The grounds of the Historic Powhatan Resort nearly Williamsburg, Virginia were soaked in blood. Hundreds died along the edge of the woods to the north during the Civil War, it is said, and even more died over its long centuries as a working farm. They said a lone woman, a war widow, still wandered the woods looking for her beloved. A ghostly mourning party often stood below an ancient gallus-tree. We were haunting the resort while on vacation and found that this scarred land now featured many fine amenities including two pools, a gym, and evening activities for the kids. We partook of many of them, including a showing of Boss Baby complete with free popcorn, but on one hot August night in 2017 we decided to catch some ghosts.
As a former Taoist and current atheist, I have a tenuous relationship with the spirit world. On one hand I once believed that we were all part of the Tao and I expressed this belief through Tai Chi and offering massages to my college friends. On the other hand I’m content in accepting that there is either a winking out of life at our end – a TV hissing down into a final dot – or something else. What that something else is I assure you I do not know. That said, I do believe in ghosts because ghosts once partied at my house.
Rewind a few years. It’s Christmas Eve I was alone in our 1930s brownstone in Brooklyn. Water was pouring into the basement and I was angry.
When we first went to look at the house a woman who had taken care of its previous resident heard my wife was from Europe and told us, in Polish, that “No one had ever died in the house.” We thought nothing of it. After all, there are plenty of houses where no one died and even if they did, what harm could it do?
But on that Christmas Eve it was raining and sleeting and generally miserable. Our foundation was unsound and there were cracks in the wall. A stream of cold water ran into the basement because water was collecting under the porch and so I had to clear out whatever was blocking things up. I clambered under the back deck to look for the drain. I fished around in four inches of cold water and finally found it, cursing the name of the woman who once lived in the house for not hiring a Roto-Rooter. I cursed her loudly. Our neighbors said that I sounded crazed, which was entirely possible.
From that night on I heard a party in my house every night at 3am. The dog and I would wake up at the Witching Hour to hear glasses tinkling and a piano playing softly. We heard voices talking about the news of the 1930s. We heard laughter. I though it was our contractor at first but then I realized he probably wouldn’t have brought his friends every night for a midnight cocktail party.
Every night for about five months I heard this party and every night the dog and I would walk down the stairs into the moonlit dining room. It would always be empty. I was now a medium, or at least I was able to break up spectral parties.
A good friend told me that I had called the spirit of that dead woman and that there were plenty more spirits floating around Brooklyn because, as we can surmise, plenty of people died there. “They just didn’t go into the light,” he said. “And when you talk about them they come to you.” He was another rational thinker so he added that the energy of the dead is all that remains and that most ghosts were harmless.
Since that five-month period I have been particularly sensitive to ghosts or, barring that, natural gas leaks or whatever it is that gives me a shiver and a feeling that someone is watching. So at the Powhatan Resort we decided to go on a ghost tour of the old grounds. Now clearly the best ghost sightings are the organic ones. A formal tour is far too confining for the true medium to grasp the depth and breadth of spiritual depravity going on in a place but ever since my 3am jam seasons I liked to wander dark places to see what I could find.
Our tour guide, David, the founding member of Virginia Paranormal Occurrence Research, was a decidedly high-tech purveyor of the dark arts. David told us stories of walking into the old manor house on the property – built in the 1700s but redone in about 2009 – and hearing an ominous voice telling him to “Get out!” He is also the proud owner of a photograph of a pair of spectral legs in Civil War dress standing by a cold grave. He shares this photograph with evident pride on his Facebook page.
The tour began in the dark. David led us around the manor house and into her innards. The house looked like any other staged historical location. There was period furniture, beautiful moldings, and handsome wooden floors. I loved the plasterwork but David wanted us to love the home’s spectral inhabitants. He first gave us dowsing rods and asked us to wander the walks waiting for these metal sticks to come together or fall apart. The skeptic in me saw the folly of this tool and so we asked for the true tech, tools like the Spirit Box, a sweeping AM radio scanner that is said to allow the spirits to pick out words for the living to hear. Think of it as a talk-radio-based Ouija board.
We wandered and listened. Here or there we’d hear snippets of words – “big,” “traffic,” “Trump” – and, while frightening, I didn’t think we’d catch many ghosts by sweeping past Rush Limbaugh reruns.
We then took up the Mel-Meter, an electro-magnetic frequency sensing device couple with an ambient thermometer. The Mel-Meter is a tool with a sad history. Connecticut-based inventor Gary Galka created the meters after his daughter was killed in an accident in 2004. One day, while fiddling around with some electronics, he heard is daughter say “Hi, Daddy, I love you” on a broken radio. Intent on finding out what was going on, he began building paranormal sensing equipment for others who shared his grief. His mission is at once cathartic and troubling but his grief is his alone and others have been using to far less scientific means to try to speak to the dead.
Heartbreakingly his flagship product, the Mel-Meter 8704, is named after his daughter Melissa’s year of birth – 1987 – and her year of death.
So my oldest son and I wandered around with this high-tech gear. In one room I felt a cold chill that registered on the gear but we quickly realized that the old house had central air. We stood in a dark room with the dowsing rods and an EMF meter and waited. Nothing came. We called out, asking in quiet voices for the ghost – Eliza? – to visit. We traversed the immaculately manicured garden and by an old tree where the disembodied civil war pantaloons once walked.
What did we sense?
Something about that place, all that tech, did not let me spot any ghosts. Perhaps it was the regimented nature of the tour? Perhaps it was because the house had been rebuilt, stripping away all but the most vaporous of spirits? Maybe I wasn’t quite tuned to meet southern ghosts after spending so much time with their cosmopolitan Brooklyn brethren?
I’ll never know. Our sensors beeped, our spirit boxes hissed, but nothing strange came to call.
We walked back to the hotel room that night disappointed but excited. There was the frisson of the illicit, the threat of potential demons lurking in every corner. And that night after thinking back on the stories we were told about sad souls walking the verdant fields of the resort I woke at 3am and cast my weary eyes to the edge of a low ridge to the south, searching for a company of hollow soldiers walking through the cropped grass toward homes they would never find.
I saw no one and so I went back to sleep.