Turns out this ‘haunted house’ is just draughty

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  • Ghostbusters: The members of the Ghosts Of New England Research Society, G.O.N.E.R.S. prepare John Cox's house in Orange Valley for investigation Saturday evening (Photo by Glenn Tucker)

    Ghostbusters: The members of the Ghosts Of New England Research Society, G.O.N.E.R.S. prepare John Cox's house in Orange Valley for investigation Saturday evening (Photo by Glenn Tucker)

  • Ghostbusters: The members of the Ghosts Of New England Research Society, G.O.N.E.R.S. with John Cox and Royal Gazette reporter Jessie Moniz at Mr Cox's house in Devonshire. (Photo by Glenn Tucker)

    Ghostbusters: The members of the Ghosts Of New England Research Society, G.O.N.E.R.S. with John Cox and Royal Gazette reporter Jessie Moniz at Mr Cox's house in Devonshire. (Photo by Glenn Tucker)

It was a dark and stormy night when a blood-curdling scream ripped across Orange Valley, Devonshire.

It sounds a little cheesy, but it was dark and stormy, the winds were near gale force and there was a scream. I almost wet myself.

I was standing in total darkness in a bedroom at John Cox’s historic home. This house, at the corner of Happy Valley and Parsons Roads, was built by the Cox family in 1801 and is reputed to be haunted.

With me was Royal Gazette photographer Glenn Tucker, and members of Ghost Hunters of New England Research Society, a ghost-hunting group from Connecticut. The team was led by Kurt Knapp. Goners are quite famous for their ghost detection work and have appeared on television programmes such as ‘Destination America’s Haunted’.

I was in good spirits (excuse the pun) until the lights were turned off. Then, with only moonlight to guide us, and the sound of trees outside thrashing in the wind, I started feeling a bit nervous. I not only worried about encountering a real ghost, there was also the possibility of tripping over all the cables now snaking through the house. What might surprise you about ghost hunting is all the high-tech equipment involved.

Video cameras were set up in many of the rooms at Orange Valley, and there were motion-activated cameras set up at various strategic points to capture any sudden ethereal movement. The crew also carried voice recorders and had a little gadget to measure the amount of electricity emitted by electrical sockets and wires. It was made of clear plastic and looked like a device out of ‘Star Trek’. I wanted one.

And then the scream broke the silence.

One of the Goners team had been grilling the spirits. At the sudden scream outside, the team member stopped for a moment. When my heart stopped violently pounding, I thought: ‘Gee, I didn’t think ghost hunting would be that productive’. But the quick consensus was that it was someone among the living playing a joke on us.

Goners’ members have had crockery thrown at them, they’ve seen light bulb explode or disappear on them eerie screams weren’t the norm.

Added to that, residents of Orange Valley had never reported hearing ghostly screams, only strange occurrences.

Mr Cox awoke one night to find a little boy standing at the bottom of his bed. There have been ladies in period attire spotted outside in the garden. Doors have banged unexpectedly. The Cox family once heard a woman crying in one of the bedrooms.

Goners started questioning the ghosts with a persistence that would impress even Barbara Walters.

The patter went something like this: “John invited us here. We mean you no harm. Can you tell us your name? Can you tell us the year that you lived? Do you stay in this dimension or go back and forth? If you want to answer us you can always speak into my recorder.”

Through the darkness I could just see the red light from the recorder. I was told that often you missed the point of communication or visitation, but it could be picked up when you went back over the various photographs, film and voice recordings.

A Goners team member told me that when they caught a voice on the tape recorder it wasn’t always easy to figure out what had been said. Sometimes they might catch a word or two. I imagine it’s a bit like listening to someone talking in their sleep.

But if you had the opportunity to speak to someone who lived 200 years ago, would you really be able to understand each other? Would they have a clue what a “recorder” was?

One lady from the Goners team kept asking the ghosts if they had any “kids” a relatively recent American phrase. I imagined Mr Cox’s uncle, Aubrey Cox, who occupied one of the bedrooms in the 1920s, sitting back and wondering why these people kept asking him if he had any goats. At home we’ve been listening to iPod audio versions of classic novels from the 1800s. My husband keeps asking me what they’re talking about. A typical sentence from the novel ‘Wuthering Heights’ includes: “…I charitably conjectured he must have need of divine aid to digest his dinner, and his pious ejaculation had no reference to my unexpected advent.”

So in the unexpected advent that we did make contact with the other world, there would be a lot of misunderstanding, and we’d all need divine aid to digest our dinners.

It’s hard to anticipate the form any comment from a ghost might take. In Uncle Aubrey’s room, a window banged sharply every time we asked the spirit to send us a sign that it was there. I thought this was promising, but another team member closed the window, complaining that it was causing a draft. Then we heard a faint scratching noise that could have been dead fingernails trying to send a message; a little shell on the dresser rocked a bit.

Before going on the ghost hunting expedition I was excited, but worried that my vivid imagination would get carried away and I would end up with weeks of sleepless nights. What I actually learned about myself is that my imagination is a bit of a downer. Each time we heard a sign from the dead, my brain came up with at least three different rational explanations the scratching could easily be roaches; doors banging closed on their own accord was because of cross drafts in the house and wonky door hinges. (I have these in my own home); the rocking shell could have been moved by the vibrations of a house buffeted by winds.

It’s not that I don’t believe in ghosts, but I can’t really say that anything that happened that night convinced me of their existence. Truthfully, I can’t say I was particularly disappointed by this. Believing in ghosts can be a bit of a burden. For example, Mr Cox said at one open house a visitor came with a paranormal energy testing gadget of some sort. He found high activity in one of the rooms we were looking at. That all sounds charming and interesting until you have to sleep in the room.

“I smudged it,” said Mr Cox.

Apparently smudging is the herbal remedy for a case of phantoms. You get a bunch of sage and rub it over the room.

“The ghosts don’t like the smell,” Mr Cox explained. “It doesn’t last forever, but it keeps them away for a while.”

Downstairs in one of the parlour rooms, some of our group experienced a weird feeling. One lady felt like a hand gripped her neck. Another lady felt a creeping sensation on the back of her head. We sat in the dark for about 20 minutes, asking the ghosts questions, without much response. At one point I heard a faint snore coming from our photographer at least I think that’s what it was. Some of the party whispered that they could see a shadow over the coffee table. They said this several times. I have to say I really couldn’t see any shadow, but the motion-activated camera went off a couple of times.

“Does anyone else want to ask a question?” Mr Knapp whispered to us.

I silently shook my head, but I had a perfectly valid reason for not asking the ghost any questions: I was terrified I might get a response.

Mr Tucker said: “I have a question for the ghost. Did you ever play any tricks on people when you were alive? Go ahead, play a trick on me.”

My blood ran cold and I thought about trying to move my chair away from him. After the scream earlier I’d had enough with tricks. I wouldn’t want to see what a ghost’s practical joke my look like.

Then Mr Knapp said he was going to try provoking questions. In journalism we call this the upside down triangle. Start by asking all the easy questions like, did you have many goats, and then work your way down to the difficult stuff like did you own any slaves, and don’t you know owning slaves is one of the most evil things you can do to a person. I held my breath and waiting for the antique china to start flying at us, but nothing happened. I can only presume that the ghost stood up at this point, declared that he was highly offended by the turn of the conversation and walked out in a huff.

After that things became rather normal and suddenly we were five people sitting in the dark with each other. Mr Cox came in and chatted with us about his relatives, without turning a light on. I was no more convinced of ghosts than I had been before I came. It was a fun experience, sort of like extreme sports for cerebral people who like history with lots of adrenalin rushes. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, especially if it was carried out in a home as beautiful as Orange Valley. I drove home through the dark and stormy night and slept peacefully.

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Published Feb 15, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated Feb 14, 2013 at 1:13 pm)

Turns out this ‘haunted house’ is just draughty

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