Almost everybody claims to have had something happen to them which cannot be explained by the laws of science or nature. And be it governed by the powers of good or evil, many people have at one time received some kind of visit from the “other side,” that opposite dimension, patch of ether, or wherever it is that those who have died go on to.
For some, a brush with the supernatural feels like being tracked by a mountain lion—the hairs on the back of the neck stand up and the heart starts pounding. Others claim to have the gift of extrasensory sight. They see themselves as constantly surrounded by spirits, and consider the whole thing almost mundane after a while.
These days, Americans seem to acknowledge the supernatural in unabashedly high numbers. Almost everyone interviewed for this story admitted to believing in the possibility of ghosts even if they had not actually seen one. Missoula also seems to be a place drenched in history and a certain amount of past spiritual restlessness, with allegedly haunted locales stretching from the once-bloody and corpse-strewn Hellgate Canyon to the whiskey dinge of the former brothels on Railroad Street and beyond.
The Independent wanted to look further into some of the more notorious Garden City sites frequented by the undead, such as Main Hall on the University of Montana campus, and the infamous “House of Screams” on Fifth Street. Some folks who work at another old spectral hangout, the Keep Restaurant, believe that their ghost has returned after a complete building renovation and several years of silence.
Call us a bunch of crackpots if you will, but in every single building or house we investigated, at least one person copped to having a paranormal experience. So in honor of this year’s season of the dead, we bring you this brief tour of haunted Missoula.
“House of Screams” or a home owner’s dream?
The Victorian house on 319 S. Fifth W. was built around 1902 by UM professor Frederick Scheuch. He lived there, apparently without incident, until his wife died in 1935. He retired two years later and moved back to Michigan.
The house was briefly owned by another couple until James and Eleanor Zakos bought it in 1939. According to the book Big Sky Ghosts, the couple and their six children soon began hearing ear-splitting shrieks that seemed to come from inside the house.
Henriette Lambros, Eleanor’s sister, wrote about the house in 1975 for Fate magazine. “As I recall, we weren’t talking at the moment that, into the quiet of the room, came the most horrible piercing scream I have ever heard,” she wrote. “It was so loud the walls seemed to shake. ... I honestly believe no human being could scream that loud. I believe it was superhuman, if such a thing is possible. It seemed to come from right outside the bedroom door.”
Because the family loved the old house, they assented to share it with the screaming entity. But it began to fray their nerves. Finally, after having made the acquaintance of Light of the World Tabernacle minister Andrew Landin, they had the house exorcised in 1956.
Lambros attested in her Fate article that things were tranquil after that, but in a 1980 Missoulian story, daughter Mary Zakos, who was 38 at the time and still living in the house, admitted to feeling a presence in her bedroom at night, going so far as to say she believed spectral handwriting was appearing on the walls.
“It looks like names and phone numbers,” she told the reporter. “I won’t put my glasses or contacts in when I see that writing. It scares me, it’s weird. I’m afraid it’s some kind of warning.”
It was an admonition she evidently chose to ignore. She died five years later after an overdose of pills and alcohol.
Her mother and brother decided to sell their home, and by all accounts it was thoroughly trashed, with garbage bags full of empty pill bottles and other debris piled in the basement, and an awful smell on every floor from all the family pets who seemed to consider the house their toilet.
Over the years, different owners did some structural work and saved the house from city condemnation but largely left it alone. Its ghostly notoriety and abandoned look made it a favorite teenage party spot. Predictably, vandals put up graffiti and broke nearly every window. Then Tinsley Pfrimmer bought the house in the mid-1990s and began fixing it up.
Mark and Susan Estep bought the house from Pfrimmer in 1998. After extensive renovation work, the place is now unrecognizable from the disintegrating hulk it once was. It’s stunningly beautiful both inside and out, and as cozy as could be.
The Esteps describe the stories of their home’s haunted past as “myth,” adding that they’ve never had any encounters with spirits while living there. They want Missoulians to put the tales of its past to rest and feel as at peace with the place as they do.
“I don’t discount spirits, but they aren’t bugging us,” Susan adds.
The Esteps wonder if perhaps the tales associated with their house have more to do with human eccentricity than with visits from otherworldly spirits.
Mary Zakos was a self-described “light pornography” writer, specializing in stories such as “Virgin Sacrifice: Satan Was My Sex Teacher,” which she sold to confession magazines. Her elderly mother was her proofreader and called her daughter’s work “wonderful.” In the Missoulian, Mary admitted to having an obsession with the dark side.
“If I had a religion it would be Catholic because they believe in the devil,” she said. “That’s something I’m hung up on.”
She also declared she found “torturing” people on paper enjoyable.
“My favorite theme is terror—people terrorized by fear,” she added. “I like maniacs and manic-depressives. ... and I love vampires.”
The Esteps also say both their cat and dog love to sit at the bottom of the original winding staircase up to the cupola and howl because the acoustics distort the sound.
“They make noises just to hear themselves,” Susan says, noting that with all of the pets that lived in the Zakos house, she wouldn’t be surprised if they were the source of the “screams.”
If there are spirits hanging around the Estep home, they appear to be behaving themselves and staying silent. Perhaps they just wanted someone to move in who would fix the place up in the grand manner they felt it deserved.
The Bane of UM Custodians
The oldest building on UM’s campus, Main Hall (or University Hall, as it’s also known) is rumored to be UM’s most prodigiously haunted structure.
A creepy looking place to begin with, Main Hall has narrow, creaky hallways and more than one poorly lit doorway. It’s the type of place you would expect to be haunted, and custodian Jack Mondloch described hearing phantom footsteps and more in Big Sky Ghosts.
“One night I was cleaning the sinks in the men’s room in the basement,” he said. “I was six or eight feet from the door and I heard someone knocking. I said, ‘It’s open,’ but no one came in. I heard another knock, so I went over and opened the door myself and was surprised to find no one there.”
The next time he worked, Mondloch propped the basement men’s room door open with a wedge, hoping to deter invisible visitors from knocking. He was cleaning the far end of the room when the wedge suddenly came flying at him, hitting his leg. You guessed it—there was no one else around who could have thrown it.
Perhaps the weirdest story about Main Hall was reported in Big Sky Ghosts by Jim Dredger, also a custodian. He was cleaning the downstairs women’s room when he heard a knock. He yelled for the person to “come on in,” but no one did. Another knock followed. He opened the door and found no one there.
“I thought that was peculiar,” Dredger continued, “but I figured that my supervisor or one of my friends was giving me a bad time, so I didn’t think too much about it. But just to be on the safe side, I stuck a wedge under the door to keep it open. I turned back around to pick up the soap canister and there in the mirror of the vanity was the reflection of a lady with dark hair.
“I was startled and I whirled around to see what she wanted, but there was no sign of her. I rushed into the hall, but I couldn’t see or hear anyone moving along that wooden floor.”
Pat Bristol, who has had an office in Main Hall for 10 years, told the Independent that she too has experienced unexplained phenomena in the building.
“On the first floor, there is a room with copiers and a little radiator,” she explains. “Late one night I walked by that room and the radiator was clanging away. But there hasn’t been water in it for 15 years. I thought it was strange, so I reached over and touched it. The radiator was stone cold.”
Another time, Bristol was working into the early morning hours. At about 5 a.m., she heard chains rattling up the stairs to the second floor, right next to her office. She decided not to get up and investigate. Despite her ghostly encounters, Bristol says she thinks the spooks in Main Hall are friendly.
Rankin Hall is also regarded as haunted. In Big Sky Ghosts, former custodian Jeanne Talmadge described hearing what sounded like a phantom classroom discussion. She was waiting to clean an upstairs classroom one summer evening, but heard hushed voices inside, and figured it was some kind of group discussion. She stood outside the door until finally she decided she had a job to do and the meeting had gone late enough.
She opened the door to tell the students their time was up, but there wasn’t a single person in the room. Not one. She ran to the windows to see if the class was outdoors, but there wasn’t anybody there either.
A janitor the Independent spoke to, who asked to remain anonymous, agrees that Rankin Hall is haunted. Recently he invited a clairvoyant friend to examine the building and was told there are three entities residing there: Jeannette Rankin (the first female U.S. senator), a former professor who loved his job so much he was never able to accept his retirement, and another “foul, bitter spirit.”
Brantly Hall, now filled with offices, used to be a women’s dorm. It’s said that a student, inconsolable over the stock market crash of 1929, committed suicide because of her family’s huge financial loss. Whether this is true or an often repeated urban legend, there are many who believe the building is haunted.
Disembodied claps and doors slamming themselves have been reported. One long-time program administrator, who also requested to be nameless, insists he’s had direct interaction with the supernatural.
He was working in his office one blistering summer afternoon. He had the windows and door shut to keep the stifling air out and he remembers being unbearably hot. Suddenly, he felt an icy “whirlwind” of air, first surrounding his feet but then slowly moving over the rest of his body, as if it were “scanning” him. It lasted several seconds and left him with an baffled, spooky feeling. Needless to say, he took the rest of the afternoon off.
“I’ve thought a lot about it and there is just no rational explanation for what happened,” he says.
Edith’s Continuing Shenanigans
Before The Keep’s current incarnation, the building was known simply as the Mansion. The magnificent old structure was once the house of railroad magnate Thomas Greenough and his family. It sat quietly on the banks of Rattlesnake Creek until 1964, when the construction of I-90 forced its removal to today’s South Hills location.
After its owners decided to open it as a restaurant and golf course clubhouse, the spirit of Edith Greenough, Thomas’ daughter, supposedly began calling. Many of the incidents that employees held her responsible for seemed rather prankish, such as exploding glasses in patrons’ hands, a swinging chandelier, flushing toilets, a plummeting dumbwaiter and flickering lights.
One long-time employee, who requested anonymity (I’ll call him Bill), recalls a room in the Mansion he referred to as the “Edith Room” because of the strange tendency for diners sitting there at separate tables to argue loudly across the room, often about matters that seemed inconsequential.
When the Mansion burned down in 1992, everybody expected Edith to disappear with it. Most of the original structure was completely destroyed and had to be rebuilt. But Bill thinks Edith returned in 1999, and is up to more mischievous tricks, namely pushing aged customers down long flights of stairs.
He describes one incident in which an 80-year-old man was climbing the stone steps up to the main entrance. When he reached the top, a “puff of wind” sent the man hurtling backwards down the stairs. Besides looking ashen, the man was unhurt. The same thing happened a month later when an elderly woman tumbled down the inside stairs, falling three times as far as the other man, and landed at the bottom in a heap. She sat up, said she was OK and proceeded with her evening.
“I think Edith is pushing people down stairs for attention,” Bill adds. “It’s bizarre that the people who fell weren’t more seriously injured.”
Senior citizens losing their balance while traveling up and down steps? Perhaps it’s the work of a restless spirit. But the point of all these accounts is that folks do believe in them, and in many cases they are well-documented. Maybe you’ve even had a supernatural experience, and who’s to say whether or not it’s true?
This Halloween season, when night comes suddenly and the waning moon rises swiftly over the mountains, keep your ears and eyes open. Because, after all, it’s really anybody’s guess who—or what—is residing in the surrounding shadows.