But before I begin sharing my experience with you, I want to get a couple of things straight. First, this is not a yarn I am spinning for your entertainment and, second, I do not expect you to believe me. That said, I could make up all kinds of embellishments which I will not do. I'm going to give it to you exactly as it happened. No more. No less.
Last month I took a trip to visit my good friends, Jodie and Ross in Binghamton, New York. Almost upon arrival, I was whisked away to their summer place at the Binghamton Boating Club midway up Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region of the state. This area is lush with over 100 vineyards and beautiful rolling hills and spring fed lakes. It is also dense in Amish and Mennonite population which lends the kind of simple charm you rarely see in today's crazy super-rushed super-mechanized culture. There is a peace there. There are ghosts there.
If you know me at all you also know that I have a fondness for anything spooky. I love Halloween and graveyards and all things autumnal. I love crunchy leaves underfoot, crisp air, and I love the scents and sensations of the season. I love orange. I love black. I love cats and crows and bales of hay. I love skeletons and witches and mist and fog and full moons. I love everything associated with the macabre. Including ghosts. I even believe in ghosts, although I have never seen one. To this day, I have never seen one. But I have been visited. And let me tell you something... ghosts, as I have discovered, play by their own rules.
It was a bright and sunny day on the 24th of July. The sky was bluer than blue. So blue it was almost a newer invention of the color formerly known as blue. And every so often in this new-blue sky were punctuations of pillowy white clouds. It was a day when the very last thing you'd ever imagine encountering is a ghost. Or the residence of a ghost. But there it was... looming on a lazy stretch of road that found its end where the water of Seneca Lake licks at the shore. A dead end, if you will. As Ross drove me down the street and as the house came into view, I felt the breath catch in my throat. That house. It was an attention getter with it's startling Greek Revival Italianate architecture that hinted at long ago grandeur. Now careworn and hopelessly ill-maintained, it was still beautiful. Rotting eaves aside. Dissolving floorboards aside. Sagging paint-stripped wood siding aside. The house at 57 Seneca Street in Dresden, New York, also known as the Christopher Willis House, was a grand dame in tattered clothing. Good bones now broken and splintered, but good bones nonetheless.
"It is," he replied.
And just like that I was compelled to find out everything I could about this house. Lucky for us, her neighbors to the west were working in the yard and spotted me as I gestured from the car window. An unshaven round-bellied gentleman with grease on his hands and sweat on his brow approached. Suddenly I felt silly and was already regretting interrupting his work, thinking to myself that men like this do not suffer fools gladly. But as soon as I cocked my head toward the house and asked what he knew about it, an expression of understanding washed over his face and my apprehension disappeared. Apparently this sort of interruption happens all the time. Just as he was doing for us now he has done many times for others. In fact, he almost seemed delighted to answer our questions... Yes, it's haunted. No, he hasn't personally witnessed any strange or eerie goings on at that house, but he told us about the unexplained banging and rapping and the music that he hears at 3am most nights at his house. And he was in the yard the night the ghost hunting team came to investigate next door with all their sophisticated full-spectrum video recorders, infrared thermal scanners and EMF detectors. Apparently, 57 Seneca Street was a Safe House for slaves during the Underground Railroad era and there is even an escape tunnel leading from the basement into a cavern some ways out. He suggested there might be spirits of long ago slaves still harbored safely inside its walls. Plausible since the house was built around 1830 and the height of the Underground Railroad era was between 1850 and 1860. We asked if anyone currently lived in the house and were told no. The electric and plumbing have been out for as long as he could remember and the owner didn't have the capital to bring the house back to a respectable living condition. But knowing the house had the distinction of being haunted, he opened it up for trick-or-treaters one Halloween and the whole town of Dresden showed up for a tour. Our curiosity shifted into high gear. We asked if we could walk the property and look around and were told that because the owner was a really nice guy, he probably wouldn't mind, as long as we didn't disturb anything.
Ross parked the car and we started roaming around snapping photos of every imaginable angle, nook and cranny. We took photos of the disintegrating woodwork, the cracked windows, the sunken porch boards, even the bird's nests over the front door. We peered through windows, tried doors. We even rang the disconnected doorbell. We concentrated hard to see something ghostly, but the house did not cooperate. Perhaps a nighttime visit was in order. We decided we would return when the spirits might be a little more playful. We would return that night. After dark.
The Night Visit
The night was balmy with a lovely breeze rustling through the trees and swaying branches gently. To be honest, it was more romantic than eerie, but we were undeterred to discover something spectral. Around 9pm we returned to 57 Seneca Street and continued our own ghost hunt. Again we circled the house, around and around. We laid hands on the house, on the windows, on doors. We summoned the ghosts to show themselves. We waited and watched. We closed our eyes and concentrated deeply on our invitation for the ghosts to materialize. After nearly two hours we realized there was to be no haunting that night. Disappointed, we headed back home. Ghostless.
Back at the Boat Club, Ross and I had to tell Jodie that we had failed as poltergeist poachers. We were so confident that we were going to find ghosts at the Seneca house that we almost couldn't believe our hunt was a flop. Somehow we got the idea that since we couldn't attract real ghosts we would instead enjoy the conciliatory activity of telling ghost stories. All three of us huddled in bed and I read "true" ghost stories from my iPhone app by the thin light of one small votive candle. I read and read until my eyes started getting heavy and my lids began to close. Ross was softly snoring and Jodie was nearly nodding off to sleep. Time to blow out the candle and say goodnight. Jodie woke Ross and they went off to their bedroom while I pulled the cotton sheet up around my chin, rolled over on my right side, and laid my head on my pillow.
Boom! I had closed my eyes no longer than a moment before the whole side of the camper jolted and reverberated from the impact of something huge colliding just outside of where I was laying. I jerked up, startled, clutching at the covers and whooping out a frightened shriek.
"What's wrong?" Jodie asked sleepily from the other end of the camper.
"What do you mean, what's wrong?" I gasped. "Didn't you feel that?"
"Feel what? Honestly? Jodie...you didn't just feel the whole camper jump and shake? Seriously, I think something hit the camper. It totally shook!"
"I didn't feel anything."
That's the point that I realized something might be spiritually askew. After all the hopeful conjuring that Ross and I were doing at the haunted house, and after reading ghost story after ghost story back at the camper, I realized that we had drawn a ghost to us. The ghost had finally appeared and made it's presence known. I freaked out.
"Listen, Jodie... I am one hundred percent serious. Something just rocked my side of the camper and I am having a hard time believing that you didn't feel it."
It sounded like she was being completely truthful. Ross was once again softly snoring in the background and the experience was beginning to feel more surreal. Maybe Ross snuck out the bedroom door and came around and shouldered the camper to scare me.
"Jodie... did Ross do it?"
"Do what? Rock the camper? No. He didn't. He's here asleep next to me."
"Well then I am completely freaked because something just jolted the hell out of the camper and I think it was a ghost." Then I started to cry.
Less than a minute later, Ross was at my bedside, rubbing my back, yawning and asking me if I was okay. I wasn't. I was scared. Really scared. If they played a prank on me, if they punked me, they did it in royal style. I was totally buying it. In fact, I was now in tears and trying to figure out what had just happened. Ross didn't seem phased. Does he not believe me, I wondered? It happened! It happened! I swear it happened! Ross insisted that he believed me, but that he was not going to let anything happen to me. I looked at all the windows that had been cranked open and questioned how he could stop a ghost from coming if it had a mind to. It didn't matter. We called the ghosts to come. We sent out the engraved invitations. I was going to have to suck this up. It was on me.
Ross continued to rub my back until I had calmed down and gotten comfortable with the idea that I may just be the female reincarnation of Ebeneezer Scrooge and that there were ghosts lined up to come take me on a tour of my life. Fine. Let them come.
Ross staggered back to bed and I rolled back over to meet my doom. I felt the bottom of the camper rumble. Once, twice....six times. It rumbled like a mini earth quake. Snores from the other room. It rumbled like lightning had struck ground six inches away. Snores from the other room. Yes... it was just me and the ghosts. I settled in and waited for the chains to rattle and the apparitions to appear. It was sometime around then when I fell asleep and the story comes to a screeching halt.
I questioned Ross later and asked him directely, pointedly, if he was responsible for my haunting - and he denied it. Jodie denied it as well. I have no reason not to believe them. I also have no reason to believe I was haunted. But when your reality is shaken and you have no idea why... no justification other than the fact that you invited it to shake... well... sometimes you just have to believe in ghosts.