There’s a charming hand-painted sign at the Rose Hall Estate in Jamaica. You can’t miss it; it’s in the bar, which is right off of the torture dungeon. It says: “Try our HOUSE special WITCH’S BREW blended from the finest Jamaican rums & tropical fruit juices!!!”
I could use a Witch’s Brew, actually, but the bar is empty. Unless it’s manned by a ghost, which is entirely possible in this place. According to the locals in Montego Bay, this 200-plus-year-old holdover from the plantation era used to house 2,000 slaves and one extremely nasty white lady named Annie Palmer. Generations before American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy could ever dream her up, the 19th-century Palmer supposedly lorded over more than 6,000 acres of misery; murdered three husbands; and tortured countless slaves in a dungeon so dim that the only sources of light were slits in the stone walls.
They called her the White Witch of Rose Hall. Johnny Cash wrote a ballad about her.
Naturally, I had to take a tour of her home. As luck would have it, the estate just happens to give public tours.
My timing was perfect: A muggy night a month before Halloween, and on the same day as a group of Hollywood executives were announcing a three-part movie franchise inspired by Palmer and her murder mansion. The White Witch of Rose hall trilogy is expect to start shooting as early as next year, written by Final Destination creator Jeffrey Reddick. With a budget of roughly $20 million to $30 million per film, the group intends to shoot as much as possible at this very estate.
Like most supposedly haunted places, Rose Hall has plenty of charm. It offers not only spooky night tours, but daytime walk-throughs that highlight the property’s Georgian detailing; silk wallpaper printed with palms and birds; impressive chandeliers, and charming antiques like a period water faucet. It also does night tours, which, you know, highlight the ghosts. I wanted that one.
We started the tour at the grand entrance. The guide launched her presentation by saying, “You will stand here and say that you are not scared. … In the house, it’s all different.”
She said this at sunset. Did I mention what happens at sunset in the Caribbean? The frogs come out. They don’t sound like crickets. They sound kind of like the jealous spirits of aliens arguing with each other about how to eat you. I’m just saying.
Anyway. The tour guide started off by talking about Palmer. According to the legend, Palmer was raised by a nanny who doubled as a voodoo priestess, because, of course.
“She taught her everything she knew about witchcraft,” the guide intoned. “She lived in this house for 11 years. Within 9 years she murdered three husbands.”
For the record, recent research reveals that this legend probably isn’t true. The scientific paranormal researcher Ben Radford investigated the story in 2007 and has said that a woman named Annie Palmer “wasn’t even a real person.”
What is real, however, is the place’s history of slavery, a horror that’s disturbing enough without tales of witchcraft. The mere fact that so many human beings were held in bondage here is enough to give me chills.
However, if you need more, the tour guide is happy to oblige.
“Palmer was killed by her slave lover Takoo,” she said.
All righty then.
Next, the guide took us to the second floor. Said floor, along with the stairs and walls, happen to have a nice high level of haunted-mansion creakage, thanks, in part, to deep mahogany wood detailing and the house’s general oldness.
“I think we should stay together,” a fellow journalist says.
The lights started to flicker. An eerie whistling sound filled the ballroom. It was coming from an actor dressed as a 19th-century slave ghost.
“Do not look them in the eyes,” the tour guide smiled, “and everything will be fine.”
You got it.
If you, too, visit Rose Hall, let me tell you about another thing you should not look in the eyes: A portrait of a former tenant named Rose. It hangs in the estate’s library, and its eyes manage to follow you, wherever you are in the room. During our tour, we saw no portraits of Annie Palmer because, we were told, the slaves burned all of her stuff after she was murdered.
On to the dining room. More actors waited there, in slave costume, whistling. It was unnerving, and the reason for the whistling was even more chilling.
“Back then the slaves had to whistle just to prove that they weren’t sampling any of the food,” the tour guide said. “Otherwise they would be punished.”
For once, I believed her.
Later in the tour, we were taken to the dungeon. The walls there are thick and made of stone. There’s a display table with period items laid out on it. One of the items is a bear trap. There are no bears in Jamaica; speculation has it that the traps were used to maim slaves who dared to run.
Outside, behind the house, we were shown what is said to be the grave of Annie Palmer, a domed, above-ground stone tomb etched with hand-made crosses.
Occasionally our tour lurched into all-out hokey—doors were slammed, or a chair was pushed by unseen actors to give the tour a few eek moments. But overall, it was eerily, and, at times, depressingly, memorable.
After the tour was over, Reddick and his colleagues held a press conference about their planning film franchise. Witch’s Brew was served. By then, it was more than welcome.
You, too, can, and should, visit Rose Hall if you come to Jamaica. You may not see a ghost, but you will witness a living monument to an era of very real horror.
Tour information is available via rosehall.com.