It’s almost too quiet in the Tranquility Garden in Brooklyn’s historic Green-Wood Cemetery – a shimmering pool of water among concrete walkways and bridges. This strange oasis in a field of death is not quite doing its job for medium Jesse Bravo, however, as he stalks around the cemetery entrance, snapping a few photos of a neo-Gothic chapel that dates back to 1911. Later, he will examine the photos and find a blue mist materializing in the doorway, the figure of what he believes to be a man emerging from the black.
Bravo, a 43-year-old New York native, is a self-described “Celebrity Psychic Medium”; recently, he did a reading for Sports Illustrated model Kate Bock who, he says, he made cry with joy when he told her who she was going to marry and about her future baby. He also boasts a roster of more discrete celebrity clients – he says he likes to show them photos of the graves of old, fading icons like Jackie Gleason to emphasize that all monuments can become obsolete eventually, even opulent structures meant to memorize the most glittering stars.
For most of us, death is something we try to avoid reflecting on too much, but for mediums like Bravo, death is everywhere – and it’s not so much of an end as it is another stage in our existence. Thus, interacting with ghosts is not solely the fare of nightmares, but just another way of understanding our world: who we are, where we came from and what might be beyond what our eyes can physically see.
Now, surrounded by myriad mausoleums and monuments to history (The New York Times once said, “…it is the ambition of the New Yorker to live upon the Fifth Avenue, to take his airings in the Park, and to sleep with his fathers in Green-Wood”) Bravo is in the mood to reflect on his own past.
“When I was a little child, I was starting to see things that other people didn’t see,” Bravo says, running his hand over his immaculately coifed black hair, the comb tracks still visible. “And they weren’t all nice.”
For example, when he was about six or seven, Bravo heard a knock on the door of his family’s apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. After dragging a crate over to peer through the peephole, the child – who was home alone at the time – saw a horrific bat-like creature. He did not let the creature in. “I saw things like that,” Bravo says. “So, I repressed it, and I didn’t open that channel up for a very long time.”
Instead, Bravo pursued finance, attending Queens College and starting work at Joseph Stone Capital. And he’s done well for himself on Wall Street, he says. For a Sunday walk in the cemetery, Bravo is attired in a Joseph Abboud sports coat and neat slacks. With his mirrored aviator sunglasses and Hermès loafers, the medium looks more Wolf of Wall Street than The Conjuring (although he says he attended the premiere of the latter in Hollywood).
Bravo only agreed to let the visions back in about eight or nine years ago when his son, then four, started experiencing hauntings himself – specifically visitations from an old woman who had previously lived in their apartment. The ghost was apparently not a huge fan of children, and his son was distressed. “Then it snapped back to me, and I said to myself, ‘You know what, I’d like to be in a position to help him when he gets older,'” Bravo recalls. “I didn’t want to have a child that has the black lipstick and Frankenstein bolts. So, I started going to a psychic development school that first day.”
It wasn’t easy, he says, to tell people about his ability – especially being a Wall Street man – but his work buddies eventually got used to the fact that they shared a boardroom with a medium. And hobnobbing with swimsuit models certainly helped his case.
Alexandra Holzer also spent most of her life suppressing her abilities – and her legacy. Holzer, 45, is the daughter of famous ghost hunter Hans Holzer, who passed away in 2009. At a young age, Holzer knew that she possessed an extra sense – spirits often sat on the edge of her bed – but she rebelled against her parents’ lifestyle, choosing to pursue art at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan instead.
Still, it was hard for her to extricate herself from her father’s work, as it permeated every aspect of her life. She attended her first séance at age eight. “My father and mother hosted the séance along with my mother’s mother, Rosine Claire Buxhoeveden, who was married to the Count of Russia,” she recalls, posted up in her blood-red dining room in Chester, New York, a black and white portrait of her father looking down on her. Her four children are currently suffering from an early fall cold; she’s currently pregnant with her fifth.
“This séance was about reaching out to the other side to connect and see what response they’d get back,” Holzer remembers. “They were not looking for someone’s Aunt Lucy, but rather they wanted to see ‘who’ was around. When they began the séance, Rosine chimed in asking for someone named Bluebeard.”
The room became very still, Holzer says, and her black cat, Sylvia, bolted from the room.
“In her heavy Parisian accent, Rosine called out again, ‘Bluebeard are you here? I have questions for what you did all those years back,'” Holzer says. “Then she said it in French. That’s when the table everyone was sitting around began to slowly rock a little side to side as if to want to get up and move.”
Young Holzer was munching on a cookie as she watched the table rise off the floor and ram into the wall. “My father spoke to whoever caused this and told them to please leave. That if they weren’t going to behave, they were not welcome,” she recalls. “And so, that ended that séance and everyone went to the kitchen for some coffee, wine and perhaps something stronger.”
Despite being relatively unruffled by experiences such as these, Holzer chose to avoid the spirit world until adulthood, when she decided to assume her father’s mantle (she still keeps his ashes in her bedroom) and pen books, lead ghost hunts and, hopefully soon, appear in her very own reality show.
She has yet to support herself solely based on her abilities, but she is thankful that she has them. “I was able to learn awareness and mindfulness connecting to the other side,” she says. “By utilizing the ability to tap into our sixth sense and beyond, I was able to redirect much of my pain, confusion and anger into a healthier outcome.”
Unlike Holzer, Leo Kostka was not born with the ability to consort with spirits – instead, he learned to replicate the experience of talking to the dead through years of practice. For him, séances are more entertainment than anything else. Fittingly, Kostka is a mentalist and resident medium of the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, a private clubhouse for magicians and magic enthusiasts that opened in 1963, located just up the hill from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. It’s also been home to Kostka for the last 34 years.
A bearded and bespectacled man in a sharp suit, Kostka leads the late-night séances at the castle in a private Victorian room that’s a kind of shrine to Harry Houdini, the iconic magician who famously set out to declare all mediums frauds. Each year, the Castle hosts a special séance on Houdini’s death day, which just happens to be Halloween.
“I was always interested in things of a spookier nature and psychic phenomena as a kid,” Kostka says. “Then, when I grew up, I was a magician. And then I started to get into what you’d call mentalism, a form of entertainment.”
According to Kostka, séances at the Magic Castle last about three hours – two hours of which feature a four-course meal and copious wine. “The tables are cleared, the candles are lit, and then I enter the room and conduct a séance like they would have experienced in the days of Houdini,” he explains. “Everyone in the room will actually see, feel and be touched by this experience.” Bells will ring, the table will rise — there’s even a spooky Victorian doll clutching a pencil that scrawls out participants’ thoughts.
The séance is a beacon for celebrities, Kostka says, as they are hosted in a private dining room that allows the stars a measure of security. Johnny Depp has reportedly attended, as have the likes of Emma Stone and Condoleezza Rice.
“Sometimes people come and ask if they can bring back so-and-so, but we don’t do that there,” Kostka says. “It’s a recreation of a séance. [What I do] is use the five senses to create an illusion of the sixth sense, and, with this, I’m able to show you a lot of demonstrations of the world of psychic and spiritual phenomenon.”
“Do I believe it’s possible [to speak to the dead]?” he adds. “I have not seen it yet.”
Bravo, however, firmly believes that he can speak to the dead. In fact, as he strolls around the cemetery, he pauses and gives a bark of shocked laughter as he gazes at the field of tombstones. There’s a man there, he says, who goes by the name “Bill.” Bill doesn’t want anything, it seems. “He was just hanging around,” the medium says, nonplussed. Bravo says that ghosts don’t usually hang out in graveyards — they usually cling to places more important to who they were in life — but he can imagine that some drop by to see relatives who might be visiting their tombs.
On the whole, Bravo only trucks with relatively benign spirits like Bill; he becomes agitated when he happens upon a mausoleum that he believes is being used for black magic. The lock is broken and there’s candle wax and scorch marks on the stairs, fresh votives scattered within. He flags down a security guard to tell him about the scene, and the man nods and whispers, “Magia negra…”
Consequently, Bravo’s bi-monthly séances, which cost $20 a head, are largely positive experiences. They’re held in a rather stark, florescent room in Midtown Manhattan, where a small group of mostly regulars sit in folding chairs and allow Bravo to take them through a calming meditation that culminates in messages for each participant — via Bravo himself. Sometimes deceased family members visit the circle to impart wisdom, but Bravo says he keeps tight control over who enters the space. Many participants also visit to hone their own gifts — like Lynn Rodriguez, 43, a former healthcare professional from New York with wild, curly hair who is now exploring Chinese medicine and acupuncture.
“Going to séances has helped me with concentration and mindfulness,” she says. “It’s helped me figure out what’s been happening to me since I was a child. Jesse validated a lot of things for me that I was having visions about.” For example, Bravo helped her uncover a dark secret about a loved one during one particularly memorable séance in which a deceased relative visited the circle and told the person in question, “Stop sinning.”
“It feels good to know that you’re not the only one [with that ability],” Rodriguez says.
Levels of belief vary among Bravo and and his ilk – among them flashy entertainers and stalwart legacies alike. They all, however, are committed to delving into this world 365 days per year — not just Halloween.
“You’re using a person’s mind,” Kostka says of late-night séances at the Magic Castle. “You’re entertaining them with their own thoughts.”
For Holzer, her gift is less about entertainment and more of a way of life. “It protects me and those around me that I love deeply and care for every day,” she says.
So, should we be afraid of the beyond — the spooks and shadows and the things that bump in the evening? Standing in the silence of Green-Wood Cemetery on the edge of a path that leads up into serene trees and still more silence, Bravo mulls it over: “If you come in and the purpose of the séance is for a positive message — enlightenment to help you, to move you forward — then you’re gonna get a really positive result.”