By Anthony “TJ” Kalin, Heritage Interpreter
*This blog post solely reflects the views of the author and not the Barker Mansion*
Go on Google and type “Barker Mansion” in the search box. As you will see, the 7th suggested option down says “Barker Mansion haunted.” Sometimes when I check, this option is the second or third down….usually in October.
At least once a week either visitors to the mansion or acquaintances ask me if the mansion is haunted, hoping for me to tell some sort of Steven King or Amityville horror-esq tale. I usually just smile and say “I have some stories, but I am not going to tell them here.” These stories are saved for the Blackout Tours.
Every October the Barker Mansion Blackout Tours are offered to meet the public demand for ghost stories and tales of haunting at the Barker Mansion. To be clear, I am not admitting that the Barker Mansion is haunted. Nor are the Blackout Tours a de facto admission that the museum is haunted. The Blackout Tours are offered to meet this public demand, to interpret what it is like to work at the mansion, and importantly: containment. Hauntings are a big part of the public perceptions of old homes like the Barker Mansion and it is important for museums to handle that perception responsibly.
My role at the Barker Mansion is to interpret the life and legacy of the Barker Family in Michigan City as well as the history of Michigan City and Northwest Indiana in the Gilded Age. Part of this entails interpreting the purpose and function of the Barker Mansion as a museum and civic center. This includes talking about what it is like to work here, and ghost stories are a part of that behind-the-scenes side of the mansion.
The Blackout Tours present stories about the Barker Mansion in this interpretive framework. Many of the stories that are part of the Blackout Tours are experiences myself, and others have had while working at the mansion. We connect these stories on tour to the work it takes to keep the place running, including general maintenance, office work, research, and archives management. Each story is told not as a stand-alone ghost story, but as a piece of the story of the important work that goes on to keep this institution vital. We are not here to scare guests, no one jumps out and tries to scare anyone on tour, the mansion is not decorated like a haunted house.
We also connect these stories to cultural history. Part of why so many people ask if the mansion is haunted is because our culture is primed to think of these kinds of buildings as haunted. Many Victorian mansions were abandoned by the 1920s when the children of Gilded Age industrialists found them too expensive to maintain and out of style. Typically Gilded Age mansions were at the center of the towns they were built in, making their creepy, run-down facades focal points in their communities. These mansions were depicted as dark, haunted places in American literature and art. In many cases, the artists and writers who crafted these depictions were the children of workers or consumers who were abused by the Gilded Age industrialists who lived in these homes.
The image of the haunted Gilded Age mansion is ingrained in our culture and has made its way into countless book and movies. On the Blackout Tours, we connect the history of this image of the Gilded Age mansion with the history of the Gilded Age. I use the abused workers to talk about labor in the Gilded Age as well as interpreting the architecture of the Mansion. Through these connections, the Blackout Tours meet our interpretive goals and are not entirely filled with ghost stories about one of Michigan CIty’s oldest homes.
Still, you are probably wondering, what are these stories you tell? What has happened to you, TJ? Is the mansion haunted?
My coworkers and I as well as many others have had weird experiences at the mansion. While I can not speak for their experiences, I can explain my logic behind what I have seen, felt, and heard.
Most of the time when weird things happen I know that I am scaring myself, falling victim to the same logic that visitors use, the logic primed by our culture. The Barker Mansion is an old building, and it makes a lot of strange noises as all old homes do, but sometimes things happen that I can not explain away so easily.
I have experienced phenomena at work outside of my faculties of explanation. Seemingly very real things have happened to me. But I do not say that ghosts are the explanation.
My other two jobs are in logic, teaching logic as a TA at Valparaiso University and logic consulting for a firm in Valparaiso. The logician in me refuses to jump to conclusions about my experiences. I think that ghosts or spirits are a mode of explanation but not the only mode of explanation. When something weird happens to me, I accept that something happened, but I do not try to explain it. I do not deny that ghosts are real, but I also do not affirm that ghosts are real, I am neutral on the subject.
I do not like to rule things out entirely either. Just because ghosts do not fit perfectly into the scientific worldview does not mean I deny their existence. I do not think any mode of explanation should be closed off, we have to be open to phenomena outside of our understanding of the world.
As a historian, I am supposed to be rigorous in my explanations and theses. For anything I write, I need to base my reasoning on primary sources. Primary sources include diaries, newspapers, interviews, letters, sermons, photos, blueprints, maps, and other pieces of evidence from the time period. While I have zero primary sources for ghosts, I still need to be open-minded as a historian.
One of my favorite historians and a personal hero of mine is Robert Orsi, professor of religious studies and historian of religion at Northwestern University. His recent book, History and Presence (Harvard University Press, 2016), argues that historians need to be more serious when interpreting the history of religious experience.
He uses the example of Marian apparitions, i.e., appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Historians generally interpret Marian apparitions as cultural superstition or social phenomena that occur. They implicitly treat these experiences as false and inauthentic. Their logic rules out the possibility, reality, and substance of those apparitions. Orsi’s argues that religious experiences like Marian apparitions should be analyzed as real phenomena. Marian apparitions are authentic to those who experience them, and historians need to respect their experience rather than automatically ruling them out. Writing as if Mary or god is really present in history heralds a return to writing authentic history that captures the reality and substance of human experience and religion as opposed to the abstract religion historians tend to write about.
The import of Orsi’s work to the Blackout Tours is that when I interpret my experience at the mansion, I do not rule out its substance from the start. Orsi’s historical analysis about religious experience helps me handle how I interpret my experience. I try to convey to guest what it really was like to experience the strange happenings at Barker Mansion. As a historian, I do not deny the reality of that experience, but as a logician, I do not jump to conclusions.
Thus, Barker Mansion is not haunted in the sense we think of, but I also do not say that Barker Mansion is totally devoid of strange phenomena. I interpret my experience without explanation or judgment. Visitors on the Blackout Tours can take the stories of my experience any way they want.
Many times I have individuals come on tour to investigate for themselves. Many people tell me they are sensitive to ghosts and sometimes individuals with jackets or shirts for different paranormal investigation groups come on tour. They give me their takes on the happenings at the mansion, and I sometimes am asked if they can bring in equipment for testing. We never have nor will we ever allow paranormal investigations inside the Barker Mansion. We are strictly a historical site, we focus on historical, not paranormal or scientific research. But, the modern history of the mansion includes the experiences of staff, and we interpret that history with the Blackout Tours.
Just to be clear, the mansion is not a scary place, and I assure visitors that the mansion is a safe and friendly place to visit. Weird and strange happenings are rare almost never happen with multiple people inside the house.
The Blackout Tours have proven to be our most popular events, tickets sold out the previous two years and this year looks to be just as busy. To hear those stories and to experience this side of history for yourself, visit us for the Blackout Tours, Friday and Saturday nights in October at 8 and 10 pm. But, also please come out for our regular historical programming to see the full picture of the work we do at Barker Mansion. Thank you.
Tickets are 15$ for adults and 10$ for youth and seniors, available for purchase online through the link below or by calling the mansion at (219) 873-1520.
Robert Orsi. History and Presence. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.
Robert Orsi. The Madonna of 115 St.: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.
Sarah Burns. “‘Better for Haunts’ Victorian Houses and the Modern Imagination” American Art Vol. 26, No. 3 (Fall 2012) 2-25