little state of hauntings

reflection on vampires, spirits, and halloween

I was easily scared growing up. There was one episode of Scooby-Doo in particular that my sister and I would rent repeatedly from the local library: Its main villain was a disturbingly well-drawn vampire with the most startling hyena laugh. Yet, the most unsettling part came near the end of the episode. Instead of the standard unmasking of the culprit with a detailed explanation of his elaborate ploy, he turned out to be an actual vampire—an undead, distant relative of one of the characters. There was something so jarring and fascinating to me about how the monster was real that I couldn’t sleep alone the nights after we watched that episode. Still, I returned to the library to rent it out again a few weeks later. It was fun to re-experience that bit of fear, to emerge from the episode feeling a little less safe than before.

With Halloween arriving soon, horror-lovers and thrillseekers on the Brown campus won’t have to travel far to find their fix. Despite its inconspicuous size and pleasant New England scenery, Rhode Island has a surprisingly rich collection of dark fables and attractions that have inspired many storytellers and filmmakers, from H.P. Lovecraft to the makers of The Conjuring. In researching this spooky history, I’ve compiled a couple of our state’s most chilling attractions and their backstories.

 

Chester Hill Cemetery and the Story of Mercy Brown

In the 1890s in Exeter, Rhode Island, George and Mary Brown were happily married with three children—that is, until tuberculosis struck. Tuberculosis, or “consumption,” as it was called at the time, was the root cause of countless waves of paranoia that gripped New England in the late 19th century. Filled with gruesome and prolonged symptoms, consumption was also associated with wickedness, turning neighbors and families against each other in pious hatred. At one point, this tension led to a widespread “Vampire Panic,” causing a number of New Englanders to believe that those who died from consumption later reanimated at night to draw blood from their family.

Mary Brown was the first in her community to contract and die of the disease, followed by her eldest daughter, Mary Olive. Then her other daughter, Mercy Brown, fell ill and died shortly after. These quick successive deaths prompted a panic throughout Exeter, whose leaders insisted that they must exhume the bodies of the dead.

They unearthed the corpses sequentially. First, Mary Brown’s body—though it still had some tissue and sinew—had no blood left in its heart or veins and thus could not possibly reanimate. Next, presumably due to variation in the soil and burial conditions, Mary Olive had nothing left on her but bone and hair.

Then came Mercy Brown. To the shock of the village leaders, her body exhibited minimal decomposition, and her heart was filled with fresh blood. They concluded that the wicked culprit had been found, and Mercy’s heart and organs were quickly incinerated shortly following her exhumation—with the ashes given to her brother to drink in an unsuccessful attempt to cure his own tuberculosis.

It is easy to forget that this incident occurred in the late 19th century, in a progressive society with fairly advanced medicinal resources. Inspired by how paranoia created a vampire hunt within just a few months, famous horror writer H.P. Lovecraft wrote the character of Mercy Dexter in his novel The Shunned House based on the story of Mercy Brown. Lovecraft shaped the novel’s plot out of horror that such barbarism could still reign in a peaceful New England town in the 19th century.

Today, Mercy lies in Chestnut Hill Cemetery, where she may or may not be resting in peace after her disinterment. There are many theories of why her body remained so fresh, such as a possible winter chill preserving her organs and keeping the blood in her body. Another theory is that her body retracted due to lack of moisture, causing both her hair and nails to appear longer in relation to the rest of her figure and giving the illusion of growth. Mercy Brown’s case remains one of the most well-documented exhumations in history though her story has largely faded into legend. If you are ever in the Chestnut Hill area this coming Halloween, feel free to pay your respects.

 

The Perron House

In 1971, Roger and Carolyn Perron moved into a new farmhouse in Harrisville, Rhode Island, with their five daughters. Almost immediately, the paranormal activity began.

In the first few weeks, a broom mysteriously relocated itself around the house, leaving behind piles of collected dust in various locations. An orange oozed blood, and the smell of rotten flesh permeated the house, causing whoever caught the scent to experience the shivering sensation of a presence. If these events seem too cryptic, other incidents included the slamming of doors, levitation of beds and furniture, and perhaps the most famous: the morning Carolyn woke up to an apparition hanging over her bed. It was an old lady whose head hung to the side at an impossible angle. The lady said, “Get out! Get out!”

Convinced that something was amiss in their home, the Perrons enlisted the help of Ed and Lorraine Warren, the founders of the New England Society for Psychic Research, the oldest ghost-hunting group in New England.

“Oh boy, that was something else, that Harrisville case,” said Lorraine when interviewed by the Providence Journal. When questioned by USA Today, she recalled, “The things that went on there were just so incredibly frightening. It still affects me to talk about it today.” One of the Perron children stated that, as soon as Lorraine entered the house, she remarked, “I feel a dark presence, and her name is Bathsheba.” According to legend, Bathsheba was a practicing Satanist who sacrificed her daughter to the devil and proceeded to hang herself to bind her spirit to the property.

Supposedly, the haunting came to a head one night when Carolyn Perron seemed to be possessed. Andrea, one of the Perron daughters, remembered that “the only time I was truly terrified in that house was the night I thought I saw my mother die. She spoke in a voice we had never heard before, and a power not of this world threw her 20 feet into another room.”

“Her body was distorted…it lasted several hours,” said Carolyn’s husband, Roger. Despite all of this, the family continued to live in the house for nine more years. Every morning, levitating beds and the stench of rotting flesh would greet them. “Eventually, the family accepted the fact that [they] were not living there alone,” said Carolyn.

Andrea went on to write a trilogy on the hauntings in the Perron House titled House of Darkness: House of Light. Regardless of whether this is smart marketing or a desire to confront terrifying experiences, there is no doubt that whatever happened in the Perron House stayed with Andrea for many years after. “Both my mother and I would just as soon swallow our tongue than tell a lie,” said Andrea. “People are free to believe whatever they want to believe. But I know what we experienced.”

The happenings in Perron House also inspired the blockbuster hit The Conjuring. The film heavily marketed its believability; it was known to be so scary that some screenings invited priests to bless the audience before the movie began. According to Carolyn, the film captured “the essence of what [the family] went through.”

 

Nathanael Greene Homestead

Located in Coventry, Rhode Island, this historical landmark was built and occupied by the Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene, who was appointed by Washington to command the southern colonial forces during the war. Nathanael would commonly refer to it as “Spell Hall” in his letters.

Since the 1920s, this house has been reported to exhibit odd behaviors. Doors, handles, and even a baby carriage have been seen to move on their own. Occasionally, the kitchen abruptly fills with the smell of baking bread, even though the room hasn’t been used for centuries. There are sounds of voices, and at times, even that of a horse carriage pulling up to the front of the house. At night, there are reports of disembodied screams—but this may come as no surprise, given that the Homestead Cemetery, located right down the hill from the house, contains the bodies of four soldiers who failed to be nursed back to health at Spell Hall. Currently, the Nathanael Greene Homestead Association is interviewing those interested in managing the landmark. Members get unlimited free tours of the house.

It’s amazing, the lengths we will go to in order to frighten ourselves with the unknown, with these and countless more mysterious attractions residing in our tiny state of Rhode Island. To this day, I cannot brush my teeth in front of a mirror immediately after seeing a horror film. And yet, the thought of going to see a scary movie with friends remains just as exhilarating. No matter how chilling the scene, I always keep one eye half-open.

Now that we are older, perhaps Halloween’s magic lies no longer in the pillowcases of free candy, but in having a day to confront the things that make us shiver. We are lucky that we do not truly fear death via supernatural means today as people did in the 19th century, when deaths by polio, tuberculosis, or vampires were still common threats. On Halloween, we can embrace the ghosts and vampires that no longer haunt us. For a day, we can stare death and horror in the eye, and maybe even give them a friendly nod.