I’m going to warn you that this is a slow burn. I could cut right to the chase but I think it’s important to contextualize this experience. I can only hope that the long read is worth it to get to the part of my first, and so far only, paranormal experience that left with me a new understanding of exactly what it means to have this happen to someone. I’ve never felt fear and hopelessness on this level before. Paranormal entities, human spirits or otherwise, go beyond observable phenomena that go bump in the night. They get under your skin, they infect you.
The names have been changed, and a throwaway account has been used to protect our identities. In case any one of us becomes a well-known filmmaker or musician down the road…
So, I guess I can’t go wrong starting at the beginning. My name is Avi. I’m a filmmaker. I started working with my regular collaborator, Lauren, about two and a half years ago when she brought me on to a music video she was directing. Soon we began collaborating on almost everything, with her as director and I as cinematographer. For those of you laypeople, you’re probably aware what a director’s job is (they call the shots, they’re the creative vision behind the piece), but in case you don’t know, a cinematographer, also known as Director of Photography or DP for short, is responsible for the look of the film (and interpreting the director’s vision into images). It’s highly collaborative. Lauren and I have very similar aesthetic goals, so our collaboration naturally blossomed into something great. We’ve shot films and music videos all over the country, each project bringing with it a new experience. It’s safe to say that no two projects are alike.
This was one was probably the most eye-opening, and the experience was one I will never forget.
It’s the one that destroyed my skepticism about the paranormal.
I’m not saying that for dramatic effect. I had probably the most clinical worldview of anyone I know, especially for someone with an education in conceptual art. I thought paranormal phenomena was the product of vibrations causing people to hallucinate (look it up!). Anything remotely fringe was pure bullshit to me.
So it was a pretty odd pairing when Lauren (who is a firm believer herself) announced we’d be travelling to Ohio for the weekend to shoot a music video for a musician friend of hers, Bailey, whom was heavy into witchcraft.
They picked me up in their car on that Friday, and I was immediately greeted with the sight of a shrine on the dashboard. A hat, deer antlers, some twigs, and sage. It was for a safe trip, Bailey told me. Joining us was her aforementioned boyfriend, Aaron, and our production assistant/actress, Imogen. We were to stay in an old Victorian-era house in a small Ohio town, roughly a five hour drive from our home city in Chicago. I don’t want to be too specific in regards to the town as the house is on Airbnb, and the owner graciously allowed us to film there at no cost, so it is out of respect for him and our own gratitude that I will not disclose the specifics of the home.
My first sign of my odd pairing with this group came when we passed by the corpse of a deer on the highway. Aaron pulled us over so Bailey could make a tribute to the deer with some of the branches from the shrine on the dashboard. It was a male, a buck. Cars honked at us as the group stood in silence over the bloated corpse. Fucking hipster kids, they probably thought. When we got into the car, Bailey remarked that the deer may be a sign. Of what, no one inquired further. It was sort of a notion that was just left floating there.
When we arrived several hours later, Mike, the owner of the house, greeted us with open arms and showed us about the mansion. It was gorgeous, to say the least. Polished wood. Marble. Velvet. Stained glass windows (Bailey noted the images of a doe and a stag that appeared in said windows as another vague sign), the works.
Mike told of us of the history, about the wealthy family that owned the house, and gave us a tour of their lavish home. The original owners, to put it lightly, enjoyed a decadent existence. The only sign of modesty came from the servant’s quarters, but it could be argued that that modesty only made the opulence of the rest of the house more opulent, even grotesquely so.
The tour ended in the basement. Its simplicity and dinginess stood in direct contrast to the rest of the mansion. It had a somber energy about it. Apparently it was where the servants spent most of their time, away from the rest of the mansion. I began feeling queasy.
And now it’s here that I should mention that I have an anxiety problem. It’s gone undiagnosed, against my own better judgment. I admit I should get myself checked out. But I’ve learned to cope with it. Radiohead and cold water are what I turn to when my heart rate increases. My anxiety is triggered by a few things, primarily from a feeling of not being in control, being in isolation, or, the most primal of all, an intangible sense of dread. And all three of these were immediately triggered by the house.
To the irrational, dogmatic mind, the house was in control. It told me where I could and could not go. Should I choose to ignore it, and venture forth into the parts of the house where I was not allowed, it could not be guaranteed that the space wasn’t already occupied by something I couldn’t see nor understand.
To me, it was simply a matter of being sensitive to space and light, which I am, very much so. It probably stems from my cinematography background. I hate flat lighting and dark rooms. I love sunlight, and lots of it. I’m keen on feng shui. Whenever I move to a new apartment, I spend hours planning the layout of my furniture to maximize my personal comfort. Rooms with little sunlight, dim, flat overhead lighting, and clutter can trigger anxiety and a general sense of fatigue and depression. The right layout can make me feel like I belong and all is right with the world.
And so, I dispelled the initial notion of the house having some level of spiritual energy and chalked it up to my own neurosis about feng shui. It was old house, and a little bit too opulent, to the point where it overloaded the senses. I did manage to find three rooms I felt safe in: the library, the parlor at the top of the stairs, and the bedroom I eventually chose as my own for the weekend.
When we got settled, Bailey and Lauren immediately brought up the house’s energy. It felt heavy, overbearing, to them. Something wasn’t right. And so, they decided to bless the space and give thanks to the spirits within by burning sage and saying a prayer of thanks to its inhabitants.
We sat in a circle in the main living room (a place I felt very uncomfortable in), as Lauren blessed the space, burned sage, and then, with the reassurance that they had done all they needed to keep the spirits at bay, we began production.
We worked diligently through the night, and it was a productive, uneventful evening. I am not a night person, and so I took downtime after setting up lights (when Bailey and Imogen were getting into makeup and wardrobe) to nap in the library. I had trouble doing so. I kept glancing at the doorway into the living room, and then to the one that led into the dining room. I didn’t like these rooms. It felt as though the library were some sort of cozy neutral zone in between two cold, unwelcome nether regions. The feeling of a presence residing in one or both of these rooms was inescapable. My skepticism chalked it up to my expectation of a paranormal experience (let’s face it; all skeptics aren’t immune to getting spooked every now and then), but something just wasn’t right about those two rooms. I took no naps, and instead joined the crew in the parlor, all the while blaring the new Radiohead album and nursing a glass of ice water.
We ended on a shoot with all the lights in the house off, and a single source directed at Bailey as she lip synced at the camera, walking through the black abyss. It was a harrowing experience not because we were walking through a pitch-black centuries-old home, but because I couldn’t see more than half a meter in front of me and I was walking backwards, led by my equally-blind director. The only bump in the night that had us worried was the one that the thousands of dollars of camera equipment would make should I lose my footing.
The next morning, the house was bathed in beautiful daylight, but I still had trouble venturing into the other various rooms of the house. I drank my coffee in the upstairs parlor and hung out there most of the day, writing. Because most of the video was being shot at night, the days were spent sleeping in and hanging out.
As I sat by the window, I could’ve sworn I saw a grey cat dart away in the corner of my vision. I did a double take and briefly panicked; thinking I hallucinating. This is another one of my anxiety symptoms; hypochondria. When I was a kid I would convince myself every once in a while that I was getting cancer. As I grew older that fear of physical ailments was replaced by mental illness. A few weeks prior I made the mistake of convincing myself I was developing schizophrenia, so this brief feline apparition brought that all back. I pushed the coffee mug away and slumped back into the chair, working on my breathing. It wasn’t until a car drove by on the cobblestone road below, and I saw the reflection in my glasses, did I realize it was a case of a misinterpreted, distorted reflection.
I got up and walked down into the kitchen to pour out my coffee. No more caffeine for me today. As I walked there, I overheard Bailey and Imogen talking in the other room.
“You saw it? I saw the cat, too! It was on the dresser in my room! It’s grey, right?”
Before production began again, I took a short nap. I dreamt of a male deer leading me through a forest. In my later interpretation, I came to the conclusion that he was my protector. He seemed to light up the twisted branches in front of us as he led me to freedom. In the dream, unspoken rules were established. I was trusted not to look behind me, only forward. There was a sense of dread clinging to the back of my neck like a leech, and I dared not look behind. Behind me was a void of darkness. I had gained the trust of whatever resided in this forest, and should I break it…the ambiguity of the consequences were chilling enough.
We enjoyed another productive evening of shooting once the sun went down. We knocked out three scenes in a row by midnight. We had one left to go: the séance.
Blocking and cinematography-wise, this was to be a simple sequence. Aaron, Lauren, and Imogen would all appear in this scene, each shrouded in black, all seated around a white table, with Bailey at the head, lip-syncing. Lauren would sit across from her, performing automatic writing at the height of the song, with Aaron and Imogen raising their arms in unison at the right moment. I shot on a wide lens (14mm) with one Arri 150 blasting on them and two small, cheap LED panels underneath the table for ambient light. Simplest lighting setup ever.
Only problem was this was in my very least favorite room in the house: the basement.
Complicating things were Bailey, Lauren, and Aaron, who, being the believers they were, wanted to make sure that the ritual performed did not invite any spirits to communicate. No, this would be a “half-séance”, as Bailey put it. A séance in aesthetics only. But to be safe, we needed to place the stones just right on the table, and surround us all with a circle of salt. We were instructed not to break that circle. We then placed several candles, one off to my right, two on the table, and two off the table but in front of the camera. I couldn’t tell you the significance of the placement. That’s just where they were. Bailey also said a prayer to the spirits. We were performing a séance only to send out positive energy, and not invite anything in. I didn’t quite understand, but I knew enough to know that whatever we were doing was, in their eyes, perfectly fine. In my eyes, it was the final scene, and it looked incredible.
It was 2:45 in the morning when we began rolling. Lights out, save for the single Arri and the LED’s. Behind me was a void of black. Although the basement ended only a meter and a half behind me, it felt like it just kept going. The feeling I experienced the night before while attempting to sleep in the library returned. I felt safe where I was, but beyond our circle of salt was a cluster of negativity that I couldn’t put my finger on; it was just something…wrong. It was as though it were a feeling made flesh, standing there. I refused to look. But I felt nothing wrong. I was in a fortress.
We wrapped two takes before Lauren ran out paper for her character’s automatic writing. There was more paper up in the kitchen, so I left the circle and started up the stairs, kicking some of the salt up beneath my feet.
“Want me to turn on the light for y’all?” I asked, halfway up the staircase.
“NO.” Lauren commanded, in a tone I have never heard from her before or since. It was curt, almost as though my suggestion was insulting.
I walked to the kitchen, grabbed the paper, and headed down. Chills ran down my spine as I stepped into the basement. I couldn’t get into the salt circle fast enough. I instructed myself to stop being so fucking afraid of the dark.
“Can I see the last two takes?” asked Lauren, her tone having returned to normal.
I flipped out the screen on my camera and brought her to the image review page, where we observed the takes. Halfway through the second take, the touch screen started going wild, bringing us all the way up to the “DELETE” page on the menu. I immediately shut the camera off and turned it back on.
“Creepy,” said Lauren, half jokingly.
I pulled the second take again, and, same thing. Touch screen goes nuts, bringing us to the delete screen.
“I got the jist, we need to shoot,” Lauren returned to her position at the end of the table.
I guess it’s here that I should mention that the camera and its flip-out touch screen, were positioned right next to the Arri. These lights give off a lot of heat. It’s likely that the heat radiating from the lamp caused the touch screen to spasm a bit. Still, it creeped the hell out of me, rational explanation or otherwise.
We got into our places and began rolling. I yelled “action” and then started the song on my phone for Bailey to lip sync to. Only Bailey didn’t start when she was supposed to; she just sat there, trembling, not taking her eyes off of Lauren. I took my eyes away from the monitor and saw that tears were running down her face. I was about to say something when she snapped out of it and began lip syncing.
I had trouble concentrating throughout the song’s 4 minute runtime – which felt like 10 minutes. The feeling of safety that I initially felt within the salt circle was gone. Whatever I had felt lay beyond the circle had joined us. The chills came in waves, and what was initially a humid summer night had me shivering. The room had indeed gotten colder, despite the house having no air conditioning.
I was getting antsy so I checked my phone to see how much time was left on the song. I distinctly remember the time reading 3:32 am. I was distracted by a loud pop, which turned out to be the candle off to my right. The candle began popping and crackling with an intensity not shared by the others, which burned calmly. For some strange reason I knew I shouldn’t look over at the candle. That feeling, the ‘cluster of negativity’ I described earlier seemed to no longer be concentrated behind me. No, it was next to me. By that damn candle. I still couldn’t look at it. I can’t explain why. Maybe I just didn’t want to because the noises it was making just had me spooked.
Or something was telling me that I should stay where I am, and not let my eyes wander. It was like knowing that something I didn’t want to be involved in, like an argument or fight, was unfolding next to me, and I wanted to stay out of it by pretending it wasn’t there.
I kept my eyes glued to the monitor. 3:12 into the song. The time was 3:33. I remember this because all of a sudden, Bailey screeched. The flapping of leathery wings could be heard, and something darted about the room blindly. A bat. It flew right next to my ear and I jumped, screeching just like Bailey.
“KEEP ROLLING,” Lauren commanded, her tone curt and very much not hers, “DON’T STOP!”
Bailey opened and closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and continued lip syncing, singing the lyrics this time as opposed to just moving her lips. Her voice was trembling. The bat had disappeared.
She finished the song, and I hit the stop button. Aaron and Imogen were stone. It was as if the bat’s appearance was an experience shared only by Bailey, Lauren, and I.
Bailey was breathing heavily. Lauren, her tone returning to normal, asked me to go back and get more paper.
“I don’t…I don’t want Avi to break the circle again!,” said Bailey laboriously.
The candle next to me started popping and cracking even more intensely. Bailey turned her head to the left, away from the candle and took a deep breath.
“Ok,” said Lauren, “two more takes, I’ll use the back of this paper for the automatic writing”
“One more take,” said Bailey, her tone changing from meek and scared to firm, “We’re pushing…hospitality…patience…” She trailed off and shook her head.
It was surreal, to say the least. I had only a faint clue of what Bailey was talking about. I guess my breaking the circle to get the paper, followed by the bat’s appearance and the candle’s odd behavior had Bailey spooked. She must’ve thought these were things brought on by me breaking the salt. Coincidence, I guess.
I started the song and began rolling. As the song began, I heard a footstep upstairs. Then another. And another. Each in a different spot. A drawer closed. What the hell, I thought. Another footstep, above me, and to my right. It was getting closer to me. I looked over, and saw the candle.
It blew the fuck out. Pretty much made my heart stop mid-beat. I heard Bailey interrupt her singing to gasp briefly. Then, it happened. My body plunged into ice, and this sense of dread overcame me in waves. This was not my typical panic attack. Panic attacks, at least in my experience, are characterized by a feeling of loss of control of my body.
This was different. I felt as though I was never going to be the happy again. My life as I knew it was never going to be the same. I couldn’t place why beyond a faint notion that the world that I thought I knew was very different from what it actually was. Intrusive emotions, anger and hatred, emotional pain, immense guilt, all overcame me.
Something began constricting my breathing, and so I took shallow, quick breaths. My heart was going into overdrive, and I broke out in a cold sweat. I was frozen, watching the monitor, as what looked like two thin shadowy appendages entered frame and held Bailey’s hands. They disappeared almost as quickly as they appeared. Possibly a hallucination?
Out of my peripheral vision, faint orbs, flashes of light, came and went. And then, completely unprompted, I was sent into a mental spiral, of memories of my mother and father yelling, my brother and I beating each other up til the other started bleeding, me yelling at my mother and pushing her out my bedroom door in a fit of rage, punching my father in the chest and the horrified look on his face, arguments with past girlfriends, hurting a kindergarten classmate for no reason other than to see him cry, and many others I can no longer fully recall. Just brief flashbacks. It was a spiral of horrid, horrid things that I had seen or done (well, as horrid as a bratty kid and angsty teenager could be to their friends and loved ones), ending on the bloated corpse of the deer.
I must’ve drifted off for only a second before I came to, still shivering and sweating. The cluster of negativity now had a shape. Humanoid. I didn’t see it, but I felt its presence as that of a humanoid entity in my space, infecting me with negativity.
And there was more than one, I knew it.
Tears were streaming down Bailey’s face, as she sat, upright, moving nothing but her mouth to the song, so oddly stiff, as though she were struggling to stay put against some sort of current.
Aaron and Imogen were not moving. Neither was Lauren. I could see through the monitor that Bailey’s eyes were darting back and forth from my lens to Lauren’s face. They were bloodshot, watery, and wide open. I don’t think Bailey had blinked at all in the last minute.
The song felt like an eternity. I couldn’t see anything other than Bailey, and co, but I knew that pacing around me and the table were the entities. I got the feeling that two were humanoid, one taller than the other. I don’t think the third was human; its presence was smaller, hunched on all fours. There was a fourth, inhuman as well, even smaller than all of them. To this day, months later, I still can’t figure out how I knew this. It was like how if you close your eyes and have people walk around you, within only a few inches of your body, you sense their presence and size. That’s the closest explanation I have.
Lights still danced around my periphery. I thought I was going insane. Slowly the song started dying down, and the footsteps seemed to leave the room above us.
The song ended, followed by a large crash upstairs, which jolted everyone, including Imogen and Aaron, who had not moved an inch previously. Jess started gasping.
“Avi, join hands with us, now,” said Bailey. I did as I was told. The feeling of cold, the deep depression, the nausea, the knowledge of other entities among us, still remained. I was shaking, my teeth chattering.
“Are you ok, Avi?” asked Aaron, “you look green.”
I shook my head and joined hands with Imogen and Lauren, forming a circle. Jess said a prayer of thanks to the spirits in the house, and gave each of us a stone to hold on to. Once the prayer ended, the physical effects, cold, nausea, disappeared. The hopeless feeling still ate away at me.
We broke our circle of hands, and Bailey broke the salt circle with a knife, allowing us to leave.
I noticed the camera was still rolling. I got up and pressed the stop button.
“Aaaand cut,” I said jokingly, more so in an attempt to liven my own spirits than those of Bailey and the crew.
I chugged three glasses of water and walked around the block before my mood leveled. The sky had turned a deep blue and the sun was beginning to rise as we sat on the patio, smoking. I had my first cigarette in four years. I was still cold, but warming up slowly. We took this time to discuss our experience.
Apparently, Aaron had experienced far less than I did. He did notice the bat, he heard the footsteps, and he heard the crash. But he felt peaceful the whole time, trancelike. The black shroud and the fact that he was sitting down made it easy to nod off. Imogen said the same. She said she felt as though she were in some sort of altered state where the world around her sort of died out, like a form of sensory deprivation.
Lauren remarked that she felt as though something had intruded into her body. Something masculine, and powerful. She didn’t remember telling me not to turn on the lights when I first broke the circle, and was surprised when everyone else recalled that she did. She remembered the bat but not her telling us to keep rolling. Pretty much everything she had said that I had recalled as not sounding like her, she couldn’t recall saying.
I related my experience, the awful emotional torment, the flashes of light, and, finally, the entities I sensed. Bailey put her hand on my shoulder.
“They were holding me down,” she said, “a man, a woman, and two…” she threw up her arms, “I have no fucking clue what the other two were.”
She then elaborated. Apparently after I had broken the circle, she felt an intrusion, but nothing eventful happened until after the bat began darting around us. When the bat disappeared, all hell broke loose. She first lost sight of me and the camera. Then, she heard the candle spark and crackle violently, and a cold hand grasped her head and tried rotating it towards the candle. Two other hands held down her own hands. It wasn’t until the second-to-last take did she see that beneath Lauren’s shroud was not the face of her friend, but the face of an old man, scowling at her, before slowly beginning to laugh, baring rotten, jagged teeth. She said the man was probably not human. The more she looked at him, studied his features, the more she felt as though something was wrong. It was as if a human’s facial skin had been stretched over that of some animal.
It was 5:30 AM by this point, and we all began to retreat to bed. Before doing so, we walked around the house to find evidence of what exactly made that crashing noise after the song ended. No such luck.
The next morning, I made a cup of coffee and walked through the house with my photo camera. We were to leave the place in a few hours, and, as a thank-you to Mike for letting us use the place, I took it upon myself to take detailed photographs of each room in the house. (And no, I will not share these photos out of respect for Mike. And I did not notice anything in terms of weird entities/shapes while editing them either).
Strangely enough, my initial feelings of the space had vanished. I now felt welcome in each and every room. It wasn’t just because they were bathed in morning light; even on the day before, my first morning in the house, I had felt unwelcome in most of the house. Things were different.
We packed up and headed out for our six hour drive back home, making sure to leave the house exactly as we found it. We still had found no evidence of what had fallen in the house during our shoot.
Two months later, Lauren relayed to me an interesting bit of news about the house. Bailey, after sending him my photos of the house, received a thank-you email from Mike. He was grateful for the photos, but mentioned that there were cracks in the stained glass window, specifically the one with the stag in it. The man was so nice he gave us the benefit of the doubt, knowing that we weren’t even shooting or hanging out in that room, but asked if we had heard anything during our stay. He told us not to worry as the home would be getting some remodeling done anway.
When Bailey inquired further as to why he’d change the interior of such a historic house, he told her that his daughter had spent two nights at the house during her summer vacation a few weeks after our stay, and told him that two people and a cat would walk around the house at night.
A week later, another Airbnb guest and her husband stayed over for a weekend. They too remarked the same thing. Mike changed the locks on the house and filed a police report just in case, but the reports from guests persisted. It wasn’t until a week prior to this email did he have a—wouldn’t you know it—psychic/medium stay over and tell him that someone had left a door open. A door to “who the hell knows what” as he said. She cleansed the house for him, but said it would take a lot more. Mike interpreted this as a sign to remodel, apparently.
“Bless his sweet heart,” said Lauren, “but I really don’t think that’s gonna change much.”
So that’s it. I now believe. I won’t touch a fucking Ouija board, sit in on a séance, or anything of the sort now, thank you very much. Pretty much noped the fuck out of the paranormal. I know that compared to many other’s paranormal experiences this is probably tame, but I think the story of me finally losing my skepticism is one that I’d at least hope is somewhat interesting. Hope you weren’t too bored by the slow burn.
I still work regularly with Lauren, and I’ll be seeing Bailey and the crew sometime soon for a drink to look over the rough cut (Bailey’s letting Lauren take her time on the edit). If any new info is gleaned from our meeting I’ll make another post. Thanks for reading, and if any of y’all have a theory or suggestion regarding what we did and what happened (as well as anything we did wrong) I would love to hear it.