In search sinister graveyards and scary apparitions
That ancient pagan holiday celebrating all things macabre is upon us. Halloween, feast of ghouls and goblins, fascinates the darker side of our psyche. If you want a poltergeist experience, Connecticut is ripe terrain. With nearly four centuries of mysterious dark legends, weird disappearances and strange deaths from the colonial era alone, aficionados of haunted graveyards and buildings won’t be disappointed. Spirits, legends, and dark echoes of the past are out there—whether you want to see them or not.
Ghostly apparitions are often associated with cemeteries, and Connecticut is flush with them. Easton’s four-century-old Union Cemetery is so notorious that the famous ghost hunting couple, Ed and Lorraine Warren, wrote a book about it. Many people report encounters with a “White Lady,” a spirit in a white gown with long black hair who doesn’t restrict herself to roving amongst the gravestones. Numerous drivers claim to come upon her in the middle of Rt. 59 adjacent to the cemetery, some feeling like they hit her, some claiming they felt her spirit pass through the car.
Speculation on her identity varies from a woman who killed her husband in the ‘40s and was then murdered herself, to a long-ago resident who died during childbirth and drifts around searching for her child.
A tiny cemetery in Naugatuck is claimed by some ghost-seekers to be the most haunted in the state, with a reputation of convincing the most hardened skeptics. Named for a large family called Gunn that lived in the area in the 17th century, the Gunntown Cemetery was declared by the Warrens to be haunted. Incidents observed include people hearing fiddle or banjo music that sounds like it’s coming from below ground, and children laughing and singing. Someone even claims to have gotten locked into the cemetery by its old iron gate. After repeated attempts, he had to climb over a stone wall to get out of there.
Southeast Connecticut seems especially bedeviled. Some paranormal researchers claim the haunting here goes all the way back to 1637, when 800 Pequot natives died after their fort was set afire by English settlers. Mystic is on the site of that old fort today, and that coastal town has frequent claims of ghost sightings in the immediate area.
Capitalizing on the curious, Seaside Shadows Tours offers tours of graveyards (and downtown Mystic’s reputedly haunted buildings) on a regular schedule. Seaside’s founder, Courtney McInvale Reardon, says, “A lot of people report strange things,” on the tours. “Some people feel their being leg touched. Others report the feeling of an electricity jolt going through them in the Whitehall Burial Ground.” Some visions are as clear as day, she says. “It could be as small as an orb, it could be as big as a full-body apparition and people think it’s a real person walking by.”
At Ye Antientist Burial Ground in New London, Benedict Arnold purportedly stood on a rock to proudly oversee the burning of New London under his orders in 1781. Reardon claims, “A lot of times there’s a feeling and energy that is palpable” at that rock that many people attribute to the spirit of America’s founding traitor.
Highlights of the Downtown Mystic Ghost Stroll include the Captain Daniel Packer Inn, the former Emporium (now the Mystic Art Museum), and a nook by the drawbridge said to be the hideout of The Mystic Pigman, a legendary figure rumored to have drowned a woman in the river and thought to lurk there still. Reardon says people have recorded disembodied porcine sounds in the area and found cloven hoof marks in nearby yards.
Old inns are also rich with eyewitness accounts of eerie sounds and lost souls. The Leffingwell House Museum, a Revolutionary-era inn and tavern in Norwich, reveals its mysteries in various ways, according to Reardon. She says there are “reported temperature drops in some corners, items that fall over or go missing and then appear somewhere else, doors that latch or lock on their own, footsteps on the second floor when everyone’s on the first. Things like that are quite common at Leffingwell,” Reardon says.
Captain Grant’s Inn in Preston has its own tales of marauding spirits. Built in 1754, mysterious knocks on doors and ghosts appearing in rooms are said to be customary.
The inn is so rich in lore that it has been featured on the Travel Channel, CNN, and the show Psychic Kids: Children of the Paranormal. Carol Matsumoto, who operates the inn with her husband Ted, claims that she communicates with several spirits in the building.
“The most common things reported,” Matsumoto says, “are hearing a little girl giggle in the hallway upstairs.” Guests also “hear people come in the front door and walk upstairs and disappear. They also hear someone walking down the hall and to the deck but when they look, nobody’s there. They hear stomping in the attic. That’s a man with boots on. They hear children up there laughing and giggling and then they hear balls rolling,” Matsumoto says. “There’s a lot of spirits here and different things happen weekly.”
The building is believed to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves escaping the Confederate South. Matsumoto claims to communicate with their spirits.
Captain Grant’s embraces all these phenomena by offering “Talking with Spirits” breakfasts, with coaching for those who wish to try getting in touch with the dead.
At Devil’s Hopyard State Park in East Haddam, reports of demons, voices and hovering orbs have continued for centuries. One legend claims that Satan occasionally appears on a boulder and plays a fiddle.
Thus, the souls of dismal feudal lineage,
Perpetuating their pride in illustrious sepulchers,
Stretch out their long, marble sleep upon the flagstones,
Weighted with dead centuries and funereal pasts – The Marmoreal Slumbers, by Jean Delville
Sunbathers and Frisbee throwers on New Haven Green are likely oblivious that they are basking and prancing on top of an ancient burial ground. Eerily, in their midst lies a crypt of 137 gravestones in the basement of the Center Church on-the-Green. Covered with the dust of centuries, “The stones are thickly set, as if all had desired to sleep close under the protection of the church they had loved in life.”1
If you have a macabre fascination with old cemeteries, the Center Church Crypt is a can’t-miss destination. Full of the stalwarts of the 17th century New Haven Colony, the mass entombment was created in 1813 when the present church was built on the congregation’s burial ground. Rather than disturb the remains, it was decided to enshrine them and build directly above them. Tours of the crypt are offered every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. free of charge.
Descending the winding, creaking, wood staircase, you find yourself in a dank, low-ceiling cellar, feeling as if you’ve taken a time capsule back three centuries. “This is the actual cemetery,” docent Carol Robinson says, “and the actual part of the Green where folks were buried. The entire Green is a burial ground and all the bones are still there.”
Center Church’s crypt includes Margaret Arnold, first wife of Benedict Arnold, and early colony leaders like Theophilus Eaton, the colony’s first governor, and Reverend John Davenport, the first pastor.
Robinson says she knows of no ghosts or hauntings in the crypt. It may be that all the souls have left, symbolized by the flying skulls on many of the stones. The flying skull denotes life’s fleetingness and the soul ascending to the afterlife. In those days, people believed strongly in a next world and lived their lives attentive to the behaviors they believed would ensure a place there. Some inscriptions express that longing.
For fans of horror, there’s a little-known museum in Bristol that pays homage to the granddaddies of all ghoulish characters. Now in its 50th year, the Witch’s Dungeon Classic Movie Museum has a personal connection with icons of fright like Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi, and Boris Karloff. The children of each of these stars will all appear at the museum on different nights during October for its tours and classic film showings.
But the Witch’s Dungeon Classic Movie Museum is much more than a movie museum. Cortlandt Hull, the director, says it has “life-size figures and each figure is in a scene based on the classic film. We also have original props, headpieces and makeups that were actually used in the films.” Some of these are by Oscar-winning makeup artists. “These are one of a kind,” Hull says, used in such films as The Exorcist, Planet of the Apes, ET, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “There’s nothing like this in the entire country.”
Hull’s relationship with horror films goes back to the 30s. His great uncle, Henry Hull, was the original Werewolf of London. Henry was a personal friend with Vincent Price, and Cortlandt met Price when he was a child. Cortlandt gradually developed friendships with all the classic horror film actors, and it has continued with their children. He took an early interest in how the masks were made and got to know a lot of the makeup artists. “It was the makeup artists that gave me these pieces,” he says.
Located in the Bristol Historical Society’s Romanesque building, the museum will be open 7 – 10 p.m. every Fri., Sat., and Sun. from Sept. 30 through Halloween night. Visitors will receive a tour by a guide in period costume, followed by screenings of the vintage films. Check the museum’s website, www.preservehollywood.org for details.
1 Historical Sketches of New Haven, by Ellen Strong Bartlett, 1897, Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor