In the spring of 1988 I was invited by a good friend to attend a séance at a genuine haunted house. I had always been fascinated by the macabre and mysterious, but had yet to witness the supernatural first-hand. After my experience at the séance, I found I could never turn my back on the paranormal again.
As president of the Jefferson County Extra-Historical Society, my friend, Harvey J. Rearick, was familiar with occult practices and the dark and dangerous forces that permeate the hidden world. Before I accepted the invitation, Harvey recounted the home’s troubled history.
The little house on Hernandez Street had been built in the early 1800s and was the last survivor of a row of cottages that faced the sea. After being a home for a succession of families, the house was used to board sailors, and even served briefly as a hostel for soldiers in the Civil War.
Needless to say, many people lost their lives in the place and the current occupant had had some very strange encounters including unexplained knocking, shadowy apparitions, and phantom voices. It seemed, to me, a very common kind of haunting.
I arrived at the little house at dusk and watched as it seemed to sink in darkness with the setting sun. Harvey greeted me at the door and ushered me into the home’s gloomy interior. There he introduced me to the other attendees.
There was an off-duty police officer named Jerry. His avuncular bearing put me immediately at ease. He seemed, like me, out of place, but I soon learned that he was exactly where he needed to be. In the years to come, Jerry and I would become close friends and allies.
There was Helena von Metrovitch, the organizer of the séance. She was known in spiritual circles as Madame Metrovitch, a powerful medium, but, as I later discovered, her real name was Emily Isis and she was born, not in the Ukraine but in Ohio. Madame Metrovitch stared at me with her wide, mesmeric eyes, and I couldn’t tell if she was particularly charismatic or completely insane.
Then there was Jackie, our host and the home’s occupant for the past year. Although she was a young woman, I could see in her face the terrible toll exacted by the trials she had faced in her new home. Harvey had expressed some suspicion that the strange occurrences at the home may have more to do with Jackie and some latent psychic faculty than with the home itself.
After the introductions, Jackie turned to Madame Metrovitch. “That makes five,” she said. “We have enough now, right?”
Madame Metrovitch scrutinized our little assembly. “Yes, five is the right number,” she said. “A good number, a very human number.”
Harvey must have noticed the question on my face and he quickly explained that, according to Madame Metrovitch’s cosmology, five was the number of man, six of the Devil, and seven was for God. “Shouldn’t we go with His number?” I jokingly asked.
Jerry laughed affably. “We won’t be needing that guy tonight,” he said as he slapped a hand on my back.
We took our places at a large round table set up in the middle of the cramped living room. Madame Metrovitch had drawn a chalk pentagram on the top and at each of its points was a chair. She lit five candles at the points and after the lights were turned off, our faces appeared above them as floating ghostly visages.
Madame Metrovitch began her incantations in Latin, Spanish, German, and other languages that were too obscure to identify or were known only to the medium herself. We closed our eyes and listened to her unearthly cries, her claims to supernatural authority.
Apparently the spirits acknowledged her right to call them because it didn’t take long for the doors and windows to reverberate with furious knocking. The table began to jump and tremble like a giant Ouija board. A sudden gust threatened the candle flames, but somehow they only grew brighter, casting a strange greenish glow over the small room.
Just as quickly as they started, the noises and commotions ceased and, although the candles remained lit, the room seemed to plunge into a foggy gloom. Through the shadows, Madame Metrovitch spoke, this time in English. “Spirits of this house, I call upon you. Move among us, speak through us.”
The house was quiet and Madame Metrovitch seemed mildly perplexed. And then Jackie looked up at her and Jackie’s eyes were not her eyes, and when she spoke, she seemed very far away. “We hear you, Emily. We move among you and we speak through you.”
Madame Metrovitch’s eyes somehow got even wider. Jackie’s face darkened and blurred, and we could almost see the contours of another face or possibly many faces lurking beside her own.
“What is your name, spirit?” Madame Metrovitch asked.
“My mother called me Virginia,” Jackie said. Madame Metrovitch was encouraged at her control over the spirit.
“Virginia, did you once live in this house?” she asked.
Jackie paused and a sigh older than her years escaped her lips. “No,” she answered. “But my murderer did.”
Madame Metrovitch brightened at the grisly answer. “Were you murdered here in this house, Virginia? Can you tell us what happened? Why were you murdered?” she hurriedly asked.
Jerry and Harvey exchanged concerned looks and even I understood that Madame Metrovitch was too excited and threatened to lose control of the situation.
“My body lies in the potter’s field,” Jackie said. “My end came here on the steps of the landing.”
Madame Metrovitch leaned forward across the table and into the candle’s light. “Why do you haunt this house, Virginia? Why did you frighten Jackie, Virginia?”
Jackie’s face fell as if it had been somehow shut off. “I didn’t scare her,” Jackie said. “That was one of the others.”
A group gasp arose from the table. A look of fear troubled Madame Metrovitch’s face and was quickly gone. She asked Jackie, “How many others?”
Jackie’s face rose again, seeming to contemplate the air above our heads, and then unleashed a catalog of the tormented dead. “There is Quint, the soldier what with no legs; Eleanor, who stole the silver and was hanged until dead; the one that’s called the Prince of Veils, a gloomy boy who mocks us now from yonder shadow; Old Boots, who nightly walks the upper chambers dripping from the knife wounds in his belly; the one we call Pale Mother, whose wailing for her children is endless; Bloody Herman, who drags his bloated body up the staircase; The Judge, who is screaming profanities in your ear this very moment; Tom Fever, ceaselessly sweating and coughing; and then there’s the one in the basement, the thing that swallows even the shadows. We stay out of the basement.”
Madame Metrovitch looked to the other terrified faces at the table. Her control of the situation was shattering and she stumbled over her words. “Virginia – how many? What was – How many ghosts are there, Virginia?” she finally managed.
“You don’t understand,” Jackie said. “Phantoms fill the skies around you!” And then Jackie rose from the table and her upturned face was both horrified and rapturous. “The dead crowd the sky, crowd this house because there is no where to go!” she howled. “The dead – all of them – are everywhere!”
Jackie slumped to her chair in an unconscious heap; Virginia was gone. Later, after our little group dispersed with awkward platitudes, Jackie would describe the experience of being possessed by Virginia as a dream of floating underwater in an ocean teeming with life.
In the years since this encounter, I have witnessed many inexplicable things and heard the stories of thousands more. In my experience, it seems that the world of the paranormal is like a deep well sunk through myriad strata: sometimes you can penetrate only a shallow layer and learn little that did not know before; but sometimes, with the right people and the proper execution, you can plumb depths you had not imagined existed and learn things you did not want to know. After many years, the statements made by Virginia’s ghost continue to haunt me as they continue to haunt the world.