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Saratoga Museum Seizes On Supernatural Fervor

Now that September is here, Halloween decorations are going up and candy is on the shelves. But ghosts and ghouls are a year-round focus in popular culture, from films like “The Conjuring” to Discovery Channel’s “Ghost Adventures.” Haunted hotels and vacant buildings have become travel destinations for those seeking the supernatural and the phenomenon has touched New York’s Capital Region.

Nestled in Congress Park, less than two miles from the city’s renowned horse racing track, the Saratoga Springs History Museum runs daily ghost tours.

"We slip in the history without people even knowing it," said Museum Executive Director James Parillo.

Around the museum, Executive Director James Parillo is known for trying to debunk ghostly happenings and was initially hesitant to bring in TAPS, the paranormal group from the TV show “Ghost Hunters International.”

“We started our ghost tours back about 2010. And it was after we were on the TV show ‘Ghost Hunters.’”

“Uh ah, Jay there is some sort of interment EMF reading going on over here. I’ll spike over here and then dissipate, spike and dissipate, so, what was that,” said investigator Grant Wilson of TAPS. Over the course of the hour-long show, the investigators walked around the building in darkness with various instruments, trying to make contact with the spirits believed to be there.  

“Some of us didn't want to do it; we thought, I said, ‘No, we are an educational institution, we’re a museum, we don't want to be associated with that. I said you know what, well why not, its things we really experienced,’" Parillo said of the decision to move forward with requesting a visit from the ghost investigators.  

The building was built in 1870 by John Morrissey and was known as the Canfield Casino. Under owner Richard Canfield, it was an illegal gambling den for the rich, called the Clubhouse. Tour guide Charlie Kuenzel says the Canfield Casino was the most popular gambling institution in the world, outperforming Monte Carlo on a per diem basis. It operated until 1907, when gambling was outlawed in the city. During the casino’s 37-year run, it revolutionized gambling by being the first institution to use chips to represent money.  

After the casino closed, it was purchased by the Saratoga Springs History Museum.

On a recent summer day, Kuenzel, Vice President of the Museum’s Board of Trustees, leads a six-person tour into the parlor room, where he recounts the history of the Canfield Casino and Saratoga’s role as an innovator in gambling. Previously, Kuenzel was a teacher and taught astrophysics. He remembers the cold February meeting when the board of trustees contacted the paranormal group, which he had never heard of before.

“One of the basic premises that we operate with here, and most psychic groups and investigative groups do too, is that a lot of times, energy that could be associated with people, that energy can sometimes manifest itself in personal belongings. So what you’re looking for is who was here, what personal effects are here that allow energy and, therefore, that person to still be here with us,” Kuenzel told the group. 

Executive Director Parillo leads the rest of the tour through the second and third floors of the museum. 

"So for years, this museum hadn't changed much. The gallery across the hall was a Victorian parlor and it stayed that way for about 30 years. So my curator convinced me that we wanted to make changes on it. It’s January and we’re closed to the public, we’re sitting in the office at the end of the day, planning what the next day's activities were going to be. And we start hearing that sound. And we have those things all over the museum, one volunteer and I stayed in the office and sent Michael around to start playing with all the chimes to figure out where the sound was coming from. And it was the one we had just taken out of that room; we put it on the table right here.  And that was something we had commonly started to experience. If you had something that stayed in a place for a long time and you made changes, activity increases,” Parillo said.

Interest in the paranormal isn’t limited to the Spa City.

Stacy Torres, an assistant professor of sociology in the department of social and behavioral sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, sees the interest in haunted attractions as a means of comfort for some people.  

“If we’re going to these sites where we feel are some ghostly activity or signs of the afterlife that can be very comforting. It could be some flicker of hope that when you die this is not the end. That maybe you could exist in some other way,” said Torres.

Torres says going to such locations can be a means of circumventing the taboo of talking about aging and death.

Torres says growing up she loved the film “The Amityville Horror” and the fact that it was a real place not far from her home in New York City. She says movies like that and recent films like the “Saw” series could be drawing people to supposedly haunted locations.

“In times where there is a lot of change happening, you know we have a lot of technical change, there’s a lot of especially political upheaval and uncertainty. It’s kind of a safe way, I think, to release tensions or be scared in a way that in a way, is not really going to harm you. So I think that there’s a similar phenomenon happening with horror movies. These different horror movies that we watch allow us to be scared in a way that is less risk than the actual real problems than we have in the world,” said Torres.

As the tour wanders around the third floor of the Saratoga Springs History Museum, said to be the most haunted area, Mario Salinas snaps photos, hoping to get a picture of a ghost. Salinas and his fiancé have visited the museum before and heard about a volunteer’s supernatural experience while visiting the gift shop.

“Yes, my fiancé will tell you that I watch paranormal videos all the time, then get freaked out,” Salinas said. 

Parillo says working with the ghost hunters taught the museum staff a lot about what could be in the building and brought in more visitors. Fifteen percent of its admissions budget comes from ghost tours. 

“I know from the things I have experienced there is something strange here,” Parillo said. 

Hannah Gauthier is a WAMC News intern. She is a senior at the University at Albany. 

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