The haunted Mexican mansion and the Raggedy Ann doll

You stay in a lot of places when you travel the world. One of my favourite tricks that every traveller knows is that you book into a place for a single night on AirBnB to “check it out” and then, if it’s a good place, you talk to the owner and negotiate a price for cash. Because fuck AirBnB and their ridiculous fees which clean out the pockets of both the host and the guest, right ?

Sometimes you get a bad place that rips you off. I had one of those this month. I stayed in this place that looked gorgeous online. A little place down in the not so great part of Miguel Hidalgo in Mexico City. I stayed for six days and the host was supposed to be there at the house but in typical AirBnB mogul fashion the key was balanced precariously in the letterbox and you had to let yourself in. There was no instructions provided on how to light the water heater which the owner insisted on turning off after every use, saving him no doubt about 50 pesos a month. The place was filthy. You couldn’t see through the windows, the floor was dirty, the TV was cracked and oh yeah, there was a fake wall in the lounge room that was falling down and was propped up by the lounge. I realised the hard way when I sat down and a literal wall fell on me, knocking my laptop to the floor. When I left this place, the guy lied to the platform and said I had trashed the place and charged me an extra $80 in cleaning fees, despite the fact that I was the one who spent the entire first day mopping his floors and polishing his windows. Apparently I had to pay for the privilege of cleaning his shit-hole abode for him and he intended to hit every guest with this fee to supplement his rental income by lying and cheating people. You get that a lot. I’ve had it happen in Turkey and in Romania. It’s not the first time.

So it’s understandable that when I saw this absolute PALACE being presented for an absurdly low price my first thought was “This is a scam for sure”. The Bee was booking it for me because I’d just been robbed and didn’t have any money until later that day and I warned her “This place might be a scam. Set your AirBnB to pay out of your secondary bank account and empty the account after you pay. Don’t let them take money from you after the booking”.

But I was wrong. Jorge’s grandmother’s house, with its a non-descript and anonymous exterior was not a scam. Nor was it an AirBnB investment property. Jorge actually lived there. He was an attorney, although not currently practising. I believe he was working on some personal projects but we had so much to talk about when I finally got him to sit down and have a chat to him that we didn’t have that much time to get to his personal goals.

There was a family with a small child in the incredibly spacious room beside me. The rooms were heavily soundproofed so there was no chance of accidentally disturbing your neighbours. I greeted them as I walked in that afternoon, throwing down my scarf and my bag and looking around in wonder at the many chandeliers and fine art. How could this exist for rent ? Why would anyone rent an apartment like this out at all let alone for a backpacker price ? It cost less than the disgusting, low-quality backpacker place I had just stayed at where I had fractured my kneecap when the wooden bunk bed stairs collapsed under me. Why then was this palace with its extensive kitchen and fabulous bedrooms and smart home modernities available for such a low price ?

“It’s haunted”, said Jorge matter-of-factly, folding his hands in his lap, his large bushy beard belying his somewhat less than middle age.

“Haunted ?” I asked, more than a little scepticism showing in the twist of my smile.

“It’s other people’s opinion. Not mine” he explained almost apologetically. “I guess people like to make up explanations for things to make them feel better about the unknown. But the doll doesn’t help. You saw her ?”

I nodded deeply. “I had meant to ask you about that as one of the first topics”

“Everyone does. It’s because of the warning on the cabinet”.

I nodded again. Locked inside a glass and mahogany cabinet in the loungeroom was a Raggedy Ann doll. They had been remade during a period of popular resurgence in the 1970’s but the original doll was created in 1915 and then worked into a popular cultural icon when a book about her was marketed 3 years later. I’d never seen one in person except on a popular Australian pre-school TV show I used to watch on a black and white TV in the highlands of Papua New Guinea when I was young. On the outside of this particular doll’s case was a very large and prominent sign saying “WARNING: Positively Do Not Open !”

Jorge continued. “The house was my grandmother’s. Both her and my grandfather were Cuban nationals who fled the country when Castro came into power. They moved here before my grandfather passed away. I don’t really remember him, but I do remember my grandmother. She used to sing. My mother was a Flamenco dancer, you know ? She danced and her mother sang..”.

Jorge trailed away wistfully and we sat in silence for a moment and I wondered if I should bring his attention back to the conversation at hand or whether I should continue the line of questioning about the strange doll when suddenly he sat up.

“You probably think my father was a lawyer, right ? From all the books ?”

I had wondered and indeed assumed that. Jorge just seemed like the son of a barrister.

“No. He was an economist. It was my choice to follow law but of course there were expectations”.

“Of course,” I murmured. Just as in Asian culture, in Latin American there was also pressure especially for the sons of educated men to become educated men themselves and Jorge seemed to have a lot of thoughts about the world. We discussed some adjacent subjects of soft control and corporate governance afterwards but for now I was fixated on the doll he seemed so obsessed with and which seemed to provide an inalienable and yet alien presence inside the house. “So, the doll was hers ?”

“I honestly don’t know. I don’t know if it came with them from Cuba or if they bought it here. All I remember is that it was given to my mother as a gift from her mother, so I can’t say how long it was passed down or comment on its origin. But I can’t say I was a big fan of it. It’s not because of any family trauma and I’m not sure I believe the old stories that my mother used to tell me about the doll and the things that happened in the house. I was a child and we always hear scary stories from our parents especially when they are trying to convince us to eat our greens, do our homework and not open the cabinets. We don’t open that cabinet in this house. Not anyone. There have been incidents”.

“Incidents ? You mean deaths ?” I asked, leaning forward and pouring myself another glass of fortified wine to fend off the cold.

“Silly things”, Jorge said dismissively, rolling his eyes and shaking his head in derision before sobering up. “But yes. Deaths. Only one while someone was staying here but you can imagine the paperwork and investigations when someone dies in your AirBnB. There have to be police investigations and questioning and they have to find out if anyone is liable, you know what I mean ?”

I certainly did, I thought, as I nursed my leg, held out straight on the solid copper balcony chair opposite me that I had so recently thought was broken and which had me arrive with a walking stick. I nodded again and simply said “I can imagine. I’m very much into liability and business law. That must have been a hassle. How did – how did the person die ?”

“Suicide. Jumped off a roof” he said with a sort of finality. “Not here. From the Sears building nearby. She got access to the rooftop through an unlocked stairwell door and threw herself off the roof. But it was what her traveling companions said about the week before she died that really cemented my resolve that maybe the doll should be kept locked up”.

Imagining a hundred Japanese horror movies I had seen before I whispered “What happened ? She said something ?”

Jorge grimaced and grabbed a shot of wine and knocked it back, shivering a little in the cool January air. “She went crazy. Look, I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t actually here at the time. I was away visiting family. But when I got back after the police called, her housemates were extremely shaken up. They said she took the doll out of the case. I didn’t have a notice on the case in those days. She played with it and joked around and put it back, but her friends said the next day that she had woken them very early before the dawn. She said she’d had a horrific dream and that she’d woken up and gone to the kitchen to get a drink of water and went to look at the case and the doll was gone. She didn’t think anything of it but then she went to bed and she woke up from another nightmare and the doll was sitting on the low table opposite the bed. In your room. The Queen Victoria Suite”.

I gulped. It was a fabulous room with typical era-appropriate trimmings. The power outlets were obviously not real brass but the chandeliers and the outdoor furnishings certainly were. I thought about the table just inside where we were sitting, where I had my laptop charging at that moment, but my host continued his story without prompting.

“So, according to her she said she screamed, and then she doesn’t remember what happened next but she went through a series of violent nightmares, waking up after each one from a dream of a lesser depth until finally she woke up for real and rushed out the door and woke her housemates. They told her she had just had a bad dream and maybe she had drunk too much the previous night. I mostly host big group engagements who rent the whole house, but in the low season I rent the rooms individually, hence the low price. I’m trying to establish myself again hosting individuals. I didn’t do that for a long time after we had these problems. The girl, you see. She slowly lost her mind according to her traveling companions, over the course of the next few days. Do you know that old song about lavender ?”

“Lavender Green, dilly dilly. Lavender Blue. My grandmother had it on a 72″ record and I used to listen to it while my mother was in her sewing room. I mean, all those old English nursery rhymes and folk songs are creepy as hell. I never thought of that one as that scary but I have read the lyrics. It’s possibly about a murder suicide. And your house, is full of lavender, I can’t help but notice”.

“Of course”, said Jorge. “My mother kept it and I grow it. It doesn’t have any important association to the house but it’s a family tradition. This girl was the first to link that song to the house. She said she heard it everywhere. Not just at home. Suddenly the song was following her down the street. Her friends said a lot of things, but mainly that this girl would hear the song at night, from a distance and that she kept having nightmares about the doll and on the sixth night after she let the doll out of the case, she decided to end her life from the top of the Sears building. Fortunately the police didn’t suspect any foul play, but they certainly came and searched the house for drugs, thinking that she might have been under the influence. Her best friend produced her phone that she had in her pocket when she jumped and showed the police. It had an unfinished text message on the screen. It just said … ‘that fucking doll’ and nothing more”.

The air went quiet. I would have thought Jorge did it for effect but he didn’t seem to display any form of showmanship. The story was clearly a reluctant admission for him. I waited before asking “But you don’t believe … ?” and let the words hang questioningly in the air unfinished.

“No. Of course not. Look, I don’t know the people who come and stay here. I can’t vouch for their mental health and wellbeing. Some of them host wild sex parties or they vomit on the duvet. Some steal the televisions off the walls. Some contact me later and say things. Sometimes a friend of a friend reaches out. But there have been stories. I just assume people are fucking with me over the girl who died here. But I’ve heard of other stories. People have told me other people lost their minds, and there was a rumour of another death. But what do I know ? I never see the same guests here a second time so, if someone writes me a creepy email about something that happened to their friend after they leave here, what am I to make of it ?”

“Dead men don’t leave AirBnB reviews” I chuckled.

“Exactly,” said Jorge, setting his glass down. “And frankly I do need the reviews and they’ve all been positive. Some people have told me I should trade on the mystery of the doll. There’s a whole section on the website for haunted houses but I don’t think I could trade on something I don’t believe in. I don’t have a dog and I’m not here to sell magical mystery tours. I just rent out a few rooms in the off-season when I’m not hosting big important parties for which I make myself scarce. My mother was very much into the supernatural as a Mexican-Cuban woman who loved music and dance but my father was very serious and he wasn’t into that sort of thing and neither am I but..”

I raised an eyebrow, my glass hovering above the table.

“We don’t open the glass case anymore. Ever” said Jorge as he rose from his seat and bid me a good night.

I shivered, but not from the cold, wrapping my scarf around me and retreating inside the beautiful bedroom to think about what I’d heard. Sometimes, even men of law and science do not tempt fate. That night I held a video conference in the lounge, but I kept it around the corner, out of sight of the red headed menace that had apparently sent some guests insane to the point of ending their own lives.

The panda would like to state that this story was not corroborated. I did not feel comfortable asking Jorge the date of the suicide and while I looked up several I could not pin down any as definitely being located near the house, nor had I enquired to the nationality of the girl so this story will have to remain as one of those creepy bedtime stories told over a glass of wine on a cold night in January. Make of it what you will.

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