Craig McManus remembers the old days of ghosts in Cape May, when, "If people's houses were haunted, they didn't talk about it," he says.
But that was long ago, and now ghosts seem to be running all over Cape May - or at least there's a clear business boom in taking tourists out to apparent ghost hotspots around the town, and even in being one of those hotspots.
McManus - the author of four books (so far) on ghosts in Cape May - is in the midst of a long "paranormal weekend" there.
It started last night - yes, Friday the 13th - as "Dinner With the Ghost Writer," McManus' nickname for years as a columnist for Exit Zero, a local entertainment magazine. After that meal at the Emlen Physick Estate, the reputedly haunted home of the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities, he was set to lead a trolley tour of the town and some of his favorite haunts.
Then it was back to the MAC for "Midnight at the Physick Estate," two hours of McManus trying to help 25 lucky visitors meet some of the historic mansion's non-paying guests. Tonight, he's scheduled to lead a ghost tour of Cape May on foot.
But the 49-year-old ghost writer is quick to say he doesn't normally do these walking events - in part because there are a few other regular shoe-leather tours of the town's departed spirits already, and there have been since at least the mid-1990s.
McManus, whose earthly home is in the town of Ho-Ho-Kus, in Bergen County, knows and likes those walking tours, he says - because he used to go on them as a customer. That was back when he was a full-time wine merchant just dabbling in ghostly stuff, before he sold the wine shop a few years ago and crossed over from the occasional paranormal weekend to an entire paranormal work life.
"I always say," he jokes, "that my career is wine and spirits."
Despite his professional fascination with - and personal fondness - for Cape May, McManus has never lived in the town. But he has lots of history there - as do many of the ghosts he has encountered over the years.
His story starts as a kid, in the early 1970s, when his family made summer visits from Bergen County to his Aunt Ella and Uncle Bob, who bought a place on a marshy edge of Cape May. Sure, he liked the shore, but he was far more interested in the Wildwood Boardwalk and the nearest beach than in any ghosts anywhere.
Those childhood visits stopped after a while, and by the time McManus started going back to Cape May as an adult, in the '90s, he had "developed my abilities as a medium" - a "gift" he says he inherited from the families of both his parents.
"I was staying at one of the (bed and breakfasts), and seeing all these people going around town at night with lanterns," looking for ghosts and ghost stories, he says. He mentions tours run by Diane Bixler and by Elaine's Haunted Mansion, adding Bixler's "Original Haunted Cape May Tour" was what "really hooked me on getting into ghost investigations and the paranormal."
He knows there were no such thing as ghost tours in his old days in the old town - ghosts weren't polite conversation in mature company in the '70s - and says he still ran into some tight lips when he knocked on the doors of B&Bs and other historic buildings in the '90s as an amateur investigator of ghosts.
But then he had a revelation: "If you stay there as a customer," McManus says, "they have to talk to you."
He got the stories and had ghost experiences of his own in the inns, and kept taking those tours. He was a "medium, but not a professional," and when he ran into some people who were looking for a real medium, he never knew what to say.
"I didn't consider charging - what would I charge?" he says. "And I had no inkling of writing about it. I was just drawn to it, like ... ocean-lovers are drawn to the sea."
But by the late '90s, he met some women from the MAC - on a ghost tour - and got an invitation to investigate the Physick Estate's ghostly goings-on.
"I was sensing all kinds of things there, and I said, 'Why don't I do some kind of lecture?" McManus says. "The Victorians" - the patron saints of Cape May architecture - "loved ghosts and seances. ... So I did the lecture every year, but never at the Physick House ... because they were trying to get rid of the haunted image" the mansion had developed when it was falling apart in the 1960s, before MAC started its long rescue project.
But there is no such reluctance at the organization now. MAC offers at least 10 different varieties of ghost events, from tours of the Cape May Lighthouse's ghost legends to the late-night seances at the Physick.
"They're just really popular," says Margo Harvey, a MAC spokeswoman. "People like to do them, and we want to give the people what they want."
Of course, the ghost tours and other events are big for Halloween - Harvey says last October's "Midnight at the Physick Estate" sold out almost a year in advance - but lots of places sell ghosts and spirits around Halloween. Cape May has developed an other-worldly market with legs strong enough to run way beyond the standard spook season.
"The 'Ghosts of Cape May' trolley tours, we do them year-round," says Harvey, who confirms the Victorians really did love all that spirit-seance stuff. "And we're kind of amping them up this year."
But people at MAC are hardly the only ones trying to feed this public appetite. The John F. Craig House on Columbia Avenue hosted McManus last weekend - one of "four or five" events he'll do at the B&B this year, owner Barbara Masemore figures.
"It is a wonderful business," she says. "Craig will fill my house."
But so does the inn's reputation among ghost buffs as a popular spot for the spirit set. Masemore regularly gets requests from people to stay in rooms they're likely to share with a ghost. As a good hostess, she tries to accommodate her guests, but she just as regularly promises customers the "energy" they're seeking actually shows up all over her place.
Offering the possibility of haunted hotel rooms probably wasn't much of a business model until recently, "but I think people are fascinated by it now," the innkeeper says. "It's more in vogue, and people will come to a place where they think they may have an experience."
The spirit world is enough in vogue that McManus can make a living at it now, but his career certainly hasn't been haunted. He turned his Exit Zero columns - which he wrote free for years - into a series of three "The Ghosts of Cape May" books, before he published a fourth called "400 Years of the Ghosts of Cape May" in 2009.
Still, no matter how much he enjoys Cape May's people from the past, McManus says ghosts are mostly "a fun side hobby to my work as a medium."
He travels around three states to do paranormal jobs for eager clients - some of them, he knows, discovered him through his time on the Internet radio show hosted by his friend, Hollywood's Shirley MacLaine. He says he was also helped by getting a happy client who was a publicist for a record company, and who sent a bunch of publicist pals his way - who in turn did not keep McManus' talents to themselves, he says happily.
In 2009, he dropped wine and took the leap into spirits, and he says he stays busy doing just that - even if he does lead the occasional wine event in Cape May too.
He can't say why the little town is so packed with spirits - and he doesn't even try to change the minds of the skeptics who think everything he does and says is a bunch of hokum.
But based on his years of research and intuition, "I don't know of any other place in New Jersey that has the concentration of haunts or the diversity of ghosts that Cape May does," McManus says. "You could say Cape May is a textbook for paranormal studies."
And at least some people in the town don't do anything to discourage that impression - and they won't, as long as those apparent visitors from the past keep drawing actual visitors from the present on the way to Cape May."
Contact Martin DeAngelis:
A Walk With the Ghost Writer
One-hour tour of Cape May led by psychic medium Craig McManus starts 8:45 p.m. today at the Washington Street Mall information booth. Tickets are $25; space is limited. For details on other MAC ghost tours, call 609-884-5404 or visit www.capemaymac.org. For more on McManus, see www.craigmcmanus.com