Listen to this story
Ihave never slept in a haunted house. Or so I think.
One day, while researching my first book, Occult America, I made an impromptu road trip to central New York to visit some hot spots of 19th-century Spiritualism, the practice of séances and talking to the dead.
It was a darkening November evening, and I needed somewhere to stay. I checked into a historic inn on Main Street in Penn Yan, New York, which, along with neighboring Jerusalem, was hometown to an influential, late-18th-century spirit medium named Jemima Wilkinson, or, as she called herself, the Publick Universal Friend.
After dropping off my bags, I strolled down Main Street for a bite to eat and to find locals with whom to swap Universal Friend stories. When I returned to my room after 9 p.m., a computer adapter that I knew I had plugged into the wall socket was now out and on the floor. For the first time, I also noticed a strange door in my room. I creaked it open to discover an unlit, catacomb-like stone staircase. I’m not making this up. I swear.
With only the luminescence of a small flashlight on my keychain, I crept up the stairs, Scooby-Doo style. The stairs led to an empty, pitch-dark stone-walled chamber, where I felt strange breezes. I got scared shitless and descended back to my room, wishing the door could be locked behind me. It couldn’t
Okay, that night I wasn’t visited by the “Ghost of Christmas-Yet-to-Come” or an innkeeper wearing a red-splotched apron. But it felt close enough.
Stories of haunted houses, abbeys, and inns are among the oldest narratives in occult lore, extending at least back to ancient Greece and popularized through England’s Gothic literature of the late-18th century. Today, almost everyone knows a haunted house story.
One of the most widely talked-about haunted houses in America is the so-called Winchester Mystery House, a popular tourist destination in San Jose, California. According to lore, its owner, Sarah Winchester (1839–1922), heiress of the Winchester rifle fortune, spent her widowed life (and much of her inheritance) adding rooms, wings, switchbacks, dead-end corridors, and “stairways to nowhere” in her vast home. Enthusiasts say it was to thwart angry spirits of those who fell to bullets from her husband’s famous repeat-action rifle. A local newspaper account in 1895 claimed that Mrs. Winchester believed — cue up Rod Serling — that when she stopped adding to the house, she herself would die.
When I did research to prepare for an interview segment on the Winchester Mystery House for the Travel Channel, however, I came to understand a counter-narrative (one not wholly reflected in the finished piece): Mrs. Winchester was almost certainly not a Spiritualist — references to her home as a paranormal palace began only after her death, when the sprawling property was acquired by a novelty promoter who intended it as a tourist destination, which it remains today. The greater likelihood is that Mrs. Winchester had obsessively embraced the aesthetic of Victorian clutter then in vogue and, flush with resources, never stopped remodeling. (Those of you with tattoos will understand.)
But there are certainly subtler — and scarier — narratives of haunted houses. One comes from a friend of mine, Gary Jansen, who wrote the memoir Holy Ghosts (which I published), about his spiritually restless home in Rockville Center, Long Island. Gary and his family experienced appliances going off on their own, doors opening, objects moving, inexplicable fluctuations of hot and cold, and other disturbances. A famous medium gave him an eerily accurate reading that his home was “occupied” by entities who, upon Gary’s investigation, matched the description of nearby fatalities, one of which immediately preceded his “troubles.” In 2010, Gary and I spoke in his haunted dining room — see below.
My favorite haunted house narrative surrounds the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Built in 1765, it is the oldest home in the borough and was briefly headquarters to George Washington. As recounted by journalist Stacy Horn in her enthralling book Unbelievable, one morning in January 1964, several groups of schoolchildren were lingering outside the locked house waiting for the grounds staff to arrive to open it for a tour. Suddenly, a Colonial-garbed woman stepped out onto the second-floor balcony and yelled down at them, “Shut up!” The curator arrived, and the children told her what they had seen. Impossible, the curator said: The house was locked, no one could possibly be inside, and the balcony itself was locked and chained. The children described the figure wearing a distinctive blue silk dress covered in stars. The curator recognized it — the dress belonged to the lady of the house, Eliza Jumel, and was stored in an upstairs closet. Eliza had been dead for 99 years.
Some houses are built to be haunted. The area of Central New York where I stayed is called the Burned-Over District, so named for the fiery religious passions that swept it during the early-19th century, giving rise to Spiritualism, Mormonism, Seventh-Day Adventism, the Shakers, and America’s first communal and utopian experiments. A craze for octagon-shaped houses also swept through the Burned-Over District. Octagon homes were efficient for heat and light, but they were also considered conducive to spirit activity and séances. (There were no dark corners in which evil entities could lurk.) A handful of these eight-sided houses survive, including one built in 1866, pictured at the top of this article, in the town of Copake, New York, near where my family has a home. (It is occupied by a very real neighbor.)
Is it possible, as some denizens of the Burned-Over District believed, to build a haunted house?
That may not be was weird as it sounds. Well, actually, it is as weird as it sounds — but hear me out anyway.
Historian Robert Damon Schneck has noted that if one were to analyze the thousands of historical haunted house narratives, it may be possible to identify shared traits, such as architecture, layout, location, materials, positioning, history, foundation, and so on. Through computer analysis, would it be possible to graph a set of common characteristics and, hence, create an algorithmic or digital model of a haunted house? And then build one?
“The approach I favor,” Schneck tells me, “…would incorporate as many traditional beliefs about the causes of hauntings from as many eras and cultures as possible (e.g., building on land where some horrific event occurred, using material from the scenes of murders and suicides, particular places, etc.). It could also be done using theories that posit a connection between paranormal phenomena and states of transition, or the creation of conditions such as standing waves, in which people experience phenomena resembling hauntings.”
Could we take a Jurassic Park approach to haunted houses and actually construct or reconstruct one? I don’t see what could possibly go wrong…