Colonial ghouls, ghosts haunt visitors

__Hair-raising ghost tours raise questions regarding paranormal experiences__

p. Many students have seen or heard strange things during their time here at the College. Some figure that a town more than 300 years old is bound to have some ghosts. To others, it’s a matter of over-eager students and tourists letting their imaginations get the best of them.

p. “I believed in ghosts to begin with, but now I have proof,” Aliette Lambert ’08 said.

p. “I put my ear to the door and a couple of seconds went by,” Lambert said. “Then we heard a scream and loud banging sounds from inside the house. The door rattled in its hinges like the ghost was going to come through the door. We all heard it and the whole entire group screamed and ran away at the same time, all 30 or 40 of us.”

p. Hundreds of school children and tourists who clog the streets of CW at night share Lambert’s belief in ghosts. As the weather gets warmer, the multitude of companies offering evening ghost tours in CW include CW’s official “Legends, Myths, Mysteries and Ghosts” and Tavern Ghost Walks tours, The Original Candlelight Ghost Tour of Williamsburg at Maximum Guided Tours, Williamsburg Private Tours and Axwild Tours.

p. Heidi Hartwiger has been a storyteller on The Original Candlelight Ghost Tour of Williamsburg for 14 years.

p. “On our ghost tours, tourists discover that their digital cameras seem to be eyes into the past,” Hartwiger said. “The cameras attract and capture unexplainable orbs, vapors, colors and shapes.”

p. While Hartwiger readily admits to witnessing phenomena such as these, she hesitates to classify them as ghosts. Rather, Hartwiger says, “I believe that there is a special energy with which some people connect.”

p. Semantics aside, Hartwiger admits to having had a bizarre experience four years ago.

p. “I saw a servant woman in colonial clothing standing in the front door of the George Wythe House. Gradually, she seemed to melt into the door, beginning with her cap and ending with her apron and shoes,” Hartwiger said.

p. Douglas M. Gross, visiting associate professor of psychology, thinks that people believe in ghosts in order to make meaning of seemingly random life events.

p. “We all have an active brain sensory system that manipulates information with the goal of making it understandable,” Gross said. “For example, if we read sentences with words left out of them, we make meaning of them anyway, even without all the information being there. We’re programmed to make sense of incomplete information. The brain creates a whole out of parts.”

According to Gross, our perception of events depends primarily on what we think we already know.

“We match fragmentary data with what we know and believe,” Gross said. This means that people who are looking for a ghost might be impressionable and, therefore, infer cause and effect from what are truly rare but random events.

Gross also cited a lack of evidence as a major argument against the ghosts.

“We know a lot about what we can’t see,” Gross said. “We can measure infrared, ultraviolet, radio waves and various parts of the electromagnetic spectrum … Science has some pretty powerful technology for augmenting the senses. If there were some physical force that created these ghostly phenomena, there would be instruments to detect it.”

Gross nonetheless recognizes the cultural significance of ghosts as a way to connect to the past and to one’s culture. “In Colonial Williamsburg, it’s a way to keep the past more present,” Gross said.

Liz Budrionis ’09 studied the impact of local ghost stories with the help of a grant from the Christopher Wren Association’s Student Documentary Film Scholarship. She used the funds to create a documentary, “The Peyton Randolph House: History and Legends,” during the summer of 2006. The film premiered at the Kimball Theatre.

“When you come to a place like Colonial Williamsburg, there’s a lot of history there, but people want more than just what’s written in books or what’s definitely fact,” Budrionis said. “People love and tell ghost stories because they’re exciting and people like to be scared and entertained.”

Allegedly, the Peyton Randolph House is home to as many as 23 ghosts. Many of the house’s most famous ghost stories center on children. In one story, a little girl was killed after her ghostly best friend, Elizabeth, grew angry with her and threw her down the stairs. Doctors claimed that superhuman force would have been required to cause such a death.

After researching the home’s history, Budrionis spent several hours in the house after dark. “Unfortunately, I didn’t see anything,” Budrionis said.

Although she doesn’t believe in ghosts, Budrionis admits to having had two inexplicable experiences around the time of this project.

One night, Budrionis and a friend knocked on the Peyton Randolph House’s front door three times.

“There was a brief silence, I turned to leave, and then I heard three very distinct raps on the bottom half of the door … we both turned and ran,” Budrionis said.

In a separate series of incidents, Budrionis spent many nights in Tucker Hall this summer.

“Several nights a week, always between 11 and 12, I would hear movement upstairs. It sounded like chairs and desks moving and doors slamming,” Budrionis said. “There were no cleaning people that came in at that time … the College was basically deserted.” She added that when she went upstairs to check on the noises, “Everything was dark and there was no one there.”

CW offers no official interpretation of any of these strange events. Budrionis interviewed multiple employees of CW while researching her documentary.

“They aren’t supposed to mention the ghost stories,” Budrionis said. “The official line is to just stick to the history.”

According to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the major historic buildings like the George Wythe and Peyton Randolph houses are not only locked at night, but also protected by security alarms. This makes it unlikely that anyone would have knocked back from inside the houses during the incidents Lambert and Budrionis experienced.

It is difficult to know whether the events reported by individuals involved real ghosts or merely the brain’s inaccurate perception of odd shadows and sounds. Whatever the answer, one thing is certain: Nighttime in and around the College can be spooky.


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