On November 16, 1870, a wealthy landowner named Shchapoff found his household in an uproar over a dancing ghost, when he returned to his large country estate near Orensburg, in the Russian province of Uralsk.
According to Helena, his 20-year-old wife, their baby daughter had been fussy on the night of the 14th and had not been at all eager to go to sleep. Mrs. Shchapoff asked Maria, the cook, if she would see to the child. Maria entertained the girl with her harmonica, while her mistress and the local miller’s wife gossiped in the living room.
When Mrs. Shchapoff heard the sounds of the cook’s feet tapping the floor in a brisk three-step dance, she remarked that when all else failed, Maria danced for the child, which always put the little one to sleep.
The miller’s wife was in the act of nodding her head in agreement when she suddenly opened her mouth in both surprise and terror, and screamed that there was someone looking in the window.
Mrs. Shchapoff turned and saw nothing to cause the woman so much alarm. The awkward moment was interrupted as Maria entered the room and told her mistress that her child was now sound asleep. Mrs. Shchapoff thanked the cook and dismissed her for the evening.
A few minutes later, as the two women sat chatting, the miller’s wife once again claimed that she saw something at the window. Mrs. Shchapoff rose from her chair to investigate, but she was halted in her journey to the window by the sound of an uproar in the attic above their heads.
At first it seemed to be a flurry of wild rappings that had the two women staring at one another in wide-eyed confusion. Then the pace of the sounds slowed until they began to sound like the three-step Maria had been dancing for the child.
Mrs. Shchapoff was perplexed. The miller’s wife questioned how the cook could have gotten up to the attic without their seeing her pass. Then the two women left the sitting room and walked quietly back to the cook’s quarters. Opening the door just a crack, they were able to see Maria sound asleep in her bed.
Determined to see who had gone up to the loft unnoticed, Mrs. Shchapoff grabbed a lantern from a kitchen shelf, and the two women walked up the stairs to the attic.
Although the sounds of the dancing continued, their lantern plainly revealed that there was no one in the loft. Then, as the women beat a hasty retreat down the stairs, the rapping seemed to race ahead of them, rattling the windows and pounding at the walls.
The miller’s wife fled the manor to get her husband and the gardener, and Mrs. Shchapoff went to the nursery to check on the welfare of her daughter.
By the time the miller’s wife returned with her husband and the gardener, the rappings and dancing had attained such a volume that both Mrs. Shchapoff’s mother and mother-in-law, as well as Maria, had been awakened by the racket. The two men searched the house and the grounds and found nothing that could explain the bizarre disturbance, which continued until dawn.
At 10:00 P.M. the next evening, the dancing ghost once again began its spirited interpretation of the three-step. The Shchapoff’s servants patrolled the house and the grounds but could find no trace of the invisible dancer who continued to perform and to evade the searchers until dawn.
When Mr. Shchapoff returned that next afternoon from his business trip, he scoffed at his young wife’s account and jokingly accused her of getting into his brandy while he had been away. Shchapoff was a no-nonsense landowner who had little patience with superstitious folktales and accounts of ghosts, dancing or otherwise. He grew very impatient when his mother and mother-in-law warned him that something supernatural had visited the house in his absence, substantiating Helena’s story of a dancing ghost.
In a gruff and irritated manner, Shchapoff scolded the ladies for having sat around idly in the evenings, concocting a ghost story that had frightened the servants and distracted them from their work. He sent Maria to fetch the miller, a man he regarded as completely sensible and reliable, to set the matter straight.
The miller didn’t disappoint him. While he admitted that there had been strange noises that had disturbed and confused the entire household, he stated that he had, that very day, removed a pigeon’s nest from under a cornice of the house. It seemed likely to him that the bird had somehow been responsible for the weird noises that had so upset the women and the servants.
That evening after the rest of the household had retired to their rooms quite early, exhausted from their nocturnal ordeals of chasing the eerie tapping sounds, Shchapoff sat down in a chair in his study to read for a while before going to bed.
At about 10 o’clock, he was distracted by scratching noises from above his head. Thinking at first that the pesky pigeon had come back to roost under the cornice, he became puzzled when he listened more closely to the sounds. He soon realized the sounds were not those of an animal; rather it sounded as though someone in the room above him was dancing a three-step.
Believing that Helena was having a bit of fun with him, Shchapoff put down his book and began climbing quietly up the stairs to his wife’s room. He stood outside the door for a moment to be certain that he had accurately traced the sound of the dancing. Then, convinced that there was no doubt that the sounds were coming from Helena’s room, he pushed open the door and stood ready to deliver a stern lecture to his young wife.
She lay in her bed, her eyelids closed, in deep sleep. The sounds of dancing had ceased the moment that he had opened the door. There was something strange going on here. Confused and more than a little baffled, Schchapoff started to close the door when a series of rappings sounded from above his wife’s bed.
He walked quietly to the wall, thinking he might catch a hidden prankster in the act of hammering on the bedstead. Just as he bent to listen more carefully to the noises, a rap sounded with such force next to his ear that it nearly deafened him.
His wife sat up in bed, screaming in shock and fear. She calmed when she saw her husband standing near her bedside. “What was that?” she demanded. “Did you hear it?” Not wishing to alarm his wife, Shchapoff insisted that he had heard nothing. As if to call him a liar, two explosive knocks seemed to shake the house down to its very foundation.
The angry landowner took his pistol from a drawer, slipped on his coat, and declared that he was putting a stop to the nonsense. He got his dogs, roused the servants, and told them that they were going to find out who was responsible for the outrage against his home.
However, Shchapoff found no prankster that night on whom he might vent his spleen. The next day, he enlisted the help of his neighbors as well as his own servants. The crew searched the entire house and examined every foot of the grounds.
That night, at Shchapoff’s request, his neighbors stayed to witness the disturbances. The uninvited invisible guest performed well. It danced above the heads of the searchers all night long—and, for a finale, it struck a door with such force that the heavy wooden planking was torn from the hinges.
A month later, on December 20, the Shchapoffs were entertaining guests who openly expressed their skepticism of the phenomena their hosts described as having been active in the house.
Angered that their guests would doubt his word, Shchapoff summoned Maria to the parlor and commanded her o perform a three-step, announcing in a loud voice that probably all the ghost needed was a little coaxing and it would come back.
At her master’s insistence, Maria danced a brisk little three-step. The cook completed the dance, then looked around the room fearfully as a rapping began at the windows. The assembled guests listened incredulously as they heard an exact replication of Maria’s dance coming from the attic overhead.
The skeptical guests accused Shchapoff of having planted another servant up in the loft, but when a group of doubters went up into the attic to investigate, they found no one.
On New Year’s Eve, 1871, Shchapoff again ordered Maria to dance a three-step in order to induce the dancing ghost to follow her with an act of its own. The country home was filled with guests who heard for themselves the ghostly echo of Maria’s dance coming from the ceiling above their heads.
The invisible performer became so animated and enthusiastic that for the first time it made some attempts at vocalization and sang some garbled snatches of Russian folk songs.
After such remarkable phenomena had been produced at two holiday parties, the stories about the mysterious goings-on at the Shchapoffs’ country place spread across Russia. Soon, scientists and spiritualists sought an audience with the dancing ghost, using widely diverse methods of communicating with the strange force.
An investigator by the name of Dr. Shustoff explained the whole phenomena by invoking the magic name of electricity. He maintained that the soil conditions at the country place had produced the weird phenomena. He also theorized that somehow the electrical vibrations might be coming from Mrs. Shchapoff.
Dr. Shustoff’s theory of prankish electrical currents was doomed when the phenomena began to give evidence of increasingly advancing intelligence that could respond to conversation and questions advanced by investigators.
A psychic investigator named Alekseeff devised a series of knocks that he claimed allowed him to communicate with the entity haunting the country estate.
According to information gathered by Alekseeff, Mr. Shchapoff had been cursed by the servant of a neighboring miller. For whatever reason, this angry servant so despised Shchapoff that he had maliciously set a devil on the wealthy landowner.
The provincial governor, General Vervekin, appointed a group of individuals to be the official investigators of the disturbances that plagued the Shchapoff estate. The team included Mr. Akutin, an engineer; the aforementioned Dr. Shustoff, an electrical theorist; and Mr. Savicheff, a magazine editor.
This committee eventually decided that Mrs. Shchapoff had been producing the so-called supernatural effects by means of trickery, and Mr. Shchapoff received a sharply worded letter from the governor, warning him not to allow his wife to produce the phenomena again.
In spite of the governor’s demands, the violence of the disturbances at the Shchapoff estate continued to increase. The ghost had acquired incendiary abilities, and Helena Shchapoff was the one who bore the brunt of the attacks.
Balls of fire circled the house and bounced against the windows of her room, as if seeking to smash into the house and set it aflame. Dresses that hung unattended in closets burst into flame. Once, a mattress began burning underneath a guest as he readied himself for bed.
The ghastly climax of the haunting phenomena occurred when Mrs. Shchapoff appeared to become a veritable pillar of fire in front of the horrified eyes of the miller and another houseguest.
A crackling noise had come from beneath the floor, followed by a long, high-pitched wailing. A bluish spark seemed to jump up at Mrs. Shchapoff, and her thin dress was instantly swathed in flames. She cried out in terror and collapsed into unconsciousness.
The houseguest leapt to his feet and valiantly beat the flames out with his bare hands. The most curious thing about the incident was that the courageous guest suffered severe burns while Mrs. Shchapoff received not a single blister, even though her dress was nearly completely consumed by the flames.
The Shchapoffs had had enough of their encounters with the dancing ghost. When the entity had contented itself with a nightly performance of the three-step, it had merely been a noisy nuisance. Now it had become a vicious terror, quite capable of dealing out fiery destruction. Mr. Shchapoff closed up his country place and made arrangements for a permanent move to the city of Iletski.
The phenomena ceased at once after the Shchapoffs had taken up residence in their town place. Although Helena Shchapoff recovered the health that had been rapidly waning under the onslaughts of the ghost, she died in childbirth eight years after their move.
The Orensburg haunting is an unusual case in many ways. Perhaps, as some have theorized, there actually was a curse levied on Mr. Shchapoff by a disgruntled servant of a neighboring miller.
The projected hatred of such an individual may somehow have intensified what had begun as rather ordinary haunting phenomena (e.g., the face at the window, the imitation of the cook’s dancing, the raps on the walls) and transformed them in a force of malicious evil.
Sources: Real Ghosts, Restless Spirits, and Haunted Places by Brad Steiger