In Search of the Haunt

This story originally appeared in Voice of the Foothills (Morganton, NC).

Spirits of the Plantation Home

October 2002 — Over 30 years ago, Marsha Riddle would have labeled herself a skeptic.  But the strange things she has witnessed since 1972 when she and her family moved into the Magnolia plantation home have convinced her that there are ghosts lingering in the old house.  Objects move when they should be still, doors slam shut and lock of their own accord, strange footprints herald the visit of otherworldly visitors, and voices call out from empty air.

Mrs. Riddle and her husband, Dr. Iverson Riddle, obviously love to tell their many strange stories.  Hours can slip by unnoticed as they reveal the mysteries they’ve shared for decades.  The ghosts are quite real to Mrs. Riddle.  The spirits have personalities and quarks and apparently even a sense of humor.  Dr. Riddle, on the other hand, stops short of admitting a belief in ghosts.  It’s not hard at all to coax the doctor into reeling off one of the many unexplained tales he has to tell, but spirits are not necessarily the stars of his stories.  Despite the passage of 15 or more years since the time of the story he tells, he still shakes his head, perplexed consternation wrinkling his forehead.  “I still haven’t figured that one out,” he admits.

Mrs. Riddle has tried to explain away some incidents, but she eventually arrived at her conclusion of ghostly residents when entirely too many occasions pointed her in that direction.  A vase full of artificial flowers fell from a mantle several times soon after the Riddles moved in.  Could a cat have knocked it over?  Possibly, but the second time it happened, the cat was outside.  Could a large truck passing on the nearby road have shaken the vase from its perch?  Maybe, but after three or four times, it would seem reasonable that the vase wouldn’t be the only thing affected.  She finally decided that maybe artificial flowers just didn’t belong in that spot.  Perhaps the ghost of Anna Barbara Stevely, the first woman to live in the house back when it was built in 1800, had different decorating tastes.  A clock now resides there and hasn’t budged.

Mrs. Riddle isn’t scared, though.  As a matter of fact, she is actually comforted by the presence of ghosts.  She says the spirits are watching over her and the 200-year-old home.  They are former residents who have decided to stick around to make sure the house is cared for.

“We are just passing through just like other people have,” said Mrs. Riddle.  “This house doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to history.  This house is greater than we are.”

Mrs. Riddle feels that the many incidents over the years have some meaning; they are clues in a historical mystery.  For instance, one morning she looked out a window and discovered footprints in new-fallen snow.  They came from some woods behind the house, circled around the side of the house, led to the side of the front porch – not to the front where the steps were, though – and finally headed away from the house and suddenly stopped in open ground with no apparent place for the person who made the tracks to have gone.  Mrs. Riddle and her husband went outside for a closer look.  The strangest thing they both noticed was that the prints were of a person’s right foot only.  To say the Riddle’s were puzzled would be an understatement.

A few months later, though, they met a grandson of a former Magnolia resident who furnished some valuable information that made the footprint incident suddenly clear.  His grandfather was a soldier who lost his left leg in the Civil War.  Also, the front porch during that time had steps on the side rather than the front, which seemed to explain why the prints had led there.  All of this made perfect sense to Mrs. Riddle; the pieces to that particular ghostly puzzle had fallen perfectly into place.

Sometimes Mrs. Riddle’s ghosts are just expressing themselves or maybe having a bit of fun.  A pocket watch dangling on display from the beak of eagle statue has a tendency to swing of its own accord.  There is a mild disagreement between Mr. and Mrs. Riddle about that, though.  Mrs. Riddle says the watch will move without anyone touching it whereas Mr. Riddle says that someone has to push it, but it will swing on its own for hours afterwards.  Mrs. Riddle gets a chuckle out of the reaction of one of her guests several years ago when she told him about the watch.  The guest expressed total disbelief, but then as he was doing so, the watch started swinging wildly.  The guest shortened his stay considerably.

Dr. Riddle says that the past 30 years at Magnolia have been fun – puzzling, but fun.  The mysteries haunt him a bit, even if actual ghosts do not.  He’s heard music in the home before, and despite an exhaustive search he couldn’t find the music’s source.  A triple locked door has mysteriously been opened a few times, a chain lock on it swinging as if the door had just been moved.  The same door has also slammed shut with a house-rocking bang when there was no one nearby to shut it, and the three locks on it were somehow secured.  He simply doesn’t know what to make of it all.

And the most ghostly occurrence of all was the appearance of an actual apparition of a woman.  Several months after the incident, a guest had finally very reluctantly admitted to seeing a ghost in the middle of the night.  It had walked across the room, stopped at the foot of his bed and looked at him for a few minutes, then walked through the closed bedroom door.

Are ghosts keeping an eye on their home centuries-old home?  Is the home only acting its age with creaks and knocks coupled with doses of active imagination?  Mrs. Riddle knows she shares her home with spirits, and even likes to joke, “I’ll probably be one of them when I die.”

Researching Haunts

Ghosts help pay Joshua Warren’s bills, so to speak.  Warren is president of  the League of Energy Materialization and Unexplained phenomena Research, which is better known by its acronym L.E.M.U.R.  Since 1995 the L.E.M.U.R. paranormal research team has been investigating things like UFOs, cryptozoology, psychic claims, and an abundance of hauntings.  Burke County’s Brown Mountain Lights are on Warren’s list of visited hotspots and he proudly claims to have obtained the first video footage of the phenomenon.

Warren’s team is based in Asheville and has been kept busy over the years.  His team’s aim is to approach their investigations from a primarily scientific direction using objective observation and documentation.  They try to cover all the bases with a long laundry list of methods including electromagnetic field detection, electrostatic field monitoring, infrared and ultraviolet photography, and sub-sonic audio recording.  The team is not necessarily “ghost-busting,” but rather trying to learn all they can about paranormal phenomena.

“I stand on the fringe of our scientific knowledge, pushing forward into areas so new and uncertain, that we sometimes have to actually invent new technologies and techniques for making progress,” said Warren.

Warren is confident that ghosts are real.  But clearly defining what a ghost is, especially in anything resembling a scientific way, is not easy.  Loosely defined, Warren says ghosts are, “some paranormal aspect of the physical form and/or mental presence that appears to exist apart from the original, physical form.”  This description allows the ghosts he has investigated to fit into two categories: imprints and entities.  Sometimes objects can appear in ghostly form; Warren used the example of a carriage along with its horses.  This ghostly vision may be evidence of the environment acting much in the same way as a tape recorder might.  An electro magnetically sensitive area might be able to permanently record an emotionally-sensitive event, like a murder or suicide and later play it back if certain conditions like temperature or humidity are right.

Entities, though, are more along the lines of what the general public considers ghosts to be.  The actual spirit supposedly lives on after the death of the body; the spectral entity of a deceased person is simply that same individual in a different form.  If the Magnolia plantation house does have ghosts, then it would seem they fit best in the entity category.

Warren’s team has videotaped physical objects moving, such as one of their instruments being tipped over.  A blue-gray mist appeared next to Warren in an attic, lasted for about 15 seconds and vanished.  He’s heard and recorded unexplained sounds like drumbeats in an area supposedly haunted by Indians.  When Warren says he has experience, he’s not kidding.  He has some type of evidence close at hand to back up his claims.

“I can conclusively say that these types of occurrences that people associate with ghosts and hauntings are real,” he said. “However, I cannot conclusively say these phenomena are the product of the spirits of dead people. In some cases, they might be. However, I have never seen an individual materialize before me – like you see in the movies – and have never had clear, undeniable communication with one. If that ever occurs, I’ll feel more confident about what these manifestations are.”

Despite L.E.M.U.R.’s role of paranormal investigation – which tends to be far off the beaten scientific path – Warren said that he has been shown a fair amount of courtesy and respect.  He believes that is because his work relies on the scientific method rather than mysticism.  Evidence is his calling card, and he says people enjoy seeing that evidence and appreciate being left to make up their own minds.

Mainstream scientists have criticized his work and have claimed that Warren is only in it for the money.  Warren’s reply is, “I receive no grants or public funding, and any money I receive is honestly earned from people who truly appreciate my work. To imply that making money always risks integrity is ludicrous. Would you prefer to have your surgery performed by a doctor who is being paid well, or one who is doing the job for free? Who is more likely to do the better job?”

Carolina Skeptic

Dr. Eric Carlson likes to investigate extraordinary claims.  The physicist and Wake Forest University professor doesn’t believe in the paranormal, such as ghosts haunting a house, but that doesn’t make the search for the truth any less interesting for him.

Carlson is president and founding member of Carolina Skeptics, an education-oriented non-profit organization that encourages critical thinking and education in North and South Carolina.  The group critically investigates paranormal and extraordinary claims and requires solid evidence before such claims are accepted.  The group wants to act in the best interest of the public and wants to serve as a voice of caution in the media where extraordinary claims are often accepted without adequate evidence.

“Why choose ghosts over UFOs or demons?” asks Carlson when presented with stories of hauntings.  He doesn’t understand how people can arrive at certain conclusions when there are many alternative explanations.  The final answer of “a ghost did it” is not the only solution available and is often not the simplest one either.

Carlson used the account of an investigation he had read about as an example.  The eerie sounds of a ghostly printing press could be heard in a building’s basement.  An investigation team tried to pin the blame on a the sounds of a nearby train, but that theory turned out to be wrong.  The team didn’t give up, though, and they eventually discovered that night-time cleaning crews in a neighboring building were the actual cause.  Their equipments’ sounds traveling through ground and walls sounded exactly like the steady thrumming of a printing press.

Some paranormal claims are hoaxes.  Teenagers might be trying to attract attention or dishonest people might be trying to make a quick buck.  However, there are plenty of cases where there are just unexplained events happening to honest, reliable people.  Carlson made it clear, though, that there is a difference between unexplained and unexplainable.  If a person driving down a road sees orange cones blocking off a section of the street, their presence may be unexplained at the time, but people don’t automatically assume that a ghost had set them out.  The cones can be explained in a rational manner if one just takes the time to investigate.

Reliable people have unreliable memories, though.  Carlson said that it is a documented fact that human memory is faulty.  Memory typically pares things down then fills in the gaps.  “If I showed up at your house wearing a jacket one evening and then the next day asked you what I had worn, your memory may be a bit hazy,” Carlson said. “You may recall I had worn something kind of formal and so you might say, ‘You wore a jacket and tie’ even though I had not worn a tie.  If I asked the same question again a year later, your memory may have filled in even more details such as, ‘You wore a red tie.’  You are not lying, your memory is just faulty.”

Filled-in memory may be a culprit in the Riddles’ account of the mysterious footprints they had found in the snow around their house.  What details might have been added over the years between the finding of the prints and now?  There are other questions that puzzle Carlson about the prints.  He wonders that if one looses a leg in life, how is the supposed spirit affected?  Didn’t the man have a wooden leg or crutches? If so, why wouldn’t those tracks also be evident?  The undefined rules governing what a person carries with him beyond death seem to amuse Carlson.

Carlson offered a possible explanation for the tracks.  An animal may have made them, and the snow could have melted a little bit and given the tracks the appearance of a human’s right foot print.  He made it clear, though, that he had not seen the tracks himself and only offers this idea as one possible scenario.  What he lacks in this case is evidence.  Conjectures are essentially meaningless without evidence – regardless if the guessed-at cause is ghosts or live animals.

Holy Spirit

Pastor Thomas Bland, Jr., senior minister at Morganton’s First Baptist Church, doesn’t believe in ghosts, especially as defined by popular culture.  His disbelief is not so much based on skepticism, but rather on his focus as a Christian minister.  He concentrates on elements of life for which there is a foundation in the Bible, and his interpretation of the scriptures leaves little room for lost spirits.

Bland’s faith and understanding is that people’s souls pass from this life and into the presence of God to be judged.  He simply doesn’t know how or why a spirit would be stuck here.

As a Baptist, Protestant, Christian minister, Bland studies what the Bible teaches about many unusual occurrences and beings.  In several places in the New Testament spirits of one kind or another are spoken of.  They are often references to evil spirits and demons.  Some scholars interpret those passages as writings based on a  first century understanding of science and philosophy.  Demons may have actually been people with mental health problems or physical ailments.

“As I read the scriptures sometimes I find those scholarly dismissals or explanations of phenomenon such as demons to be somewhat inadequate, personally,” said Bland.  “I do think there is a very real and personal and palpable evil at work in the world in many, many ways and the Bible certainly teaches that.”

Bland doesn’t equate this evil with ghosts, but he does give credence to the phenomenon of demons and evil spirits, based on the Bible.  But each individual’s description of this evil presence in the world depends on what Biblical passages one reads and how those passages are interpreted.

Some people who are caught up in a great interest in ghosts may read passages where they find parallels to earthly spirits.  Jesus on one occasion is on a high hill during the phenomenon of transfiguration.  He stood illuminated before his disciples and they saw with him Elijah and Moses, who, of course, had passed away a long time before this particular event.

“Those people may find some association in that with what popular culture defines as ghosts, but I don’t see anything ghostly in that at all.”

People have told Bland about hauntings before, and Bland makes it clear that he doesn’t discount what anyone says about what they have witnessed, especially if the one telling the story is known to be respectable and trustworthy.  However, he has no personal experience in the matter; he’s been in older homes and has been unnerved by sudden drafts and creaking doors, but he never attributed such things to ghosts.  The wind can find ways into older homes whereas it can’t in modern ones.

All the talk about evil spirits and possessions by demons in the Bible completely fails to address anything like what the Riddle’s say they experience.  Ghosts that are benign or even humorous are not addressed at all.  Bland alluded to the Holy Spirit which is God’s presence among us and in us when asked about the comforting feeling some people may get from ghosts, but Bland had nothing beyond that with which to adequately explain these unique experiences.

A complex and deep grief brought on by the death of a close loved one could also lead to high susceptibility to auto-suggestion.  Smells could easily bring back a flood of memories and Bland thinks that such things could lead a person to believe he has been visited by the spirit of a deceased loved one.  Bland cautions that to get a full understanding of this, one should consult a psychologist, but he is familiar with many stories where emotional complications can have many strange effects on people.

Bland does believe in evil and strongly believes that one must turn to Jesus for protection and to be washed clean of the sins all mankind carries.  The common Hollywood depiction of priests struggling against levitating, pea-soup spewing possessed individuals is the stuff of fantasy, but the fight against evil influences is quite real.