By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Has she ever seen evidence of the ghosts herself?
She nods and points across the dog trot to the kitchen. "One day I came over here and the soap in the kitchen had been moved onto the floor. Then the next time I went in it was in the fireplace. My daughter said, 'It's a spirit, it just wants to be acknowledged.' So the next day I went in and said, 'I'm gonna be spending quite a bit of time here in the kitchen, so it's time we got to know each other.' It never happened again. But every once in a while I see someone standing there, and I look up and they disappear."
"Does it scare you?"
"No, they're benign. Did you ever read the poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning?" Before I have time to answer she's reciting it: "'Earth's crammed with heaven/And every common bush afire with God/And only he who sees takes off his shoes/The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.' Sure, I think the ground is holy and there's energy all around us. It's just not everyone's tuned into it." She waves toward the other room again. "There's a string of garlic hanging over in the kitchen in there. The kids always ask, 'Is that to keep the vampires away?' I say, 'I guess it's working because I've never seen any vampires.' Then there's always some pert little girl who says, 'There's no such thing as vampires.' And I say, 'How do you know?'"
"Ghosts are a phenomenon you can find in humanity since the beginning of time," says Francis E. Abernethy, professor emeritus at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches and former head of the Texas Folklore Society, a position he held for 33 years. "There's this hope that there's something beyond this physical reality." Abernethy has written more than 20 books, and many include Texas ghost stories. One of his favorites is the one about Britt Bailey, a settler who told his friends to bury him with his rifle by his side and a jug of whiskey by his feet and then haunted them because they drank his liquor before putting him in the grave. Abernethy told me he has at times thought he saw or heard a ghost, but he doesn't believe he actually did. "The phenomenon of ghosts is the same everywhere because man is the same everywhere," he says. "We can't believe we're here for just a short period of time. We try to get a reason for everything, and if we can't come up with a good rational reason, then we attribute it to some supernatural power."
To TCU's Dr. Barth, the professor who teaches Parapsychology: Weighing the Evidence, it's crucial to assess the debate over paranormal phenomena scientifically and objectively. Doing so, he told the campus magazine several years ago, it becomes clear that not only are supernatural claims often unsupported by science, but so is the knee-jerk debunking practiced by critics. "They often are trying to embarrass believers or convince people how absurd it is," he told the magazine. "The nonbelievers are often as biased as the people they're trying to discredit."
Efforts to document supernatural phenomena began in the 1850s as part of the Spiritualist movement. An exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art includes 120 spirit photographs, including a famous one of Mary Todd Lincoln, who appears with the supposed ghost of her assassinated husband hovering behind her. The movement's séances, theatrics and photography were hotly debated, drawing famous intellectuals such as psychologist William James and author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Today, the debate still features photography, but there are new gadgets too—tape recorders, Geiger counters and electromagnetic field detectors. The use of psychics, however, has been a mainstay since the beginning. I encountered several mediums in the local ghost groups, and two told me they'd provided police departments with information on missing person cases. Most of them say they help lost souls pass on to the other side, or to "the light," as famed psychic John Edward has described in his nationally syndicated talk radio show, Crossing Over.
Paula Schermerhorn, who works for a software company and does psychic readings on the side, told me that after the bus burned up during the evacuation for Hurricane Rita, three elderly and confused ghosts appeared in her living room, seeking guidance. "They had oxygen tanks," she says. "They said they were on the bus, that they didn't know what happened. I said, 'Do you see the light?' They said, 'Yeah, but it's pretty far off.' I said, 'Y'all can make it.'" Thirty minutes later they returned, without the oxygen tanks and looking younger, and thanked her for pointing them in the right direction. When I suggested that many people would likely view this as either a seminal life event or evidence of madness, she shrugged. "I look at it nonchalantly—it's part of my life."