It's not easy to impress Bruce Orr. The former police detective has written four books on Lowcountry ghost legends and appeared on shows like Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures, yet he remains a firm skeptic regarding the paranormal. "I believe that about 98 percent of all these things can be explained, and then there's a two percent that would be deemed paranormal," Orr says. "Now to me, paranormal doesn't necessarily always mean a ghost. Paranormal means something beyond what we can explain scientifically ... I believe in the possibility of them and I also believe that one day, if there is such a thing as a ghost, it will be explained scientifically."
That said, one of the best ghost pictures he's ever seen ran in the City Paper back in 2008 — and we didn't even know it until he told us last week. At the time, he was assisting a group called Dark Waters Paranormal at the National Guard Armory in Summerville. Although they didn't find much on the trip, photographer Jonathon Stout snapped some pictures, and when the story came out, Orr framed it and hung it in his office. A year later, someone was looking at the picture and asked who was standing in the corner. Orr had never noticed the figure before. "There is a soldier standing in the background staring out the window," Orr says. "It's obvious what it is, and nobody ever caught that until a year later." He adds, "It's the best ghost picture I think that has ever been captured as long as I've been doing this."
That's high praise coming from Orr, who's become something of an expert in the ghost-hunting world. Kevin Kane, a story producer with Ghost Hunters, nicknamed Orr "The Ghostorian" because of his focus on what he likes to call "the history behind the haunting." That's always been a component of his books, and it's the basis of his new consulting company, Lost in Legend. "I'm not here to try to prove or disprove the existence of ghosts," Orr says. "What I'm interested in is taking the history, taking the legend, doing a little investigation ... and presenting it to the reader."
It's not much different from what he did back in his days on the police force. "I'm a retired detective, sergeant, and that's what I've always done," he adds. "I would take the facts of a case, make the best case I could, and present it to someone else and the jury would make the decision on whether or not that person was innocent or guilty. The same principle applies — I do what I do, I present it, and you make the choice whether you want to believe in ghosts or not believe in ghosts. My interest is in preserving the folklore."
Most recently, Orr delved into the history of the USS Yorktown for his latest book Ghosts of the USS Yorktown: The Phantoms of Patriots Point. More than 100 crew members lost their lives while serving on the ship, which was commissioned in 1943 and played a big part in the Pacific Offensive, after which it was stationed off the coast of Vietnam in the 1960s. Some believe that the dead still haunt the ship. "The Yorktown was a completely different creature than I've ever experienced," Orr admits. "I've been to quite a number of places in the Lowcountry, and the Yorktown, there were some things that left me scratching my head."
Unlike other books he's written, like his first on the legend of John and Lavinia Fischer, Orr had plenty of living witnesses to interview over the course of his research — after all, visitors and staff still regularly experience strange events on the Yorktown today. There have been reports of strange shadow figures, mysterious voices, and footsteps echoing through the corridors. A Girl Scout staying on the ship one night felt an icy hand wake her up — twice. Even the Mt. Pleasant Police became believers when ship security reported an intruder in the old ship yard museum. "Mt. Pleasant actually responded out there and saw what they described as a large mass twice the size of the officer, and it was not human," Orr says. "And they chased it down to a dead end and it disappeared. And there's no explanation for it." Although you can now go on ghost tours on the Yorktown, officials tell us that much of the activity is actually reported during the day — so keep your eyes and ears open next time you board the ship.
Now that his Yorktown research is done, Orr is going a bit deeper with his investigations to dive sites like the Comanche, an old Coast Guard cutter that was sunk off the coast of Charleston and is now allegedly haunted. Orr says that paranormal diving possesses its own special thrill. "If you're at 100-foot depth of water, there's only so far you can run, because you know that you have to do a decompression stop before you hit the surface or else you're dead," he says. "And then of course if you're in a haunted house, you might have rats and bats and spiders, and when you're on a haunted ship, you've got barracudas and sharks and stinging jelly fish, so it's a whole different environment."
Bruce Orr will be signing books at the Patriots Point gift shop (40 Patriots Point Road) Oct. 13 from 1-3 p.m. and Oct. 27 from 2-4 p.m.