You work your office job from 9 to 5, and your dog stays at home alone all day. By the time you leave work, you’re anxious to feed the dog and let him out. There are a lot of cars on the road this night, and your drive home takes longer than usual. You finally get home and rush up the stairs. You’re jogging, you trip and fall on your way up, knocking your jugular hard against a wooden step. It cuts open, you bleed out, and you die. Your physical self passes, but a piece of your spirit remains, and it just wants to feed the dog.
That’s how Karen Coffey of Pyewacket’s Antiques described ghosts in the physical world. She said they have incomplete relationships in life, and something like feeding a pet, or resolving a problem with a loved one, is what keeps apparitions around after death. “Ghosts are frustrated entities,” Ms. Coffey said. “They want to complete the tasks they left unfinished.”
Ghosts are a divisive subject — you believe in them or you don’t. On Martha’s Vineyard, there’s certainly a culture for the topic, with haunted tours in Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, and prospective poltergeists in spots like Kelley House, the Old Marine Hospital, and the Aquinnah Cultural Center. It’s impossible to know for sure when all we have are stories — but between the experts and the believers, there are hundreds of ghost accounts on Martha’s Vineyard.
“This building is haunted,” Ms. Coffey said of the Pyewacket’s building. “His name is Babe Dugan, and he died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1962.”
Ms. Coffey moved to the Island in 1971, and lives above Pyewacket’s with her husband. In addition to running the antique shop, she’s a psychic, and relates to the paranormal world. “I was born this way, and it wasn’t always easy,” she said.
Ms. Coffey sat at her tarot reading table, and delicately pulled a manila folder out from a drawer in a wooden bureau behind her. A black-and-white photo rested in the file. She pointed to an attractive man in his 30s. “That’s Babe,” she said, “People have seen him, and heard him upstairs. I haven’t seen him, but I feel him. He’s still around.”
Ms. Coffey has been in the spiritual business for more than 30 years, and studied alongside renowned paranormal researcher and author Hans Holzer. Ms. Coffey has lived in houses all over the Island in the past 40 years, many of which were haunted — although she notes that most houses are.
“Every building has past lives,” she said. “It just takes a particular type of person to draw their spirits into the physical.”
One season at Pyewacket’s, Ms. Coffey kept misplacing a 10-key calculator she used for bookkeeping in the upstairs office and living area. As she lost the calculators, she’d replace them, and one night while crunching numbers and searching for missing calculators, she heard a noise come from a locked closet door. She froze as she saw the locked latch lift up and then down by itself. Chills ran up her spine, and as she turned to go down the stairs, five 10-key calculators were perfectly lined up next to one another on the table by the stairs.
Spirits tend to move things around and interact with the living world in friendly and nonthreatening ways — that’s what some of the experts will tell you. Most Island ghost stories aren’t all that evil. Ghost storyteller extraordinaire Holly Nadler, author of “Haunted Island” and “Vineyard Supernatural,” has a theory.
“I like to think evil ghosts are in the same demographic as sociopaths, which make up some 3 percent of our population. When a lamp falls and breaks right next to you, or a knife is found embedded in the kitchen table, those are the malevolent spirits that really creep people out,” Ms. Nadler said in an interview with The Times. “I’ve noticed some Campground homes are dark all summer long. No one is comfortable being there — owners aren’t even comfortable renting it out. But generally speaking, ghosts are here because they like it here, and they like you being here.”
Artist Allen Whiting, who also owns Whiting Farm, has a story. His family has lived on-Island for generations; when he moved into the West Tisbury family home, he noticed the place was buzzing with an energy.
“There was a lot of activity, but it was really nonconfrontational,” Mr. Whiting said. “We had an attic full of old stuff, and for a while, anytime I went up there looking for something, it’d be right at the top of the stairs. If I were looking for a bowl, there it’d be — bing, right there.”
Mr. Whiting recounted that the Whitings who originally lived in the house wanted children, but never had them. “We moved in with a family and kids, and the energy was really welcoming and comforting. Maybe they were really happy a family had moved in,” he said.
Mr. Whiting doesn’t sense ghosts around the house anymore, but he feels spirituality everywhere. “When your family has lived on a land for 100 years, and your house is a stone’s throw away from a cemetery where many of your family members are buried, there’s no ignoring what’s around you. It’s in the trees, rocks, and sunsets,” Mr. Whiting said. He also recounts a moment where he walked by the family barn and heard a “Hey, Allen!” with no explanation.
The ancient Whiting parsonage, built in 1667, is one of the oldest homes on the Island, and has its share of ghost stories. Mr. Whiting told a secondhand account from his niece, who stayed at the house years ago with her family. Her former father-in-law was asleep in a guest bedroom, and he claims he woke up, opened the door to the dining room, and saw a group of British soldiers wearing red coats and dancing.
Ms. Nadler says she always searches for rational explanations before jumping to apparitions, but when there’s no explanation, she has no trouble believing a good ghost story. She told The Times one story she has yet to write herself.
Ms. Nadler lived in the art studio of a friend, Dawn Greeley, who had died in the spring of 2008. Dawn’s husband, Roger, was still alive and living in Sonoma, but owned a large nine-acre property in Chilmark. Ms. Nadler occupied the upstairs studio.
“When you walked in through the downstairs garage, there were all these really heavy locked doors. The first night I lay down to sleep, I heard a big loud bang, and it was the sound of one of those big interior doors having been opened and shut again,” she said. “I summoned the courage to go check, and all the downstairs doors were locked. First, I looked for a rational explanation, and when I couldn’t find one, I said to my dog, ‘I think we’ve got a ghost.’”
Ms. Nadler said the slamming continued, but she got used to it, and learned to ignore it. “It became clear to me that Dawn was all around me, and in her own little ways she would say hello, and leave tokens for me outside the stairs. I felt very loved,” she said.
Roger moved back to the property around the same time that Ms. Nadler’s former husband (and MV Times writer) Jack Shea moved into the studio space. The two of them got to know Roger, and noticed what a hard time he was having around the house without Dawn. He, too, soon died.
“One winter in 2010 we spent a night in the main house. In the middle of the night, Jack heard something and got up. He opened the bedroom door to the downstairs corridor and saw an apparition of Roger. He said Roger had this odd look on his face, and raised his hand and gestured Jack over to him. Jack is not a ghost person, he doesn’t believe in any of that. He just closed his eyes and waited, and then Roger wasn’t there any more,” Ms. Nadler said.
Ms. Nadler stopped feeling Dawn’s presence as strongly. She doesn’t believe ghosts are stuck. She believes there’s a continuing consciousness in the afterlife that we can’t imagine. In that larger consciousness, spirits can break off and come back to the living world, wherever they feel a pull.
Jeanette Vanderhoop is part of the massive and historic up-Island family who owned the famously haunted homestead in Aquinnah. She recalls an old Nepalese superstition that spirits travel via pathways of water — maybe that’s why there are so many ghosts on Martha’s Vineyard. It is also said that spirits like to meet people in their dreams, or at a crossroads during sunset. Ms. Vanderhoop posed a question, “If you’re aware of a superstition, does it make you more susceptible to it?”
Like “The Office’s” Michael Scott once said, “I’m not superstitious, but I am a little stitious.”
When you look back at the records, Ms. Nadler said, many locations that have hauntings are associated with some sort of interference with a burial site, either with Native people or early white settlers.
“You used to be able to bury relatives on property, and you can’t expect to move them without some sort of repercussions from the other side. It opens a portal for spirits to come and go. It’s why Edgartown especially is so seriously haunted,” she said. “White settlers came in and built their beautiful homes. There’s no way to undo what’s been done, but now they have to live with the repercussions.”
Ms. Nadler told another story of a doctor who built a big beautiful French chateau in West Tisbury. During construction, the workers found a skeleton as they were digging the foundation — something that could hold up a project for months, even years. Instead of reporting it, the contractor took it home and put it in his garage. After the house was finished, they called authorities, and were fined some $10,000 — pocket change for the homeowner. The house ended up being haunted, and when Ms. Nadler was working in real estate, she rented it out to movie star Michelle Pfeiffer and her husband. The couple put down thousands on the house, but after the first night, they called Ms. Nadler and said they weren’t comfortable, and that they wanted a new home. “I said, ‘Just know it’s a good ghost, and whatever is going on is a benevolent spirit,’” Ms. Nadler said. “They ended up staying.”
Whether or not you believe in ghosts is up to you. But if you can relate to any of the stories above, it’s probably not just the wind.