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An education in paranormal activity: Roanoke College's Monterey House

An education in paranormal activity: Roanoke College's Monterey House

This Halloween will mark the 10th anniversary of a professor’s first class ghost hunt in the Roanoke College mansion.

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No one was supposed to be alone.

Yet in the back bedroom of Roanoke College’s Monterey, I sat alone listening to the old house while the students taking part in the evening’s ghost hunt had settled in other rooms. After a few minutes, I thought I started hearing things, but given my age and tinnitus, I’m not very good with subtle noises. I went to get help from the students.

“I think I’m hearing something. I need to borrow the recorder and a witness.”

Two students volunteered.

“OK, that might work better. You two take the recorder, go into Room 5, and let me know if you hear anything.”

Five minutes later, they were screaming and running out of the room.

Usually, the students in my freshman seminar class, Ghosts and Human Perception, freak out over mundane things. But occasionally, our investigations have had some genuinely spooky moments, such as those two students experienced.

This Halloween marks the 10th anniversary of my class’s first ghost hunt in Monterey. Early in my second year of teaching the course, I heard the story of our Board of Trustees member who woke up to see a figure at the foot of the bed. (So Salem columnist Emily Paine Carter — now I get to say “no relation” — wrote a two-part account in The Roanoke Times Neighbors section.) After the next night, our trustee met a woman from California and asked about her impression of the house. “Oh, you mean the spirits,” she said. “Yes, the house is full of them. And they aren’t happy.”

I immediately made reservations to get my class into the house, and as it turned out, one of the available nights was Oct. 30-31, 2006. We have been going back every year since.

Monterey is a circa-1850 Greek Revival mansion that Roanoke College now uses as a guest house. When I came to the college in 1994, I heard that the owner, Katherine Albert Burke, whose father had bought the house in 1925, was long miffed at the college’s overt lusting after her property. “Roanoke College,” I was told she said, “will get this house over my dead body.”

And so it did.

Over the past 10 years, I have not been convinced that ghosts exist, and I certainly do not for one moment believe that the soul of any former resident is trapped or otherwise lingering in Monterey. However, I have been convinced that haunt phenomena are genuine, that they happen in certain houses but not in others — and that Monterey is one of those houses.

Visual anomalies

Unfortunately, we’re still waiting for the classic Victorian “grey lady” apparition to come floating down the stairs. The closest we’ve come to a true apparition is the night two students, about three hours apart, independently reported a tall dark figure in the same room. They also described it in fairly similar terms: One said it was about 5-foot-9, and the other as “about the height of a short man or tall woman.”

In perhaps the oddest visual experience, a student reported a black sphere, a little smaller than a basketball, floating across the door. As she focused, a second sphere floated across, going in the same direction. Later that night, unaware of the student’s experience, I saw what at first I thought was a mouse dart across the floor but then realized it was far too large, about soccer ball sized, and it didn’t have the furtive movements of a mouse.

The most common visual anomalies, though, are flitting shadows. These aren’t “corner of the eye” events; on occasion, someone (and it has happened to me) will see a shadow flicker exactly where they’re looking. Most commonly, they are shapeless and move quickly across a wall or ceiling. Once we tried for 15 or more fruitless minutes to cast a similar shadow from the lights that were on at the time.

Tactile oddities

Students often report feeling touched when no one is around. In one of the first instances, a student walked casually into the parlor, but a moment later, she came back into the dining room (our staging area), slammed her stuff on the table and plopped in a chair. She eventually said she got a definite caress on her neck and shoulder. When she took me to the spot where it happened, I got a light brushing across the top of my hand that left a lingering tingle.

Another student reported feeling someone cusp her face in their hands, a rather grandmotherly action. On the opposite end of that spectrum, another student suddenly had a large red abrasion appear on the small of her back.

None of our ghost hunts has gone by without students saying they suddenly felt cold on one side or one spot. The best description: “It’s like a draft, only there’s no draft.”

Emotional shifts

Every year, students report sudden changes in emotion. I call it the “threshold effect”: a student will go into a room and suddenly feel an emotional push (feeling “creeped out”) or pull (feeling “cozy”). In the most dramatic instance, a student walked into a room and suddenly broke down crying, needing some 30 minutes to regain her composure.

Sometimes we try to tap into emotions by playing period music. Usually the students do not respond to popular music from the 1910s on through the 1960s, but, for some reason, 1950s Christmas music (particularly Frank Sinatra and Doris Day) stirs up unexpected feelings.

Sounds in the night

Monterey is incredibly noisy. Floors crack and pop; the heating and cooling systems tap, click and thump; and at 1 a.m., the ice maker sounds like a wall caving in. Other sounds are less startling but more unsettling.

I have often heard someone coming up behind me, but when I turn, I see no one. One year, most of the students were gathered in the dining room and heard someone coming down the stairs. One person looked over, then turned back to the room and shook her head. And on several investigations, students have heard what they variously describe as a sigh, breath or simply a “swoosh” (we may also have caught this on audio). One year, we heard whistling.

Very often, students will report hearing a few musical notes — a tap or two on the piano, a quiet jingling or the microwave dinging when no one had been downstairs for several minutes. I have accounts from several guests who have been woken up by much more substantial music.

Over the years, we’ve also recorded some interesting electronic voice phenomena — voices or other sounds that we hear only on playback, not while we were recording. In my favorite, a student asks, “If anyone is here with us, can you knock?” They pause to listen, and then the other student says, “If I hear a knock, I’m out of here.” The recording, though, has two distinct knocks in the pause.

I caught my best EVP after the students had all left. The recorder I had on upstairs catches my footsteps on the noisy floor, then my voice saying “This is Tom, coming in to turn off the recorder,” some rustling as I pick up the recorder, and then a clear feminine voice says, simply, “Hey!”

Which brings us back to the students who bolted from Room 5.

After they calmed down, they said they heard a popping sound. The recording reminds me of an old-time radio play sound effect of someone pouring from a bottle, a quick “glub-glub-glub” going from lower to higher pitch.

Still, what’s so spooky about a popping sound?

“It was coming from directly between us.”

Tom Carter is a professor at Roanoke College and part-time copy editor at The Roanoke Times.

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