Alex Maples' ghost obsession began when his sisters were almost 10 and he was still in a crib. The whole family would frequently visit his Aunt Doris in Southern Illinois. Her house was old and drafty, built on many open acres of ranch land. On a country-quiet evening during one of those visits, as his sisters were trying to sleep on the second story of Aunt Doris' house right near the staircase, the sound of footsteps slowly walking up and down the stairs woke them.
The young girls thought nothing of it at first and tried to go back to sleep. It was probably mom or dad, or maybe Aunt Doris. But their annoyance grew as they kept hearing footsteps ascending the stairs. Finally, as they heard the footsteps approaching the top of the stairs for the umpteenth time, they opened the door.
To their shock, there was no one on the other side of the door, and this sent the girls racing to their parents' room, begging to sleep in their bed.
A few days later, as his father was slowly falling asleep to Johnny Carson, he heard a loud slam. He looked over to the front door and saw it was wide open, the porch light was on, and the screen door was thwaping as though someone had just left, or entered. Dad went to go investigate, finding that everyone was asleep, and not even the dogs were close enough to the front door to have caused this.
Thinking maybe he had just been absent-minded, he latched the screen door, turned off the porch light, and made sure to close and lock the front door. He then settled back into his comfy spot in the living room to fall asleep to the television. Ten minutes later, there was that same slam and this time his dad jumped out of his chair. The front door was wide open, the porch light was on, and the screen door was thwaping. Everyone else was asleep, and that's when his dad felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
Since then, Alex Maples, who drums in Spitfire Tumbleweeds and a handful of other Denton bands, has spent the last 30-plus years searching for ghosts, but has never seen one. He's had what might be called a mild obsession, fueled by his family's experiences at Aunt Doris' old ranch house, since he was a kid growing up in Frisco, Texas. Back then, he says, the town was nothing, let alone anything resembling the sprawling, dense suburb of Dallas it is today. Back then, you could be a kid and get lost in little wilderness areas.
He and his friends would spend evenings behind his house, hanging out at White Rock Creek, at a place they called "The Warpit," because of all of the Civil War trinkets and arrowheads they found.
"We would basically just try to scare the shit out of each other," he remembers. "But one night we were out there [camping in tents], it was the middle of the night, and we heard what sounded like Indian war drums and chanting. It really freaked us out to the point where we didn't even want to investigate." The next morning, emboldened by daylight, he and his friends scouted the area for any sign that there might have been other campsites nearby, or clues that perhaps they were being messed with. They found nothing.
You could let your imagination run wild in the augmented darkness of the rural little town and your senses wouldn't be distracted by human noise and light pollution. Back then, ghost hunting was much easier.
Today, Maples still hunts for ghosts, venturing as far as Northern Oklahoma to experience the paranormal. He doesn't have the funding of some of the more popular ghost hunting societies or shows on television. Shows like Most Haunted or The Othersiders feature experts clad in thousands of dollars worth of equipment, from cameras with infrared capability to electromagnetic field meters (EMF). Maples has to rely on basic audio and video recorders to record and capture what groups with exponentially bigger budgets have so far not been able to.
His group, The Denton Ghost Researchers, consists mainly of himself and a few other mildly obsessed fans of anything paranormal. They have meetings, either online or in person, to discuss their next or last ghost hunt or any newly researched mythology. As I walk into his apartment, excited to be going on a ghost hunt with him this very evening, he is on the computer watching UMHQ, the Unsolved Mysteries channel on YouTube. His tiny efficiency apartment is lit only by the computer screen and the kitchen light one room over.
"Have a seat," he says. "Check this out. I just found this channel."
I sit on a small rocking chair next to him, and we make use of the time debunking unsolved mysteries on the computer. The story of one of Chicago's most famous ghosts comes on, and the announcer titillates the audience. "You see, this cab driver had just given a ride to..."
"Resurrection Mary!" Maples says in sync with the announcer, his tone sarcastic in its finality and followed by a boisterous chuckle.
Resurrection Mary is the handle given to a woman, no one really knows who, who allegedly died in a car accident in Chicago's South Side in 1938. Since then, she has been seen multiple times by passersby and people in the neighborhood. The abridged version is that she is looking for someone to take her home from the Resurrection Cemetery where she was buried -- your standard ghost-hitchhiker tale. I ask him what he thinks about stories like this.
"All I gotta say, a mind is an incredible thing," he relates. "It can make you see, hear and feel things... out of the ordinary. I mean, from psychedelic trips to people who do ritualistic things to try to achieve nirvana, and I'm not saying that these people who saw Mary are tripping balls, but just from hearing the story once, that's going to be on your mind, and then you combine that with the fact that you're driving down Archer Street [a spot where Resurrection Mary is often spotted]. So in the back of their minds, if they see a woman in a white dress walking down that street, they're more likely to think that it's real."
He lists other possibilities for sightings - inebriation, exhaustion and even road hypnosis - all while refusing to say the story of Resurrection Mary is untrue.
Maples finds his keys amid the clutter on his computer desk. He grabs a jacket but doesn't put it on, and as we get into his white four-door hatchback, he tosses it over the driver's seat onto a full drum set resting in the backseat. We head off to our first spot, Old Alton Bridge, better known to some as Goatman's Bridge, the exact point of the most gruesome multiple murders in Denton's history.
The story goes that Old Alton Bridge was a strategic crossing point that helped enrich local commerce by connecting Lewisville to Denton from the late-1880s to the mid-1960s. In the early 20th century, a well-liked black goat farmer named Oscar Washburn lived near the bridge, and often used it to transport his animals. Everyone in the area started calling him Goatman, and the title stuck. Washburn himself liked it so much he put up a sign on the Old Alton Bridge that read: "This way to the Goatman!"
This enraged local Klansmen, many of whom held lofty positions in the local government. One evening in 1938, as Washburn was approaching the bridge, he was blocked by the Klan, their car lights turned off so they could ambush him. He was noosed and thrown over the bridge as a message to other black men who might have a notion to infect the town with their success.
As the Klansmen looked over the ledge, they saw the noose dangling with no body attached to it. Shocked and thinking he somehow wriggled out of the rope and escaped, they sped over to Washburn's house. When they didn't find Washburn, they proceeded to brutally murder his family.
The legend states that if you drive onto the Old Alton Bridge with your headlights off, the Goatman will appear in front of you, trying to get revenge on the Klansmen that murdered him and his family.
On our way to the bridge, Maples points out Old Alton Cemetery, one of the oldest cemeteries in the area. All around it are mini-malls and business parks. The vast acres of cattle-grazing land that used to signify this area as early as 10 years ago have diminished greatly. It's well after dark, but difficult to see the stars.
"Gunplay has been heard at the back of this cemetery," he says, with the implication that it is unexplained.
We turn right onto Old Alton Road from Teasley and approach the bridge. Roughly 200 yards away, children are playing soccer on a new, brightly lit field. Open tailgates and SUV hatchbacks line the sides of the field, cradling cheering soccer parents. "They put an athletic center right there?" His voice trails off. "That's weird."
We pull up to the nearest spot to the bridge - people haven't been able to drive on it since the late '60s - and start walking. Maples tells me about various sightings of the Goatman that have been reported over the years, but his attention is slightly divided by that damn soccer field illuminated nearby. He did not want to see such vibrant signs of life so close to the bridge.
The whir of automobiles and their approaching headlights from the nearby new bridge, built to replace the antiquity of the Old Alton Bridge, is also impossible to ignore. We stand on the rail ties that construct Old Alton's floor, and lean against the centuries old, rusty steel that constructs its rails and criss-crossed arches, staring at the trickling water flowing from the creek underneath. We try to imagine where on this bridge Washburn might have been lynched, and harbor small hopes that we will see the spectral revenge-seeker.
After ten minutes, we decide to hit the next spot, Shiloh Cemetery, about five miles south of Denton behind Bill Utter Ford on I-35. The lore of Shiloh says that by standing in the middle of it, you are supposed to feel an otherworldly electricity pulsate through your body.
But before that, since we are in the area, he decides to take me down what he calls the "Canyon Creek creature area," a trail along Copper Canyon Road in which a psychotic looking Yeti-type monster has been sighted numerous times. "I never believed it," Maples laughs. "I always tell my friends it's possibly a meth-head coming out of his lab."
As we drive down Copper Canyon, half-hoping to see either a monster or a meth-head, Maples is almost apologetic in explaining the newly paved, straightened-out smoothness of the path. "Right now, you can't really have the spooky-type feeling like you could have before. Before [it was paved], it used to wrap all the way around these woods. There were lots of sharp curves, and lots of slow driving. But now, it's like they dug that road up and put this road in."
We see no knuckle-dragging, mouth-agaped monster, nor do we see a knuckle dragging, mouth-agaped meth-head, so we head down to Shiloh Cemetery. On the way there, I ask him if he ever expects to see a ghost while on a hunt.
"I don't expect to, no. I would like to. I don't get my hopes up when I go on an investigation, just because if it ever does happen, then it's over the top. It's like Christmas morning." He laughs as he flicks his cigarette ashes out of his cracked window.
We pull up to a dirt road that wraps around the cemetery and park right next to a row of graves. Maples grabs his jacket from atop his drums in the backseat, and we walk to the center of Shiloh, he being far more careful than I to avoid stepping on graves.
"Supposedly, toward the middle, there's this old tree whose roots grow into a group of graves, and that's where the electric charges come from." We locate the tree and wait.
The silence is cut by his next observation. "Man, it used to be so much darker out here. There used to be all trees right there, and right there." He points out the perimeter of Shiloh. Across the street is a brand new, well-lit apartment complex that brand new, shiny cars drive in and out of.
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"This was the type of graveyard where you could easily expect something to be standing in the shadows of the corner and then start walking toward you," he observes. "But now there's some fucking high-class apartment complex looking at you." This time we both laugh, fully realizing the overarching theme of the evening.
We decide to leave, and this time I am as careful to avoid stepping on graves as he. I ask what might ever make him stop hunting ghosts.
"I suppose if I ever had a family. You know, a wife and kids that demanded my attention." As usual, he laughs. "I'm pretty sure my wife would be like, 'Why the hell do you want to hang out in graveyards at night?'"
We have a couple more haunted spots to hit before the tour is done, but as we pull onto the brightly lit and heavily populated grey lanes of I-35, I can't help but wonder which Alex Maples wants more: To see a ghost or have a family. It's hard to surmise as we drive to the next cemetery, undaunted by the bright lights of the city.