“Point five’s nothing. In New Haven, we get sevens.”
Chrystyne McGrath stands outside of the Starbucks at the intersection of Chapel and High Streets, surrounded by a crowd of about forty people. She holds up a black box the size of a graphing calculator. It’s an EMF meter, a scientific instrument that measures changes in electromagnetic fields. A small screen displays a single number. If the number is at least 0.5, McGrath says, then the machine might be detecting a ghost.
The EMF meter is one of a ghost hunter’s primary tools, but McGrath is less of a hunter and more of a guide. On this cold Friday night in early November, she’s leading us on a ghost tour of New Haven. McGrath is wearing a silver down coat and a hat with a leopard-print band. By day, she works at the Health Options Center for Wellness in Guilford, which offers a smorgasbord of alternative medicine options including herbal treatments and hypnotherapy. By night, she leads tours for the New Haven division of Ghost Walks USA, which also offers tours in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Palm Beach, Florida.
Before we get started, McGrath gives us a crash course in ghost physics. When we die, there’s a light. If our spirits go into the light, they pass on; if not, they stay here and haunt the living, hovering one foot above the ground and feeding the local ghost tourism industry. In a symbiotic relationship, the tourism industry feeds the ghosts. Ghosts consume electricity, according to McGrath, which is why EMF meters can detect them. She warns us our phones are likely to go dead, but to keep them ready anyway: Ghosts can be captured on camera as glowing orbs or bright streaks of light. Often, orbs appear in the photos the morning after – charging your cell phone overnight feeds the spirits, who then decide to grace your pictures with their presence.
McGrath asks if anyone has experienced a ghost before. Most people stay silent, but one man in a black jacket raises his hand. Later, he’ll volunteer to knock on the door of the Skull and Bones tomb, the first stop on tonight’s tour.
We stop at about a dozen places, including secret society tombs, Sterling Memorial Library, the Grove Street Cemetery, Yale’s visitor center, and City Hall. On the way, we get a good dose of New Haven history, everything from the Amistad uprising to Hurricane Sandy. This history is full of ghosts. Some are historical figures like Cornelius Vanderbilt, and others are prominent local legends.
Mary Hart, better known as Midnight Mary, haunts Evergreen Cemetery, near the intersection of Columbus Avenue and Ella T. Grasso Boulevard. The tour doesn’t stop at Evergreen Cemetery, but McGrath tells the story anyway: According to legend, Midnight Mary was buried alive. And then there are the nameless spirits, like the murdered girl with long red hair who haunts the basement of the New Haven Free Public Library.
At Sterling Memorial Library, McGrath shares two stories. The first is of a kindly librarian named Auntie, who still helps students out with their studies, despite having died decades ago. The second is about an entity that called itself “Seth.” Back in 1963, a poet named Jane Roberts was possessed by this spirit. While channeling Seth, Roberts went on to write many books, known as the Seth Material. The manuscripts and letters, along with some recordings of Jane Roberts, ended up in the Sterling Memorial Library’s Manuscripts and Archives collection, taking up a total of 498 boxes.
After that, we spend some time huddling in front of the gates of the Grove Street Cemetery. There, the ghosts of soldiers killed in the Revolutionary War greet McGrath, she says. McGrath tells us to take pictures, and if our intentions are strong, the ghosts will show up for us, too. I guess I’m not sincere enough, because I don’t get any orbs, just a glowing white blotch in between the bars of the gate. It might just be my camera flash reflecting off another participant’s cellphone, but I can’t be sure. I do feel a cold patch as we walk along the gates of the cemetery—I mean, the entire East Coast is a cold patch, but it seems to me that the left side of my body is a little bit chillier than the right.
The Union Trust Building on Church Street now houses Wells Fargo. But, almost a century ago, a nasty bank teller named Eli Wilson skimmed money off of other people’s savings. He died in accident, trapped in the bank’s airtight vault. Later, phantoms of laughing children terrorized the men who tried to paint the walls. That’s a sure sign that the building was once an orphanage, McGrath says. Following her instructions, I put the EMF meter that McGrath had lent to me on the ground to see if it will pick up signs of any ghosts. Some of the tour’s participants had downloaded an app that allowed their phones to act as EMF meters, so they put their phones on the sidewalk.
I had been carrying the EMF meter for much of the tour, and it had been fluctuating wildly throughout the walk. I’m surprised that it doesn’t beep in front of the Union Trust Building, even when I lay it on the sidewalk. But it goes wild when we’re crossing the street. I wonder if it’s a fluke, or if it’s picking up the spirit of an unfortunate pedestrian.
As we head over to the New Haven Green, a man on the tour approaches McGrath. He’s got a photo with an orb in the window of one of the city hall buildings. Can she tell if it’s the real thing? This is it, I think: confirmation of the supernatural, or at least of… orbs. McGrath looks at the picture. She says it looks like a light fixture.
We stop in the middle of the New Haven Green and stand by a plaque that marks the ground in front of a sapling. It replaces the old Lincoln Oak that came down during Hurricane Sandy, skeletons and a time capsule tangled in its roots.
“The vortex is right here,” McGrath says. A vortex is a place where energy is concentrated, and McGrath said later that all high-energy locations—including burial grounds like the New Haven Green—have a vortex. McGrath explains that the people burying the time capsule a century ago had found the vortex using dowsing rods, divination tools that pick up electromagnetic signals. (Today, there’s an app for that.) She invites us to step onto the vortex, and one at a time, people do. One woman feels a tingling in her hands. A man starts to rock back and forth, slowly. I’m swaying too, where I’m standing, and I know it’s because it’s late and I’m tired and naturally unsteady on my feet, and I wonder if they’re swaying for the same reason, but I don’t take a turn on the vortex hotspot. Maybe I’d rather not find out.
Libbie Katsev is a sophomore in Davenport College.