A Ghost For The Suspense Meister

New York City has never been known for its haunted houses…and for good reason: there aren’t any here!!! That, for whatever reason, was the spiritless consensus in the 1950s and, I believe, still is.

Throughout the entire city, there’s not one genuine haunted house of any fascinating distinction or old-fashioned merit. Ghosts and goblins never seemed to have blended into the city’s “melting pot” of fast-paced nine-to-five hours and meat-and-potatoes grittiness. Despite millions having resided and having passed-on into the “big sleep” of destiny over the centuries, not one dearly departed resident is known to have ever dearly returned.

Shirley Jackson‘s Hill House, for instance, would have as much chance as a snowball in hell alongside the frantic squeal and grind of city life; its haunted ambiance couldn’t weather it. How the eerie peace and hallucinating quiet, crucial to ghost-seekers everywhere, would prove to be ultimately impotent. Henry JamesBly Manor would also fail NYC’s stark reality; its governess, her two precocious charges and the alleged spooks influencing their play, fading into absurdity. Even Psycho‘s domicile of “maternal devotion” would look more like another shack awaiting the wrecking ball, and Norman Bates just another psychotic in a long list of similar psychotics (of course, not quite with Norman’s melodramatic versatility). Which brings us to Alfred Hitchcock, that Old Master of Suspense, who, in 1956, came to NYC of all places, in search of an authentic haunted house.

Meyer Berger, a former New York Times columnist, wrote that “the town has gone so utterly modern in mid-twentieth century that, even with more than 8,008,000 souls in its 2,000,000 dwellings, researchers have not been able to turn up a single ghost for a haunted chamber.” Hitchcock planned to host a “haunted house party” in the city along with such macabre touches apropos to its novelty: “coffin bars, spectral voices (hi-fi) behind drapes and old paintings” and all the other clever gimmicks and quaint devices that complement a haunted setting. But where to find such a setting?

Hitchcock had his publicists, Young and Rubicam, scour the town for a flat or house that was haunted by anyone or anything. He probably thought that a haunted house would be as easy to find in NYC as it may have been in his native Britain and, at first, his team “just asked around” for a richly haunted abode at a modest rental cost. After weeks of futile searching, Y & R were ready to settle for any house that “just looked haunted, even if it wasn’t.”

At the suggestion of a colleague, Hitch began considering the abandoned wine cellars along the Manhattan end of Brooklyn Bridge. “[He] was delighted with the deserted old wine caverns. They were dank. Their walls had phosphorescent glow. Even whispers started noble rolling echoes in the place….Mr. Hitchcock could have complete freedom in these spooky precincts.”

There was one glitch to Hitch’s sinister party plans: there was no plumbing which meant no washrooms…of course, the many women Hitchcock was expecting at his party would never attend such an inadequate affair, despite its ghostly potential. Upon learning that temporary fixtures for the caverns would be too expensive, that location also fell through.

Hitchcock then went to the Old Merchant’s House at East Fourth Street, the former Tredwell Mansion, which is vaguely reputed to contain a ghost (albeit a somewhat feeble and senile one). The Tredwell kin who were running the place as a public museum, “coldly” turned Hitchcock down when they learned that the great director intended to use their property for a party. While still recovering from that disappointment, Hitchcock received more bad news when he consulted the American Psychic Research Society which reported that “there are no ghosts left in this city of chrome and concrete…though New York ghosts were active up to a decade ago.” (This supports my own long-held belief that ghosts moved to the suburbs amidst the 1950s mass migration of adventurers).

Now Hitchcock really became desperate and took associated desperate measures: he advertised for a haunted house in the NY Times Real Estate section.

After the usual string of phone calls that ranged from real estate agents to screwballs, Hitchcock narrowed his prospects down to three: a “house at West Forty-sixth Street with a “built-in” phantom lady; a private house on East Seventy-seventh street; a lovely old cobwebby mansion at East Eightieth Street, abandoned and gloomy” (this latter “cobwebby” abode became Hitch’s final choice).

While no actual spirits may have shown-up at the party, I’m sure that the spirits were flowing just the same…and for Hitch, what could have been better? But we’re in urgent need here in New York: Would someone please send in a ghost or two!!!

(Source: The New York Times–Quest for Haunted Houses Here Finds Ghosts Shun Metropolis of Steel and Concrete by Meyer Berger; originally published: February 29, 1956)

POSTSCRIPT– Through the high-tech miracle of cyberspace, you ask for a ghost or two to be sent in and your wishes are granted.  When I first posted this, I received an E-mail from a Cheryl McBee. She not only provided detailed directions to a genuinely haunted house located in Manhattan, but also describes her own experiences while living there:

Hi, Michael. Just to make sure you find it; the house is on West 71st., off Columbus Ave. (between Broadway and Columbus). Walking toward Broadway, it’s the brownstone right next door to the Grace and St. Paul Lutheran Church (on the other side of the church is the Hargrave Hotel so you won’t be confused). When I passed by on Wednesday, the Church had a black and white, Keith Harring type banner flying above it. It’s a very small, dark, unexpected, church – so If you blink your eyes you’ll pass it. The house belonged to the Everson family. Old man Everson died some time in the mid -eighties but, in his will, he stipulated that nothing be changed. When I stayed there, his glasses and medicine bottles were still on his dresser along with his brushes, comb, etc. He even had a decanter of some kind of yellow liquor on a tray in the library! Almost every night, my roommate and I would hear him shuffling down the third floor hallway playing with the chain in the light bulb socket – and he had respiratory problems – even in death! His unpleasant and judgmental personality became stronger over time – and so did his smell! And there were others. Family members? Who knows! Until Dr. Osis of the American Society of Psychic Research came over, at my request, with a clairvoyant who told me, I didn’t know that I was sensitive to this kind of energy; but I really don’t like trafficking with ghosts. It’s all I can do to deal in this world, let alone the next. I left. PS You know the best way to get a ghost to leave you alone – is to tell it off! It worked! Have Fun, CM.

I’m always on the lookout for the strange and unusual. However, in NYC, that in and of itself could be difficult to sort through!!!