By Caitlin Gibson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2010; PW07
On a brisk October afternoon, a small gathering occupied the grand entryway to historic Paxton Manor in Leesburg: several members of a paranormal investigation squad; a crew that had worked for months to transform the mansion into a high-end Halloween haunted house; the executive director of the Arc of Loudoun, a nonprofit organization located on the property; and a local professional psychic named Sherry Sherry (her real name, she said with a smile.)
They were there to observe Sherry's psychic reading of the 20,000-square-foot mansion, which will be open to haunted house visitors from 6 to 11 p.m. Sunday. It has long been rumored that the mansion is haunted by the spirit of the lady of the house.
The manor -- also known as Carlheim Mansion -- was built in 1877 by Charles and Rachel Paxton, wealthy industrialists from Pennsylvania who had one daughter, Margaret. Rachel Paxton, having outlived her husband, daughter and grandson, lived alone in the mansion until her death at age 95 in 1921.
Sherry was summoned because strange things had occurred during the staging of the Halloween attraction, said John Lombardi, president of haunted house producer Virginia Scaregrounds and master architect of the mansion's elaborately spooky interior.
Lombardi said the unexplained occurrences included a pair of red-handled scissors that disappeared while Lombardi was setting up one of the ghastly clowns that hang from an upstairs room's ceiling. He had turned his back for just a minute and never left the room, he said, and no one came in. Still, the scissors disappeared.
Then there was the wallboard that crashed onto Lombardi's head as he worked with a saw to reopen an old entryway between rooms.
"There's no way it could have done that without being pushed," he said, but no one else was around.
Lombardi has been working on the haunted house since February on a volunteer basis, he said. After he was hired to build a playground on the property, he took one look at the looming mansion and knew he wanted to haunt it, he said. All profits from the Halloween haunted house will benefit the Arc of Loudoun, which serves children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Shortly after the tour began, Sherry said she detected a strong energy in one of the rooms, energy indicated by a purple crystal dangling from a silver chain, swinging in rapid circles as she held it between two fingers. But the vibe was a pleasant one, she said.
"I keep feeling like this was a room where the lady of the house would sit here at the window and look out," she said.
Jennifer Lassiter, executive director of the Arc of Loudoun, told Sherry the house had once been used as a care facility for ailing children, who often staged performances on the front lawn. The children who weren't well enough to go outside would watch from the windows.
The next room, where the mansion's locked safe is stored, didn't give Sherry the same good feeling.
"If I was going to spend the night, I wouldn't hang out here," Sherry said.
A few days later, a haunted house volunteer actor stationed in the room said that she felt she was pushed; distraught, she fled the mansion and refused to go back inside, Lassiter said.
The tour continued, circulating through cobweb-lined hallways and room after room in the massive house, including the one with the creepy clowns ("good room, good energy," Sherry said), a room with a giant animated spider and dangling bodies encased in silk ("I get a sense of someone dying in this room . . . nothing scary, just an end," Sherry said) and the claustrophobia room ("positive energy," Sherry said).
Sherry said she was picking up on energy left by visiting spirits. "They are traces that are left behind that are perpetuated through visitation," she said. "When spirits like a place, they'll come back regularly." Similar to the way we might visit the same grocery store, she said.
She concluded that the mansion was definitely being visited by Rachel Paxton and the spirits of some of the children who had been cared for in the house.
Paxton's will stated that the mansion and surrounding property should be used to provide free care for needy children in Loudoun County. The request was honored for many years: The property served in turn as a care facility for ailing children, an orphanage, a day-care center and a preschool. It was closed in 2004 because of high maintenance costs and stayed closed for several years, until the trustees of the estate found a tenant to fulfill Paxton's wish. A lease agreement with the Arc of Loudoun was signed in 2008, and the organization moved onto the Margaret Paxton Memorial Learning and Resource Campus last year, Lassiter said.
The organization serves about 2,000 families each year through training, programs and other services, and operates a preschool and a school for children with disabilities. The mansion will ultimately be restored and serve as a family resource center, housing administrative offices for the Arc and related organizations, Lassiter said.
More than 1,100 tickets were sold at the door during the first weekend the haunted mansion was open, bringing in close to $15,000 in profits, said Lassiter, who sold tickets at the door and used the opportunity to talk to people waiting in line about the Arc's services. Lassiter anticipated that the second weekend -- Halloween weekend -- will draw an even larger crowd. The money raised will be used to support programming and scholarships for the Arc's preschool students.
Lassiter said she prefers to focus on the organization's work rather than spooky stories, but that's not to say that she hasn't noticed the occasional odd occurrence. There is an old faded photograph of Rachel Paxton, she said, that appeared to move from room to room in the mansion. The small number of people who had access to the building swore they hadn't touched it.
If Rachel Paxton's spirit does visit, Lassiter said, she thinks that Paxton must be happy, because the property is being used as she had hoped it would be, by an organization that regards her final act of compassion with great respect.
"I have a good feeling in the house," Lassiter said. "I think we do our level best to do just what she wanted."
Paxton Haunted Manor, at 601 Catcotin Cir. NE in Leesburg, will be open from 6 to 11 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $20 per person. For information, go to http://www.virginiascaregrounds.com.