Saturday, January 15, 2011

Did You Just See a Ghost?

Look at your arm and tell me whether the blood is blue or red, and the answer will depend on whether you’ve got your sights set on a vein or what’s flowing from a fresh cut. Now tell me if that strange noise you heard or that thing you saw out of the corner of your eye was real — and if you think it’s real, then why were you the only one in the room who noticed?

Did you just see a ghost, or was it your imagination? Or maybe, the ghost used your imagination to allow you to see it.

It’s frustrating, right? How long ago did we put a man on the moon? We should know these things by now; ghosts and messages from beyond and things that go bump in the night. And considering how little we do know, it’s astounding how many people will tell you they’ve got a bead on what happens once we’ve drawn our last breath.

Nobody at the Merchant’s House Museum is insisting that what goes on here is proof of life after death or airtight evidence that our spirits survive with our personalities intact. But they’re committed to asking these kinds of questions. They recognize that because strange things do happen here, the museum is an exceptionally unique laboratory in which to explore unexplained phenomena. They’ve got a sense of humor about it, but they’ve also got a sense of purpose. There’s something rare and admirable about the way they’ve managed to preserve this place as a piece of living history that honors the dead and, perhaps literally, keeps their spirits alive.

Photo by Jook Leung

Built in 1832. Home to a prosperous merchant family and their servants from 1835-1933. Open to the public as a museum in 1936. It’s New York’s only home preserved virtually intact — inside and out — from the mid-19th century. Its kitchen and parlors and bedrooms are filled with the Tredwell family’s original furnishings and personal possessions.

The Museum’s staff, and board member Anthony Bellov (who’s been tasked with cataloging odd occurrences), can tell you dozens of stories about swirling mist, shadowy silhouettes, strange sounds, a tea set that rearranges itself, music coming from an unplayable piano and face-to-face conversations between the living and dead.

After decades of listening to first-hand accounts and having personal experiences, their standard for what qualifies as unusual is, well, unusually high. Sudden changes in temperature and loud thuds would be held up by those jumpy ghost hunters on TV as incontrovertible proof of a haunting. At the Merchant’s House, such things barely raise an eyebrow. It’s all in a day’s work.

Yeah, I said “day.” That’s another thing that sets this place apart from those phony, ghost-baiting hacks running around trauma-heavy hospitals and jails with night vision cameras and calling their pathetic little monkey shows “Reality TV.” At the Merchant’s House, much of what pop culture refers to as “paranormal phenomena” happens in broad daylight.

The fact that the Merchant’s House is a museum means you might see or hear something unexplainable while alone in a room on the self-guided tour. Plenty of people have. That said, if you come insisting on an experience, you’ll probably leave disappointed. The good news is you will have learned something about domestic life as it was lived from 1835-1865. That in and of itself will be a nice conversation piece.

Make no mistake, though. This is, for lack of a much-needed better phrase, a “haunted house.” Whether you call what’s happening here a ghost or a spirit or an event loop or a living memory, one thing’s for sure: It doesn’t perform on command like a barking seal. But it certainly seems to be aware of your presence.

Curious? This blog is for those who want to know more — not just about the dozens and dozens of past events, but about the ones that will (probably) happen tomorrow.