HARRISVILLE, R.I. — I felt almost giddy. My sister and I had made it through a restless night in a haunted house, and in the morning, the old farmhouse actually felt peaceful. As I walked downstairs from the bedrooms, I felt proud to have stuck it out where others had fled.
In the living room, I tapped the “ghost detector” device that had bugged us all night with its periodic beeping and made it light up. “How about some coffee, ghosties?” I asked cavalierly.
The detector lit up strongly and wailed loudly as someone strode from the front room and came up behind me. “Look, the detector likes you — it started going off when you walked in,” I said to my sister Susanne.
She didn’t answer, so I turned around. Susanne was not there. No one was there. The front room was empty. Susanne called down from a bedroom: “Who are you talking to?”
* * *
Winding country roads through a darkening autumn forest delivered Susanne and me to the house on a, well, yes, dark and stormy night.
The old clapboard farmhouse on Round Top Road inspired “The Conjuring,” the 2013 blockbuster movie about the haunting of the Perron family nearly 50 years ago. The film was loosely based on the papers of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, who conducted a seance here in October 1973 in an attempt to rid the house of spirits said to be tormenting the family.
They say the entities never left. With Halloween all but upon us, my sister and I decided to spend the night with them.
This is no bed and breakfast. Guests come here to explore the paranormal -- or at least try to last the night. Not everyone does.
The real name of the property is the Old Arnold estate, home to eight generations of the Arnold family since 1736. While the area has seen battles, the house has not had any violent deaths. Bathsheba Sherman, the witch in the movie, was just an ordinary woman who lived nearby during the 1800s. She was buried in a local cemetery, where her headstone has been damaged by vandals since the movie came out.
Cory and Jennifer Heinzen, paranormal investigators from Maine, bought the place in 2019 with the intention of opening it up for tours. Earlier this year, they began offering overnight stays, at $125 a person, for people to explore the 3,100-square-foot house, its barn, and 8 1/2-acre property. They also provide paranormal equipment so guests can conduct their own investigations.
My sister is a fearful believer, whose first question when I invited her to stay at the house overnight was: Can the spirits get into my body?
I’m a rational skeptic.I love this spooky time of year, and its promise of something mysterious.
When we arrived, the Heinzens and their friend John Huntington, also a paranormal investigator, were inside the small wing of the house, where they and their dogs stay while people explore the main house. They have a surveillance system with cameras in nearly every room and outside, to keep an eye on guests and record paranormal activity.
Jennifer, who has a tattoo of the house on her thigh, grew up in a haunted house in Maine. Cory, a former Marine, became interested in the paranormal after hearing ghostly battle cries one night on a battlefield in Fredericksburg, Va.
The Heinzens said they slept in the small wing for the first four months. “We gave [the spirits] that much space,” Cory said. “We didn’t know what to expect. We were just testing the waters and didn’t want to overstep boundaries.”
When they finally left the door open between the main house and the wing one night, they were awakened by a shadow figure.
“It was just peeking around the door like this. All black, just looking at us. I remember looking at it ... and [Jennifer] was like, ‘what the hell is that?’” Cory said. “I said, ‘that’s a shadow figure,’ and it moved real fast. She said ‘Awesome!,’ and we high-fived each other.”
“It wasn’t scary,” Jennifer said. “It wasn’t an evil presence. We were just excited.”
Their daughter and son feel differently. Their daughter is at college and living at their house in Maine. Their son, now 18, saw a black mist over him in one of the bedrooms and left the next day. They said he won’t sleep in the house again.
The Heinzens debunk what they can, but some things they can’t explain. Black mists in the house and shadow figures inside and outside. Footsteps and voices. Books fall off the shelves, and doors unlatch and open.
The Heinzens tell guests to be respectful of the spirits -- for their own good. “I feel like spirits respond to their energy,” Jennifer said. “I think everything’s OK, as long as you treat this as your own house, and these are your people.”
* * *
They showed us the ghost-hunting devices available to guests -- ghost detectors, or EMF meters that measure fluctuations in electric magnetic fields. The theory, Cory said, is that ghosts can manipulate these fields and communicate with the living. There are also voice recorders and “spirit boxes” that scan radio frequencies to pick up the ghosts' answers to questions.
We went into the cellar, where snake skins draped off the stone foundation. The dogs, locked in the wing of the house, started to howl inconsolably. We stood beside an open well, not far from where John Huntington saw a ghost woman with a broken neck, and with the voice recorder on, we asked questions and waited a few beats for answers.
“Is anyone here? Anything you want to show us?” I asked. Cory played the tape back slowly. I heard my questions and then something in response: “I AM.”
Susanne told me that we were not returning to the cellar.
After showing us around the house, our hosts left. Susanne and I looked at each other. And then the “ghost detector” in the living room started going off.
Susanne looked up at the ceiling. “We’re just here for the night and we respect you ghosts, spirits. We don’t want any trouble. So we hope that’s OK.”
Silence. The big house was so quiet we could hear the click of the furnace and rain patter on the windows.
“We have 10 more hours,” she said, curling into a ball in the chair. “I don’t think I can do it.”
We were in for a long night. OK, I said, we don’t have to talk to the ghosts. I saw a Scrabble board on a hutch behind her. “Want to play a game?”
Cory and Jennifer had warned us that the library has the most ghost activity, but it drew us in with its warmth and light. We dumped the tiles on the wide-plank floor, opened up some chips and salsa, and began rounds of speed Scrabble.
When the device in the living room started beeping again, Susanne froze. We turned to look. Nothing.
“Hi, ghosties,” we said to the empty room. “We’re playing a game.”
We distracted ourselves by talking about “Schitt’s Creek” and eating snacks, trying to stay awake for as long as we could. But time drags when you’re dreading something that could happen. By midnight, we were yawning.
We left all the lights on and went upstairs to the first bedroom, which had two twin beds under the eaves.
Susanne pulled a package of sage out of her bag and made up her own “protection” ceremony. “I respect the spirits that are here,” she said, waving the sage in front of her, “but I cannot help you, so please leave me alone and do not scare me, and let me be safe.”
I laughed at her — but I checked for ghosts under the bed.
We burrowed into our sleeping bags, but didn’t get much rest. The “ghost detectors” downstairs woke me up in the middle of the night. I listened but didn’t move. My sister woke up to an overpowering scent of sage. Then something grabbed her feet and she kicked it away.
We both stayed hidden in our sleeping bags until the morning light flickered through the windows. We had survived. “That was just enough scary for me,” Susanne declared.
She hadn’t let me out of her sight the whole time we’d been there, but now she felt safe enough for me to go downstairs without her.
It’s just an old farmhouse, I thought, shutting off all the lights we’d left on. Nothing had been disturbed.
I felt victorious. All I needed was coffee. And then, there were the footsteps behind me and the sense of someone’s presence.
I had wondered all night if this place was haunted. I think I got my answer.
The house is booked until January, but the Heinzens are hosting a livestream Oct. 29 through Halloween, with a seance on Oct. 30, which is the 43rd anniversary of the seance with the Perrons. For more information: theconjuringhouse.com