Spirited away: An amateur’s foray into ghost hunting yields spooky results

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Over 700 bodies are buried near The Exchange Hotel and Civil War Museum in Gordonsville, which served as a receiving hospital during the Civil War. Today, surveillance cameras track human and non-human movements through its rooms. Photo: Elli Williams Over 700 bodies are buried near The Exchange Hotel and Civil War Museum in Gordonsville, which served as a receiving hospital during the Civil War. Today, surveillance cameras track human and non-human movements through its rooms. Photo: Elli Williams

Rain pattered against windows of the Court Square apartment where I sat in near-darkness, listening for ghosts. Two friends and I watched our lone light source, a candle, cast wavering gold on the ceiling.

We were alone in the living room, but we asked our questions out loud.

“Do you remember this kind of candlelight?” George said. “It’s just like it used to be, right?”

Outside a motorcycle roared past.

“Do you like playing with the flame?” He paused. “Can you make it brighter if you do?”

The flame appeared to shiver, to hiccup on the candle’s wick.

“I think we can see what you’re trying to do,” he said. “Do you like it when we talk to you? If so, can you do that again?”

We watched as the flame moved back and forth.

“I just got a chill,” George said under his breath.

“So did I,” Laura murmured. “Not like goose bumps, either. Like cold on the back of my neck…”

“Can you make it flicker really quickly?” I asked, leaning toward the light. “Make it move really fast back and forth?”

The flame suddenly whisked from side to side, throwing itself toward the rim of the jar. George grabbed my knee and we looked at each other, eyes wide.

Accidental tourist

The journey began several weeks earlier, when I’d met Rob Craighurst in Marco & Luca on the Downtown Mall. He looked exactly like the flag-bearing, bespectacled tour guide I’d seen on his business cards around town. He wasn’t wearing the top hat, but his thin face and thick mustache made me want to huddle up by a campfire and roast s’mores.

“I like telling stories,” Craighurst said. “About a decade ago, I went to Savannah to visit my daughter and took an excellent ghost tour there. That’s when it occurred to me that I could do one here.”

Craighurst recently rebranded his tour, which runs every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from May until October. He changed the name from “Ghosts and Mysteries” to “CSI: Cville 1904-style,” hoping that a modern whodunit approach would have more appeal than the spooked-out version. It may also be a more accurate title for the material his tour actually covers. “My tour isn’t scary,” Craighurst explained. “I talk a lot about the mayor and his wife.”

He related the story of the 1904 murder of Fannie McCue in her home, allegedly by her husband and former mayor, Samuel, who was the last man to be hanged in the courtyard of the Charlottesville jail.

“It raises questions about our criminal justice system, about the influence of the media on trial outcomes, about the death penalty and testimony witness,” he said. “If you’ve got a pulse, you’re thinking about it: What exactly is the truth?”

As Craighurst discussed America’s flawed justice system, my mind started to whisper: What about ghosts? Is criminal justice “haunting”? Could I justify a platter of dumplings?

Later, Craighurst told me that he’s never definitively experienced a ghost.

“I immediately assume there is a physical explanation,” he said. “But there are things that have happened that I cannot explain. Was it a ghost? I can’t say it wasn’t.”

I was surprised, a little disappointed, that someone who’d led 400-plus tours Downtown sounded ambivalent about spirits. I’m scared of dark basements, let alone former prisons, but when my editor pitched the idea of a ghost hunting story, I jumped at the chance to write it. I wanted to see the unseen world.

“Have the people on your tour ever seen ghosts?” I asked him.

“At least twice I’ve had people say they experienced a ghost,” he said. “One person said he saw it. Another said she felt the ghost. Both people saw it in the same place: the hospice house.”

I wrote it down. The site hadn’t been mentioned in the only book I found to detail local lore, The Ghosts of Charlottesville and Lynchburg and Nearby Environs by L.B. Taylor (Progress Printing Co., 1992). Of its 50 cases of psychic phenomena, only 10 were located in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

“Do you know other places that might be haunted?” I asked.

Craighurst glanced at a cross-legged Buddha statue sitting on the counter, then pulled up a list on his laptop.

“People on tours share their stories with me,” he said.

I recognized several sites from my reading. Taylor told the story of mysterious humming at Monticello and the sound of spectral merrymaking at Michie Tavern. An antique rocking chair at Ash Lawn-Highland, no longer on display, was rumored to rock of its own accord. In the historic manor homes of Castle Hill and Castalia, wraith-like figures of women in period dress sent visitors fleeing their bedrooms. Other unexplained phenomena included latched doors opening, clothes and dishes scattering, mysterious footsteps, strange breezes, even a phantom horseback rider.

“Two people confirmed the story about Ash Lawn,” Craighurst said. “A night guard told me about Monticello. I’ve heard about things at the Inn at Court Square, even the old Woolworth’s building.”

When I looked back through my notes, I realized most of these sites were haunted by second- and third-hand rumors. How would I know which stories were true and which were warped like a game of telephone? Even Comyn Hall, Samuel McCue’s former home, could be confirmed by record only as the site of an unsolved murder. Not as a haunted house.

My mind swirled with questions as I bid Craighurst farewell and got in line for dumplings. What was I looking for? How could I find it? And even if I managed to get inside somewhere, to tear down the veil of the spirit world, what did I hope to prove?

As I chewed a fried pocket of pork, I decided to call the experts.

Ghost hunters

“Excuse me. Are you Team Twisted?”

A quiet girl with a lip ring and nervous fingers approached our table at Starbucks, glancing past me to the two men in dress shirts.

Lyle Lotts and Dickie Rexrode nodded proudly. The president and lead investigator, respectively, of Fishersville’s Twisted Paranormal Society, they offered gentle, seasoned advice to the girl,  who recounted strange occurrences in her dorm. I felt like I was hobnobbing with pop stars when the ghost hunters told her to burn a blessed peace candle, say Saint Michael’s prayer every day, and place Saint Michael’s coins in areas where she felt troubled.

“I will suggest one thing,” Rexrode said. “Don’t buy any equipment to communicate on your own.”

Equipment? Now we were getting somewhere. I imagined myself as a tall Nancy Drew, armed with a camera, a notebook, and whatever paranormal gauge Fox Mulder always pulled out of his trenchcoat on “The X-Files.”

“You’ve got to be trained,” Rexrode said. “Even with an audio recorder like she’s using with us. This isn’t like a little kid you can slap in the face—he could slap you right back. Don’t try it, I’m telling you. It’s for your own good.”

Wait, was this going to be dangerous? Classical music filled the silence as the girl walked away.

“They have some Wiccan practices going on there,” Lotts said. “Students practicing stuff they shouldn’t be. She feels that maybe they opened some stuff.”

“Some things feed off negative energy,” Rexrode told me. “There are good people and mean as hell people, and it’s the same with spirits. Mostly, though, they’re just like us. They don’t like to be upset.”

Lotts and Rexrode have the uncanny ability to put folks’ minds at ease. Out of every 100 people, they guessed, 85 admit to experiencing something unexplainable. I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, since paranormal investigators are so common in Virginia that my first Google search found seven teams in Augusta, Albemarle, and Orange counties.

The prevalence of paranormal investigators in our area mirrors a booming national industry. The networking site MeetUp lists 173 ghost-hunting groups worldwide, with a total of 21,309 members to date. According to a CNN interview with Bill Wilkens, creator of ghost-hunter database paranormalsocieties.com, over 4,600 teams exist across the United States.

“We’re skeptics but we’ve got to be,” Lotts said. “We wouldn’t be good investigators if we weren’t.”

When someone contacts Team Twisted for help, he leads a small team walk-through to get a feel for the house and its history as well as the people in it.

“I’d say old wiring causes 90 percent of false alarms,” he told me. “Older homes have no grounding circuit, which gives off a lot of radiated frequency—electrical energy. People are real sensitive to electrical changes, the way static electricity makes your arm hair stand up.”

Rexrode nodded, adding, “We try to debunk most things, but there are a lot of things we can’t debunk.”

Every investigation has two goals: to monitor and locate spirits and to communicate with them. Success requires fine-tuned intuition as well as high-tech equipment. Rexrode and Lotts’ shortlist of tools includes digital voice recorders, which pick up the frequencies beyond human hearing in which ghosts can most often be heard; electromagnetic frequency meters, because ghosts are just bundles of electricity; special cameras to see in the dark; and REM Pods, which look like giant hockey pucks with glow sticks protruding from the tops.

A former Russian voice intercept with the U.S. Army, Lotts’ specialty is audio analysis. “But our favorite piece of equipment is the MII Flashcam,” Rexrode grinned. Used by U.S. Marshalls for night monitoring, the combination photo and video camera, audio recorder, and flashlight “has the best IR I’ve ever seen.”

Team Twisted built professional experience travelling up and down the East Coast. From private homes to national landmarks, every site allows team members to hone their technical, psychic, and communication skills—and take a break from their lives as doctors, nurses, and Toyota dealership managers.

Lotts acknowledged that despite long hours at hunts, having a day job is part of the deal. “We don’t charge for anything we do,” Rexrode said. “We joined to help people and that’s what we’re doing.”

If a home is troubled by mischievous spirits—ones that “aren’t really bad, just looking for attention”—the team performs a cleanse.

The peace process, designed to calm turbulent spirits and set homeowners’ minds at ease, is a mishmash of Christian and Native American rituals and can include burning sage (Albanian works best), burying blessed Saint Michael’s coins on the four corners of the property, using salt as a cleansing agent, and burning a blessed convent candle for seven days. They also pray—Psalm 23—and encourage homeowners to say Saint Michael’s prayer daily.

Under his fringe of blonde hair, Lotts’ brow creased. “We’re not psychiatrists or psychologists,” he said. “If you think you’re
dealing with demons, we’re not specialized in that either.”

“We’re very religious people,” Rexrode said. “Faith protects our butts.”

Wait a minute—did he say demons? I felt my skin crawl. How could a not-particularly-religious girl like me safely lead her own ghost hunt?

Both men agreed that I should pray before I started an investigation. They told me to record everything, to take lots of pictures in mirrors and up stairwells. I should talk to the ghosts, listen a lot, and never go alone. “Visit The Exchange Hotel in Gordonsville,” they said. “Take the tour, and ask for Angel.”

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