At Merchant’s House, the dead are still touring

Purchase a VIP ticket to the “Parlor to Grave” event, and you could be giving the coffin a death grip. Photo courtesy MHM.
Purchase a VIP ticket to the “Parlor to Grave” event, and you could be giving the coffin a death grip.

BY SCOTT STIFFLER | From spooky hayrides to cheesy corn mazes to pop-up attractions populated by costumed actors who have little to offer beyond jumping out and yelling “boo,” discerning fans of the spooky and strange are understandably jaded by Halloween-themed events that promise supernatural thrills, but only manage to deliver poorly crafted, man-made tomfoolery. How fortunate we Manhattan souls are, then, to have a genuine haunted house that has no problem living up to its well-earned reputation for disembodied footsteps, sightings of fully-formed apparitions, shoulder taps from unseen sources, and an all-around feeling that you’re not alone, even when your rational mind tells you otherwise.

Open to self-guided tours all year long, Merchant’s House Museum is making the most of its penchant for paranormal activity with a series of October events whose chills come with easily digestible history lessons about the wealthy Tredwell family, generations of whom lived in the house from 1835 to 1933. Since opening to the public as a museum 80 years ago, dozens of visitors and staff members swear the long-dead residents of this remarkably preserved E. Fourth St. row house have made appearances in the Greek Revival double parlors, on the narrow staircases, and in a basement kitchen that, servant bells and all, is right out of “Downton Abbey.” But the Crawleys never laid out their dead for all to see, as was the custom of the Tredwells (and they had plenty of occasions to do so; seven family members died in the house!).

Through Oct. 31, the exhibition “Truly We Live in a Dying World: A 19th Century Home in Mourning” drapes the front parlor in black crepe, as an uncomfortably realistic version of Tredwell patriarch Seabury lies in repose (the easily spooked are advised not to make eye contact with his portrait, hung uncomfortably close to the coffin). On Sun., Oct. 23 at 4pm, “Parlor to Grave” recreates the 1865 funeral service of Seabury, with a discussion about the death-centric customs of the time. Period-accurate mourning attire is encouraged. VIP tickets include front-row seating, black armbands, and the opportunity to lead the procession as a pallbearer, for a graveside service at nearby Marble Cemetery.

On Tues., Oct. 11 at 6:30pm, “Probing for Paranormal Proof” is a fascinating if occasionally unsettling lecture delivered by the physically imposing, often jovial, and still-skeptical Dan Sturges. Dozens of times over the past near-decade, his investigative team has been given exclusive access to the public and private areas of Merchant’s House, with psychics, mediums, video and audio recording equipment, and EMF meters (and, on occasion, this jittery writer) in tow. After a crash course on paranormal terms and research equipment, you’ll see photo and video footage of ghostly silhouettes and flying orbs, and hear audio of disembodied voices that seem to interact with the investigators. Add to that the recording of a thing that really did go bump in the night, and the takeaway is a catalog of occurrences that, while proving nothing beyond the fact that strange things do indeed happen here, is still nothing short of extraordinary.

Less likely to rattle and more prone to entertain is Fri., Oct. 14’s Chant Macabre: Songs from the Crypt,” a 7pm program from the Bond Street Euterpean Singing Society. What they lack in spine-tingling shock value they more than make up for with world-class vocal chops, wry humor, and a seriously scary ability, through pre-song patter, to transport you back in time, to when these songs of death and enchantment first cast their spell on audiences. Selections include Moussorgsky’s “Trepak” (1875; from the “Songs and Dances of Death” cycle), and the 1871 ballad “Denny Malone’s Ghost.”

On Sat., Oct. 15, “A Séance at the Merchant’s House” is just that, with 7, 8:30 & 10pm recreations of a 19th century séance. Mentalist and magician Kent Axell guides the proceedings, and provides some background on how the cultural phenomenon of spiritualism existed alongside an increasingly rational, scientific world. Feeling lucky? Get your tickets now before they’re gone; this event is limited to 13 participants. If still alive to tell the tale, tempt fate at the Sun., Oct. 31, 7pm “Tales From the Crypt: Horror on Halloween” gathering, which features readings of envelope-pushing, paranormal-themed prose from the Tredwell era. Finally, should tickets still be available by this point, dear reader, the annual “Ghost Tours” (times and dates vary, Oct. 21–30) are conducted by some of the very people who have experienced the strange goings-on you’ll hear about — in the very rooms in which they took place. There’s no guarantee that somebody (or something) from the great beyond will reach out and touch you as you tour the house; but the staff has become used to fielding phone calls the following day by shaken and stirred guests who swear they’ve seen, felt, heard, or sensed a ghost.

Prices vary for these events, and discounts are available to museum members. Reservations are strongly suggested, and in some cases, required. For more info, visit merchantshouse.org. Merchant’s House Museum is located at 29 E. Fourth St. (btw. Bowery & Lafayette). Regular hours: Fri..–Mon., 12–5pm; Thurs., 12–8pm. Admission is $13, $8 for students/seniors. Visit merchantshouse.org or call 212-777-1089.