House-Hunting Horrors

From Spooky Churches to Unholy Crap-Shacks

Well, the management of this fine publication doesn’t want to devote an issue to my favorite art form, that of the “crank”, but “flake” is close enough. And as my mom is downsizing into a condo unit and is getting ready to move out of the Lake View house I grew up in, I was reminded of my first house-hunting experience a few years back, where “flakiness” is often the rule as opposed to the exception.

I’ll get back to the flakiest aspect of the house hunt, but first I’d like to share my favorite horror story (leave the lights on for this one). It happened right after a deal on a house my wife and I had set our hearts on fell through, and we were crushed.

So we tried to remain optimistic (the search had taken several months already), as we went through the real estate listings again.

First, a quick aside: One of the first things I learned was that at any given moment there are “x” number of houses on the market, and the majority of them are unsold for a good reason—the asking price is way too high, major repairs are needed, the house is located practically under the expressway, the neighboring houses are covered in gang graffiti, the owner decided to make “unusual” structural modifications (hey, who doesn’t like a staircase to nowhere that has been walled off at the top, or a space heater smack in the middle of the living room?), etc.

So on a fine sunny Saturday morning, we headed out to see what was advertised as a building that “needed updating”—this rather benign claim truly rivaled the Weapons of Mass Destruction whopper in terms of deceit.

First lesson for home sellers: Fix your front porch! The porch was sagging mightily on one side, and the seller’s optimistic (to the point of delusion) realtor just kind of brushed that off. So already a bit skeptical, our eyebrows rose further when the realtor insisted on taking us up to the 2nd floor so we wouldn’t disturb the children on the 1st floor, who apparently were still fast asleep at noon.

The 2nd floor was pretty nondescript—nothing all too terrible, except for the minor detail that all the ceiling lights had been removed and in their place were clusters of wires, jutting out like an electrical octopus. The realtor cheerfully stated, “Isn’t this great? The owner is updating all of the electrical for you!” I asked, “Oh, so he’s an electrician?” and got back “No, he’s a cop, but he knows what he’s doing.”

Uh, be still my beating heart… not exactly inspiring info.

So then we went up to the attic, where our realtor’s foot promptly went through the “floor” and partway through the ceiling. With a sing-songy tone that was starting to really get old, the seller’s realtor said, “Oops, you have to watch that!”

Watch what? I’m thinking. Another bad sign, but we were just getting started.

So we bailed out of the attic pronto, and the seller’s realtor said, “OK, we can go see the 1st floor now, but I have to prepare you for something.”

He paused, as my mind boggled with anticipation—as he hadn’t seen fit to prepare us for the fact that we could fall through the attic floor, how much worse could it get?

Oh, much worse. As we descended the stairs, he continued, “The family believes very deeply in artistic and creative freedom for their children, and the children occupy the entire floor by themselves, so I don’t want you to be surprised…”

So, I figured, OK, it’s kind of messy because the kids paint a lot, or maybe they painted a picture on a wall, etc.

And then we stepped in. I cannot over-exaggerate the shock as we took in our surroundings.

Every, and I mean every square foot of the walls from ground level to about 4 or 5 feet up, was covered with scribbling. Not drawings, not pictures, but scribbling, flat-out gibberish.

Apparently our dismay was lost on the realtor, as he proceeded to once again say, “And look! He’s redoing the electrical in this unit, too!” Ah yes, more exposed wiring, that certainly made up for the freak show unveiling before my eyes…namely, the bathroom door.

Remember the “Redrum! Redrum!” scene from The Shining? Well, picture a bathroom door covered top to bottom, side to side, with “Bad Cop! Bad Cop! Bad Cop!” The music from the movie was playing in my head as I absorbed the (literally) hundreds of times this had been scrawled on the door. Yikes.

So we get to the front of the flat, where we are then told we still can’t see any of the bedrooms, as the little darlings are apparently still asleep, and of course, no parent in their right mind would ever disturb a sleeping tyke (at noon) in order to sell a house for almost $300K.

Second lesson for home sellers: Nobody is going to drop a few hundred thousand dollars without being able to see every room in the house!

So at this point, we were just going through the motions. It got worse.

We took a quick trip down to the basement, which had a huge puddle/water stain covering about 30-40% of the entire floor, including the parts where the heating system was located. The still inexplicably-cheerful realtor (charged with the impossible task of selling this dump) yelled out the door, “Hey, it looks like there is a small leak in the basement!”

Oh, and did I mention there were more electrical “upgrades” in the works as well? Nothing like exposed wiring and puddles, a combination only rivaled by guns and alcohol…

But wait… it got worse.

We exited the basement and walked out into the back “yard”—back “dirt pile” would be more appropriate—with the added ambience of an old pickup truck parked diagonally in said dirt, as there was no garage. However, the property was right off the alley, so my wife, who apparently had been searching for the silver lining in this asbestos cloud, said, “Well, I guess we could put a garage there.”

Not quite. The seller’s realtor said, “Well, actually you can’t. The people in the house next door have a right-of-way through the yard so they can park in their yard.”

Now this was just too much. I grew up in Chicago when you still had the cars on blocks in the streets, the old chain-link fences, etc. But I had never seen a guy who had a legal right to drive through your back yard so that he could park in his backyard!

As we walked back to our car through the alley, the chicken-coop wire on the outside of the basement windows was a real classy touch. Needless to say, we passed on this “fixer-upper”!

I had never seen a guy who had a legal right to drive through your back yard so that he could park in his backyard!

So let me get back to why we didn’t run screaming from this crap-shack to begin with.

The deal on the house we had fallen in love with had fallen through, but there had been a strange, one might say flaky, aspect to it.

It sat on a nice street in Logan Square, a bit busy, but not too bad. When we had first seen it, we had loved everything about it on the inside, but the backyard was what had really left an impression on me. The yard wasn’t all that big, but there was a beautiful tree providing shade, and the two-story brick building next door extended almost all the way to the end of the lot. There were no windows, and the side facing the yard was covered 100% with ivy, so the yard felt like a mini-Wrigley Field. Additionally, the garage had an extra door that opened into the yard, and with the door open, it felt like an extra living room that you could open up at will.

So as we were leaving, I took a closer look at this brick building—it actually turned out to be a church. An alarm went off immediately… Was this place going to have loud bells ringing early every Sunday? Tons of parishioners crowding the sidewalks?

The sellers assured us it was a very low-key church, and there were no bells. My curiosity piqued, I turned to my old friend “Mr. Internet” and found out that it was a chapter of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches of the United States of America.

I had never heard of these folks before. Their website states:

Spiritualism is a common sense religion, one of knowing and living. We accept all truths and endeavor to prove their validity. Truths are found in nature, in other religions, in writings, in science, in philosophy, in Divine Law and are received through spirit communication.

Sounded pretty typical, but being nosey, I looked around the website and found a list of definitions related to Spiritualism:

Spiritualism is the Science, Philosophy and Religion of continuous life, based upon the demonstrated fact of communication, by means of mediumship, with those who live in the Spirit World. (1919)

Whoah! This was not at all what I expected…and there was more:

A Spiritualist is one who believes, as the basis of his or her religion, in the communication between this and the Spirit World by means of mediumship and who endeavors to mould his or her character and conduct in accordance with the highest teachings derived from such communication. (1914, Rev. 1938)

A Medium is one whose organism is sensitive to vibrations from the spirit world and through whose instrumentality, intelligences in that world are able to convey messages and produce the phenomena of Spiritualism. (1914)

Wow. I was flabbergasted. Was I reading this right? Was this, in Chicago in 2002, a church based on séances and that kind of stuff? I didn’t know, outside of tarot-card readers and fortune tellers, that people still believed this stuff…these would be my new neighbors?

Delving further, I found spelled out in black-and-white, “Spirtualism: What it is”:

Through mediumship, communication with mortals who have experienced transition from earth has been established, thus proving, there is no death.

Was I reading this right? Was this, in Chicago in 2002, a church based on séances and that kind of stuff?

Oh boy. Surely there had to be more to this than meets the eye… maybe the building was originally this kind of church, but had been converted. Nope, the address was listed on the website—this was the real deal, people who believe in ghosts!

I looked around a little more on the Internet and found a really wild story about none other than Harry Houdini, who apparently briefly dabbled with Spiritualism in a fit of grief over losing his mother:

Harry Houdini is still considered today as one of the greatest illusionists and magicians in history. In addition to his fantastic escapes and stunts, he was also well known in the 1920’s for his debunking of fraudulent Spiritualist mediums. In this, modern information about Houdini tends to be skewed. Today, many skeptic organizations have claimed Houdini as one of their own, but this is far from the truth. Unlike these groups, Houdini did not start out attacking fake mediums because he did not believe in the supernatural. In fact, he had gone to them in an attempt to try and contact his dead mother, but found that the mediums he met were often frauds. This was when he turned to exposing them, still searching for the truth.

I checked around a little more and found corroborating stories on other websites, such as Illusionist vs. Spiritualist and A History of Spiritualist Fraud in the 19th and 20th centuries (love this site, by the way, “The Skeptic Report”).

Now I was getting kind of excited about the whole business. Somehow this church had survived all these years, certainly being on the receiving end of all kinds of skepticism, possibly legal investigations, who knows what else?

So I shared all this with my wife, who was totally unimpressed. Although the religion appears to unabashedly stick to its beliefs in contacting spirits in the next world, I did find this statement in their website’s “overview”, which I must say, seemed kind of cool:

Life concerns growth. We, Spiritualists, try to keep an open, even mind so new truths may be incorporated into our principles. In keeping with this, we have no bound creed or set of dogmas. Our Declaration of Principles, which form the basis of our beliefs, has changed over the years as new clarification has been gleaned. We know that truth is the highest religion and endeavor to test our beliefs, altering them as new truths are proven.

Kinda cool. So in the end I came to the general consensus that at worst they might be flakes, but at best they’d be really interesting folks to have as neighbors.

Then of course, the deal on the house fell through and it became a moot point. We ended up buying another house we saw right after the dump I described earlier, proving there is a God, but every time I go down that street I do think about that church.

In writing this story I revisited the spiritualists’ website often, and found an update from October 2004 that sounded pretty darned rational:

In the ten proposals for changes to the Principles, only one passed. No. 6 will now read, “We believe that the highest morality is contained in the Golden Rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”

Not bad at all. Perhaps the owner of the “house of horrors” should have taken this advice with respect to his place. I’m betting he wouldn’t buy a house where his foot went through the floor!

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