This Halloween, like many others before, the Joseph Johnson House opened its doors at dusk to Beaufort’s trick-or-treaters. Hollywood could not have come up with a better setting for fleeting eeriness on a crisp October evening than the brick and plaster structure bordered by a moat at the corner of Craven and East streets.
Colloquially known as The Castle, the house has long been a hotspot for those in Beaufort who appreciate architectural beauty wrapped within an enigmatic, haunting aura. If the current owners, John Staelin and his wife, Elizabeth Locke, have anything to do with it, the Halloween festivities won’t stop anytime soon.
“With a house like this, we’re responsible for not screwing up history,” said Staelin. “We opened it up again because we feel it honors tradition and we thought it would be nice for the community.”
With a parapet rising above the oaks and palmettos surrounding the marshfront property, The Castle is a little more ominous at first glance than what you would expect to house Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. The Disney effect was in full force this week, though, as fog machines, sound machines and colorful lights, courtesy of Jodie Bush Miller’s Plum Productions, helped usher in over 1,100 children and adults. Once in the house, trick-or-treaters were greeted by otherworldly characters, including Frankenstein’s monster, portrayed by LaRaine Fess’s drama students at Beaufort High. With well over thirty folks helping pull off the magic, it is sure to remain emblazoned in the memories of the children who attended.
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The entire neighborhood sees an increase in traffic due to the crowds at The Castle, but that’s probably a good thing. Besides harkening back to a time when foot traffic was more common downtown, it also ensures residents of The Old Point neighborhood won’t have bought candy in vain.
For their part, Staelin and Locke may not have known the extent of the lore attached to the house or its standing in the community when they bought it, but they have fully embraced it.
“You know you it’s iconic when you go to the grocery store and see your house on a postcard,” said Staelin.
Because of the rumors of ghost sightings at The Castle, its association with Halloween and trick-or-treating is long and varied. Previous owners, including the Danner family and the Rauch family, opened it up for the holiday in past years.
Staelin, with due skepticism, admits he hadn’t heard much about the ghosts before he bought the house and still hasn’t seen it in over five years of ownership. Then again, they’re not there to immerse themselves in the daily drudgery of putting their own stamp on the home.
“The house already has a stamp on it,” said Staelin. “We’re just here as caretakers.”
Despite that lack of pretense and with no current evidence to the contrary, Staelin and Locke still may not be alone in the house. The rumor has long been that a small, ghostly apparition of French descent resides on the grounds. His name is either Guenache or Gauche, depending on source, and he reportedly sailed over with Jean Ribaut in 1562 and never left. He is said to only appear to and be friendly toward children.
It’s those kinds of legends and oral histories the house trades on at this time of year.
Truthfully, the basement is a bit dark and scary at times, but no more so than any dark basement in Beaufort — a town where most business is conducted above ground. There are still many in Beaufort of all ages who would swear to mysterious handprints, footprints, tapping on tables and floors and the unaided opening and closing of doors. They are people who grew up in the house or nearby in the neighborhood and they all have a story to tell.
Thankfully, Staelin and Locke are generously allowing new stories to be made and told by new generations of Beaufortonians with each Halloween opening.
The rest of the time they can have their house to themselves.
Or so we’d all like to think.
Ryan Copeland is a Beaufort native. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.