Some scary things aren't real, and some of them are

Maggie Ryan Sandford
Maggie Ryan Sandford, writer and performer.
Courtesy of Maggie Ryan Sandford

Maggie Ryan Sandford is a writer and performer whose work has been seen and heard at, the Onion's A.V. Club, the Guthrie Theater, and the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.

I know I shouldn't be afraid of ghosts. I know I'd be better off being afraid of real, tangible things that are much more dangerous. But I'm not afraid of airplanes or natural disasters or strangers. I'm afraid of ghosts. When I hear a bump in the night, I close my eyes and cover my head and call out, "If there's a ghost around here, that's totally fine, I just don't want to see you or hear you, so please go away." It's humiliating.

When my friend Lauren suggested we go ghost hunting, I pretended to be fine with it. "Oh yeah, absolutely, that's an awesome idea," I said. We were at a party in an apartment in an old abandoned hospital. The apartment had been redone, but everything else was just as it had been since the hospital was abandoned in the '20s or whenever. It was perfect for ghost hunting.

Too perfect.

If we were going to find ghosts anywhere, this was the place. And the kind of ghosts we would find would be the most terrifying kind of ghosts possible: moaning ghosts who'd died on the operating table and didn't know they were dead. Nurse ghosts with flapping white hats and long, blood-spattered gowns. Child ghosts rattling their iron braces - these ghosts were either in pain, or hoping to inflict pain. Terrifying.

But I pretended to relish it. The first thing we came across was an old elevator - the scariest kind of elevator, with the metal grate and a little round window in the door. "Oh man, how scary would it be if this thing worked for some reason?" I said, and pressed the button. Nothing. Then: a deep, labored creak, and the door opened. I looked at Lauren. She looked at me. I pulled open the rusty grate and we stepped inside.

Before you keep reading ...

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

"Well ... we should probably go to the basement," Lauren said.

"Ha ha, yeah!" I said. "Obviously we should!"

I pressed the button and the elevator cables began to hum; I watched as the floors passed by the little round window, one at a time, as we sank. Then we stopped. The doors opened into darkness - not pitch black, just the scariest possible kind of darkness, where the shadows turn into more shadows, where the dark scary hallways turn into even darker, scarier rooms. The hallway to the left was darker, so Lauren said, "We should probably go that way."

"Ha ha, yeah we should!" I said, gasping for breath. I thought that pretty soon she'd hear my heart pounding, and decide it was time to give up the hunt. But she kept going. And I had to follow, or wait around alone.

At the end of the darkest hallway we found an even darker room. The Boiler Room. And everyone knows that the boiler room is the scariest possible room in any building. In horror movies, this is where the worst ghouls lie in wait for the right moment to eviscerate you. This was a textbook boiler room: It had stairs leading down to a recessed floor, it was massive and echo-y and all made of stone, and as our eyes adjusted we saw there was another door on the other side of it.

"We have to go there," said Lauren.

"No way," I said. "I can't. I'm done." I could barely catch my breath. Lauren looked at me and shook her head and started down the stairs to the boiler room floor. With each step she took, my heart pounded harder. "Come on," I begged. "This is crazy. This is insane. Do not go through that door. We have no idea what's over there." She just waved me off and kept going.

Right as she got to the very center of the boiler room floor, halfway to the doorway ... the boiler just roared to life, like it was the first time in a hundred years, and I lost it. "That's it!" I yelled, "Get back here. We're getting out of here, I am not kidding, we're leaving, we're leaving, right right right now!"

Lauren rolled her eyes and turned around.

And someone said, "Who's there?"

We froze. Lauren looked at me. I put my finger to my lips, and we ducked into the first side room we saw.

"Who's down here?" a woman's voice said again, louder. "Get out of here - you don't belong here."

Squeezing Lauren's hand, I pulled her through one side room into another, trying to avoid the voice coming toward us, and as we stepped into the next room, we suddenly saw, stretched out before us, a series of ragged shapes suspended in air.

And then there she was. She emerged from the darkness, her eyes sunken, her cheeks sunken, her hair stringy, and she extended a bony finger toward us. "You can't be here," she said again.

"I'm so sorry," I said.

The rest of the room came into focus: A stool. A cardboard carton turned on its end, an open box of Ritz crackers on top. An open book on a milk crate. Two buckets. A bar of soap. The ragged things stretched out before us weren't a ghost warning, weren't trophies of Victims Come Before... they were underwear, hung up to dry. Laundry, hung in someone's home.

A man appeared in the opposite doorway. "We're leaving," I said, "Right now." The woman nodded, her arms folded tightly across her chest, and walked close behind us as we tramped past their bed - a stack of blankets on the floor. In the hallway, I pushed the elevator button and the cables began to creak. Longest elevator wait of my life. I asked the woman if there was another way up - stairs or something. She shook her head. "This is the only way. No one ever comes down here."

Of course, I thought. The way the woman was clutching herself, it wasn't anger - it was fear. Real fear.

"We won't tell anyone you're down here," I said.

The woman seemed to relax slightly, and nodded. After a moment, she said, "What the hell were you doing down here anyway?"

I looked at Lauren, who looked at the floor. "Nothing. It's stupid," I said. Because what could I tell her? That we got bored at our cocktail party and went looking for ghosts? That her home was the scariest place we could imagine?

At last, the elevator doors opened. As we stepped inside to safety, I realized: A night in a haunted hospital is not so scary. What's truly scary is having nowhere else to go.