Saturday, October 8, 2011

August 6, 2011: A Very Big Bump in the Night

The news to report about our August investigation falls nicely into two ominous categories: "Be careful what you wish for," and "All clichés are based on truth."

The first category refers to my longstanding frustration at not having any close encounters at the Merchant's House. Other members of the team have seen swirling mist and heard disembodied voices. But I've yet to experience a single unexplained sound or playful tap on the shoulder (which many visitors have reported, especially during the annual Ghost Tours).

The closest I've come to any of that happened on October 1, 2010 - when I got goosebumps while standing in the rear parlor. Like the beard I shaved off long ago, I no longer have a firm conviction that the sense of something I got brushing up against my stubble was anything more than wish fulfillment and/or the work of an overactive imagination.

For the past several months, I've roamed the house alone - inviting all manner of supernatural visitation. Me, who used to stop liquid intake hours before so I wouldn't have to leave the group to use the bathroom. Now, I am the man without fear. Need someone to fetch a fresh battery for the digital audio recorder? No problem. I'll go three flights up and back, alone, to get it. It's not like anything's going to happen, right?

The hard evidence we collect - spectacular though it may be - almost always comes in the form of EVP captured on tape and revealed once Dan Sturges has sifted through hours of audio and video recordings (see the April and June blog entries).

As for the latter category that tonight's investigation falls into ("All clichés are based on truth"), let me make this crystal clear. When it comes to haunted houses, things really do go bump in the night. To hear for yourself, access this web page, then scroll down to the last two audio clips:

Listening to that clip outside of its proper context, you wouldn't peg it as the most extraordinary and unsettling event to have happened in the past eight months. So here's the scenario:

At 8:01pm, our investigative team (Dan, Anthony, Mike, psychic Cathy Towle, Stephanie and me) had made our way from Eliza Tredwell's bedroom into the adjoining bedroom of her husband, Seabury. At Cathy's urging ("I think we should talk about Seabury"), Dan was asking a series of questions meant to provoke a response from the Tredwell patriarch (such as, "Do you feel you were a strict father?"). At 8:09pm, Mike noted that he heard "a sound, like a clap if you held a piece of paper between your hands and clapped." Anthony's take on the sound was, "I got the impression of a clap on a chalkboard."

At 8:10pm, Cathy announced to the group that she heard a woman's voice singing (it's become standard protocol for Cathy to note, out loud, her psychic impressions). "I feel like the whole family is here tonight," Cathy said, then commented on Dan's increasingly provocative inquiries to Seabury: "He's been answering your questions in a stern way, Dan."

It's 8:12 now, and Anthony says, "I'm smelling tobacco, like a cigarette" - a sensory experience that both Mike and Dan share. At 8:14pm, Stephanie tells the group," I'm seeing a peripheral flickering." Acting on a hunch, she asks, "Does somebody want these lights turned off?"

And that's when it hit. Literally. In the exit interviews conducted the next day, two schools of thought emerged: Either we were getting a direct response from an intelligent entity who wanted the lights to be turned off - or, it was a poltergeist (a physical manifestation of subconscious tension created by one of the six living beings in the room). If the latter, most bets were on Stephanie as the source, since it was later revealed that an event in her personal life caused her to rethink her presence in the house, since the moment she walked in the door.

Mind you, this is all hindsight. At the time, the origin of the bump seemed utterly supernatural - and "freaked out" is a highly accurate way to describe the effect it had on our jaded little group of regulars. Loud, unexplained noises have been documented before, Dan points out, but always by recorders left in unattended rooms - never with six eyewitnesses positioned mere feet away.

The "bump" came from inside the closet - which, upon inspection, had no contents that could have fallen down. Besides, the sheer force of the impact seems to be the work of something that was thrown with enormous force (and this being a closet, there's not enough room for the sort of wind up and pitch necessary to create such an impact).

As for the impact the event had on me? Later that night, I found myself bravely volunteering to go up to the third floor office to fetch a headlight (we decided to conduct an investigation of the kitchen in near total darkness). I bolted all the way up to the office and back, singing nervously to myself as a crude strategy to ward off whatever was behind that freaky "bump."

One giant leap forward in terms of interacting with the paranormal, and I'd taken an embarrassing step back. Here I was, gifted with this unique journalistic opportunity to explore Manhattan's most haunted house. Now, something extraordinary had happened - just as I'd been craving - and my response was to break the land/speed record for going up and down a set of stairs while crooning a Beach Boys tune.

It was "California Girls," by the way. Should you ever need to put the kibosh on a ghostly encounter, I can tell you from experience: That the tune is to Casper what garlic is to Dracula. But this discovery, notable in its own right and sure to help field researchers for years to come, is really nothing to be proud of.

I got what I asked for and backed away from it. Maybe it's because I started this project eight months ago as a hardcore atheist, then evolved into an agnostic. Now I'm fairly certain in my own mind that a ghost responded to a question with a loud bang against the inside of a closet door.

It's not the fear of being assaulted by spooks that concerns me. It's the broader implications behind the creeping certainty that the souls of the dead exist right here alongside us on a plane that's just out of our sensory reach. That thing you do behind closed doors that nobody knows about? They're all over that, buddy. The dead are onto every last little secret held by the living - and that's a much more terrifying, and humbling, feeling to experience than the beat your heart skips when things go bump in the night.