At one point or another I’ve asked almost every person I know the same question: “do you believe in ghosts?”. More often than not I am answered with a half-hearted “no”, and conversation is quickly steered back to more palatable topics as I question my entire understanding of social cues. Occasionally, however, someone’s eyes will widen as they say “I’m not sure, but…” and proceed to share a delightful story about the time they saw a crying woman in white on the side of the highway who dissolved into darkness (or something along those lines). If they have never had an experience themselves some people will share the tales of others, remaining unconvinced that it’s all purely superstitious hogwash. Regardless of whether or not they’ve personally seen something, these tales are inevitably followed by a riveting discussion of the afterlife as we swap theories about things that go bump in the night. This is how I know when I’ve found my people.
My obsession with ghosts has been a ubiquitous force in my life. As early as I could talk I’ve been telling stories about ghosts, ghouls, and haunted things--much to the chagrin of my presbyterian school-teacher grandmother. As years continue to march by, the obsession has yet to fade. Everytime I go out of town I google “haunted in ____” and “ghosts of _____”. There’s a bookshelf in my apartment dedicated to ghost and horror story collections. I have a ouija board planchette tattooed to my body. If ghost hunting had been a major, I would have graduated with honors.
With all that being said, you’d think I’d be a firm believer in ghosts. But the truth is--I’m not. I don’t think that the sentient spirit of Old Man Jenkins is scaring kids off what used to be his property, nor do I believe that ghost hunting shows are finding actual evidence when they replay warbly recordings of someone down the hall scratching their ass and declare “the ghost said ‘get out’!”. I’ll still happily watch those shows and listen to those stories, but I can’t seem to get behind this Disney’s-Haunted-Mansion idea of ghosts.
I think that, if they’re real, ghosts operate similarly to smells--weird, I know, but hear me out: say you cook something mild. Your kitchen smells like that food for a half hour or so afterwards, right? But if you cook an intensely pungent dish (curry, for example), the aroma can linger for days. I think spirits may work in a similar way. If something intense happens, or some huge outpouring of human emotion takes place, that doesn’t just fade away. It tends to stay, undefined and faint, but still noticeable.
There have been a few times and places in my life where either myself or someone I was with were able to pick up on something--though what, exactly, remains unclear. In the spirit of the season, I would like to briefly share these moments with you, for I feel that Halloween is a powerful holiday that gives us allowance to tap in to that spooky vein that gets so often ignored.
Place: The Crescent Hotel, Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Year: 2007 (Age 12)
Between the ages of nine and fourteen my family frequently visited the Ozark town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. If you’ve ever been, you know that Eureka Springs is an incredibly mystical place. It was named in reference to the abundant freshwater springs that still flow from the steep, lush hills that are characteristic of the region. Though the town as it is known today was founded in 1879, for centuries prior the area was a sacred place for many Native American tribes, including the Choctaw, Osage and Creek peoples. In the mid 1800’s the springs were a stop for thousands of Cherokee people being forcefully removed from their land on the nefarious Trail of Tears. According to the Blue Spring Heritage Center website, the springs and their natural power offered a source of hope and healing to these people in the midst of an atrocious act of inhumanity.
When these stories of the springs’ healing properties spread, European settlers flooded into the area and began to capitalize on this precious natural resource. Entrepreneurs began to advertise the spring water as a magical cure-all and built bath houses, hotels, and retreats into the steep hillside. As the 1800’s rolled to a close the branding of the springs and fresh air had proved to be incredibly lucrative, to the point where tens of thousands of Victorian-era city dwellers would flock to Eureka Springs seeking respite from a host of physical ailments.
In 1884 construction began on what is today known as The Crescent Hotel. The Crescent sits at the top of the hillside overlooking Eureka Springs, a massive stone structure ever standing watch over the town. In its one hundred and twenty five years, The Crescent has been a hotel, a school, a hospital, and an old folks home before finally coming back full circle to the hotel it is today. And, as with any self-respecting hundred year old hotel-school-hospital-nursing home, The Crescent is said to be home to many restless spirits. One visit to Eureka Springs, after much begging, I was able to convince my mother to take my sisters and I on the Crescent Hotel ghost tour.
Right from the get-go the Crescent felt unsettling. Our group met in the lobby, whose color palate consisted of deep reds with black accents--classically spooky. The air seemed crowded and humming despite being relatively empty. It felt like being in an empty school after the students have gone home; an undeniable feeling of liveliness, sans actual life. I immediately began taking pictures, hoping to gather indisputable evidence of the paranormal.
Our guide explained to us the different types of spirits people had encountered as we made our way through the main levels of the hotel. She shared many unsettling historical tidbits with us, but the most disturbing was that in the 1930’s The Crescent had been converted to a hospital by a charlatan who declared he had found the cure for cancer. Obviously, this claim was false, and when all was said and done hundreds of families had lost their loved ones and been swindled out of their money. Even without this knowledge the building felt heavy in the way that only places where mass suffering happened feel.
For the grand finale of the tour we were taken to the basement, into what was the morgue during the Crescent’s run as a “hospital”. Once downstairs, the guide informed us that if there were any thrill seekers in our crew there was the option to spend one minute locked inside the large walk-in refrigerator where bodies were stored until such time they could be removed. While a bulk of our group shot the guide looks that said “no, thank you very much”, my sisters and I emboldened one another and we volunteered. Most of that bravery evaporated the second we heard the lock click behind us. But while we were anxious inside the fridge, our mom was terrified outside of it. When we were let out our mom told us that this place was giving her a “very bad” feeling, but the look on her face indicated she was far more scared than she was letting on.
Later that night my mom spent hours looking through all of the photos I had taken, searching for any evidence of what unsettled her so deeply. When I awoke the next morning she excitedly pulled up a few photos where you could see what folks in the ghost hunting biz refer to as “orbs” (and what folks outside of the biz refer to as “dust”). Ultimately none of the photos were able to offer us any explanation to the acute fear that my mom felt, and to this day I am unsure if it was nerves or spirits that were with us at The Crescent that night. But regardless, my mom picked up on it. And that in and of itself is real.
Place: Arrow Rock, Missouri
Year: 2008 (Age 13)
A decade ago my grandparents, sister and I spent a weekend at a quaint bed and breakfast located in the even quainter Missouri town of Arrow Rock. We were in town for Arrow Rock’s annual “Spirit Walk”, which took place in mid-October and consisted of a guided walking tour and a meal of mashed potatoes and fried chicken. To this day Arrow Rock remains the smallest town I have ever visited, with a population of 77 in 2008 and a meager 56 in 2018. The whole of the economy is sustained by the town’s historical significance as a former Missouri river boomtown. Unfortunately, in recent years the demand for such history-heavy tourism has begun to fade. Case in point, the weekend that we visited my sister and I were the only tour attendees unable to enroll in AARP.
Our meal was served in an old wooden tavern. As we ate, a group of “professional” ghost hunters lectured on a variety of methods they use to collect evidence of the paranormal. By this time I was already heavily steeped in ghost hunting culture and in the prime of an adolescent obsession with horror movies, and as such, I found the presentation to be dull. By the time we finished eating I was ready to get on to the real scary stuff.
Once the event began I was immediately impressed by the amount of effort put forth. Many of the beautiful old homes were decorated with bundles of dried corn stalks and pumpkins, and guides dressed in period costumes ushered us from building to building, offering detailed historical information regarding the people who had lived and died in the town. As the sun set the ambiance shifted from pumpkin-patch-vibes to something a more mystical and, well, haunting. Walking up and down the old wooden sidewalks (yes, wooden!), it felt like everything in the town was waking up.
Once night had fell we stopped at a small house and stepped inside, hoping to momentarily warm up from the chilly October night. As soon as we walked in a guide (costumed, of course) hurried over to meet us. In his hands was a mandolin, and he quickly began talking about Victorian-era music. I was initially disinterested--I had come for ghosts, not music--but when he began to play, I recognized the tune instantly as Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender”. As he played, he explained that before Elvis re-recorded it and made it into a hit, the tune was called “Aura Lee” and was actually an incredibly popular love song in the 1800’s. He then began to sing the original lyrics:
“In thy blush the rose was born
Music, when you spake
Through thine azure eye the morn
Sparkling seemed to break
Aura Lee, Aura Lee
Birds of crimson wing
Never song have sung to me
As in that sweet spring”
It was electrifying. The haunting melody in conjunction with the words made the room busy with emotion. I suddenly felt like there was something in that house with us, like the music had roused a spirit from rest and it was now beside us, listening to the guide play. The skin on my arms turned to gooseflesh as he finished the song. We stood in silence, the last notes still lingering in the air above our heads.
My grandma broke the silence to tell him what an excellent voice he had and to thank him for playing for us. I, on the other hand, remained quiet. I couldn’t yet shake the feeling that someone was there with us, someone we couldn’t see. As we walked out to continue the tour the feeling persisted. The remainder of the night I was slightly on edge, and even as I laid down to sleep I felt that I was being accompanied. It wasn’t necessarily a bad feeling--whatever it was, I sensed no malice--but it was certainly spooky.
The next morning when I awoke the feeling had passed. Whatever had joined us that night had checked out with the rising sun. We spent the next day antiquing in Arrow Rock and the surrounding area, and eventually made our way back home to Kansas. I’m not sure exactly what happened that night a decade ago--maybe I was just forcing the feeling with my strong desire to experience a ghost, or maybe that guide really did arouse a spirit with a favorite song. Either way, it was unlike any sensation I had ever had before, and it’s something I won’t easily forget.
Place: Jerome, Arizona
Year: 2017 (Age 22)
On a day trip from Phoenix my father and I explored the isolated mining town of Jerome, AZ. Situated on the side of a mountain overlooking a valley leading into Sedona area, Jerome was one of the most naturally stunning places I have ever been. The landscape alone was haunting, but it was immediately apparent that ghosts were a major source of income for the town. As we ate at a restaurant covered in fake skeletons called “The Haunted Hamburger” (yes, I bought a mug to take home), we discussed whether we should go on a ghost tour of the town or spend the night at the looming historical-hospital-turned-haunted-hotel at the top of the mountain (wait, I may be sensing a theme here…). We ultimately decided that we could get more bang for our buck through the ghost tour.
While we were waiting for the tour to begin we trekked up to the aforementioned hospital-hotel, The Jerome Grand Hotel, and loitered around their lobby and gift shop. The place was undeniably spooky--similar to the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, but in a much less polished way. Out here, the desert provided a desolate feeling of being incredibly, irrevocably alone. The lobby doors opened to the valley where you could see the miles of uninterrupted landscape even today almost untouched by humans. Through all of its beauty, the desert still had a special way of reminding you who is boss.
On a coffee table in the middle of the lobby sat multiple thick leather bound guest logs. I began to idly flip through them while we waited, and quickly realized that these weren’t normal guest logs--they were full of ghost stories from people who had stayed at the Jerome Grand. You can imagine my delight as I read about people who had been awoken in the night to a shadowy figure at the foot of their bed, or had had their belongings moved despite nobody having been in their room. It was fantastic. I continued reading, and just as I was beginning to regret our decision to not spend a night in this obvious paranormal hotspot, it was time to go on the tour. We walked back down the steep mountain streets to the building where we were to get on board a van with three other tourists and spend the next few hours exploring the mountainside town with an EMF detector.
As the tour began it became immediately apparent that our guide was, as my grandmother would say, “full of beans”. The stories he told regarding the locations we visited became increasingly implausible. For example, he told us that the tiny wild-west jail we were looking at had “flipped down the mountain” (yep, á la Slinky) during a particularly mighty blast in a nearby mine. My dad and I exchanged skeptical glances, but didn’t want to ruin the spirit of the tour, so we kept our mouths shut.
Sprinkled in with the outlandish stories, however, was some genuinely interesting history. Jerome had at one point been a thriving hive of scum and villainy, home to primarily miners who worked the nearby silver mine. Jerome was reserved for the toughest of the tough, hard-drinking men and women who were seeking their fortunes in a harsh and foreign landscape. When the land had been stripped of its resources in the early 1900s the place more or less dried up. It wasn’t until the end of the 1900’s that Jerome made a comeback, thanks to creatives who formed an artistic community and entrepreneurs who capitalized on Jerome’s spooky history.
Even with the misleading tour guide, something very weird was still cutting through. In Jerome, it was effortless to slip back in time. In order to get by in that harsh landscape you had to be tough as nails--and decades of hard people doing cruel things had left a significant footprint on the place. A lot of people say when they are in haunted places they feel as though they’re being watched, but that wasn’t exactly it for me. I more felt like I was watching something through a two-way mirror, that the spirits (or ghosts, or energies, or whatever) were going about their business and I was observing, unbeknownst to them.
When the tour ended, nobody in our group had seen or heard anything outside of a few random EMF detector spikes. However, I still left feeling as though I had experienced something haunted. As my dad and I drove down the mountain that night, I turned and got a parting view of Jerome--a lonely old town perched on top of a mountain, looking down at the world from it’s home beneath the vast desert sky. In that moment, I saw that the city itself was the ghost.