America's Most Haunted Houses

Experts say a haunting can be a simple imprint left by a dead person. Pictured is the house where the Lizzie Borden lived.
Experts say a haunting can be a simple imprint left by a dead person. Pictured is the house where the Lizzie Borden lived. (Image: Dennis K. Johnson/Lonely Planet/Getty Images)

Any house can be haunted. Not the furniture-flying, bleeding-walls, children-sucked-into-the-television type of haunting, but the haunting that shows in subtle signs of what paranormal experts call an "imprint."

Loyd Auerbach, professor of parapsychology and director of the Office of Paranormal Investigations in San Francisco, said anything that shows signs of a deceased person sticking around is a sign of a haunting. These imprints can be something very innocuous.

"It can be the sound of pots and pans clattering, footsteps down a hallway, usually the result of there being a lot of positive or negative emotion in that place," he said.

Auerbach said most hauntings are benign in nature. The pain-filled imprints draw the most attention, and deservedly so.

"These imprints are left by the living, not by the dead," he said. "So, the more emotion there is, the more likely there is to be a standout imprint, or 'recording' that we pick up on, and negative emotions are very often much stronger than positive ones."

America has at least three famous places where those emotions stand out. The pain experienced by the victims in those places was considerable, and it left the kind of "horrendous" imprint Auerbach said does not go away easily.

"(They) can last for a very long time, for an enormously long time, especially if nothing comes along and replaces it," he said.

There are certain things that happen to me in the house that do unnerve me, but nothing has ever 'frightened' me. The more everyday occurrences I liken to having a roommate that you just never see.

Lee-Ann Wilber, owner and manager of the Lizzie Borden house.

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The Lizzie Borden House, Fall River, Massachusetts

Lizzie Borden may have been acquitted of hacking her father and stepmother to death in 1892, but she never lived down the chilling rhyme about the case:

"Lizzie Borden took an axe And gave her mother forty whacks When she saw what she had done She gave her father forty-one."

After the trial, "Lizbeth" lived out her remaining 35 years a free but ostracized woman. The incident has endured not only because of the heinous and unsolved nature of the crimes, but also because of the stately Victorian house that still stands at 92 Second Street in Fall River, Massachusetts. It is now a bed & breakfast, and guests have reported hearing a woman weeping in the middle of the night and footsteps in the hall. Some have seen a woman in Victorian-era clothing dusting furniture and arranging beds.

Lee-Ann Wilber, owner and manager of the house for the past seven years, offered a soft, bemused laugh at the hysteria that surrounds these reports. Wilber, who managed a retail store before coming to the Borden home, thinks the paranormal is normal.

"There's quite a bit actually, as Mr. and Mrs. Borden are definitely here, as is Michael the caretaker," Wilber said. "But it doesn't bother me anymore. You get used to it after a while. There are certain things that happen to me in the house that do unnerve me, but nothing has ever 'frightened' me. The more everyday occurrences I liken to having a roommate that you just never see. They're there, or you know they've been there, but you keep just missing each other."

While it may seem that Wilber takes a somewhat blasé attitude toward her permanent boarders, she admits there are times that the house itself hangs out its own "Do Not Disturb" sign.

"I used to sleep on the third floor, in Bridget's room, all of the time," Wilber said, referring to the Borden's Irish maid, who roomed in the home's attic. "I went to bed one night and I had the distinct feeling that I was not welcome on the third floor that night. A couple of things had happened to me prior to going to bed. There's a small child's rocking chair in the room, and when I woke up the next morning the rocking chair had shifted to the right of the bed and it was facing the bed like it was watching me sleep."

Myrtles Plantation, St. Francisville, Louisiana

The Myrtles, a quaint yet stately antebellum plantation, has a rich and troubled history. One of its 18th-century owners reportedly took a strong liking to Chloe, one of his female slaves. When his wife found out, she demanded the offending slave be removed. Legend holds that a distraught and incensed Chloe poisoned and killed her rival, and two of the woman's three children. Chloe was hanged, and her body unceremoniously dumped into a Mississippi tributary.

As if that wasn't enough scary history, the estate was also built over Indian burial grounds. It boasts up to 12 different resident spirits, some playful, some curious and some with questionable intents. They are all active enough to draw intrigued visitors year round.

"Chloe and the two children show up quite often in photographs, and sometimes Chloe shows up in person," said director of tours Hester Eby. "They seem to show themselves and not be shy with the overnight guests. I would just say that perhaps they're curious, especially the children. They want to see what's happening."

Not only do they want to see, but staff and guests alike have said the children, and even Chloe herself, are eager to get a more tactile sense of the here and now.

"If (guest) children are wearing something colorful, especially anything that glitters, some of them will say that they're being tugged on, or some will say that their tennis shoes are being pulled on, or their laces are being untied," Eby said. "And Chloe has been known to take an earring from our guests. ... It seems like she likes the hoop earrings, and in a certain area of the home where she was known to be during her time she's known to take one earring."

Those visiting nonbelievers, rare as they may be, are said not to get further than the entrance of the main building before experiencing a change of heart. The front room houses a large mirror that is said to contain the spirits of the poisoned mother and her two children. The displaced trio regularly leave their mark for the living to see.

"There are children's prints and adult prints on the glass of the mirror," Eby said. "And the prints are almost always there, but faces will appear within the prints. Sometimes, the face of a lady will show up in a larger print, and from the top left corner down the mirror, where the small fingerprints are coming down, faces of children will appear."

The Winchester Mystery House, San Jose, California

The Winchester repeating rifle helped change the world, but it was a cause of pain for one of its namesakes, Sarah Winchester. First, she and her husband, Oliver Winchester, lost their infant daughter to disease. A few years later, Oliver was struck down by pulmonary tuberculosis.

A devastated and grieving Sarah turned to a medium to ease her pain, and it was "revealed" that a curse followed the family. The medium said it was spiritual retribution for all the pain and suffering that the Winchester rifle had brought into the world.

Sarah was instructed by the medium to move West and build a house. The house turned out to be an ongoing project over 38 years because Sarah believed she had to keep making changes to appease or confuse spirits intent on exacting revenge. The result is a 160-room mansion — a mass of confused and desperate architecture. It includes a much-used seance room and the bedroom where Sarah died in her sleep at the age of 83.

"(It) is the perfect example of a haunting that has no negatives, because nothing terrible happened there," Auerbach said. "But there are a lot of stories around the Winchester house, and the ghost that has been seen by the maintenance guys and by various people over the years is actually a guy identified as Clyde, who apparently was a handyman who worked directly for Sarah."

Clyde has reportedly shown himself with some regularity to maintenance workers and visitors and has communicated with visiting psychics. Auerbach thinks Clyde may have an ulterior motive for hanging around the grounds.

"On occasion, some of the visitors and staff have also claimed to see a very short woman who may have been Sarah herself," Auerbach said with a soft chuckle. "And there is even some evidence or some indication that Sarah and Clyde were somehow involved, meaning that he was more than just a handyman to her."

Spend the Night — If You Dare

The Lizzie Borden House and Myrtles Plantation, each of which serves as a bed and breakfast as of 2011, offer overnight guests an opportunity to nestle in the bosom of a bygone era and a chance at an encounter with some very local and very deceased color.

The Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast Fall River, Massachusetts (508) 675-7333

"The house itself has been re-created so that when you walk into it, you're walking back into the 1800s, more specifically, the day of the murders," said owner and manager Lee-Ann Wilber. "The two main rooms have been re-created exactly as they are in the crime scene photos, so we want our guests to feel like they're walking back into time."

The busy season for this historical landmark is July through October, with the peak periods being around Aug. 4 (the anniversary of the murders) and Halloween weekend.

The Myrtles Plantation St. Francisville, Louisiana (225) 635-6277

Guests stay in the main house, which means they can rest among Southern charm steeped in history, mystery and paranormal mischievousness.

"The beauty is that our guests are quite comfortable," said Hester Eby, director of tours. "A lot of them come knowing the reputation, and they may be disappointed if they don't hear or see something. So a lot of our guests don't rest the entire night, but most of our guests don't come here to sleep."

It may help if you tell your travel partner about the house history.

"Sometimes a spouse will bring their husband or wife to stay here without letting them know about our reputation as a joke or as a surprise," Eby said with a soft laugh. "And sometimes it's not that funny for the other spouse. You're staying in an area where a lot of history has taken place, and where a lot of paranormal activity has taken place and is still taking place. These are not stories we just started yesterday. These stories have been here for a little over 200 years."

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