The story I’m about to tell you is something of an unorthodox one for me if you’ve read my other works. I’ve always considered myself an essayist, telling my own brand of horror stories about trauma, adversity, and racial injustice.
But this tale, though wrapped in the guise of a paranormal ghost story, is really just about a Scooby-Doo Gang of rather ordinary people with a rather extraordinary hobby.
2020 has been filled with a lot of scary, anxiety-inducing twists and turns, so unexpected and underappreciated for their long-enduring trauma and PTSD I’m sure they’ll inflict on us all for years to come. A pandemic. A presidential election year. An apex of political activism. Reckoning with our own mental health and mortality.
I’ve written about all these things but when I got a message from a friend and co-worker asking if I was interested in a one-off writing job focused on something entirely non-political, I jumped at the opportunity to take a break from the weightiness of the new decade’s most popular topics.
“Whatever it is, I'm game,” I typed enthusiastically, excited at the prospect of my first independent writing gig. She quickly replied,
“Um… wanna go ghost hunting?”
PINE GROVE FURNACE PRISONER OF WAR CAMP
Michaux State Forest, Newville, Pennsylvania. 7:00pm.
Thirty-four hours after chatting with my friend, my partner and I were sitting in a rented SUV in the middle of the Michaux State Forest about 30 minutes outside of Gettysburg, PA.
We were the first ones on the scene (a literal coordinate sent via google maps) and trust me the thought to bail crossed my mind so much in those nerve-wracking 20 minutes it took to see a second car pull up.
Out of the misty fog came a grey minivan of all things.
Jim and Dan, faithful members of the WereWoofs team, the ghost hunting arm of WooFDrivers — which is “urban mushing” if, like me, you’ve never heard of such a thing, greeted us warmly and set some of our fears at ease. Or at least my own. I mean, come on, a Black guy doesn’t drive to civil war landmarks to “hunt ghosts” without a creeping, albeit small, fear that the whole experience will turn into some strange “Antebellum/Get Out” spin-off.
“I’ve known Billy for twenty plus years,” boasts Jim. Billy is Bill Helman, the WoofDriver himself, and casual but 20-years-consistent amateur ghost hunter and “The Guy” as folks also refer to him as.
“I met him through a coworker and we’ve been working together ever since, doing whatever strange things he likes to do. You should see me trying to explain my job to friends,” chimed in Dan.
I could probably fill this entire article with Bill’s insanely cool lifestyle and exploits, as more and more of the gang arrived, I immediately understood that even if these folks didn’t make me a believer, they’d at least make me feel going ghost hunting wasn’t much different from going biking, hiking, camping or even brunch.
The operation is as well-oiled as the electric mushing bike Bill uses with his dogs. Folks are laughing, chatting, hooking themselves up with lights, gadgets, gizmos, and gloves.
As the newbies of the night, we don’t get headlamps or cameras — hell, we barely understand what’s going on for much of the prep time. Folks are looking at printed out maps, debating which cameras to bring, whether to set up tripods or GoPros, their infrared flashlights fling into the trees. We corral and go over the itinerary. We’ve got just a few hours to check the hotspots in the area before we’ve gotta be off to the next site.
We both down little bottles of 5-Hour Energy, we zip up our coats and find our exit buddies.
A group of 10 or so head into the night, pointing and peering deciphering a path to the former bunker that the group believes will be most active. Out in the night, Bill takes a back seat to our resident professionals — paranormal investigator Curtis Wimer and parapsychologist and podcaster ParaAnne.
Both are people unlike the folks you see in grocery stores or at gas station pumps: everyday people who just happen to drive out together in the middle of the woods on a 40° night to chase the thrill, that uncertainty of being actually alone.
They each casually share their own experiences with me, laughing at times they actually got scared or saw something they couldn’t explain. And I can tell that each time they're amazed and bewildered because when driving into said middle of the woods, in the middle of the night, you do with the voice of society in your head. And before every trip, you preplan to explain how it’s not guaranteed you’ll document anything conclusive, how this or that night might not be the right one for contact, how you were too green with the new equipment, but you far less often prepare to explain the sensation to someone when do you see, hear, or feel something. And maybe that’s okay. Because maybe ghost hunting is about the experiences in the moment, not after. So they laugh and joke and preface the stories with “I know this sounds crazy…”
But that’s part of the wonder of it. Because maybe ghost hunting, and fuck I can’t believe i’m about type this, really is about the friends you make along the way.
But tonight — we were about to make new friends. Or enemies?
First stop: the remains of an old bunker. Nothing is left but the foundation, a flatbed of concrete. I don’t why but I thought that meant we were going to look for a more built-up structure. Ghosts need something to stick to, right?
Apparently not. Before I could figure out what was happening, at least 12 devices came out of pockets and bags, all LED-lit, flashing, buzzing, and sci-fi inspired. After a few moments of adjusting, the night falls silent and the questioning begins.
One is called a K-2 Meter and I’m told it’s an absolute must in the field of Ghost Hunting and Paranormal investigation, designed to detect and analyze electromagnetic energy. If anything with this form of energy — which happens to be lots of things actually, including spirits — moves or gets close, they go off.
“Is somebody here with us?” Curtis belts out, catching me off guard. I fight the urge to shush him because, like most people, my instincts tell me to be deathly quiet when I’m in scary, dark woods. But even those thoughts are interrupted by the free-for-all, one-sided convos that erupt from nearly every person in the group.
“Is anybody here,” Bill joins in.
“Can anything here communicate with us?”
“If you’d like to communicate, move near one of our gadgets here. They won't hurt you. See,” a hand swipes in the general area of one of the devices and it whizzes. “It’s easy and you doesn’t take that much energy neither.”
It's clear that ghost hunting is essentially a bunch of believers and simultaneous skeptics pointing and dismissing this noise or that flash, calling out into the night, waiting for an invitation to be answered.
For a few minutes, it's kind of awkward. My partner and I exchange quick glances and smirks. Silently communicating with each other. ‘Aren’t these folks doing it all wrong.” We did watch an episode or two of one of those Sci-Fi ghost hunting shows and it doesn’t usually take this long. We know, deep down, that we know absolutely nothing about this thing we’re watching, but skepticism is an incredible bedfellow when you’re cold and a bit spooked.
But then one of the gadgets goes wild. Everyone agrees that something important. This one is different. It’s called a Paranormal Music Box (PMB) and when it detects something, it starts playing the creepiest fucking music you can imagine.
The device is near ParaAnne, who’s been sitting on the old granite steps, much quieter and seemingly more patient than the guys. “Is somebody here with us?”
More music. “Should we be afraid? Were you afraid? Touch something so I know you’re here.
A light turns red. A device on bills hip says “calm.” Oh shit, that was kinda weird. And cool. And… scary. We learn after our hearts stop racing that the device is called an Ovilus, a gadget that goes one step further than the others by translates the energies it measures into words.
Pro-tip: learn about the equipment before you go into a forest with them and you’ll save yourself some heartache.
My mouth falls open and I turn again to my exit buddy and boyfriend. We’re both stunned but there’s no time to process because ParaAnne is on a roll, determined not to lose this connection.
“Spirit, we’re just here to learn more. That’s it. We’ve got a million devices just touch one. Were you a soldier,” ParaAnne begins again.
The music starts up again.
“We hear you. Please stop moving so we can keep communicating.”
It pauses for the briefest second then starts again.
“Are you a boy?” It plays then stops.
“Can you move again and touch another device since you understand the devices now,” chimes Curtis, who clearly wants some of the action but I’m starting to think that maybe we should all take a break. But some other device goes starts flashing and everyone agrees we’re officially in a hotspot. That doesn’t sound good for my nerves.
“Were you shot here?” The music starts up but ends quickly.
“Were you camping here?” Silence
“Did you have a wife and children?” The creepy music continues to tinker along but this time when it stops, it doesn’t start back up for any more questions. Sore topic, perhaps?
We’re playing the waiting game and I’m realizing that this might not be a science but it’s certainly technological. And probably probability. The wind is roaring at our backs, bushes are twitching left and right, a coyote is probably howling, but all eyes are trained on one thing and one thing only: the LED-lit devices trying to record paranormal data. Because above all other industries, ghost hunting upholds that age-old proverb: pics or it didn’t happen.
I’ve never been good at guessing games but these ghost hunters understand that sometimes (maybe even most times) it’s about asking the right question.
But I can’t stop looking around. Every breeze, every twitch, my head turns. There’s don’t. They trust their devices, not their senses. Except ParaAnne… she’s turning back as much as I was and she silences everyone and wants to listen.
“Were you talking behind us in the field?” Nothing happens and I send a thank you up above for that small gift.
“Spirit, if you’re done talking, we’ll have to leave. Do want us to stay?”
Nothing. ParaAnne gets up, pats her pants off, and others start collecting their devices. But one last attempt sends everyone into a craze.
“Spirit, we’re going to leave this spot but if you want you can follow us.”
Whoa whoa whoa. Everyone jumps and simultaneously start correcting the statement. “We mean only while we’re here in the forest. You can’t follow us after we leave. Do you understand?” Everyone holds their breaths.
A long moment passes.
Something lights up and I, too, let go of the breath I was holding, not realizing I was in sync with the group.
The Site of the Interrogation Bunker — Tree Crash
We find that the second site of the POW camp, the Interrogation Bunker that made this particular camp infamous, is even more razed by time and neglect, is just a large stump. There’s no floor, no structure, no clear indication that this space was where thousands of German and Japanese prisoners were interviewed, interrogated, and most likely even tortured. Just an couple of angry stumps of rock in a clearing.
I wrote this word even in my notes in the moment. The site was quiet, the wind vanished, even the twitches in the bushes were gone. It felt more isolated than the first location, despite being only 600ft away.
Devices were set-up again. The music box out and ready. The infrared cameras were locked and loaded. But unlike the first location, nothing was happening. Aside from random flashes here and there (static from cellphones too close), we were getting nowhere.
Finally, someone asks the question no one else has: “Do you not want us here?”
A few seconds later, a small branch falls behind Ethan, partner of ParaAnne, and one of our camera crew. We all looked up and he jumped a bit. Folks began to whisper, “damn, do you think something threw that at him in response?”
“Sure, Jan,” I whispered under my breath. Not that I was still a strong skeptic at this point, but come on, a twig? Is that really a sign of our impending doom should we choose to stay?
Someone pressed further, though. “Spirits, are you angry? If you don’t want us here, let us know. Maybe light up the red light there.”
The red light did not go off. But something else did happen. Now, keep in mind. It’s the middle of the night. The wind was almost non-existent. I’ve still yet to appreciate the exact odds of something like this happening in that spot, on that night, during a paranormal investigation… Either way, I’m sure the odds are too high to rationalize away.
At that exact moment, the tremendous sound of crackling roared from behind us. We all turned sharply and peered into the dark forest. Just a few feet away, an entire tree cracked, splintered, and crashed down to the ground.
No wind. No chainsaws. No warning. A tree right next to the investigation site, immediately after we questioned our overstayed welcome, a 20-ton tree collapses.
I don’t know how to explain that.
Luckily, no one needed an explanation. 20+ year veterans of the ghosthunting business clearly knew one thing: when you get a sign, you treat it as a serious message. We packed our gear, rushed to the cars, and headed out.
There was one last site to investigate within the city limits of Gettysburg, the main event we’d thought before we all arrived. But after seeing something like that tree falling. Well, it was seeming more and more like a pallet cleanser than the main course of the night.
The Haunted Trails of Gettysburg
The Haunted Trails of Gettysberg 10:45pm
In the final stretch of the night’s investigations, I imagined we were headed straight for the historic battlefield of Gettysburg — a site consecrated by the 160,000+ Union and Confederate soldiers that fought there, and the 3,000+ souls that perished in the three-day battle.
As a Black man, arriving in this town, passing through the rural fields, and seeing iconography of the Civil War all around me proved to have its own flavor of horror. This war was fought in large part because one side wanted Black people to continue on as slaves.
Will my presence mean something other than my white partners? Will the operators and protectors of these historic sites feel differently than I do about what this battle meant?
And as we pulled up to a rural farmhouse, with a Confederate flag flung openly in the night, attached to a giant wooden cross, well… I wasn’t immediately reassured.
As we all exit our cars, gravitating towards a roaring bonfire, it becomes clear that this is not a part of the original battlefield. The operators (read: the family that lives on the grounds) gathers us around and tells us a bit of the history of the land and exactly why we’re here tonight.
The Trials of Gettysberg is actually private land, consisting of a farm house built in the 1820s on a sprawling 6-acres of wooded land. There are a few dilapidated shacks visible from where we are, and something a little brighter just past the trees. As I peered through the darkness, a loud horn sound off as if a 18-wheeler is about to cut through the trees and mow us down. It turns out, the grounds are directly next to a major interstate. Serious Pet Semetary vibes.
During the Civil War, this property was a Confederate Field Camp and hospital, and we’re told that hundreds of sightings have occured here: shadow figures, whispers, toughing, and most notably the feeling that you’re being watched.
This is a confirmed haunting site. It’s a very different feel from the forest. We’re warned that while most figures and spirits are friendly, they are very touchy. The group begins to splinter off but I’m more curious about the owners. How did all of this startup?
“We had no clue. We got more of the history from our neighbors and their descendants but we really had no clue the house we were buying was haunted. We came here on our honeymoon and we knew we’d settle here eventually. But suddenly we found ourselves at the center of a vortex of spiritual energy.
Now we run this. We were always civil war buffs and ghost junkies, but since living here and operating this site, we’ve become very spiritual. I’m an empath. This place has changed me as a person. My purpose on this Earth now is to help the spirits and help others.”
While there many hotspots to be found along the trials of Gettysburg, I’ll resign myself to tell you only about the cellar, as its called. Beneath the house, where you can spot the original tree logs that support the foundation, is a small, areas with lawn chairs semi-circling the room.
There are only two devices down here with us — a standard EVP device and a laptop on a tripod.
As we all took our seats and learned a little more about the history of the cellar, the sightings, the appartions, the voices, I couldn’t help staring at the laptop, wondering exactly what was about to happen. It seemed almost like we’d all watch a little scary movie around it, but it turns out that it was used for much scarier means.
On the computer was the Necrophonic app — a program that cycles through bands on the radio wavelength and tries to pull out the consistencies. The Necrophonic app is hooked to a device called the “Portal,” which uses a reverb pedal and an amplifier to supposedly amplify EVPs. The combination produces a strange sound effect — like an echo, but choppy. Suddenly the air fills with voices, constantly shifting and cuttig off as though we were constantly changing the station.
“Oh wow. That’s terrifying,” I let slip.
But everyone else leaned in. This device is almost like an audio puzzle. Most of it is just gibberish, but every so often something clear and concise cuts through.
“Spirits, if you’re here, let us know your names? Let us know you’re here!” As always, these are the questions most begin with. Every now and then switching them up when a word or two sounds relational to the question. For most of the time, it was pretty unclera if anything at all was interacting with us from other side of the proverbial veil.
But at other times, despite the erratic nature of the device and our inability to know the exact questions to shout into the void, there was no mistaking that a conversation was being had.
“Spirit, what’s your name?”
We all sat up and started rapid firing questions to get more information. Where are you from? How old are you? Are you stuck here? Are you alone?
“Emily are you okay? If you’re here with us, come close to my EMG detector,” the device that could detects movement and even slight temperature changes.
But the lone feminine voice refused to return to the front of the other noices, the other radio-like voices.
“She deserves it.”
We began to question the voices? Asking why they were preventing the girl from speaking again. One of the site operators let us know that many of the ghosts are afraid of the original owner, known as Mr. Sanders, and that sometimes his energy repells the others.
It was believeable enough. We’d clearly been speaking with a girl but were quickly cut short by the other sounds. We all thought how to get her to respond again but before we could figure it out. Another male voice came booming through the speakers.
Now I know what y’all are thinking, but hear me out: I’m from Savannah, Georgia, aptly known as “the most haunted city in America” by the American Institute of Parapsychology and known far and wide for its dozens of ghost tours it provides to tourist. I’ve been on a few. Meh.
Don’t get me wrong, the city is definitely haunted. Trust me, I know. I lived with my with Nana and Papa for a few years of my adolescence in a cemetery! My grandfather was the groundskeeper and guess whose job it was to lock the cemetery gates at the end of the night, every night? Seven-year-olds don’t get through experiences like that without seeing a flash of green light here or there or a disembodied voice coming from the tree line.
So, when the opportunity for a Black guy from the #1 Most Haunted city in the country to visit the #2 Most Haunted City in the Country — Gettysburg, Pennslyvania — comes along, well, you definitely say yes.
A lot happened that night. A lot that I can’t really explain. Some of which, I probably could. But what needs no explanation is why this field of study is so damn interesting. For dozen people, from all walks of life, to assemble in the middle of forests, cemetaries, and underground caverns, there has to be a little more attraction than the chance to hear a disembodied voice.
There has to be more to it than the thrill or the chance to spoke yourself. And there was, indeed. There was friendship. There was history. There was trust. And there were lots and lots of laughter.
And yes, if you must know, there were probably a few ghosts as well.