I grew up in a house built around 1920, and later owned another house, in another city, of the same vintage. I recently moved to a house built in the early 60’s. There are a few things I like about old houses – first, they tend to be over-engineered, since they were built to last, rather than built to minimum standards. What I really like, though, is that they have character.
In my current house, there are a number of “mysterious happenings”. Thumping noises, strange odours, crystal formations appearing, sensations of cold, and so on. Without knowing the source of these events, they can be a little disturbing. Some of these noises sound like an animal in the wall or floor, which can be frightening. Even though I know better, I must say my brainstem still responds to unknowns by encouraging me to flee. One can see how perceptions of hauntings can occur.
For the record, let me explain these events.
1. Banging in the wall – thermal expamsion of water pipes as hot water is run at the tap upstairs. As the pipes expand, they shift in their mountings, and this shift causes a banging or ticking.
2. Banging in the wall with no pipes – Thermal changes again, perticularly in areas where there is a combination of contributing factors. In this case, we have an extension attached to the house, so different materials in contact. Outside the wall is a planter, with a small space for snow and ice to collect againste the outside wall. Inside, there is an air duct in the floor right at the base of the wall. Between the significant tempreature differences, the differential expansion, and cyclical heating and cooling, creaking and thumping noises from this spot are to be expected.
3. Funny smells – there is a spot just inside the front door thatperiodically has a strange odour. It can be fishy, or like stale onions, or a variety of other “off” smells. Trying to hunt down the source (figuring it might be my son’s shoes), it is strongest where there is no cause. Careful analysis showed that there is a pocket of dead air at that spot. So while air circulates elsewhere in the house, it stagnates there. Household smells that would otherwise disperse fairly readily just don’t in that spot. Adjusting air flow has eliminated this problem.
4. Crystals on the basement wall. This one is straightforward – Just after Christmas we had a thaw, and significant flooding from melting snow. This excessive moisture seeped through the foundation wall in a few places (fortunately low and well drained!), and left a line of evaporites along the seepage edge.
5. The icy hand of death – Okay, maybe a little dramatic. When sitting in our family room, particularly in the evening, it is not at all uncommon to feel suddenly chilled, even though the thermostat on the wall still says the same as always. This one I know well from being out at night a lot – radiative cooling. You see, during the day, your body is radiating heat, but is also receiving radiant heat from your surroundings. You are in equilibrium. At night, particularly a clear night, there is a disequilibrium because half of your surroundings, aka the sky, are no longer providing radiant heat, so there is a net loss. The result is that you can lose body heat quickly. If you are sitting still, you may not notice this immediately – but when you do you feel suddenly very cold. Our family room has large windows, and is in the aforementioned extension. The feeing of cold that descends upon TV watchers in that room in the evening is exactly the same senstaion that comes over me if I am out observing the night sky.
I have experienced stranger sensations and phenomena. Many of these have really given me the heeby jeebies, and even knowing there are mundane (or even intricate) explanations doesn’t prevent the brainstem from trying to make me run. But the tiny difference between us and the rest of the animal kingdom is that we can reason out the causes, and we don’t have to listen to the brainstem.
What I find ironic is that the very people who seem to believe in the mysterious, who listen to their primal instincts instead of reason, who do not exercise their distinction from other animals, are usually the same people who claim most vociferously that we are somehow “superior”, or that we were created special and not animals at all.