Suppose you held a séance and the only ghost that showed up was a mistreated dog?
And what if, during that séance, it was the house — rather than any particular spirit — that put forth feelings of past disappointments and future dreams?
On a recent drizzling autumn evening just days before Halloween, a few people — some skeptics, some believers — gathered for a séance in an old historic adobe building on Canyon Road long rumored to be haunted, though no one seems to know much about the spirit within. But the only spirit felt by the psychic listening for messages from the unseen realm was that of a dog that wanted to be let outside.
Whether we believe in ghosts or spirits, our dead haunt us. Maybe we see them in our dreams. We might feel them beside us in church or see them on a favorite trail or imagine it so because the memory is tangibly powerful. Maybe we’re burdened by the things we didn’t say, or the last words we spoke to a friend, a lover, a relative before they died.
Is it any wonder we sometimes find ourselves talking to them? Or hoping they will talk to us?
And if we don’t forget our dead, perhaps the places where they die remember them as well.
Elissa Heyman, a Santa Fe psychic counselor and spiritual healer who conducted the séance at the building on Canyon Road, which now houses the Red Dot Gallery, said she receives messages from realms unseen all the time. Her job is to deliver the messages to the living.
“I’ve never been interested in ghosts or spirits or Halloween or things people get really excited about,” said Heyman, 65. “I’m interested in communication and how amazing communication is because we’re living in this universe where everything is talking.”
Heyman didn’t receive any personal messages from otherworldly entities during this séance, despite the ghostly presence many have claimed to feel in the gallery, located just opposite the Tea House.
Antonio Garcez, author of Adobe Angels: The Ghosts of Santa Fe, includes a section about the site in his book.
City planning documents indicate the structure was built before 1928. William Auclair, who first opened the Night Sky gallery there in the mid-1980s, told Garcez he bought the place from an obstetrician. Often in the winter, Auclair told Garcez, he and his wife would hear a woman softly speaking Spanish and broken English in the room once used for birthing.
A Hispanic man who once visited that gallery told Auclair he believed the ghost was of his great-grandmother, who died in one of the rooms in the house. “He said he and his brothers and sisters didn’t want to sleep in her room because they could see her spirit materialize and try to talk to them,” Auclair told Garcez in the book. “Being children, they pulled the blankets up over their heads and yelled for their parents.”
Auclair ran the Night Sky Gallery there for years. “I am convinced that things are not always as they seem,” Garcez quotes Auclair saying in the book. “That when a person dies, that is not necessarily the end of their spirit.”
Santa Fe directories from 1931-1976 indicate the property was owned by Juan J Vigil exept for a brief period, according to state archivist Scott Crago. It was a family grocery store during the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was not clear who lived there or for what purpose, according to Crago.
Red Dot, which showcases student and faculty work from New Mexico colleges, is run by the Santa Fe Community College and has been operating in the space for four years. The gallery is owned by Zane Bennett Contemporary Art. Two Red Dot employees who staffed the gallery on the night of the séance said they had heard stories of ghosts but never experienced anything themselves.
Heyman, at the urging of The New Mexican, agreed to hold a séance in a backroom of the gallery to see if any spirits inhabiting the place wished to pass on a message. But she cautioned that séances work best when the people who attend want to hear from the other side. Skeptics, journalists and believers attended the séance.
Among the confirmed skeptics at the séance was Eleanor Power, an anthropologist and Omidyar Fellow at the Santa Fe Institute, who studies the power and role of religion and rituals on societies. She’s focused her work lately on a village in southern India, where the faithful sometimes fire walk or hang by hooks in their back from cranes.
There, people trained as god-dancers act as mediums through which deities speak, and pey, or people who have died unnatural deaths, will possess people or places. To the villagers, pey are often mischievous, and getting the prankster spirit to move on means figuring out who they are and what they want, Power said.
Believers in different cultures have different methods and rituals for dealing with earthbound spirits and gleaning messages from the deceased, Power said. Séances are simply one method.
During the séance, Heyman first performed some rituals — chanting, lighting a candle, burning incense — before everyone sat down. It was hours before midnight.
The lights were left on. There was no table, no holding of hands around it. Heyman urged everyone to open themselves up to any possible outcome.
“We’re loath to admit that there are things that we cannot explain,” she said.
But she said from the outset that she did not feel any particular ghost hanging around the joint, other than the sad spirit of a dog that was not treated particularly well and was not allowed to go outside as often as it wanted.
She said it’s possible that whatever presence is felt now and then “is not habitually here.”
In the interview before the séance, Power said cultures share some common themes around death, especially sudden or violent passings.
“There’s this idea of people with unfinished business who are stuck in a liminal space and that those of us left behind have to deal with the unfinished business and resolve it,” said Power, 31. “There’s something to that about our own lives. When one person dies, it is not just their life that is altered. It is their peers, their family, their loved ones.”
Indeed, Heyman, who has a horoscope podcast on KTAOS and publishes an astrology newsletter, said the people who have most often sought her out for psychic counseling in the last three decades are those burdened by something or someone deceased. “They want some relief, and they are not getting it from other ways,” Heyman said in an interview at her home before the séance.
Resolving the unfinished business of the deceased, and finding closure, can extend over long periods of time and give rise to the stories about haunted places that are handed down through time and generations.
“We can see a broader societal need for closure that stretches across cultures,” Power said. Universally, those stories of hauntings play on fears and are used in cultures as cautionary tales or to make children behave.
Heyman and Garcez say they have no doubt, based on their experiences, that some places have to be cleansed of haunting entities and bad experiences. “The place itself is asking for a ceremony, to be healed,” Heyman said.
In an interview before the séance, Power said the way someone experiences a ritual or a ceremony comes down to three things. It depends on whether they are a skeptic or a believer at the outset. It depends on how absorbed a person can get in their own internal world. And it depends on the culture in which they are raised. “If you are raised in a culture that believes in spirits, you’re obviously much more likely to believe,” Power said.
Garcez, the Southern New Mexico author who has published several books based on interviews with people who say they’ve encountered ghostly phenomena, said in a telephone interview that “ghosts don’t care whether you believe or have faith or not.”
Back at the séance, the first question posed by the collective was, “What was this place?”
Using a deck of Tarot cards and an array of various stones that attendees had laid out in a seemingly random formation on the floor, Heyman quickly recounted a history of abandonment within the building. “People saw the writing on the wall about how this area would change,” she said. “It looked like the men didn’t stay. The women were more committed.
“Something about this place is not stable. It is not a place that things stick to very well.”
When it comes to marketing Red Dot, she acknowledged her findings may not strike a tone of optimism for the business: “This might not be so hot for this gallery. … This place kind of eats energy … this place has to be lit up some more.”
She suggested the artists hold brainstorming sessions within the rooms to circulate positive creative energy.
Aside from a frigid chill that overcame one of the attendees briefly, no one spoke of feeling cold breezes. The one candle did not flicker. No one heard a disembodied voice or spoke in a voice that wasn’t their own. The skeptics remained skeptics. The believers remained believers.
But Heyman felt a message from the house. “Everything in its past feels … gone and dead,” she said.