If I had to estimate, I would say there are about five feet between Dracula and myself. He's on the stage in front of me, in typical Transylvanian garb — black cape, lace sleeves — which he'll soon remove to reveal a spectacular set of six-pack abs. Really, Dracula. The gym has done you well.
Then he cuts open his chest and he's dripping blood, and he shoves the face of a terrified blond girl into all his pectoral glory, attempting to force feed her his source of life. The effect is meant to be graphic and petrifying, but what I'm really worried about right now as I sit in the Dock Street Theatre is the guy behind me. He's up in the second-story balcony, and, rudely, he has not purchased a ticket to Charleston Stage's performance of Dracula, which runs through Oct. 30. He's a total freeloader, and there's nothing anyone can do about it, because he's a ghost.
I'd say that you could throw a rock anywhere on the Charleston peninsula and hit a ghost, but that would be silly. You can't hit ghosts. They're not solid. But when a place has existed for hundreds of years, there's bound to be a leftover presence or two. Still, when it comes down to it, how many of us have actually had a ghostly experience while living in or visiting this city?
Take Ed Macy, for example. He was the first guy to do ghost tours locally back in the '90s. He still leads a tour (you can find info on it at friedgreentours.com), plus he's the co-author of The Ghosts of Charleston, Haunted Charleston, and Haunted Harbor. Macy has lived in the city his whole life, so he knows its backstory, its scandals, and its secrets, piecing together hundreds of tales for what can be considered an ultimate guide. And not once has he felt the eerie chill of an invisible spirit. He thinks he probably never will, because he wants to. "If you go [somewhere] under the pretense of trying to see a ghost, not a damn thing's going to happen," Macy says, "because I think the people that see ghosts are the people that have what Hollywood or M. Night Shamalamadingdong call the sixth sense, or somebody who is thinking about breakfast, not people who are on a quest."
You've got a point, Ed, but this is Halloween in the Lowcountry, and I wouldn't be able to forgive myself if I didn't at least try to find some kind of evidence of the afterlife. And no offense to Macy, or to any of the other dedicated ghost tour guides in Charleston, but the convenient thing about the Holy City is you don't have to go for a late-night walk with a group of fanny-packed strangers to experience ghosts. Go to dinner. Take in a show. Plan a staycation at a downtown hotel. And turn on some sort of recording device and see what you get.
My hunt begins with dinner. Had I been in the mood for ribs and beer, I may have gone to the Southend Brewery, where a merchant took his own life after watching his cotton-filled ship burn in the Charleston Harbor. I was looking for someone a little more timid, like a teacher, as long as it wasn't my freakishly coiffed and very mean seventh grade civics teacher. Poogan's Porch (72 Queen St.) was the obvious choice.
The Ball family had no idea that the building they chose for their restaurant already had an occupant. Then weird stuff started happening, and they looked into the structure's history. Now Poogan's is one of the more prominent local haunted places; it's perfect if you like a side of supernatural with your shrimp and grits. Zoe St. Amand used to room in the house — or maybe she still does — when she was a spinster schoolteacher living with her sister. Macy says that Zoe is probably the most often-seen ghost in the city. "To my knowledge, she's been seen well over 200 times, oftentimes in broad daylight like during the brunch hour," he says. This gal is relatively new to the spirit world, in Charleston terms, at least, having passed away in the 1950s.
The restaurant is frequently visited by customers who've read about Zoe or heard about her on a tour or seen her on a Discovery Channel show. It isn't unheard of to have a Zoe experience while eating at Poogan's; diners will frequently report feeling like someone has brushed up against them even though nobody's there. On the extreme side of things, there have been reports of place settings rotating on tables and customers feeling a sensation that someone uninvited has joined them for dinner. Some have even seen Zoe herself. Throughout the years, diners have sent in photos of apparitions, and because the restaurant is so old, many of those came in the days before Photoshop. Employees aren't immune either, especially chefs who come in early to find themselves alone in the building. You'll hear about pots and pans banging, faucets turning on, the usual stuff. No one's ever been so unnerved that they've quit, but owner Bobbie Ball says that some employees have opted to leave the building until another living person has arrived to keep them company.
Several years ago, Ball had a major paranormal experience herself when they closed Poogan's temporarily to replace the kitchen floor. "When construction was finished for the day, I was trying to lock the building and couldn't get the alarm to set," she says. "While on the phone talking to our security company, trying to figure out the problem, all of a sudden a bar stool came flying across the room, knocking over the other stools," she says. "Then the kitchen door went flying open, as if someone had kicked it open and had gone into the kitchen." Ball thought she was being robbed by someone who was hiding and panicked when they saw her. But she didn't see anybody. Nobody physical, at least.
Ball opened the kitchen door and turned on the lights. Still no one. "It had to be the ghost. I believe she must have been a little upset at all the construction noise from that day of work." Despite the furniture-throwing act, Ball assures us that Zoe is quite friendly.
On the evening that I stopped by the restaurant, my butter knife fell off my plate unexpectedly, which either means Zoe knew what I was up to or I had simply misbalanced it on my plate. But I might have had bad timing; my server explained that just that day, the kitchen was getting tickets from a waiter who wasn't in the restaurant. Zoe was apparently to blame.
More realistically, it was probably a computer glitch. To think of all the technological snafus that get blamed on ghosts nowadays.
The Dock Street Theatre (135 Church St.) is conveniently located a few blocks from Poogan's, and it's Ed Macy's favorite haunted place in Charleston. If you think about it, that's saying a lot.
The City of Charleston does not take an official position on ghosts, according to Christopher Parham, a city employee and managing director of the theater. He could give me facts, however, on the two who blatantly avoid admission hours at Charleston Stage's venue.
Of course, the Dock Street that we know and love today is not the 18th-century original. What's there now is actually a large cluster of buildings constructed during a 15-year span, eventually cobbled together into the cluster that you see now. The original theater vanished long ago. "We're not sure what happened," Parham says. "There was a fire in the early part of that century that took out a bunch of buildings in this neighborhood, and we assume that's what happened to the building." Most of the ghost stories that are centered around the Dock Street go back to the time of the Planter's Hotel (originally the Calder House Hotel), which was built in 1809 to replace the original structure. It became a theater once again in the 1930s.
One of the Dock Street's ghosts is appropriately an actor, one who is thought to come from a family of actors, and whose son is famous for something that has very little to do with acting. Junius Brutus Booth, of the President Lincoln-assassinating Booths, stayed at the Planter's Hotel while performing in Charleston. "For some reason, no one really knows why, he drank and had some mental issues, and one evening he pretty much lost it and he beat his manager with a fire iron almost to death up and down the halls of the hotel," Parham says. The assault was well reported in the pages of The Charleston Mercury. "And the next day, he played Richard the III at the Charleston Theater like nothing ever happened."
Nowadays, there are rumors that a man, purportedly Booth, will watch rehearsals from the balcony, but, "All I ever see are those tourist guides coming in even though it says closed for private event," says Marybeth Clark, the associate artistic director of Charleston Stage. "And then I say, 'Can you not be in here right now?'"
By the way, Booth didn't die at the Dock Street. Nope. He died on a steamboat. People just assume the ghost is him. Guess semi-celebrity ghosts are more interesting than non-semi-celebrity ghosts.
Booth, or maybe not Booth, is joined at the theater by a female spirit fraught with just as much scandal. "I'm going to try to say this efficiently and politely, because the city is very delicate on how we say this about the building," Parham starts. He explains that the hotel did very well when it opened, but was soon forced to compete with the larger, grander hotels that came with the golden age of Charleston. The Planter's Inn was, not surprisingly, mostly occupied by planters who came in during the off season for races and gambling. "There's a lifestyle that goes on with that, and in order to keep a certain clientele, there were women on staff — "
Clark interrupts, putting it less delicately: "Netty was a working girl."
" — who worked here on a regular basis," Parham sums up. "Basically, I manage a formal brothel."
Yes, Netty was a lady of the night who did frequent business in the building. There are a number of stories as to how she met her end, but the most common and dramatic involves her being struck by lightning while standing on the balcony.
When Netty is spotted, she's usually only seen from the waist up. When the building was gutted in the 1930s to construct what's there today, the floors were raised. No one bothered to tell Netty this, so she still walks on what would have been the floors in her time, not the much higher ones today. According to Parham, the reports may be a bit exaggerated. "The floors were actually probably only adjusted six to eight inches," he says. "If the floors were adjusted that much, they'd run through the middle of the windows. It just doesn't make any sense." But, as Clark points out, that doesn't make as good a story.
Netty now wanders the second floor backstage hall (formerly hotel rooms, where she would have employed her trade) and the current drawing room (formerly part of the original ballroom and a social room). A number of men have claimed to have spotted her; she likes to chase them around the building.
The Dock Street is open to the public from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and it's free for ghost hunters to wander, within limits. Macy won't bring people into the theater on his tour. "For some reason, I always lose my breath when I go up there," he says. That's pretty unusual for a guy who walks three miles a day. "It's almost like my breath has been taken away, so I don't usually tell that story because I can't. I'm wheezing for some weird reason." Parham points out that even post-renovation, there could be a sensible explanation for Macy's respirational reaction in the old building (i.e. dust).
Parham's never experienced a ghost, not in eight years at the theater, he says. "But I don't go looking for it either. I go to my desk and I leave. That's it. I don't wander around." He gets e-mails of photos from visitors who've claimed to see a specter, but to him it just looks like dust or bad lighting. "There are lots of stories about lights going on and off, about things like that," he adds. "I used to really just give that up to the fact that we needed to renovate the building and we had bad electricity. But I will say that on occasion things like that happen."
That doesn't stop past employees and actors from swapping stories. A famous one among the Charleston Stage company comes from their high school program, years ago. During a show, an audience member spotted a distracting woman in period clothing walking back and forth across the stage. Later they discovered that there wasn't a woman in the show. "That has sort of become, I think, the folklore, because our high school kids are around the building so much, they are desperately seeking some kind of excitement besides what we offer them," Clark laughs.
Clark's got 14 years under her belt with Charleston Stage, and she considers herself fairly receptive to the spirit world. She's been in the theater alone at night, and up on the especially sinister third floor. She's gotten bupkis. So did I when I attended a preview of Dracula a few weeks ago.
"I do think theaters are wonderful places for superstition," Clark says. "Actors are superstitious lots. We have things we do, things we don't do, and it's sort of a tradition and we pass that tradition on. I think if you want to find a group of people who are looking for and wanting something like that, this is where you'll find them."
Parham adds, "You pair that with a creepy old building, and stories just grow."
"Part of it is it makes a brilliant setting for a show like Dracula," Clark says. "The building itself has sort of an overwhelming feel to it as we create our own ghosts and images on stage. I think it will certainly lend itself. It's almost like we have an extra set and decor just by being in the building."
Both do say that the theater's elevator, a result of the most recent renovations, will go up and down by itself sometimes, its doors opening to reveal no one. "But is a ghost really going to use an elevator?" Clark wonders. "They didn't have an elevator in their day, but maybe they're excited like we are to have the elevator."
In fact, the only sinister thing that ever happened to Clark was in that elevator. She was alone in it when she heard a phone ringing. She didn't have her cell on her. She opened the door to the call box, and when she did, the noise stopped.
"And there was one of those Jesus tracts from the Jehovahs," Clark says. "So I've never really met a ghost, but I think Jesus might have called me in the elevator."
Just as we flesh-and-boners need a place to lay our weary heads, so do ghosts, and some of them prefer by-the-night accommodations at a hotel. While the Francis Marion Hotel and the Embassy Suites both have their share of spirits, you have 3/11ths of a chance to see one if you stay at the Battery Carriage House Inn (20 S. Battery). If you're in the mood, request rooms 3, 8, or 10 at the bed and breakfast. There's a little girl who died at the inn and now likes to hang out on the front porch near room 3. Or opt for 8, where the headless torso of a Civil War-era man may visit you during the evening, if you'd like the absolute bejeezus scared out of you. More in the mood for a sexy-time kind of ghost? Spend the night in 10 with the gentlemen caller, who has no qualms with sharing your bed. They've got all the bases covered.
When I spoke with innkeeper Elizabeth Kilminster, she seemed more presently haunted by tourists who ask to use the inn's bathroom — despite the sign out front that explicitly states that they do not have public restrooms — than by the inn's permanent residents. She's held the position for the last five years, but also worked there 15 years ago when she first started in the business. "When I was here before, the owners downplayed all of that and didn't really make too much of a fuss about it," Kilminster says of the ghosts. "They didn't want people to know as much about it, it seemed like. When I came back, now it's like the cool thing and all the TV shows about it, so all of a sudden it's now something marketable."
After redesigning their website eight years ago, the Inn decided to post stories of the more vivid sightings for the entire World Wide Web to read. Now at least two or three guests each week come just for the ghosts, specifically requesting those haunted rooms. Ten is the most popular, especially among groups of women.
Guests get very excited when they think they've captured evidence of the spirit world. They'll send the inn pictures, pointing out specific shadows, the kind of small things you really have to stretch your imagination to interpret as anything more than bad lighting. The inn used to keep a file of all the reports they'd get, and Kilminster showed me a few photos on her computer of a visible white puff that a guest was convinced was a clear example of a phantom. We agreed that it was probably just cigarette smoke.
"We'll get some kooks definitely," she says. "It just comes with the territory, and we just all brace ourselves for it and embrace it." Her favorite story is of a couple who came to the inn to specifically stay in room 10. The Battery Carriage House will bring guests breakfast in the mornings, and when the staff came up to deliver the meals, there was no one in the room. The couple called later to explain that they were so spooked they left in the middle of the night. When the staff checked the room, they found Bibles under the pillows. "That's how freaked out they were," Kilminster says. "That wasn't cutting it, so they got all their things and just took off."
Kilminster is skeptical, but not completely. She admits to having that feeling in the B&B — you know the one, where you think you've just seen something out of the corner of your eye. It's something that doesn't usually happen to her anywhere else. Other employees have made reports of unearthly happenings: doors shutting and locking, weird sounds. "Strange things do happen here, but the building's also 160 years old," Kilminster says. "I have this belief of how many people have been through here or have died or have been sick, and the energy gets left behind, and I think some of that is maybe more than an actual apparition or a ghost. I just don't personally believe it.
"It's a source of business, so you can't really say no to that," she adds. "And it does keep it interesting."
It just so happens that the day that the City Paper was scheduled to stop by the inn for a photo session, the Travel Channel's Ghost Adventures had decided to pop in and totally bogart rooms 8 and 10. I suppose that's for the best. They're professionals, while I only hold an amateur status in ghost hunting. The City Paper was left to room 3. While photographer Adam Chandler and our "ghost" Landon Phillips mimed putting a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door, I was able to chat with two guests on the Battery Carriage House's porch. They were from Richmond, Va., and they've been coming to the inn for years. They haven't seen anything outwardly suspicious either, but they did say that just the night before they heard doors slamming in the middle of the night.
It could have been a ghost — or maybe even all three of them. Or it could just be residual noise from nearby.
We were left undisturbed in room 3. The little girl must have been too busy playing elsewhere. Kilminster told me later that the Ghost Adventures guys recorded some mysterious sounds. They have all the luck.
I do not know whether or not ghosts exist. I do know that when I visited Poogan's Porch, the Dock Street Theatre, and the Battery Carriage House Inn, I did not experience anything so bizarre that it could only be caused by supernatural forces. Still, it's hard to be mad that you haven't had a close encounter of the dead kind when you're eating a good meal or seeing a good play, or fantasizing about staying in a nice hotel (since I didn't actually get to stay at the Battery Carriage House). I'd rather eat my crab cakes in peace. I didn't even get ghost-walk blisters. There was nothing out of the ordinary.
That is, until we were finishing up at the inn. While standing outside and waiting for Chandler to capture his last few pictures, I dropped my iPhone. I don't know how it slipped out of my hand, but it plummeted in a seemingly innocent, absolutely vertical path. When I picked it back up, the screen was splintered. Because I never want to admit to being that clumsy, I am going to jump to the logical conclusion and blame those ghost jerks at the B&B. It was completely their fault, and I think they owe me the $80 it cost to fix it. Please.