Jesse Haynes has experienced all sorts of strange occurrences since she began volunteering at Riverhead’s historic five years ago, but things took a darker turn on August 18.
“It really scared me, and I don’t scare easily,” Haynes said, describing what happened late that Thursday night. She was locking up after an evening of live music when she heard a blood-curdling scream coming from upstairs. “It sounded like he couldn’t get out,” Haynes said. “It was like someone was trapped and really angry.”
Though shaken, she resolved to complete her duties and went to shut down the 130-year-old theater’s air-conditioning system. Just as she turned away from the back door to switch off the machine, Haynes and her fellow volunteer Lisa Dee heard a massive slam from within the building and they saw the back door rattle as though someone, or something, was trying to get out.
“I checked before to make sure the place was empty,” Haynes said, saying that she also had a “creepy feeling” while packing up that night, which is unusual for her.
The same evening, another volunteer and musician, Alex “The Watchman” Adamowicz was playing on the main stage of the theater by himself with the lights turned down. As he peered out into the darkness, he saw a black mass pass the windows and block out the bits of street light that leaked in around the red velvet curtains.
Dee, who is usually a skeptic, said all the hairs on her arm stood on end that night while adjusting the thermostat. “That’s beyond coincidence,” Dee said, noting that the thermostat is in the very same spot that Adamowicz saw the black form.
This summer seemed to be the height of activity at the Vail, but volunteers and visitors have been reporting unsettling events for years. Among them, Haynes and others have seen lights go on and off at will and Dee said an unseen person banged on the dressing room mirror. “It was loud,” Dee said. “It shook the place.”
Late Tuesday night, Haynes hosted a team of ghost hunters from Island Ghost Investigations. “I thought it was a really interesting and fun experience,” she said of the investigation. The ghost hunters, including Diane and Mike Taylor recorded audio and video, snapped photographs and took electromagnetic field and temperature readings.
“I felt that there was a lot of vibe going on though we didn’t hear or see anything obvious,” Haynes said, explaining that the team had yet to review the various video and audio recordings for evidence.
During his four years volunteering at the theater, Greg Gennari said he’s seen shadows and trails of light on the ceiling of the main theater. He also once fell asleep in the Black Box room, where they hold smaller events, and awoke to the sounds of a crowd of people outside the thin doors. Gennari said he even saw the doors move a bit as if people were walking by in the hallways, but when he checked, no one was there.
“It’s a 130-year-old theater, who knows what went on,” Gennari said, attempting to understand why spirits would reside there.
The Vail-Leavitt Music Hall was opened on Peconic Avenue with much fanfare on October 11, 1881, according to its website. It changed hands several times and was host to Thomas Edison, who is rumored to have been working on a telephone to the dead toward the end of his life. The building was the headquarters of various political parties and organizations, including George Washington’s Improved Order of Red Men, a fraternal group created to help Native Americans with their problems with settlers.
Theodore Leavitt’s Men’s Shop operated downstairs for many years, and for a time the theater was forgotten entirely. The building once held a pool hall and betting parlor, as well as the Imperial Restaurant, which closed after a kitchen fire in 1925. The theater’s attic still has blackened and charred beams, presumably from that fire.
The Vail’s history is cloudy at times and there are no reports of violent deaths, but Gennari believes something could have happened while some of the less-reputable businesses were in operation.