Since I’d much rather be amused than be afraid, I think it’s far better to visit the Thurber House than a haunted house at Halloween. Thurber House is one of several unique Columbus attractions – including the Topiary Garden and Columbus Museum of Art – that comprise the city’s Discovery District, yet many people are unaware that James Thurber ranks among the greatest American humorists.
His witty writing and wry cartoons regularly appeared in The New Yorker; his self-caricature – with the caption, “A Sure Grasp of Confusion” – appeared on a 1951 cover of Time magazine; and his classic story about self-delusion, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” has been made into two Hollywood movies (in 1947 with Danny Kaye and in 2013 starring Ben Stiller).
Thurber was born in Columbus in 1894, and by 1913, when he started taking classes at Ohio State, his family was living in a late Victorian home on Jefferson Street that is now the Thurber House museum and literary center. It’s also the place where many of the hilarious family antics and episodes that Thurber often wrote about really happened. His short story, “The Night the Ghost Got In,” is one of my favorites and a perfectly funny tale for Halloween because it describes the “hullabaloo of misunderstanding” that occurred in the house when Thurber and his brother heard mysterious footsteps in the wee hours of a moonless autumn night.
Although the Thurbers’ old dining room has been converted into the museum shop, it still has the staircase where the brothers stood listening to the footsteps. It’s easy to imagine why the strange sound of someone circling the dining room table sent them running – his brother to his bedroom and James back into the bathroom where he had just gotten out of the tub. When Thurber’s madcap mother noticed the unnerving noises, she assumed it was burglar, and after waking up the neighbors by slamming a shoe through their bedroom window, she shouted for them to call the police.
I can picture the policemen banging on Thurber’s House’s glass-paned front door; rushing through the front parlor with their flashlights; ransacking the bedrooms, and encountering college student James wearing nothing but a bath towel. Feeling a sudden chill, he quickly went to his bedroom to put on some trousers.
Today, Thurber House’s bathroom appropriately contains a clawfoot tub, while the memorabilia in Thurber’s former bedroom includes photos from his Ohio State days as well as his old-fashioned Underwood typewriter.
As Thurber points out in “The Night the Ghost Got In,” the police never found a burglar, and no family member ever saw a ghost. That, however, does not mean Thurber House has no ghost. Staff members and writers-in-residence have reported inexplicable footsteps on the stairs, kitchen cabinets rattling during the night, and books that suddenly fly off the shelves. As someone who greatly admires Thurber’s stories, I think there is an obvious explanation for the odd occurrences at Thurber House: it has a ghost writer!
Thurber House, 77 Jefferson St., Columbus, OH 43215. 614-464-1032; www.thurberhouse.org.