It’s Halloween, so who better to talk to than a ghost hunter?
David J. Pitkin is a retired teacher from New York who travels around New England investigating ghost stories at inns, restaurants, historic homes and any other place a spook might like to hang out.
In 1968, one of his students told Pitkin about a haunted barn on her family’s property, and Pitkin visited the place determined to debunk whatever it was his student had been experiencing there. When he heard footsteps overhead – but there was no floor above him – it convinced him that ghosts may actually exist.

Pitkin compiled many of his ghost stories in “Ghosts of the Northeast,” “Haunted Saratoga County” and “New York State Ghosts.” This year, he published a new volume of his experiences in “New England Ghosts.” The new book contains about 30 stories from Maine.

So what’s it like visiting all these haunted places? Pitkin says he never uses the word “haunted,” because it’s so emotionally loaded.

“It prevents you from thinking in a new way about the phenomenon,” he said. “So many times, it’s more the experience of the person. I think the average American, if you say ‘haunting,’ they will have a preconception that there is some being preying upon people, maybe trying to possess them or do dirty tricks to them or so on.”

Q: You were a skeptic until you had that experience in the barn. Can you tell me more about that?

A: When you’re in your late 20s and 30s, and in my case I had a master’s degree in history, I felt pretty smug. I pretty much knew what was possible and what wasn’t. I went into that barn like a lot of young teachers. You feel you have to give some superb answer to your students for every single thing. A good teacher’s not supposed to say, “I don’t know.” That’s the way I felt at the time. I no longer think that way. I felt I had to offer her some very prosaic explanation for what she was hearing, and it just blew me away. My mind was racing and racing, how does something that’s not there hit something else that’s not there and make a sound? I was just bamboozled.

And then a couple of days later, she came to school and said one of the old-timers in the neighborhood told her that almost 30 years before, a young man had actually gone up into this hayloft, walked over to the edge, picked up a rope, put it around his neck and jumped. It was almost like someone had punched me in the solar plexus – I had a very, very strong physical reaction because I knew it was true, even though I didn’t know how I knew.

That was really a life-changing experience for me. But also when I took my first questions to people who I thought would know the answers, being laughed at gave me a lot of experience to help me understand people who do share stories with me today. You know what it’s like to be humiliated, to be put down by people, and when you get into the psychology of it, they’re putting you down because they just can’t permit your truths to be theirs because they’ll have to rethink their whole philosophy, their whole cosmology of life.

Q: You’ve said that you have personally seen three ghosts. Can you describe one of those experiences?

A: I’ve never seen anything filmy or what we traditionally call ghosty. Some people have. There are some people who have seen wispy shapes. There’s a lot of people now with digital cameras that get photos of these wispy shapes or orbs. I’ve never seen any of those, but then I think it’s a very individual attunement.

Now my aunt, who died eight years ago, wasn’t sure I was really playing with a full deck. She was a good, ask-no-questions Catholic. Within a year after she died, when I would be going out on investigations, the van would fill up with the most beautiful smell of flowers. You wanted to package it, you know, hold onto it.

And it took me about a year to identify that this was the smell of a certain lily, a very, very fragrant lily she used to grow. She and I used to exchange a lot of perennials, and that was a smell that I had to associate with her. So the next time I’d be driving along, the smell would come, and I would just say “I love you too, Aunt Hannah.” And the smell vanished that quick.

She came quite frequently during the first five or six years, and I even had a marvelous dream of her. I was at a beach, and the beach was empty except the lifeguard tower, and this absolutely gorgeous chick with black hair was standing there smiling at me, and the closer I got, I’m figuring “Gee, I should ask her out,” and then I got closer and holy gee, that’s Aunt Hannah, who appeared to be about age 30. She was wearing 1940s style of dress and that very, very red lipstick women used to wear at that time, and she was just 30 years older than me. And we just smiled at each other. We didn’t talk or anything. And now I think she’s only come once or twice this year. I think she’s getting ready to transition from where she is to whatever the next step is.

But there are people who are smellers. They’ll walk into a room and they’ll smell someone’s perfume or aftershave lotion or pipe tobacco. My sister lost her husband three years ago. He was a chain smoker, and every so often she’ll call me up and say, “Butch was here.”

“How do you know?”

“Oh the whole house was filled with cigarette smoke when I got up this morning, but it wasn’t so much the smoke as the smell of it.”

That’s a very common phenomena – smell and hearing. Hearing voices, hearing music. Kind of charming, I think, most peoples’ experiences.

Q: I know you don’t like to dwell on the fearful aspects of this, but what’s the most haunted place you’ve been to in Maine, or the scariest place?

A: I had goose bumps my first experience, but ever since I’ve been pretty much cerebral about the whole thing. So what is it? What’s going on? How does it work? How does it apply to me?

When I go into a place, I always take a few minutes and say a prayer. I’m a prayerful person, and I just ask to be protected from anything negative, because there are some real bad characters hanging around, and you don’t want to be possessed by them.

But I don’t think that much more than 10 percent of ghosts are troubling. Most of them are just lost, disoriented, just looking for a second opinion whether or not they died.

Q: If people do have ghosts, what should they do? Should they try to get rid of them?

A: A couple of months ago I was talking with a young woman in Vermont, and she said, “You know, my husband died in Iraq. He comes to me every night, and it’s been almost four years now.”

And I said, “How wonderful that you still have that companionship. Do you love him?”

She says “Oh, I do.” And I said, “There’s something better waiting for him that will give him peace, and are you willing to tell him, ‘You go ahead honey, I’ll catch up with you?’ ”

She said, “I can’t do it.”

I said, “You realize you’re keeping him from something good.”

She said, “Yeah, but I still need him around me.”

That’s always an obstacle when people don’t want to let go of a loved one. In most cases, I tell people, “Look, send them on their way. Tell them there’s a bright white light shining and all they have to do is turn around and walk into it, because everyone they love and everything they’re looking for is in that light.” And so many of them, that’s it. They’re just looking for someone to tell them they’ve died, and everything’s going to be OK.

Some people are raised with the fear of death: You’re going to be thrown into a fiery pit when you die. Well, OK, I don’t have a body anymore, but I’ll be darned if I’m going to admit I’m dead because if I do, I’m cooked. So there is a fear of an afterlife. There are some people who just don’t believe in an afterlife. They figure when they die, the lights go out and son of a gun, I’m still here. I still see people, what do I do, and they’re confused and they just need to be told that they’ve died and that’s OK. It’s natural and normal, and just push on.

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:
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