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Antoinette, wrapped in a light-green shawl with her cane resting against the chair, nods sympathetically: "It was very scary."
After touring the house for the first time, Antoinette says she felt the presence of many negative spirits. "I think it was because so much of the original house is still there. There's a lot of residue still there, whereas something that is paved over or drywalled doesn't hold the residue so well," she says. "The house is old and dilapidated, but it still has the original floors that they walked on. And over the years there was a lot of negativity associated with the house. Because it's a limestone foundation and brick walls, it's going to absorb whatever negative energy is there."
She proceeded to oust the negative spirits from the building by cleansing the house three times with special prayers.
"But Paul stayed," Antoinette says, smiling, looking affectionately up at the front door. "We're not sure why."
Gary Hawkins says he has seen Paul, too, though he admits his psychic abilities aren't yet as strong as Antoinette's. Dressed in blue jeans, a red shirt and sneakers, Gary explains that this side of his life -- he repairs computers during the day -- consists of honing his ability to catch ghosts, whereas Antoinette specializes in finding and communing with them.
"I've got the ability to, when I find one, get my hands on it and force it to stay down," Gary says, eyeing the black-walnut trees above his head suspiciously.
"Usually they're female ghosts," Antoinette says, laughing, unconcerned about the large nuts dropping all around her.
Gary shrugs. "I catch the ghosts, and anybody that's around can come up and feel it. You should see their eyes light up when that happens. I don't chase them off, though. I'm not a ghostbuster. Even if a ghost wants to leave, as long as I've got a hold on him, he's staying."
The people touring the house inside step out onto the front porch and adjust their eyes to the brightness. They've heard Antoinette is sitting in the yard and want to know if they can meet her. "Of course, bring them down," Antoinette says, graciously waving her hand in the air.
Whereas Antoinette specializes in communing with ghosts and Gary with holding them down, Rick Dixon, a medical technician by trade, has learned how to take photographs of things the eyes can't see. In his portfolio are photos that he says show a family of ghosts in the Alton City Cemetery, a crouching figure on Small Pox Island and several of Paul's shadowy form standing at the front door.
Rick rarely uses a flash for anything, he says, ducking his head quickly as a walnut zooms by, and most of the time he just shoots a lot of film, guessing at the exposures.
He holds out a photo of large white figures floating above a tombstone. It is supposedly the ghost family in the Alton City Cemetery. "I was not shooting with flash on this one, and there was nothing that could have reflected that type of energy. There was a group of us just standing in a circle, and I got a feeling, and I shot. This is what I got, and I'm always surprised when I find something. It's something you never get over.
"It's a way of fearing death less. I don't fear death anymore," he says. "I've come to believe, after being in contact with all of this stuff, that there is something there."
Antoinette is talking with the five people who just toured the mansion.
"Did you see anything?" she asks matter-of-factly.
They nod in unison, and a young woman explains. "It was in the cellar. It was like a white mist that was hard to see, but we definitely saw it."
Antoinette smiles as a shower of black walnuts rains down. Everyone ducks and covers.
"Whew," Gary says, "we'll be seeing stars instead of ghosts."
You have to step sideways along dank walls of limestone to get down the steep cellar steps of the McPike Mansion. The sudden drop in temperature hits as suddenly as the darkness, and the beams from eight flashlights only provide fleeting passes of the packed earth floor.
Antoinette leads, followed by Gary, and they talk over details of the upcoming tours as if walking down a sunny street rather than through the bowels of the most haunted house in the most haunted town in America. Dust rolls in the light beams. Cobwebs hang like drapery. The psychics offer soothing words, but as the procession descends deeper into the house's unlit soul, it becomes increasingly hard not to shy away from thin air.
Antoinette stops in front of two metal doors, hanging open on rusted hinges. Behind them is utter darkness.
"This," she says, waving her flashlight toward the gap, "is the wine cellar. It's where most of the activity of the house takes place."
She uses her cane to feel her way toward the first step down, then motions for the group to follow.
"There's absolutely nothing to be frightened of," Antoinette coos. "This will be fun. Come on."
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