Recently I found myself in the middle of a Thursday afternoon pussyfooting about the indoor perimeter of my house, smudging tangerine-scented oil across every window frame, door hinge, and crevice while chanting in unison with a CD of the om chant. I was trying to rid the place of any accumulated negativity or "residual energy" that might be left over from an angry deceased alcoholic recluse I'll call Lucille, from whom we'd purchased our home four years earlier.
A few weeks before that, I'd been sitting in a lumpy, velvety armchair belonging to Dr. Barbara and Steve Williams, a husband-and-wife paranormal investigation duo that I was interviewing for my next book: a history of Spiritualism — a modern, American, and woman-made religion based heavily on clairvoyance, intuition, and communication with the dead. The book is set in a tiny town in Maine not far from Bangor at a Spiritualists camp, which is where I found Barbara and Steve.
Camp Etna was established in 1876, and back then, it was home to some of the greatest summer gatherings of mediums and Spiritualists across the country, many traveling hundreds of miles to spend the summer with other like-minded women. As many as 5,000 lived in tents and cottages, holding séances and communicating with deceased loved ones. Incredibly, Camp Etna still exists (but with far fewer inhabitants). When I was making my research rounds about the camp, I came across Barbara and Steve's existence by way of a magnetic advertisement on the side of their minivan's sliding door that listed their phone number and read HAUNTED. Are you living with a ghost?
I immediately thought of Lucille, our home, and the way it felt. Ever since we moved in, I'd felt something heavy, something thick and contagious, almost like a tangible bad mood. The house felt gray, no matter how hard we tried to hype it up with positive energy and new life.
Four years and two kids later, I still felt the "vibe" of what I imagined was Lucille, or what might have been her last mood — angry, sorrowful, unhinged, still around our house, enduring. So not only did I think spending time with the ghost hunters at our home would be a fun bit of research for the book — to see them in action, to learn what they do — I thought we needed it. I thought they could do something I hadn't been able to do, even if it sounded goofy or hokey. I was willing to give it a try.
On the day I first visited Dr. Barbara and Steve at their grape-colored, dream-catcher-covered home, "Peaceful Sollitude" (yes, two L's) in the middle of the camp, their Brussels griffon, Spirit, jumped up and settled into my lap. "So," Barbara said, taking the reins of my interview. "Tell me about your house."
It was my first house, and we bought it cheap, with all of Lucille's furniture still in it. I live on an island off the coast of Portland, Maine, with a population of about 800 people (though it feels closer to 50). The island is only about three and a half miles around, and we have at least five cemeteries; many are inhabited with bodies of sailors who died at sea or in World War II. But most of the alive demographic is in their golden years. Neighborhood legend had it that Lucille's son and husband died long before her; she took up drinking and morphed into a grouch, eventually passing away in a nursing home. When we moved in, the house was set up just like she'd left it — popcorn plaster ceilings; rusty brown linoleum floors; vinyl soffit; and sad, musty couches with a faint, meandering odor of cat pee.
But in exploring the basement, I raked away a ball of cobwebs and found a bunch of gardening tools that seemed pretty prized. As time went by, I noticed, despite the yard's being neglected and overgrown and covered in weeds, evidence of Lucille's love of landscaping; her superb green thumb still peeked out throughout the yard. Since then, I'd been teaching myself to garden. But often, with my bare hands digging in the soil, I'd find shards of glass, broken bottles that I suspect Lucille had thrown into the yard in a fit of anger. I daydreamed that she'd wanted to hurt someone with them. Maybe even me.
Since we'd moved in, life had become stressful, extremely busy, syncopated, and difficult to manage. Maybe our home was cursed, I wondered, or haunted. Maybe Lucille still lingered. So, when I was visiting Steve and Barbara, I asked Barbara what she thought. Could our place be haunted? "Maybe so," she replied, and she suggested she and her husband come out to investigate.
When I picked up Barbara and Steve from the ferry terminal on my island, Barbara glowed. She stood tall and radiant, her mermaid hair wrapping around her like a waterfall. She was as glorious as Stevie Nicks, and she waved at me as smoothly as a willow tree. She was confident and I was intimidated.
Behind Barbara stood Steve, as he often did. Gnome-bearded, wearing acid-washed blue jeans and a tie-dyed tee; very lovable, and carrying all their supplies. Barbara and Steve met after a few failed marriages; it was a blind date. Barbara's son's bus driver gave Steve her number, told him to call Barbara. When they met, Barbara told him about her clairvoyance, and he told her he was an atheist. "I looked at him and said, 'No, no, you're not.' He was just sick and tired of all the dogma and all the crap people shove down your throat. He believed in something, but he didn't have a name for it."
Within time, Barbara showed him the light of Spiritualism: that you could believe what you wanted, that you didn't need to prove it to anyone, and that you could live according to your gut instincts. That most important, you live by the Golden Rule, treat others like you'd like to be treated. And also: ghosts really do exist.
Barbara would know. As a child, she would wake up at night every night seeing ghosts. "They were in the corner of the room; dead people talking and being disruptive. I'd ask them to be quiet and they'd come over and look at me. They weren't nasty. But when you're tired, you're tired. And they were so darn noisy. That was my beef — the ghosts weren't scary, they were just annoying," she told me.
In the mid-1980s, Barbara was working as a pediatric nurse and made friends with a respiratory therapist. The therapist happened to be a Jesuit priest who had worked with the famous paranormal researcher Hanz Holzer. The priest asked Barbara if she'd like to join them in investigating cemeteries, and she obliged. "I had an edge over what they were doing because I could see Spirit and they couldn't. And listen, Spirit never steers me wrong."
Barbara was raised Orthodox Jewish by her adopted parents and wasn't baptized, so each time they met at the cemetery, the priest doused her in holy water so she'd be safe. "I didn't understand what all the hubbub was about — I'd only talked to people who were dead, and they certainly were not harmful."
She continued to learn how to investigate at cemeteries until later, when she witnessed a series of unfortunate events unfold, involving a shaman, a refusal to sacrifice an animal, which led to the inability to coax out a dark spirit, leading to the death of a loved one. "Spirit had gone into the weakest link of the family. The whole thing blew me right out of the water."
After that, Barbara felt like she didn't have enough information about the paranormal, so she spent the next twelve years studying and investigating. "My study wasn't about how to see Spirit, my study was how to protect people and keep people safe. I had firsthand experience of something that shouldn't have happened. What you can't see can hurt you. People call me to help with clearing and cleansing. It's our duty to help people ... we are the way-showers. We are the light."
According to Steve, "Barbara can literally see ghosts," and she'd always been able to see them, as clear as day, alongside people, buildings, trees. No big deal — like they weren't out of place. But that was one major difference between Steve and Barbara. Her sight of ghosts was literal; his was not. "I just see them in my head. I close my eyes, and that's how I see it."
Shortly after arriving at my house, Barbara told me she could definitely sense residual energy. "The woman who lived here — her son committed suicide, didn't he?" She nailed it. Although I couldn't remember if I'd told her or not. "She died all alone, yes?" Yes, it was true. "If your kids aren't sleeping in their beds, there's probably a reason for it," she continued, and then suggested we stop gabbing and proceed with the cleansing.
We were to cleanse the home of anything that could bring negativity or darkness into our life. We would begin in the backyard, then work our way up from the basement. Steve lit the sage behind my kids' swing set, where dark clouds were gathering. "Bless the element of the earth," said Barbara. The clouds above us cracked. "All my relatives it is indeed so. Bless the element of the earth, the power of the physical, we call in archangel Uriel. Bless the element of the earth. Power of the mind, we call in the archangel Raphael." We continued on like this until we hit up all the elements and all directions, north, south, east, west; held hands; then ran inside right as a tremendous thunderstorm began to pour down on us.
Ever since we moved in, I'd felt something heavy, something thick and contagious, almost like a tangible bad mood.
The box Steve and Barbara brought to my house contained house-clearing items for the ceremony: a compass, black tourmaline, tobacco, cornmeal, sage, holy water, banishing oil, house-blessing oil, protection oil, seashell, a feather for smudging, four-thieves vinegar, a blessings script, a medicine wheel script, salt, black salt, a lighter, the om CD, paper, and a pen.
We were in the basement of my house. The om CD was chanting out of my laptop computer. Steve lit more sage, letting it burn in a conch shell, while I trailed Barbara around the house and rubbed oil on all the exit points of the structure.
"White magic, entity attachment points, entity energy reproduction programs, eggs, cocoons, sperms, placenta, entity slag, entity trail, diseases, mini-entity, entity halters, and all voodoo. Clear all European black magic, India black magic, Kahuna, Aztec, Inca, Mayan, Egyptian, Druid, Atlantean, Lemurian, Alien, Satanic, and Wicca black magic," Barbara chanted as she walked.
I hustled to keep up, trying to be as intentional as possible as I was smudging the oil along the windowpanes, an audience of Barbara's chants while apologizing for the unmade beds, the piles of laundry, the balls of dog hair in the corners of the room. The place did feel dirty. "Cleanse away," I told Barbara. She turned to me and said, "You cover everything. And if you don't, it's a problem."
"It sounds like hocus pocus, but it really does matter," Steve assured me in between spaces of silence. Barbara has her Ph.D. in metaphysics, he said. I didn't even know what that meant, but I went with it. I asked, why the sage smoke? "Sage is positive ionization. It's indigenous to the area, too. In the true spirit, you must use things that you resonate with and that are from this area that you have bonded with."
I was doing my best to roll with it. I was being as objective as I could possibly be — I kept teetering between the role of journalist and participant, but I strived to be nonjudgmental. I was open and willing — I really wanted to see a ghost — but at the same time, I needed concrete answers to my questions. How was this working? And why were we doing things a certain way? Why sage?
But then I stopped myself. Why did I need all this information? I think I wanted a tangible explanation so that I could explain my belief in Steve and Barbara, or my support in them, to a nonbeliever. But deep down, it didn't matter to me if I saw the Ghost of freaking Christmas Past or Slimer. Barbara had nothing to prove to me, nor was she trying to. And that was her gift, ultimately: the biggest challenge for me wasn't to believe Barbara and Steve — it was to respect them and learn to follow their example, to come up with my own belief system and keep it solid and unwavering, and to not give a fuck if someone believed me or not.
What Barbara was proving to me wasn't if ghosts exist. She was teaching me that I needed to listen to myself.
"Bless this home and all who live here. May the joy, happiness, love, kindness, abundance, and prosperity of God exist here. May this place be a place of love and harmony. So be it."
We continued upstairs and through the rest of the rooms in the house, saging, rubbing oil, chanting, until we finished with my bedroom. After that, Steve and I went outside to wrap things up, pouring salt around the perimeter of the house, while Barbara took her time coming downstairs (she has a bad foot) to rest. The skies outside had cleared and were blue, but a thick ocean fog still seeped around our neighborhood.
After the cleanse, Barbara, Steve, and I sat somewhat awkwardly around the dinner table making small talk about my dogs, one of whom Barbara had done Pranic Healing on while Steve and I were out on the porch packing up the supplies. After dinner, we hugged and said our goodbyes, and I gave them a lift to the ferry.
When I got home, aside from my dogs having a bit of a hop in their step, nothing appeared to be all that different. I had about an hour left before I had to pick up my kids from day care, so I decided to go outside and do a little gardening. And as I was walking to the porch door, a sharp recognition passed through me. Levity. A feeling of grace and dexterity. Kind of like a white light.
Maybe the cleanse did work. Perhaps we actually had cleared the place of all gargoyles and dark spirits or any lingering voodoo or witches or sorcerers. Or maybe instead, the act of the cleanse, of Barbara and Steve's compassion and caring to make our house feel good and full of love, had produced a new feeling — a new point of connection between me and my home. A new memory, perched on top of the other layers of memories that existed from within these walls. Whatever it was, I couldn't see it. But I could feel it when I closed my eyes.
Mira Ptacin is the author of the memoir Poor Your Soul and the forthcoming book The In-Betweens. Follow her on Twitter. She'd like to thank James Walsh for transcribing her interviews and being game for a ghost hunt.