Clean: A Halloween Story

Photo by Alex Dukhanov on Unsplash.

Dear Ask a Clean Person,

I have been a longtime fan, but this is my first time writing. I have enjoyed all of your advice — I will never forget the first time you wrote about OxiClean and I was finally able to get a pit stain out of one of my favorite band tees. For that, you forever have my loyalty.

I am writing because I just recently reached a milestone in my young adult life. After years of living with roommates, I have finally moved into my first New York apartment that is all mine. It is a real one-bedroom (i.e. not a studio or weird flex space). There is no toilet or shower in the kitchen. It is on a quiet little tree-lined block in Brooklyn, and while the commute is long, I have never been so happy to walk through a door at the end of the day.

While my stuff is officially moved, I still haven’t had a chance to really unpack and settle in. A big part of this is because, frankly, the apartment is very dirty. Management had promised to hire cleaners prior to my move-in date, but the place is still kind of gross. They swear people came in, but there’s clearly grime around the apartment. There are lots of dark spots on the walls and doors, which is especially obvious because it’s on white paint. There are even some really dark, almost coffee-colored stains splattered on the ceiling in the kitchen.

I realize this apartment is not new — in fact, I think the building is pre-war, which only adds to its charm. I am just very excited for this place to be mine, and I’d like to erase any trace of the people before me to really feel at home.

Any help or advice would be much appreciated.


Single in the City

Dear Ask a Clean Person,

I feel a little weird getting in touch again when you gave such amazing advice to my last letter. A lot of the stuff you advised really did the trick for getting a lot of the grime off the ceiling and walls — I am now a huge fan of the Magic Erasers, so bringing that into my life alone is something I will always be grateful for.

I did a really deep cleaning my first weekend in the new place, utilizing a lot of your advice. It looked like a lot of the dark spots were coming out of the walls, though I couldn’t reach the ones on the ceiling. I’m hoping maybe that’s something I can get my super to help with — but he’s still being weird to me after I kept pestering him about getting a cleaning service. (He still says that he had cleaners come in!) Also, a good mopping was able to get out a lot of the grime that had built up on the floor too.

As a part of the settling-in process, I bought some new lamps, since the overhead lighting was not terribly effective in such large rooms. I now think I can get much better light, especially at night, but it also made me able to see the walls more brightly and it looks like I might not have gotten all the stains off of them in my initial cleaning. There are still concentrated areas of build-up around the doors and walls. The old tenants must’ve been really messy, because in some areas I can see handprints emerging from the areas of grime, which is kind of gross. Is there anything more heavy-duty I should be using?

Also, while this might not be your department, if you have any advice on how to soften a mattress, I would really appreciate some advice. I bought a new one for this place and think it’s a little firm. I’ve been having really weird dreams.

Sorry to keep bothering you! Though it sounds like a trial, I’m still really excited about this new place!


Single in the City

Dear Ask a Clean Person,

Thanks so much for the additional advice. I ended up taking a day off and just going HAM on the walls in the apartment. I think I finally have them looking clean and white. Finally. A sigh of relief. I am home.

You are the best!

Single in the City

P.S. Will try getting a pillow-top. Aiming for next pay day!

Dear Ask a Clean Person,

Is there any way fingernails can somehow get trapped in a washer/dryer and get tangled in your sheets? I realize this sounds crazy, but I was lying in bed the other night when I moved my leg and felt something sharp. I reached under the covers and found a perfect half-moon yellowed fingernail. I threw it away, only to tuck back into bed and find another one. I pulled back the covers and there were a few — I think I gathered five altogether. 

I just washed my sheets a couple of nights ago, so I don’t think they could be mine. Is it possible for these things to get tangled in the fibers when they’re going through the machines?

Last night I had a dream that someone was slowly dragging their fingernails across my face. It was a woman with dark hair that was so long it covered her whole body. From behind the curtain of hair, her pale arm emerged and she reached towards me with long fingers extended. I could feel the roughness of her yellowed nails scraping my cheek.

I woke up in a cold sweat. Please tell me there’s a way for these nails to have been from my building’s dryer or something. I thought it was super gross.

Grossed out,

Single in the City

Dear Jolie,

You and your column are the only thing that makes me feel sane anymore. So many weird things have been happening around this apartment that having you and your readers to help with tangible, reasonable tips and explanations is probably one of the only things keeping me from losing my fucking mind. I hear all kinds of noises in the night. It’s like something is in the walls. Just the other night, I had finally drifted off to sleep when suddenly I heard a loud banging from right behind my headboard. I sat up, but the noise stopped. The thing that’s weird is that it couldn’t have been neighbors or anything — my kitchen is on the other side of that wall.

Determined to get to the bottom of things, I pulled my bed back from the wall and felt around in the dark to see if maybe something was in there. Nothing moved. There was no more sound. But just when I thought I was really losing my mind (sleep deprivation doesn’t help) I turned on my lamp next to the bed. And there, right behind my headboard where I thought I heard the noise, was a faint, but distinct handprint on the white wall.

Please tell me this is a thing that happens. That there is some kind of cleaning-related solution to all of this. I need you.

— Kara

Hi Jolie,

Please excuse if this is not coherent. Have had very little sleep. The handprints are everywhere. No matter how many times I clean, they come back. In the night. I swear I can hear the hands making contact. Like a whisper. Just enough so that I know it’s there.

The other night I went to a nearby bar for a nightcap. I didn’t want to go home. I ended up meeting a guy. He was totally drunk and couldn’t remember my name, but I took him home anyway. I just didn’t want to be alone. I fell asleep on the opposite side of the bed to the sound of his heavy snoring, but I actually made it through the night. I had, for once, a beautiful, dreamless sleep. And there were no handprints on the wall the next morning, no scary dreams, no fingernails in the bed.

I kicked the dude out and went to work. I came home at the end of the day hopeful. But when I jumped in the shower, I started hearing the noises again. The sounds of hands brushing the walls, just beyond the shower curtain. They started getting louder and louder. When I finally turned off the water, everything went silent. When I opened the curtain, there were smudges on the wall, concentrated on the space over the towel rack. People don’t believe me, but it looked like a face.

I threw on some clothes and ran out the door. I’ve been sleeping on my friend’s couch for a couple of nights but her roommates told her I can’t stay anymore. I know I need to go home, I am just so scared.


Hey Jolie,

I got back to my apartment to some angry texts from the landlord. Apparently, there’s been some kind of plumbing issue where there’s been some leaking in the downstairs apartment, coming from my bathroom. They’ve been getting dark, coffee-colored stains on their ceiling.

I let the super in today to check out the pipes. I was in the living room, waiting for him to finish when he suddenly came out of the bathroom, yelling and ranting. I was trying to process what was happening, when I noticed he kept shaking a balled up fist in my direction. Eventually, I saw what he was holding, and my stomach dropped: it was a clump of long, black hair. It was clumped and straggly, almost like it was its own creature.

I told him there was no way it could be mine — it was way too long. But he just kept shouting, “You girls and your hair!” This was clearly not the first time he’s encountered this.

Anyway, I saw that readers were asking for an update, so there it is. My sister offered to come stay with me for a while, since she’s on summer break. I am very relieved she’ll be here soon.


Hi Jolie,

Thanks for the sweet note asking how things are going.

Weirdly, everything has been quiet since Katie got here. No sounds in the night. No handprints showing up. We cleaned the walls and they have stayed white.

I did, however, ask my broker if she knew anything about the history of the building. I asked her if she knew if the place was haunted, and she said that she didn’t think so. 

However, she did mention that there was a murder that did take place in the building, in the apartment above me, in the ’90s. Apparently someone broke into the apartment in the middle of the night and the woman who lived there woke up and went to investigate the noises she was hearing. They must have struggled, because she had some of his skin beneath her nails when they found her He ended up stabbing her to death before running out. 

Because she lived alone and no one had heard her screaming for help, they didn’t find her until a past tenant in my apartment saw blood dripping down the ceiling.

I’m sure you’d know how to properly clean something like that up.

A coworker said that her friend is looking for a roommate in her place in Astoria, and I’m planning on cutting my losses and just breaking my lease. I think it will just give me piece of mind. Not to mention the potential for some actual sleep.

I’m sorry to have burdened you with all this. I just feel like, through the course of our correspondence, you were the only one with sort of the full story. At least as far as I know.

Many thanks,


Hey Jolie,

So sorry to be bothering you again, but do you think you could maybe crowdsource some information for me? I realize this is not cleaning-related at all, but I’m kind of freaking out. My landlord has said that he refuses to let me break my lease. He’s threatening to get lawyers involved, and I just don’t really know what to do. I ended up having to pull out of the Astoria apartment because I have to continue paying rent for the next month.

Katie leaves tomorrow, and tonight I started crying at dinner with her. I don’t want to be left alone here again.




I can’t sleep. I have just been sitting here, in my apartment with all the lights on. I am in my bedroom and I closed the door, but I can hear noises coming from the rest of the apartment. Lots of weird creaks. The lights flickered at one point, and I thought I was going to lose my shit.

I am watching Catfish on MTV with the volume turned way up. I’m hoping it will drown out any noises in the walls, but every once in a while, I swear I can hear something. I just need someone to know what’s happening, and I figure you’re as good a person as anyone to confide in. You know the details. You’ve heard everything as it unfolded.

If anything happens to me, tell my family I love them. But also tell Katie I hate her for leaving me.



I’m done. I packed up my stuff and am going to my parents’ for a while. Let my landlord sue me. I don’t care.

I finally drifted off to sleep last night but woke up maybe an hour later in total darkness, even though I knew I had the lights on. The room was also in total silence — the TV had shut off. Suddenly, I started to hear the noises on the wall farthest from my bed. It sounded like knocking. I looked over to where it was coming from and saw a pale spot forming on the wall. It started as a small cloud, but as the knocking got louder, it started expanding, getting bigger. Darker. Taller. Then I realized — it was forming in the shape of a woman. The woman I saw in my dreams.

Then came creaking on the floorboards. It was coming from the image of the woman, but was moving, very slowly, in my direction. 

I felt a weight at the end of my bed. It sat, just beyond my feet, pinning them down beneath the covers. Everything for a while was very still.

But then I felt other pressure, slowly climbing up the covers, up my body. Like hands were crawling their way slowly up towards my face. Before they could get there, I lunged for my bedside lamp and turned on the light.

The weight at the end of the bed and of the hands vanished as soon at the light hit. Even the shape of the woman on the wall was faded, less defined. But when I looked down, there were marks going up my covers. Though faint, they were unmistakably handprints.

I’m sorry these emails in the last 24 hours have been so deranged. Just because you answered me in your column doesn’t mean you owe me anything. I mean, it’s not like we actually know each other. For all you know, I’m just totally looney tunes, and I wouldn’t blame you.

Anyway, I’m going to leave you alone after this last email. I guess I just wanted to say thanks for listening? In a really weird way, writing to you had made me feel a little less alone.


Dear Ask a Clean Person,

I vaguely remember you answering a letter a while ago asking for some cleaning tips for a new apartment. I find myself in a similar boat — I just moved into my first apartment by myself. It’s huge — a real one-bedroom! And it’s actually affordable enough that I don’t need roommates (whew!).

I cannot wait to decorate this place, but I just feel like the last tenants left it in a very dirty state. The walls have a lot of dark stains, and there seems to be something dark pooling on the ceiling.

I know you have to have some good tips for getting this place in order. Any advice?


New Girl in Town

Kimberly Lew thinks you should read the real Ask a Clean Person column — and that you should avoid moving into haunted apartment buildings. 

This story is part of The Billfold’s Spooky Money series.

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