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A host to ghosts: Strange happenings in the Island County Museum

Rick Castellano, the director of the Island County Historical Society Museum, goofs around with a flashlight in the basement of the museum, where one of a series of  strange events occurred. - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Rick Castellano, the director of the Island County Historical Society Museum, goofs around with a flashlight in the basement of the museum, where one of a series of strange events occurred.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

An average person would be freaked out.

Working late at the Island County Historical Society Museum in Coupeville one night, Director Rick Castellano was getting ready to leave when he heard the elevator move from the third floor to the basement. He heard the doors open below. He thought a volunteer was still working late, so he went downstairs to see who it was.

He found himself all alone in the basement storage space. In the shadows before him were the props of horror movies: sheet-draped furniture, dozens of dolls with deathless eyes, farm implements, fading photos, preserved animals and one very creepy Santa Claus.

But Castellano didn’t run away in fright. He’s a historian.

“I was startled, but not scared,” he said. “I’ve never felt threatened. It’s almost like someone is taking a self-guided tour after hours. Someone just wants to come and look at things. That’s kind of what it feels like.”

He’s not saying it’s haunted — or that he wholeheartedly believes in ghosts — but Castellano has experienced a number of unusual events at the museum since he was hired four years ago. When he took the job, he was warned about strange noises at night in the museum. It didn’t take long for him to start hearing things too.

One winter’s night he was working late in his office when he heard someone outside his door repeatedly saying “hello.” He called out for the person to come in. Then he opened the door. Darkness. Nobody was there.

But to him, the strange occurrences just add a level of fun to his job. He loves the little museum and its collection of family heirlooms, treasures from bygone eras, household objects and documents. These things tell the story of the community. He just doesn’t believe that anyone — dead or alive — could be anything but pleased that these things are being lovingly preserved.

Even in the dead of night, the creaky building with dark corners and faceless mannequins just isn’t an eerie place to a guy like Castellano.

“It’s different than walking through an antique store,” he said. “A lot of things here, we know who owned them. We have photos of people who owned them. We know who touched them and used them.”

“But it can be an odd feeling to think you’re looking at so much personal history,” he added.

Probably the most dramatic of the unusual events occurred two years ago when a group of kids and adults were having a “Night at the Museum” birthday party. While the families slept overnight in the conference room, Castellano was alone in the archives all night.

“We all heard doors opening and closing that night,” he said.

A 6-year-old girl woke up in the middle of the night and started crying, saying that she had seen a ghost. She told her mom that she saw an outline of a man standing in the room with them.

“He just came and stood there, and then he was gone,” Castellano said. He talked to the girl in the morning; she said the apparition looked like he was wearing “old clothes.”

Another time, Castellano was walking down a dark hallway after coming in early. He heard the sound of a little dog scampering behind him. He thought his wife had brought in their poodle, so he turned to pet the pooch. Nobody was there.

While the museum doesn’t have a Halloween program this year, Castellano urges everyone to come on in and check out the “Industrious Islanders” exhibit. It’s open every day of the week, including from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Halloween. The museum even has Capt. Thomas Coupe’s headstone and a bowl of candy to get visitors into the Halloween spirit.

But don’t be alarmed if you hear something strange.

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