Ghosts of Thoroughgood Past - Taking A Ghost Tour in Virginia Beach
It is a place of age. A place of time. And of a kind of timelessness. We approached the Thoroughgood House, my wife and I, with a quiet longing for being surrounded with a macabre sense of wonder on a beautiful Halloween's Eve. The house's shadows sauntered in an ease of light as the late and low October sun sank lower still.
Since the early Eighteenth Century the structure has graced this plot, risen during a time when a King thought it all his own. Parcels dolled in multiples to the more ambitious who envisioned a century of wealth expanding before them. A wealth based on principles so inherently flawed that its structure would spawn revolution in two generations.
On this night, the manicured lawn filled with locals and perhaps a tourist or two. We had come to share one simple subject: the Afterlife. To talk about ghosts and spirits and perhaps question our personal boundaries of the esoteric. We had come for the recently advertised Ghosts of Thoroughgood Past tour. The 15-dollar contract brought “professional costumed storytellers” and the hint of being closer to history than we may have first anticipated.
My wife struggles with the idea of being led around by costumed guides, and anyone who knows us understands the hilarious irony that she married one. Yes, that would be me. I did, in fact, spend a fair amount of my museum career sculpting historic tales while wearing things I wouldn't normally doff for a dinner out.
And, spoiler alert, I was once a Ghost Walking guide. Having repeatedly attempted to bring a bit of enlightenment for the darker side to living souls willing to share 10 bucks for about 90 minutes of storytelling. On this night, my 15 bucks was going to get us just 30 minutes. Thirty minutes for about three centuries of backstory sounded a tall order.
The ticket staff were also costumed, and the evening's mood began to immediately take shape with women moving about in classic expressions of period charm. We were invited to sit on the welcoming benches behind the Education Center built adjacent to the residence. There was a large scraggly wired computer trailing to speakers playing properly spooky Hollywood Halloween minor chords in endless loop. Unfortunately, the folks with the City of Virginia Beach, the entity that manages both the Thoroughgood House and our evening's ghostly experience, didn't put commercial free music in the budget, so our spooky tunes kept getting rudely interrupted with radio ads.
And then the fog machine started.
I was thankful to have arrived just early enough to witness the busy young man, dressed all in black and contrasting Chuck Taylors, running a pitcher of water from the Education Center down the winding path to where the forced atmosphere needed steady replenishment. Once the fog machine really got to fogging, he made more and more trips, with his pitcher just that wee bit fuller every time.
With tours scheduled every 30 minutes, we also enjoyed seeing some of the other storytellers arriving. There were two tours leaving at our scheduled time, and we all sat or stood patiently for our guides to arrive. Most folks seemed to simply follow the first guide that stepped up, so, thankfully, we were left with a mere handful of guests on our walk.
Our guide introduced herself by name and interjected the character of “Healer” into her persona. She repeated The Healer introduction a second time, and her inflection felt more self-convincing than character establishing. An older woman, The Healer dressed more Williamsburg bus tour than ghost walking story charmer. Another older woman, in equaled Thoroughgood period colonialism, joined the rear of our tour for security. Whom she was protecting was unclear.
And as the fog machine made even more fog, we followed The Healer down the past towards the rear of the residence. The walkways here have been recently renovated with some sort of spongy playground material that is so giving underfoot, both my wife and I wide eyed at the instability. Toss in the layer of thick mulch over top, and we quickly learned moving slowly was best.
Equally beautiful to the historic architectural treasure is the grounds, so we were glad the stories began in the back gardens. Besides the fog machine, LED candles had been sparsely spread throughout, offering a stunning garden glow. Our storyteller carried a mood enhancing faux candle lit lantern of her own. The lantern proved to have equal presence, for the cheap tin and glass features were quite loose and brought rattles often louder than our guide's voice.
As the first story began to unfold one thing became evident: the tour was going to suck. Granted, I am a true pain in the ass to take on a guided tour, for I have a strong, narrow-minded belief that when you decide to teach, entertain, or amuse through storytelling, the story comes first. In this case, in this place, the story is first rate. I am standing at twilight at one of the most historic places in Hampton Roads. I think the site is one of the more important places in the State of Virginia.
And they have turned on a fog machine, and sent me into the fake fog with my fake healer and her noisy lantern, and left me listening to unwoven tales that offered neither bridge nor ferry to the other side of their meaning.
The experience took a deeper dive at the entrance of the residence. Before we could go through the door, The Healer had to volunteer us into a most uncomfortably forced ritual. She asked for five volunteers, and, to my horror, my wife stepped forward. The five stood in shoulder-to-shoulder line, holding fake candles turned on from underneath. Our guide was quite adamant her charges should not touch the bottom of the fake candles. We actually own the type of LED candle they were using, and I could see my wife straining to keep from turning hers on and off for laughs. The Healer went through all five people getting them to say certain words. The time-wasting nonsense was even more annoying than the rattling lantern, which at this point was really rattling, since The Healer was doing a fair amount of arm waving during the ceremony.
The inside of the house was stunning at night. From the first moment we stepped inside, the overwhelming presence of time cloaked. And the feeling became stronger as we moved from room to room. I had been in the residence before, but never at night. I couldn't get enough, and it was worth every one of the 15 dollars exchanged.
Some truly interesting tales followed of poltergeists, figures experienced though windows, a time traveler stepping through the leaded glass mirror. The kind of stuff that should have invoked silence and awe. As a storyteller, I was envious of The Healer's opportunity to share a darkened centuries old room with bloodletting artifacts at bedside. Without guidance from the guide, however, our tour goer’s behavior devolved into our phones, as we ghost hunted, flash pictured, and interrupted with personal tales of ubiquitous I-phone orbs. One participant left her camera active, not realizing the light would keep turning on, and this became our priority haunting of the entire evening.
Thankfully, The Healer also mismanaged her time, awarding us precious extra minutes in this magnificent house. Our Colonial security guard's purpose at last revealed, as she condescendingly nudged interruptions of the other tour now entering.
A lovely close to our hallowed eve was spent sitting on plastic covered hay bales circled around glowing fire pits in the open ground adjacent to the residence. A hurried young woman dressed in black was keeping three fire pits going, while making sure the cider station was filled with cups. She was kind enough to point us to the one container that held warm cider.
Some folks from our group joined the glow, with one woman asking in confused tone what the house was all about and if it was original. Her lack of perspective gently revealed that no one had made genuine effort to share the history of either the grounds or residence.
So with the Thoroughgood House haloed in fire pit smoke and the fake fog still rising, we sipped our cider and watched the embers glow and breathed deep sighs of gratitude for having this special chance to be in this beautiful place at night. The tour was not so good, with almost everything I loathe about the genre packed into an extended half hour, but my wife and I both agreed we would return.
To linger long with a perfect sunset. To watch the shadows of old trees path-wash and window scratch. To be close to a place of age. A place of time. And to share in the quiet company of spirits who, without doubt, do linger here.
© Copyright William Hazel, 2021