How to Paint a Haunted House

By Thomas C. Mavroudis

From CHM #39 September 2023 

Hey guys! Thanks for all the kind words posted to my channel while I was away. But here I am, back at the thing, and just in time for spooky season!

What’s it been, July was my last video? Boy, it sure feels like a lot longer since we were together, doesn’t it? Time is funny that way. Sometimes, you heal up just like that, and other times, it takes the scabs and bruises much longer. Well, anyway, as you can see, I’m not too worse for wear, physically. The make-up and lights do their trick as well, don’t they? 

For this project, you’ll want to start with a sketch, the bones of the house, if you will. I have a particularly heavy hand, so the pencil I use to rough out my work is an 11G. They are difficult to acquire, and the price, I admit, is outside most people’s means, so I don’t recommend them for everybody. A 10H or even a regular old 9H will work for most folks. 

Now, don’t worry about the landscaping just yet. The trees, the grass and shrubs. That’s all decoration. Let’s focus on the house itself.

Gabe decided to work on the faux shutters first. There were six altogether, two at the front, and four facing south. He started with the shutters because, considering the extensive restoration, he needed some effortless sense of accomplishment to carry him to a more dedicated project. After all, how else could he devour an entire house except one bite at a time? 

That’s not quite right, it occurred to Gabe, as he began painting the first set of shutters tucked behind a pair of eye-level, dusty junipers. But it made sense. Paint the shutters, and people will notice someone is actually caring for the decrepit place. Besides, for the time being, the contrast between the sun-paled, hail-stricken exterior with the fresh, latex coated shutters gave the property a suggestion of vibrancy and rejuvenation. 

By all means, you may make your house two stories. Heck, three stories! And with a widow’s walk on top. But see my outline, here? Isn’t that nice? A Ranch-style, they call that. Reminds me of the houses that used to be in the neighborhood where I grew up. It might not look sinister right now, but any ol’ house can have ghosts. Yeah, any house can be where monsters are.

Every wall of every room, except for the tiled sections of the kitchen and bathrooms, was covered in wallpaper, floor to ceiling. And layers of it, as through it were another type of construction material that formed the very walls they overlaid. The topmost sheets were dingy with decades of cigarette smoke, but otherwise in fair condition, only lifting here and there at a few corners and seams throughout the varied chambers.

In one room, a pass-through with two doors, a nursery perhaps, the walls were papered with steam trains, a faded vanilla background with the engines and cars a henna tone like dried blood. In the formal dining room, the walls were draped in scarlet bands of varying width, stamped with mahogany fleur-de-lis. A ubiquitous yellow damask adorned the master bathroom, opposing the grubby and cracked ivory tilework. 

It was too much.

Gabe sat outside on the window box in front of the huge picture window. The shade and stone were cool. Seductively cool. A dad and his little son on a beat-up tricycle creeped down the sidewalk. Gabe almost felt as though they were not there. Or he wasn’t.

What could he do? How could he make this easier? He didn’t have the money for a professional remodel, for one thing. But time was different. Time was plentiful now. At least for a good while or so. 

He hopped off the wall, shuffling through lawn invaded by ferns and dandelions, and constellations of mushrooms, to the sidewalk. He analyzed the house, the houses on either side.

His reflection in the picture window, a dubious figure, looked like someone inside, studying him through the old plate glass. 

Somewhere along the way, Gabe recognized, he had made a poor decision.

I like to wet my paper a little bit, first. Not messy, just a little moist. Then we take our burnt umber and add just a speck of crimson. A tiny splatter. Hardly noticeable. And just draw it along the top line of our roof, let it bleed down. There. Let’s let that dry and then we’ll go back in with some viridian at the eaves to give a hint of all the moss and decaying bits looming there.

The flies, for some reason, loved the paint. All of it. Was it the smell, that odd cake-batter odor, or something about the colors? Crystal lake, lemon pepper, chicory. Crushed tomatoes. And where were they all coming from? That was worrisome. A cat perhaps, abandoned, crawled to a corner of the basement, or some rodent of substantial merit trapped within the walls. 

Gabe, quickly annoyed by their prevalence, by their flitting buzz until they landed and were ensnared by the layer of fast drying latex, scrutinized, hunted for the usual weak spots: tears in the screens of the opened windows, faults in the seals of the exterior doors. Damp places, wet places. The flies appeared to simply happen.

But just as soon, he ignored them, dozens of them on a single kitchen wall. He painted the adjacent surface, and when he was done, he remembered the flies. He examined one, and then another. A few had all their legs trapped. Some a wing. A couple, their heads. They didn’t seem panicked, like he had seen flies caught in sticky paper. He plucked one, tearing off all but one leg and dropped it. He plucked another, squashing it accidently. Then he flicked one from the wall, and then another, until the wall was mostly bare. Gabe snickered.

The trick is, and it’s no trick really, it’s practice…is showing what’s inside by what is absent from the outside. Let me take my paper towel, see, and just dab. Just dab away a little of the color from right here…and there, see that? Can you feel what’s lurking in the basement? It’s there, just by pulling out the pigment. Down in the furnace room, past the sliding doors across from the deep freezer. Or is it in the freezer? Something is there in the crawlspace, no doubt, crouching just behind the box of wrapping paper and garland. I can smell it, can’t you? Candles, and scented pine cones, and just under it the sticky, surgery rot. You’re afraid to even stand at the top of the stairs. Afraid someone will shove you so they can pull the basement door shut and lock it. Even if you are in control of the light switch, it doesn’t matter, does it? It’s down there. Down there still. Hiding. Hiding anywhere.

From room to room, Gabe pulled down the wallpaper like pulling down stale drapes. Except, where sunlight might flood through newly uncovered windows, the walls beneath were dull and grotesque, the color of a wandering derelict, all faded browns and dirty taupe, and dots and lines of greasy black. A lithe putrescence clung to the surface, nearly not there but in Gabe’s mind, a scent only existing in some form of memory, neither wholly true nor false.

At times, a flicker would catch the corner of his eye. Sometimes his ear. For instance, he was stirring the primer and it happened; a moth, the big sort like his childhood cat would bring inside on summer nights, twitching, then holding still when he looked directly at the spot. Or the bump bump of several tiny moths fluttering against the surface. The repulsive, naked walls could camouflage millions of moths, big and small. Or the walls themselves could have been cut from the wings of gigantic moths. If he dared touch the surface with his hands, a finger or two, it was brittle and spongy at the same time, and disturbingly tepid—the temperature of something newly dead. Maybe he should have contemplated the structure of the walls first, replaced the drywall, sprayed texture. Just paint them, just cover them all, get it over with, even if it takes four, five coats. More.

I know what you’re saying, you did it again, you son-of-gun, but remember, in this little world of ours, there are no mistakes. And there surely are no accidents here on the canvas. We can fix any old mishap right up. 

Out there though, well, that’s just…

Let’s take the knife here and just scrape, just scrape, scrape, scrape. There. Now I’ll take a little water and we blend it out. See, even though the colors bled into each other, we’ll soften them up, just dab and blend, like you would a stain on the carpet or the ottoman. 

There. Almost like nothing bad happened at all, right? And we can paint right over that ugly spot. What happened underneath, violence, desperation, love…that’s our secret now.

Eighteen years was not that long. But it was. Babies become adults in eighteen years. Adults, some of them, become babies in eighteen years. Worse than babies. Eighteen years of neglect, eighteen years of misuse made a difference. Eight days, Gabe knew, had an impact. 

Still, how could the house become so alien? For one thing, the houses on either side, architectural monstrosities that swallowed the double lots across the subdivision, made the 60’s Ranch appear to be the one out of place. And it certainly looked abandoned in its extreme disrepair, although it was not. Had not been, rather.

Was there a remnant of warmth or comfort in any corner of the house, any crack or crevice? The house behaved as though it was always a place of fear and misery. And was that alien to Gabe after all? He adapted, he immersed himself in the uncertain refuge, as a worm tunnels through grave dirt. There was pain there, always, not hidden so much as ignored. Disregarded.

Gabe walked through the house, a hand to the walls. Every newly painted room was dull, each colored wall infected with seams of grey. He dipped a finger in the half gallon can of cascade and drew a figure on the bedroom wall. It was bright and glossy at first, and as he watched it dry, it shivered from the wall and walked away. He drew a figure on the living room wall in crystal lake. That figure sat, then crawled across the floor to prone beneath the picture window. Each room he gave an occupant.

When he went around the house again, in the fading western sunlight, only one painted occupant remained—the one sprawled on the floor. He sat next to it, a draught through some loose weather stripping tussling his hair. The muscles of his face were sore with contortions. Everything was sore.

Let’s see now, I think…yes, there it is. There’s a thorny hedge that runs along right…here. Yeah. Imagine all the rascals running around in there in the shade and shadows, hiding in those sharp stickers. Lots of little critters there, like a little town of mice, slugs, spiders, roly-polies, centipedes, worms. Heck, maybe there’s even a little snake in there that’s the mayor. 

Here, why don’t we…yes, take just a little crimson and strike it through our titanium white, and get a very sharp point on our brush. Now, we’re going to make a slash right back here on the hedge, just a little strip of cloth fluttering, snagged up there. Maybe someone scrambled over the fence trying to get away, didn’t quite make it. I think that’s what I recall.

Four weeks, five weeks and it’s done. Summer ends more abruptly than Gabe can recall as an adult. The sky is dark grey with rain, but the grey is glossy and clean. Inside the house, all the colors have succumbed to a matte grey remnant of their bright, hopeful palette. The exterior, Gabe decided to leave alone. It was the only part of the house that looked right. Normal. 

He stood on the sidewalk in the rain and looked at his failure. The windows, the brick and mortar, the trees and shrubs, the entire portrait was a haze of discolor bleeding into itself, decaying into a mess of meaninglessness.

And Gabe’s figures, what of them? Just another haze. Real or not real, only we remember them.

By early December, the house is sold. It takes two days to go under contract after it is listed. In the middle of March it is demolished, scraped, erased. Gabe drives past once. The spot looks like a blank piece of paper; a forlorn sheet lost behind a file cabinet. Still, he daydreams about what should have been. Through his bragging insomnia, he pictures the house as he made it. Remade it. Music and laughter in the living room at Christmastime. Enticing kitchen aromas flowing from room to room like a jet stream of joy and nostalgia. The long comfort and security of the master bedroom. The pain of his imagination is the only thing that gives him relief.

Gabe never sees what fills the space. It is the void forevermore.

And well, I think that’s it, don’t you? All we have to do is sign it. Let’s see, where can I hide myself this time? Under this bush, I think. We know there’s all sorts of secrets in the dirt there. Graves carry all sorts of secrets, don’t they? And what would a haunted house be without a grave or two. 

Where do you hide yourself? At work? In public? With your loved ones? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all, does it? We’re all ghosts, hiding in plain sight, aren’t we? Goodbye, now, and peace be with you. 

End.

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Member of the Denver Horror Collective, as well as the Horror Writers Association, Thomas C Mavroudis has an MFA from the University of CA, Riverside – Palm Desert under the direction of Stephen Graham Jones. His debut novella, Bergdorf & Associates, was released in May of 2021 and his short stories have appeared on Creepy, A Horror Podcast and The NoSleep Podcast, and in Weirdbook, Mooncalves, and elsewhere and forthcoming in December Tales II.

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