House for sale; Four bedrooms, two baths, and a ghost
Photo by Ralph Stewart
The house on Eastville Beach had good bones, both in its architectural structure, and in its probable actual human bones buried somewhere on the property; something to justify why the place was taking so long to sell, leading anyone in her right mind to speculate that it was haunted.
Let me explain: My business card grouped together the following unlikely trio of professions: writer – real estate agent – ghost hunter. I worked for Linda Bassett Real Estate in Edgartown, and my writing resumé had recently been rounded out by a collection of true Vineyard ghost stories, "Haunted Island" (Down East Books, 1994). I was, therefore, the perfect person to watch over this shabby-chic old manor house that could have at one time hosted the Addams family.
At first all was relatively normal, which was to say difficult in the usual course of a real estate transaction.
We had a buyer — a wealthy couple from Pittsburgh — and we had the sellers, a clutch of elderly siblings in need of money, yet reluctant to release their childhood memories that went back to the 1920s. The minute the sellers' resistance made itself apparent, I mobilized my handy writing skills. I penned a letter to all the heirs, gently urging them to nourish the nostalgia rather than the house itself, which could use some t.l.c. in the hands of this nice and deep-pocketed Pittsburgh pair.
The aged sibs signed the first set of papers.
Let it be said that I'd never before sold a house, and I've never sold one since. I was involved exclusively in vacation rentals, but a mutual friend of the buyers tapped me as the agent-in-charge. My lack of experience put me at the mercy of office mates to walk me through the steps. Linda Bassett herself, and my office mates were most obliging, but the agent who had originally listed the property was aggrieved that someone else, especially little Miss No Experience me, had found a purchaser. At one point the lister showed me a scrap of paper, predated to a year before, with the name of the buyers-and-my mutual friend: "Wants house on Eastville beach," she'd scrawled below his misspelled name. I had the sang froid to reject this ploy out of hand.
The next set of tribulations were no more than the normal real estate delays: A lawyer discovered a "cloud" on the deed, then the cloud, like all cumulus accretions, blew away. The fire chief found defective wires; state-of-the-art smoke detectors were installed. I had to come up with so-called 'comps' — comparable listings to reassure the lending banker that the buyer was in no way over-paying.
I found an ideal comp on the north shore of Edgartown, which the lister had also placed in her own portfolio. When I asked her for directions to this comp that was no more than a mile away from our office, she demanded $50 for the info. I consulted a map.
Real estate is not for sissies. However, once we'd managed to fulfill all the rules and regulations, things began to fall apart on a supernatural level.
Smoke alarms blared at importune times, then oddly stopped the minute an electrician showed up. A shift in the tides battered the boathouse, something that had never occurred before. The pond with its happy guppies now had dead guppies, orange bellies turned up for no good reason. The old water tank exploded. A skunk squeezed off its stinky Nerf gun. Random visitors to the house said the staircase creaked, and a mysterious tapping could be heard from inside the old walls.
I knew a haunted house when it presented itself. This had shades of "Haunted Island's" chapter three, "The Sad-Eyed Lady of Hariph's Creek" and chapter eleven, "A Way Station For Wandering Spirits."
I also knew what job had to be done. I needed to roll up my sleeves, and tell the spirits to scram-o-la.
This is, by the way, just as easy as it sounds. From all my research of true ghost stories, and this means tales that I gathered from perfectly sane people who kept their shoes shined, their clothes pressed (or, this being the Vineyard, not pressed), who paid their taxes, and attended town meetings; people who, it must be noted, were not hosting ghosts on Tuesdays, and being abducted by aliens over the weekend; many of these folks had needed to rid nooks and crannies of goblins and ghosties, and they did so in one sure-fire way:
They asked them to leave.
Some of these hauntees lit candles, read scriptures, sang psalms, and uttered prayers. Others burned sage and played old Joni Mitchell tapes. A number of them snapped out, after too many dishes had crashed in the night (without any apparent broken crockery in the morning), "Now, you just stop that and get out of here! Just git! Out! Go to the light, or go to the outhouse, I don't care, but go!"
When you tell a ghost to hit the bricks, the ghost is gone. It's as if there's a tacit agreement that we, the living, belong here, and they don't.
For the Eastville exorcism, I packed up a cassette player with Elizabethan canticles and Gregorian chants. I stuck in a short stubby candle even though I would be performing the ritual in broad daylight. I also brought a stick of lavender incense just because I knew it couldn't hurt for things to smell good.
The caretaker, a tall, brown-bearded man in his sixties, let me into the house. I confided my mission, and he shrugged with an old New England look of discernment, as if asking himself if they still burned witches in these parts. Then he shuffled off to the boathouse.
I entered the preternaturally dim living room with its ancient oak-paneled walls, thick beams, a beach stone fireplace blackened with time, and scuffed hardwood floors similarly darkened. Even the windows facing the sea admitted only wan light, blocked as they were by a porch jammed with outdoor furniture.
If this house wasn't haunted, God owed the Usher family an apology.
I got straight to work, flapping out a picnic blanket on the bare floor. I lit the candle, pressed play for the celestial voices on the tape, and in the time that it takes to order a pizza, hold the olives, it was over.
Well, actually, I put a bit of tactful spin on it. I explained to the spirits, just as I'd elucidated to the living siblings, it was time for a new roster of inhabitants, and it was also time for the current residents to pack up and go. A light awaited them at the end of that mystery tunnel. After that they would thank me for the directions, nor was I about to charge them $50.
Later I ambled down to the shore to bid the caretaker farewell. To my horror, he stood with a busted window frame in his hand, his right shoulder dripping blood from a wide gash.
"Window had a nail sticking out," he explained stoically.
But the nail was only a small piece of the story. Dejected, I said, "I forgot to tell the spirits to leave the boathouse as well!"
Never mind. The spell that I cast on the main house was enough to seal the deal. The very next day the buyers called to say they'd shipped the final papers. No more hitches occurred, and I have to say this initial success led me to perform a couple more exorcisms for friends (on houses, not people; I leave that to the pros).
But one final word about imploring the dearly departed to, well, depart: I'm sorry to say, they do come back, sometimes with annoying regularity. I consider an exorcism a kind of booster shot, like injections against tetanus. If you keep on telling those pesky old ghosts bye-bye!, your home can remain free and clear for as long as a year, sometimes far longer.
But forever? Nah. That's why I've come to attach the word "chronic" to most of the Vineyard hauntings I've researched.
But an exorcism will certainly last through the time that it takes to put a house on the market, sign the purchase and sales agreement, and call the movers.
How to tell if the house you are about to buy is haunted
Ideally, before signing papers for a new home, the buyer should be entitled to spend a night in the dwelling. And yet this is hardly customary in our culture, although very possibly this practice adheres wherever tribal beliefs hold that any palace, shack, or yurt could be teeming with paranormal critters.
But let us say the buyer happens to know where the key to the desired house is hidden. What if this person were to steal inside the property one night? Once settled comfortably on the living room divan, and having helped himself or herself to a snifter of the seller's fine cognac, what signs of haunting might present themselves?
The three most common clues are the following:
1. Footsteps on the stairs. Far be it from me to explain the spirit world's keen attraction to ascending and descending stairs. It can't be that they still need the exercise? But they do it all night long.
2. Tapping on the walls. This will be faint and brief enough that one might think one imagined it, or that a nocturnal creature found a twig to poke at a window. But once assured of a scientific explanation, wait. The tapping will come again, this time a little louder, a little more intentional.
3. A final quick test: Snap pictures of the rooms. If the house holds a high spirit content, the shots will disclose faint silver orbs, maybe only a few, but more likely whole batteries of them, like the bubble works in an old Lawrence Welk TV show.
None of this should impede the purchase of the property. A great many New Englanders reside in haunted houses. They've learned to love their (mostly) invisible roommates. Only on rare occasions do spirits come across as malevolent. You'll know it by the chandelier that falls and just misses cold-cocking you. I compare the low incidence of bad ghosts to demographics in the living population: Only 3% of us are psychopaths. The spirit world is bound to contain roughly the same percentage of the criminally insane.
Still, it doesn't hurt to know in advance what you're getting for your 1.2 mil, in addition to a distant water view, solar panels, a Sub-Zero refrigerator, and a Jacuzzi in the master bath. For some unknowable reason, ghosts are never itemized on the listing sheet.
Holly Nadler is a frequent Times correspondent, and the author of "Haunted Island" (1994) and "Vineyard Supernatural" (2008), published by Down East Books. "Haunted Island" is being republished, with more scary stories, in August, 2014.