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The (Real) Ghost-Hunting History of the Aykroyds

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Samuel Augustus Aykroyd, a teacher-turned-dentist who kept a farmhouse near Sydenham, Ontario, liked to host séances. He liked them so much, in fact, that he invited a medium named Walter Ashurst to be his houseguest in 1921. Ashurst didn't leave for 12 years.

Joined by a close-knit group of friends who shared an interest in the paranormal, the Aykroyds held regular attempts to communicate with the dead—an assembly of enjoined hands around a table in the parlor room where Ashurst would appear to pass along messages from beyond. Aykroyd’s 7-year-old grandson, Peter, would watch from a doorway or a staircase as Ashurst's voice took on different inflections, his tongue overtaken by otherworldly entities.

Peter would grow to have children of his own, Peter Jr. and Dan, with tales of Samuel Aykroyd’s academic experiments into the paranormal being passed around the dining room table. Copies of the American Society for Psychical Research journals found their way into Dan’s hands as a teenager. He would later have the idea to write a movie about paranormal investigators who treat the existence of ghosts as a scientific dilemma.

Ghostbusters, which grossed over a quarter-billion dollars in theaters following its release in 1984, was a direct extension of an Aykroyd family tradition: hunting ghosts.

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Samuel Aykroyd was born in Ontario in 1855, the oldest of 14 children. It took him until his early thirties to realize his first line of work—teaching—wasn’t for him. He entered dental school and opened a practice in 1894, doing his best to accommodate anxious patients in a time when topical anesthetic consisted mainly of taking a stiff drink.

Though he wasn’t a practitioner, Samuel had come across mention of dentists who had tried using hypnosis to soothe anxiety and promote a relaxed state for treatment. His grandson, Peter Aykroyd—who researched Samuel’s life for a 2009 book, A History of Ghosts: The True Story of Séances, Mediums, Ghosts, and Ghostbusters, believes Samuel soon began to take an interest in the idea that some individuals can be induced into a trance that allows them to act as a conduit between the living and the dead.

He wasn't without company. Samuel met Ashurst, a machine operator, in 1917; the two shared a fascination for spirit communications, and Ashurst told Samuel he believed he could act as a proper medium for the séances Samuel intended to conduct on his farm property in Ontario. By 1921, Ashurst was a medium-in-residence, and Samuel was hosting near-weekly gatherings in an attempt to tune into what he perceived to be the intangible frequency of the afterlife.

According to the journals left by Samuel that detailed his exploration of spiritualism from 1905 to 1933, Ashurst was able to draw the attention of a former member of the Ming Dynasty, a prince of ancient Egypt, and even Samuel’s great-grandfather. In one séance conducted in the home of Samuel’s son, Maurice Aykroyd, a trumpet-like instrument used to correspond with the dead was said to have floated above the heads of the attendees.

Samuel kept notes, and in them he indicated a degree of dissatisfaction with the activities. What he really wanted to do was provoke a materialization, or physical embodiment of a spirit. The séances were held on a schedule and with the same friends in an attempt to make the ethereal more comfortable with showing themselves. Through Ashurst, the spirits would promise they were working on it and ask for patience.

One of Samuel’s bigger preoccupations was with ectoplasm, a seeming manifestation of a ghostly apparition that had been mentioned in spiritual writing but was impossible to document: the gooey material took form only fleetingly, was visible mostly in the dark, and had no physical properties. Again, the spirits suggested the residue of their presence would arrive in short order.

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Perhaps the spirits didn’t keep time on a mortal’s schedule. Samuel Aykroyd passed away in 1933, with his séance group slowly dissolving over the next decade. Samuel’s son, Maurice, a Bell Telephone engineer, was convinced spirits might be reachable through a radio frequency device and tried to fabricate one. He was unsuccessful.

These stories and others like them made their way down the Aykroyd family tree, with Maurice’s son, Peter, inheriting his grandfather’s journals and a considerable library of spiritual literature. Peter’s son, Dan, was intrigued by his great-grandfather’s pragmatic approach to such phenomena; deep trances and ectoplasm both make appearances in Ghostbusters, the film he conceived of, then co-wrote with Harold Ramis.

Upon being shown the script, Peter was enthusiastic about the prospect of seeing his family’s roots in paranormal research being honored. Reflecting on the recurring themes in his family tree in 2014, Dan summarized his inherited passion for the paranormal: “It’s the family business, for God’s sake.”

Additional Sources: A History of Ghosts: The True Story of Seances, Mediums, Ghosts, and Ghostbusters

14 Haunting Facts About the Winchester Mystery House

Despite the Winchester Mystery House's cheerful appearance, this massive California mansion's history is edged with tragedy, mystery ... and maybe some ghosts. Naturally, it has inspired a chilling horror movie, Winchester, which opens in theaters today. But before you go to the movie theater, wander through the curious past of one of America's most infamous homes.

1. THE WINCHESTER HOUSE IS NAMED FOR ITS MISTRESS.

Sarah Lockwood Winchester—the wife of gun magnate William Wirt Winchester, whose family created the Winchester rifle that was heralded as "the gun that won the west”—designed and oversaw the construction of the sprawling Queen Anne-style Victorian mansion that bears her name. Construction on the 24,000-square-foot home, which is located at 525 South Winchester Boulevard in San Jose, California, began in 1886.

2. MANY BELIEVE SARAH BUILT WINCHESTER HOUSE OUT OF FEAR.

Overcome with grief in the wake of her husband's death from tuberculosis in 1881, folklore states that Sarah sought out a spiritualist who could commune with the dead. While she was presumably looking for solace or closure, she was instead given a chilling warning.

Through the medium, William told his widow that their tragedies (the couple had only one child, a daughter named Annie, who died at six weeks old) were a result of the blood money the family had made off of the Winchester rifles. He warned that vengeful ghosts would seek her out. In order to protect herself, William said that Sarah must "build a home for [herself] and for the spirits who have fallen from this terrible weapon."

Sarah was advised to leave their home in New Haven, Connecticut, behind, and move west, where she was to build a grand home for the spirits. There was just one catch: construction on the house could never stop. "If you continue building, you will live,” the medium warned Sarah. “Stop and you will die."

3. THE HOUSE WAS UNDER CONSTANT CONSTRUCTION FOR 38 YEARS.

Sarah Winchester's bedroom, on the second floor of Winchester House
Sarah Winchester's bedroom

In 1886, Sarah purchased an eight-room farmhouse in San Jose, California, and began building. She employed a crew of carpenters, who split shifts so construction could go on day and night, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, for 38 years. The work only stopped on September 5, 1922, because the octogenarian mastermind behind the home died of heart failure in her sleep. It's said that upon hearing the news of Sarah's death, the carpenters quit so abruptly they left half-hammered nails protruding from walls.

4. THE HOUSE IS FULL OF ARCHITECTURAL ODDITIES.

Sarah issued many bizarre demands to her builders, including the building of trap doors, secret passages, a skylight in the floor, spider web windows, and staircases that led to nowhere. There are also doors that open to blank walls, and a dangerous door on the second floor that opens out into nothing—save for an alarming drop to the yard far below.

5. AN EARTHQUAKE ONCE RATTLED THE HOUSE AND TRAPPED SARAH.

In 1906, the great San Francisco Earthquake caused three floors of the then seven-story house to cave in. A 1900 postcard of the place shows a tower that was later toppled by the natural disaster. That tower—plus several other rooms destroyed in the disaster—were never rebuilt, but cordoned off. As for Sarah, she was safe but stuck in the Daisy Bedroom, named for the floral motif in its windows. She had to be dug out by her staff, as its entrance was blocked off by rubble.

6. THE HOUSE WAS DESIGNED LIKE A LABYRINTH.

Some say the labyrinth layout was meant to confuse the ghosts, allowing Sarah some peace and a means to escape them. She was the sole architect of this extraordinary home, and no master building plan has ever been uncovered. So Sarah may be the only person who ever truly knew all of its secrets. When movers were called in after her death, one lamented its labyrinthine design that includes many winding hallways. One mover told American Weekly the Winchester House was a place "where downstairs leads neither to the cellar nor upstairs to the roof."

7. SOME SAY THE SYMBOLS IN THE HOUSE POINT NOT TO GHOSTS, BUT FRANCIS BACON.

An alternate theory on the Winchester House's perplexing design declares that Sarah was creating a puzzle full of encryptions inspired by the work of English philosopher Francis Bacon. There's speculation that clues to the house's true meaning are hidden in the ballroom, the Shakespeare windows, and the iron gates. This theory suggests that Sarah was a member of a mystic society like the Rosicrucians, or a secret society like the Freemasons—or possibly both.

8. THERE ARE OTHER THEORIES, INCLUDING THAT SARAH WAS "CRAZY."

Others speculate Sarah was coping with her grief with a flurry of activity, or that she was simply "crazy." However, Winchester Mystery House historian Janan Boehme paints a happier picture, imagining that the continual renovations reminded Sarah of the good times when she and William built their New Haven home together.

"I think Sarah was trying to repeat that experience by doing something they both loved," Boehme told the Los Angeles Times. She also suspects that Sarah was just an ardent—albeit eccentric—philanthropist who used her family fortune to purposefully employ the San Jose community. "She had a social conscience and she did try to give back," Boehme offered, noting the hospital Sarah built in her husband's name. "This house, in itself, was her biggest social work of all."

9. ONCE IN WINCHESTER HOUSE, SARAH WAS RECLUSIVE, BUT NOT ALONE.

There is only one known photo of the widow Winchester, which was taken surreptitiously. Though she was reclusive, she was never alone. She had 18 servants, 18 gardeners, and the ever-present construction team working on the grounds. Every morning, Sarah met with the foreman to discuss the always-evolving building plans. And it's said that each night, she visited the Séance Room to speak with the spirits, who weighed in on plans for the house's unusual design.

10. THE HOUSE WAS AS OPULENT AS IT WAS ODD.

The home boasts 950 doors, 10,000 windows, 40 stairways, 52 skylights, 47 fireplaces, six kitchens, plus a trio of elevators, and once-groundbreaking elements like wool insulation, carbide gaslights, electricity, and an indoor shower, complete with a sewage drainage system.

11. NO ONE IS SURE HOW MANY ROOMS THE HOUSE HELD.

Following Sarah's death, Winchester House was converted into a tourist attraction. But when trying to get a room count, the new owners kept coming up with different numbers. After five years of renovations, they estimated the number of rooms to be about 160, which is the number most often quoted today.

12. SARAH HAD AN OBSESSION WITH THE NUMBER 13.

Among the secrets Sarah took to her grave was why she insisted that so many things relate to the number 13. The Winchester House has many 13-paned windows and 13-paneled ceilings, as well as 13-step stairways. Even her will had 13 parts, and she signed it 13 times. But the pièce de résistance might be the house's 13th bathroom, which contains 13 windows of its own.

13. IT’S A NATIONAL LANDMARK.

The Winchester Mystery House earned landmark status on August 7, 1974. The fascinating mansion is still owned by the family (families?) who purchased it from the Winchester estate in 1922 for $150,000—however, their identity is another Winchester House mystery. But thanks to them, tourists can now explore 110 of the 160-some rooms Sarah dreamed up. The Winchester Mystery House even boasts special tours on Halloween and Fridays the 13th.

14. IT’S REGULARLY CITED AS ONE OF THE MOST HAUNTED PLACES IN AMERICA.

To this day, Winchester House is a destination for believers who hope to have a paranormal encounter of their own. A popular spot for such activity is the corridors of the third floor, where tour guides have claimed to hear footsteps and disembodied voices whisper their names.

In a Reddit AMA, a Winchester House tour guide confirmed that the house’s third floor—only a portion of which is accessible during house tours—is definitely the spookiest part of the house, “because that's where the servants lived, so there's been a lot of reported activity there. Also, when you are on that floor you can never really hear any of the other tours, so you feel pretty isolated.”

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
6 Historical Methods for Contacting the Dead (and Their Drawbacks)
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

'Tis the season for getting in touch with the spirit realm. (This applies no matter what month we're in right now; 'tis always high time to get your séance on.) But there are several different ways you can go about it. Do you Ouija? Should you go wandering around a haunted house? No, you should probably pick up the psychic telephone.

Lapham's Quarterly helpfully charted out some of historical ways you could (supposedly) go about contacting the dead, from Chinese Fuji writing—a method that's kind of like a Ouija board, but using a stylus to make letters in sand instead of a board—to past-life regression via hypnosis. The chart lays out how each ghost-whispering concept works, and its theoretical drawbacks. Because there are always drawbacks.

Transfiguration, for instance, lets you see a spirit's face through the body of a medium, but that's a whole lot of hard work for your medium. You can listen for electronic voice phenomena via a recorder, but you have to buy the recorder first. F. R. Melton's 1921 invention, the balloon-powered psychic telephone, was a great option—except when his son George wasn't around to work it. And past-life regression, as you might imagine, holds “potential for new levels of self-hatred." No one wants to find out that their past self was a total jerk.

There are plenty of scientific and cultural explanations for seeing ghosts that don't involve the actual spirits of the dead returning to the Earthly plane, but if you're into the history of the occult, this is a great primer on spirit-conjuring traditions.

[h/t Lapham's Quarterly]

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