Tales of the supernatural abound in the coastal plains of South Carolina and Georgia, USA, whose haunting landscapes can unsettle even the most sceptical visitor. Lonely Planet visited Charleston, the Sea Islands and Savannah in search of a paranormal encounter...
‘I used to be a sceptic until I lived in a haunted house,’ says the waitress, as she hands me a cup of crab bisque. ‘I saw him just like I’m seeing you. A white man with short dark hair.’
Her name is Julie Lambert. She is a dark-haired, ebullient, 30-something woman without a whiff of ectoplasm about her, but she tells me she’s not only seen ghosts, she shares her current workplace with one.
The restaurant, Poogan’s Porch, occupies a 19th-century building in the centre of Charleston, South Carolina. ‘There’s definitely something here. I’ve been here 12 years and I’ve seen her five or six times,’ Julie assures me. ‘One time I felt breathing on the back of my neck. When I turned around, I could see someone standing behind me in the mirror. It’s fine, but I wouldn’t be here by myself after dark.’
I tell Julie I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’m always prepared to look at evidence that might make me change my mind, and I’ve always got time for a ghost story.
She says the ghost who haunts Poogan’s Porch belongs to a woman called Zoe Saint Amand, born in 1879, who lived out a lonely old age in the house and died in 1954. Many people say they’ve encountered her. One waitress seated a little old lady at a dining table, only to see her vanish suddenly. Some employees have been too freaked out to stay. ‘We had a guy run out and never come back,’ says Julie. ‘It was like: forget you, I’m never coming back!’ She shows me a photo of the restaurant taken at night with a mysterious blurry light on one of the upper floors – Zoe.
I tell Julie that I’m not persuaded. Cameras play weird tricks, especially at night. Creaky floors, old mirrors, the quirks of 19th-century buildings: these are more likely explanations than ghosts. Personally, I think ghosts and ghost stories possess a kind of symbolic truth. They take the abstract things that torment human beings – pain, frustration, longing, guilt, the burdens of history and family – and turn them into these restless spirits. But as dusk falls in Charleston, it’s easy to see the merit of a more literal interpretation.
The city, founded in 1670, is one of the oldest in America. Its historic centre is exquisitely preserved and, at night, eerily quiet. A Dickensian mist drifts between the houses. With its 18th- and 19th-century buildings, and silent gas-lit streets, the city resembles Bath or Bristol, but palmetto trees and live oaks give it a strange swampiness. As the darkness deepens, it takes a certain courage to enter one of the many downtown graveyards. The fog and the flickering shadows can easily fool the eye into thinking it’s seen something uncanny. The ancient cemeteries, with their wayward headstones and trees draped in Spanish moss, combine the settings for two different sorts of ghost story – the haunted English graveyards of MR James and Walter de la Mare, and African-inflected tales of voodoo. This strange combination also reflects the region’s heritage: colonised by the British, built and made rich by generations of African slaves.
Outside the Old Charleston Jail, a small group is gathering for an evening tour. It’s a forbidding turreted structure, disfigured with rusty iron supports, its narrow windows heftily barred. During its time as a penal institution, thousands of people died here, from sickness or starvation, or executed on the gallows which has left an imprint in its courtyard. It’s not surprising that it has a reputation as the most haunted building in the state. However, it strikes me as a little odd that part of it now houses the American College of the Building Arts. As night falls, the students scuttle home and curious visitors come in the hope of a paranormal encounter.
‘A lot of the freshmen don’t believe in ghosts,’ says Sean Pike, the guide who’s leading this evening’s tour. ‘But I never met a senior who didn’t.’ Sean’s own conversion from scepticism came in 1998 when he passed the building at night and saw a woman looking out of a window from an upper room that he knew had no floor.
As we explore the dark interior of the silent building, the stagnant air and the tales of its bloodstained history are cumulatively oppressive. In one room, there’s a cage that held condemned prisoners; in another, graffiti scratched into the walls by convicts. On the iron staircase that once led down to the gallows, the 13th tread is unworn – the doomed men wouldn’t step on it.
Suddenly, in the darkness, one of our group yells out that someone just touched her hair. No-one admits to doing it. Everyone is a little unsettled. But this is minor compared to what sometimes happens on the tour. Sean tells me that he’s seen numerous sceptics converted on a single visit by encounters with phenomena they can’t explain: being touched, pushed, scratched. Visitors have been overcome with nausea or fainted. Some have seen shadows pass through the entire group.
It’s a relief to emerge into the fresh evening air. I’m still not persuaded that ghosts exist, but nor do I envy Sean, who has to go back inside and lock up by himself.
Charleston by day is much less forbidding. It’s an exceptionally beautiful, walkable city; its big mansions a testament to the vast wealth that was generated here from rice, indigo and cotton.
‘It’s easy to get rich when you got free labour,’ says Alphonso Brown, a guide whose award-winning tours of Charleston focus on the African inheritance of the area. Alphonso is of Gullah heritage. The origin of the word Gullah is uncertain (it might come from Angola), but it’s come to refer to a distinct African-American culture that belongs to this region, with a very recognisable dialect and traditions. Alphonso dips into Gullah speech for part of his tour; to my ear, it sounds West Indian. He points out other aspects of African culture that have persisted in the area: the cuisine – okra, rice, seafood – and the sweet grass baskets that are being woven by hand and sold on Broad Street. I tell him I’m reading a book of Gullah ghost stories called The Doctor to the Dead.
‘By a white person?’ The stories were in fact collected by a white folklorist called John Bennett. Alphonso shakes his head. ‘We don’t play with that kind of things. In white culture ghosts are a novelty. It’s real to us. I avoid going by graveyards by myself. I walk in the middle of the street when I go by St Philip’s churchyard. I have the feeling that it’s full of people who want to communicate. Those things are real.’
For Alphonso, the spirit world is a subject too serious to be trifled with. I find a similar reticence in Carolyn Jabulile White, a tall elegant Gullah woman in her seventies, who’s dressed in eye-catching African textiles. Carolyn is a Gullah storyteller, but her extensive repertoire doesn’t include ghost tales. And yet, when I visit her one-storey house, there’s a wrought-iron tree hung with blue glass bottles standing outside – a traditional African-American method for preventing evil spirits entering. And the bungalow is freshly painted a colour known here as haint blue – the precise shade of aquamarine that is supposed to have the power to deter ghosts.
Carolyn lives on James Island. Today, thanks to a network of bridges, it is barely a 15-minute drive from downtown Charleston, but within living memory it was a day’s journey by boat. A stone’s throw from Carolyn’s house is McLeod Plantation, named after owners who arrived from Scotland and grew rich farming cotton – or rather, using slaves who farmed it for them. The gracious white timber home sits next to a row of slave shacks. It seems an unimaginably cruel and distant world, and yet at the time the last McLeod died here in 1990, descendants of slaves were still renting the shacks on the property for $20 a month.
When planned construction on James Island revealed an old African-American burial ground, Carolyn was one of the first who demanded that building cease. The preliminary dig had disinterred bodies that had been buried with glass beads, tiny bottles and shells. These burial practices connected the African Americans with the West African traditions of their distant homelands.
‘We protested it,’ Carolyn tells me, when I meet her for lunch at a roadside café. She orders Gullah food for both of us: red rice, shrimp and flounder, green beans cooked with bacon. ‘It was a very sacred place. We are proud people. I feel very strongly about my heritage.’ After the protests, all further building stopped.
African folklore has penetrated deeply into the region. The low-lying land that arcs along the coast between Charleston and Savannah, 100 miles to the southwest, is made up of swampy islands, divided by tidal creeks. The climate is perfect for the production of rice and Sea Island cotton. In these once-remote places, African customs flourished and fused with European superstitions. Alphonso warns me about the twin threats of haints (ghosts) and hags, the spirits that belong to a shape-changing practitioner of the dark arts. ‘You get a smothering-type feeling when you’re being hag-rid,’ he tells me. ‘You have to go into their house at midnight and find their skin, sprinkle salt in it and it’ll shrivel up. They have to go to the graveyard and find a new one. And I’m not talking about days of yore, I’m talking about days of now.’
Alphonso’s belief echoes superstitions recorded by folklorists more than a century ago, working among the Igbo of Nigeria and the Vai people of Liberia and Sierra Leone. African beliefs persisted in another form: this is voodoo country. The degree to which it’s practised is hard to determine. Unlike New Orleans, where the grave of the voodoo priestess Marie Laveau is a site of pilgrimage, the subject here is veiled in secrecy. The voodoo practitioners of the Lowcountry are known as root doctors. The most notorious was a man named Doctor Buzzard. When he died in 1947, he was buried in a secret location, for fear that other people would dig him up and use his remains for casting spells.
There may be no more haunting landscape on Earth than the Sea Islands at nightfall as they are enveloped in a swirling mist. The bare trunks of the crepe myrtles and the ghostly drapery of Spanish moss on the live oaks are unsettling even in daylight.
At dusk on Edisto Island, I pay a visit to the mausoleum of Julia Legare in the graveyard of the Presbyterian church. The story goes that young Julia succumbed to the yellow fever that was endemic here in the 19th century. Because of the warm climate and threat of infection, she was buried quickly – too quickly, as it turned out. A few years later, the family vault was opened for another burial. The lid of Julia’s coffin had been disturbed and her remains were discovered in a pile by the door. Today, there is no door on the vault. I snap a picture of the tomb in the darkness. When I examine it later, I’m taken aback to see that my cameraphone has captured a ghostly female shape. I’m sure that it’s been produced by the flash bouncing against droplets of mist, but it’s an unsettling image. And I’m curious to get the opinion of two professionals.
Shannon Scott and Patrick Burns are like the Starsky and Hutch of the paranormal. They work separately, but both are based in Savannah, Georgia – two hours from Edisto Island, and billed as the most haunted city in America. Shannon has long, surfer-blonde hair and drives a green Mustang with the licence plate ‘SSGHOST.’ He enthusiastically shares his deep knowledge of the region’s history and occult traditions. I meet him in the city’s Bonaventure Cemetery. It’s chilly and raining lightly. The Spanish moss waves in the breeze and occasionally drops on to the paths, where it sits like so many discarded grey wigs. ‘What’s up with your scepticism?’ he asks. I explain my position: that there’s always some scientific explanation for ghostly phenomena.
He respectfully differs. ‘I was a card-carrying sceptic before I moved to Savannah.’ As head of the Georgia Sectional Division of the American Institute of Parapsychology, it was Shannon’s job to interview hundreds of people who’d had experiences of the supernatural. He was persuaded that plenty of them were real. Just a few months earlier, he tells me he saw two ghostly children in straw hats in the cemetery. He thinks the photo I took is interesting, but inconclusive.
Patrick Burns is more categorical. He dismisses the picture entirely. ‘Photographic evidence is some of the weakest there is,’ he says. Dressed in a black three-piece suit, he turns up for our meeting with some items of ghost-hunting equipment: a Mel-meter, which measures temperature and fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field, and a thermal-imaging camera. Patrick also considers himself a sceptic, but one who believes that paranormal phenomena are real. ‘You’ve got things in nature that are inexplicable. Ninety per cent of all matter in the universe is unaccounted for. What do they call it? Dark matter. Could ghosts be an aspect of dark matter?’
I join Patrick for one of his night-time tours of the city. Savannah was founded in 1733. Like Charleston, it is a city that has lived through slavery, civil war and many epidemics of yellow fever. It was designed around a series of elegant squares and, today, most of the imposing houses have been sensitively restored. In Calhoun Square, by an eerily boarded-up building, Patrick uses a voice recorder to address the dead, leaving gaps for their replies. Then he plays back the resulting EVP – electronic voice phenomena. The odd word or phrase does seem to emerge out of the crackle. There is a Scooby-Doo-type thrill in trying to decode them. Previous recordings he’s made exhibit ghostly laughter, even names. To Patrick, these are the voices of the dead; to me, they’re the auditory equivalent of orbs and lights in photographs: meaningless anomalies that the mind turns into stories. But in our different ways, we both connect the tales of hauntings to the region’s uneasy history.
On an old map of Savannah, Patrick shows me how the city expanded from its colonial boundaries. Calhoun square, where we’re standing, is marked on an 1818 map as ‘negro field’: it was the old slave cemetery. Thousands of dead African Americans lie beneath our feet. I recall Carolyn White’s struggle to save the graves of her ancestors from desecration. ‘This is the city that’s built on its dead,’ Patrick tells me. ‘When you think about the violence those people suffered, even calling it a cemetery is a misnomer. They had no coffins, they were wrapped in burlap. There’s not even a historical marker to let you know what this place was. Maybe one day, when you come back, there will be a sign to acknowledge the fact that slaves were buried here. Maybe that day the spirits will be at rest.’
Marcel Theroux travelled to the States with support from discoversouthcarolina.com, exploregeorgia.org and visittheusa.com. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.