Sunday, November 2, 2008

Who Y'all Gonna Call?

If you've ever lived in, visited, or been anally raped by hillbillies while making pig noises in the Deep South, you've no doubt noticed the piles of history we have around here. "Look at that historical SQUEEEEEEAL SQUEEEEEEAL object!" is something we often hear tourists sob. That's especially true of the Atlanta area, even though many of our historic objects have been burned down for more than 140 years.

We're reminded of this on the Roswell Ghost Tour, a two-hour nighttime walking tour of Roswell, Georgia. Roswell was formerly home to a bunch of Cherokee Indians, who kindly donated it to the white settlers by being declared illegal and forcibly relocated. Ironically, 60 years later, those same white settlers were declared illegal by Union soldiers and forcibly relocated by General Sherman.

But modern Roswell is still rife with large antebellum homes, every one of which is haunted. Ghosts love them some creaky, drafty places for some reason. Many of those houses are now museums or other officially preserved structures, but one is also a J. Christopher's and another is a salon when I once got a serviceable (i.e. non-haunted) haircut.

I entered this environment with sniggering anticipation, along with fellow GhostHunterBusters Rich, Lisa, and Kelley. Plus maybe three dozen other people exhibiting varying degrees of credulity, but none more than our tour guide Elizabeth.

Light Anomalies

Our first stop was Bulloch Hall, unfortunately not named for Jim J. Bulloch. At Bulloch Hall, you're going to get light anomalies, featuring 2/3rds the creepiness of regular anomalies. Light anomalies are when lights suddenly come on or go off. This happens so much at Bulloch Hall that they might as well put a disco inside. We have anecdotes out the wazoo from docents working there (Bulloch Hall is a museum now) who have shut everything off for the night, only to notice as they were driving away that the attic light or a front room light was on. Elizabeth assured us that there were no motion-sensitive lights installed, and the only light timer was inactive, so ghosts were the only logical explanation.

While she was telling us this, the porch light came on. The porch light mysteriously comes on whenever someone climbs the porch steps.

Perhaps we were unfairly skeptical, but we were unmoved by the lights. None of us are electricians, but we thought of other explanations besides ghosts fascinated by light switches. How reliable is the wiring in a 170-year-old house? It's a big place - how often does a docent forget a room until getting back to the car? Once word spreads about light anomalies, how often does the power of suggestion turn a forgotten light or blown-out bulb into a supernatural event? I was reminded of Ghostbusters, and not for the last time that night: certainly no human being would switch on lights like this.

Also at Bulloch Hall: a rocking chair sat placidly on the porch, as chairs do. Elizabeth told us that chair sometimes starts rocking on its own, sometimes speeding up, sometimes slowing back down again. Right as I was starting to think of a reason for that, a breeze hit me on the back of the neck. Or maybe a ghost was flirting with me. Or maybe it was Rich. Regardless, I guess you can think of wind as ghosts, in the sense that they can make things move.

Ghosts at Bulloch

The handrail at Bulloch Hall. Look carefully, and you can see the ghostly image of a woman caught turning on the porch light.

Full-bodied Apparitions

The mother lode. Or, as Elizabeth put it, the Holy Grail of paranormal investigation. I guess that means they're rare, but every place we where stopped had one. By my account, about 15% of the Roswell citizens are dead. Roswell is one tragic apartment fire away from having a filibuster-proof ghost majority.

Not all of them live in houses on the tour, either -- the person who runs the tour has seen one walking around outside. Probably more. I made it a point to accidentally bump into several people on the tour, just in case we had spies. Didn't find any, but in downtown Roswell we have an adolescent slave girl, a young boy wearing knickers, several young curious girls (one in a townhouse, one in a cemetery), a grumpy elderly couple, a habitual jaywalker, and most interestingly, a ghost cat.

Truly. We were walking through a neighborhood and a black cat crossed our path. We laughed, and Elizabeth said "that's a real cat, but there is a phantom cat around here." I can only assume Elizabeth spends her days kicking cats, and her foot passed through one once.

We didn't see any full-bodied apparitions of any species. I think we need a federal program where we pay people to wander through Roswell kicking homeless people, just in case. If you're not going to go away when you're dead, you can just keep paying taxes.

Ghost Smoke

This was my favorite. There was a large house that was built just in time for Christmas 100 years ago or so. They threw a Christmas/housewarming party, not knowing the chimney was blocked. Roof caught on fire and the place burned to the ground. So they decided to build another one, and piled a bunch of wood in the lawn to cure for awhile. The stacks of wood were hit by lightning and burned. The current house is made of bricks. It is from this house that we get the story of the Three Little Pigs.

Now, when groups of people stand in front of the house, occasionally someone in the group claims to smell smoke. Not the most frightening story ever, but still... ooooOOOOooooOOOOoooo...

My problem with the phantom smoke is twofold. 1) How is the smell of ghost smoke different from that of regular smoke coming out of the chimneys of any of the other half-dozen old drafty houses nearby? 2) What, exactly, is this a ghost of? No one died in either fire. The first house was brand new, and the second was still un-begun. How haunted could they be?

Also, Jimmy Carter's aunt used to live across the street. She's dead now. No word of whether she's a ghost now.


There's an old cotton mill in Roswell. During the Civil War, all the men in the area were off fighting in the Confederate Army, so the mill was operated primarily by women. General Sherman learned that the mill was making supplies for the Confederates, so his Union Army took it over and carried all the ladies inside away, before moving on to Atlanta proper, in his quest to make more ghost smoke. There's only one report of any of those people making it back -- a woman who returned five years later, to find her husband had remarried.Now, the mill is empty, and the trail leading to it is closed for renovations, which means the only people who go there are teenaged smoochers. Those reliable witnesses report the sounds of women screaming and a mill running. Our tour guide's thought was that the Union Army did themselves a little raping before hauling the women up north.

But there are a lot of things wrong here. I can't find evidence of widespread raping, although I suppose they could also start screaming if they were told they had to go to Philadelphia. Who wouldn't? Also, a modern teenager wouldn't know what a cotton mill sounds like unless the Jonas Brothers sampled some cotton mill noises. Do cotton mills sound slurpy, smoochy, and fumbly?

The Founder's Cemetery

We stopped at the Founder's Cemetery, where several of the original white guys and their slaves are buried. It's also home to one of the more playful apparitions: a small girl who sometimes reaches up to hold your hand, sometimes scampers behind a tree, and sometimes sits in the big tree looking down at the tour groups. We didn't see this little girl, but I think I saw a ghostly Wesley Crusher.
Ghost Wes

"Captain, anomalies detected in the terminium graviton sub-emissions! And I guess I'm dead!"

The cemetery wasn't a total loss. We didn't see anything at the time, but we did get a picture of some orbs. We didn't appreciate it at the time, because orbs are bullshi--... I mean, you can only see them in pictures, and there are some skeptical types who think they're flash reflections off dust or pollen.



What causes ghosts? Or, more specifically, what makes the spirit of a dead person/cat/woodpile remain among the living when most others just go into the light?

I'm not an expert on ghosts. But that's okay -- I think no one else is, either, for the same reason that no one is an expert on the political system of Neptune. From what I can tell, the main type of ghost are dead people who don't fully realize they are dead, because they died during some mind-bending tragedy or trauma. (Another kind is like what's reported at the cotton mill, which is simply a looping playback of a past tragedy. There is probably a ghost of me at my alma mater buying a ticket for that Joe Piscopo show over and over.)

So if ghosts are tragically dead people looking for release or vengeance, why bother with flipping the lights off and on? How is making a chair rock going to ease a tortured soul? The haunted J. Christopher's got prank ghost phone calls, because a woman hung herself after her Union solider boyfriend was executed for treasonously falling in love with a southerner. REVENGE IS HERS! Ghosts might be avenging spirits, but sounds like they are also dicks.

Next time you're mad at a family member, randomly move chairs and dishes around and flip the lights off and on. Let me know which reaction you get:

  • "Please forgive me! I am covered in shame, and I repent the wrongs I have done you!"
  • "Goddamnit, stop that before I break this Bundt pan across your head!"

So ghosts don't have much of an action plan. But how convincing are the ghost stories? All those anecdotes from a pre-scientific antebellum slave-owning culture have to be compelling, right?

No. Early on, Elizabeth said:

People experience the paranormal differently. Some people see something, others feel a presence, still others smell something, and others don't sense anything at all. Just because no one else experienced it doesn't mean it didn't happen.
Pay close attention to that last sentence, as I think it sums up the core of the whole "ghost hunter" philosophy. Basically, you have to be "sensitive" to these things to experience any of it, which I think means "willing to immediately jump to the supernatural as an explanation for any phenomenon." If you tend to look for a more natural explanation first, you're most likely going to arrive at one very soon, and miss out on seeing/feeling/smelling the ghosts. Combine that sensitivity with a spooky nighttime setting, personal anecdotes, and a few science-sounding assertions, you'll find yourself open to Elizabeth's suggestions.And if you don't want prank calls at your restaurant, don't tell us you get calls from ghosts right after handing us fliers with your phone number on it. In any crowd our size, you're going to get cell phones and smartasses. You know where that leads:

Final Note: Chip Coffey is a supporter of the Roswell Ghost Tour (and regular attendee, but not the night we were there). The manager of the haunted J. Christopher's told us this, like it's something we should be impressed by. If ghosts come back to the scene where great wrong was done to them, Chip better be ready for a whole bunch of visitors someday.

1 comment:

Jen said...

My fellow skeptics and I discussed pulling a sting operation on our own local ghosthunters - although one of us knows someone in the paranormal group, and this person claims the ghosthunting is just an excuse for getting together and drinking. Oddly enough, I seem to be able to do that just fine without ghosts.