CAPE MAY — The seance table, antique Ouija board, gummy worms in the soup dishes on the opulently set Victorian dining table, and the bleeding eyeballs atop the red velvet cake on the sideboard at the Emlen Physick Estate are clues that this is not your average old-house tour.
But neither is the man who is conducting an informal visit through this three-story haunted house of sorts your average tour guide.
Because even in this place of impeccable historical credentials — all of Cape May is considered a National Historic Landmark city, and this house may be ground zero in the largest collection of seaside Victorian-era structures in the nation — Craig McManus is here to find ghosts.
"This really is ground zero for a lot of the ghost activity in Cape May. … This place is the quintessential haunted house," says McManus, 55, of Ridgewood, of the house museum operated by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities (MAC). He is a medium who says he can commune with said ghosts and has authored five books of Cape May ghost stories.
"In a house like this, you find a very specific form of residual energy," McManus contends. "And there are a lot of places throughout Cape May that have this kind of energy. But I always tell people that a house is haunted only if the ghosts are at home."
McManus says that, as a child, he thought channeling ghosts was what every other kid also was doing when dead relatives began talking to him as he lay in his bed at night trying to go to sleep. Later, during a retail career in the wine and chocolate business in North Jersey, he embraced the idea of actually working with spirits of a different kind.
After visiting Cape May numerous times, he began writing a column called "The Ghost Writer" for a local publication, Exit Zero. He was called upon by local homeowners and innkeepers to help deal with the spirits they said were residing in their premises. He eventually turned some of the columns into his first book, The Ghost of Cape May, which he self-published. He sold out the first 3,000 copies one summer season at local shops. Four more volumes on the same topic have followed.
And whether or not you believe in things that go bump in the night, ghost tours in Cape May and elsewhere, from Savannah to Los Angeles, are booming, according to travel experts.
But nothing much was happening on this particular day, as McManus made his way through the period pieces and antiques — some of which are original to the 18-room house designed by acclaimed American architect Frank Furness and built in 1879 in stick-Victorian style for Physick, a Philadelphia physician who lived there with his mother and two aunts.
But according to McManus, the house has been rocking on certain nights when he says the ghosts of previous inhabitants — possibly the mother and aunts of the original owner — have made thumping noises, sighed loudly, sent out chilly blasts of air, and created other distractions for visitors and staff members in the historic site.
Ben Ridings, a registrar for MAC's antiquities, said he has experienced quite a few odd occurrences inside the Physick house since he's been working there in the last several years, including one day when he arrived early to await the arrival of volunteers who were going to help decorate the museum for Christmas.
"I clearly heard two women having a conversation and just assumed a couple of the volunteers had arrived early," Ridings recalled. "But when I started to look around for them, it became clear that no one else was in the house or had shown up yet for the day. … The lights were still out, the doors were still locked. It was kind of spooky … but after a while you get used to stuff like that."
The skeletons seated at the dining table and lounging in the bedrooms upstairs and mannequins dressed in various scary costumes, such as the old gypsy conducting a seance in the parlor, add to the spooky atmosphere of the old mansion. Ultimately, visitors can digest the historical information about the mansion and its Victorian inhabitants with a side of Halloween fun, according to Susan Krysiak, a spokeswoman for MAC.
"Our Halloween tours are always among our most popular throughout the year," said Krysiak. "It's scary how much fun people have with the tours."
Krysiak said the center partnered with McManus in the early 2000s and has allowed him to be its "resident ghost expert" after deciding that such tours and activities fit well with its mission to preserve and cultivate the town's history.
"That was a question that we really asked ourselves … but Victorians were very much into spiritualism, especially just after the Civil War, when many wanted to commune with their loved ones who had been lost in the war," Krysiak said.
So among its perhaps more mainstream offerings — such as workshops on Victorian cuisine and how to become an innkeeper — its Halloween ghost tours, mystery dinners, and other events centered on the paranormal account for about 10 percent of the nonprofit organization's annual ticket sales. McManus' annual seances and his "Walk with the Ghost Writer" tours often sell out a year in advance, Krysiak said.
Included on that tour is the Colonial House, an anomaly among a sea of Victorians that is believed to have been built in the 1730s and is the oldest structure in Cape May. Visitors don't even have to go inside the house to see a ghost. The apparition of a woman in an upper-floor window has been reported for decades.
"There are a lot of old spirits left here," said Harry Bellangy, a historian for the Cape May Historical Society which operates the Colonial House Museum. "But we try to have fun with it … because it gets people interested in the building, interested in the history."