Tag Archives: Halloween

Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #19: Weird Tales of Martin County

Check out the rest of the month’s reviews here, and last year’s reviews here. If you enjoyed this review and want to help out with my folklore research, head on over to my Patreon page and join up, make a one-time donation on this site or directly through Paypal, or send me a coffee.

The Skewarkians. Weird Tales of Martin County. Junior Historian Club. Bear Grass School, Williamston, NC, 1980.

So, remember the student compilation of statewide folklore from 1990, Whispers from the Past, that I reviewed a week or so ago? Well, this is a decade older, was done by a students’ club in a school two counties over, and is confined to just one county (though being a bit longer). They’ve also done a history of tobacco in the county. Personally, I like this one better. Not that Whispers from the Past was bad, but it lacked the focus of this collection and was stage-managed by adults in state government.

It’s weird to think that the kids who did this compilation are now my age and that most of the community elders they interviewed are probably now dead. But this is part of the value of these collections. The most amusing part is the rant in the introduction by one of their teachers about how a book like this is necessary in a day and age when kids are distracted by modern technology and don’t listen to their elders, anymore. Oh, those darn TV sets! Some things never change.

This collection has a big focus on “forgotten” history, beginning with the history of “Bear Grass” as a name in the county. The story is that the name is for the Yucca plant, which grows abundantly in Martin County. Local Native Americans used it to cure bear meat – hence, Bear Grass (the town) and Bear Grass Swamp as place names for the local community now.

Since Martin County is so near to the coast (and is part of the Coastal Plain region), much of its folklore has coastal motifs. There are several stories about witches and conjurers, including one about a witch cat. Ghosts, of course, appear in several stories. Slavery is also a recurring theme.

There is a ghost light (Swinson’s Light) in Bear Grass Swamp. The students trace it back to the 18th century and claim it is the oldest legend in the region (mmm … maybe, but wouldn’t the name “Bear Grass” be older?). The light is traced to an early settler named John Swinson who received a land grant from the Earl of Granville in 1761. The legend is that Swinson buried a treasure somewhere on the land and the light is now his ghost guarding it. Charles Gritzner cites the book and its version of this legend in his book, North Carolina Ghost Lights and Legends.

Then there is the Legend of the Screaming Bridge (which I first heard about from local author Jim Lee – thanks, Jim!). This dates back to the Civil War. A young girl from a prominent family named Yarrow was drowned near or under a bridge that crossed Sweetened Water Creek. The mystery is that it’s unclear if this was an accident, suicide or muuuuuurrrrrder. But sometimes, during a New Moon, people can hear her ghost near the bridge, screaming, or sitting nearby. The story is headlined by a photo of the bridge as it was in 1980, in Griffin’s Township.

There is also a story that connects 19th century horse racing (which generally occurred on Sunday) with the Devil. This one is called “The Phantom Rider.” In this one, the Devil (or a prankster dressed up in a dark coat and hat) appears at one such race, wins, and disappears with a “fiendish” laugh without collecting his winnings. Unless you assume, as some of the spectators did, that he came to collect their souls.

This legend did not actually stop horse racing in Martin County. Or ghost story telling, it seems. This one’s online (I put a link up top), so go ahead and check it out. The kids done good.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #18: Watch Out for the Hallway: Our Two-Year Investigation of the Most Haunted Library in North Carolina

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Madia, Tonya and Joey Madia. Watch Out for the Hallway: Our Two-Year Investigation of the Most Haunted Library in North Carolina. Visionary Living, Inc., September 25, 2018.

When I first discovered this book, I got pretty excited about it. Basically, my first impression was that this book was like what Haunted Broughton turned out to be and Haunted Broughton would be like what this turned out to be. Go figure.

So, I was thinking, “Hey! Now I have a book of hauntings related to a specific hospital and one related to a specific library! Yay!” The library in question, by the way, is the Webb Memorial Library in Morehead City, which is down near Beaufort on the southeastern coast of the state.

Now, some of the book is actually pretty decent. The chapter about the spirits upstairs (even though the whole extended infodump about the “vortex” theory is silly) is pretty scary. In fact, the title is an alleged quote from a warning by one of the friendly ghosts about the upstairs hallway.

There’s a lot about the history of the library and all the events that probably caused the haunting folklore. The courtyard coming into the library, for example, is apparently quite haunted and people not-infrequently see things from the street such as lights going on and figures in the windows.

The “investigation” of the library occurred over a two-year period roughly 2016-7. This is something of a misnomer/exaggeration. What the authors actually did was conduct regular ghost tours at the library and keep detailed records about them. That’s hardly nothing, but bringing groups of civilians through a place like that doesn’t strike me as something nearly as professional as an investigation.

Lord, was this book tedious and bloated in parts. Stories in the chapters wander and twist and take a long time getting to the point. The authors go into a lot of detail about Tonya’s alleged psychic gifts. As I said in my review of Ghosthunting North Carolina, I’m not into that. I feel that if you’re going to create your own New Age narratives about the local folklore, at least tell me about the original stuff you’re riffing from, first.

There’s an embarrassing moment in the introduction when the authors are talking about their experiences prior to coming to the library. They once set up a Lakota sweat lodge outside their house in West Virginia and then experienced an increase in paranormal activity. A Shawnee friend pointed out that no Lakota had never lived in that area, so the local spirits might be a bit miffed. Cultural appropriation at its most well-intentioned, but obtuse.

One of the most frustrating parts of the authors incessantly going on about their psychic abilities was that the writing often made it unclear whether someone sitting in a chair in the library was a living member of a ghost tour, a ghost everyone could see, or just a strong impression one of the Madias had of them. It’s deceptive because a lot of the communication actually occurs via flashing lights on instruments. This vagueness had a tendency to “Scooby-Doo” the very ghost encounters that are the intended selling point of the book.

Ultimately, yes, there’s a lot of info about the library’s (and neighborhood’s) folklore and ghost stories. But boy, is it a wade to get to it in some cases.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #17: Spirits of Stonewall

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Ricks, T.E. “Spirits of Stonewall – Good and Otherwise.” Dec. 1996.

“Spirits of Stonewall” is a short article on ghost folklore surrounding Stonewall Manor by the late local historian T.E. Ricks (1931-2006). A realtor most of his life, he was also considered the “unofficial historian of Nash County.”

Theophilus Edward Ricks, by his own admission, was not a believer in ghosts. But he was asked by the Nash County Historical Association to write up the known folklore for Stonewall Manor in 1996 and so, he did. Despite his protestations, these stories even included an experience or two of his own. In the process, he managed to pack quite a lot of ghost storytelling into two and a half pages, single-spaced.

A short explanation about Stonewall Manor and why it’s important: Stonewall Manor is currently one of the two oldest houses in Rocky Mount, NC, on the Nash County side. It is an antebellum Greek Revival mansion right off U.S. 64 and Benvenue Avenue. The mansion is a little hard to see due to the trees from Benvenue, but you can see it lit up like a Christmas tree at night from 64.

The first owner of Stonewall, Bennett Bunn, owned most of the surrounding area as part of his plantation when he built the house around 1830. The house was later bought by nearby Rocky Mount Mills (another reputedly haunted site) as a superintendent’s house. Stonewall has seen a lot of history and unfortunately, it is now in so much disrepair that it’s not open to the public (I have been inside it, though).

Just due to its age, it’s no surprise that Stonewall has a reputation for being haunted. But if you should run across the odd story about it (it’s not a common stop on the usual statewide, book-length ghost tour), you’re liable to trace most of them back to this article. That’s not to say that Ricks made it all up, so much as he was the first person to delve into the topic and write down all the local oral history about the mansion’s ghostlore.

The most notable motif (not surprising in light of how inaccessible the interior of the house has become) is that of teenagers coming up to visit the grounds at night and seeing ghostly figures in the windows. One of Ricks’ sources reported a woman cradling a baby in one window and another woman who screams blue murder from a balcony and then vanishes.

Ricks’ own experiences center around a door on the second floor that seemed to unlock itself no matter how many times he locked it, despite the house being otherwise deserted. At one point, he came upstairs and found the entire doorknob out and lying on the floor nearby – with parts missing.

Perhaps the most intriguing ghost, however, is that of a young boy. He was seen by a young “soldier” in a Civil War reenactment, who was in the house with Ricks at the time, not long before Ricks wrote the article. The reenactor walked into a room and saw a spectral little boy crouched near the window, who looked at him and whispered, “You came. You came.”

Ricks was able to track down the history behind the haunting and discover a gentle soul named Ronald E. Stevens Jr., who died of meningitis at age five in 1938. “Ronnie” is buried in town with his parents, in Pineview Cemetery. Ricks was even able to track down Ronald’s sister and get some reminiscences from her about him. The soldier witnessed the boy’s apparition just two weeks before the 58th anniversary of his death on November 23.

November is coming up next month. If you’re curious, you may drive up to Stonewall some night to see if little Ronnie still wants to play.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #16: Haunted Watauga County, North Carolina

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Bullard, Tim. Haunted Watauga County, North Carolina. Haunted America, The History Press, 2011.

Here’s another entry from the Haunted America series at The History Press. This one is a series of folkloric reminiscences about Watauga County in the western part of the state. Like other entries in the series, Haunted Watauga appears not to have had much in the way of editing. That’s by far it’s biggest flaw.

I really wanted to like it, especially since the author was a reporter for a long time in the area. He has personal reminiscences and acquaintances in law enforcement and EMS going back to the 1970s (he even mentions the Frank C. Brown Collection). There’s a lot of potentially intriguing stuff in here, but it’s chaotically told. It feels like a closet full of potential treasures that were just casually tossed in, willy-nilly. The author will start telling a story about, say, witches and then wander off to talk about mountain climbing and then a bit of history about something completely unrelated. A lot of it reads like stream-of-consciousness.

Bullard’s storytelling flaws stand out the most in the two longest and most intriguing stories. One of them is a piece of research journalism about the Durham Family murders in 1972 and the other is a mostly-eyewitness account of the capture of some escaped cons. Bullard was on the case during their siege.

The first story, a chilling true crime tale, is about the triple murder of two parents and their son on February 3, 1972 near Boone. The wife was strangled with a rope, while the husband and son were drowned in the bathtub. The case officially remains unsolved, though you get the impression that the police knew exactly who did it. They just can’t prove it.

The chapter is very well-researched. It is not well-written. Bullard wanders from time period to time period and from witness interview to witness interview. He throws in everything, including the kitchen sink. One of these elements, though, appears to be unique to the book. He interviewed people now living in the house where the murders occurred and they claim it is indisputably haunted.

The second story with the convicts involves a phlegmatic cameraman straight out of central casting. I’ll be he was fun to work with. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have much of a climax because the author missed the actual capture. This, along with the recurring semi-finished folklore about witches, is probably the most frustrating part of the book.

I think the best part is the chapter about a long-running theater play (similar to the Lost Colony play in Manteo) called Horn in the West about the life of Daniel Boone. The town of Boone in the county is named after him. Glenn Causey played the title role for 41 straight seasons. There’s also a Haunted Horn in the West version for Halloween. Causey doesn’t haunt the stage now that he’s passed on, but another named Charles Elledge (he’s a benevolent spirit) does.

I hadn’t known about this play and it doesn’t appear in the usual collections, let alone the haunting connected to it. It’s an example of all the unique material in the book. I just wish this one had been written up and presented better.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #15: Haunted Broughton: Tales from the Graveyard Shift

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Langley, Margaret M. Haunted Broughton: Tales from the Graveyard Shift. October 2, 2009.

This is my other favorite of the month so far. It’s a veritable self-published diamond in the rough, the first in a trilogy of ghost story collections about Broughton Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Morganton, NC (in the Mountain region). Despite having an editor named along with the author on the book cover, I’m afraid that this book suffers from a cornucopia of copy editing errors and weird formatting. Nonetheless, I recommend wading through them because the content is worth the effort.

So, why is that? For a start, there’s the setting. Psychiatric hospitals, especially the earlier ones built in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, are perennial chill-givers, particularly this time of year. They have propped up many a creaky B-movie.

The idea of being trapped as a patient or working in such asylums in their heyday is unsettling enough, but if they were haunted, too? Yikes. American Horror Story did an entire season based just on that premise and one of Supernatural‘s most famous (and famously scary) episodes is season one’s “Asylum.”

But most of these tales are set in that fuzzy time of Back in the Day. Even non-supernatural accounts about the real-life hospitals are told from a distance of decades. Most of them were closed down in the 1960s and 1970s, with some making it into the 90s.

So, it’s rare (even unique, as I can’t think of any comparable such collection) to find a book of ghost stories that is not only about a psych hospital still in operation, but one that has been collated and told by one of its current staff (and boy, do we EMS folks have some doozies to tell). Forget moldy old urban legends at fifth or sixth-hand. This is living oral history being recorded as it occurs.

Langley herself recognizes this. In the introduction, she says, “These stories are essentially time capsules, if you will; memories of conditions and happenings around Broughton Hospital that will be lost forever if someone doesn’t record them. Sadly, many people have not told their story to me, for fear of being thought ‘crazy.’ Imagine, working in a mental hospital and telling people you saw a ghost? So, for that reason, all submitters will remain anonymous.”

This is not necessarily a problem in terms of folkloric reliability, since Langley herself is one of the people who have experienced paranormal phenomena. So, even though she is telling other people’s stories as well as hers, it’s still a first-hand account. Also, by keeping anonymity for everyone (including possible identities of even ghosts of patients), she doesn’t violate HIPAA rules. In general, she demonstrates a lot of compassion for those patients, both living and dead.

The first part, about the history of the hospital, is on the tedious side. Bear with it. As with the intro for Haunted Theaters of the Carolinas, which I reviewed earlier this month, it’s necessary to the understanding the sometimes complicated background and layout of the hospital. You’ll get more out of the stories if you understand their setting.

Annnd then we get into the creepy stuff. There is, for example a haunted laundry that no one on the staff likes going into at night. Ditto a haunted recreation hall in the same building (fittingly called Ward 13) that is just fine and dandy in the daytime, cheery and bright, but a whole other story at 3am.

See, Ward 13 is the second-oldest building still in existence on campus. Built in 1887, it may have been used in experiments on patients, but it seems no one actually knows why it’s haunted, just that it is. People have reported hearing screams when they get sodas out of the vending machine, whistling, ghostly conversations, and being touched in the elevator. A cat who lives on the grounds sometimes disappears for hours, only to appear out of the deserted Ward 13 elevator or show up with chilly fur.

Ward 13 is also a building where the author reports having seen shadows of people passing in the hallway when it was deserted. In the Bates Building, she heard the disembodied voice of a colleague (recently murdered by her husband) call her name. When Langley told her supervisor, the supervisor admitted that on nights when she was doing paperwork in her office in the Bates Building, she would see reflections on her door of people passing in the hallway, but no one was there. For some reason, that’s the story that comes back to me when I’m in bed at night.

Langley also heard a story from the same building about a crying baby and a haunted doll. In a nearby building can sometimes be heard piano music.

As if that’s not bad enough, there’s a haunted tunnel through which dead patients were once carried (much like the famous Waverly Asylum) and a nearby graveyard that’s seriously haunted. This book is full of stories and there are two more books (which I still intend to read). That’s a grand total of some 400 pages in all.

An interesting footnote is that one Amazon reviewer named “littlejo” (Susan Amond Todd from White Lake, NC in her profile) gave the book two stars on February 4, 2011. She claimed to have worked at the hospital for 15 years and that her mother worked there for 37 years. She insisted that while some hauntings had occurred, the author had greatly exaggerated them and that the reviewer’s mother disagreed about some of the stories.

On the other hand, a reviewer from Alabama named Joe L. Carpenter gave it four stars on July 16, 2015. He claimed in a review on the second book that his father and neighbors experienced many of the same stories as Langley tells, while working at the hospital, themselves. I’m not sure what the background is on all that, especially considering the easy anonymity of internet criticism, but it’s intriguing that even the reviews add to the folkloric story.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #14: Haunted Fort Fisher

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Gray, Mark. Haunted Fort Fisher: Ghosts on the Cape Fear. 2014.

Fair warning: This is one of my favorite books that I’ve read so far for this project – not just for this year, either. The premise is simple – it’s a self-published picture book of ghost photos. The author decided in 2002 (this book came out in 2014) to start taking digital photographs around Fort Fisher to see if he could catch any ghostly phenomena. He also recorded for EVPs at the same time (Electronic Voice Phenomena: voices and sounds caught on a sound recorder that have no known cause and were not heard by observers at the time).

I’ve mentioned Fort Fisher on the Cape Fear River in previous reviews. Fort Fisher is one of the most haunted sites in North Carolina, if not the most haunted, and some of the reported encounters have been quite frightening to the observers. This is most likely due to the two Civil War battles in 1864 and 1865 that led to the storming and capture of the Confederate fort by Union forces. Fort Fisher had been a major military target because it defended the one Confederate port late in the War – Wilmington. When Fort Fisher fell, so did Wilmington and the War was pretty much won (or lost, depending on your point of view).

This book is a condensed account of 12 years of Gray’s best photographs. Being a computer and AV tech, he goes into quite a lot of useful detail about what type of camera he used, and why, and its capabilities. Some of these pictures are pretty grainy, but in a way, that makes them creepier.

One thing I like about Gray’s observations is that he keeps them very grounded. He talks about how he’s only ever been able to get EVP’s at Shepard’s Battery and that the only ghost photos he’s been able to get were from the Sally Port (facing north) into the woods. Most of them have been in the woods. That he has observed these conditions adds to his sincerity and his observation skills. The only psychic sense he makes any claim to is having an idea when and where would be a good day to take creepy photos. Which, considering he’d done this for 12 years at the same spot by the time the book came out, isn’t that hard to swallow.

Gray also makes no bones about having taken a whole lot of photographs, but that only a few have ever turned out … odd. He also is not shy about putting his photos up, in the raw as it were, for readers to evaluate. And it’s true that some of these look like a straightforward case of pareidolia (like the cover photo). But then there are the others.

By far the most unsettling are the shadows and the photos where something is blocking the view of the background. Maybe the shadows are just sunlight coming down through the trees in odd ways (but they sure do look like people) and maybe the weird fuzzy things are just camera artifacts. But they’re not any artifacts I’ve ever seen in a digital camera.

At any rate, this was not a book I wanted to review at night. Even though it’s short, those photos creeped me right out. Just looking for what is supposed to be odd about them lent a strange kind of menace to them.

I don’t know what the author has captured here. I do, however, think it’s a worthwhile project because he spent so much time, over several years, in the same areas, photographing the same spots with the same type of equipment. At the very least, that lends itself to a cool study about light reflection and refraction, internal and external, in digital cameras. It also involves the kind of scientific method that too-often isn’t used properly by either believers or debunkers. I’m curious to see what Gray finds next. Just … don’t make me read it at night.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #13: Ghosthunting North Carolina

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Ambrose, Kala. Ghosthunting North Carolina. America’s Haunted Road Trip. Clerisy Press, 2011.

This was not the book I thought it was when I bought it (twice, accidentally). I thought it was about ghost hunter organizations in North Carolina. It’s not. I did find something like that, but I will review that book later in the month. And I did end up enjoying this book overall, but let’s address a few issues first.

So, what is this book? It’s basically a tour guide by a professional psychic of a selection of the most interesting and creepy paranormal sites in the state. I wasn’t especially thrilled at first to find out her profession. I found the introduction, where she went on at great length about her psychic abilities and such, very tedious.

It’s not that I don’t believe in ESP, etc., but these claims irritate me for a few reasons. First, there’s more than a little bragging involved about something that is really quite common (and often faked to make money). Lots of people have strange experiences with the supernatural or paranormal, or whatever you want to call it. I think there’s a strong probability that most people are “psychic” to some extent.

Second, it tends to Scooby-Doo folklore. I don’t see a whole lot of difference between dismissing a creepy feeling and strange noises in a house as drafts and bad plumbing, and dismissing it as a “vortex” or whatever New Age term sounds good. It’s still attempting to dismiss a mystery with an untested hypothesis.

Third, it tends to be culturally appropriative and sometimes bordering on racist. For example, I had my hopes up early on when Ambrose was talking about Somerset Plantation and the conditions for slaves there. Yay, finally some ghost storytelling that doesn’t fall for the usual Gone with the Wind mythologizing!

But then she fell into the same trap Tiya Miles talks about, where white tour guides in the dark tourism industry treat African Americans and their historical experiences as window dressing and entertainment for white people and their history. I can’t think of a single example in the entire book where she talked about black people except as slaves.

Especially disappointing was her repeated mentions of how slave conjure women may have used magic against their white masters, but she never gets into any details about that. And yes, that’s been researched. Remember the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans in Dixie Spirits? So, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that the only mention of the Tri-County area is a rather pallid description of Blount-Bridgers House in Tarboro that doesn’t even mention Miss Minerva and her tendency to run the house’s elevator in the wee hours.

It’s not all bad, though. One of the frustrating aspects of Ambrose’s gimmick (being a psychic writing a book about NC ghost stories) is that she does do a fair bit of research and travels to a lot of different places in the state. I mean, yeah, there are holes and she never mentions the Frank C. Brown Collection, but she does mention the Rhine Research Center and interviews a bunch of people at these different sites. I actually found her postscript about her research path a lot more interesting than her introduction about her psychic career. Yes, I’m a nerd.

She talks in the intro about how she’ll use her psychic abilities to find ghosts at these sites (while making the apt observation that most ghost experiences happen when you’re not expecting them). Then half the time, she doesn’t sense anything in these places, anyway. Yet, those chapters are usually still interesting because she did her homework. I get that the psychic bit is the gimmick to sell the book, but it detracts from the actual work she put into it.

The story I found most interesting by far comes late in the book. It’s about the 1906 massacre in Asheville (which I’d never heard of before) of five innocent people by an escaped convict named Will Harris. Seems Harris blew into town shortly after his prison break, looking for his “girlfriend.” There was a difference of opinion about that relationship status and she got her sister to tell him she’d left town.

Not believing the sister, he got drunk and took her hostage. When found out, he fled into the street, where he went on a shooting rampage that killed five people and a dog. Tracked down by a very large posse, he shot back at them and ended up full of holes. Classic pattern for a mass shooter. And it led directly to Asheville becoming a dry town for decades (some Temperance campaigners successfully blamed the massacre on Harris’ drinking).

One of the things Ambrose notes is that Harris kept shouting he was the Devil (this, of course, made my folklore research ears prick up). But even though she has a previous discussion in which she mentions (without scraping more than the surface) that NC has a lot of devilish folklore, she doesn’t connect the two.

What she does do is mention that there are shadow people hauntings (among others, like the sound of screaming) since the massacre. She connects this to discussion of previous dark entities at other sites in the book. In this recurring discussion she makes some good points about how violent and unhappy events can lead to a sinister atmosphere and scary hauntings. I think that’s a pretty good metaphor for the kind of history folklore most often preserves.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #12: Cape Fear Ghosts

Check out the rest of the month’s reviews here, and last year’s reviews here. If you enjoyed this review and want to help out with my folklore research, head on over to my Patreon page and join up, make a one-time donation on this site or directly through Paypal, or send me a coffee.

Midwood, John. Cape Fear Ghosts. 2006.

This is one of two collections from the Cape Fear region that I read for this year. Cape Fear Ghosts is the older and more conventional one. It’s a collection of ghost stories with some photographs (some of them quite interesting, especially the ones relating to the author’s family history).

I really wanted to like this one. The Cape Fear region has a lot of history, much of it violent and a lot of it related to the Civil War. European history for the Cape Fear River basin goes back to 1662 and includes everything from Native Americans to pirates to Union blockades of Fort Fisher to battleships to hurricanes. There’s even a good business in old growth timber salvaged from the river.

The book reminded me, in overall format, of last year’s Tar Heel Terrors and North Carolina Haunts. The author has spent many years in the Cape Fear region. And he does have a lot of stories.

Unfortunately, he’s not very good at telling them in a way that is compelling rather than frustrating. This book could have used a good editor. There were times when he would be talking about being psychic and how he had witnessed a ghost as a kid, but the story would go on and on and end up nowhere. It was a bit like taking a tour through the Winchester House – lots of creep, but no payoff.

His account of his first ghost sighting as a kid is stuffed with so much extraneous detail that I wearied of ever getting to the point. The account of his father’s career in the military in WWII was potentially fascinating, but again, it wandered all over the place. And details like his mother predicting his father’s death (and supposedly being psychic, herself) needed to be in their own story. I don’t necessarily object to a lot of biographical detail if the stories are well-told, but these often weren’t.

Conversely, there were others that felt sketched out rather than given room to breath. For example, there’s one in which Midwood heard strange noises in the wall of The House in the Horseshoe (in Lee County) during a tour, but the tour guide (being deaf) couldn’t hear them and didn’t understand why the author was creeped out. And … that’s about it. It’s not even clear what the noise was, exactly.

But it’s not all frustration. The tale of Philip Alston, first owner of The House in the Horseshoe in the late 18th century, is bloody intriguing. After a long and nasty career that spanned the Revolutionary War, Alston got one of his slaves – a man named Dave – to kill a political rival. He promised that he would get Dave off and they would both avoid a date with the noose. Things didn’t go quite as planned when the authorities objected. After fleeing the area and other shenanigans, Philip was murdered in bed in 1791 by Dave, who hanged for Philip’s murder, not the rival’s.

The real payoff story that makes the book worth it, though, is the one involving Fort Fisher. Now lots of people include stories about Fort Fisher in their collections if they cover the coast. Fort Fisher is alleged to be massively haunted with Civil War ghosts (and perhaps some others). But Midwood tells a story about the fort that I hadn’t heard before and it’s quite chilling.

After hearing some strange tales told by couples who would go down there around midnight, Midwood and some friends decided to check the place out at night. As they arrived, they noticed 15-20 vehicles in the parking lot (some of them older cars and quite nicely restored), and some people heading from the cars to the beach, so they figured they were pretty safe.

Once they got inside the park, though, they encountered a whole flurry of Civil War ghosts, some of them quite frightening. After a bit, they figured they were quite done for the night and hurried back to the parking. Imagine their surprise when they found it deserted except for their own car, even though they had not heard any other cars start up or see anyone else leaving the beach.

In the coda to the story, Midwood notes that the empty parking lot was a common detail in the previous stories from the couples (he gives us one such account early in the chapter). It seems the road nearby is treacherous and has seen a lot of fatal car wrecks over the years ….

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #11: Our Family Trouble: The Story of the Bell Witch of Tennessee

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Bell, Richard William. Our Family Trouble: The Story of the Bell Witch of Tennessee. M. Todd Cathey, ed. February 12, 2013.

You may ask why I’m reviewing a book about a haunting in Tennessee. The reason is two-fold. First, prior to its becoming the 16th state in 1796, Tennessee was western North Carolina. North Carolina’s territory originally, if someone fantastically due to the U.S. having no control beyond the Appalachians until the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, extended to the west coast. Second, the afflicted Bell family originally came from a part of Edgecombe County that has since become Wilson County. So, the principles (perhaps even the ghost) were originally Carolinians.

The Bell Witch case is exceedingly famous due to being (allegedly) the only “confirmed” case of a person being killed by a ghost. This account purports to be written by Richard Williams Bell, the son of the alleged victim, John Bell. In it, Richard recounts the story of how the family settled in Tennessee sometime before 1810 (before he was born) and then came to be afflicted by a witch in the form of a spirit, from 1817 until John Bell’s death in 1820. Though the “witch” (who claimed to be a woman named “Kate Batts”) visited a time or two more after that, the persecution ended with the demise of John Bell.

This story didn’t really come to public attention until 1894, when a newspaper editor, Martin Van Buren Ingram, wrote a book entitled An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch. This book not only incorporated Richard Bell’s diary, but used it as its sole primary source. And if you’re wondering who M. Todd Cathey is, he appears to be this guy.

This is where it gets sketchy. A fair number of modern researchers believe that the entire thing was a hoax and that Ingram made it all up. It seems that no one but Ingram ever saw the original copy of the diary in question.

They are likely not wrong. The diary has some serious issues with voice and tone and context. For a start, it does not read at all like a diary. It reads like an account written long after the fact.

It does not sound like a story written by a man who grew up on the Early American frontier (and boy, do the Bells have a ton of neighbors who have the leisure time to just show up to hang out with ghosts). It sounds like a late-Victorian dime store novel.

One of the really weird things is how the the diary portrays the Bells as living a life of plantation leisure, complete with a rather large group of family slaves. They might have done so back in Edgecombe County, but they wouldn’t have been doing it on the mountainous Tennessee frontier in 1817. The impression is of a fabrication by someone confusing Southern plantation life with Southern frontier life.

Further, the tone does not sound like that of a man who lost his father to an illness that may well have been poisoning. The tone of the hauntings (even though patriarch John is slowly wasting away throughout) is boisterous, with the family taking in visitors from all around and much merriment being made with the witch (who engages in as many pranks as she does actually malicious stuff aimed mostly at John). It’s weird.

There’s also a lot of casual racism in the text. The grossest thing in the book by far is the witch persecuting the family’s slaves while in the house because she complains that black people stink. Yet, no one in the family ever wonders why she is afraid to follow them to their own cabins, or why they act so knowledgeable about her folkloric origins and identity. The slaves are presented in very stereotypical and stupid fashion by the narrator, but hey, they’re not the ones being bothered in their own homes by a poltergeist. The Paranormal Activity movie series made absolute hay out of this kind of White People Are Arrogant and Dumb trope.

Lo and behold – the Ingram-made-it-all-up theory itself got debunked in 2017. Ingram had claimed the case first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1849, but that the article was retracted after John’s daughter Betsy threatened to sue. Yet, no issues of the Saturday Evening Post survived from that period and there was no mention of it elsewhere. Skeptics therefore assumed he had made it all up.

Still, there was a common practice back in the day for smaller newspapers to pick up articles from larger ones and reprint them (giving credit), much the way they do with AP dispatches today. Well, it turns out that on February 7, 1856, the Green-Mountain Freeman (out of Montpelier, VT) did just that with the legendary Saturday Evening Post article.

So, it looks as though Ingram (though he most likely forged the diary) didn’t make up the entire story out of whole cloth. There’s an interesting difference between Ingram’s account and the earlier one, though. The diary is quite sympathetic to Betsy, but not so the Green-Mountain Freeman/Saturday Evening Post. What got Betsy Bell so up in arms and threatening to sue? They never claimed the story didn’t happen. They just accused her of faking the entire haunting to win the affections of a local young man (whom she ended up not marrying in the end). What’s chilling is that John Bell probably died of poisoning. This account just blames it on the witch.

Oh, Betsy, you little parricide, you.

This is not a good book. Most of the time, it’s not very scary, either. But it is very interesting from a folkloric point of view. The “witch” is a classic witch-ghost straight out of North Carolina. “Kate” manifests as a poltergeist, a voice, and various spectral animals (the first form in which she appears). There is no real evidence (assuming she even existed) that she is ever human. The Bell Witch case is probably a hoax, but it’s also a really interesting example of why so many Tennessee ghost stories bear a strong resemblance to North Carolina ghost stories. They come from the same people and the same fokloric source.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #10: Ghosts of America – North Carolina: True Accounts of Ghosts from North Carolina

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Lautner, Nina, ed. Ghosts of America – North Carolina: True Accounts of Ghosts from North Carolina. Ghosts of America, Local Book 39. Stratus-Pikpuk, 2017.

So, there’s this website called “Ghosts of America” and it’s a sort of curated bboard run by internet publishing company Stratus-Pikpuk, Inc. (they have a bunch of other sites on various topics). It invites people to post their experiences with ghosts and any local legends, and lists them by state, then town (alphabetically). It’s not the only such site, but it is one of the bigger ones. According to its entries at Archive.org, Ghosts of America has been around since April 2005.

The publisher’s blurb on it says they originally started it as a way to test generating AI content, but changed up their plan when people started sending in actual stories. This would explain why the earliest stories on the site sounded creepy but unbelievable, with random elements grouped together in a single anecdote, and had no sources. The publisher says they only accept about half of the stories sent in and only the ones they think are real (i.e., sincere).

What the author (actually, editor) did was take these stories off the site, edit them lightly, and collect them all into single volumes by state. In this case, we’re talking about stories from North Carolina. Even a glance at the site (where you’ll find 1345 stories from North Carolina) demonstrates that the book is very much not-comprehensive at 37 stories for the state.

Some of these are quite creepy, such as a tale from Statesville about an in-law visit disrupted by the singing of a ghost girl in the attic. There’s another disturbing tale from Camp Lejeune about a house on base haunted by a malevolent gnome-like ghost/poltergeist. A former employee of Highland Inn in Highlands talks about
levitating knives at work and horrible dreams of amputations, and how she’d never go back. Another business, this time in Winston-Salem, is haunted by a “phantom family” that startles people as they round a corner.

Other stories include the usual range of UFOs (Tar Heel), battlefield ghosts (Salisbury and Bahama), several haunted houses (Louisburg, Ellenboro, Lumberton and Emerald Isle, among others), even a roadside revenant and a phantom hiker (not hitchhiker) from Tryon. An actual phantom hitchhiker gets off at her last stop (the graveyard) in Bladenboro. And one account from Elm City sounds a lot more like the narrator’s psychotic episode than a ghost story.

The folkloric value of a site like Ghosts of America seems fairly obvious. You are basically inviting random people to share stories around the internet campfire. This concept was more popular in the late 90s and 2000s, when the internet had fewer whistles and bells, but such sites can stay up for decades. They create an archive of raw data that influences and inspires new folklore, even as it preserves stories that might otherwise have been forgotten.

Sites where hired professional writers create content for the site are also useful, particularly those specific to a state. But they’re not as cutting edge as something like Ghosts of America or The Shadowlands. The latter don’t just record or revive or even embellish folklore – they create it outright.

But is there value in a Kindle “greatest hits” collection series of volumes by state on Amazon? I’ll confess that when I got this one, I was pretty skeptical, myself. I mean, the value to the site owners seems clear – they’re making money off repackaging these stories for a new audience on Amazon (after getting the original authors’ permission, one hopes) that helps to keep the site going.

What, though, is the value for the reader? Well, there’s the plus that one has a bunch of ghost stories from the site in one handy-dandy volume (there is also a print version). Further, by having a publication date on the volume, you can now use it as a permanent record of entries from the site. That can be mighty useful for tracking these tales. Then, too, not everyone wants to rush to the internet (even on their phones) to read ghost stories when they could do so by picking up a book or a Kindle. It would, however, be nice if there were a Kindle Unlimited version.

So, whether you check out the book or continue straight on to the site, strap yourself in for some scary shenanigans in North Carolina with this one.

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