LENOX — Robert Oakes has been leading ghost tours at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s former home, since 2010.
An English major in college, Oakes had read Wharton before. But he said his interest in ghost stories in the Berkshires began to grow when he discovered Wharton’s fascination with the paranormal.
“I never knew that Wharton was a writer of ghost stories and had some pretty deep and dark fears about ghosts and ghost stories,” he said. “And I never knew that The Mount had this paranormal history — so much of it — until I started working there.”
His work at The Mount led to the opportunity to write “Ghosts of the Berkshires,” released in September of 2020. Now, Oakes is working on another book of ghost stories, this one about his hometown in New Jersey.
Along with his regular ghost tours at The Mount every Friday night, Oakes will lead a limited number of tours for children in the late summer and fall. He will also lead tours at Ventfort Hall and is sharing cemetery stories at Church on the Hill in Lenox, 5 p.m., July 24; Aug. 21, Sept. 11 and Oct. 2, 16 and 30. For information and pricing, visit robertoakes.net
Recently, Oakes took the time to answer a few of our questions.
1. Have you always been interested in the paranormal?
For me, probably the bigger interest was in spirituality in general. A sense of the mysterious, the unseen has fed its way into a lot of my writings, whether it's songwriting or story writing. I have always felt a certain sense of presence of unseen forces at work in the world and then been fascinated by it. I don't know that I necessarily always refer to it as ghosts. But to me, there's a lot of overlap between what I'm talking about and ghosts.
2. You say in “Ghosts of the Berkshires” that the Berkshires is a hotspot for ghost stories. Why is that?
I don't know if I know what it is exactly. It's mysterious. But I feel like you can feel it. Like, when I'm away for a while and go someplace else, and then come back, there's something that, as I drive up, say, from New York, it seems almost like you pass through this kind of forcefield. As you reenter this place, the energy shifts, and there's just a different kind of resonance, and you can feel it take hold of you. I think that sometimes what we experience as ghosts is some manifestation of that presence, and then we tell a story about it.
3. What are your thoughts on belief and skepticism when it comes to the paranormal?
In my life, there have been times when I've believed very strongly. And then there are times when I've been very skeptical... One of the reasons why The Mount spoke to me so much was because of Wharton's own ideas about ghosts and ghost stories. One of the things that she wrote about in her preface to her book of ghost stories was this idea that, in order to be affected by these stories, we need to kind of step down from our rational intellect.
4. Where are you on the spectrum between believing and skeptical right now?
I am in a belief place — let's put it that way. It's so difficult to answer. It's a hard thing to pinpoint because some things raise your skeptical mind a little bit more because they just don't seem to be real. And then [for] other things, there just seems to be a mysterious presence at work there that is really hard to deny… My sense is that we don't get to be one without the other. We come at everything — or at least I feel like I do — with both of these eyes open. And there's a sort of interesting tension that forms when you apply both of them.
5. What's an example of a time when you encountered the paranormal?
I was giving a tour to a group of paranormal investigators, researchers and psychics, and at some point, they started to do what's known as EVP [electronic voice phenomena] work where you use an audio recorder to record the room … One of the questions I asked was, "do you know my name?" Now, we heard nothing in the room at the time. But later on, when we went back downstairs, we played back the audio, and sure enough, after I asked the question, "do you know my name?" you can hear this gravelly voice. It sounded like it said, "Robert."
Now, I know that there can be strange distortions in audio devices. I know that there's a little bit of, "do I want to hear my name?" Maybe it was just some sound that I interpreted as my name… [But] it felt very real to me in that moment. I felt like I had received an answer.