We round a corner to see White Rock Lake shimmering under a crescent moon. A few fishermen sit on the docks with lanterns, smoking and waiting for the crappie to bite. Michelle Nuñez is just as patient. After leading us through oak groves and up the path that winds along the lake by the old Dallas Waterworks, she heads toward the bridge to the boathouse, certain it will be worth the walk. "Me and my family, we used to come here, and when we went past that boathouse, I felt it. There's activity in there." By activity, she means ghosts.
Nuñez and her friends are members of the Ghaste Studies Dallas Metro Ghost Hunting group, and they've come looking for the Lady of White Rock Lake, a female ghost described in local legends since the 1940s. According to the stories, a drenched girl in a 1930s-era Neiman Marcus gown appears on roads near the lake and hails passing cars for help. When someone stops, she says she's had an accident and directs the driver to a house on Gaston Avenue. By the time they pull up to the home, the girl has vanished, leaving only a puddle of water in the backseat. The old man who answers the door supposedly says his daughter drowned in the lake years before. The ghost hunters haven't seen the ghostly girl, but they're about to find something else, and Nuñez is leading them toward it.
She stops on the bridge and takes a picture of the boathouse, a low structure on the shore built in the 1930s.
"You have to be careful," says Dawn Marshall, a self-described medium and the group's organizer. "When there's lights it can end up looking like an orb." She's talking about the round, white shapes that appear in photographs and that ghost enthusiasts believe are spirits if unaccounted for by glares, water droplets or other technical glitches. Marshall winces and touches her forehead. "I'm getting Benjamin," she says, referring to a name that has just popped into her mind—ostensibly a name that belongs to a spirit.
It's a fairly small group tonight, and six of us mill around the creaky boathouse and peer inside at the rowboats. Aside from lapping water, the only sound is the frogs. "I just saw a spirit sitting on the dock," Marshall declares. "It was someone young, a boy, late teens—15—putting on his shoes. That's who Benjamin is."
Nuñez is snapping pictures of the windows with a pink digital Kodak, the one she always takes on ghost hunting expeditions. I head over to the other end of the building, but as I'm walking past the windows I hear a shriek somewhere to my left. I turn to see Nuñez with her hand on her chest, staring at the camera's preview screen. The rest of us run over to her. "Oh my God!" she says, showing us the camera. "There was a boy looking at me! See him?"
Marshall, the medium, nods. "I think that's Benjamin," she says solemnly. "I think he stays here and plays—he's saying he's stuck here because he wasn't supposed to be here, and he drowned."
There's a blurry flash of light in the center of the photograph, which is strange since there's no pane in the windows and nothing nearby that seems likely to have caused a reflection. I assure myself there could be other explanations. It's not until the next day, when I look at the photograph on my computer, that I'm able to make out the small, shadowy image of a boy's face, turned slightly to the side. It looks like a faded daguerrotype, and he appears to be wearing a dress shirt and vest. Wondering if I'm just seeing something I'd imagined after hearing the women talk, I show it to a colleague and ask what she sees. "Oh my God, that's a person," she says without hesitation.
Like most people, I've always been curious about ghosts. I wouldn't call myself a "believer," as many ghost hunters refer to themselves, but I do think it's pretty arrogant to insist that we're alone in the universe, or that we have any clue what might or might not happen after we die. Maybe it's partly that I grew up in New Mexico, where tourists marvel at a miraculous spiral staircase built without nails, penitents make pilgrimages to a mountain church known for its healing sand and parents discourage kids from playing near the river by warning them about La Llorona, a tormented female ghost said to pace the shore, wailing for her drowned children.
It was at one of Albuquerque's oldest restaurants that I once thought I saw a ghost. I was about 13. A 12-room hacienda dating to the early 19th century, Maria Teresa was full of antique wooden furniture, frayed Navajo rugs and black and white photographs in large metal frames. One was a portrait of an old woman with piercing eyes. As I looked at it, it seemed as if she were staring right back, and not nicely. I attributed it to my overactive imagination and sat down, but shortly after, I thought I saw a white, shadowy form glide across the large mirror that hung on the wall behind our table. I suddenly had chills—and an urgent desire to get out of there. When I told my parents, I expected them to laugh or nod indulgently before returning to their meals. But my father, a physician famous for dismissing unproven claims, caught me off guard. He nodded, unsurprised, and said he felt the same thing. We left and never went back. While researching this story, I came across a Web site linked to A Ghost in My Suitcase: A Guide to Haunted Travel in America, which is available on Amazon.com. Maria Teresa was listed as the most haunted place in my hometown. "Most of the reported sightings are in the mirrors of the restaurant," says a caption next to a picture of the room where we sat that night. The author wrote that staff said the piano in the Armijo room would sometimes play by itself in the wee hours and that they'd set the table and lock up at night only to return the next day to find the silverware piled in the middle of the tables. And there was a picture of that photograph I remembered, the one of the old woman, whom the author identifies as Doña Jesusita Salazar de Baca. A waiter, the caption reads, jokingly insulted her one night and afterward tripped or dropped something every time he passed the portrait.
Flabbergasted, I e-mailed the Web address to my father, who replied, "Yeah, I never did go back there. It closed a couple years ago."
Dawn Marshall, a 30-year-old mother of two, started the Dallas ghost group three months ago through the popular networking Web site Meetup.com. They've held three ghost hunts and attracted nearly 60 members. Hers is one of several local ghost groups formed in the past few years; they've proliferated nationwide as the Internet has enabled instant networking and shows such as Medium and Ghost Whisperer have made ghost tracking a fixture of popular culture. Of the six largest ghost-hunting groups listed on Meetup.com, three are in Texas, and Fort Worth's is the largest in the country, with more than 500 registered members.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon in April, Marshall waits for people to arrive for a ghost hunt at Fort Worth's Log Cabin Village historical museum, a collection of original settler homesteads from the Old West. While people park and walk over with cameras around their necks, Nuñez stands talking to another investigator, a brown-haired woman named Sabrina. "We're new," announces a blond woman with fashionable sunglasses. She has arrived with two men carrying large cameras. "So, this place is supposed to be really active?" Marshall nods and surveys the group of around a dozen people. "We just walk around, take pictures; some people feel things, some people don't, so sometimes it's just going back and looking at the pictures." While they wait for stragglers, there's talk of previous hunts—prime haunted spots such as the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells, cold spots, orbs. "You guys catching those with your 35 mm or your digital?" asks a man with a camera around his neck.
He nods. "Yeah, 'cause I've seen them more with my digital." A petite gray-haired woman with pearl earrings and a sweater draped over her shoulders looks more suited to a country club than a ghost hunt, but it turns out she's a veteran. Her name is Olyve Hallmark Abbot, and she's a Fort Worth author who has written three books about Texas ghosts. She tells everyone about the time at the Baker Hotel when she saw a figure dart across a dark hallway on one of the upper floors. "I think it's because spirits are more active at night," she says.
We go into the first cabin, where the Foster family lived, and view the frontier memorabilia before walking out the other side into an outdoor area with tall trees and manicured pathways. I hear a scream and turn to see the blond woman stumble away from a wooden door. She leans over with her hands on her knees, breathing hard. "There's a real person in there!" she says. Indeed, there is a gray-haired woman in period dress sitting in a rocking chair inside the cabin. Everyone laughs, and Marshall says, "Sorry, I should have told you it's a living history museum."
When I walk up, the woman inside is narrating the place's history. "This cabin was built in 1851," she says. "The Tompkins family lived here. They came from Missouri with five children..." Abbot is busy taking pictures, but not of the woman in costume. She's aiming her lens at the stove and dining room table, hoping to catch some orbs. I ask Marshall if she's seen anything.
Yes, she replies, there was a male ghost who wanted to teach her how to use the gristmill.
"What did he look like?" I ask.
"Sandy brown hair, suspenders, dirty white shirt."
She catches up to Sabrina, who's walking ahead to the next cabin. "You getting anything, Sabrina?"
"Not really. I was really drawn to it when we got here, though."
Suddenly Marshall stops and touches her temple. "I'm getting a pain here," she says. "Sometimes that's how they tell me how they passed."
She doesn't say anything more about the apparently fatal head wound, so I decide it's time to do a little exploring by myself. Down at the Parker cabin, a two-room log house split by a wooden deck, a woman stands in the bedroom next to an old washbasin and tells a visitor the famous story of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was kidnapped by Comanches. The woman resembles Mrs. Claus, with jaw-length white hair neatly tucked under a navy headband and kind blue eyes behind wire-rimmed spectacles. Her name is Dorothy Poole, and she's one of the museum's historical interpreters. When another costumed employee walks up and tells her we're looking for ghosts, I expect her to nod politely and turn away. Instead, she smiles. "Well, I think the whole world's haunted!" she says with a hearty laugh. "Are you from Dr. Barth's class?" I shake my head and learn that Dr. Tim Barth teaches a parapsychology class at Texas Christian University and that many of his students visit the cabins for research papers.
Poole rattles off ghost stories as if they're part of her family tree. "Someone took a picture in the Foster cabin, near the gift shop, and it was a white orb that looks like a woman. They say that's Jane. I think Jane was the housekeeper for Mr. Foster. Bill is the one who lives in the Howard cabin—sometimes you smell his smoke."
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?'"
Standing there listening to Dorothy Poole describe a world that is alive with the no longer living, I wonder why, if the spirit world is real, there's no conclusive scientific evidence to prove it. And if it in fact does not exist, why have people always created stories about it? The Lady of White Rock Lake fits neatly into a category that folklorists say has been around since medieval Europe: the vanishing hitchhiker legend. In some versions, the hitchhiker is silent; in others, the ghost delivers a prophecy before disappearing, and depending on the place or time, the objects left behind vary from a puddle of water to a scarf or coat.
"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."
Driving down a darkened Red Oak street with rain pelting the windshield, I almost miss the turn. At the last minute I see an iron arch that reads "Reindeer Manor" and swing into the narrow drive. It winds uphill for what seems like a long time, and just when I think I must have passed it, the house looms up ahead. Reindeer Manor is used as a haunted house at Halloween, and according to the attraction's Web site, it has an unfortunate history. The original wooden house burned down in 1915, killing an entire family of sharecroppers. After the owner rebuilt it using steel, brick and concrete, his son, James Sharp Jr., moved into it with his wife, who was active in the Spiritualist movement. Sharp lost his fortune in the Great Depression and went insane, and his wife became convinced that the house was cursed. She employed séances, potions and incantations to rid the house of the hex, but she and her husband eventually turned up dead in a murder-suicide—she was found poisoned in the house, he hanging from a noose in the barn.
A group is assembling in the Manor parking lot. Four women who belong to GIRLS (Ghost Investigators and Researchers of Legends and Sightings), an offshoot of the Fort Worth ghost group, are readying headlamps, infrared video cameras and recording devices for the hunt. Waiting to take us into the house are a bearded PR representative for the Manor who frequented the house as a Boy Scout growing up, and Alex Lohmann, a mohawked 30-something in a Dungeon of Doom T-shirt. Though he owns a different haunted house on the property and analyzes audio recordings for another ghost-hunting group, he calls himself a skeptic. His specialty is EVP, or electronic voice phenomena, which along with photographs of orbs and other images is a hallmark of ghost hunting. "People from other groups send me recordings to spectro-analyze," he would later tell me. The frequency has to be below 300 hertz for him to investigate paranormal evidence, he says, because humans can't speak below that level. He's not convinced he's ever come across a ghostly voice, though. "Everything I've gotten below that I've chalked up to anomalies."
Watching as the women prepare their gear, I recall what I'd heard the week before at the group's meeting. I'd listened to EVPs that a veteran hunter told me she'd captured at historic Revolutionary War sites in Georgia. A boisterous woman with long, gray hair who spends much of her free time roaming cemeteries and other haunted places of renown, Lisa Olive had set up a laptop. She handed me a set of headphones and pressed some buttons. I heard her voice and the voice of another woman talking, asking questions of any ghosts that might be present. "We're here to help you. You know that, right?" What came next was like something out of a horror movie—a pair of breathy, whispered voices answered, "Yessss" and "Heyyy." I heard the women chatting away, apparently oblivious to the voices, while a low, male whisper growled, "Get off me." Goose flesh rose on my arms, and I handed the headphones back. "Those can be pretty creepy, huh?" Olive said. An analyst such as Lohmann would likely write the recording off as an anomaly, something unexplained but not necessarily attributable to ghosts. That's the thing about investigating the paranormal—there aren't many answers, just questions, assertions and beliefs. And of course, goosebumps. Which, despite the cheesy haunted house skeletons and signs that read "Graveyard members only," is what I feel as we walk into Reindeer Manor.
The house is roughly hewn, made to look like some old, abandoned haunt filled with cobwebs and the macabre evidence of evil. Phyllis Clark, a middle-aged woman with bright blue eyes, shows me her standard tape recorder and points out the attached microphone. "This is the best kind to use for EVPs—it helps the sound," she says. The table in the front room is covered with random plastic limbs and creepy doll heads. Above it hangs a skeleton, suspended face down, with a plastic intestine trailing down onto the table in Nazi doctor fashion. Amy Wainwright, a 30-ish mother of two who acts as the group's organizer, sets up a tripod. "The last time I was here, I was standing there in the doorway talking to the owner, and I saw a man—that's why I'm setting the camcorder up here," she says. "He was old and creepy—like something you'd see on The Twilight Zone." She used to date a mortician, she tells me, and one evening while they were in the funeral home they saw a "black, winged thing" that came toward them and pushed them up against the pew. They ran out and never spoke of it again. "Part of me thinks I was just hallucinating, and I want proof," she says. Soon after, she found the ghost group online.
We walk through a narrow hallway and into the living room, which the public relations guy explains used to be the entry room. He doesn't say much more, because the women want to see what they can glean about the history on their own. There's a coffin with a skeleton inside and shelves lined with books and skulls. The women talk about how their hearts are pounding or their scalps are tingling, and Clark says she has a weird taste on her lips. I don't feel anything, but as one of the women shows me a crated wall space where at Halloween they keep rat snakes, I remember why I've always hated haunted houses. We walk into the back room, and one of the women sets up the tape recorder. Donna Hawkins, a stock trader who says she's always had psychic abilities and has worked on missing person cases, walks the room's perimeter, shining her flashlight on the walls.
"Did anything happen in this room?" Clark asks, looking from floor to ceiling.
"He wants some of us to leave," Hawkins says suddenly. "And I keep getting something about up there—something happened up there." She points to the ceiling. Then she walks out of the room, telling Amy to ask "him" why he's so tired. For a moment the only sound is the crickets outside.
"Why are you tired?" Wainwright asks. "Did I see you that night? The first time I came here?" After a while we walk back out to the hallway, where we're shushed by the others. "Do you hear that movement right there? We heard breathing." "It's a female—like giggling." I strain my ears but don't hear anything. Clark, her headlamp hanging around her neck, slowly waves the microphone through the air. "I think we got too close," she says. Then it gets cold. Really cold. "Whoa," everyone says at once, looking around. "Thanks for coming to see us," Clark says with a smile, taking out her camera.
But as we step into an adjoining room, Hawkins says whoever it was went to the back of the house. I follow her there. "I've been doing this since I was little—I help them move on if they want to," she tells me. "There's something back here. Do you feel the tingling on your scalp?"
"No," I say. "I just feel light-headed."
She nods. "They're saying, 'It's all messed up.'" Then she addresses the ghosts that are apparently swirling in our midst. "You don't need to be afraid," she tells them, heading for the back door, where there's a pile of plastic Halloween bodies: legs, arms and heads in an unruly heap. "I bet a lot of them are hanging out back there," she says, pointing beyond the door. "They don't really like people." Then she grimaces. "I'm starting to feel sick—that usually only happens when they're negative."
Great, I think. I'm feeling a little nauseated myself. And ready, ghosts or not, to get the hell out of that nasty little room. All of a sudden, an image pops into my mind—it's an old, gnarled woman glaring at me with wide, glowing eyes, like something out of Lord of the Rings. She's shoving handfuls of something into her mouth. Alrighty then. Now I'm really ready to leave, since I've apparently lost my mind and could use some anti-psychotic medication. As we walk out, I notice I'm nearly running.
The others are talking outside. Tammy's telling how she sensed a male spirit come from the staircase and follow her out of the house. "It was definitely a man," she says.
The PR guy nods. "Yeah, that sounds about right." The women share other discoveries: the giggling, a woman's perfume, being directed to the ceiling. "I'll have Jim tell you about the spot in the ceiling," he says, pointing to Jim Scott, a mustachioed guy with a baseball hat and silver belt buckle, who has owned the property since the '70s.
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"There was a man who came out here a few years ago," Jim begins as we gather 'round. "He was a member of the last family that lived in the house. He said he'd heard that the man who lived here before—his two wives found out about each other." This story wasn't on the Web site. "They decided he was the one who had to pay, so they cut him up and put his body in the attic." The man said that when his family moved in, the plaster kept breaking open in that spot and they'd have it repaired, only for it to break open again. "When we came out here to use it as a haunted house," he tells us, "there was a gaping hole in the ceiling."
The next night I find myself strolling through a cemetery at dusk with Lisa Olive, the veteran ghost hunter with the creepy EVPs, and Paula Schermerhorn, her medium friend who helped the Hurricane Rita victims make it to the other side. The women elected to bring me to Aurora Cemetery, famous as the resting place of serial killer Ricky Lee Green, as well as an alien pilot that was rumored to have been found there in the 1890s. It's a pretty cemetery, with grass and wildflowers, graves covered with pictures, letters and bouquets. There are storms in the distance, and lightning flashes as the clouds turn pink and shift overhead. Olive, wearing a backward baseball cap and a headlamp, snaps pictures as we pass grave markers dating from the 1800s, recent monuments, plots saved for those still living and small stones decorated with hearts and angels that clearly belong to children.
"It seems pretty peaceful," Schermerhorn tells me apologetically. The last time she was here she sensed a lot of teenage spirits, she says. I tell her not to worry. After the haunted house, I've had enough of ghosts, real or not. We come to the grave of a 15-year-old high school senior who was buried in 1997. A picture in a silver frame on the marker shows a brown-haired boy with a bright smile.
When I tell Olive I feel weird walking in cemeteries, she nods. "I guess it just depends if you're comfortable. Me, if I have a lot of heavy feelings to go through, I walk through a cemetery and read the names on the stones and it calms me," she says. "If you think of how many people have lived on this earth, there's probably not a place where someone or something isn't buried." That may be true. But me, I'd rather hang out with the living.