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Things That Go Bump in the Castle

Looking for paranormal activity at a Vermont landmark


Published October 27, 2010 at 8:54 a.m.

Dark Knights’ surveillance video
  • Dark Knights’ surveillance video

“It must be hard living here,” the ghost investigator says to the darkness. “So much space. So many windows.” She’s silent for a few minutes. Then: “Can you give us a sign that you’re here? Can you knock for us?”

It’s after midnight in Wilson Castle, a 32-room, 143-year-old Victorian mansion just outside Rutland. Four of us — two investigators from Dark Knights Paranormal of Weare, N.H., and two reporters — are sitting on the floor of a huge, girlie-pink bedroom that may have belonged to the house’s original mistress. The lights are out. A single flashlight in the center of the floor casts a blue glow straight up.

By its light, we can see some of the hand-stenciled, vividly colored trompe l’oeil designs that grace most of the ceilings in the house. The work of a 19th-century Italian artist, they remind me of the shapes and patterns you see behind your eyelids as you fall asleep — or of the lurid wallpaper that hides spyholes in a Dario Argento film.

But I’m more concerned right now about the motion sensor sitting at the foot of the majestic bed. Katrina Wagner, the Dark Knight who’s taken the lead in ghost whispering, has asked any resident specters to activate it. So far, nothing. The electromagnetic (EM) activity sensor in my hand is dormant, too, except when it gets near my cellphone.

But we keep hearing things that might be footsteps — or pool balls clinking. Wagner contacts home base on her walkie-talkie to make sure the noises don’t come from other ghost hunters. “Is there somebody on the second floor with us?”

None of us is moving a muscle.

The voice from the walkie-talkie says, “You’re the only ones there.”

My first-ever ghost hunt begins on a dark and stormy night. OK, not quite. The previous day’s Nor’easter has pretty much dissipated by the time Seven Days multimedia producer Eva Sollberger and I drive south to Rutland, cutting through fog banks.

Like haunted Hill House in Vermont author Shirley Jackson’s famous novel, Wilson Castle comes up suddenly in the dark. One moment you’re traversing the industrial flats of Rutland; the next, you’re standing beside a turreted brick Victorian pile that seems to stretch forever. To get a sense of the house’s exterior dimensions, I’d have to return in daylight.

But daylight is not the time for a paranormal investigation, which is why Castle entertainment director Rusty Trombley has invited us here. In the hours to come, I will hear a few different stories about who brought Dark Knights Paranormal to Wilson Castle and why.

But Trombley’s reason for calling the media to document their investigation is clear — as clear as a yawning gash in the ceiling plaster above one of the huge windows. Without cash infusions from tourists, donors and locals who come for murder-mystery evenings and haunted-house tours, the castle itself will become the ghost — a specter of its former glory.

Five years of spooky October tours have created a public “misconception” that the castle is haunted, says Trombley. And now, he adds with a chuckle, “once we get this out to media, we’ll never be able to go back from that.” He doesn’t seem to mind. If saving the building means playing up its creepy aspects — the echoing attics and dank, rubbish-strewn cellars — so be it.

Like all grand mansions, Wilson Castle has never been cheap. The original owner, John Johnson, built the estate with his aristocratic English wife’s money and lost it to repossessors in the 1880s. The castle often stood vacant between then and 1939, when a Missouri radio engineer named Herbert Lee Wilson bought it and established AM station WEWE in the stables. Today, Wilson’s granddaughter, Denise Davine, lives in the caretaker’s quarters and runs part of the castle as a nonprofit. Last year she launched a new fundraising effort, Friends of Wilson Castle.

Trombley, a bearded, voluble fellow with a theatrical bent, is part of that. He works “about a dozen days a year” at the castle, he says, but they’re busy ones. Right now, he explains as he leads us inside, he has five days to transform the place from a staid summer tourist attraction into a Halloween haunted house: “I have to turbo-change it.”


Trombley ushers us into the first-floor floyer, the only part of the castle that could be described as “cozy.” A gray-and-white cat in a basket soaks up heat from the blaze in the green-tiled fireplace — one of 13 the house contains. Classic rock plays from a boom box on the stairway landing. Jack-o’-lanterns, real ones and paper dime-store versions, leer from every surface.

Since central heating at Wilson is a thing of the past, a handful of Trombley’s coworkers have gathered by the fire. They watch as our guide, who resembles a young John. C. Reilly, describes the ghostly encounters he had as a teen.

None of them happened at Wilson Castle. Trombley says he’s “been here countless hours and had no experiences.” He’s impressed by some odd video and EVP (electronic voice phenomena) recordings the Dark Knights collected on their previous visit. But when Trombley was devising his murder-mystery events, he scoured the place’s history for “juicy stories,” he says, and “they just weren’t there.” He’s not even sure anyone has died in the house.

Here Andy Probst, a lanky young man who describes himself as a friend of the Wilson family, joins the conversation. His parents both worked at the castle, he says, and his father knew a caretaker who succumbed to a heart attack in the pool room.

Probst, who’s been preparing the house for tomorrow morning’s pumpkin festival, hasn’t seen any ghosts in the house, but “I’ve definitely been creeped out,” he says. “It gives an eerie vibe. I don’t like being here alone.”

An enthusiastic castle booster, Probst laments that we can’t see the 84 stained-glass windows with sun shining through them. He narrates a colorful account of the Johnsons’ courtship — seems she was a rich spinster, he a gold digger — and rattles off facts and figures: The ceilings took three and a half years to paint; the artist was paid seven and a half cents per day.

Marketing the castle can be a challenge, Probst suggests, because “It was never historically significant for the area. It was just a big mystery. No one famous lived here or died here. It’s an oddity.”

But mystery is its own draw. Just this morning, Probst opened a secret compartment in the Wilsons’ library furniture. “The walls are so thick,” he says, “you could hide a stairway in there.”

The seven ghost hunters have arrived and started setting up their equipment in the library. Their investigation requires darkness, so if we want to get a good look at the place, the time is now.

Our self-guided, whirlwind tour starts with parts of the house that are staged and open to the public: the lush, red Italian Renaissance-style dining room; the pink bedroom with its round window-seat alcove; the glossy cherry stairway with its stunningly detailed ceiling. The whole place is stuffed with motley art and artifacts, from a Mayan-looking figurine to a vintage Monopoly set to a boar’s head.

We veer off the tourist path and use flashlights to explore the servants’ quarters, which have their own stairway and once slept 17. Here’s where things get creepy. Frigid and cavernous, these upstairs rooms house a jumble of haunted-house props (fake guillotine, real-looking cleaver) and other, more random stuff. While exploring what may once have been a ballroom, Eva thinks she hears a man’s voice. The room is empty except for an antique tricycle.

Safe by the fire again, we meet the Dark Knights, five women and two men, some in sweatshirts emblazoned with their logo and the words “I Hunt Dead People.” While their electronic meters, cameras and wires may intimidate at first glance, they’re an affable, mostly thirtysomething crew. Several of the women sport punky hair dyes and have replaced their shoes with fuzzy slippers — the better not to spook the spooks.

The Knights first visited the castle in late September. Normally, says lead investigator Dianne Nault, “We can be at a location for eight hours and just get one piece of evidence. We were here for only a few hours, and we got a lot of evidence.”

That includes sounds like a woman crying — recorded in the pink room — and photos taken with a full-spectrum camera. One shows a “little wispy of something,” says Nault, pointing to the image; the other “some sort of fog right here. We have no explanation for it.”

The regular castle crew has departed. Before the lights go off, investigator Chris Riley takes us down to the basement.

The warren of arched, cold, pitch-black rooms seems to go on forever. “Catacombs” is Riley’s word. We poke around a Freddy Krueger-esque ancient boiler and a head-high incinerator flanked by a pile of white ash. Riley says the Knights experienced one room in particular as imbued with a sensation of “dread.” Given that the whole place is labyrinthine and looks like a set for the next Saw movie, I can’t imagine where dread wouldn’t be an appropriate response.

Ghost hunting, of course, has a subjective element. Team members caution us about the “fun-house effect” — the off-kilter sensation you get in any big, echoing room with mirrors. Paranormal investigators are supposed to filter out those reactions and go for hard evidence of the supernatural, whether on video, voice recordings, or gauges of ambient temperature and electromagnetic radiation.

Having installed or armed themselves with these tools, the Knights split into four teams and head for the spots they identified last time as propitious for paranormal activity.

Left behind in the library is investigator Jamie Hupfer. In her daytime life she’s a homeschooling mom. Right now, she’s manning home base. Above her, a massive green-glass, fringe-adorned lamp, pure Victoriana, shines incongruously on the table covered with electronics. The team’s coffeemaker burbles nearby.

Hupfer presides over the flat screen on which we see simultaneous live footage from the Knights’ four surveillance cameras. Except when a team member tromps past, nothing much happens. Until, all of a sudden, a bright sphere flashes on the monitor and disappears. A spectral orb?

Nope, says Hupfer — we’re seeing dust. Some paranormal investigators present this sort of image as evidence, but the Dark Knights are “very anti-orb,” she says sternly.

The team in the dining room has experienced something less routine, however, and they return to report. Nault says her EM monitor registered a huge spike. At the same moment, investigator Joshua Tewksbury felt a “cobwebby” sensation on the back of his neck. Both seem more happy than scared. “Josh got touched!” says Nault.

Another team has staked out the tricycle room upstairs, and the third and fourth cameras are trained on the pink bedroom and the pool table. But so far the deceased caretaker, should he be haunting this place, has not appeared.

It’s time for us to leave home base and venture into potential ghost-spotting territory. We follow Tewksbury and Wagner, an herbalism student with sea-green highlights in her hair, up to the pink bedroom. There we kneel on the floor, illuminated by the motion sensor’s eerie blue glow.

The Dark Knights don’t use psychics or mediums — not scientific enough — but Wagner clearly has practice talking to dead people. In a calm, level voice, she sets ground rules: Resident ghosts are welcome to manifest themselves via knocking sounds and motion-sensor activations. If they wish, they may touch her or Tewksbury or pull their hair. (Leery of the “cobwebby sensation,” Eva and I say no to supernatural hair pulling.) Wagner also assures the invisible inhabitants we won’t try to drive them from their home.

We sit for what feels like 45 minutes. A black cat snoozes on the bed. Though we keep hearing sounds that might be pool balls clapping in the next room, a quick walkie-talkie exchange reveals that logs have been cracking on the downstairs hearth. Loudly.

Once Wagner swears she hears a genuine crash. I don’t. The “voice” Eva heard in the attic turns out, when she replays the footage, to sound like groaning from her creaky monopod. Aside from some phantom footsteps heard downstairs — not by us — and whatever evidence may turn up on the recording equipment, there doesn’t seem to be much ghostly activity at Wilson Castle tonight.

Still, when we leave near 2 a.m., the Knights are awake and excited. They’ve noticed their equipment batteries keep draining ahead of schedule, possible evidence of something sucking energy in the vicinity.

Outside, the sky has cleared, and Orion blazes through the trees. Fog still clings to the lowlands.

As we drive away, I can’t help thinking of the ending of Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, where the heroine discovers she was meant to be a ghost there all along. The haunted houses of fiction tend to take on lives of their own, forbidding their occupants to leave and pulling unwary visitors into their sway.

I know I won’t forget it. Ensconced in the tidy Vermont landscape, Wilson Castle comes across as something of a baroque, overweening folly, like California’s Hearst Castle. But that just gives it longer life in the imagination.

And I’m not the only visitor who will leave wanting to spread the word. Pumpkin fests and paranormal investigations may spook any resident ghosts. But if they help keep the roof on this Vermont “oddity,” it’s worth it.

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