transcript of “When Work Gets Spooky”

This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “When Work Gets Spooky.”

Alison: Hi, and welcome to the show. This is a special Halloween episode, so first: happy Halloween. Today we’re going to talk about Halloween in the office, ways that it can go wrong, things to avoid, and questions that I get a lot about Halloween. We’re also going to hear from callers who have had spooky experiences at work, so get ready to be creeped out by those stories. In fact, to launch the show, let’s start with one caller’s spooky experience at work.

Caller 1: In 2016 I used to work at Lincoln Castle as a general staff member. One of my roles was to sit in the corner of a specially-made vault containing an original Magna Carta document, which is about just over 800 years old. I would pretty much stop people taking photos in there, answer questions, and just be on guard. When nobody’s in there, it can get pretty quiet if the film isn’t playing in the next room, and there is a sensor above the vault door that flicks to red from green if a person walks through. Cue to an afternoon when it’s dead and I’m chilling on my guards door when the sensor starts flicking fast, green to red, green to red — and let me tell you, no one is near it, not me or any visitors. In addition to this spookery, the glass of the Magna Carta casing starts to fog up, then disappears almost instantly. Regards, one creeped out ex-castle staff member, aka Natasha from Lincoln in the UK.

Alison: That story has everything that I want from a spooky story: an old historical artifact, a castle, mysterious flashing lights, even fog — and of course completely unanswered questions about what happened.

We’re going to have more first person accounts from callers as we move through the show, but let’s talk about Halloween at work.

But let’s talk about Halloween at work. Let’s start with, should you wear a costume to work? Or, the other version of this question that I get a lot is, do you haveto wear a costume to work. If everyone else is and you don’t feel like it? Will you look like a stick in the mud?

There’s nothing wrong with dressing up at work if that’s a thing your office does! It can be really fun. The one caution I would give is to think about the work you might end up needing to do that day and make sure that your costume isn’t going to get in the way. Like if you have to talk to clients, obviously don’t wear a costume that makes it hard to talk or hear. And if you ever have to deliver difficult or sensitive news in the course of doing your job, take that into account too, because you don’t want to give someone bad news dressed as a banana or a ghoul.

The same thing is actually rue when it comes to decorations too. You don’t want to find yourself giving someone bad news or talking to a stressed out person surrounded by blood and fake spider webs while a soundtrack of eerie music is playing in the background.

Let’s see, other costume rules … If you’re new to your office, if you weren’t there last Halloween and you aren’t sure what their traditions are, ask ahead of time! You probably don’t want to be the only person in your office dressed as a bloody zombie or Iron Man or what have you.

And then, be thoughtful about what your costume is! So that means nothing sexually provocative, despite the trend in Halloween costumes being increasingly sexed up. So no naughty nurses no sexy cat, no flasher, or so forth. Basically, assume that coworkers shouldn’t see any more of your body than they do on any other day of the year! That’s a pretty good litmus test.

And don’t wear a costume that plays on racist or ethnic tropes, and don’t dress up as a member of a group that’s been systemically oppressed. That means no Native American costumes and no blackface, obviously. Actually, I say obvious, but it isn’t obvious to everyone. Every fall I hear about someone whose coworker hasn’t gotten the no blackface message yet, so it bears repeating.

Frankly, you also should stay away from costumes that could come across as making fun of serious issues – so like no Harvey Weinstein costume, for example, and nothing that’s very political. Your goal is to have fun, not to make your coworkers feel uncomfortable around you.

Now, what if you don’t want to dress up but everyone else in your office is doing it? Will you look like a wet blanket if you don’t join in?

You certainly don’t have to dress up if you don’t want to! But if you’re in an office where everyone is doing it, it might make sense to just throw on a witch hat and call it done. You can keep it really low-key – you don’t have to go all out with an elaborate costume, but sometimes in an office where everyone else is into it, it’s easier to do something simple and look like you’re participating rather than field questions all day long about why you’re not dressed up. But you certainly don’t have to! And of course, if you have a religious objection to celebrating Halloween, as some people do, that’s a whole different thing and you of course can opt out in that case.

But if you’re not really into but you’re thinking eh, I should just do something so I don’t get hassled all day, over at the Ask a Manager website recently, commenters were sharing ideas for really low-key Halloween costumes that are easy to do at work, when you want to sort of make a nod to this group experience and not seem like you’re totally not participating, but when you also don’t want to put a ton of effort into it. Some of the ideas people suggested that I thought were great were: Just something as simple as a headband with cat ears. Or a headpiece with an arrow through your head. Or you can not wear a costume at all and when asked say, “I’m a serial killer. They look like everyone else.” Or “I’m my evil twin.” I have a whole bunch of these, by the way, and I’m going to go through the whole list. I just want to make it clear I cannot take credit for these. These are all ideas from Ask a Manager commenters. Another one someone suggested: Write on a white t-sheet “404 costume not found.” Or wear jeans and a t-shirt and a hard hat – now you’re a construction worker. Or wear a suit and be the CEO. Or get a rectangle of yellow cardboard, hold if up to your face, and tell people you’re National Geographic. Or stick your arms in your top and say you’re the book Farewell to Arms. Or pretty much anything that Jim Halpert did on The Office is a good model here – tape three circles to your shirt and say you’re a piece of notebook paper, or wear a nametag that says Dave and say you’re Dave. Put on a wizard hat. Or if you normally wear a suit, add sunglasses and now you’re Men in Black. Or wear gothier makeup than usual and say you’re goth. Or my favorite suggestion someone made, just because it sounds so comfortable – wear a hoodie and sweatpants and messy hair and say you’re a frazzled college student. That one gets my vote.

Or you can just say, “Yeah, I didn’t dress up this year, but I love your costume.” And that’s fine too.

White we’re on this topic – if you’re in an office where most people dress up and you’ve got one coworker who doesn’t, don’t hassle them about not getting into the holiday spirit or whatever! Not everyone likes dressing up, and some people have reasons that might be private. Enjoy the costumes of the people who did dress up, and let your other coworkers be costume-free in peace.

Caller 2: Here’s a spooky thing that happened at work. I often find myself working late in the office and I’m usually there by myself . Sometimes it can be really like, like 10 or 11 at night. And being the boss, I tend to walk around the office, which is quite large, and make sure that all the lights are shut off at the end of the day. Well, I have gone through the building multiple times and had all the lights shut off, obviously no one’s there because I’ve gone through the entire building, and been on the other side of the building when I’ve heard a door slam shut. At first I always thought it was a fluke thing, but it’s happened so many times. And come to find out that the building has a little bit of – other people have experienced a similar thing. Doors being shut even though no one else is there, and even hearing people speaking and then come to find out nobody’s actually in the hallway. Needless to say, working until 10 or 11 at night in the dark, has become my not favorite things to do in that office. That’s my spooky office story.

Alison: You know, in past years I’ve asked readers at my website to share spooky experiences they’d had at work, and a lot of people reported stuff like this – voices when no one was there and doors slamming when they were alone in the building. It’s interesting because if I were a ghost, I would not choose to hang out at work or in an office building. Possibly these ghosts were workaholics in previous lives. I don’t know.

Okay, there’s one other context where I get questions about Halloween costumes and work – and that is job interviews! I’ve had more than one person write to me and ask if they should wear a costume if they have a job interview on Halloween, presumably as a way to show some personality, or that they’re fun, or whatever. But don’t do it! I’m sure there’s some interviewer out there who would like it and think that you’re fantastic, but there are far, far more interviewers who are going to think it’s a little inappropriate and an odd choice for an interview. Plus, you really want their focus to be on your qualifications and not on whatever you’re wearing.

Anyway … let’s get to more spooky stories. In fact, the whole rest of the show is going to be all spooky stories from people. I mentioned earlier that last year I’d asked Ask a Manager readers – readers over at the website from which this podcast has sprung – to share their own stories of spooky happenings at work. And I thought I’d share a couple of my favorites that people have sent in in past years, and then we’ll hear more that podcast listeners called in with.

Here’s one someone shared that is really a bit spooky: “I work in a nursing home with many folks who have dementia. They live in other realities, and I’m used to residents saying weird things. However, there seems to be a trend in one area of the building where residents typically refer to ‘the little boy’ who always seems to be standing somewhere near. It’s very common for a resident to be talking to the little boy (or look like they’re talking to thin air), and it’s also common for them to ask us questions about the boy, like ‘is this your child?’ or ‘is the little boy going to come to the activity too?’, etc. It’s only in that one area of the building, but it’s with almost all of the residents who have dementia. Only one of them has a history of having visual hallucinations. It does creep me out a little bit.”

I don’t know if collective, shared hallucinations are a thing or not – it wouldn’t surprise me if they were – but t his is pretty unsettling story.

Here’s another one someone submitted: “I worked at a place where when we renovated our office, they decided to replace all the walls with glass, to show we were a ‘transparent organization’ (as you can probably guess, leadership there kind of sucked). While the higher ups had frosted glass offices, most of the staff had glass, fishbowl offices with no doors. As you can imagine, we all hated when we lost our walls, particularly one guy who routinely complained about it. Well, a few months later this guy is fired (for unrelated reasons) in the worst way possible, where they did it mid-morning, and everyone saw it happen (hard to hide things in a glass office). So he had to pack up all his stuff and was escorted from the building. The next day, the glass walls of the fired guy’s office shattered. No one was near that office, no one saw anything suspicious, and we worked in a secure office so people couldn’t come in without us knowing. We never found out what happened, but I like to think that fired guy got his revenge.”

I love that one.

Here’s another one: “Almost 20 years ago I worked for my town’s Parks & Recreation department, started as a summer job in college but I ended up in a program manager role for a while and worked part time throughout the year while I was in school part time. Because my hours weren’t 9-5 Monday through Friday, I went in at off-hours times to get my work done around my course schedule. The office was in an old building that had been a gym; the basketball court was ancient but was still used for rec games and Special Olympics. This isn’t a terrifying ghost story by any means but it’s very spooky to be working late at night and hear the unmistakable squeaking of multiple pairs of sneakers playing on a basketball court when there’s no one but you in the building. There was also a basement that had a very scary vibe. I wouldn’t go down there alone. There had been tunnels under my town that were used to run booze during Prohibition and my building had some boarded up underground entrances that scared the hell out of me. It felt very ghosty. There was also this spot on the stairs by the edge of the basketball court (they took you up to a small storage space and a balcony seating area to view the court). It was just this one spot where you could stand and feel super haunted. It wasn’t so specific like in a really good ghost story, like you wouldn’t see apparitions or anything, but there was this unmistakable scary feeling you’d get at this one spot on the stairs, I can still picture it. I had a friend who considered herself to be pretty open to the spirit world (I thought she was a little loony but I was kind of seeking some confirmation that there was a really weird feeling on those stairs). So I brought her in one night and she was wild-eyed, like the place just scared the hell out of her. I brought her up to the stairs and didn’t say anything. I just wanted her to go up and let me know how she felt and she stopped right before the spot and said, “I’m not going past this area, I will not stand there, I can’t do this,” and pointed to the spot that always gave me the spooky feelings. I’m a fairly logical person and not easily tricked by things that can be other things, you know? Ghost stories don’t usually ‘work’ on me. But I also know what I heard and felt – not going to read too much into it, or make up ‘a guy died here and his ghost still plays basketball at night’ stories, but that place had some really weird vibes confirmed by many, many people.”

Okay,  another creepy one someone shared. I’m loving all these and I hope you’re liking them too, by the way.

“I’ve worked at my current agency for almost eight years, and during that time I’ve been shuffled back and forth between my current office (where the only scary things are the skunks that occasionally get into the basement) and the main office, which is a restored elementary school building originally constructed in the late 1800s. I never experienced anything myself while working there, but there was definitely supposed to be a ghost. We had an elaborate security system, and one night, long after everyone in the office was gone, the motion-activated camera came on and started to record. When IT reviewed the video in the morning, it showed a weird, shapeless shadow that floated through the lobby and kind of paused at the windows of the doors (the offices were converted from the classrooms, so each cubicle area had a windowed door that opened onto the central lobby). The shadow eventually floated up over the receptionist desk and disappeared. Then the camera turned off. I wish I could upload the video, because it is truly creeptastic, but I don’t dare. IT has it saved on the shared drive and uses it to freak out new hires.”

Caller 3: Hi, this is for the spooky Halloween podcast. I have experiences where I used to work as a dispatcher for a charity clothing and toy warehouse. It was my job to close the warehouse after everyone had gone home and then finish the compliance. I cannot count the number of times that I’d be walking among the carts and all of a sudden, always simultaneously and always spontaneously, a bunch of toys in a bunch of carts would start quacking or playing creepy music or talking. Once a doll actually sat up and looked at me from the top of a garbage bag and laughed the creepiest laugh ever. I felt like I was in the first scene of a Dr. Who episode and they wouldn’t even realize I was gone. Or maybe a murder doll movie. So that’s my creepy Ask a Manager story.

Alison: If a doll sat up and looked at me and laughed creepily, I would be out of that warehouse in seconds. Kudos to you, caller, for going back night after night.

Here’s another of my favorite stories shared by an Ask a Manager reader in the past: “At my last job, I would often work several hours past the others, and past dark. There were multiple times where I’d hear filing cabinets opening downstairs, hear the printer randomly turn on and start whirring, and voices whispering. Sometimes the door would be unlocked when I was sure that I’d locked it. Every time I thought someone else had come back for something and every time, it was dark and silent when I got downstairs to look. The voices were the worst. When you work in an industrial park, you don’t expect to hear talking from outside after hours. The place was in the middle of nowhere. Of course, you could make an argument for stress. I sat at the top of the stairs in a creaky old building with my back to the stairwell, and I was overworked and tired. That said, my boss/the owner did die in a tragic and unexplained plane crash a couple months before.” 

I think the stress thing is interesting. I mean, it’s hard to trust ourselves entirely when we’re stressed out and tired. On the other hand, you have to be really stressed out to be hearing this stuff every night, so who knows.

Here’s another one. This is also submitted by a reader. “I work in a museum. There has always been a joke that the man the museum was named after haunted the place. Things would go missing and items in the souvenir shop would be moved. When housekeeping did a deep clean at night, they always said strange stuff would happen. Sounds, voices, etc. When the museum was renovated, we added a big-screen theater. There is a control booth with a small storage area at the top of the theater steps. There is also a tiny balcony behind the control booth where we have screens that face the main hall and that we use to advertise upcoming events, memberships, etc. Many of the security staff swear they have seen and/or experienced ghostly happenings in the control booth/storage area/balcony. One really large, muscled ex-military guy had such a frightening experience that he refused to go in the theater. He was on rounds, checked the theater, and heard sounds in the control booth. He knew the AV guy was off that day so he went up. He saw no one in the booth or the storage area, so he was checking the balcony area. He said someone shoved him and he almost fell off the balcony. There was no one in the theater besides him, but they checked the tape anyway. You could clearly see on the tap the moment he was pushed forward, but you couldn’t see what pushed him. I stay away from the theater. If the biggest security guard in the place was almost pushed off the balcony by invisible forces, I’m not chancing it.” 

Are you thoroughly creeped out yet? I have more. Here’s another one, also from a reader. “Back in college, I worked at a fairly fancy, fairly old hotel at the front desk and in the restaurant. Most of the restaurant shifts were fairly quiet on weeknights and during lunch, so we would sit in the back of the restaurant with a book and wait for customers. We had a mirror above one of the back tables that was arranged, so that we could see when guests arrived. On more than one occasion, I saw a black figure in the mirror, went up front, and saw it move through the restaurant and enter the kitchen. I assumed that this was just my eyes playing tricks because it was kind of creepy when you were there alone at night. Up until my friend Rob mentioned that he had seen the same thing, except he was in the middle wait station and saw a figure walk over from the bar area and crouch down behind the front booth before disappearing. We then polled everyone else, and found out that they were also seeing this shadow man/thing, and we all thought that we were imagining it or crazy.”

What the hell, you all.

Here’s another one, also from a reader. “I used to work in an office in a manufacturing facility. There were two rows of cubicles back to back, with high walls so we couldn’t see to the other side. A coworker and I were working in one row trying to finish a project after hours, it was about 7:00 during the winter, so it was pretty dark, when we heard loud laughter. We brushed it off, thinking it was one of our coworkers, so we yelled their name. Complete silence. We quiet down and we hear a keyboard clicking, so I go check on my coworker, thinking they maybe have headphones on and can’t hear. There was no one there. Needless to say, we literally ran out of the office. The worst part is, we weren’t the only ones who heard weird laughter after hours in that office. Nobody stayed past 6:00 alone, and we often hurried up to leave in groups when we had to work late because of how freaked out we were.”

Okay, here’s another one from a reader. I think this one is especially creepy. “For about a year I worked the front desk of a youth hostel in a major U.S. city, and also shared a private room in the hostel with another worker. Hundreds of tourists a night would stay in the rooms. The building was eight stories. Soon I noticed that pretty regularly I was getting complaints from people checking out the next morning about noise all night in the room above them. Why were people moving heavy furniture all night in that room? Was it people who were staying in that room? (Some rooms had, for example, something like 14 bunk beds.) Or was it management at the hostel? The complaints were that it sounded like heavy furniture was being shoved to the center of the room, and that it went on all night long. Well, I finally asked my manager about it, and he just pointed at the layout we had for the hostel. We had these giant paper sheets — it was the early 1990s — and by hand we’d check off beds and rooms as they filled, and for how many nights people were staying, etc. I don’t know why it had never clicked with me when people made these complaints, but we never — NEVER — checked in guests on the entire floor that generated the complaints. And if you went up to that floor, the door to the room generating the complaints not only was locked but was locked up with big link chains.”


Let’s do one more story, this one from someone who called in recently.

Caller 4: “Hi Alison. I basically 10 years ago I worked for a very, very popular theme park in the custodial department. At this theme park, there was an abandoned building that had been closed several years prior, but the actual building hadn’t been gutted or anything, so just an abandoned part of a theme part.. My management informed me that a corporation had booked the space out and it needed a thorough cleaning, so I was booked in for a late night overnight in an abandoned, terrifying room that was painting with clowns all over the wall, because forever reason it had a carnival motif that was terrifying. I’m very afraid the dark, very afraid of spooky places, the lights weren’t working great, it was very dim, I was completely alone, clowns staring at me, vacuuming. And because I was so nervous, I was singing Disney songs at the top of my lungs, when I turned a corner and saw what I thought was a humanoid shape in the doorway. So I screamed, I fell to the ground, clutching the vacuum cleaner. And it turns out that it looked like a humanoid figure because it was. It was actually my boss coming to check on me. It was horrifyingly embarrassing. Nothing paranormal ended up happening, but it was still probably one of the scariest things that has ever happened to me at work.”

That’s our Halloween show! Thanks for listening, and I will be back next week with hopefully non-spooky work questions.

Transcript provided by MJ Brodie.

You can see past podcast transcripts here.