The Haunted Convent
by Sofia Ballon
there are two or more scary parts to this story.
first, the fear of being a homeless student in the Netherlands.
second, once I did find housing- the place was most likely haunted.
I arrived last August to Utrecht, confident that a short stay at a hostel would be enough time to find a proper apartment before classes began.
Boy, was I wrong!
My budget was pretty limited, so I was concerned about having enough cash on hand for a deposit, first month's rent, and other arrival requirements there might be. Not to mention that visa and credit cards are not easily accepted in the Netherlands.
I paid for 4 nights at the hostel and went to my room. After an intense day of orientations, I was hit with the hard truth that finding a place was an impossibility. My bunk mate told me that after a string of failed attempts she planned on leaving altogether and returning to her home university. Her search was taking much longer than expected, so long that her temporary booking proved too short, and she was forced to move all her belongings to a different hostel. It was a question of luck, she said, and she was exhausted from repeatedly striking out.
After showering I quickly bought myself two weeks of lodging at the hostel; I was NOT going to move from place to place while searching. I spent time online on several websites and facebook groups, befriending other house-hunters at the hostel and strategizing. Meanwhile I was bombarded with news of dozens (perhaps up to one hundred) international students camped out, protesting publicly that they couldn't find a place to live while they studied.
Rental platforms were often full of scammers, a few demanded an agency fee, some wouldn't rent to international students, and there were many options just very much out of my budget. Dutch students would opt to live at home with their parents in another town and commute, albeit with free transportation to classes.
It was fucking scary to be juggling a demanding course load, a temporary job I just started, and the uncertainty of not knowing if I'd have a place to sleep in by the end of September. To further complicate things, I could get nothing done without a proper domicile: registering with the city, opening a bank account, purchasing a bike...
But even scarier was meeting Mark.
The last day I had planned to stay at the hostel (which was allegedly at full capacity and couldn't take me in for that night) I followed a lead from a facebook group in hopes I'd secure a new lodging situation. Mark had responded to my post seeking out daily or weekly rentals. Since I had already forgone trying to find a permanent place at this point, I was desperate, and I needed something, anything! to leave the hostel. For 14 euros a night, he offered a room in his place in nearby De Bilt. This seemed reasonable. I didn't have a bike yet, so it was an hour by bus and on foot until I arrived at the apartment complex. The area seemed a bit far out, but decent, and I envisioned my new life there… a short-lived fantasy. Mark opened the door and I honestly feared for my life.
He was large and disheveled, with long hair and nasty teeth. As a girl, it's not too crazy to concoct in your brain how a man in a remote location could harm you and no one back home would ever find out. Still, not wanting the long journey there to go to waste and the fear of becoming homeless looming over me as I stood in the threshold, I entered gingerly. Following him in he showed me the apartment, which reflected his persona... a filthy, messy kitchen, a grimy bathroom, a very dark and cluttered living room… and finally, the spare room to rent by the day had crackhouse vibes— with moldy walls and sad mattress on the floor.
I smiled, thanked him for his time, and said I'd have to think about it. Didn't want to come out with an aggressive "no f-ing way" just then.
I rushed back to Utrecht, practically in tears. Why couldn't I find a place or at least not fear for my life in my attempts to do so!?
The next few nights I scrambled for a place to sleep, cobbling together stays where I could: sneaking back into my hostel and crashing for one last night (it hadn't really been at full capacity), staying with a lovely newfound friend for a few days (Peruvians to the rescue!), a three week sublet in another city, a friend of a distant cousin putting me up in an even further away city… until FINALLY I found a permanent residence. A former catholic convent turned student dorm, nestled in a forest two towns away from school. A place to finally rest.
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I had sent an application to the residence back in early August and was waitlisted until mid October. I considered it a safety option, thinking it unlikely that I would actually end up there… it wasn't a proper apartment but a dorm, and I had grown out of the dorm phase in life. And it was too far from the city center, too remote to consider seriously. But after all I went through the previous weeks I was ready to call anywhere home.
The day I arrived I was shown around the property by an elderly caretaker - another frightening character of this story. She had an odd way of shuffling beside me, slightly leading with her body and flicking her eyes behind us, as if to check if nothing was there. The hallways with endless doors to countless rooms reminded me of a mental institution, or something straight out of The Shining, making me wonder if I would end up as perturbed as those Jack Nicholson characters. The grizzled guide told me I was to be one of the "lucky" residents, because I had a sink inside my tiny room. Great, I responded weakly. The rest of the spaces: the kitchens, bathrooms, and showers, were communal.
The surrounding forest would provide enough solitude, though, with its nice views and quiet walks. "The isolation helped students focus on their studies," she intoned.
Five months went by and I got used to my tiny room with the lucky sink. In the Netherlands it can get very very windy. During the spring it got strong enough to make a lot of noise OOOOoooooOOOOhhhh
and could even break a window. I had befriended the other student residents and would joke with them about strange noises and the sound of footsteps in the middle of the night. Laughing about it with them kept my mind from wandering into to ghoulish interpretations. Then corona hit. The number of residents dropped from 80 to 20— in a week. The isolation of our existence washed over us as we watched the wave of lockdowns across the globe, feeling even farther away from all our loved ones.
Socially distanced as we were, we did have relative freedom in our corner of the Netherlands, and we made the most to enjoy our bubble in the forest. We even became mischievous around the property. One quiet evening in July, some students and I decided to explore the older building attached to our residence. There we discovered dusty documents, creepy religious statues, and— lo and behold— keys to the chapel, sealed and shuttered for who knows how long.
A Chinese, an Argentine, an Indonesian and a Peruvian walk into a church and... it definitely sounds like the setup for a joke. The most musical of the bunch filled the cavernous quiet with singing and instrumentals, the sounds of “Hallelujah” filling the air. Meanwhile I investigated the candles, electrical outlets, and seating available throughout the altars and the nave, stretching out lonely and unpopulated, not unlike the pathways of the nearby forest. I was immersed in the experience, in our secret hideout in the Dutch countryside, stoned and creatively imagining a future with concerts and gatherings we could host and invite our friends to, or even charge for! When suddenly a loud ringing pierced my thoughts, vibrating through our bodies, frozen.
Everyone's adrenaline went from zero to a hundred in a second. The violinist quickly packed up, the singer ran back and forth along the side of the chapel, not knowing what to do. I was trying to put out the candles I had lit and leave some equipment back where I'd found it. Another was racing through with a smacklick… smacklick… smacklick… hitting all the light switches. There could be no trace that we had been there. We had no idea what had triggered the alarm - since it hadn't rang from entering the chapel an hour earlier!
There was panting, confusion, crazy suggestions as to how to cover our tracks or what to say had happened. The caretakers were on a three week vacation and the last thing we wanted was for them to get a call about a break-in. The old guide who first showed me the grounds had it in for several of us and had already threatened some with expulsion.
We found the number to the alarm company and dialed hurriedly, with the alarm still ringing clear, our guilt being broadcast into the air. After we scrambled to make the chapel look as untouched as it originally was, we managed to return the borrowed key to its original location and talk another roommate— who had not been at the scene and therefore was not as flustered as we were— into dealing with the alarm company's security guard. The four of us took off back to the main building and hid ourselves to calm down; we were behaving pretty erratically and I didn’t want our nervousness to reveal our culpability.
We were able to resolve it directly with the alarm company, claiming it tended to go off on its own sometimes. So thankfully no students were expelled in the making of this story. Still, I wonder why the alarm company had accepted our lame excuse as truth. Had this happened before? Could it have been a ghost warning us to get the fuck out? What was the final disturbance we caused to the spirits that made them set off that alarm?
See the real horror story play out on Instagram
Check out more of Sofia's writing on her Medium