Were it not for ghosts, Ebenezer Scrooge would still be a merciless miser, Hamlet would never have known the treachery of his uncle, and Bill Murray never would have won over Sigourney Weaver.
Okay, so that's all fiction.
What's going on in Old Town Alexandria is not, according to numerous denizens who seem, well, credible.
Mike McKinney, a senior vice president with an investment bank, says he saw a chair in his Old Town Alexandria home flip over all by itself. His wife, a global accounts manager for Xerox, claims to have fought the same ghost over a bottle of cleaning fluid.
A few blocks away, three people in adjacent town houses say they have seen the same large Civil War ghost, who seems to enjoy walking through their walls: Big but not fat; dark, stringy hair; tattered soldier's uniform, disheveled and dirty.
City historian T. Michael Miller, a respected academic in the affluent neighborhood, house-sat for Old Town friends one night and lay paralyzed in bed with fear after he heard footsteps down the hall. Beneath the bed, the dogs of the house--normally loud, aggressive canines--cowered with him.
To live in Old Town is to believe in ghosts. Perhaps the weekly ghost tours, sponsored by a business called Doorways to Old Virginia, tip the scale for those who normally would discount the supernatural, and make it seem like skeptics are in the minority.
"I think there's a ghost on every block in Old Town," says Ruth Lincoln Kaye, the author of "Legends and Folk Tales of Old Alexandria, Virginia." The book wasn't meant to be a ghost book, Kaye says, but that's what she kept running into while researching it. There are some skeptics, she said; her deceased husband was one.
According to both Kaye and Eric Segal's book, "Alexandria Ghosts," a phantom lives in Sally Simmons's Old Town home.
"We've not actually seen anybody," says Simmons, nor do she and her husband discuss the rumor with their children, Charlotte, Jeremy and Amanda. "We would like them to sleep."
Just the same, Simmons had the fireplace in Charlotte's room sealed. "Just in case," she says.
Old Town resident Judy McVay is dubious, but something in her house is testing her resolve. First, there was the day she was chatting with her friend Sophie.
"She grabbed my arm and she said, 'Look at that.' And I said, 'Look at what?' She said, 'That, don't you see that?' And I said, 'See what?' She said, 'That man.' "
McVay did not see what her friend described as a 6-foot-5 Civil War soldier, but both her next-door neighbors told her they did on different occasions.
Then there is the awkward issue of the missing items in her home. McVay is rather organized. She's the type of person who, "If you ask me where the toothpicks are in my pantry, I can tell you within an inch," she says.
So when her makeup disappeared one day, it was quizzical. It is always on her dresser, she hadn't been away recently, and she'd had no house guests. Other personal effects also have gone missing, never to be found.
Then there's McVay's brother. He house-sat once, and awoke with terror at the sound of "very heavy footsteps" on the stairs, climbing, climbing, reaching the top. Finally, she says, he summoned the courage to search the house. Nothing. He refuses to stay at his sister's house anymore.
Nor will some friends of Keys MacManus stay with her. They did one night, she says, and heard it all: moaning, footsteps, breathing. MacManus's former tenant, Jeannie Bunton, the communications director for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, says that on numerous occasions she heard footsteps, smelled pipe smoke and saw an apparition.
That doesn't sway MacManus. "I don't believe in ghosts," she says. "I think it's irrational."
On and on the stories go, all because people "have experiences that can't be explained according to current science," says Edmund M. Kern, a history professor at Lawrence University in Wisconsin whose specialty is early European religious culture, a euphemism for witchcraft.
"We could attribute those experiences to auditory, visual or olfactory hallucinations," says the self-proclaimed skeptic.
Then he confessed. "Scholars who study witchcraft often speak over coffee or drinks about their own experiences with supernatural or superstitious occurrences that they can't really explain," he says. "It's kind of a dirty little secret of the academic world."
If ghosts do exist, why should Old Town hold such a concentration of them?
For a few reasons, offered Miller, the city historian. Alexandria was home to more than 30 hospitals during the Civil War, including one on the site that is now McVay's house. Secondly, people routinely buried their dead in their yards rather than in cemeteries. And finally, the neighborhood is largely intact, with many homes built 150 or 200 years ago.
For anyone eager to have a close encounter, the best bet might be to hang out with the McKinneys, who are virtual ghost magnets. The family now lives in Middleburg, but previously occupied two different Old Town houses. Both were haunted, they say. The first featured the ghost who flipped the kitchen chair at the far end of the table, nowhere near the two people seated in the room, Mike McKinney and his father-in-law.
Another time, Pat McKinney was up late and alone, removing a chocolate stain from a living room chair. The small bottle of cleaning fluid kept disappearing from her side, and she would find it capped on the kitchen sink. Three times this happened, and finally McKinney announced to the room, "Whoever you are, I know you're here, I don't really want to meet you right now."
But the ghost was benevolent. Years ago, Casey McKinney, then 18 months old, started to tumble headfirst down the family's staircase. "She literally was picked up in the air, flipped around so her back was toward me, and came down on her rear end," Pat McKinney says.
In their second house, Casey once saw a ghost, her mother says. Another time, Mike heard a basement door slam when no one was home and the windows were all shut. The door handle, a triangular-type catch mechanism, was swinging.
"I sound like a total wing nut here," Mike McKinney says, laughing, but he swears it's all true.
So does Pete Coyle, general manager of the Wharf, an allegedly haunted Old Town restaurant, about the last restaurant he worked in, Two Nineteen Restaurant. At closing time one night, he looked up to see an old woman, translucent, dressed all in white. Coyle, who called the experience "freaky," says he had not been drinking. Restaurant employees today say they hear the footsteps of "Edna" sometimes, but never see her.
June Schmidt often heard footsteps upstairs at the boyhood home of Robert E. Lee, a museum where she sometimes worked alone. She would climb the stairs to check: no one there.