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Do Not Enter

A real-life haunted house.

Illustration by Kendra

Illustration by Kendra

Between the ages of 5 and 18, I lived in a split-level ranch house on a hill between two nearly identical houses. To our right were the Judkinses. We knew them very well; they had a daughter, Kristy, who was close to my age. My sister and I grew up running out of the side door of the garage and into Kristy Judkins’s house, banging into her kitchen and opening her fridge to hunt for orange soda.

To our left were the Hansens. Though they were our neighbors for more than a decade, with only a big pine tree separating our houses, I never learned a single personal thing about them. All I knew was that we weren’t supposed to walk on their front lawn. Ever. Mr. Hansen was around 70 years old, and very grumpy—he hated our dogs, and he wouldn’t let us use his backyard as a shortcut. He went outside about four times a year, and that was usually to yell at us about (a) walking on his lawn, (b) our dogs, or (c) crossing his backyard. Mr. Hansen was supposed to be married to and living with Mrs. Hansen, and they were said to have grown children who had long since moved out, but I never saw Mrs. Hansen even once.

Our block was a friendly one—most of the neighbors knew one another and there were lots of kids on our street. We all attended the same schools and there were block parties every summer. We grew up together, we knew each other’s parents and what everyone’s backyards and bedrooms and basements were like. We made snow forts in a nearby field and we roved in packs to play glow Frisbee and Ghost in the Graveyard. But the Hansens were a mystery to everyone. No one had ever seen the inside of their house, and neither had anyone had so much as a conversation with Mr. Hansen.

The fact that this family lived right there, right next door, and yet were so out of reach made me insanely curious. How, I wondered, could I spend my life 20 feet away from someone and never know them?

It happens. Sometimes you never really get to know your neighbors. There are things happening next door, across the street, two houses down, that you will never learn. Every house and apartment is a mini world unto itself. If you’ve ever flown in a plane and looked down as you were taking off or landing, you’ve seen hundreds and thousands of houses. All of them hold strangers you’ll probably never meet. We’ll never really know what goes on under any roof but our own.

Which leads me to this story—it’s a really gruesome story involving death and decay, so stop reading now if that kind of thing is not for you. In November 2008, police officers in Evanston, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago, and very close to my apartment), entered a roomy old house on an upscale street and discovered a secret. A big secret. The owner of the house, Margaret Bernstorff, in her mid-90s and described as reclusive but “sweet” by her neighbors, had been living with the bodies of her three deceased siblings, one of whom had died over 30 years earlier. The corpses, described as “skeletal” in news accounts, were found in their respective rooms, covered by blankets.

The siblings were a brother and two sisters—Anita, who had just died that May at the age of 98; Frank, who died in 2003 at 83; and Elaine, who died in the late ’70s when she was in her 60s.

Nobody had any idea. Margaret’s neighbors told the police and reporters that she was a nice lady who was often seen outside tending to her flower garden. She gave people flowers when they stopped to help her carry her groceries to her door or dropped off food for her (they were never invited inside). No one had seen Anita, Frank, or Elaine for a while, but when they asked after them, Margaret would say they were sick, or had moved away.

Margaret was taken to a senior care facility, and the county medical examiner found no evidence of foul play—all three siblings had died of heart disease.

But why? Why would someone do this? This is the part of the story that draws me in. A neighbor speculated that maybe Margaret just didn’t know what to do when her sisters and brother died, but that doesn’t make sense. Since all the siblings died at completely different times spanning three decades, that means that…Margaret, Anita, and Frank had all consciously chosen to live with Elaine’s dead body in the house for a very long time. One person might not know what to do about a dead body, but three people? And when Frank died, Anita and Margaret knowingly lived with their brother’s and their sister’s remains.

Maybe there was a lack of funds for a burial. Maybe the four siblings were extremely (EXTREMELY) attached to one another. Maybe they made a pact to always stick together, to die, all of them, together in that house. But even if you’re not scared of death or repulsed by dead things, our society has such a horror of the dead that the most plausible explanation here is mental illness, and if that’s the case I’m glad that Margaret is in a place where she might get some treatment and some care.

Even accepting that commonsense and sad theory, though, there are still so many questions! For example: What could it have been like getting up to get a drink of water in the middle of the night in that house? And…what about…the smell? The smell of death is unmistakable and unforgettable. A dead mouse in the basement smells so bad it can make you retch in the upstairs bedroom, and we are talking about three adult human beings who stayed in the house until they turned into skeletons. How did no one ever notice anything at all?

Also: How is it that in 30 years, the only outsider who ever set foot in the house was a neighbor who rented garage space from Margaret, and he only did so once? (He said every room was filled with stacks of newspapers, some piled all the way to the ceiling.) How isolated would poor Margaret have had to have been? How did the Bernstorff siblings live, when they were all alive? Why did none of them ever marry, choosing to live together their whole lives in a two-story Victorian-style house in the suburbs? What happened to them—did they have any other family, and if so, why weren’t their relatives watching over them? What would you do if you were all alone and very old? How is it possible to live next door to or across the street from a sad and scary thing like this and never even know?

It makes me wonder what other mysteries and secrets lurk in all the millions of homes we fly over and drive past. Who lives next door to you? I live in an apartment building, across the hall from people I’ve never met. I share a wall with people I’ve never even seen. Total strangers live above and below me. We all live our lives within 10 feet of one another, and we would never recognize each other on the street. Unless I go knock on their doors and introduce myself (not happening), I may never meet the people I share my living space with. Our worlds are totally different—so close and so far away. It’s actually really weird when you think about it.

I’ve driven past the Bernstorff house a few times. It looks no different from any other house on the street. A couple bought it three years ago; it’s been cheerily repainted, there’s a wreath on the front door, and yellow light shines from the windows. It looks cozy and warm, just like all the other houses on that block, and all the other houses on all the other blocks that make up the neighborhood, and the city. You’d never suspect that anything abnormal ever happened there. What’s happening in all those other houses? ♦

37 Comments

  • jenaimarley March 5th, 2013 3:14 PM

    I love thinking about this.

  • Melissa @ WildFlowerChild March 5th, 2013 3:25 PM

    Such a great article. It really is so interesting. Thanks for sharing, Krista!

    <3 Melissa
    http://wildflwrchild.blogspot.com

  • Flower March 5th, 2013 3:54 PM

    This sort of freaked me out because I think about this ALL the time.
    my year 8 RS teacher said he had a slightly eccentric aunt who was always saying she saw a ghost on the bath tub and he just thought she was nuts until he found out that someone had been murdered in that bath tub like 100 years earlier. ~creepy~
    when I was six I lived in a huge old house and my family and guests were always saying they saw a man wearing all black walking up and down corridors (it literally was that big a house, we had full on corridors) and I saw him a lot of times. It was teriffying and so many people said they saw him that I couldn’t just pass it off as me reading too many ghost stories.
    also this reminds me of when I was in Corfu last year and there was an abandoned hotel in the village where the staff had run out of money and left in the middle of the night leaving all the guests there. Everything has been stripped out of it but it’s still just stood there completely overgrown and empty and walking around it is so eiree, like the hotel in The Shining or something. Hotels are especially creepy!

    http://www.bobblyrainbowsocks.blogspot.com

  • Melisa March 5th, 2013 4:01 PM

    One possibility could be that the four siblings were all very lonely individuals — who in their respective lifetimes keep each other’s company. And perhaps, to rationalize what they did as one by one died, they resort to the thought that death is just “sleeping.” I’d say it’s more of a sad story than a freaky one.

    Even human minds are a mini world unto itself, perhaps even more secretive and mysterious and full of twists than we could ever know.

  • disast3rology March 5th, 2013 4:48 PM

    I always wonder things like this when I’m driving through neighbourhoods other than mine. Every house is a home to at least one person, and they all have different personalities and physical features, and they’re all probably very interesting people somehow, but I will never meet them.

  • Abby March 5th, 2013 4:48 PM

    So even though I really liked this, it kind of made me sad, because of the last sentence. It makes me think of the fact that in a house just down the street there could be a child being abused, or a marriage falling apart, or a teenage girl who has been bullied so badly that she wants to kill herself. Maybe it’s morbid, but I think about this a lot… the fact that we live in a world with so many other people, so many other families and homes… and we don’t know anything about them.

  • camille March 5th, 2013 4:51 PM

    If you haven’t read it yet, I think you might enjoy Faulkner’s short story ‘A Rose for Emily.’ It treats of a similar situation, but also of all the social elements that allow for something like that to happen.

  • Guinevere March 5th, 2013 4:54 PM

    So creepy and interesting.
    Have you guys heard about the body of the Canadian woman that was found in the water tank of the Cecil Hotel in California after, like, *19* days, in which time all the hotel guests had been drinking and bathing in that water? Not only is this disturbing to me because people were consuming that water (One guest even said the shower water would be black for a few seconds before returning to normal!)–which has been claimed to have been “safe” for consumption, but it’s so sad and creepy and crazy and surreal because–really–who would do something like this??? It’s just so messed up. The water tank was on the roof behind a locked door, so it seems very unlikely that this was an accident (and the only people with access beyond this door would have been hotel workers, right? So it’s possible it was a hotel worker….so Elisa Lam wouldn’t have been able to seek help from the hotel. It’s pretty scary to think of a world without a higher power to restore order or to get help from. Like, just think about living in a world where some uncurable disease like the zombie virus (I don’t know, just throwing out some things here.) is beyond the control of everyone, and you are always in danger. The government and the police can’t help you. … Maybe I’m the only one who would be really freaked out, but…). She was also seen acting strangely on the elevator–getting out, looking around, pressing multiple buttons in the elevator. I can’t even imagine how scared she would have felt.
    Ugh. It freaks me out so much!!!

    Anyway, great article!

    • pij_sirup March 5th, 2013 5:23 PM

      It freaks me out too! So much! I kind of feel like this zombie situation you mentioned as an example, is already happening. Maybe I’m just paranoid right now, but it sometimes feels like we are in danger all the time. There is so many bad thing happening right now, sometimes it just feels like something has gone terribly wrong with us. Many people from my country said they don’t feel safe when they see police on the street. Policemen in our country has beaten up people for homophobic and racist reasons and out of pure hatred. The government is a big joke. Feeling scared should not be a constant in a girl’s life (or anyones).

  • pij_sirup March 5th, 2013 5:12 PM

    This is an amazing story. Mind-blowing and sad. I think about these things almost every day, sometimes it’s just a quick thought, and sometimes I really think about it thoroughly. It’s so fascinating, this life, what it all means, how I sometimes want to connect with lots of people I see on the street or bus, but how it makes me sad and anxious because there is not enought time in this life, and not everybody wants to meet me, and why would we all meet, talk, share a moment, does it have any meaning at all? Lately I’ve just been kind of confused about the meaning of this life, do I really want to work most of my life, give birth to children who would enjoy but also struggle in this poor country, will I really fall in love with someone, geez sorry my thoughts are so not in order, I can’t really express myself, but it’s all clear in my head. Everything just seems kinda meaningless to me right now. Oh and don’t get me wrong, I’m not depressed, trust me. I still can find small pleasures in life and I’m not actually in bad mood at all. It’s just these new thoughts in my head I needed to express somewhere and this story reminded me of it. Sorry for such a long comment.

  • jessmargo March 5th, 2013 5:32 PM

    This reminds me so much of an old neighbor that used to live across the street from me! She and her husband were an old, seldom-seen couple but then the husband died and she stored him under the their bed “temporarily.” Like, 9 months later someone found out and she’s in a nursing home now. Boxes of her stuff was thrown out in the street which my mother rescued, some of which their antique ornaments that reside on out xmas tree each year. Amongst other things, there was a grungy purse with legitimate TEETH inside. Like actual individual little teeth, no joke. People are such weird creatures…

    • Esthermyla March 26th, 2013 9:17 PM

      My mom kept our baby teeth :)

  • saramarit March 5th, 2013 5:34 PM

    This reminded me of the story of Joyce Vincent who died in her flat and wasn’t discovered for three years. The strangest part is she was an outgoing person with many friends but this still happened. A film called Dreams of A Life has been made about her story, I haven’t seen it yet because I get so sad even thinking about what happened to her (not to mention scared it could happen to me).

    • meena ganesh March 6th, 2013 7:34 AM

      Yep. I recently heard about this story and it was terrifying because if it could happen to her, it could happen to me. And then I found out that the flat she died in is five minutes from my house, right above the shops I use every week. I can’t help but think about her every time I pass by there.

    • Esthermyla March 26th, 2013 9:18 PM

      I just saw this on Netflix and considered watching it. This is a sign!

  • Jolala March 5th, 2013 6:28 PM

    Eeeeeerie

  • Maddy March 5th, 2013 7:49 PM

    Yeah there is a house on my street and no one had ever seen anyone go in or out, there was only occasionally a black SUV in the driveway, and all the window shades were pulled. A few years ago, a neighbor called the police because he was shining a laser into their house at night. The police searched his house and found unregistered assault weapons. Multiple guns. He said the laser was for carpentry and he got released from jail so now he’s back on our street, blackout curtains on the windows, and this weird big black thing (probably a camera on a tripod) in one window. I don’t live in a bad part of town or anything, but going by his house terrifies me.

    So, um, trust your instincts about creepy houses?

  • hattilongsoks March 5th, 2013 7:50 PM

    Has anyone read the book The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan? it’s the same author who wrote Atonement (if you guys in the US, im from the UK, got that film with Keira Knightly in it).

    The story to that is pretty similar except it’s three kids. I didn’t really like the book all that much (not a great gripping story line) but their mother dies and they try and keep it a secret. I know kids is maybe considered more likely than the older or elderly but who knows.

    Worth a quick read anyway. Oh and the film, which I’ve never seen, has Charlotte Gainsbourg in who I love!

    • Pipstar May 3rd, 2013 12:48 PM

      I really didnt like that book but i LOVE Ian McEwan. i struggled with the incestuous bits too much xx

  • llamalina March 5th, 2013 11:19 PM

    this is so mind-blowing to think about. i honestly have no idea who my neighbors are, and it’s crazy to think that there could be anything happening just a couple houses down from me and i have no idea. the world’s a lonely place.

    http://llamalina.blogspot.com

  • Cynthia March 5th, 2013 11:48 PM

    This article reminded me of this short story: http://www.nexuslearning.net/books/holt-eol2/collection%203/landlady.htm We read it last year in English, and it creeped us all out!! I won’t give any spoilers here, because it’s with reading and the ending is so surprising!

    And we have a next door neighbour who never seems to leave her house. Her father used to live there and he was this really nice old man and and he was heaps friendly and he gardened and stuff… And then when he died his daughter moved in and, like, I never see her outside of her house- it’s really creeeeepy…

    • periwinkle_dreams March 7th, 2013 2:59 PM

      I’ve read The Landlady, it’s so deliciously creepy! Roald Dahl’s short stories are so great, I just read his Tales of the Unexpected collection last fall and finished all the stories in one day.

  • Isabelle97 March 6th, 2013 7:34 AM

    this sounds like a something the Winchester brothers would be interested to know…..

    • raggedyanarchy March 6th, 2013 11:52 AM

      Krista should keep watch for a black Chevy Impala!

    • Cutesycreator aka Monica June 18th, 2013 12:30 PM

      When I finished this article and scrolled down to read the comments, I was so hoping I’d find a comment like yours! :DDD

  • laurajane March 6th, 2013 9:14 AM

    I love reading articles like this with all the long, thoughtful comments because it makes me feel like I’m at a sleepover and we’re having this moment where we’re talking about all the lonely and crazy and weird and strange thoughts we all have and realize that we’re not alone in our hopeless wondering at the world. It’s nice and weird.

    • Isabelle97 March 6th, 2013 1:00 PM

      seconded with great approval

    • Moxx March 6th, 2013 6:49 PM

      omg I think you got it so right: the comments section at Rookie is like a big huge sleepover!

      • laurajane March 6th, 2013 10:19 PM

        aw wow I want to hug both of you for reading and really feeling me here <3 <3 <3 the sleepover aura just heightened

  • CorduroyMagic March 6th, 2013 5:48 PM

    There’s a house on my street that I have never ever seen anyone go in or out of, yet, the grass is always mowed and seems to be kept up. Then, one day, I drove past and the siding had all been painted. What? I’m convinced they are nocturnal or something.

    Also, A Rose for Emily anyone?!?!

  • N.Arie March 6th, 2013 5:52 PM

    How come I never heard of this story before? I live near the Chicago area myself. And never heard anything like this ever. Makes me think about my own neighbors. Where I live people keep to themselves. When people drive by you get the usual head nod or wave and when walking you get the usual “Hello” and/or “How are you?”, But that is it…Nobody really talks to anyone.

    Now you have me wondering about what everyone really does behind close doors in my neighborhood (but I am not that curious to go find out).

  • Kali Sinclair March 6th, 2013 9:29 PM

    Stuff like this really does happen. I work for a Medical Examiner’s Office (not in Illinois) & I think every office out there has at least one similar story. It’s just sad. Most of the people aren’t monsters or anything, just sad, lonely & incapable of making big decisions. We had a nasty one in the city our office is set in. A woman with a drug problem moved in with her mother, who was an elderly hoarder. The mother died & the woman put her on a couch & covered her in blankets. She then proceeded to draw the mother’s social security checks for several years. Finally she was discovered as a little skeleton under the blankets, but I felt so bad for the mother when I heard the story many years after the fact. The house is still there, rented to unknowing college students most likely.

  • Nikilodeon March 17th, 2013 8:40 AM

    “It happens. Sometimes you never really get to know your neighbors. There are things happening next door, across the street, two houses down, that you will never learn. Every house and apartment is a mini world unto itself. If you’ve ever flown in a plane and looked down as you were taking off or landing, you’ve seen hundreds and thousands of houses. All of them hold strangers you’ll probably never meet. We’ll never really know what goes on under any roof but our own.”

    so beautiful. and so true.

  • Pipstar May 3rd, 2013 1:46 PM

    I cant stop thinking about dead mouse smell now i can practically imagi-smell it and i have the worst morning sickness. noooo! xx

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica June 18th, 2013 12:27 PM

    This is so interesting! I am fascinated with creepy old houses and stuff but sadly, I highly doubt I’ll build up the courage to ever go into one. Oh well, admiring from afar it is, then…

    PS I love Kendra’s illustration!