Linville Manor has all the trappings of a good haunted house: an unfinished basement, four-poster beds, a study decorated with taxidermy. It’s the perfect place to stay if you’re into scary things.
When I say I have always had a low tolerance for scary, I mean it. M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 film “Signs” destroyed me. The “Jaws” ride at Universal Studios with the jerky animatronic sharks? I wept through that.
While there are plenty of people out there who believe in ghosts, I am not one of them. To get into the right mind-set for this trip, I decided to binge-watch some horror movies — after avoiding them most of my life — including “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Red Dragon,” “The Babadook” and “Midsommar.” By the time I finished my hour-long drive from D.C. to Upper Marlboro, Md., the world seemed like a darker place.
To get to Linville Manor, you have to drive through a typical American suburb before you reach a gravel road that winds up a hill to the four-acre property. If you had to pick which house in the neighborhood was haunted, there is no contest.
I clanged the lion head door-knocker of the big white house, and a rush of nervous anticipation shot through me. The owners, Winn Brewer and Josh Yetter Clark, swung open the door to welcome me, their only guest that evening. We immediately embarked on what would become a nearly three-hour tour, detailing every supernatural occurrence at the estate, either witnessed by the hosts or by overnight guests.
Brewer said that the estate was once a 200-acre plantation owned by John Smith, as in colonist Capt. John Smith whose life was saved by Pocahontas (although this is debated). It was home to 40 to 50 enslaved people who raised the plantation’s hogs, tobacco and corn.
“There’s been life in this house, there’s been death in this house,” Brewer said.
I nodded my head, as though hearing things like this are a normal part of checking into an Airbnb.
The house lived up to its reputation as soon as Brewer bought it in 2018. They listed some mysteries: seeing figures passing through the yard or hallways, furniture rearranging itself, and hearing distinct voices and door handles rattling when no one else is home.
They said 1:11 a.m. was when the manor’s ghosts start to ramp up their activities, and I made it my mission to stay awake to find out if that was true.
I was twitchy and anxious by the time Brewer showed me a video taken by paranormal investigators who had recently stayed in the mansion. We stood in the manor’s most haunted room, the Conservatory, where the video took place. It is a bedroom Brewer originally planned to be a bridal suite, but he believes it was once a nursery.
In the video, guests hover around an electromagnetic field radiation detector (EMF) reader, a tool said to detect spirits. As they ask questions to the spirits, the EVP machine beeps in apparent response while orbs of light flicker around the room.
As I scribbled down notes about the Conservatory — noting the criminally creepy ceramic bust of a woman on a nearby shelf — I got a throbbing sensation around my left collarbone. The weight grew more prominent, spreading from my shoulder through my body. My legs felt like I was giving someone a piggyback ride. I didn’t mention it, figuring the sensation was extreme anxiety, not ghosts yanking my chain.
But then Brewer said some Conservatory guests have felt intense pressure in their chest, like it was being crushed, while sleeping, and that they have seen an eyeless figure of a man lurking at the foot of their bed. Cool, I thought. Did not have “eyeless ghost lurker” on my 2020 bingo card.
I looked down and realized my phone’s audio recorder had stopped working as he told this part of the story.
To my delight, even the outdoors were allegedly haunted. Down the road from the manor was the estate’s old cemetery, as well as some railroad tracks said to be used by the Goatman. Who is the Goatman? I’m glad you asked. If I had to hear about him, so do you. Story goes that the Goatman was a half man, half goat who used an ax to behead his victims around the 1970s.
In the front yard, Brewer pointed to a big tree swaying in the fall breeze, and he said it’s the third oldest beech tree in Maryland. He explained that people interested in the house’s otherworldly nature have been drawn to the tree’s supernatural energy. “Some have even said that there’s sort of a portal or gateway there,” he said. Classic.
Back inside, a thick spider landed on my arm, because of course it did.
We said good night, and I was left to myself in the living room to eat dinner and work on my laptop.
This is the part where I tell you that I got some work done, had fun taking selfies with spooky objects, maybe soaked in the bathtub and enjoyed a relaxing evening. But that would be a lie.
My nerves were stretched impossibly thin, and my eyes darted around the room, from the dark hallways to the pitch-black windows to the busts on the fireplace that stared back. All of the lights were on, but I wanted more lights. Like flashlights, or flood lights, lights you would find in your dad’s garage. If the rooms were brighter, maybe I would be less scared.
I stress-ate a bag of Combos I had brought, and then a hamburger.
On the house tour, I decided I would stay in the most haunted room to have the best story. Now that the darkness had gotten into my bones, I was not sure I was physically able to do so. I grabbed my overnight bag and walked upstairs to survey my options.
Brewer had told me earlier that the top of the stairs had been one of the most “active” areas for spirits, but I found comfort there because it was well lit, centrally located and not a haunted bedroom.
Instead of choosing a bedroom, I abandoned ship and decided to go outside to touch the ghost-portal tree. I pulled out my phone, started filming and walked into the darkness. I have always felt more brave if I’m doing something for a story, so documenting the experience gave me some momentum.
When I rounded the corner outside from the porch, some leaves fell like confetti from the tree’s crackling branches. Bugs rattled and hissed. There was nothing to do but touch the tree, so I walked over and put my hand on the rough bark. Brewer had said people felt energy coming from the tree. I could only feel my own terror coursing through my body.
I turned back and ran inside.
Back in the dining room, my eyes darted among the dolls, mirrors and full suit of armor decorating the house as I analyzed creaks, clicks and whooshes.
A rumble came through the fireplace, like a plane flew overhead. It eventually died down, then picked up again later. I remembered Brewer told me the former owners had removed all but one of the manor’s fireplaces. Was that because ghosts had been haunting the fireplaces? Could they not stand the constant harassment of fireplace ghosts, so they removed them? Were the remaining fireplace ghosts coming for me?
These are the kind of paranoid thoughts you have when staying the night at a haunted house.
I needed a break, desperately. I opened up my laptop and turned on music videos that comfort me, like “WAP” by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion.
It had been hours since I had used the restroom, so I decided to use the “non-believer’s bathroom” upstairs. Previous guests who have used it claimed that it locked on them and that the experience made them start believing in ghosts. I didn’t give the ghosts the opportunity; I used the bathroom with the door fully open.
1:11 a.m. — Ghost time
At 1:11 a.m., it was time to walk around the haunted manor. My already throttling adrenaline kicked into even higher gear.
I went to get my knife for protection, then my brain caught up to itself: A knife for what? Was my plan to stab ghosts?
I did not get my knife out.
Instead, I did a peak 2020 thing and began my first Instagram Live. Throughout the pandemic, I have tuned into live streams of cooking demos, celebrity interviews and whatnot, but never filmed one myself.
As friends and Internet strangers began to tune in, I began my tour by walking downstairs to the foyer. My skin flushed with a blotching pattern the way it always does when I’m nervous. The Instagram element gave me the confidence to go down into the basement, which I felt surely would lead to my death.
Then it was time to return to the bedrooms upstairs. Downstairs had been full of unnerving shadows, but I had been truly afraid upstairs. Earlier in the Overlook master bedroom, named after Stephen King’s “The Shining,” I had done several double takes, sure I had seen something moving on carpets and in corners. Now I had to go back during the witching hour.
A crackling sound came from the corner behind the Conservatory door as I approached the horrible room. I chalked it up to bugs running into a light and walked in, my anxiety reaching a crescendo.
Something hit my ankle and I spasmed, fully expecting to look down and find something awful grabbing for my legs. Instead, it seemed to be a moth. Or at least I thought it was a moth; I was already bolting out the door back to the stairs before I had processed what had happened.
The Instagram Live automatically shut down after an hour of streaming, and I was back to being alone.
On the couch at 2:25 a.m., there was a type of noise you would hear when a clock chimes, but much quicker and perkier. It was an odd hour for that to happen, given that I hadn’t noticed any earlier in the day or night. Almost simultaneously, I heard a man grunt. To keep my sanity, I assured myself it was Brewer or Clark.
All night, I had been carrying around an EVP reader pretending to be a paranormal investigator. I had forgotten about the device until 2:30 a.m., when it began to beep. All I could do was grimace at it and rationalize the situation. I felt too scared to move, let alone get into a bed.
There was absolutely no way I would go into that demon-inhabited Conservatory, so I shut the portal to hell and decided to sleep in the Overlook. To wind down as best I could, I turned on an Anthony Bourdain audiobook, “Kitchen Confidential.”
I was determined to sleep in a bed. Every light in the manor was on, and I kept the bedroom door open to see the stairs, then slunk into bed fully clothed. Should the ghosts wake me up from my sleep, I preferred the idea of running for my life in sturdy jeans. To think that a day ago I had been an adult who didn’t believe in ghosts.
When I awoke, the first thing I did was roll over to see if there was an imprint from a ghost next to me. The sheets seemed normal, and I didn’t know whether I felt relief or disappointment. I was still exhausted, still anxious, but much less so than the hours before. The sun had come up, and there was a thin fog still hanging around the manor lawn.
I crept over to the master bathroom and slowly turned the door handle, like I was expecting someone to be there on the other side. Of course, there wasn’t. Instead, the bright green tile shimmered normally in the morning light. I pulled back the curtain and took a shower, trying to keep my eyes open as much as possible.
Downstairs, Brewer greeted me brightly. He had coffee ready and breakfast cooking. I didn’t know what to tell him. I was so embarrassed that I could barely sleep, but I also wanted to see if any of my encounters stood up to the experiences he knew. I asked him about the chimes I’d heard at 2:25 a.m. and asked if there was perhaps a clock that was set to the wrong time?
He said they didn’t have any clocks that chime.
I had to hand it to the ghosts, should they exist. On my way out of the manor, I touched the portal tree one last time for good measure. If 2020 is going to be the worst year ever, better go big or go home.