Ambivalent about specters, Amy Paige Condon encounters the inexplicable and begins to wonder if there’s more to the afterlife than meets the eye. » Photography by Beau Kester.
Chris Allen has been seeing dead people since the age of two.
That’s when he first noticed an elderly man skulking in the corner of the house where he grew up in Paulding County, Ga. A few years later, he and his grandfather were flipping through an album and Chris recognized the man in the photos.
The man was Chris’ great-grandfather, and he’d died before Chris was born. But, as an even bigger shock, Chris learned that his grandfather and mother also saw ghosts.
“So, this—ghost hunting, the paranormal—has been a lifelong passion for me,” Chris explains as he, my husband Brian and I stroll through Lafayette Square on a nighttime walking tour of Savannah’s most famous haunts. Flannery O’Connor’s birthplace fades into the darkness as we head due east, and I am along for the ride, neither true believer nor skeptic. If we experience a glimpse through some gossamer veil between the physical and spiritual worlds while we walk, I’m open, but I’m not exactly anticipating it.
Chris, our guide, is a teddy bear: good-natured, sincere and young, though he walks with a cane because of a knee injury. He tosses out puns like pizza makers throw dough.
Tucked beneath his arm, Chris carries an iPad, which he’ll use at intervals throughout the tour. He’ll share a video, shot by a teenager on vacation, of a ghostly child running through Colonial Park Cemetery; an audio recording, purportedly of a servant woman’s screams as she’s being hung at the Sorrel-Weed House; and sundry pictures snapped by the curious. The photographers are usually tourists who inadvertently capture something inexplicable and unseen by the naked eye—floating blue orbs, vaporous mists, blinding vortex strikes. It’s interactive, multimedia storytelling at its most visceral.
Of course, ghost stories are in Chris’s wheelhouse. In 2006, he co-founded the Paulding Paranormal Society and began conducting scientific investigations throughout north Georgia to gather documented evidence of hauntings, including photographic, videographic and audio recordings. In 2011, he pulled up stakes, headed south and hung out his shingle as Haunted Savannah Tours.
The macabre is big business in places like Savannah, where histories run thick and are often tainted by blood spilled from war and oppression, where countless lives have been lost to disease and bondage, and where landscapes are—in the words of native daughter Mary Flannery O’Connor—“Christ-haunted.” Just look at the lists: New Orleans, Charleston, Salem, Key West and our beloved Hostess City consistently show up in the top 10. These cities sit at crossroads, where rivers and oceans, cultures, classes and faith traditions intersect. And in rural folklore, where two roads cross, evil is likely present.
A steady diet of vampire novels, zombie movies and “found footage”-style films like The Blair Witch Project only feeds the public’s appetite for what’s being called “dark tourism,” which the Haunted Attraction Associationestimates is a $300 million industry.
Savannah’s dark star ascended in 2002 when the American Institute of Parapsychology named it “America’s Most Haunted City” because of the high level of recorded paranormal activity. Since then, the Syfy channel’s Ghost Hunters series shot its inaugural Halloween episode here. The History and Travel channels and TLC have all come a-calling for a meeting with the other side.
Although the competition for customers and credibility is fierce among the more than 20 companies offering ghost tours in Savannah, there exists a surprising camaraderie among a small fraternity of haunted hosts. On our tour, we notice a woman with flowing dark hair walking a golden retriever back and forth across President Street. When we settle on a far corner to discuss Anne Powell’s haunting of Room 204 in the 17Hundred90 Inn, the woman approaches Chris. He introduces her as Melissa, and she presents us to Bailey the Ghost-hunting Dog, who immediately takes a shine to Brian. Melissa shares with Chris two new images taken by a visitor on an earlier tour of the inn. They show the ethereal shape of a woman in a doorway.
Later on, in front of The Marshall House, the driver of one of the Hearse Ghost Tours stops to talk shop with Chris. On our way to the Sorrel-Weed House, a bespectacled fellow on one side of Bull Street yells a “thank you” to our guide.
“I got my tour guide’s license,” he shouts, fist-pumping the air.
“(Ghost tourism) has really amped up around here,” Chris explains.
What Lies Beneath
That hauntings are grist for the Savannah mill is no surprise. Ours is a city built upon its dead.
Most tours in town commence at Colonial Park Cemetery, at the intersection of Oglethorpe Avenue and Abercorn Street—where so many people’s journeys ended. Colonial is just one of seven registered graveyards in the Historic District and surrounding areas. There are unregistered burial grounds as well, many of them potter’s fields holding the remains of native Americans, slaves, the poor and the unclaimed.
Chris tells us that as many as 28,000 people are buried beneath the city’s storied streets, and upward of 10,000 may have found their eternal rest at Colonial.
“That’s just an estimate,” Chris qualifies. “There’s only 612 headstones still standing.”
As we walk past the dueling grounds along the cemetery’s western fence line, a hearse tour approaches. Passengers from a trolley disembark to snap photos between the wrought iron posts while their guide offers a history lesson.
We pause at a crypt that juts through the fence into the sidewalk, and Chris explains that the cemetery’s true boundaries extend into the middle of the street.
“See how the sidewalk rises and falls with regularity?” he asks.
“That’s where the wooden coffins have rotted and collapsed and the ground has settled over the graves.”
While this is creepy and intriguing, I’m not convinced forgotten graves are enough to guarantee paranormal activity.
In spite of my ambivalence, my family has its own Savannah ghost story.
Back in 2004, before Brian and I moved here, my mom and her two sisters were on vacation from Texas and shopping downtown. Aunt Teresa had wandered into the now-defunct shop Estoria, which was located in the bank of buildings on the southwest corner of Wright Square, just a couple of doors down from a plaque that marks this area as the first white burial ground in the city.
Among my family members, Aunt Teresa is known for telling it like it is; she’s not prone to embellishment. When she recounts how she witnessed a cast iron sconce lift off a nail as if someone were carrying it, then smash down on a nearby table, breaking a cup and saucer, we believe her.
“We had a lot of occurrences, and what your aunt describes was very common,” confirms real estate agent Jacqueline Mason, who owned Estoria until 2007. Jacqueline goes on to describe how the sound of shattering glass would set off the alarm in the middle of the night and draw the attention of ghost tours passing by. Upon investigation, she and the police would find nothing amiss.
She began to track the odd happenings with store inventory and discovered that every time she sold an antique toy, the alarm would go off—like a paranormal temper tantrum.
“We stopped selling antique toys,” she deadpans.
Curious but not convinced she had a ghost, Jacqueline invited investigators from Ghost-stock, a now-extinct conference of hunters, into the shop after hours to conduct readings and recordings. They captured the sounds of a bouncing ball, a panting dog and the crystal clear voice of a child saying, “He likes you.”
“I was an absolute non-believer when I moved here,” says Jacqueline. “Now, I consider myself a reluctant believer. After you live with it a while, you accept it.”
Wright Square is evidently packed with the paranormal.
The spot where Bull and President streets would meet in the center of the square marks the grave of Tomochichi, the Yamacraw chief who mediated between General James Oglethorpe’s settlers and the natives. A monument to William Washington Gordon, the builder of the Central of Georgia Railroad, sits atop Tomochichi’s grave. A pink granite boulder cut from Stone Mountain in northern Georgia, a sacred place to Native Americans, honors Tomochichi in the southeast corner of the square.
Commanding live oaks shade the benches where street musicians often play for change during the day. It’s a curious note, though, that Spanish moss drapes only the trees south of the imaginary President Street line. The branches north are bare. Always have been.
“No moss grows where innocent blood was shed,” Chris says, repeating an old legend as he begins the tale of Alice Riley, the first person hanged in Georgia for murder. Her ghost is said to haunt this square, searching for the baby she birthed just prior to her walk to the gallows.
A wooden jailhouse, circa 1734, sat where the CVS does now, so Wright became the hanging square purely because of proximity. Rumor has it that the drug store closes at 6 p.m. because the staff refuses to work after dark in a place so haunted by spirits. But there hasn’t been enough investigation to substantiate that claim, says Chris, and he thinks the early closing hour is simply a function of economics.
“Not busy enough at night,” he explains. He’s right. With all the businesses in the area shuttered for the evening, only a handful of couples stroll by.
I snap a few photos of the square using my iPhone, making sure to get three or more in succession to have a better chance of capturing something otherworldly. I’m not prepared for the bright, comet-like orbs full of energy and movement that pop into a series of four pictures.
I show them to Chris and my husband. We investigate the lens, the flash and our surroundings. Nothing accounts for the (goodness, gracious!) great balls of fire. I snap three more from the same vantage point, holding the phone the exact same way, and there’s nothing but a moss-less tree.
Curious what another ghost hunter would say, I share the photos a few nights later with Georgeanne, our delightfully disheveled guide on the Tara Haunted Boos and Brews pub crawl.
“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” she says with a voice graveled by smokes and spirits. “Go figure. I don’t understand it; I just tell it.” And with a shrug, Georgeanne heads across Oglethorpe Street, her shirt on inside-out.
Her remark reminds me of something Chris told me as we crossed Liberty: “I’ve been doing investigations for 10 years. I have more questions now than I had before.”
According to ghost hunters like Chris and converts like Jacqueline, most hauntings are benign nuisances that, depending on your level of tolerance, can make life either interesting or irritating. The ghostly majority are formerly human spirits that have lingered on this earthly plane to attend some unfinished business or, perhaps, to relive some tragedy with the hope of finding justice at last.
Particularly in the South, there lingers a whole separate category of paranormal activity reserved for the never-human. And according to Tobias McGriff, author of the self-published Savannah Shadows and owner of Blue Orb Tours, these “dark inhabitants from parts unknown”—or “hags”—are bad news.
The term “hag” derives from an ancient phenomenon known as Old Hag Syndrome, characterized similarly by people across cultures and time who complain of a sinister, dark shadow pressing upon their chests. Victims often feel paralyzed by the oppressive weight, foul smells and hissing sounds. They awaken with scratches, bites and other attack marks as if they’ve battled for their lives.
“(The hag) feeds off the unhappiness of people, using negative spiritual energy to prolong manifestation on this plane,” McGriff writes in his book. He recounts his own encounters with a hag, and claims that Savannah is “the heart of hag country.”
Science has attempted to explain Old Hag Syndrome as “sleep paralysis,” caused when a person is in a state of deep REM sleep but physically awake—essentially living out his or her nightmares. What science has been unable to explain, however, is how very real hags seem to the people infested by them. All faith traditions have long recognized the presence of demons and other malevolent spirits. And, as recently as 2011, the Vatican put out a call for clergy to attend what the Catholic News Service termed an “exorcist boot camp” for training to fight against the forces of evil.
According to McGriff, the greatest force against the hag is a change in frequency.
Chris, Brian and I are discussing frequency—or a person’s openness to the paranormal—when Chris reminds us that not all ghost stories are scary or tragic.
Camped on the temporarily covered sidewalk around the Juliet Gordon Low Birthplace, Chris recounts the oft-told story of the Girl Scout founders’ parents and their undying love for one another.
William Washington Gordon II and Nellie Kinzie Gordon “met cute” at Yale University in 1853 when Nellie slid down a banister, crashed into Willie and crushed his new hat. The couple went on to live a long, happy life at the corner of Oglethorpe Avenue and Bull Street. Willie died in 1912, and, according to lore, Nellie followed—quite literally—in 1917.
James Caskey writes in the book Haunted Savannah that the couple’s daughter-in-law, Margaret, saw the deceased Willie, dressed in full Confederate officer’s regalia, coming out of the bedroom where Nellie lay dying. He vanished down the front stairs. When she went to the foyer, the family’s aging butler “was standing at the foot of the stairs, tears streaming down his cheeks.” He had seen Willie in his general’s uniform, too, beaming radiantly—and said that Willie “must have come back to fetch Nellie himself.”
After Chris’s telling, Brian and I look at one another.
“If I go first,” I say, “I’ll come back for you.”
“I’ll do the same,” Brian says.
I like the idea of Brian’s and my life together transcending the here and now as well as the hereafter. Cracks begin to form in my soft shell of ambivalence. I have read that the orbs that appear in photos are nothing to fear. They are often the spirits of loved ones hovering protectively nearby. That may be just a nice thought to explain the inexplicable. But I wonder what our orbs will look like—Brian’s and mine. Ethereal and pale blue? Or brilliant and full of motion?
I am lost in this thought when Chris asks us if we are ready to move on. Beneath a nearly moonless sky, we drift toward our final destination.