What do you do when the scurrying of little feet in your house isn’t rodents but something more ... spectral?
John LaVerne, owner of Bulldog Tours, whose ghost tours were just voted tops in the country by USA Today readers, knows a thing or two about things that go bump in the night.
“This is Charleston. We have these ghosts and it’s not like a Stephen King movie where the walls are bleeding,” says LaVerne. “It’s just certain things about the house that make you realize you are not the only one living there, like light switches going on or the sound of voices.”
“You can even smell ghosts sometimes, like when there’s the smell of a pipe or cigar and there’s not a person within 200 yards of you,” he says.
“A lot depends on the type of spirit you have,” says Karen Marr, a tour guide and self-professed clairvoyant. “If it’s doing something like pulling the covers off of you, it may not be trying to hurt you, it may just be trying to learn how to tighten the energy molecules up or trying to see if you can help it.”
But not all the ghosts are friendly, Marr cautions.
“When you get scary ghosts in houses, it’s because they are angry and don’t want to share the space, or something happened to them,” she says. “Children can get stuck here if they have been abused and they died when they were not mature enough to understand what happened. In death, they don’t understand any better, not unless they can cross over.”
Charleston, with its colorful history, has more than its share of ghosts, according to LaVerne.
“We’ve had a lot of untimely deaths here, and a lot of them have business left on this Earth,” he says. “Plus, funeral homes are fairly recent.”
“It used to be that wakes were held in the houses and the body was in the parlor for days on end,” LaVerne says. “It’s likely that some of those spirits still live in the houses.”
James Caskey, author of the book “Haunted Charleston,” agrees.
“I’ve thought long and hard about it,” says Caskey, who lives in Savannah. “I think what it boils down to is, this land was precharged because of the horrible genocide in the 1500s when the Spanish came and wiped the Indians out, so the soil itself is sort of receptive to it.”
“Then you mix in all the different cultures who have a storytelling background and the (Charleston) culture is receptive to it as well,” he says. “One of the great things about Charleston is you can (ask) ‘is this place haunted’ and eight times out of 10, you’ll get an affirmative response, and then they’ll tell you their own story.”
LaVerne has stories, tales that have nothing to do with his ghost tour. Many years ago, when he lived on Rutledge Avenue, he heard a baby crying at the foot of his bed. In the late 1990s, when he lived on State Street, he was alone in the house when the temperature suddenly dropped and a clock that had stopped working suddenly showed a different time. He says previous tenants later told him they had experienced the television, lights and radio going on of their own accord.
Philip Caston, faculty adviser for Wando High School’s Paranormal Investigation Team, says he used to live in a Mount Pleasant home where someone or something was rummaging in closets when no one was in the room. He also heard someone in the den whistling as though for a lost animal, but Caston was home alone with the windows and doors shut at the time. He declines to give the house address out of respect for the current owners.
That reticence is common. While places like Battery Carriage House Inn, Dock Street Theatre and Old City Jail boast of their hauntings, homeowners are not eager to publicize their ghosts.
“I did approach several homeowners (when researching the book),” Caskey says. “I was either ignored or rebuffed in every instance.”
“I understand,” he says. “If you start feeding into these stories, tours will descend like plagues of locusts.”
When it comes to selling your haunted house, if no one asks, then you don’t have to disclose, according to Carriage Properties Realtor Alton Brown, but you can’t intentionally misrepresent anything about your house.
“You don’t have to technically disclose if someone died in a house, but in downtown Charleston, someone has probably died in every one of those houses,” Brown says.
Not sure if you have a ghost? You might call Wando High School’s ghost-detecting team of about 30 students, who may show up with recording devices and an electromagnetic field meter, or EMF, to pick up drastic changes in electrical current that are thought to signify the presence of ghosts.
“We’ll check it out, investigate,” Caston says. “We’re not there to solve any problems. We’re not qualified for that.”
“But maybe we can even debunk some things,” he says. “Maybe we can show you what you thought was creepy and paranormal was pretty normal.”
Caston says some people can feel uneasy near electronic signals, but his team may be able to show that the signals come from a breaker box, for example, and not a ghost.
Marr’s equipment also includes an EMF and audio recorder, but she says the very first step is to interview the homeowner to make sure the noises aren’t just the sounds of an old house settling.
“Once you get through the initial interview, you also ask things like is it focused at one person or is everybody experiencing it,” Marr says.
“You need to know if it is an adult or child the spirit is focused at, and you find a little about that person. Sometimes a ghost is following you around because it’s latched onto you, it’s relating to you for some reason.”
Once the EMF picks up the presence of a spirit, the next step is to interview the ghost, according to Marr.
“I tend to use my (clairvoyant) abilities,” she says. “I will sit down and actually start to make contact with spirit.”
“It’s like coaxing a dog out of a corner of the yard; you’ve got to earn their trust,” Marr says. “You can start to feel them feel comfortable being close to you. If you’re at all sensitive, you can feel what they feel.”
Unlike mediators, none of these paranormal investigators charge to visit a homeowner, and they recommend not hiring a firm that does.
If you do have a friendly ghost in your home, you might choose to just live with it. That’s what Caston and Marr recommend.
“We have a lot of spirits here in Charleston,” says Marr. “Most of them just go about their business.”