There's an entire sub-industry of reality television based on haunted places. Usually the shows feature paranormal experts, but it's more fun when there's some antsy, easily-spooked rookie who jumps at every errant sound, sight, or smell. "Oh my god! What is that! Please tell me someone farted!"
When we got word that the guys from Southern Paranormal Investigation and Research would be visiting Charleston's Old Jail, I was happy to offer up my challenged, but easily panicked senses.
Built at the turn of the 19th century, the jail was the final home for some of Charleston's most infamous murderers and crooks until shuttered in the 1930s. The building never had running water and, as our tour guide Suzanne puts it, "It's the coldest building in the winter and the hottest building in the summer." It's hard to say what exactly happened in the building during its long run. Records and pictures are random. Cells have been removed, replaced by supporting beams to try and preserve the creepy gem of the local ghost tour scene.
As for who exactly is haunting the place, that's up for debate as well. Standing outside with a handful of tour guides, they share a variety of stories used during walking tours. Usually, they involve the same people — a small boy wrongfully accused or maybe a sinister Hannibal-like figure that tormented guards. While the stories may be different, these folks (who'd likely know better than most) believe the building is haunted.
The Southern Paranormal investigators have chased after Bigfoot and witnessed exorcisms. They've investigated claimed hauntings in hotels and abandoned mental hospitals, but this is the group's first jail.
"I've been to a lot of places," says lead investigator Shawn Sellers. "But this is one where you know something's here, you just got to find it."
The jail is spooky at high noon, much less at the witching hour. But, since that's when spooks like to spook, we gather outside the building minutes before midnight to see what we can (or can't) see. Some foreigners are filing through the building, the last of the traditional tours that move about 160 people through the building on a given night. We are getting a much more intimate tour — able to scour most every nook and jail cell.
Sellers shows me a K2 Meter, a new device used to track the spirits, but the team warns me later that, while technology traditionally follows science, the science seems to follow technology in the paranormal world. I'm not sure what that means, either, but I'm pretty sure they were telling me to be skeptical.
If there is a surprise about these guys, it's their seemingly endless ability to doubt everything they see. Unlike the crowd you'll find in Roswell or at an Elvis convention, these guys head for the most reasonable answer first. There have even been some investigations where they've walked out emptyhanded.
When presented with photos of "orbs" — pictures of mysterious dots the Scooby Gang would likely consider evidence of ghostly apparitions — the guys from SPI groan.
"It's too easy for someone to say it's nothing," says James Kirkley.
One odd photo could be dust stirred in front of the camera or a bug flying into the picture, ruining the focus. Orbs are only interesting when you can track them over several photographs.
And Kirkley and the others are just as careful during the investigations. As they record and listen for audible sounds of spirits, they try to account for every noise, whether it's someone moving around, breathing heavily, or walkers-by outside. That way, they don't trick themselves when listening to the tapes later.
"We look at something as, 'We're going to find a way to prove what this is,'" says Kirkley. "When we can't, we know we've got something."
Heading In, Locking Up
Once in, Suzanne locks the gates and bolts the door behind us to keep vagrants or others from walking in. It's important that we're the only uninvited guests. Fake cobwebs and a cauldron rest in one of the first rooms we visit, relics of last year's Halloween party, but we find a very real bat flying just over our heads.
Our initial walk through the building warrants little attention from the investigators, until I follow Suzanne and another local tour guide up to the third floor of the guards quarters. A bit ahead of the investigators, we're met by a strange smell on the floor. "That's Cletus," Suzanne says. Considering it's often her job to freak people out, I pay little attention. But, once Sellers makes it to the floor, he asks Suzanne if other mediums or investigators have ever sensed a man on that floor. She smiles. Ruh-roh, as Scooby would say.
The investigation team relies on a host of equipment, but a key tool is Sellers' ability to track these otherworldly beings. He describes it as if he's watching an old movie reel with some of the frames missing.
"We take what we sense as part of the evidence," he tells me.
We hang out for a while, but Cletus doesn't give us anything else. As we're leaving the room, one of the investigators asks me if I'm religious. "Um, sort of," I tell him. He asks if I go to church. "No. That's the sort of part." Well, do you pray? I say yes, though even that is really left for weddings, funerals, and school board meetings (thanks, Cousin Arthur). He tells me to go to that white place you find in prayer. Great. Maybe we could have had this talk before meeting Cletus.
We head back over to the cells and the group finds a presence in one of the smaller rooms built later in the jail's history.
Standing in silence, I inexplicably feel the hairs on my arms rise without cause, a second before one of the investigators standing across the room looks up and says, "Did you feel that?"
We sit quietly as Sellers and the others try to goad the ghost for information. "Who are you? If there's someone there, make a noise in the room. If there's someone there, touch someone in the room."
Internally, I yell from my white place, "Touch anyone else but me!"
It turns out that there is, in fact, a story about that room. Suzanne tells us of a young black woman jailed and abused until she was left for dead. With each detail she gives, a rush of cool air envelopes the room. Sellers confirms that he is sensing a young woman and that there seems to be a presence in the hallway that continues to haunt the girl's spirit.
As we sit there quietly, Sellers challenges the hallway troller to come in and try to scare us. Um, no thank you.
In the end, much like the orbs, the team even discounts this experience, suggesting that what Sellers was feeling may have just been the residual emotions of the thousands of people who have heard the story of the girl and left their fear in the room for dark spirits to exploit. Apparently, even in the afterlife, there are ghosts looking to scare us with a good yarn.
I check with Sellers later in the week and he says the team has collected more than 1,000 photos, four hours of audio, and temperature and EMF readings but they haven't reviewed it yet, hence the final verdict is out. As for my analysis, my shorts go unsoiled and I have a restful night's sleep, but I pause at every cold chill, mumbling under my breath, "Touch someone else!"