It would probably be easier to tell you what the 18th century Spanish writer Diego de Torres Villarroel didn’t do. According to his highly picaresque autobiography, Torres did all sorts of different jobs, including working as a bullfighter, dancer, soldier, lock picker, astrologer, and math professor. He was also said to be a prophet, although his apparent predictions of the death of the Spanish King Louis I and the French Revolution were more vague coincidences than actual prophecies.
In 1723, after moving to Madrid, a poverty-stricken Torres was forced to work as a smuggler to get by. One day, Torres’ fortunes changed when a messenger from Josepha de Figueroa, the Countess of Arcos, paid him a visit. The messenger looked pale and sick, and explained that the Countess wanted Torres to come stay at her house. For the past three nights, the Countess’ home had been knocked by loud, unexplained noises.
The Countess was afraid that her house, which was located on Fuencarral Street, was being haunted by a duende. In Spanish folklore, duendes are creatures similar to goblins, tricksters who come into people’s homes to harass them and drive them crazy with loud noises. (Our demented friends from The House of the Lions, the follets, are technically a Catalan variety of duende.)
Torres was skeptical about the story, but agreed to investigate the haunting. When he arrived at the Countess’ house, he found the servants pale and quiet, and the Countess terrified. That night, they all banded together and slept in the same bedroom, Torres included.
At 1 AM, Torres was woken up by the sound of a loud blow. While everybody else panicked, Torres jumped up and ran to the source of the sound with a light and sword. He tried looking for the source in the attic, but found nothing. The noise continued banging until 3:30 AM, but wherever Torres looked, he couldn’t find where it was coming from.
For the next eleven nights, Torres stayed with the Countess and continued to look for an explanation. Aside from the loud noises, the house experienced other strange phenomenon as well. Locked doors would break open by themselves, for example, and bursts of wind would put out lights that weren’t anywhere near doors or windows.
In one incident, Torres saw six pictures fall to the floor, pulled and placed back on their original spots by an invisible force. On another night, he heard a noise so loud that he thought a building had collapsed. When he went to go fetch some water, the sound of footsteps followed him all the way there. Other times, members of the household would hear dishes being thrown against the kitchen wall. When they checked the kitchen, however, nothing was broken.
After the fourteenth night, the Countess got the memo that this duende wasn’t leaving anytime soon. Instead of staying and being terrorized any longer, she wisely moved into a new house on another street. For the help Torres gave, along with the good behavior he demonstrated, the Countess invited him to live at the peaceful, non-haunted house. He ended up staying two years there, until the Countess married and Torres went off to live with a marquis.
Diego de Torres Villarroel would later write about this story twice, once in 1738 and again in his 1742 autobiography. Whether the haunting was the result of a mischievous goblin, an ancient Moor burial ground, or an elaborate prank, Torres didn’t bother to speculate. He also didn’t provide the house’s address, or say whether it continued to be haunted after the Countess moved out. Whatever the cause, the incident was certainly beneficial for Torres, who went from life-threatening poverty to living a cozy, rent-free existence with a countess.
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