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1 Nov 2012


Paranormal Preservation: Looking for Ghosts at Historic Sites

Posted on: October 31st, 2012 by Lauren Walser

Exterior of Oatlands, a National Trust Historic Site.

All old buildings come with their share of creaks, groans, and the occasional bone-chilling draft. But ghosts?

That’s what Belinda Clark-Ache, a representative of the National Paranormal Society, and her colleagues are dedicated to studying.

Clark-Ache wrote to us recently, asking about the relationship between historic sites and paranormal investigators. She wants to know: From a historic preservation perspective, are such investigations typically encouraged or discouraged?

After all, she points out, not all historic sites want the reputation of being haunted. “It used to be that that was seen as a deterrent to attracting visitors,” she says. “But times have changed, and there’s a greater public interest. [Being haunted] has gone from something you want to hush up, to something that can generate excitement.

Take Oatlands, for instance. The National Trust Historic Site in Leesburg, Va., has had a number of reports of unexplained activity from employees and visitors, including misty apparitions in bedrooms, mysterious black figures in the gardens, disembodied voices, and drastic, inexplicable fluctuations in temperatures in rooms like the library.

Rather than hiding this unusual activity, though, the site embraces it, offering annual Paranormal Tours each October and on some nights with full moons throughout the year. These 90-minute tours, now in their third year, take visitors through the two-story house and grounds, highlighting the areas where unexplained events have occurred.

The site has even welcomed two different teams of paranormal researchers.

“They each approached their investigations in a very scientific manner, trying to find natural explanations for unusual activity before immediately declaring it paranormal,” says Kate John, who leads many of the Paranormal Tours.

In addition to recording dramatic temperature changes, the investigators picked up a number of unexplained voices in their audio recording equipment. “Female and male voices, some with Southern accents,” John says.

Note the orbs on the red drapes, captured during a paranormal investigation at Oatlands.

John, who recently spent three months interviewing everyone on record who has reported an unexplained experience at Oatlands, shares some of the best stories from these interviews with her tour groups, along with the data collected from the paranormal investigations.

“If you do a paranormal tour that has no scientific research at all associated with it, what it comes down to is just a bunch of scary personal experiences,” she says. “But when you have professional investigators come in, who can either validate some of the [unexplained experiences] or find rational, scientific explanations for them, it adds an entirely different layer.”

Not all sites are as willing as Oatlands to welcome paranormal investigators. And with the rising popularity of ghost hunting, thanks to numerous reality television shows dedicated to the topic, Clark-Ache says she can see why.

“There are tons of people out there claiming to be paranormal investigators, whose sole experience is, ‘Oh, I’ve seen this on TV. I know what I’m doing,’” she says. One historic location where she recently conducted research had a team come in which damaged the 200-year-old hardwood floors after duct taping electrical cords to them.

“Right there, I can understand why these locations would not want to let investigators in,” she says.

When conducting research at historic locations, Clark-Ache and her colleagues use what she calls non-invasive methods, including photography, audio and video recordings, and handheld devices to test the temperature and barometric pressure.

“Nothing that you have to hammer to a wall or tape to the floor,” she says. “And you have to talk with your host before doing anything like shutting off the electricity.”

The foyer at Oatlands.

In addition to gathering new information about a site, Clark-Ache believes that the findings uncovered by paranormal researchers can generate new interest in it -- a sentiment that Oatlands’ executive director, Andrea McGimsey, echoes.

“There’s clearly an interest in the community with the paranormal,” McGimsey says. “Anything that brings people out to see Oatlands and get them in touch with history and the history of our site makes me happy. Plus, these tours are a lot of fun.”

Adds John, “I always say, Oatlands is a wonderful place to visit for both the living and the dead.

Lauren Walser

Lauren Walser

Lauren Walser is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about history, art, architecture, and public space.

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