PHOTOS BY TODD TURNER
The Triad is full of ghosts.
Old Salem, Reynolda Estate, Körner’s Folly, and Downtown Greensboro are spirit friendly.
At least, that’s what people say.
I spent several years investigating paranormal claims with Haunted North Carolina, one of the oldest research groups in state. My book, Paranormal Obsession: America’s Fascination with Ghosts & Hauntings, Spooks and Spirits, explores intersections of pop culture and American identity.
During the writing process, I became acquainted with several cast members from shows like SyFy’s Ghost Hunters, A&E’s Paranormal State, and others.
If you’ve seen these shows, you know that ghost investigation happens at sites of reported activity. Witnesses are interviewed. Video, audio and other data is collected and then later reviewed for unexplainable voices, images, or other irregularities.
This process is one of many ways to investigate anomalous experiences.
Americans are fascinated with the paranormal. The interest isn’t always about proving the existence of ghosts. Tales of high strangeness carry cultural goods and provide insight into social beliefs.
A 2013 Harris Poll indicated that 42% of Americans professed a belief in the supernatural. Pew Research in 2015 reported 18% of Americans claimed to have seen a ghost.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said in 2014 “more whites believe in ghosts than believe in racism.”
The two subjects—ghosts and racism – make for an awkward conversation. But ghosts provide insight into a society’s fears, prejudices, and belief language.
Ghosts stories reflect our fears back to us.
Belief in the spirits, by the way, isn’t required to appreciate the way ghost stories work.
Ghost stories exist all over the world. In America, the supernatural holds a distinctive function, particularly for a youngish country without the long history of Europe, for example.
In the United States, paranormal interest tends to spike during times of cultural change and uncertainty. America’s fascination with revenants often reveals cultural anxieties.
The formal history of America’s fascination with ghosts is traced to a philosophy that gained credence in the mid-1800s. Spiritualism, the belief in communication with the dead, functioned as a response to the Calvinist tendencies that dominated Christian religious life at the time. Religious ideas around predestination and the total depravity of sin were openly challenged by Spiritualist beliefs.
Spiritualism also provided Americans with a new language to talk about bigger philosophical problems, such as the nature between good and evil and life after death.
America during the mid-1800s was defined by unprecedented immigration and technological innovation, such as the introduction of electricity and the telegraph. Rapid cultural change issued new social and spiritual anxieties.
The country was ripe for hauntings.
The Civil War ensured a continued interest in ghosts and psychics. This trend followed subsequent military conflicts.
Ghosts dominated paranormal interest in America until the 1950s when UFO and Big Foot sightings became popular. The cultural shift from ghosts to aliens and nature beasts reflected new tensions in American society. Suburbanization – the move away from rural areas and downtowns – defined the 1950s.
In the background murmured the developing Cold War and atomic bomb fears.
President Eisenhower signed the paperwork for NASA in 1958, and the decade marked widespread use of television sets in American homes.
The boundaries of American experience started to significantly shift. Americans became less haunted by their histories and more concerned with managing new frontiers.
But, belief in ghosts always resurfaces. If anything, America sometimes needs a few good hauntings to put things into perspective.
Ghosts allow us to become intimate with local histories that would otherwise be forgotten or erased. Some of the Triad’s hauntings do just that.
Many local ghost stories also explore unfinished business and righting historical wrongs.
Take the Biltmore Hotel in Downtown Greensboro, for example. The hotel’s two resident ghosts are believed to roam because of unjust deaths.
Moses Cone and his brother built the building to serve as their first office toward the end of the 19th Century. The Washington Street structure became a series of things: opulent hotel, post office, boarding house, and now (once again) a boutique hotel.
A former Cone accountant, Philip, is believed to haunt room 332. The lore behind Philip is that he was murdered on the property for discovering questionable financial discrepancies. Reports include the carpet bunching up in one corner of the room, as if Philip is trying to bury (or uncover) evidence.
Female guests have reported waking up at night and seeing a male figure at the end of their bed. Perhaps Philip is looking for something other than embezzled funds.
In 2012, I participated in an investigation at the hotel with a cast member from former CourtTV’s show, Haunting Evidence, Patrick Burns. We set up an experiment in Philip’s room with an orange and equipment that measured electromagnetic field (EMF) energy.
“If you are here with us, can you move the orange to let us know?” Patrick Burns asked.
The orange rolled on demand several times. The movement corresponded with a spike in EMF. There is video of this incident on YouTube.
Lydia (aka Wendy) is another spectral resident. The story is that Lydia was a boarder at the hotel, a working girl. Allegedly, her pimp (or a customer) threw her from the second floor stair landing. She died from a broken neck.
There are numerous reports of Lydia sightings from hotel staff and various guests, particularly from individuals with no prior knowledge of accounts. She is thought to roam the staircases and hallways. There are reports of her taking late night rides in the hotel’s elevator.
If you take the Carolina Haunted History walking tour, Nightmares Around Elm Street, you may hear that Lydia is fond of the color pink, as well as purses.
Here is the reason why: during our investigation in 2009, we camped out in Lydia’s room. Our equipment started reacting to something emitting high readings of electronic magnetic energy.
The readings spiked around an investigator’s furry pink purse that sat in the middle of the bed.
“Do you like that pink purse?” I inquired.
A voice that wasn’t audible at the time appeared during audio evidence review. A woman answered with a whispery, “Yes.”
Of course, evidence of the paranormal is highly contested, as is the existence of ghosts.
A tangible outcome of the paranormal, however, is the relationship people build with a property and its history through the telling of ghost stories. One charm of spirited lore is that the participation is democratic and collaborative. The story changes with every retelling, and anyone can become part of the narrative.
Ghost stories give us a way to unveil and rewrite history with an “H.”
Some say Philip returns to his office to set right the injustices he discovered, those that led to his death. The “unfinished business” narrative is a common refrain in ghostly lore, and works to reflect the regrets of the living.
The prostitute ghost is a common meme, as well. These stories elevate voices of the forgotten and socially marginalized. Lydia represents women who are disempowered during their lifetimes and are now able to come back from the dead to correct the historical record.
Philip and Lydia characterize individuals who lost their lives due to exploitation. Their stories write back against the grievances experienced by the living.
Creepy College Campus
Sometimes, ghost stories celebrate Big History, the kind on an official docket.
They provide review our collective past. Furthermore, the stories function as a teaching tool rooted in institutional memory.
This bucolic campus on top of College Hill offers refuge to stories and spirits of Greensboro’s past Built as a women’s college in 1846, the Main Building at Greensboro College sits atop a lightning-prone hill and has endured three fires with two resulting in fatalities, and a third death occurring during building reconstruction.
The campus also hosted the injured and dying during the Civil War. The Main Building became an infirmary for students and staff during the 1918 influenza epidemic.
Several individuals died on campus, including a little girl named Ethel.
Ethel haunts the Main Building. People have claimed to see her in the third floor hallway. Her father, Dr. Dred Peacock, was the college’s president in 1894. She died in the building, and the cause of death remains unknown.
Reports on campus also include seeing apparitions of soldiers and women in period clothing. The campus historical museum allegedly houses a cursed doll from the class of 1924.
According to Julia Fergus, the campus is home to a haunted dorm room. She attended Greensboro College as student in 2011 and lived in the Greensboro Residence Hall.
Fergus recounts strange happenings in an empty dorm room on her floor.
“There was so much noise from the room,” Fergus shared. “You could hear furniture moving, pencils rolling. You would hear music.”
Several residents complained to administration because “no students were coming out of this room,” Fergus remembers. “But, the Resident Advisor told us no one lived there.”
She adds, “The room has never been occupied, except for one time. And the student moved out pretty quickly.”
Fergus now works on campus as a Resident Director. She reminded me of another campus ghost legend: O. Henry, Greensboro’s namesake writer.
William Sidney Porter spent a lot of time on College Hill. His uncle owned a pharmacy across Market Street, and the young William enjoyed the company of the ladies.
There are stories that he would arrive after curfew and hoist milkshakes up to the young women in their dorm rooms. These milkshakes weren’t dairy based, but “spirited” in another sense of the word.
He is also connected to the campus through his mother, Mary Jane Porter, who graduated from the Greensboro College in 1850.
Formerly librarian Christine Carlson Whittington backs up the claim that something otherworldly seems to uphold O. Henry’s reputation. She now lives in Colorado, and she emailed her account of what happened several years ago.
The incident involved a portrait of O. Henry that hung in the library beside the circulation desk.
The event occurred one evening before a holiday break. Whittington was at the desk chatting with the campus security chief about O. Henry hauntings.
She recounts, “As we talked about the stories about O. Henry reacting to negative comments about his mother, the portrait fell off the wall and the glass over it broke. No warning–had never fallen before and was securely on the wall. No earthquake tremors, bumps, or anything! Gave us both the creeps.”
I have an O. Henry story to share.
During Haunted North Carolina’s investigation in the Main Building, I sat in a second floor hallway with another team member. The digital video recorder (DVR) and attached video cameras were nearby as we conducted and experiment: we initiated a pretend tirade against the writer.
The investigation, I must report, was uneventful.
However, an interesting development occurred during evidence review. My fellow investigator discovered that the DVR system mysteriously shut off around the time we begin our O. Henry rant.
The machine never worked again.
Perhaps the Triad’s most famous ghost is another Lydia. This Lydia is the spirit of a young woman whose ghost haunts a Jamestown underpass. Throughout the years, witnesses have reported seeing her.
A few claim to have given her a ride.
Legends of the hitchhiker ghost exist in some form all over the world, but a particular American variant rose as automobile culture gained prominence. The most common version is of a hitchhiker who disappears with no explanation while the vehicle is in motion.
The Lydia’s Bridge story begins in the early 1920s with a young couple driving back from a dance on a rainy, foggy evening. It is late, and the young woman wants to return home quickly so her mother won’t be worried.
The car approaches a steep curve at an underpass. The vehicle crashes and takes the life of the woman in her party dress.
The first Lydia sighting occurred in 1924. A driver claimed to see a young woman in elegant attire standing on the roadside. He stopped to check on her. She asked for a ride to her house in High Point. The young woman didn’t seem interested in small talk. It was late, and she just wanted to get home to her mother.
He arrived to the destination to discover that young lady was no longer in the car. Upon knocking on the door, a woman answered to confirm that yes, she lost her daughter to in a car crash, and then recounted the many times her ghost daughter had hitched a ride.
While roadside revenants have existed through history, an American version gained precedent after Pearl Harbor. Stories begin to circulate of a man who stopped to assist a woman on the roadside. Before she disappeared from the car, she issued a prediction of many deaths to be followed by the death of Hitler.
This story was a fixture in gossip columns at the time, and many Americans took it seriously.
Michael Renegar, a local ghost hunter and author, contacted me about Lydia’s Bridge. He’s conducted thorough research on the urban legend, and discussed his findings in an episode of Monsters of Mysteries in America on the Destination America network.
Reneger told me that a student at High Point University located death records at UNCG for a defunct Greensboro paper. The research yielded interesting information.
This story may be more than mere legend. It seems to have ghostly legs to stand on.
Renegar shares that, indeed, a woman died in a wreck on High Point Road on June 20, 1920 at the original underpass, which is no longer accessible to motorists.
He even knows her name: the death certificate lists her as “Annie.”
The Strangest Home in America
Ghosts are more than offshoots of tragic events and untimely deaths.
Sometimes, they are celebrations of people and places.
Körner’s Folly in Kernersville is fantastically, and creatively, haunted.
Jule Körner’s built The Strangest Home in America in 1878 as a living studio for his furniture and interior design business. During construction, a neighbor passed by and made an unflattering comment about the home’s unique design.
“That is quite a folly,” he said.
“Dang right it is!” Jule responded.
I’m paraphrasing, of course, but Jule ran with the idea and dubbed the house as “Körner’s Folly.” The 22-room structure is an architectural wonder, and its whimsical nature lends to happy hauntings reflective of Körner’s innovative personality.
I investigated in 2009 with first paranormal team to formally explore the property. What we assumed would be a fun nocturnal jaunt through a historically fascinating site turned into a ghostly goldmine.
The investigation yielded numerous light anomalies, personal experiences, and ghostly voices.
The most impressive is the voice of a little girl saying “peek-a-boo” captured in the Children’s Play Room.
The house is fascinating enough on its own. Ghosts are merely supporting characters. They appear as creaky floorboards, fleeting shadows, and apparitions dressed in white that gently float through the hallways.
Körner’s Folly offers a Dickensian form of ghosts from a time when America was defined by budding scientific innovation that intersected with superstition. The house represents the classic Victorian mansion where the revenants aren’t sinister, but playful.
Jule went against many Southern social norms. He honored his African-American nanny and housekeeper, Aunt Dealy, who raised him from a young age after the death of his mother.
He fought to have Aunt Dealy buried with the family across the street at the Moravian Church. Dissent against the idea forced the Körners to wall off their plot.
Jule built Körner’s Folly to inspire awe.
No wonder the place is haunted.
For example, the Reception Room includes “kissing booths” that taunted attitudes about romance and courtship. Of course, there is a ghost in one particular corner who likes to receive smooches.
Körner’s Folly management prefers to highlight the non-ghostly aspects of the site. This is understandable, for the house is an American treasure, and one that is right here in the Triad. Jule Körner and family contributed to local culture in immeasurable ways.
However, some people visit Körner’s Folly because of the spirits. If hauntings help people connect – and preserve — history, then ghosts are doing their job right.
The Truth is Out There. Maybe.
Ghost stories are excursions. In an age of information overload, sound bites and memes, there are still events that we don’t know how to explain.
There is a sense of relief and humility in that realization. What a great feeling to know that everything isn’t mundane, that there is room for the sublime and the mysterious.
The language of the paranormal is often a cliché, but it provides reprieve from the fears of the living. The stories empower us to make sense of demons we don’t know how to name.
Sometimes, the stories give pause to reflect and invest in local heritage.
Such strange things offer accessible armchair metaphysics at a time when many religious and social institutions are struggling to remain relevant.
Finally, like any folklore or urban legend, ghost stories are ultimately about the living.
I can’t say for sure that ghosts exist, but one thing seems possible: the dead eventually find a way to tell our stories.
Deonna Kelli Sayed is a Greensboro-based writer and storyteller. She is speaking on the cultural history of ghosts at Scuppernong Books, Oct 30th at 4 pm. She is also featured on a forthcoming Buzzfeed podcast, “See Something, Say Something” (October 29th) in a discussion about Islamic jinn. Learn more about Deonna at dksayed.com.