Ghosts

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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Mae Nak Phra Khanong, Thailand’s Most Famous Ghost

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Thailand, it seems, has got a bit of a ghost obsession.

Thais’ relatively common belief in the supernatural has started gaining attention because of articles like this and this, and movies like Uncle Boommee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The Wikipedia page Ghosts in Thai Culture lists 34 SEPARATE TYPES of Thai ghost (34!! Separate. Types!). And arguably the most famous among these is Mae Nak Phra Khanong.

Mae Nak (or Mother Nak) is so famous that there have been over 15 movie adaptations telling her story. There is also a shrine dedicated to her at Wat Mahabut in Bangkok’s far-flung Phra Khanong neighborhood. The shrine is pretty far below the tourist radar but popular among Thais, who visit to pay tribute to the famous shade and ask for her blessings.

Thailand and I have something in common, because I’m also kind of obsessed with ghosts. So when my position in an obscure department of a high-profile news organization was recently eliminated, I decided to take advantage of both the situation and my severance by attending a 10-day meditation retreat in Thailand. And immediately afterward, I’d do a little ghost hunting.

The legend of Mae Nak goes something like this:

In mid-19th century, a man named Mak and his young bride Mae Nak are living in a state of domestic bliss, when Mak is called away to fight in a border war. Nak, who is pregnant, goes into labor while Mak is stuck recuperating from a battle injury. Unfortunately, neither mother nor child survives the delivery, and Nak dies crying out for her beloved Mak.

Here’s where it starts getting weird.

Newly healed, Mak returns home and is overjoyed to find his beautiful wife and young son waiting at the door of their home to greet him. He quickly settles back in to his old life.

At first Mak’s friends, seeing him spending his days alone in his decrepit and unkempt home, think he must be suffering the effects of war. But they soon realize that he has been hypnotized by Nak’s ghost to believe that everything is swell on the homefront. Mak brushes off their warnings, and all that his buddies manage to do is to piss off Nak, who visits them at night and murders them horribly. Despite dwindling numbers among his pals, Mak still doesn’t catch on.

One day, he comes home to find Nak grinding curry paste. She drops a lime off the porch of their house, and, apparently unaware of Mak, stretches her arm out several meters to retrieve it (what a ghost is doing preparing dinner and why she can overhear rumors but not hear her husband come home is beyond me). At last, comprehension dawns on Mak. And, naturally, he freaks the fuck out.

Mak books it into the forest, pursued by Nak, and reaches the local monastery (Mahabut, in fact), where he is safe from Nak’s spirit. Here narratives and details differ (one compelling version has monks chanting and weaving sacred string around Mak, while vengeful Nak hangs upside down from the vestibule ceiling uttering curses and pleas). But the most popular conclusion is that powerful Buddhist monk Somdet To (another extremely popular figure in Thailand) performs a series of magical workings and releases Nak, whose main issue is the Buddhist sin of attachment. Legend has it that her body is still buried under a tree at Mahabut.

At the time of Mae Nak’s story, Mahabut would have been located a rural district near Bangkok, but the area has since been absorbed by the expanding city. Getting there is not difficult. You catch the subway from Hua Lamphong train station, transfer to the sky train and take it to On Nut Road. From there, it’s about a 10 minute or so walk to Wat Mahabut. What I didn’t realize when I made this plan was that my visit coincided with Songkran, Thailand’s New Year and water festival (read: all-out street water battle). It was the second day of Songkran when I headed for Mahabut. Since things had quieted down since the chaos of day one, I thought I could make it to the shrine un-soaked and unscathed. I was wrong. A couple of blocks from the wat, some sidewalk revelers grabbed me, explained that it was Songkran (thanks for clearing that up, guys) and dumped a bucket of icy water down my front. Then they thanked me enthusiastically for celebrating their holiday with them. I was about to meet Thailand’s most famous ghost, and my pants were wet.

This would not do. I decided I’d wander the temple grounds and let the Bangkok heat do its work on my pants before going to see Mae Nak.

I have seen Mahabut referred to as a “working shrine,” which is just of saying that it is very much in service and that there is a plethora of religious activity taking place there. A lot of this activity is of the “popular” Buddhist sort (as opposed to the “pure” Buddhism espoused by forest monks like Buddhadasa Bikkhu), which mixes in liberal doses of Hinduism, ancient animist practices, and folk magic. The shrines I wandered among were colorful, varied, bizarre. Etherial music floated over Buddha statues interspersed with images of Ganesh, demons, and famous monks. There were stalls selling blessings and garishly lit coin slots designed to generate auspicious numbers. A collection of spirit houses (an old animist practice that is pretty ubiquitous in Thailand) lay along one side of the main plaza, flanked by logs wrapped in colorful scarves. Not for the first time, I wished that either I spoke Thai or that I had a translator to explain what the hell was going on.

Rounding a corner, I stumbled on the entrance to a small wooden hut. Standing guard outside was one of those weird baby doll figurines next to a bottle of the red, fizzy pop that is a common offering at shrines and that spirits, ghost babies, and the like are supposed to favor (hints of ancient blood offerings?). I stepped past them and into the hut.

I should mention here that leading up to this trip, I also did some research into Thai occult practices and had formulated a sort of personal occult “Big 3”: ghosts (or legends and sites devoted to them), kuman thong (religious effigies with roots in the ancient use of fetal remains for black magic purposes), and Luk Thep (the creepy baby doll craze loosely related to kuman thong). What I stumbled upon in the hut both shocked me and filled me with a weird sort of joy.

A glass case held the dried and desiccated corpse of an infant, covered in gold leaf and dressed in a pink baby outfit that swallowed its shriveled form. Its body was draped in gold chains and no attempt had been made to disguise the sunken hollows of its eye sockets. Lining the top of the case and surrounding the thing inside were various stuffed animals, plastic toys, baby clothes, more red pop, and two spirit houses. A picture of the body had been placed, inexplicably, behind the body itself. Baht notes cascaded over it from a hole in the top of the case. It was some straight up Flannery O’Connor shit.

What I found out afterward is that this is the shrine to Baby Ae. Some time ago, the child died just after birth and was buried by its parents (in Buddhist culture cremation is typical, except in cases of unnatural death, when burial is practiced), but the body resurfaced in a flood. Distressed and taking the exhumation as an omen, the parents brought it to the abbot of Wat Mahabut, who agreed to care for its spirit. Baby Ae now receives both gifts and requests for good luck. While the preservation of Baby Ae is not the same as the ancient kuman thong practice, it bears some resemblance in that the body of a child is thought to contain a spirit that offers help to the living in exchange for continued care and attention. Lame as it may sound, I was too superstitious to take a picture of Ae. But I thought I should pay respects, so I dropped a 20 Baht note into the coffin as an assurance against any haunting and moved on.

Fortunately, my pants had dried by that point.

Mae Nak’s shrine is at the back end of the complex, as indicated by a sign in Thai depicting a woman with long, black hair (a troupe of traditional drummers in green in pink satin performing for Nak near the entrance also provided a helpful hint). There are stalls outside where one can buy offerings for Mae Nak (clothing, jewelry, perfume) or her baby (toys, sweets). I didn’t want to show up empty-handed, so I bought a plastic airplane.

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The shrine’s central figure is a gold-painted bust representing Mae Nak, complete with bold purple eyeshadow and a long black wig. The figure is surrounded by three gold babies: one at her side, one in her lap, and one in a glass case surrounded by kuman thong (the plastic figurine kind, not the dried fetus kind). The Nak of legend only had one baby, not triplets, but the principle of abundance adopted by many temples encourages accumulation. So instead of getting rid of a gold baby if one starts to get a bit worn, you just get a new one and keep the others as well. The shrine is meant to evoke Mae Nak’s rooms when she was alive and is piled with offerings: shiny satin dresses line the walls, cosmetics and jewelry fill glass-fronted cabinets, there are piles of baby clothes, diapers, and toys, and clusters of red pop bottles. Behind the shrine there are several artist renditions of Nak as a beautiful young woman. A television is left on at all times to entertain mama and baby.

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For a ghost shrine, it’s not too spooky. In fact, the gold bust is—I hate to say it—kind of tacky. The power of the scene lies in the constant stream of supplicants and the apparently sincerity of their entreaties. Nak appeals to women, particularly those requesting safety for their husbands and lovers (especially that they not be drafted into military service), and to pregnant women and those wanting to get pregnant (though based on her legend, the advisability of the latter groups visiting the ghost is questionable). On the day that I was there, most of the visitors were women diverse ages, with a sampling of men thrown into the mix. I knelt at the ghost’s feet (or lack thereof) and tried to blend into the background as I watched them come and go.

An old woman approached, placed her palms together, and stood very close to the figure, mouthing a silent plea. A family consisting of a father, mother, and little girl crowded around together, the girl peering shyly at the gold woman. A short-haired, butchy woman knelt in intense meditation before the bust for a very long time. Visitors tucked baht notes into Nak’s arms and adorned her with bits of gold leaf.

The existence of the shrine raises a few questions: in a country whose central religion emphasizes both reincarnation and impermanence, why do people seek to keep a ghost tethered to one spot? What does a ghost need with material offerings like clothes and perfume? (This also brings to mind Mexico’s Dia de los Muertes celebration and dumb suppers carried out by Wiccans on Samhain). To what extent is the legend literally believed? And what do visitors stand to gain?

As I left the shrine, Big #3, the Luk Thep, lurked back of mind mind. These baby dolls, with their cherubic faces, ritually charged Buddhist tattoos, and supposed ability to affect the fortunes of their human caretakers, put me in mind of every creepy doll in every horror movie ever. Chucky. Annabelle. The Devil Doll. Magic. I kept an eye out, even as I silently swore I would do nothing to anger the dolls.

Then, on a vendor table near the shrine entrance I spotted one. A normal baby doll, except for the carefully inked gold designs that curved from its back over its shoulder. Then another—and then a stall with several in a cluster. I stopped and fumbled for my iPhone, but before I could get the shot, the stall’s proprietress demanded to know what my business was. Her tone was hostile. Perhaps she was warning me away from the dolls.

I took this as my cue to go, and left Wat Mahabut to melt back into everyday life outside.

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