From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
What is it with the dearly departed? Seems they're everywhere lately. Ghosts, ghouls and spirits are invading prime time (Medium, Ghost Whisperer, Supernatural) and buying second yachts for pop psychics like John Edward. A 2005 Gallup survey showed three out of four Americans harbor at least one paranormal belief, and that one in three believe in ghosts—up from one in four in 1990.

So with all this haunting going on, what are we learning about our otherworldy visitors? That while most don't look as buff as Patrick Swayze, even fewer can manage a decent "Boo." With apologies to the Headless Horseman, "the frightening ghost is largely a work of gothic fiction," says prominent ghost hunter and author Richard Senate. "Most ghosts are totally neutral and mean no harm." With Halloween upon us, these people share their unverifiable-but-irresistible stories of living with Casperlike friendly ghosts. And you thought your houseguests were strange.

TOM MURDIC
FRANKLIN. TENN.

Come Christmastime. Tom Murdic gets a jolly visitor in his home. Not Santa, but an apparition that looks like a young black boy in a Civil War-era puffy shirt. The ghost turns on appliances and bangs on walls but is otherwise, says Murdic, a good kid. "He's more of a curiosity" than a terror, Murdic, 51, a county planning commissioner, explains. "But then I don't scare easily."

His wife and kids do, though, and they're not crazy about the ghost that has turned up especially during winters every year since the Murdics bought their home—on land that was once a Confederate army encampment—in 1993. Tom's daughter Cathy, 24, has felt him tap her on the head, and his wife, Deborah, heard voices in the garage but walked in to find only her agitated dog barking at no one. His son Nick, 30, was home alone when he heard a loud pounding on a wall. "It freaked me out," he says, "and I left." Tom's the only one to get a good look: He saw the boy walk across the kitchen and disappear into the dishwasher. As long as he doesn't run up the electric bill, says Murdic, the little guy can stay. "He's just one of those anomalies," he says, "that we just don't quite understand."

KIRSTEN JORGENSEN
OXFORD. MICH.

You're 6 years old and lying in bed when a woman's face—no body, just a face—materializes in your room. Um. who you gonna call? "It was weird." remembers Kirsten Jorgensen. 22. who says a ghost appeared to her in full body form on and off for 10 years in the 155-year-old house where she lived with her brother and parents. Another time "I saw her walking with a bird on her shoulder." says Jorgensen. "I fainted."

But then she grew fond of the ghost—and credits it with saving her life. One night when Jorgensen was 16. the ghost—whom she believes was Carrie Crawford, a veterinarian's wife who died in Kirsten's bedroom in the 1930s—woke her up and led her to the hall. There, claims Jorgensen, she saw smoke coming from under her brother lan's bedroom door—a candle had started a fire. "I ran downstairs and got the extinguisher and put it out," says Jorgensen, who never saw the ghost again. Today Jorgensen—an anthropology major at Oakland University—accepts her experience as just another part of a unique childhood. "Growing up, I was that creepy girl who lived in the haunted house," she says. "Today my friends think it's cool."

RHONDA WITTER
ORANGE VALE, CALIF.

When Rhonda Witter first walked through the three-bedroom, 1,400-sq.-ft. ranch house, she liked it enough to want to buy it—even though she felt she was being watched by unseen eyes. When she took her kids Sarah, 8, (below) and Garrett, 10, to have a look, they liked it too—except, she says, for the specter that materialized. "Sara said, 'You do know there's an old man in the bathroom?' " recalls Witter, 43, who is divorced. "I told her, 'I know, it's okay. He can stay.' "

And so he has. Not long after moving in this February, Witter claims she had her first chat with the ghost. "He smokes cigarettes, so I woke up smelling smoke," she says. "I asked him what his name was, but he didn't answer. Yet there was something protective about him. My kids think of him as a grandfather figure." Since then they've worked out some ground rules—"I told him he needs to smoke outside"—and even found a way for the old guy to earn his keep. "I'd be getting the kids ready for school, and they'd tell me they couldn't find their socks," says Witter. "Then they'd scream, 'Here they are, on the table!' I didn't put them there, and neither did they." That's why Witter has no plans to evict her boarder. "He is old and grumpy." she says, "but he's lovable too, and I like having him here."