The question of whether ghosts really exist is one of those timeless quandaries that is often examined at Halloween.
A majority of religious experts will agree that there are, in fact, ghosts. It can be argued that one of the world’s first “ghost stories” originated with the Holy Ghost — the rising of Jesus from his tomb after being crucified.
At Halloween, ghosts are often celebrated through scary movie marathons, spooky campfire stories and haunted houses. Retail outlets nationwide make millions of dollars selling devilish costumes and spooky accessories to the parents of trick-or-treaters.
And, while there are plenty of skeptics and non-believers, some local residents aren’t shy about saying paranormal activity is a very real thing. Even spookier, you may not have to be a psychic or have a sixth sense to experience it.
A word of warning
Though families often celebrate Halloween through dressing up and telling ghost stories, a local religious leader stressed caution when it comes to exploring the paranormal.
Dr. Edwin Jenkins, pastor of Athens First Baptist Church, said his views on spirits and ghosts may not make him popular at Halloween, but he wants people to be aware of the dangers.
“When we talk about ghosts and goblins and haunted houses, there is a fine line we might go over and get us into an area where we don’t want to be,” he said. “I’m confident that the Holy Spirit within the life of a believer is greater than any other spirit in the world.”
He said it may be popular to break out a Ouija board or visit haunted houses at Halloween, but he said such activities could cross over into dangerous territory.
“The Bible says ‘The devil is a roaring lion seeking whom me may devour,’ so we need to be careful about dabbling in those things,” Jenkins said. “Some will say it’s harmless, but I have to stand on the truth of the word of God.”
A signal from beyond
Limestone County resident Joyce McCafferty has firsthand knowledge that ghosts really exist. About 30 years ago, she and her husband, Billy Joe Shipp, were watching a television program about magician Harry Houdini.
Houdini and his wife made a pact with each other that whoever died first, the other would make his or her presence known from beyond the grave. Inspired, McCafferty and Shipp made the same agreement.
Not long afterward, Shipp died of a heart attack in the doublewide trailer the couple shared. Though he was physically gone, McCafferty believes her husband decided to keep up his end of the pact.
“He always sat in a recliner,” she said. “I’d be in the bedroom and I’d hear the recliner pop like someone was getting out of it.”
She said one of Shipp’s legs was also shorter than the other, the result of a motorcycle accident. Because he wore shoe lifts, she said, his walk had a distinctive sound when he would walk up and down the hallway of the home. Relatives who spent the night in the home would hear the sound of Shipp walking up and down the hall at night.
Shipp was also a smoker, and McCafferty would hear the sound of her husband’s cigarette pack from inside the nightstand.
Fearful and concerned, McCafferty confided in friends from work and even sought advice from the preacher at her Pentecostal church.
“(The preacher) said when we made the pact, we let in an evil spirit,” she said.
McCafferty later sold the home she and her husband shared, but her husband likely stayed behind.
“The woman who bought it from me asked if I had ever heard anything strange when I lived here.”
The reality television phenomenon has given rise to shows about paranormal activity, including “Ghost Hunters” and “Ghost Adventures.”
There are some paranormal research groups, including some here locally, who take their studies very seriously and existed long before cable TV came calling.
Molly Spence, who once led a group called Spirit Connection Investigations, is now affiliated with the Madison County Paranormal Society. The group meets the fourth Friday of each month at the Radisson Hotel on Madison Boulevard.
Spence had her first dealings with what she calls “spirits” when she was 4 years old, but delved deeper into the subject when she was in her 20s. While a student at Athens State University, she took a class in paranormal psychology, taught by Dr. Joe Slate, who is now retired. Inspired by what she learned, she formed her first investigatory group.
“We are all made of energy, and once we pass on and leave this body behind, we’re still energy on the other side,” Spence said. “It was told in a dream that I needed to do this, and I prayed on it for a while. I had things thrown in my path and I’m supposed to be doing this.”
Though she’s not a medium, she can feel energy when it enters a room. She said mediums can have direct contact with a spirit, which she cannot do.
“I’ll get pictures that flash in my mind telling me different things,” she said. “You don’t have to be gifted to do this, but it helps if you are.”
Investigations conducted by the Madison County Paranormal Society are free, she said, though the group takes donations. Parties who contact the group requesting an investigation of their residence can sign confidentiality agreements ensuring that information will be kept private.
The group can be contacted through its website, www.parapsychologystudygroup.com. Spence can be reached via email at MollySpence2010@hotmail.com.
Spence said the group has conducted several studies in Limestone County. One place known for its strange occurrences, she said, is the Houston Memorial Library on Houston Street in Athens.
Though it’s part of the annual Ghost Walk, led by attorney Shane Black, Spence has experienced spirits inside the building firsthand, including once on the night of a Ghost Walk about two years ago.
Spence had gone upstairs to turn on lights that had been turned off during the Ghost Walk. When she started back down the stairs, the lights in the foyer came on.
“I said, ‘Who’s doing that?’ and the parlor lights came on and all the lights down the stairs came on,” she said.
She went down to the kitchen area to help a librarian clean up after the Ghost Walk and told the librarian about the problem she was having. After trying to turn the lights off yet again, the lights in the house began blinking like turn signals.
“I said, ‘We’re going home because I’m tired of running up and down these steps,’” Spence said. “I couldn’t control what they were doing. I said, ‘You can keep going at it like this or explain it to the cops when they show up.’ After I said that, boom — all the lights went off.”
She relayed another story involving the library’s answering machine, which normally tells the hours of operation. However, one day the staff found the message had been changed to the sounds of something otherworldly.
“When you’d call, you’d hear clanking and heavy breathing and it was saying, ‘Please stop,’” Spence said. “I had my daughter call and she got the same thing.”
She believes the library may still be inhabited by the ghost of former Alabama Gov. George Smith Houston, who served as governor from 1874-1878 and who died in 1879. Houston is buried in the Athens City Cemetery on Washington Street.
Spence was part of another investigation at a residence in Limestone County in which a man found himself sharing a house with an otherworldly roommate. She said the man would use the video chat program Skype to talk with his girlfriend each night. However, the man’s girlfriend started noticing a presence in the background.
“He always felt an energy, but didn’t know how to call,” she said, adding that investigators set up recording equipment in the man’s computer room to record any activity. “One of the guys in my group is a medium, so he had contact with (the spirit).”
Spence said they learned the spirit in the house was named Michael, and once in touch with a medium, Michael wouldn’t shut up. She said the spirit viewed the homeowner as a roommate, though the homeowner was quite skeptical until hearing solid proof.
The medium explained that the spirit, Michael, knew the homeowner had moved a printer, dropped it and then cursed. He also questioned why the homeowner was thinking about getting another dog, when he already had a Chihuahua.
She said the group learned that Michael was likely a wrought-iron worker, and the medium explained he had burn scars on his arms. They also learned that Michael left each day to go to a job and came back to the house at night. The spirit told the homeowner — through the medium — that he sometimes woke the homeowner up at night on returning from work or getting a glass of water in the middle of the night.
“The spirit said, ‘I’ll bump something and you know I’m around because you lean up on your elbow and look around,’” Spence said. “He said, ‘I stand at your doorway to check on you and make sure you’re OK, and the dog sees me.’”
She said it’s possible that Michael travels with the homeowner when he leaves the house.
“(The homeowner) told us, ‘Every time I go to a friend’s house, the pendulum clock stops when I walk through the door,” she said. “I told him, ‘Well, he’s probably just coming with you.’”
Walking with ghosts
Many towns across the South hold “Ghost Walk” events leading up to Halloween, including Athens and Huntsville. Attorney Shane Black, who serves as tour guide for Ghost Walk events, has also written a book about some of the town’s more fabled ghosts.
“Spirits of Athens: Haunting Tales of an Alabama Town” recounts 11 of the town’s spirited tales, some of which involve Athens State University’s historic buildings.
Black said while he’s not a believer in anything other than the Holy Ghost, he’s talked with historians and longtime residents who have offered convincing proof that some of the town’s buildings have otherworldly inhabitants inside.
Some of the tales recounted in the book include:
• The Inferno of 1893: “It’s a ghost story that relates to the east side of the Square,” Black said. “There had been a terrible fire that burned down the entire east side, and two men were trapped in the blaze. According to legend, you can still see the flames from the east side and the silhouettes of the two trapped men.”
• The Vasser-Lovvorn Home, located at Washington and Beaty streets: “It was the home of Richard Vasser, a well-known merchant and his daughter, Patty,” Black said. “She tried to hang herself after learning of the death of her husband. She let out a terrible scream that was cut off when the noose jerked.” Black said the scream can still be heard in the house, even though she did not die until years later.
• The Donnell House: A popular location in Athens for special events, the house is supposedly haunted by the spirit of Nannie Donnell, a child who died during the Civil War. Black said the legend is that a group of Union Army soldiers sang under the child’s window while she was ill. The scared child died, and those who frequent the Donnell House can hear her rearranging the toys in the upstairs room where she perished.
• Col. Turchin and his men: Col. John B. Turchin and a group of Union soldiers ransacked the city during the Civil War. Black said on a foggy night, some have seen Turchin and his men riding the through the city on horseback and seeking forgiveness for their wicked ways.
“Spirits of Athens: Haunting Tales of an Alabama Town” can be purchased at Pablo’s on the Square. Proceeds from the book benefit Spirit of Athens.
Other haunted locales
The following is a list of Limestone County locations that are purported to be haunted. Most of these sites were found on a website — http://www.ghostsofamerica.com — and submitted anonymously:
• A house on North Jefferson Street purportedly has the spirit of a woman in a white dress. The submitter said books fly off shelves and cabinets open on their own;
• A little girl wearing old clothes was seen in 2003 just off the Square;
• The sounds of howling Native Americans and babies crying can supposedly be heard near the site of the old Hannawa Bridge, also known as “Crybaby Holler”’; and
• A submitter reported “spirit voices” on cellphone messages at a house on Upper Fort Hampton Road in Elkmont. The person also claimed his children were touched and scratched on several occasions.
One of the area’s most popular ghost stories is that of opera singer Abigail Burns, who is said to still haunt McCandless Hall at Athens State University.
Following a 1987 performance of “La Traviata” by the Huntsville Opera Theater, which was dedicated to Burns’ memory, a past life hypnotist claimed to have seen her ghost waving goodbye to the audience.