It was the fall of 2000, and the moon hung in the crisp October sky like a beacon from a distant lighthouse, and quite frankly, it seemed like our only link with the rest of the world. We were six kids in a rusty panel van loaded with ghost hunting gear, barreling down the lonely dirt roads of rural Pennsylvania on the hunt for restless spirits.
It was our first adventure in search of Estep Manor, a legendary haunted house whispered about by Bradford County locals for decades. The Manor, hidden in the hills of the Endless Mountains and lost to time, was a major interest for our rag-tag paranormal investigation team.
Little did we know that our quest to discover the hidden horror of the Pennsylvania mountains would result in a series of frightening brushes with the paranormal that would save our lives.
As legend has it, in the early 60s, Lester Estep, a rural farmer with a sizable plot of land, had fallen on hard times, becoming quite sick and behind on his duties. The farm suffered, the crops failed, and his cattle died. With tax collectors banging down his door, bills piling up, and the threat of being thrown in jail, Lester’s family pleaded with him to seek help from friends and family. But Lester was a proud man, and he refused to beg.
Broke, harassed by creditors, and his health failing, Lester decided to end his family’s suffering once and for all. While they slept, Lester quietly suffocated his wife and children. The following day, the police were called to the property to investigate reports of a man hanging from a tree. Lester had hung himself in the night.
For decades, those who dared to venture into the abandoned house, braving its broken floorboards and rotten staircases, would find themselves fleeing the building in a matter of minutes. The spirits of the Estep family were still haunting the house, they’d claim, and they were angry.
Our crudely drawn map, coaxed out of a substitute teacher who’d made the mistake of bringing up the legend to a group of ghost-crazed high-schoolers, had dropped us at a lonely crossroads in the middle of nowhere.
Jason was the oldest of the group, and had the privilege of a driver’s license. Unfortunately, that meant he also got to pick the music. Nick, Brandon, and Bill were squeezed into the back seat, each of them emptying bags of Doritos into their open mouths. We were Ghost Hunters, Incorporated, a name we chose not because we were actually incorporated, but because we were teenagers and it sounded cool.
As the van idled in the middle of the road, I leapt from the passenger’s seat and clicked on a flashlight. As the bright beam pierced the darkness, a thick cover of trees gave way to a dilapidated farmhouse. This was it.
After packing up our gear, we slung our backpacks – some still heavy with geometry textbooks – over our shoulders and trudged into the dense jungle of overgrown weeds. The door to Estep Manor had fallen off years ago, and as we gingerly tiptoed across spongey floorboards, we found ourselves standing in a big room full of gigantic tractor tires. Apparently, the afterlife made a convenient storage space for decaying farm equipment.
I held up the compass, our low-tech and pre-Ghost Hunters answer to an electromagnetic field meter, but the needle didn’t budge. We implored the spirits of the Estep family to make their presence known, waiting patiently for an answer from the other side. Not so much as a floorboard creak.
We began our careful ascent up the Manor’s rotting stairs hoping and praying that they didn’t decide to give way under our weight. An eerie chill swept around us as we scanned the second floor for anything out the ordinary. No signs of the living or the dead were anywhere to be found. Perhaps the Esteps had moved on from the haunted house, taking their paranormal activity with them. Whatever the case, we continued our exploration of the second floor, gathering together in what appeared to be the master bedroom.
I reached into my backpack and placed a well-worn microcassette recorder on the weathered floor in the center of the room and clicked “record”.
“My name is Greg and I’d really like to meet you,” I said. “If there are any spirits in this house, can you give us a sign that you’re here and you understand us?”
While we held our breath and imagined what answers we might hear when we rewound the magnetic tape, we heard the distinct patter of footsteps run through the hallway. As Jason scanned the room for a missing member of the team, I watched the compass needle spin wildly in my hand. The footsteps upstairs were getting louder, only now they were headed down the stairs to the tire-filled living room.
Was it one of the Esteps, or had someone of the still-living variety discovered our investigation?
Bill and Brandon bolted out of the bedroom and down the hall in search of the source of the footsteps, and with a loud yell, announced that they’d discovered something outside the building. Wide-eyed with excitement, we tripped over one another as we raced down the stairs, the careful consideration of our steps totally abandoned. As we reached the bottom of the staircase, a lone voice cried out from behind us: “Oh god, HELP!”
Nick had made it halfway down the flight before his right foot had plunged through a rotten stair, leaving him contorted in a bizarre crouch, teetering on full collapse into the dark void below him.
“Stop laughing and help me!” he shouted, as he struggled to retain his delicate balance, his hands pressed tightly against the stairway walls. “I’m gonna lose my friggin’ shoe, damnit!”
Once we’d pulled Nick to safety, we climbed back over the tires and made our way outside, eager to see what Brandon and Bill had discovered. The answer wasn’t the terrifying evidence of the afterlife that we’d been anticipating.
“Check out all these kittens!” Bill exclaimed as he stroked a purring ball of fluff. “There’s gotta be, like, a dozen of these guys!”
It’s hard to be disappointed when you’ve got kittens crawling up your legs, so we decided to call a breather and spent the next ten minutes playing with the feral cats who’d made Estep Manor their home.
When we’d had our fill of kittens and Nick had mourned the irreparable damage to his good pants, we reassembled to continue our investigation, only this time, our team had grown larger. The kittens had decided to follow us inside the building.
As we made our way back upstairs, Jason pointed out that the kittens had stopped in their tracks with the hair fluffed up on their backs. As we began to argue amongst ourselves about animals’ perceptions of the supernatural, a horrendous, blood-curdling scream rang through the air.
We froze in fear as the kittens scattered, leaving us alone as the reverberation of the terrifying cry echoed through the night.
In our two short-years as a paranormal investigation group, we’d seen dark human figures dart through cemeteries and abandoned houses, heard the floorboards mysteriously creak in nearby rooms, and some of us had even felt the chilly touch of phantom hands in the darkness, but our shared glances proved that we were utterly unprepared for what we were currently experiencing.
The scream sounded like nothing we’d heard before, almost as if it were half a dozen people screaming at once, all different pitches and tones. One second it sounded like a woman in distress, the next, like a man screaming in rage. Whatever it was, it was in the yard, and now it had begun to bang on the walls of the manor.
I pulled the compass from my jacket pocket and did my best to steady my trembling hand. Brandon glanced at the compass before looking me directly in the eyes and shaking his head, a look or pure fear across his face. The needle was making full 360-degree loops.
For what seemed like an eternity, we waiting for the banging to stop. In reality, it had only taken five minutes for the storm of noises to settle. Whatever had been causing the commotion had moved on, but we were still shaking. Jason was the first one to break the tense silence.
“Brandon, why did you tell your mom where we were going to be tonight?”
The room erupted in laughter. In the face of fear, humor had always been our ultimate weapon for diffusing paranormal panic.
As we wiped the laughter-induced tears from our eyes, we made the decision to press on. After all, we’d tracked down one of Pennsylvania’s most legendary secret haunts, and we didn’t want to waste the weekend adventure we’d so meticulously planned.
There was still one room in the building we’d failed to investigate. Bill pulled open a small door on the lower portion of one of the walls to discover the basement of Estep Manor. In true Bill fashion, he immediately decided that yes, it was going to be explored whether we liked it or not.
After a quick game of rock, paper, scissors, Bill and Nick were chosen to lead the intrepid expedition into the bowels of the building, and carefully descended into the dank and dark basement. As we waited in the ruins of what was once a kitchen, the beams of their flashlights poured through the cracks in the floor, casting an eerie glow across the faces of my teammates.
Then the entire house groaned as a support beam cracked. Whether we’d overstayed our welcome with the paranormal forces at work or the laws of physics, we were being forced out of Estep Manor in no uncertain terms.
“Guys, we’ve gotta get outta here,” I yelled, “this place is going to come down on top of us!”
I extended my arm into the entrance to the dark basement, pulling Nick and Bill back into the kitchen, and we rushed back into the overgrown yard, careful not to step on any stray kittens in our path. As we waited for a collapse that would never come, I pulled out a my disposable camera and snapped a picture of Estep Manor, a final reminder of our adventure to the hidden horror of Pennsylvania.
Nerves rattled and bleary eyed, we drove the van back to my house, where sleeping bags and a case of Mt. Dew awaited our arrival. We tiptoed to my room as not to wake my parents, and recounted our terrifying evening as Evil Dead 2 played on the television. Our conversation turned to the EVP recording we’d started on the haunted house’s second floor, when it hit me. In the commotion, I’d left the recorder running in the building.
“It’s gone, man,” Brandon said, waving his hand through the air. “I’m not going back in there – it’s not worth it.”
He was probably right. The building was ready to come down, and besides, we were exhausted. We forgot about the recorder and slept like babies.
Two days later, I returned to the Wal-Mart 1-hour photo department to retrieve the photos from our intrepid adventure into Estep Manor, but when I got to the final photo of the building’s exterior, I noticed something strange about the image. In the building’s second floor window was a tall, dark figure in the outline of a man, peering out at us as we climbed back into the van.
Two and a half years after our visit to Estep Manor, we were contacted by a Seattle-based documentary filmmaker who had discovered our case files online, and wanted to spend a week following our investigations in some of Pennsylvania’s most haunted places. In 2003, ghost hunting teams were still a rare breed of weirdos unaware of the reality television explosion about to occur in two-years time, so we jumped at the opportunity. In May of that year, we started shooting what would become Ghost Hunters, Inc. Presents: The Graveyard Shift.
One of the locations that the director insisted we revisit was Estep Manor, despite our repeated warnings that the collapsing farmhouse was just as good a place to become ghosts as it was to find them. Still, what little evidence we’d collected about the haunting at Estep Manor was enough to compel our return, even at the risk of our short lives.
This time we’d be bringing two more members, Beau, our high school bully turned bodyguard, and Mick, the only kid in town who could do an icepick stall on his BMX bike.
At 1:17AM on Tuesday, May 20th, we arrived at the haunted house to finish the investigation we’d started two years earlier, but this time, we’d capture it on camera.
Just as we had before, we slung our backpacks over our shoulders and trudged through the tall grass toward Estep Manor’s entrance, this time stopping so I could relay the building’s legend to the camera. After a short recap of our evidence, we carefully made our way through the rotting doorway, listening for any sounds that might indicate our impending deaths.
In an effort to maximize our chances of survival, we decided to even our group’s weight distribution, splitting off into two teams on opposite sides of the building. I broke off to investigate the left side of the first floor with Bill, Brandon, and Robbie, our director, while Jason, Mick, Beau, and Nick explored the extreme right of the manor’s second floor.
As we began setting up for an EVP session in the living room, Jason’s voice came spilling down the stairwell.
“Guys, there’s something weird going on up here,” he yelled. “We’re seeing shadows that aren’t ours!”
As quickly as we could without disturbing the house, we crept up the stairs, carefully avoiding the hole left by Nick’s leg, meeting up with the rest of the team, who all looked sufficiently freaked out.
“We watched a tall, black shadow move through the doorway,” Jason stammered. “It wasn’t one of ours.. we tried everything we could think of to recreate it.”
This was the very same room we’d captured a dark figure peering from the window. Jason’s description of the moving shadow matched the figure in the photograph. This was also the same room where we’d found ourselves frozen in fear that night. I immediately scanned the floor for any trace of my microcassette recorder, but it was nowhere to be found.
Since we were all back where we started, we decided that recreating our actions from the previous investigation might stir up some activity, so we prepared to conduct an EVP session. This time, we placed a palm pilot in the location of the missing recorder, left a compass next to it, and pointed a digital camera at both.
“If there’s something here, please show yourself, “Jason asked the spirits. “We’ve come all this way. I mean you’re gonna be in a movie if you do… if you know what a movie is.”
Beau, who had been diligently snapping photos on Jason’s camera, called me over to show me something he’d captured. The image was of a photo he’d taken of the yard from the second story window. There, peering from behind a tree, was the ghostly figure of a bald man. The figure appeared to be looking right at us. As we stared at one another in disbelief, we knew we had to investigate.
Moments after we began to descend the stairs, we heard something rustle through the long weeds surrounding the manor’s porch before tearing off around the side of the building. The structure groaned as we gathered in the yard, and we we flashed knowing looks at the director, who finally agreed that maybe we were right about the danger posed by Estep Manor.
While we stood in the overgrown yard, deciding which of our favorite haunted locations to head off to next, the director flipped his camera off to conserve the battery. Bad idea.
Every paranormal investigator knows how the Camera Curse works. Whether we want to attribute it to coincidence or some kind of grand supernatural joke, we’ve all experienced some of our most frightening paranormal phenomena when the cameras aren’t rolling. This moment was a picture perfect example of the Camera Curse in full effect, though to be honest, we were all so terrified of what happened next that we never even considered whether or not it was captured on film.
Not a moment after Robbie clicked the lens cap on the camera, the blood-curdling shriek we’d encountered before, like a chorus of the damned, pieced the foggy spring night. This time, it was coming from inside Estep Manor, and it was quickly rushing toward us.
The group scrambled for the van as the horrible cries came flooding from the farmhouse, followed by the sound of an incredible crash. As the last of our team was literally pulled into the back of the van and the doors slammed shut, something collided with the rear of the vehicle, lurching it forward.
We sat in silence, save for the huffing and puffing of our last minute sprint, and as we quietly surveyed the foggy atmosphere surrounding us, Robbie flipped the camera back on.
“I swear to god I heard footsteps right by us,” Nick nervously stated. “I felt wind on my pant legs.”
The entire front porch of Estep Manor had collapsed in on itself, and with it, a large section of the building’s second floor. Had we stayed in the house just five more minutes, we’d have been crushed and buried in a mountain of rotten wood.
“Camera needs service?!” Jason yelled. “Camera needs service… what does that mean?”
Jason’s camera, containing Beau’s strange capture of the man watching us from the trees, had suddenly gone on the fritz. We’d later discover that the memory card had been corrupted. None of the files could be saved. Our palm pilot, used to record our EVP session, had only one audio recording: half an hour of static.
Beau fired up the engine and we cautiously made our way back to town, startled, confused, and frustrated by what we’d just witnessed. None of our evidence had survived the investigation, and the camera hadn’t even been running during our brush with the shrieking entity. The evening was a disaster.
That was the last investigation we’d ever perform at Estep Manor.
As I sat in the back of the van, wondering how to salvage the evening’s shoot, Brandon jabs me hard in the ribs and motions to the rear window, his eyes wide.
“Turn the camera on!” I yelled.
On the rear window were a series of strange marks, as if a pair of hands had collided with the corner of the van and run down the glass. We pulled over at the local 24-hour gas station to hop out of the vehicle and get a closer look, but we were only more flummoxed by what we saw.
The marks appeared to have come from a set of hands that had reached around the side of the van. They weren’t ours, and they weren’t in an area where our own hands would have easily fumbled for a latch. Whoever left these marks was tall, much taller than us, and the prints had impact behind them, like the hands had been slammed hard on the glass.
We stood in the parking lot of the Pump N’ Pantry, scratching our heads, nervous about the implications. Was something trying to scare us out of Estep Manor not because it was innately terrifying or evil, but because our lives depended on it?
Last fall, I found myself back in my hometown of Troy, Pennsylvania, and by a stroke of serendipity, so was my old investigating partner Jason. Without hesitation, we began to plan an old school night of paranormal adventures to our classic haunts.
For six hours until the sun crept back into the sky, we barreled down the same back roads we had as kids, visiting haunted cemeteries, cursed churches, and deep-mountain Bigfoot habitats, but it was our return to Estep Manor that stuck with me the most.
In the decade since our last visit, the thick wall of trees had been cut and the lawn mowed down, the building had been boarded up and barricaded with a fence, and there were NO TRESPASSING signs plastered every five feet. The precautions were no doubt to keep 14-year-old adventurers from being crushed to death.
We stood outside the imposing haunted house from our youth, the headlights from our vehicle illuminating the porch that had nearly collapsed on us 12 years earlier.
“You realize that the ghost in that haunted house is the only reason we’re alive today, don’t you?” I asked Jason.
He stared at the old farmhouse and shook his head for a moment before responding.
“Boy did he make the wrong choice.”
Laughing to ourselves about the haunted house that nearly killed us, we climbed back into the car, and drove off into the night in search of our next adventure.