Newport's friendly ghosts

Email|Print| Text size + By Cindy Rodriguez
September 26, 2005

8/15/2000 --NEWPORT - The owners of Belcourt Castle, on mansion row, are rather proud of their ghosts. There's the lady in the white gown who vanishes through doors, the spirit trapped inside a suit of armor whose blood-curdling growls echo through the ballroom, and, among others, the monk who hovers over a wood carving of - what else? - a monk.

There are more than 11 ghosts in all. And Virginia Smith, who describes herself as an "unwilling medium," senses them in the midst of a tour.

"Oooh, here it is," she purrs, waving her hand over an 18th-century chair. "Put your hand here. You don't feel it? You're not sensitive to it, I guess."

Smith, with her shock of white hair and her borrowed English accent, makes for an arresting guide. But over in the hallway, she spots the competition: a ghost writer who is chatting with, of all people, "that vampire guy."

"I don't want to be associated with them, especially with vampires and that sort of lot," Smith says in a hushed tone.

Later, when told of the comment, Christopher Rondina, who has written two books on vampires, says, "Oh, yeah. I'm vampires and she's ghosts. As if that's highbrow."

The competition, and backbiting, is at an all-time high as this seaside city has learned there's money to be made from the strange, the paranormal, the hereafter. Years ago, residents would swap ghost stories for fun. Now, it's business.

In an attempt to stretch the summer tourism season into the fall, this year the Newport County Convention & Visitor's Bureau is premiering "Haunted Newport," a month-long series of events. It's a hodgepodge of psychics, astrologers, mind readers, tours of graveyards, tales of vampires, murder-mystery performances, horror-film showings, and a ghoul's ball.

The biggest attractions, by far, are the ghost tours at Belcourt Castle and another Bellevue Avenue mansion, the Astors' Beechwood. The mansions, both privately owned, are raking in the money.

Those mansions were once the proud summer cottages of Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, heir to the American Rothschild fortune, and real estate moguls Mr. and Mrs. John Jacob Astor. They stand as tributes to a bygone era, of a time when the rich and powerful were few, but their riches ran deep.

Now those splendid homes are being recast as places where visitors come looking to get spooked.

But the adjacent homes, 11 mansions owned by the Preservation Society of Newport County, don't seem to care for any of it. They don't carry copies of Rondina's "The Vampire Hunter's Guide to New England" or Eleyne Austen Sharp's "Haunted Newport." They prefer books on antiques, Newport history, New England cooking.

"They're a bit snooty about the whole thing," says one resident, who asked to remain anonymous.

John Rodman, the society's marketing director, sees it this way: "It's not our style. We're more interested in art and architecture," he says. "We're more of a conventional, educational enterprise than anything else."

Besides, he says, the society's nine mansions don't have any ghosts.

If they did - their researchers haven't come up with any good yarns, Rodman says - they would see plenty more visitors in the fall, too.

Kathryn Farrington, special events director for the visitor's bureau, says that last year's Haunted Newport Week was so popular, Rondina had to turn people away from his Vampire Legends of New England tour. Between 2,000 and 3,000 people took part in the week's events. And this year, Farrington says she's expecting 10,000 people throughout the month of October.

"Ghosts, vampires, all of it is very popular right now," Farrington says. "You've got `Buffy the Vampire Slayer' and `Angel' and all these different movies that have come out. People are drawn to it."

She says the Ghoul's Ball, which will be in its third year this October, has gone from people buying masks to them going all out and making or buying elaborate costumes.

Harle Tinney, who lives in Belcourt Castle with her husband, Donald, says she doesn't try to make light of the ghosts that share her 60-room estate. They're good ghosts, she says. And they like the company.

"Some people might say we're taking advantage of these ghosts, but we're not," Tinney says. "We're sharing them."

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