The night is dark. And it is Halloween.
You are driving home from a party in Chilmark near Windy Gates when your car's engine suddenly and unexpectedly dies on a dark, quiet road. Attempts to restart it prove futile, and with no cell phone reception, you are forced to search for help. A faint light far off in the dense woods signals a flicker of hope for salvation, so you grab your flashlight and head out.
The persistent drizzle during the day has now given way to a cold mist, obscuring the moon as it appears from behind the clouds overhead. You struggle to see beyond the end of your flashlight's beam as you stumble through the woods, keeping your eye on the light ahead. Aside from the leaves and twigs crunching under your feet, the only thing you can hear is your heart pounding in your eardrums. You try not to think about the fact that you are alone in the woods on the most haunted night of the year.
As you come closer to the light, you see that it is a single window illuminated in the distance. The house is only half a football field away, and a sense of relief comes over you when a small figure passes by the window. A woman, wearing what appears to be an elegant evening gown, is home. You start to jog now, anxious to leave the dark woods.
But as you approach the house, the light in the window suddenly goes out, and your beacon vanishes. You walk straight toward where the light was coming from, and soon you come upon an old house from another era. As your flashlight traces the outline of the house, confusion changes quickly into paralyzing fear when what you are looking at hits you. Thick wooden shutters cover every window, nailed into the frame. You desperately search the wall and wonder where the light source came from.
Suddenly, the light from your flashlight flickers and shuts off. It is pitch black, and somehow you know you are not alone. You hear the sound of glass shattering followed by what sounds like an old woman singing. You cannot tell where the voice is coming from, but it is getting louder. Dropping the flashlight, you turn and bolt back from where you came, hoping your car is somewhere out in the blackness ahead. Behind you, the singing trails off, drowned out by the sound of your thumping heart.
If this scenario sounds like nothing more than your typical ghost story, well, it is. And if it sounds vaguely familiar, like an Island legend you have heard passed down from relatives or told by childhood friends at sleepovers - welcome to the legend of the haunted Sanford estate at Windy Gates. The old manor nestled in the dark woods just feet from the Wequobsket cliffs is perhaps the most notoriously haunted house on Martha's Vineyard.
"The Island itself is so enchanted by spirits, that it is hard to really say which house is the most haunted," says Holly Nadler, author of Haunted Island and a tour guide of well-known haunted Island houses. "I really think it is the land, the fields and beaches and woods where people have the most encounters with apparitions. But Windy Gates certainly has a strong spiritual presence to it."
Depending on which legend you believe, Windy Gates is haunted by either a male or female apparition. The male ghost reportedly relates to the more well-known history of the house, while the woman is the ghost of a widow who threw herself from the cliffs after hearing of her whaling husband's death at sea. Many have encountered strange sounds while walking near the property, and others have sworn to seeing the apparitions.
There are other Island houses that evoke plenty of fright, but none with the eeriness of the old Sanford house.
The Luce house in Vineyard Haven, though not officially known as a haunted house, sits eerily atop a hill on Pine street, partially obscured by draping pine trees. Rumors that a witch who cast a fatal spell on two young lovers who lived there long ago still circulate.
The Vanderhoop Homestead, now being renovated as the future home of the Gay Head museum and Community Cultural Center, has long been rumored to be haunted. Standing atop the bluff, silhouetted against a wind-blasted landscape, the house was said to be haunted by the ghost of a young girl who drowned in a well on the property in the 1800s.
Older town residents still remember the days before electricity when as kids, they would sit around the candlelit rooms and tell stories of the sounds of rocking chairs creaking from inside the vacant house.
"It's the kind of place you walked a little faster when you passed it," one resident recalls. "You don't try to account for spooky sounds."
But talk about haunted houses on the Vineyard always seems to come back to Windy Gates.
"The property definitely has a presence," says Sandy Alexander, a general contractor who renovated the old Sanford house when a new owner bought the property about 10 years ago. "I can't say I saw any ghosts, but the guys were spooked when we first got up there. It was definitely pretty creepy."
Mr. Alexander recalls the first time he went into the old barn, where he was stunned to find a large hook bolted to the ceiling that looked oddly out of place. The house had not been maintained well and retained many of the original features from its golden years when it was the most talked-about house on Martha's Vineyard. Mr. Alexander recalled that entering the basement was like walking back in time.
"Yeah, creepy was a good way to describe it," he said.
The story of the house revolves around Lucy Sanford, a beautiful and wealthy New York widow who moved to the Island in the late 1890s. Her husband had built a house on a large parcel of land at Windy Gates and after his death, she turned it into an exquisite manor, replete with gold fixtures, exotic tile and elegant curtains. She held elaborate parties along with her daughter, Mary Kobbe, and her daughter's husband, an Italian duke. For a time a mysterious bicycle salesman named Jack Seales also lived in the house.
Eventually, though, Mrs. Sanford lost all of her wealth, and with it tragedy followed. Her daughter's husband disappeared, said to have deserted his wife, and soon followed the mysterious deaths of Ms. Kobbe and Mr. Seales. Mrs. Sanford kept their cremated remains in two urns inside the house, and eventually left the property poor. But many questions as to the deaths and disappearances associated with the property lingered long after her departure.
Later in the twentieth century, the house and property was owned by the Baldwin family, whose matriarch, Helen Baldwin, was buried on the property after she died.
Today the house is owned by Richard Robinson and his family. The house has been renovated, but caretakers who have lived in the carriage houses on the property say that they still experience strange sights and sounds.
Over the years, the strange feeling people get while they are at Windy Gates, the unexplained sounds, the claims of apparitions of a man dressed in clothing from another century, have remained constant.
It is a place to be avoided on Halloween.