We are surrounded by ghosts, maybe not literally engulfed by the undead but elements of the otherworldly are more prevalent than ever on TV and in film. TV is brimming with shows concerning ghost hunting. There are the reality shows "Ghost Hunters," "Most Haunted" and "Paranormal State." Then there are the fictional shows "Ghost Whisperer," "Medium" and "Supernatural." There is even a new fictional movie that offers itself as a true account of recorded supernatural events - "Paranormal Activity" - which created an Internet buzz by being releasing to select markets in phases and building tension before you even see it.
With all this ghost gossip and hype, and in an area rich with ghost tales and legends, it seemed like a no-brainer for Weekly Surge to try to chase down our own poltergeists in honor of Halloween.
As a total novice in the business of busting ghosts, I needed a guide. I soon find out that it is as much of a wild ghost chase to find a ghost hunter as it was to catch an actual ghost. Plans were made and unmade, locations changed, rosters revised. Phone call after phone call ... just to reach a dead line. E-mail after e-mail ... only to be left unread in an inbox, like being buried alive in a junk mail coffin. I started to think spotting a specter was going to be the death of me. But as fate would have it, sometimes things just come together as if guided by an unseen hand. So, here it is, my journey to grab a glimpse of gossamer.
ON THE PLANTATION
It was midnight when we pull into Litchfield Plantation, the first stop on our ghostcapade. Now a country inn, the plantation was once owned by a confederate physician, Henry Massingberd Tucker. During his lifetime, the good doctor would ring the bell at the front gate when returning from house calls before riding down the front path to the carriage house. Legend has it, the bell can still be heard ringing at all hours of the night and horse hooves can still be heard along a now-paved road that leads to the converted mansion. According to local legend, Dr. Tucker can still be heard and seen walking up and down the rear staircase that led to his sleeping quarters. I am armed with local medium and ghosthunter, Erica Hansen from Carolina Forest. In her early thirties, Hansen is a full-time mom, an actress with the Theatre of the Republic, and a part-time ghost hunter. Her tools are innocent enough - a digital audio recorder, two digital cameras, a camcorder and a sturdy flashlight.
Upon entering the grounds of Litchfield Plantation, it is obvious that very little has changed since the 1800s. The bell is gone, replaced with a guard shack, but the rest is the same. The oak trees bow into arches above the main road, leading to the house. The Spanish moss looks alive, gray, drooping down like tendrils, almost scraping across the top of our car. The rain had turned the road into a black mirror in my headlights. It finally felt like autumn - the dead season. A chill in the air and the absence of light on the gated plantation, made the stars look as big as dinner plates and the moonlight cast shadows in every direction. Dark skeletal figures stretched out behind trees with every burst of light from our flashlight.
Hansen began her work as soon we disembarked, placing the video camera on the porch of the house - trained on a pair of rocking chairs, rocking in a faint autumn breeze.
"This is just a camera," Hansen said absently into the night air. "Feel free to move it or look at it ... just don't break it,'' Hansen said, speaking in a tone generally reserved for instructing children.
Inside the lobby of the inn, we snapped away with our cameras (me on my third set of batteries). Up the back staircase (the allegedly haunted one), Hansen mentioned how something was there ... a presence. As much as I wanted to see or feel something, to me it was just empty, dimly lit halls and ominous-looking stairs - an old house in the middle of the night.
As we walked the grounds, mostly in the blackness, Hansen asked questions into the audio recorder. The recorder was used for later investigation - to pick up anything that cannot be heard by the naked human ear. We snapped flashes from our cameras into the bleakly lit acres that surround the house. Oddly, after a few pictures my newly charged batteries were dead. I added another set of freshly charged batteries and five minutes later - my camera was dead again. "Sometimes you can encounter some ghosts that like to be troublemakers, they use a lot of energy and they like to manipulate it," said Hansen. As if on cue, the line of small lantern lights flickered twice. Hansen asked: "Why are you here? What is your name? Can you make a sound for me?" The last question was punctuated by a loud crunch in the woods, bordering the road.
Hansen's excitement was contagious, as much as I wanted to stay unbiased, my adrenaline pumped.
"Did you hear that?" she asked. Before I could respond, the light's glow dipped again.
The longer we walked, the less light was visible along our path, I shined a light into the thick tree-line and there, staring back at me were two red eyes. Fierce and burning, they had me frozen in fear ... before Hansen pointed out it was merely a deer.
Back along the pitch-black paths that loop around the house, Hanson asked, "Are you ready for us to go?" A sound that closely resembled footsteps was heard. Audible and clear, maybe another deer, maybe the hooves of a ghost horse, maybe our imaginations working in tandem - maybe just enough to make us leave.
Almost to the car, Hanson stopped a few feet short, held her hands out to her sides and told the ghosts, again with a motherly tone, that they were not allowed to come with us.
Hansen rated our encounters pretty low on her lists of medium achievements, being that there was no direct contact with any specters and all the communications with the other side could be construed as extreme coincidence. Although, later examinations of her video camera would reveal an audio conversation between two unknown sources on the empty porch just seconds before we walked up to retrieve her camera. It was a conversation concerning the weather - two ghosts talking about rain and crops which may have caused her to bump up her rating of the evening - but, proving to me that even in death, Southerners can't get away from mundane conversation topics.
GO ASK ALICE
Next stop was All Saints Parrish in the Litchfield/Pawleys Island area, just a few miles from the plantation we explored. All Saints Parrish is the home of the Alice Flagg memorial and supposedly, the dwelling of one of the Grand Strand's most infamous ghosts. The story goes that the noble-blooded Flagg was engaged to a commoner and her family would not allow it. She fell sick and while in the height of her fever, her brother tried to comfort her, only to discover her engagement ring that was concealed around her neck. He threw the ring into the marsh at the Hermitage in Murrells inlet and Flagg died soon after. Now it has been said that if you visit her grave and walk around it eight times, you will feel a tug on your rings or ring-finger.
The cemetery is old, filled with discolored headstones and decrepit iron gates protecting the above-ground tombs. The dates on the markers go back centuries. Alice Flagg's gravestone is spare, to say the least. A small inlayed slab of granite with just the word, "Alice" inscribed.
Again accompanied with my trusty medium, Hansen, she performed the ritual that every high school student in the area has tried at least once, evidenced by the gravesite being covered with cheap rings. Hansen circled and counted along the way until she reached eight. But alas, nothing happened, no tugging, the ground did not open up and swallow us. Just two people standing in a cemetery in the middle of the night. Hansen believes that Flagg is elsewhere and from the looks of it, the scene does feel like more of a novelty than a tribute to a human being taken before her time.
As we strolled through the boneyard, Hansen did feel other spirits were active and present, but hey, what do you expect when you take a medium to a graveyard? It is like taking a chocoholic to a Hershey factory.
ON THE BOO-LEVARD
For the third and final leg of my attempts to pocket a poltergeist, I enlisted the lead investigator of Coastal Spirit Chasers, Jennifer Garris. Garris has been hot on the trail of spirits for a decade. Garris believes in the "less is more" theory, stating that it is easier to pick up paranormal activity when hunting with a small group.
Our hunting ground had been moved from its initial undisclosed location to Ripley's Haunted Adventure, on Ocean Boulevard in downtown Myrtle Beach. The original locale has been her fertile hunting ground for the last eight years and Garris preferred not to divulge it publicly, to prevent it from being poached. Garris assured me that despite the irony, the haunted adventure was indeed haunted. The origins of the ghosts were a little shaky but Kim Kiff, the attraction's general manager, did give a brief history, dating back to a burned down beach house on the same site, followed by a bar owned by two brothers where sibling rivalry flared and one of the brothers killed the other.
Garris and I were guided through the maze of rooms by Kiff and Office Manager Shannon Booth. Rooms filled with fake, bloodied corpses, severed limbs, morgues equipped with air guns and prerecorded screams.
In the dining room, where skeletons sat at a dusty table, Garris opens her case, equipped with a plethora of phantom finders. Audio and video recording devices with night vision, an Electro Magnetic Field Detector and K-2 Meter, an Infrared Laser Thermometer, and the mysterious Ghost Box - a modified AM/FM radio that, in theory, allows you to communicate in real time with a ghost.
The investigation began as all investigations begin with Garris asking questions. She knocks on a wall and asks the spirit to knock back. A thunderous boom erupts from the hall. Kiff and Booth both give possible causes of the boom, as they were preparing for a new show which will highlight the scariest moments of the film, "The Shining." Garris knocks again and again the boom comes. Kiff soon realizes that it wasn't a galloping ghoul but instead the sound of pylons being pounded in for the new oceanfront boardwalk across the street.
The lights on her meters lay dormant, so we move on and up into the coffin room. A room without lights - cluttered like an attic and in the center of the room stands a glass coffin filled with a gentleman who seems to be resting peacefully. Garris again asks her questions, but again if the spooks are there, they are sleeping with the nice plastic fellow in the glass case.
Garris is frustrated but this is not the first time she has had a love/hate relationship with specters. She explains that in the past she has been ignored as well as abused by ghosts. Citing examples of how spirits have verbally insulted her, sexual harassed her by pinching her butt as well as physically attacking her by smacking her to the ground. Today, they are not giving her the time of day. She gains her composure, packs her case and says, "OK, let's head to the dark room!"
All these rooms and corridors have levels of dark, from wow, it is so dark, I can't see a thing to wow, it is so dark I don't even exist.
The dark room is actually not that dark, a room soon to be converted into "Room 237" for the "Shining" attraction - furnished only with a bathtub and a canned light in the ceiling, Garris uses her laser thermometer to measure temperature variations and indeed, there are a few strange occurrences including when she asks the presence to make the temperature drop and hold at 68.7 degrees and the specter complies.
Then Garris unleashes the Ghost Box. She explains that this is piece of equipment that is still in the research phases. Everyone took a turn with the device, putting the headphones on, asking questions and then listening as the radio flies through its frequencies, spitting out words between static.
I had the earphones on without hearing so much as a syllable for several minutes thinking that this just may have been a total bust - before I was prompted to start asking questions. The conversation that followed was not perfect but it was a conversation nevertheless. It went kind of like this.
I asked, "Who are you?"
A voice said, "Spencer."
I asked, "Are you looking for something?"
A voice said, "Second row, (static) the show, (static) three nights." I asked, "Are you looking for someone?"
A voice said, "Explain (static) Bride (static) Tulip."
Now there were other things that were said before and after that interchange that pertained to coffee and Cincinnati and some other unrecognizable words, but that small bit of Q-and-A was worth the price of admission. That conversation was as close as I would probably ever get to a phone conversation with a wayward ball of energy - ghost or not - it was pretty intense. On the way to our cars, I asked Garris what she would have to say to those people out there who think ghost stories are just stories. "Where there's smoke, there's fire," she replied. "I'm not here to make people believe, I'm here to help people who have had experiences with ghosts. The nonbelievers can go out see for themselves."