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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 Colonial 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.
Every guest must sign a waiver acknowledging that “the environment is designed to maximize the fright and anxiety experienced by patrons.” Along with the loose rugs, uneven floors, and dimly lit stairs, guests could risk “violent spiritual attacks,” “spiritual attachments,” “frightening statements,” and “unpredictable and surprising situations.”
Scarier than 2020, I wondered? With a deadly pandemic, civil unrest, political chaos, and a general sense of impending doom, the thought of Things That Go Bump In The Night seemed sort of quaint.
Though maybe not for those who’ve lived here.
Cory and Jennifer Heinzen, paranormal investigators from Maine, bought the house in the summer of 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.
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.
As I drove, my sister read aloud from “House of Darkness House of Light,” the memoir by Andrea Perron, the oldest daughter of the family who lived there in the 1970s. She has since referred to the place as “the portal cleverly disguised as a farmhouse.”
Her story begins: “The telling of this true story is not intended to persuade the reader of its authenticity. Those who believe in the existence of the spirit world will not require convincing; those who do not believe so will likely remain skeptical.”
That could also describe my sister and me. She’s a fearful believer, whose first question when I invited her was: Can the spirits get into my body?
I’m a rational skeptic. If this were a horror movie, I’d be the one checking out the strange noises in the basement.
I love this spooky time of year, and its promise of something mysterious.
We all have stories about things we can’t explain.
* * *
Multiple “No Trespassing” signs are tacked up along the property, a wishful attempt to deter people from sneaking onto the grounds. The weathered house was as dark as the trees in the storm.
When the Heinzens' two large German shepherds ran out to greet us, and their elderly Chihuahua peered up from her blanket on the couch, I felt relieved to see them. A sign of normalcy in an abnormal place.
The couple and their friend John Huntington, also a paranormal investigator, were inside the small wing of the house, where they 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.
We liked them right away. They were as friendly and passionate about the house and its paranormal history as any enthusiast with an unusual hobby that they want you to love, too.
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, Virginia.
They had been investigating paranormal activity for years when they learned about this house through the Warrens' files and “The Conjuring” movie. When the former owner had enough of uninvited thrill-seekers and put the property up for sale, the Heinzens jumped at the chance to own their own haunted house -- and open it up for others.
Its real name is the Old Arnold estate, the home of eight generations of the Arnold family since 1736. They are taking care to research the history and separate truth from embellishment. 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.
People believe what they saw in the movie, Cory said, and he has to dissuade them.
“As paranormal investigators, as silly as it sounds, we are historians,” he said. “We want to tell the story the way it’s meant to be told, because that’s what the spirit wants.”
The Heinzens said they moved cautiously after buying the house, and slept in the small wing of the house 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 opened the door to the main house, and for Susanne and me, it was like stepping into a familiar place.
What does it mean when a haunted house reminds you of places you lived as a child? The Colonial decor, the wide-plank floors, the fireplace mantels, wall stencils, and punched tin lights -- all were reminiscent of the places where our family lived.
That’s why were a little unnerved when Cory and Jennifer gave us a tour and described the hauntings that the Perrons endured and the strange encounters others have had in each room.
They showed us the ghost-hunting devices -- 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 to capture ghostly voices, and “spirit boxes” that scan radio frequencies to pick up the ghosts’ answers to questions.
I’m old school -- I want to hear or see the ghost without embellishment. But Susanne was intrigued by the spirit box and starts asking it questions. All I could hear was static, but she got excited when she thought she heard our names.
We went into the cellar, where snake skins draped off the stone foundation, and the dogs locked in the wing off 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.
There are three bedrooms on the second floor, and each felt more oppressive than the last. The ceilings are low, the windows are small, and when the Heinzens said that their son and others have seen and felt strange things, I believed them.
But we were staying the night, and we were going to end up here at some point.
They showed us how to use the devices, and then they left us. “We don’t want to be the influencer,” Cory said. “We want you guys to be able to take it in for yourself.”
* * *
When the door shut behind them as they retreated to the wing off the main house, Susanne and I looked at each other. And then the “ghost detector” on the fireplace mantle in the living room started going off.
“I’m feeling a little scared right now," she said, attempting to smile. “Why would you be scared?” I asked. “Because it’s just the two of us,” she said.
The device beeping stopped. “See,” I said, “everything is fine.”
She 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.
Let’s see if someone will talk to us, I said. We sat with the Ouija board, but nothing happened. Susanne wanted to use the spirit box that John Huntington had built. She turned it on, and static and blips of speech echoed out.
“Is anyone here?” she asked.
Noises popped and whirred, and I caught an occasional phrase, like “vaccine” and “commercial." It was meaningless to me, but Susanne turned pale and shut it off.
“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.
So what if we were the most boring ghost hunters to visit the Conjuring house?
When the device on the mantle 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, pretending it was completely normal to be sitting on the floor of a haunted house and listening to a ghost detector.
We were really trying to stay awake for as long as we could. I didn’t want to go up to those bedrooms. But time drags when you’re dreading something that could happen. By midnight, we were yawning.
Seven more hours to daylight. 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 it was my idea to check 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 felt victorious. “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 opened the bathroom shutters to look outside. Mist rose from the trees, and a stone wall and fence rambled behind the pasture.
There was a large dark mass that looked like a man’s torso, facing the house under one of the evergreens. It was so odd that I waited to see if it would move, then decided it was just a creepy tree.
As daylight filtered into the living room windows, 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.
When the Heinzens opened the side door and the dogs rushed in, restless and sniffing, we were blasé about the detector still beeping. “It goes off all the time,” I said, like it was a smoke detector that needed new batteries.
I downplayed hearing the footsteps, not wanting to scare my sister, but when she talked about feeling something grab her feet, John Huntington -- the paranormal investigator -- told her that’s happened to him when he’s slept in that bed. “They seem to like to mess with me when I’m alone,” he added.
Thanks to speed Scrabble, we had made it through the night. Cory and Jennifer told us about those who didn’t -- the ghost-hunters who begged the couple to stay with them; the man who spent the night in his truck; the team that provoked the spirits and got scratch marks on their skin.
Yes, we bought the T-shirts that say, “I survived."
Still, we both felt unsettled as we drove away from this October country and back to the city. I think about the footsteps and the feeling that someone was behind me. Susanne is adamant that something grabbed her feet. I even wonder about that dark shape under the tree.
I’ll give the Conjuring house this -- for a few hours, it took our minds off the horrors of 2020. And we were glad to leave it in the rear-view mirror.