in my little white Mercedes 180D, rusting rear wheel wells and all.
So what inspired this excursion, you might well ask? Dave was a recognized concert organist with carte blanche permission to play the great cathedrals organs of Germany, the very same ones once played by J.S. Bach. I was with the Army as an interpreter and community liaison, and had joined Dave to hear him play at the famous Ulm cathedral. So we ended up sharing dinner with the two aforementioned women.
Now since it was Halloween, we had no choice but to talk about how Americans celebrate this night of hauntings and witchcraft, and we were asked if we’d like to head out to meet the occupants—living and dead—of a real German castle. We both said yes. A phone call was made, the wine fetched, and we were on our way.
As we followed the narrow roads we rose a bit higher above a village and there was our destination silhouetted against the sky. Now we’re not talking Mad Ludwig’s Bavarian wedding cake castle here. This was a modest four-story Schloss of late Renaissance vintage, but impressive all the same. We parked on the country road and approached the garden gate, rang the bells, and watched as the current lord of the manor (actually the tenant, but a gracious host all the same) came out through a large oaken door and crossed the rose garden to welcome us.
Herr and Frau L. had occupied the first floor suite of rooms for years. The original stables and workshops were on the ground floor. The floor above the L.’s housed the elderly baroness herself, direct descendant of the nobility which built this imposing structure. And at the top was an attic floor used for storage.
We followed Herr L. through the massive door, took a look at the stables, then climbed the stairwell towere to their beautiful suite of castle rooms. Once settled in the expansive grand hall with its ornately decorated hearth and high beamed ceiling, we heard the L.’s recount the adventure that had brought them to this haunted castle. After the war ended they had decided to move down from Northern Germany. Both had just finished studies at the university and wanted to escape the devastation in the north. Mrs. L. arrived a few days before her husband, and the baroness helped her settle in, offering any of the centuries-old furnishings found in the attic of the castle to fill out the many rooms.
It wasn’t long before she learned that the castle had been a field hospital during the Franco-Prussian war of the 1870’s, and that the early morning hours could bring the crunching sound of gravel underfoot as ghost troops paraded along the structure. And one room in particular was frequently graced by the spooky murmurings and footsteps of unseen doctors and nurses making the rounds from one doorway to the next, perhaps seeking their long-gone soldier patients.
Here comes the kicker. One night Frau L. fell asleep, only to awaken with the eerie feeling that she wasn’t alone. At the foot of her bed stood a ghostly presence, a large man in Elizabethan garb—covered with dust, by the way—who introduced himself as Ludwig, lord of the manor. She was aghast at the ghost, despite believing it a dream, but did note that he wore a large signet ring on his finger. Before he disappeared, he inquired about their business in his home, approved the answer with a nod, and gave assurances that they had nothing to fear.
So we opened the bottle of red and listened in rapt attention to the rest of the story:
A day or so later Frau L. dreamed she was dragged from her bed by a vicious shrewish person, who tossed her down the stairwell. She awoke less than refreshed. And then later, having finally fallen asleep, she was visited once again by Ludwig, who apologized for his aunt’s distasteful behavior and assured Frau L. that he would look after their well-being from that moment on.
So when Herr L. arrived and the newly-weds trekked upstairs to search through the attic for furnishings, they found many large paintings stored for ages against one wall, and as they worked their way through the pile, one in particular caught her eye. There in all his former glory stood Ludwig, posing for the artist in doublet with dagger and wearing the very signet ring she had seen in her “dream.” But wait, there’s more: a smaller painting surface with the very same face as that of the less-than-welcoming meanie of the second dream.
They hung Ludwig (the painting, not the specter) in the grand hall—we admired his image as we heard the story told—and the smaller oil was rightfully placed in the stairwell.
As the time came for us to say good-night and the L.’s inquired about Dave’s plans, he announced his decision to stay in Schwaben for a while, and they graciously offered to rent him one of their rooms, since many stood empty. I suggested he take the room with the wandering medical personnel, and also immediately invited myself to be his guest for an overnight stay at the earliest opportunity.
While they made the rental arrangements, I admiring the paintings and woodwork in the wide hallway. Out of nowhere appeared behind me a short dark figure in long black clothing. I recall jumping a few inches. Perhaps I uttered an expletive.
But it was no specter, it was the baroness, who, having just descended by private elevator to greet the departing Americans, found my startled reaction very enjoyable. She laughed, then smiled sweetly as she introduced herself. I’m sure she planned it that way.
The next weekend I arrived to spend my night in the haunted castle, and I laid out my sleeping bag in the very middle of the room to best experience the manifestations. I figured the spooks would have to walk right across my makeshift bed.
About eleven p.m. I crawled into the mummy bag, and Dave turned out the light and went to his bed, which was pushed into the corner beneath a large mullioned window overlooking the rose garden.
Now inasmuch as I was a novice ghost hunter, my mind could have been playing tricks on me. But around midnight—I wasn’t resting that well—I noticed that the round globe of the ceiling light 20 feet above my head, once the size of a basketball, had now grown to encompass the entire ceiling, wall to wall, as if slowly and steadily descending in my direction.
“Dave,” I mumbled from beneath the flap of my bag, “Does that light look normal to you?”
“Looks fine to me,” said Dave.
Okay. From this moment on I’m not staring at anything anymore, I’m just lying there counting the minutes and the hours with my head under the cover. After all, dawn couldn’t be that far off, right? I checked my watch. It was only one a.m.
Then came a scratching, scraping sound on the window above Dave’s head, obviously coming from outside and…well, just imagine some large clawed creature asking to be let in.
“Dave,” I asked, “Dave, are you asleep?”
“Of course not,” he said.
“What do you think that is?”
“Must be a tree branch blowing in the wind, scraping against the window,” Dave said.
“Why not sit up and take a look?” I suggested. “It’s right by your head.”
“No way,” said Dave, his voice muffled by his covers.
The scraping got louder and more persistent before it abruptly quit.
I don’t remember much sleep that night, and in the pre-dawn hours I waited anxiously for the wandering, long-dead medical staff to come visit, but to no avail. I listened for the long-dead soldiers to do their drills on the gravel below. No luck.
So I finally pulled myself from my cocoon. Dave was buried under his covers, not yet awake. I wandered over to the window to look out at the gray and dawning morning, and see if the nighttime visitor had left scratch marks on the ancient window glass. It hadn’t.
And the nearest tree was many meters away. No branches could have made the sound.
We decided a haunted house party was in order, so I invited my friends. Here’s how it would go down: Dave would dress entirely in black, and when the guests and I arrived at the garden gate he would descend the stairwell with a large, brightly-lit candelabrum in hand. None of the guests would know in advance, and at each landing we would see the flaming candles through the stairwell windows, and then he would come out to greet us at the gate, looking suitably Addams Family.
We had dinner down the road at a nice Gasthaus, then walked up and rang the bell. The highest window in the stairwell glowed suddenly, awash with the candlelight of multiple tapers, and everyone oohed and aahed as we watched it descend from landing to landing and we awaited the opening of the door. And waited. And then, what should appear at the upper landing but a solitary burning candle, making its way down on the trail of the candelabrum just descended. The door swung open, and out came Dave with a single candle in hand.
“What did you see when you came down the stairs,” I asked in amazement and wonder.
“Nothing at all, why?” he said.
Unable to locate a candelabrum, he had settled for the single taper.
On a subsequent trip a few years later I took my wife to meet the L.’s, and we asked if they had experienced anything unusual of late. They regarded each other briefly, and then Herr L. told the following tale:
They had never had reason to fear the paranormal activities of the place, especially with Ludwig on watch. And then one night shortly before our visit he went down to the big rose garden door to let their dog in. As he reached out into the darkness to grab the massive iron latch, a hand cold as ice grabbed his wrist and forcefully tried to drag him out into the blackness. Herr L. wrenched his wrist free and ran up the stairs. And from that moment on they were more circumspect with regard to the hauntings.
Perhaps Ludwig had taken a night off from his guard duties. After all, even a ghost occasionally needs a vacation.
Copyright 2013 by Patrick W. O’Bryon