Get Your Freak(out) On: the PVD Ghost Tour

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True confessions: I love Halloween, but I hate being scared. I refuse to watch horror movies or even general thrillers, so much so that it took four weeks for my friend Jeremy to convince me to watch an episode of Stranger Things. When it comes to paranormal activity, I’d rather be perceived as “gullible” and believe a far-fetched tale than have a firsthand encounter with a ghost and be cursed until I meet my untimely death.

So it was a little unusual just how much I was looking forward to taking the Providence Ghost Tour on a drizzly Saturday evening in October. I asked Jeremy if he wanted to join me (he’s clearly into the paranormal — and he had many of his own ghost stories to share!) and we headed to Prospect Park on the East Side of Providence promptly at 7pm.

We actually arrived at 6:56pm (by all accounts early for me), just as an enormous crowd of people was headed down the hill. Panicked, we ran to catch up with them and were informed by a tour goer that check-in was still happening at the park. It turned out there were three tour groups leaving that night. Those whom we’d spoken to were the early birds; the second group had clustered around a guide and were about to begin, and Jeremy and I were shepherded to the last group, which I like to think comprised the cool kids. Our guide was Steph, and she wore a floor-length, black gothic dress, her blue hair visible under the occasional lamplight, carrying a white umbrella to contrast the dark evening. “It’s multifunctional,” she told us, of the parasol. “It’s protection from the rain, it keeps the hecklers away, and (if opened, and angled behind her head) it acts as a megaphone.” Steph was full of knowledge, and this was just the beginning.

Once the latecomers arrived, we began — right there at Prospect Park with a brief history of Roger Williams. The story was relevant, of course, because the “dust” of Roger Williams (that which could be gathered from his dead body after being dug up from his original grave, having mostly been devoured by a hungry tree) was buried under the lovely marble statue overlooking the city. “Welcome to Rhode Island,” Steph said, tongue in cheek, for the first time of many throughout the night.

Within the group, there were three native Rhode Islanders (including our guide), some transplants (myself), and some visitors (like Jeremy). We wound our way from the RISD side of college hill to the Brown side and back to RISD, 12 stops in all. The light rain began when we hit the intersection of Benefit and Angell, where we learned about Seril Dodge, a clockmaker and professor at the turn of the 19th century. Dodge had a love affair with one of his students, whose heartbreak over seeing him with his wife led her to commit suicide in the tower where she and Dodge would secretly rendezvous. She did not take it well when the building was renovated a century later, and caused some problems for the construction workers.

We learned about a man named Ebenezer Night Dexter, who — history aside — deserves kudos on his badass name. We stopped at the Athenaeum, where Edgar Allan Poe first locked eyes with Sarah Helen Whitman, his future fianceé (who called it off before they ever married). Even though Poe died in another state, he’s said to frequent this location — sort of like his post-mortem happy place. In fact, just within the last 10 years a student came across a drunken man lying across the steps of the library and tried to rouse him, only to be met with an angry shout of “The Conqueror Worm!” before the man promptly disappeared. It was the librarian who put the pieces together since “The Conqueror Worm” was the title of one of Poe’s poems, ironically about human mortality and the inevitability of death.

My favorite stop of the night was University Hall, the oldest building on the Brown campus, which functioned as a hospital during the Revolutionary War. This is a building that I walk past every day but never knew the history of, or how formidable it looks at night. I got the heebie-jeebies just staring at it from the middle of the green. This place is a hotbed of activity, given how many soldiers had their limbs amputated (pre-anesthesia) and subsequently died of blood poisoning. Courtney, one of the PVD Ghost Tour’s founders, “hijacked” the tour and shared some stories. It was like listening to tales around a campfire: We were swept into the story, as if at any moment she would say, “Boo!” and everyone would jump. Except there were no surprises … only an eerie feeling that we were being watched and it was safer not to look too closely into the windows.

By the end of the tour, I felt incredibly overwhelmed by all the unsettling, tragic and ghost-filled stories that have surrounded me for the last three years. I never thought I would describe a ghost tour as “illuminating,” but that’s exactly what it was. Skeptics and believers alike, historians and “Stranger Things” fans: There is something for everyone here, and this is the perfect time of year to join the experience.

Tours run nightly, 7 pm, through October and on select nights in November. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit providenceghosttour.com

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