Buried Treasure


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The area where I live is called Fort Seybert, West Virginia, and it has a story to tell. There actually was a fort here of that name, which was attacked by Indians in April 1758. Most of the male settlers were away on business, leaving the fort vulnerable. The settlers surrended, but the Indians, led by Chief Killbuck, massacred most of them anyway and took the rest captive, forcing them to march to Ohio. The Indians took as many of the settlers’ valuables as they could carry, but somewhere along the way, the booty became too heavy and it was buried somewhere in the mountains between here and Ohio. Legend has it that this treasure is still buried in these hills, perhaps in the very hollow where I live, which would have been the easiest route to take upon leaving the fort. This terrible event is commemorated each year during the Treasure Mountain Festival, which happens the third weekend in September. If anything were to bring the restless spirits of those murdered settlers back, it would have to be the staged burning of the fort at the culmination of the festival, where locals in loincloths wield tomahawks and reenact the final moments of that fatal day in 1758. Every year the fort is rebuilt, and every year it is burned down again. The settlers never win and never escape.

I have never seen any of the spirits of the settlers who died nearby or possibly crossed over my land more than 250 years ago, but I have heard what sounded like a Native American war cry. At the time, I rationalized it away as some type of animal cry…but I’ve only heard it one time in almost two years, and it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I had visions of ghostly Indian warriors descending on my house with phantom tomahawks. Luckily, no visuals accompanied the audibles, at least so far.

One of the many special events held during the festival is a historical walking tour of the nearby town of Franklin (est. 1794). This year I attended that tour, and learned many fascinating things about this area. The tour began on the steps of the county courthouse, which is directly across from a beautiful brick home built in 1848 that was used as the Union Army’s headquarters in 1862. From there, you can gaze up and down the main street and envision life as it was 100 or even 200 years ago. Franklin still isn’t that big (the population is less than 1000) and it isn’t that modern, either. Unfortunately, many of the oldest buildings in town were destroyed in a catastrophic fire in April 1924, so most of the buildings on Main Street, including the courthouse, post-date the fire. Still, the town has its charm, as evidenced in the photo below.

Right around the corner from the courthouse is a tiny stone building, tucked between two larger structures and hidden behind trees. This is the McCoy Law Office, built to replace the earlier building lost in the 1924 fire. The stones come from each of Pendleton County’s districts, and some say it has stones from every county in West Virginia, although that is impossible to verify. What is true is that at least one gravestone is incorporated into the walls, which makes this a strange and intriguing little building.

Farther back in the town is a somewhat steep, narrow street lined with old homes. Some of these homes are historically important, built prior to the Civil War and retaining their old-world allure. But to me the most interesting part is the former name of the street, Dirty Run – so called because the owners of the lovely homes lining the street all built their privies over the lane. At the top of the hill, a gate was used to hold back water from a spring. Once a day, the gate was opened, and the water would rush down Dirty Run, carrying that day’s offerings from the privies straight down into the river. Ugh. A young lady who lived along Dirty Run got accepted to my alma mater, Mary Baldwin College, and quickly realized that her social status would not be helped by listing her home address as “Dirty Run.” She therefore changed her address to the much more socially acceptable “Sparkling Spring Boulevard.” Ha!

Our next stop was the General James Boggs Home, also known as Rockdale, which was built in 1820. General Boggs was under the direct command of Stonewall Jackson during the Civil War. This home was once at the center of a huge plantation that stretched far up the mountain. Slaves lived on the mountain and would walk to the plantation along a path that is still popular with hikers today.

Next to the elementary school in Franklin (which is only the third school on that site since the original one was built in the late 1700s) is a small cemetery, part of the original plot given to the town by the first settler, Francis Evick, for whom the town is named. For many years this cemetery was lost and forgotten in a tangle of scrub brush and trees, but recently the land was cleared and the remaining graves, including that of General Boggs, are now cared for by the town. I have heard no ghost stories (yet) about this cemetery, but you can bet some of the folks whose graves were lost forever aren’t too happy about it.

The most exciting stop on the tour, for me, was the Anderson Home. If you ever drive into Franklin and come to the stop light (yes, there’s only one), look up on the hill and you’ll see a huge white house looming over the town. It truly looks like your classic haunted house, perhaps with good reason. It was constructed in 1900 by the great-grandfather of the current occupant and was once at the center of a 300 acre farm. Sadly, now it is surrounded by a mundane subdivision. But the glorious house remains, proudly rising above it all. The current owner, Dyer Anderson, who was born in the front bedroom under the cupola, stated that people often ask him about ghosts in the house. He doesn’t deny that he’s heard some odd things from time to time, but it doesn’t scare him, as he knows it’s family.

One of the things mentioned by Dyer Anderson, and also our tour guide, Tom Bowman, whose family also has roots extending far back in Franklin’s history, is the impact past events have even to the current day. Franklin took a number of hard hits in the early part of the 20th century, primarily starting with the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918. This epidemic wiped out entire families and affected many generations to come. In a community as small as this one, losing huge numbers of the population for any reason is devastating. Dyer Anderson told the story of a man whose brother died of the flu. Out of love for his brother, the man insisted on shaving the corpse personally before burial. This was a fatal mistake; he caught the disease from his brother’s body and, 10 days later, followed him to the grave. They were 34 and 36 years old. Many, many people died, leaving children orphaned and widows penniless and without the means to work their farms, and completely dead-ending branches of families that had been in the area for well over a century.

The next tragedy came with the fire of 1924, which began with an explosion at the Pendleton Times and spread rapidly in all directions. Tom Bowman’s family owned the hardware store on Main Street at the time and the only thing they salvaged was a few dinner plates – which the family still have.

Just a few years after the fire came the stock market crash and the Great Depression. People living in Franklin must have felt like they were living in the crosshairs of a very capricious God. It’s not easy making a living in West Virginia even now; I can’t imagine how hard it must have been during those times. Still, there are a hardy few who have managed to survive and even thrive here, despite the difficulties and set backs. If there is a “buried treasure” in these hills, I believe it can be found in the locals themselves, in their love of the place where they grew up, in their reverence for those who came before them, and in their determination to make it in this beautiful, wild land.  Should you get a chance to make a trip into the mountains, Pendleton County is well worth your time.


Return to the Asylum


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Anyone who knows me well will tell you that what I hate more than almost anything is being told what to do. Being bullied riles me up like nothing else in this world (or the next). Therefore, these last few months, with their fleeting and sometimes not-so-fleeting moments of abject fear of some otherworldly nemesis set on my destruction, have gradually pushed me toward full-scale rebellion. Perhaps it is dangerous to cast lures into the spirit world from time to time, but at the end of the day, we consist of both body and spirit, while spirits are only spirit, so who has the real advantage? So it was that, almost exactly three months after my car wreck and a couple days shy of my birthday, I found myself again crossing the threshold of a place I’ve written about before: the imposing, unsettling, and vaguely threatening Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, located in Weston, WV. (If you haven’t read the previous post and are interested, it can be found here: https://vyxen74.wordpress.com/2012/03/30/the-scariest-place-on-earth/.)

While I may be defiant, I’m not stupid. I did some research on how to protect yourself as best as possible from spirits, and one of my friends had brought me a cross that I gratefully wore. It was with a weird mix of trepidation and excitement that I began this, my first real investigation in several months. And as always, TALA did not disappoint.

The first notable stop of the evening was the geriatric ward. This part of the building has a stifling, thick atmosphere and an unpleasant odor, as if the noxious miasms of despair, old age, insanity, and ill health have seeped into the very walls. Nothing too untoward happened, but I did feel an overwhelming sense of sadness, much like what I experienced upon first venturing onto the battlefield at Gettysburg. Of course, that could have been an empathetic reaction to the lives the people incarcerated here must have led. You could be put in the asylum for any number of capricious reasons, and I can only imagine the confusion and utter lack of hope the elderly inmates must have felt. Whether legitimately mentally ill or just unwanted, there was no chance that they would leave these walls alive. Bad enough to suffer the pains and indignities of age, but to do it in an environment of hopelessness with no love or light to ease your way is a fate no one deserves.

From the geriatric ward, we moved on to its opposite, the children’s ward. Here we heard something indescribably compelling and heartbreaking – the voice of a little girl. One of our group members, seated in the middle of the long wing, exclaimed that he had heard a child singing. We congregated near that area and shortly thereafter, the other female member of the group and I both heard a little girl speaking. For some reason, the male group members didn’t hear it, and it seemed that she would mostly speak while the guys were talking. We distinctly heard her say hello twice, along with several other indecipherable words and phrases. I tried to dismiss it as some kind of strange echo of the guy’s voices, but to be honest, even I have a hard time explaining how a man’s deep voice could create an echo that sounded like a tiny girl’s voice.

On the second floor of the asylum, we sat quietly in the pitch black corridor and conducted an EVP session. As we did so, we distinctly heard the sound of a door creaking open or closed. It was a metallic sound, and after hearing it for the third time, we literally opened and closed every door on the wing in an attempt to replicate the sound. Surprisingly, the old wooden doors don’t make any sound. The only door with a metallic squeak was the one leading into the ward – and it hadn’t moved at all. This was very similar to what happened to us in the children’s ward during a previous visit. On that trip, we heard the door right next to us moving – but it wasn’t actually moving. All I can figure is that it’s a residual sound, a ghostly replica of the millions of times these doors must have opened and shut when the building was in operation. Similarly, when we moved to the third floor, we heard what sounded like tapping on a window pane nearby; however, no source for the noise could be found. A former patient, perhaps, tapping a mindless tattoo on the glass while spending interminable hours gazing out at a world lost to them forever?

The final part of the evening was spent in the company of Copperhead, who may be familiar to some of you as a contestant on the TALA episode of Paranormal Challenge. Two of us accompanied him into the cavernous darkness of the old kitchen, which is supposedly inhabited by a male spirit who has physically scratched several females over the last few months. This was the ultimate final exam for me – if I was going to get over my fears of the unknown, this was the place. I even resorted to mild provocation, and felt vindicated when I emerged unscathed. We did hear what sounded like an exhale and some other odd noises coming from the very rear of the kitchen, but nothing outstanding and certainly nothing too terrifying.  At the end of the evening, on our way out of the wing, we stopped by the stretcher room, so-called because it’s filled with stretchers, natch. Copperhead did a quick-burst EVP session and actually thought he caught a male voice, although it was impossible to determine what it said while listening to it on the fly.

Driving along the broken paved road away from the asylum at 5 AM, I did experience a momentary spurt of fear – I faced a 2 hour drive along winding mountain roads after being up for almost 24 hours. If something were trying to kill me, this seemed an opportune time. But then I girded up my loins, cranked up my music, and hit the road, singing at the top of my lungs to keep myself awake. I will admit, it was a bit eerie when it got lighter and I realized there was to be no sunrise – the world was enshrouded in thick fog, obscuring the tops of the mountains and dropping down to enfold me and my car at unexpected intervals. But I lived to tell, and sometimes that is enough.

The Portal to Hell


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** Please note that this is a bit of a rant. All opinions expressed are my own and are not meant to reflect on or offend anyone. If you are offended…well, you were warned. **

If you have any familiarity with famous haunted places, you’ll recognize the name of Bobby Mackey’s Music World, located in Wilder, KY. It’s been featured on Ghost Adventures, Ghost Hunters, Most Terrifying Places in America, My Ghost Story, etc., etc. For that reason, I won’t go much into its history, as it’s easily accessible elsewhere. Suffice it to say that there is a well in the basement of this honkytonk bar that reportedly was used when the building was a slaughterhouse. Later, two men were hanged for murdering a girl (who was pregnant with the child of one of the men) and tossing her severed head down the well, supposedly as a sacrifice to Satan, as they were cult members. There are bullet holes in the walls from when the Mob owned the club. A pregnant dancer killed herself in one of the dressing rooms. Clearly this was not a happy place. The infamous well is often referred to as the “Portal to Hell,” and Ghost Adventures in particular has drummed up a lot of hype over the demonic aspects of the hauntings taking place at the bar. It is true that there was an exorcism performed there years ago on a caretaker who lived there and swore he was possessed and tormented by the evil entities dwelling therein. I suspect much of this is exaggeration and a play for notoriety, which translates into dollars. However, having been there myself for an investigation last September, I do have to wonder if there might be a grain of truth behind all the drama.

The investigation itself was pretty uneventful and didn’t yield anything worth mentioning as evidence of the paranormal. For me, the most interesting part of the evening was at the very beginning, when we were taking an initial tour of the basement area, which includes the aforementioned well, along with a labyrinth of rooms used for various purposes throughout the building’s long history. As our guide unlocked and opened the basement door, my stomach suddenly felt like it does just as you reach the top of the first hill on a roller coaster…that abrupt swoop and drop that sends adrenaline flying through your veins. My stomach just kept heaving and dropping the entire time we were in that area, although I felt nothing the rest of the night, even when we returned to investigate the basement later on. But during that first tour of the basement, it really felt like something was there. A couple of team members felt like they’d been touched, and the menace in the air was almost palpable. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), we began the investigation proper upstairs and didn’t return to the basement for several hours, by which time whatever was there had vanished. I did not enjoy that investigation at all, partly because I felt that it was a waste of time after that first spurt of activity, and partly because I was severely hung over from our previous night’s enjoyment of the bar scene (yep, I even rode the mechanical bull, an episode in my life I’d prefer to forget).

But I digress. Everything about this investigation seemed normal, if even less exciting than usual. Then I came home, and began to wonder if perhaps something actually had happened at Bobby Mackey’s of which I was unaware. Something that followed me home and continues to follow me even now. What made me write about this now is an article I recently read online posing the question, “Can hunting ghosts kill you?”  Prior to my experiences following the Kentucky investigation, I would have laughed at that. Now, I’m not so sure. Perhaps something evil and demonic does lurk in the dark recesses of that basement.  If it does, I can’t explain why it would target some people and not others. The rumor is that it attacks pregnant women (happily, I was not one of those), and maybe if it is demonic, it also goes after people who believe in things of that nature (I am one of those). Regardless, some really bad things started happening within a month of my return from that investigation.

First, my car broke down. This in itself is not surprising, since the vehicle is almost 16 years old. But it had a catastrophic breakdown, unprecedented in the history of the vehicle, and stranded me at the bottom of a mountain with no cell phone service. Luckily I was only there a nanosecond before a nice man stopped and helped me. But still, that sucked up thousands of dollars before I could get the car back on the road.

Next, I had a minor collision between my truck and an inanimate object (the only type of thing I ever seem to hit), which did no damage to the object I hit, but required the replacement of the entire grill, to the tune of several hundred more dollars. Within a couple weeks of that, my chimney caught on fire and I had to replace it from the roofline up. Again, a couple thousand dollars. Then I slipped on my kitchen floor while carrying a boiling pot of pasta and slopped the water on my neck, resulting in a burn that took months to heal. And then, oh yeah, someone stole my identity and my federal tax refund, of which I have yet to recuperate a penny. Finally, a couple of months ago, I fainted while driving (turned out I had bronchitis that I had refused to get treated) and ran head-on into a tree, totaling my truck, injuring myself severely, and racking up a medical bill that will take a couple lifetimes to pay off.

I’m not listing these things to whine about them, because taken in total, it’s actually amusing. (Well, maybe I’m whining a teeny bit.) And these are just the “big” things that have occurred. It does make one wonder. I never had any so-called bad luck, or at least not in such volume, until the ill-fated trip to the Portal to Hell, and then my life almost immediately took a turn for the worse, worser, worsest. Well, not worsest. It could always be worse, and I know exactly how blessed I’ve been. But in low moments, it’s a bit overwhelming to think that maybe I brought this on myself somehow, cavalierly meddling in things that are perhaps best left alone.

In brighter moments, I think all this was a coincidence, or perhaps karma from a past life taking a few smacks at me. While I’ve done some bad things in this life, it’s nothing that warrants such punishment. Then I read about other ghost hunters who have had similarly bad experiences, ranging from financial disasters to ill health to actual death, which some blame on their involvement with the paranormal. Of course, if you took any given segment of the population, I’m sure they would exhibit the same woes…but in the dead of night, doubts creep in. It surely doesn’t help that religiosity tends to place blame for any type of malady. If you’re sick, it must be something you did. If you have bad luck, it’s either something you did or a test from God.  If you don’t do things the way they’re “supposed” to be done, there will literally be Hell to pay. There is a touch of condescension in that attitude, in my opinion, but maybe that’s just old prejudices talking.

One thing I am sure of: I am treading very carefully in the coming days. And maybe investing in a truckload of sage. The well-muscled star of Ghost Adventures, Zak Bagans, may have challenged the demons of Bobby Mackey’s with his well-known taunt – “Is this the Portal to Hell? Well, why don’t you come up out of there and get us?” – but as a mere mortal, I’m a bit more timid.  I’m not sure how it’s done, but I’d love to sever any connection with that place and anything associated with it. Go away, foul spirit, get thee gone! At this point, my life may depend on it.

PS – I’m not being facetious. If you have suggestions on how one counteracts spiritual attacks, bad luck, or whatever you want to call it, I’d be happy to hear them. Even if it’s all in my mind and I’m somehow drawing negativity to me, I’d love to hear how to fend that off as well. One can only take so much.

Haunted Homesteads


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Since almost dying myself a couple of months ago, I’ve been reconsidering my stance on the paranormal. If I had died, I sure wouldn’t have wanted black-clad, tattooed people (even though I’m one of that number) coming to my house or accident site and trying to get me to turn a flashlight on or off or to speak into a recorder. The more I think about it, the less respectful it seems to even attempt to communicate with the dead, not to mention the possible dangers of tampering with the spirit world. And it seems kind of fruitless too – I’ve caught so-called EVPs before, but I’ve never heard an EVP that shed any light on what happens when we die or gave pertinent advice on how to get the most out of life before death. Usually you’ll get a yes or no answer, a name, or possibly a variation on “get out,” but that’s about the extent of it. And you’re never going to convince someone to change their view on the paranormal with “evidence” you’ve collected. So why do this? Unless you’re a person who believes you can actually help the dead move on, thereby helping them and the unfortunates they haunt. But most paranormal groups don’t even touch that aspect of it, and would probably fail miserably if they tried. I’ve pretty much decided to hang up my paranormal investigator hat. Life’s hard enough to deal with without worrying about the afterlife too.

However, as I’m known locally as the resident paranormal “expert,” I was drafted to lead an excursion into the wild woods of West Virginia in search of a couple of reportedly haunted homesteads. Although I didn’t really want to hunt any ghosts, I was intrigued by the prospect of wandering around old abandoned houses and barns at night, so I agreed. (Also, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to drive a monster diesel Dodge Ram 6-speed, which was great fun for me and garnered even more respect from my less-than-sober companions.) I packed up my gear and we headed into the mountains. The lovely thing about living back here is that you can drive for a couple of hours and never pass another vehicle, which is how it was on this dark, moonless Saturday night. When we arrived at the first location, we had to park and hike about a mile along an old, grassy track lined intermittently with falling-down outbuildings and abandoned 1940s-era vehicles. (Side note: one of the guys armed himself with a frog gig, although I expressed my doubt as to its efficiency in warding off phantoms. But with the threat of snakes ever present, I didn’t protest much.) The original house, located to the rear of the property, is a two-story log building, dating from the 1800s, that leans crazily in all directions. We didn’t go inside, as we didn’t have permission to do so, but just looking at the property was a bit creepy. The barn beside the house was still full of junk, including an ancient horse-drawn carriage. There was a glorious claw-foot bathtub lying half-buried in the ground outside the barn. Just seeing these things was such a privilege and yet inexpressably sad. Men and women were born, worked and died on these homesteads, pouring all their energy into eking a living out of the wilderness, and now it all has fallen into ruin, hidden deep within the woods where few would even guess it exists, now frequented only by deer, squirrels, and the occasional bear.

Aside from some footsteps in the surrounding woods, which could have come from a nocturnal animal, we found no ghostly activity. What we did find was lots of ticks. Let me tell you, there is nothing better to get a couple of girls screaming, flailing, and running headlong out of the woods than a herd of ticks crawling up their legs. Ghosts I can handle; ticks, not so much.

Our next stop was a 1700s farmhouse that is no longer occupied, but has been nominally maintained. Most of the outbuildings at this home have been destroyed and the fences torn down, but the main house is still standing and is said to be very haunted. To me, it looked like a cool place to live. The fruit trees around the property are still producing, without any human help, illustrating how fertile and resilient this land is even after all this time. It’s a tragedy that no one cares enough to take up residence once again and carry on the hardworking traditions of the past.

Again, we did not go inside this house and found no evidence of ghosts. For me, the only ghosts who remain at these homesteads are those that linger in my imagination, faint whisperings of the former owners who risked their lives and fortunes on a few acres of land and managed to create abundance for themselves and their families. To see all that pain, effort, and history gradually sinking back into the earth is, in my opinion, a shameful way to treat the dead. If “ghost hunting” has taught me nothing else, it has taught me this: those who have gone before us deserve our honor and respect, because without them, not only would we most likely not even be here, but even if we were, the world would be a different, lesser place. We ignore the importance of the past at our peril.



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Pardon my silence these past few weeks. One month ago today I was in a fairly horrific car accident and managed, among other things, to break my right (dominant) wrist in several places, which necessitated taking some time off and most likely an extended future period of recovery and physical therapy. However that may be, I’m still alive and relatively feisty, which is no small thing. Once I weaned myself off that delightful elixir known as Vicodin (ha!), I had time to do some thinking. Things have seemed a bit bleak, what with the senseless accident, physical pain and scars, and mounting medical bills that no insurance will cover, but yesterday my self-involved maunderings were interrupted by news of the death of the 31 year old son of one of my mother’s friends in yet another car accident. He was married and the father of twin toddlers. Why him and not me? There is no satisfactory answer to a question like that, but it does make me realize how lucky I am, regardless of circumstances. If you’re still breathing, and you still have people who love you and whom you love, anything else can be borne. And really, to me, it’s our duty to embrace the gift of life to the fullest, when it’s denied to others in such a seemingly purposeless way.

Having said that, I’d like to share one of my favorite images. You’re probably familiar with the Palace of Versailles in France, the exquisite home of the doomed Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. The building and expansion of the palace put a horrible burden on the French people, which eventually contributed to the French Revolution and the execution of the king and queen. Ignoring the more macabre historical facts stemming from politics, economics, and the unfortunate flaws of humanity, Versailles itself has become almost a totem for me this year. I would venture to guess that few people know that the palace, arguably one of the most famous on Earth, is located on what was once inhospitable marshland, an undesirable patch of swamp and woods useful for little but hunting. Through decades of hard work and determination, from those swamps rose one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, instantly recognizable, a symbol of power and strength, beauty and longevity. The graceful simplicity of the enormous structure continues to fire imaginations centuries later. To me, it is a symbol of hope – hope that enduring beauty can rise from the humblest of beginnings, in the most unlikely of places, despite the most daunting of obstacles. It’s a good image to hold in your mind, whether you’re facing physical and financial challenges, as I am, or other losses or problems. The word it brings to mind, and which I hold as a key word for today, for this year, for me and so many of you, is indomitable. Bring it on, cruel world. We may get slapped down over and over, but by God, we’ll keep getting up as long as we have breath. And while we’re at it, why not craft a life that’s its own version of Versailles? A masterpiece, built perhaps on the wastelands of misfortune or tragedy, but in the end a glorious symbol of what the indomitable spirit of man can accomplish in the face of adversity.

These last weeks have taught me that none of us are alone (even the most stubbornly independent of us), that kindness and generosity still exist, and that life, something so basic that we often take it for granted, is of great value. I’m grateful to have the chance to discover that, and to cherish not only my own existence but that of family, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers. And most of all, of God. There is a lot of flat-out crap in this world, yes, but there is also almost limitless grace if you take time to see it.

The Second Coming

I just wanted to share one of my favorite poems, The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats, written c. 1919 in the aftermath of WWI. To those of us who fear that our country and our world are heading into ever greater darkness, this poem resonates now more than ever.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, 
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Cities of the Dead


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From early childhood, we absorb the idea that graveyards are scary places, the domain of ghosts and zombies. As we grow older, they retain a certain mystique and sometimes an allure. Certainly cemeteries can be places of great sadness or deep peace, incredible beauty or poignant abandonment. But are they also haunted places? It seems counter-intuitive that spirits would linger in a place they most likely never frequented in life; wouldn’t they be more likely to stay near people and places they loved? However, there is the idea that spirits might be drawn back to their physical remains, unable to completely let go, or in cases of sudden death, perhaps they never left the vicinity of their bodies, clinging confusedly to the one thing they can recognize and understand. There also is the theory that the strong emotions brought to the gravesite by mourning friends and family might lure a spirit to that location or even leave a residual imprint that takes on a “life” of its own.

Personally, I adore graveyards. I find them beautiful. I’ve been to thousands of them, from Streatley-on-Thames, England to Orlando, FL. There are two small ones located within half a mile of my house. My very first official paranormal investigation was in an old cemetery in Brooksville, FL, where an apparition was said to appear at the stump of what was once a hanging tree. The group I was with had previously gotten strange photos in the area, including orbs and rods. Even back then I had doubts about the validity of these photos; with the plethora of bugs and moisture in Florida, you’d be hard-pressed NOT to take an outdoor photo with lots of extraneous features in it. Needless to say, we didn’t really experience much that night, although we creeped each other out pretty well by following a path into the woods to search out the reputedly haunted hot spot of a dilapidated slaughterhouse (we didn’t find it, but wandering around the Florida woods in the dark is an experience all its own). We also were forced to wait for almost an hour while a patrol officer ran all our driver’s licenses; we had called the local PD to obtain permission, but wires got crossed (eventually it all ended well). Please, before attempting an overnight investigation of a cemetery, check with local and state authorities; in states like Virginia, it’s illegal to be in a cemetery after sunset.

Since then I’ve taken numerous cemetery tours. Some of the best: in New Orleans, the tour of St. Louis Cemetery Number 1, where voodoo queen Marie Laveau’s tomb is located, and the tour of Lafayette Cemetery Number 1, across the street from Commander’s Palace, where you can see the real tomb that figures largely in Anne Rice’s fictional Mayfair Witches series. During the Lafayette Cemetery tour, I also got to witness an authentic New Orleans jazz funeral, which defies description and is something everyone should see at least once. Then there was the tour in Charleston, SC, which I took with several friends. One stop was at my favorite Charleston church, known as the Circular Church. While the guide was speaking, we heard some strange noises, and suddenly a couple of my friends shrieked that they had just seen a shadow darting across the graveyard and disappearing. The guide was intrigued, as the apparition of a lady in red has been seen in that same area, but of course I didn’t see a thing.

Last October I spent a few cold, wet, and miserable hours in a private cemetery in Doe Hill, VA. Prior investigation had resulted in an EVP of a child’s voice in a corner of the cemetery where several children’s graves were situated. I huddled in that corner for a couple of hours, running audio the whole time, and got nothing. Which was not that disappointing, really – nothing bothers me more than the thought of a child spirit being stuck someplace, especially in a lonely graveyard. That investigation was enjoyable despite the weather, though, because of the history of the place. The tombstones dated back as far the late 1700s, which is very early for that part of Virginia/West Virginia. Living alone on a farm in West Virginia myself, I have to admire anyone who successfully eked out an existence so far from civilization at such an early date. I can barely do it now, with modern conveniences. The people who lived on that farm, and their descendants, must have been remarkable individuals.

One of the most ill-fated trips I ever took was to the Greenwood Cemetery in Orlando, FL. The tour guide began by presenting photographs and EVPs previously caught in the cemetery, and as he did so, I realized my camera was still in my car. So I ran out to get it, tripped on the brick driveway, and landed hard on my hands and knees, leaving rivulets of blood running down my leg (luckily the group all contributed handiwipes and Bandaids along with condolences). Then, while taking the first picture, my camera’s brand new batteries drained. When the tour was over and we returned to our vehicles, mine wouldn’t start, despite all attempts to jump start it, and a friend had to come pick me up. Spiritual activity or just plain bad luck? At least on that night I felt a bit singled out.

So: are graveyards really as terrifying as one might be led to believe? I haven’t seen much evidence to make me accept that premise; however, what I have seen only serves to illustrate how much respect we should have for these cities of the dead. Whether restless spirits still lurk among the graves or not, these monuments and memorials, even the illegible time-weathered stones, are all that remain of people who were once like us. As such, they should be approached with decency and kindness, not with fear. As we are now, so once they were; as they are now, so shall we be.

Angels and Demons


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Anyone in the paranormal field has at some point been asked, “What made you get into ghost hunting?”  The answers are as varied as the investigators themselves. For me, it has been a long road, but the pivotal moment came when I was 5 years old. At that point in time, I was terrified of the dark and the evil beings lurking in it. Getting to sleep at night was an ordeal. Having an overly vivid imagination, I created rituals in an attempt to deal with the fear. For instance, I had to sleep completely under the covers (even in the middle of summer with no A/C), and my entire body had to be on the pillow with no part touching the mattress. Somehow this would prevent bad things from happening. My mother tried pasting Bible verses on my bedroom walls to bolster my confidence (to this day, when I’m scared, my immediate mantra is, “What time I am afraid, I will put my trust in Thee”). Nothing helped.

Then came the night that changed everything. I had been asleep and woke up to a pitch black room with a glowing man standing by the doorway. He was taller than the door frame and seemed to be dressed in shining white and to this day I remember his beautiful face and his smile. That smile was full of absolute love and just…joy. There was nothing scary about it at all, and it seemed entirely natural that he would be there. Enveloped in an all-pervasive sense of peace, I simply turned over and went back to sleep, and my fear of the dark was gone from that moment forward. I am convinced that the shining man was my guardian angel, and I believe he is around me at all times, although I’ve never seen him again.

So I know that angels exist. Therefore the converse must also be true, that demons exist. While I’ve never seen a demon, I did participate in two trips to England, when I was 18 and 19, and along with a team, assisted an Australian evangelist in conducting what we called “deliverances,”  also known as exorcisms. These deliverances were not the stuff movies are made of, although they were dramatic and disturbing. The afflicted individuals would sometimes writhe on the floor, scream, howl, grunt, speak in strange tongues, vomit, and cough out what smelled overwhelmingly like sulfur. No one levitated or had their head spin around 360 degrees, but the reality was pretty frightening nevertheless. The relief and change in demeanor of those freed from their demonic oppressors was convincing.

When I was a young teen, my family sheltered a man who was reportedly on the run from a Satanic cult. He claimed that the cult was trying to kill him, as no one was allowed to quit, kind of like with a gang. You were in or you were dead. I don’t know how much of what he said was true, but he had some incredible tales, as did the woman who sent him to us. She was an ex-witch and said that when she tried getting out of the lifestyle, she came under heavy demonic attack, culminating in a freak accident where a vehicle lost control and crashed through her house, almost killing her and her family. Again, I don’t know how much of what she said actually happened, but to my young ears, it sounded pretty amazing.

While the claims of these people are almost unbelievable, I do believe that demons exist. Maybe most of the things they do aren’t nearly so dramatic, but I think they do influence daily life and can gain footholds in lives if allowed, which perhaps would eventually give them the strength to operate on a level that they seemed to in the cult member’s and witch’s lives.

These and many other events in my life led me to a fascination with the supernatural and consequently to ghost hunting. Many members of my family believe that ghosts do not exist; there are only angels and demons and nothing else, as human spirits, upon death, travel immediately to Heaven or Hell. Thus when I am searching for evidence of ghosts, I’m really interacting with the demonic. I suppose this could be the case. If a demon masqueraded as a human spirit, how would one know the difference? But either way, if a place is “haunted,” whether it’s by a human spirit or a demon, I’m still interested. Is there a possibility for danger if indeed these spirits are minions of Hell? Yes. There is always potential danger when dealing with the unknown, and when you get into the nebulous territory of the spirit world, there really are no templates to follow. If your interest in and passion for pursuing answers outweighs your fear of the possible consequences, perhaps you’re cut out to be a paranormal investigator.

I will add that some people believe that we are out there summoning up spirits and dabbling in the occult. There are certain things that some groups and individuals do in the course of an investigation that possibly would fall into those categories. Personally, I choose not to participate in such activities. This is solely because it makes me uncomfortable, given my own religious beliefs. But the way I go about an investigation is far more prosaic and as scientific as possible, given the extremely non-scientific and subjective nature of the paranormal field. I honestly believe that spirits (however you define them) are always around us. Most of the time I’m unaware of them; the rest of the time, I use equipment to try to get answers from them. At the end of the day, I believe that my God is more powerful than anything I might come up against, and I feel secure and protected in that knowledge. If seeking information of this nature is a sin, then maybe one day I’ll come to that realization and retire. Until then, the quest continues. And my poor guardian angel works overtime.

My Night at the Museum


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One of the spectacular perks of being a paranormal investigator with no kids except the four-legged kind and no social life to speak of is that you can take up last-minute invites to all sorts of interesting places. Last weekend I had the chance to do just that, filling in on an investigation of the Weems-Botts Museum in Dumfries, VA, which is just outside of Washington, DC. The museum is known for both its historical significance and paranormal activity, although the staff would prefer to focus on the former rather than the latter. At any rate, I did a whirlwind research session, packed my ghost hunting kit, and hit the road for a visit to what is rumored to be a very haunted location.

First, a little background info on Dumfries itself. It is actually Virginia’s oldest continuously chartered town and once rivaled New York, Boston, and Philadelphia in importance as a seaport and also as a farming community, with the main product being tobacco. However, tobacco was an unforgiving crop, requiring much of the soil and giving little back. Eventually the tobacco farming practices not only rendered much of the farmland useless, but also resulted in the filling in of much of the seaport. People moved on. By the early 1800s, Dumfries was practically a ghost town. It experienced a brief resurgence when the railroad came through, providing a link to major cities like Richmond and Washington, DC, but the town never really returned to its former glory.

The town was a center of activity during both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, although no significant battles took place there. Trenches were dug on the property of the Weems-Botts Museum during the Civil War, and many soldiers from both the North and the South passed through here. The house was likely used by officers during this period; it probably was not used as a field hospital, although the Henderson House up the street was. Approximately 9000 Civil War soldiers are buried in unmarked graves in the area around the museum and under the nearby interstate. These soldiers died while camped on and around the property, mainly due to measles; they were all Confederate and hailed mostly from Alabama, Georgia, and Texas.

The Weems-Botts house itself was built sometime in the 1750s and is thought to have originally been the vestry for the Quantico church. It is named for two of its prestigious past residents, Mason Locke Weems and Benjamin Botts. Weems purchased the home in the late 1790s, although he did not live there – instead, he used it as a bookshop. Weems is a fascinating character, and of great interest to me is the fact that he was a biographer of George Washington, and was the creator of the famous cherry tree myth (“I cannot tell a lie”) associated with Washington (apparently the story is based somewhat in fact, but Weems embellished it to help elevate Washington to American Hero status). He also coined the term “best-seller,” and invented several marketing ploys for his books that are still used today, which is quite thrilling to a word nerd like me.

In 1802 he sold the shop to Benjamin Botts, who expanded the house and used the original part of the building as his law office while living in the new portion with his family (he had a ridiculous number of children for his young age, something like 8 boys). Benjamin Botts had the distinction not only of being one of the lead lawyers in the defense of Aaron Burr during his trial for treason, but also of being the youngest. (The story of Burr, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson is yet another interesting saga that has spawned plenty of its own ghostly tales, should you care to delve further into that.) Botts only lived in the house for a few years, as he was killed in the Richmond Theatre fire on December 26, 1811, along with many other prominent members of Virginia society and government. After Botts’ death, the history of the house becomes obscure, and it is unclear who lived there or what use it was put to between 1811 and 1869, although it is thought to have been used as a poor house at some point during that time.

Around 1869, Richard Merchant, his wife Annie, and their daughters Violet and Mary moved into the house. It is from this family that most of the ghost stories seem to originate. Mary, also called Mamie, suffered from epilepsy and as a result had the mental capacity of a 7 year old. In those days, it was thought that her seizures were periodic demonic possessions, so she was kept confined to the house, allegedly in an upstairs bedroom, until her death in 1906 at the age of 23. Her father died a few months later. Her sister, Violet, had been a woman ahead of her time, and had gotten a degree in secretarial science and moved to Washington, DC, to work. There she had fallen in love and gotten engaged. However, soon after the deaths of her sister and father, she received a summons from her mother, Annie. Annie had fallen down the stairs and broken her hip, an injury which caused her to be bedridden for the rest of her life. Annie asked Violet to quit her job and break off her engagement and come home to care for her mother, which she did. Apparently Violet did get engaged once more, to a man from the church where she played the organ, but her mother again insisted that she break it off and she did. When the tour guide got to this point in the story, I felt a little indignant at what seemed to me to be the selfish, controlling, manipulative Annie, who not only usurped her daughter’s life, but then had the gall to live till the ripe old age of 98, leaving Violet no chance at freedom until she was a very old woman herself. Violet lived in solitude for 13 years after the death of Annie, and residents of Dumfries who knew her say that she was very sweet and happy, never bitter or resentful. Of all the past residents of the house, it was Violet I most wanted to meet and felt I could learn the most from. In her situation, matricide probably would have at least crossed my mind, but apparently Violet approached sainthood in her patience and self-sacrifice.

So: does Violet still haunt the house she spent so many years in, shut up with an invalid mother and later all alone? Does Mary still frequent the bedroom she was basically imprisoned in for 23 years? Staff and visitors alike will answer with a resounding yes. It seems that Violet’s bedroom and Mary’s bedroom are the most active locations on the property. In Violet’s room, there is a window that opens itself from time to time, so much so that the current staff members have wedged an old musket in front of it to keep it closed. There is also a black mist seen in front of the fireplace and in front of the window, and people who visit the room often report feeling the need to get out or of pressure on their chest.

In Mary’s room, the closet door has been caught on tape moving on its own, as if it were violently kicked from within. EMF detectors left on the bed will suddenly begin to spike, things will move, and occasionally a sulfuric smell will engulf the room just before all activity ceases. Numerous EVPs have been caught all through the house and shadows have appeared throughout the museum as well.

In the courtyard, a man in a Civil War uniform has been seen numerous times and has been mistaken several times as a reenactor. So real does he appear that tourists have even gone up to ask him questions; he politely refers them to the “nice ladies” inside the museum – ladies who have no idea who he is and can find no trace of him when they rush outside to see who the tourists are talking about. In the annex building, which houses an extensive collection of memorabilia on the second floor, heavy footsteps have been heard upstairs when no one is there, and the presence of a man believed to be a Confederate Major lurks in the downstairs office.

Thus there was no shortage of possibilities for a ghostly encounter when I set up for my night at the museum. While wandering the museum at night was a lovely experience in its own right, the only real thing of note that happened to me was toward the end of the night, when I and two other women were stationed in Mary’s room on the second floor of the house. We were completely alone in the building when we distinctly heard the front screen door move, and then the sound of someone quietly moving about downstairs. We honestly believed someone had come into the house, but no one answered our calls, and finally we tiptoed downstairs to see what we could find. No one was there, but we kept hearing a clicking noise in the vicinity of the organ in the Victorian parlor, as if someone were pressing down on the keys. Now Violet did play the organ for her church, so in my heart I kind of hope it was her we were hearing. Nothing else of significance happened during the investigation, but of course there is much audio still to be gone through, so hope springs eternal that perhaps Violet or one of the other spirits of Weems-Botts spoke to us. If not, it still was anything but a wasted trip, just for the wealth of historical information (and the divine red velvet cupcakes) we received from the knowledgeable and gracious staff. If you ever head to DC to check out its rich cultural offerings, make time to stop off at the Weems-Botts Museum in Dumfries. You might learn a thing or two, and if you’re very lucky, you might even run across one of the ghosts.

For more information on the museum, including tour times and prices, please visit their website at http://historicdumfries.com/weemsbotts.html.

The Scariest Place on Earth


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As a paranormal investigator, the single most common question I’m asked is, “Where is the most haunted place you’ve ever been?” The second most common question is, “What’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to you?” My response to the first question is always somewhat conflicted, because it’s so subjective. I might go to a place and think there is absolutely nothing there, while another person believes it’s teeming with ghosts. Personally, I believe anyplace can be haunted. Goodness knows there have been enough people dying in this world throughout time to populate it many times over should they so desire. And while “residual” haunts may be stuck in one place, replaying the same bit of history on a seemingly endless loop, “intelligent” haunts should theoretically be able to wander at will. Whether they choose to do so, or prefer to stay close to the places they knew in life, is entirely up to them. This is assuming that ghosts exist, and that ghosts are the remnants of once-living humans, which is definitely not something I’m prepared to swear to. At any rate, I usually dodge questions about the “most haunted” place I’ve investigated and skip right on to the scariest experience. And that, my friends, brings me to my favorite place ever to investigate: the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, WV.

The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum (TALA) was built in the mid-1800s to house the insane. It is reportedly the second largest hand-cut stone masonry building in the world, the first largest being the Kremlin. Construction was briefly halted during the Civil War, and the first patients moved into the facility in 1864. As with so many facilities of its type, the asylum was intended to house around 250 patients, but by the 1950s around 2600 souls were crammed into its bleak rooms and corridors. Plagued by overcrowding, poor living conditions, and violence, TALA finally closed its doors in 1994. It sat vacant for many years, despite several failed schemes for rehabilitation of its disintegrating hulk, until finally being purchased by the Jordan family in 2007. They opened it to the public, with proceeds from their historic and paranormal tours going toward the ongoing restoration.

The paranormal aspect of the asylum is by far the most popular with the public. Of course many patients died here, many were buried in the cemetery on the grounds, and there was a huge amount of anguish suffered within the walls. Lobotomies were performed en masse, people afflicted with nothing more than depression or alcoholism were housed alongside insane murderers and rapists, patients committed horrible crimes against themselves and others, and thus an indelible imprint was left on the environment. There have been countless reports of eerie things heard, seen, and felt at the asylum, and it has been featured on such TV shows as Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, and Paranormal Challenge. And, lucky for you and me, it’s open to the public for ghost hunts. You can either book it for a private hunt, or join a public hunt that goes from 9 PM to 5 AM. The building is massive, so it can handle quite a number of investigators, but I would strongly recommend the private hunt if you want to conduct a serious investigation. However, the public hunts (which will include up to 40 participants) are perfect for those who are not part of a paranormal group or just want the experience of wandering the peeling halls of TALA for several hours in the dark.

I participated in a public hunt at TALA last summer. Luckily, that night it was boiling hot and there were only about 20 of us willing to brave the stifling temperatures (the building does not have heat or air conditioning). This works out to 5 people per floor, which is not bad for a public hunt. Not ideal, because you have no control over what other people do, which contaminates any potential evidence, but I was there mostly to get a feel for the place with an eye toward a future private investigation.

It’s hard to describe how overwhelming TALA really is. The main building is huge, with wings extending for what seem like miles in either direction. The walls and ceilings are crumbling and decrepit, but still beautiful; it’s amazing that such graceful architecture was intended to house such evil and madness. Walking through the abandoned wards is truly like being on the set of a horror movie, complete with the occasional bat streaking by and the rusty groan of the old metal doors. The night my group was there, an electrical storm was in the distance, and the four of us began the evening by creeping through the Arts and Crafts section, down in the bowels of the building, in an area usually off-limits to visitors. Lightning flickered through the barred windows, thunder growled in the distance, and my heart pounded as we stood in the room where thousands of lobotomies were performed, trying to communicate with whoever or whatever might linger there. I nearly levitated when the town siren went off, signaling the curfew for local teens. It’s not so much what you see and hear at TALA that’s so scary, it’s the possibility of what you might see and hear. There is an overwhelming sense of presence in almost every corner of the building, more so than any other place I’ve been in the United States.

Eventually we made our way to what was once the children’s ward (yes, unfortunately, children were kept here too). And it was in this ward that I had my most convincing paranormal experience to date. Just as we got set up, we all distinctly heard a child screaming at the opposite end of the ward. We were the only ones on that wing, and no one at all was in the area where the scream came from. Despite the heat, I was covered in goosebumps as we searched the wing and peered outside, trying to find a natural cause for something that I believe is beyond rational explanation. After satisfying ourselves that there was no living person in the area who could have made that noise, we settled down and began an EVP session. Two of us were at the entrance to the ward, while the other two were at the opposite end. As we asked questions of the ether, my partner and I heard the sound of a metal door opening or closing. This happened several times. The only metal door in the vicinity was the one right next to us, and I could see clearly that it was NOT moving, yet it continued to make that sound. Possibly a residual noise left over from the days when the ward was a hive of youthful activity? Maybe. I certainly could find no natural reason for the sound.

Finally we moved on to the violent women’s ward. The pink paint peeling from the walls in this wing seems almost a joke or a parody of femininity. After all, these women were the worst of the worst, women who inflicted horrible brutality on their families and strangers and thought nothing of trying to kill a hospital employee or another inmate. Pink seems a bit…inappropriate for these women. Anyway, the other female in the group sat in one of the tiny rooms with me, hoping to catch a glimpse of the apparitions who supposedly stalk the hallways. We were just sitting on the floor, chatting and letting our recorders and cameras run, when she suddenly shot to her feet and bolted out the door, in pursuit of a crouching shadow figure that had just run past the doorway. There was no one in the hall or any of the rooms, but she clearly witnessed a dark mass, in the shape of a person, running past the door in a kind of hunched over position. To my everlasting chagrin, I had been looking at my friend during the penultimate moment and did not see the shadow figure. But her excitement was contagious, and I do believe she saw something inexplicable roaming the halls of the violent women’s ward.

So: if you ever have the urge to scare yourself silly or want to soak up some interesting history, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum should definitely be on your short list of places to visit. While I’ll never categorize anyplace as the most haunted place I’ve ever been, TALA certainly qualifies as one of the most enjoyable. I had a ridiculously good time there and hope to go again in the near future. And it’s not so far away…about a 3 hour drive from Harrisonburg, VA. But please, if you do head to the asylum, let me know what you find. Maybe you too will run across the screaming child or shadow person, or one of the other infamous ghosts reportedly still inhabiting the nightmare that is Trans-Allegheny.

(You can read much more about TALA and its ghosts at http://trans-alleghenylunaticasylum.com/.)