A Séance at the Physick Estate (or “What Was That?”)

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“…and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Early November has arrived, and October, that most glorious of months, at least for those of us of a certain persuasion, has gone again. The past few years, I have made a habit of traveling to some place or event that puts me in a Halloween mood. This year, I attended a séance at the Emlen Physick House in Cape May, NJ, led by medium Craig McManus.

A caveat before I begin: I’m not a “believer.” I’ve never experienced anything ghostly per se and I wouldn’t go on record as thinking that ghosts are a thing. On the other hand, for reasons I don’t completely understand, I have been preoccupied with ghosts as a theme since very early. I love ghost stories. I get spooked to the point of sleeplessness if I stay in a “haunted” room (which I find simultaneously annoying and enjoyable). I’ve had recurring ghost dreams for years. I probably started this blog in part to figure out what my deal is.

That said, on this particular excursion I did have a pretty strange experience.

Cape May is a seaside resort town at the tip of New Jersey’s Cape May peninsula. It has been drawing leisure-seekers since its incorporation in 1848, and its beaches and many colorful Victorian structures continue to lure visitors. It’s the kind of place families go in the summer months to build sand castles, eat ice cream, and shop for souvenir t-shirts. But along with its seaside charm and old buildings, Cape May also has a wealth of spook stories, and McManus seems to have cornered the market on them. Returning from a summer idyll in the Cape, my friend Laura brought me a copy of his Ghosts of Cape May: Book 1. According to the book, McManus is a medium plus psychic—i.e. the full package. True hauntings books are a dime a dozen, but what sets this one apart is that McManus makes a sincere effort to explain, from his perspective, what ghosts are, the different types, how they interact with the material world, and, moreover, how they interact with a medium like himself. Whether you think this stuff is fact, or, well, bullshit, it’s admirable that he’s trying to present a framework.

The Emlen Physick Estate is an 18-room Victorian mansion built in 1879 for Dr. Emlen Physick Jr., the descendent of a well-known (at the time) family of physicians in Philadelphia. While Dr. Physick (that name, right? You can’t make this stuff up) did earn his medical degree out of fear of otherwise being cut off from his inheritance, he apparently never practiced, deciding that the life of a gentleman farmer suited him better. At the age of 21, Dr. Physick moved into the house along with his mother, Frances Ralston, and her maiden sisters Emilie and Isabelle. Several family members died in the house.

Stepping into the foyer of the estate was like stepping straight into a scene from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: it was a grand but somewhat foreboding space outlined in dark, heavy, carved wood and ornate Victorian wallpaper; a broad staircase climbed to the upper regions of the house, and doors opened out on either side of us; and then there was the party of amateur investigators, each there for his or her own reason, and our learned guide. Craig—an average-looking guy in khakis, whose friendly and easygoing demeanor I immediately liked—gave us a brief introduction: the evening would begin with a tour of the house and end with a séance in the dining room. He began by leading the group into the parlor to the left. I was still reveling in the atmosphere, when we were interrupted by a loud thudding sound followed by an exasperated “Hellooooo???” (House caretaker: “Someone’s here!” McManus: “Alive or dead?”). A minute later, the latecomer was led into the room. Middle-aged, dressed in a hippie skirt, Uggs, and a black t-shirt covered in gold skulls, she was clearly either slightly insane, very drunk, or both. Either way, she was going to add a new certain something to the proceedings.

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Me at the thing in Cape May (in the middle there).

Craig tries to present his Physick house tour and séance events as an educational experience—an opportunity to develop one’s own latent psychic sensitivities. He invited us to note the general atmosphere and anything else we might be aware of in the parlor, which was also outfitted in dark Victorian style, along with some tasteless and weirdly disturbing Halloween decorations (an intended tableau of Victorian “mourners”—apparently just stuffed clothing—around a casket looks like slumped, faceless, dwarf-like creatures around a blank black box). Craig then instructed us to walk into the adjoining music room, make the same observations there, and circle back to the parlor. He asked which room we would rather spend the night in. I’m not sure how much of it was the wallpaper or the creepy dwarf things, but most people agreed that they would much less prefer to pass a long evening in the front parlor. Many said that the atmosphere felt “heavier.” Craig’s plain explanation was that the perceived heaviness was due to the recent presence of a ghost in the room. He also explained that the vibe of a room is not necessarily permanent, but can change depending on the presences moving through it. We moved on and up the stairs.

At the top landing, we found ourselves surrounded by a quad of four rooms. Starting with the nearest on the right, we repeated the exercise, tuning into the feel of a room and then receiving a back story from Craig. Craig always began by dimming the light, so that we could note the “mood and not the wallpaper,” and then raising the lights so we could see. The consensus on the first room was that it felt comparatively cheerful. And indeed, it had been occupied by the cheerful Aunt Emilie. Room two, at the back right, was heavy-ish, but not so much as the parlor: it had been occupied by a wheelchair-bound Aunt, and also used by the doctor as a study. Room three, opinions differed on Dr. Physick’s onetime bedroom, and also location of his death. But the fourth room… Craig didn’t leave much room for interpretation, calling it the “cold heart of the house” (this description set off all of my Haunting of Hill House bells and both scared and excited me). It was painted a watery, medium-blue hue that gave it a dim, submerged quality. And it held the bed where Mrs. Ralston had died slowly of cancer. Craig then allowed us to wander room to room and compare impressions. Our crazy or drunk (or just crazy drunk?) friend, declared every room’s vibe to be “terrifying” and herself to be “scared to death.” She also demanded to know who was in a picture in every room (Crazy lady: “Is that Dr. Physick?” McManus: “No, I’m pretty sure that’s Ulysses S. Grant.”). We ended the tour by heading back downstairs and passing through the comparatively neutral kitchen and pantry, before coming to rest in the dining room.

Here’s where we began the séance proper. And where the weird thing happened.

I’ve been to a handful of séances at this point—all of them smaller affairs at new age stores or other low-key venues—and I sort of know the deal. The medium does some stuff to center and settle themselves and the other participants, and then a parade of dead people (supposedly) begins passing through the room. Relatives show up. Spirit guides show up. The descriptions of spirits elicit gasps of recognition, or shrugs of incomprehension, after which the medium gamely tries again or offers up the idea that recognition may suddenly dawn later. Say, while you’re brushing your teeth or crossing the street (“Oh! Now that reminds me of my great uncle so-and-so! Funny I didn’t notice before”). Skeptics call this classic “cold read” technique. Believers say… well, when it comes to spirits, you can’t be 100% all the time.

This was basically how the scenario played out at the Physick house. After settling in, Craig immediately picked up on a presence working its way in through the door of the room, just to the rear of where Laura and I and a few other women (it was mostly women there, I might add) were standing. A strong female presence (possibly one of the aunts), she complimented a woman’s bag and declared that she “liked” someone standing near the door (funny how materialistic and opinionated spirits can be). This spirit or ghost was followed by another dominant male presence—perhaps Dr. Physick himself. There was a little boy. Even a cat. So much for the spirits attached to the house. Soon, relatives of those present started showing up. One family across the room seemed to have brought their whole clan with them (“Tribal motherfuckers,” I thought bitterly, jealous that no spirits seemed to be interested in talking to me). A young woman was visited by the spirit of her brother, who died in a motorcycle accident. The brother apparently had a sense of humor, first evoking for our medium the image of a burning wheel, and then commenting “It was cool how the wheel caught on fire. But unfortunately I died from it.” The woman sobbed uncontrollably. It was impossible not to feel for her, belief aside.

At some point, in the midst of all this, a woman to my left asked:

“Did anyone hear that sigh?”

There’s a classic ghost story by Edith Wharton called “Afterward.” In it, the narrator describes what seems like a commonplace event, which she later realizes was a ghostly sighting. Here, I seemed to suffer a bit of an “Afterward” effect, where I realized that I had indeed been hearing a sigh for some period of time—a beat, a few seconds, a moment—but it took a bit longer for my brain to catch up to what was happening. And then I thought, “Yes, I did hear that sigh. I have been hearing it.” (but for how long?)

And it wasn’t just any sigh, either.

It hung in the air, just off my left shoulder. It was not a typical, weary sigh, not an exasperated or wistful sigh, but a long, breathy, drawn out sound. Sort of like wind, or the opening of an air lock. Or like the spooky respiration of some unnamed person on the other end of the phone line. It had a physical quality that pricked my skin. It seemed to occupy both a space in the room and some other void. I looked around and try to figure out if anyone around me could be doing all that sighing, but I couldn’t tell for sure. Then, the sound moved. It migrated up and to the rear, and I heard it just behind and above my head, near the door. And there was definitely no one standing back there.

Craig asked those who heard it to try and assign a gender. Some said it was female, but I disagree. My perception of what I heard is that it was non-gendered, and not of this earth.

I found it odd that the sound also seemed somewhat solid, somewhat stubborn. Having been noticed, it didn’t flit away, but continued for some time. Even after Craig shifted his attention elsewhere, and after it seems like maybe others stopped hearing it, I still heard it, more and more faintly, in that same spot just behind me (like Hill House’s Eleanor, I may have been having a private experience). At some point, it crossed the room… and then faded out.

Look, I know the checkered history of séances. I know about the tricks mediums employed in the 1800’s to dupe the gullible. Moreover, I know that even though these tricks seem extremely simplistic to us now (rigging the table so that it can be moved by the medium, hiding objects in a spirit cabinet, attaching gloves to fishing lines to be drawn across participants’ shoulders, even drawing faces on balloons and letting them float about the room), studies have shown that in the heightened atmosphere of the séance room, these techniques still work on people, in our modern era. The desire to believe is powerful. And our own brains are tricky, giving rise to phenomena like the ideomotor response—the driving force behind Ouija boards and automatic writing. It was possible to fool people in the Victorian age, and with modern technology, it would be all the more easy to fake a disembodied sigh. I am also well aware that as an imaginative person who loves this stuff, I might be the perfect rube.

Nonetheless, something strange happened in that room–whether it was proof of the alarming ability of my brain to play tricks, given the right conditions, or something weirder than that.

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2 comments

  1. Hi there! I am the host of the History Goes Bump Podcast and our next episode features this location. I love your writing and how you described “the sigh!” We will be sharing that in that episode, which will be Ep. 238. We’ll include links in our show notes and credit the blog on the audio!

    Like

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