It’s the night of the much-talked-about Supermoon. It looks like a spotlight cutting through everything in the night sky and beaming into the kitchen of the Kiersted house, where I’m having a conversation with a psychic and two ghost hunters, surrounded by lights and motion-sensing flash cameras. I’m holding a gizmo that lights up red every time there’s an “energy fluctuation” around me – which, I’m told, signals that a ghost is cozying up to me.
The teams are Poughkeepsie Paranormal, started in 2005 by James Mulcahy, and Indy Para, started by Donna Parish-Bischoff Terri Garofalo in 2010.
Earlier in the day, Marjorie Block, Saugerties Historical Society head and town tourism chair, had taught us – that is, me and the cadre of local ghost hunters that I’m following – the rarely morbid history of the Kiersted house. Block is confident that there is something in the house. She calls it “a presence.” She doesn’t feel alone in the house. She’s seen things out of the corner of her eye, and books have shifted place without provocation. “When night falls,” says Block, “you can’t get me out of there fast enough. I run through the door.” Whenever Block used a name while describing the house’s history, the ghost hunters keyed in on it.
And so, in the kitchen of the Kiersted House, in the dark of the night, the people around me are asking questions about “Sara,” (a Kiersted who was nearly killed by a Native American arrow), and “Egbert,” (a Kiersted who had taken his own life).
We invoke the name of “Mary”, too, because the name pops up on one of the ghost hunters’ ghost radar, which is just what it sounds like: blips on a radar screen with an occasional mysterious, one-word message like “Mary,” “behind,” or “danger.” The radar, conveniently, is a smartphone app.
The danger message is exciting. It comes to us once we’ve moved out of the kitchen, which is far and away the spookiest, coldest room in the house –hell, there’s even an old rocking crib with a baby doll in it that had to be covered at the request of our ghost expedition’s leader, Jimmy (a move I agreed with) – to the main room, which is lit up with the glow of the Supermoon and a green laser grid that encompassed half the room. Apparitions are supposed to be able to trip the laser grid. If they pass through, the green dots on the wall will disappear as though there were a shadow in front of them.
Danger pops up on the smartphone ghost radar when we’re discussing the upstairs, in a side room where our psychic felt an immediate presence. The word gets me a little riled up – that and the fact that the little gizmo that’s supposed to be able to detect ghost energy goes nuts at one point as I hold it up to my face.
I’m excited now. I start to ask questions, things that only the spirits that may haunt Kiersted now would find interesting. “Are you Dutch?” “What happened to Sara’s slipper?”
No answer. My ghostometer goes dark.
We move our base of operations upstairs, to the office. We poke and prod the ghosts, looking for a reaction. We beg them to move something. My comrades ask the spirits to show me that they’re real because I’m an unbeliever.
It’s late now. Too late. If the ghosts wanted to play, they would have by now. I hop in my car and head for home – carefully checking the rearview mirror to make sure no ghoulies have decided to hitch a ride back to my place. I may not believe in ghosts, but I’m not above fear.
On my way home I start to think about what makes these people want to hunt ghosts and what makes them so sure that they’re there that they’re willing to sacrifice their Cinco de Mayo to come poach shadows in an old stone house. For our leader James Mulcahy, it was a mystical, out-of-body experience. When he was a little kid, Mulcahy fell 30 feet off a ledge. “When I hit the ground, I could see myself lying there in the fetal position, and that’s all I could see and all I could remember,” he says.
Mulcahy says spiritual presences aren’t always ghosts. “There are a lot of historical places we’ve done, and there’s a lot of trapped, residual energy,” he says.
Mulcahy’s words remind me that just because I don’t feel something doesn’t mean it’s not there. The person who is most intimate with the house’s history can’t be there alone past dark. The group’s psychic swears he feels a presence.
Ghost hunters chalk up hauntings or apparitions to the sum total of psychic activity that’s ever happened in someplace that’s supposedly haunted. So even though the Kiersted house has never played host to a gruesome murder or a Baal worshipping witches coven or an Indian burial ground, there’s the off chance – no matter how very, very slight – that there’s something more than just the wind in a creaky old house to push the books to the floor.
Maybe it’s the presence of innumerable overlapping thoughts, dreams, and memories from generations of Kiersteds who lived their lives in this old house and left something immaterial behind.