Last night I may* have had an encounter with a real-life, bona-fide, red-blooded (wait, no, un-blooded) ghost.
I took the Metra out to the suburbs to see my friend Annelise perform in “The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe” at First Folio Theatre. Another friend, Danielle, picked me up, and we drove with her cousin to the old manor house in which First Folio produces their shows. On the way, I debriefed them on the history of this house, which Annelise had recently divulged to me.
The Mayslake Peabody Estate was built in 1920 for a rich guy who moved in during 1921 and died in 1922. As you tour the house, it becomes clear that he was pretty obsessed with his fear of union unrest and riots. He build secret tunnels in the basement that would allow him to escape, a safe hidden in the woodwork of his living room wall, and several secret staircases connecting to the basement tunnels. The house has everything you could want in a haunted manor: creepy servants’ quarters, a stairway where a man fell down and died, secret passages, even a chapel that was used by Franciscans for years, converted into a hospital, and then used as an orphanage. Apparently you can hear children crying there when you’re in the chapel alone.
This is the setting for a play that combines the biography of Poe’s life and marriage with enactments of some of his best-known stories. We meet his wife, Virginia, and hear about their lives, but we also watch the justifications of the madman from “The Tell-Tale Heart” and shiver in the dark with the prisoner from “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Actors lead the audience from room to room, splitting them into two groups that weave around each other to explore the house, the history, and the horror stories.
You might expect weird things to happen in this place.
Annelise has had physical contact with a ghost (the story is hers, and I don’t want to steal it or get it wrong here). Her cast member heard the deep, belabored breathing of a large, out-of-shape man behind him when he was alone and sweeping the ground by the staircase where a man (who happened to be large and what they used to call “simple”) fell to his death. And I…well.
I’ve read most of Poe’s famous stories and poems. As an English major, I already knew about Poe’s marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, his frequent brushes with consumption, his melancholy, and his publishing history. I enjoyed hearing the play open with a full (and quite dramatic!) recitation of “The Bells,” and of course followed along with the periodic, broken-up stanzas of “The Raven.” So it was natural for me to assume that there were other people there who were as familiar with Poe’s oevre as I was–probably even more so.
I smiled through “Ligeia” and the mention of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” I laughed at Annelise’s innuendos during “The Masque of the Red Death.” And then, at the end of the play, the actor portraying Edgar himself began to recite the famous poem, “Annabel Lee.”
It’s a lovely, simple poem. I’ve read it many times, beginning in high school. You might remember it: “It was many and many a year ago/ In a kingdom by the sea/ That a maiden there lived whom you may know/ By the name of Annabel Lee.”
I was sitting in a long row of chairs, with Danielle on my left side. Pretty much everyone sitting around me was female and in their 40s or 50s. Danielle and I went to college together, and I figured there was a good chance that she knew this poem as well, or that some of the other audience members knew it. So I wasn’t surprised when I heard someone to my left, almost certainly female, very softly whispering along with the poem. Almost like she was mouthing the words with Poe, and not intending to voice her whisper. I didn’t bother to look over at first, because it was so obvious that it was one of these ladies by me who felt connected to the show and to this poem, which so clearly represented in this context the relationship between Poe and Virginia. But the whisper kept coming, and I became curious as to who knew all these words so well.
I glanced over to my left, still hearing the light echo of Poe’s words. Danielle’s mouth was closed. The whisper continued. I turned further. The lady next to Danielle wasn’t moving her mouth. Nor the one next to her. Nor next to her. Nor next to her. We were sitting in a single row, and the whisper was very close to my ear. And it kept coming, while I realized that no one near me was moving her lips.
As soon as I realized that, the whisper stopped.
The poem ended. The lights went down. The lights came up. The actors bowed, and we cheered heartily. And then, as everyone got up to leave, I turned to Danielle.
“So, this is going to sound like I’m just trying to creep you out, but I promise I’m not. Do you–happen to know the words to that last poem he recited?”
She did not.
“Did you happen to hear someone mouthing the words along with the actor?”
She did not.
“Okay, so this might sound crazy, but…”
We ended up making Annelise give us a tour of the manor, and while it was wonderfully creepy, I didn’t experience anything else that was strange. A water fountain went on when I passed, which freaked me out at first, but I realized that it was activated by motion sensors and tripped by my bag. And most gratifying, the other actors, the people who have been working out of this space for over a month, loved and believed my story.
One final word, mentioned to me by the actress who played Virginia. This production is like First Folio’s “Christmas Carol.” They have performed “The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe” in the Mayslake Peabody Estate every other year or so for many years. Each time, the show runs for a month and a half, and several days a week they have matinees in addition to their evening show. What that adds up to, as Diane told me, is a lot of recitations of “Annabel Lee.”
“I’m not surprised at all,” she said. “The ghosts here have heard that poem a thousand times. It makes perfect sense that they’d know all the words and want to show off a little bit.”
Then she added, “I should tell the sound designer. We could add that effect in for the whole audience. That would sound so cool and creepy!”
All I could do was agree.
Cool and creepy, indeed.
*Disclaimers that would make the story less fun: I was aware that this location was said to be haunted and that my friend had had some ghostly experiences there. I was watching a play about Edgar Allan Poe. It is possible that I was hearing an echo or something or imagining what I heard or that originally someone was actually mouthing along to the words of this poem. All that said, I have a history of expecting creepy things to happen and not seeing/hearing/experiencing anything, thus accepting it, and I was much more primed for a ghostly encounter in the scenes on the second floor (where a guy died) and in the dark. This was the end of the show and I was thinking about the performance. And it’s almost Halloween, folks. How much can it hurt to throw a little belief out into the universe?