Scared in Savannah: I-75 is only the beginning

Honey, I’m not going to lie. I walked into my hotel suite with a limp wrist, a half-drunk glass of Pinot and fully possessed by the living spirit of NeNe Leakes. I’m on my way up. Savannah has that effect on me. I find everything here so incredibly lovely. Doors are held open, seemingly everyone is smiling and alcohol is readily available (except Sunday mornings when the wine is for Jesus only).

While it wasn’t Sunday, it was Christmastime and my posh hotel had pulled out all the stops with festive décor, twinkling lights and complimentary wine. By the time I stumbled into my bathroom and saw that my room had a clawfoot tub, I had become Kevin Spacey playing the role of a Real Housewife of Atlanta. 

“Be a doll, and get me another glass,” I said to my wife, while peeling off my clothes and running the water.  

She answered by crossing her arms.

She wanted to go for a walk around the Historic District before dinner, but all I wanted was to soak away the seven hours I was stuffed into a tiny Fiat. Visitors often underestimate the distance between Atlanta and Savannah. They’ll say, oh, look at that, it’s only four hours away, and then they’re stuck in the hellscape of I-75 watching a helicopter depart with a critically injured driver or a battalion of fire trucks putting out a wildfire. The reason my drive to Savannah took a near work day was because my starting point was Miami, so you could say I took a short cut to avoid that mess. My aversion to I-75 is so great, in fact, that I was planning on driving up to Charleston, South Carolina, before returning to Atlanta. But, I’m fancy like that.  

Back to my glorious bubble bath. Once my fingers were sufficiently wrinkled, I began the fastidious process of dressing myself for an evening stroll. The temperature had dipped into the lower 50s, making a scarf and hat a definite part of my ensemble. After all this was Savannah, the place to promenade. You can’t fully appreciate the charm of this historic city while rushing. It’s best to take little sips of this tall glass of iced tea and drink in the cobbled streets, the gingerbread architecture and the simple pleasure of experiencing a proper Southern catcall while photographing the Nathaniel Greene monument at Johnson Park.

Haunt 1: Olde Pink House

Under the premise that we were going to take it easy this evening, we found ourselves at the door of the illustrious Olde Pink House Restaurant & Tavern without a reservation. As its name suggests, the building is the precise shade of a flamingo—a feat that is heavily factored into your bill.

I must have washed away all of my Nene Leakes-ness in the bath because there wasn’t a single table available for me or my hat.

“We can seat you in the basement,” the dapper host suggested. “You can order dinner at the bar.”

 So, down the narrow stairs we went until reaching a noisy, dark space illuminated only by a fireplace. There may have been a live pianist, but it was hard to make anything out. Our eyes adjusted to find two barstools at the very end of the bar. After a cordial welcome by the bartender, he provided menus that had to be read by hovering a candle over it, as if it were a Ouija board. Even with a bar-full of patrons demanding his attention he took the time to tell us his favorite dishes and answer our questions thoroughly. My hat was back in business.

The meal was exquisite and so was the wine. The bar patrons were lively and dressed smartly, at least that’s what I gathered from their silhouettes. The music too, was a nice touch and the bartender found time to chat with us while he mixed drinks.

“Where’s the washroom?” I asked.

He pointed over toward a somewhat lit doorway and gave explicit instructions that he punctuated with, “…oh and some people say it’s haunted, so…”

So? So be careful? So it’s best to hold it? But before I could inquire, my wife chimed in with, “Oh how cool. Good luck, honey.” 

Suddenly the walk in the dark felt ominous. My heart was galloping by the time I made it inside the brightly lit bathroom. And when it came time to wash my hands, I was in complete hysterics. I rushed out with soap still between my fingers and wiped the wetness on my scarf. I got back to my seat where my wife, the bartender and the couple occupying the seats next to us were waiting to hear of my adventure.

I shrugged my shoulders and said, “It was nothing really. The lights flickered a bit and for a moment I levitated, but that was it.”

They chuckled and I thought that would be the end of the conversation, but the topic wouldn’t die. I learned that the common problem with the ladies’ room is that people often report being locked in the stall and that a fair number of ghosts make themselves known across other parts of the restaurant.

Olde Pink House Basement. As you can see, everything looks normal here.

Side Ghosts

Apparently, The Olde Pink House wasn’t the only restaurant with a strong ghost game, there was also some weird stuff happening at The Pirates’ House. Then, the conversation turned to haunted inns, like The Marshall House and the Kehoe House, also known for strange occurrences and apparitions. Our hotel was not historic, nor did it contain the word ‘house’ in its title, which seems to be the requirement for a ghost to take up residence, so at least we were safe.

“If you’re into paranormal stuff,” our bartender came over to say, “you should go to the Gribble House.”

The name alone sounds awful, but the activity centered around it was even worse. Participants are provided with gizmos and gadgets to communicate with the tormented spirits that are trapped inside.

“Interesting.” I politely thanked him for his suggestion and requested our check, only to look over at my wife’s eyes, glistening brightly, even in this darkness.

“Please?” she whispered. 

Haunt 2: Gribble House

We hurried back to our non-haunted hotel to sort out more information about this Gribble House and, would you believe it, there was still space available for that evening’s tour—no, pardon me, experience. A paranormal experience, to be specific.

How did I ever lose control of this evening? I had deceptively agreed to ‘go with the flow’, which to me meant that we were going to pop in and out of all of the lovely establishments that line Congress Street so that I could hold a plastic cup of alcohol and giggle uncontrollably like everyone else in this town. The night was supposed to culminate at Club One, where I would sweat out the vodka on the dance floor so that the next morning when I went in for a peek at the First African Baptist Church, the Lord and the ladies would not clock me as hungover. But, instead, I found myself at a mock Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the foyer of the Trolley Tour depot.

Foyer is generous. It was the make-shift reception area with a desk, some folding chairs and sliding doors that led into the warehouse. I politely smiled at the three couples already seated. All white. All straight. All seemingly relaxed about being lured into a desolate bus terminal at midnight. I’m not one for stereotypes, but the horror movie trope was glaring here and as a triple minority, this isn’t the kind of equity I was interested in. Just as I was leaning in to whisper that I was sure I was experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning, our host stood from behind the reception desk and locked the front door. This is the part where the scary music starts, I thought.

He welcomed us casually, his tone, very as a matter of fact. He introduced himself as a true Savannanite, born and raised in Georgia’s oldest city. I think it’s a missed opportunity not to be referred to as Savanese or better yet Savants. 

There was nothing he said that over-dramatized, no word emphasized, no long pauses for added effect. He stood there and stated the facts as he knew them, like a deposition. This place is a functioning trolley terminal during the day, but after years of workers experiencing inexplicable phenomenon, crazy accidents and all-around spookiness, they decided to do a little research. The owners discovered that this warehouse was built on the foundation of the Gribble House, the site of a heinous triple ax murder. Spanning the property there was also a former slave quarters where unspeakable acts occurred and, according to the psychics that were brought in as consultants, it seems like the entire place became portal, attracting all sorts of spirits.

He demonstrated how to use the equipment we were to measure paranormal activity and encouraged to capture images with our own cameras. Then he played previous voice recordings made on past tours. Prompted by a human asking, can you tell us your name? a staticky voice broke through the silence to answer, Samuel.

I should have drunk more wine.

I searched the faces of the other couples for signs of concern, but their smiles were broader still. After an extensive review of all of the technology at our disposal, including a light-up doll that the dead children that reside in the warehouse really enjoyed flicking on and off, and a detailed discussion of the types of encounters we could experience, from visual apparitions to unwanted touching to sudden temperature changes, we had an interesting discussion about ghost etiquette.

With no discernable emotion in his voice, he warned, “Please don’t insult them. These are not the type of ghosts you want to mess around with. We’re not dealing with Casper here. They will say things to you. They will use ugly language. They will threaten you.” 

Fresh out of holy water and a rosary, this felt extremely dangerous now.

He finished his monotonous monologue with, “What is most important is that once you leave this warehouse, you leave all of this negativity behind you. I have my own ritual, but if you have a prayer that you like or a lucky tradition you have, I suggest you do it as a spiritual cleanse when you walk out of these doors.”

And with that it was time. We grabbed suitcases of equipment and followed him to the back of the room. He explained that, at first, we wouldn’t be able to see anything, but soon our eyes would adjust with the help of a little bit of moonlight that comes in from a bank of windows in the back corner of the warehouse. Before he unlatched the lock and pulled back the door, I grabbed his arm. Everyone froze.

“Sorry,” I said. “I needed to be sure you were not a ghost.”

Into the Dark

We walked into the pitch black and when he slid the door behind us, we were swallowed whole by the void. The eight bodies instinctively clustered together. We were strangers no more. Now we were survivalists. Our host shined the tiniest light and led us to the very back of the space, but we all stopped in our tracks when the alarms of motion detectors blared in the silence. He pointed his flashlight in the direction of the sound. There was nothing. From the orientation, we knew motion detectors were set up around the perimeter of the site of the former Gribble house. Looks like someone’s home is what I would’ve said if I wasn’t rendered mute by paralyzing fear.

We made it to what could be considered a type of basecamp, where surveillance monitors were set up with live feeds from infrared cameras. We popped open the cases and grabbed hold the equipment we were most interested in working with. I selected a laser thermometer because I thought it was the least involved tool. Our host divided our group into two, leaving me and my wife with a young couple to fend for ourselves while he took the other group to the slave quarters.

The four of us politely whispered to each other, devising our plan. Should we ask questions first? Should we establish a baseline reading with the EMF detector? Should we snap photos with our digital cameras to capture orbs?

And then the alarm blared again.

A millisecond before I thought I saw a something move.

My wife pointed her camera and a flash illuminated the space.

The couple’s EMF reader spiked into the red.

And then things went quiet.

Well, as quiet as things can get in a haunted warehouse at one in the morning.

An occasional voice would come through on something called a spirit box, which was another gadget that scanned frequencies every second to pick up ghost voices. Orbs were photographed and questions were asked into thin air with no conclusive answer.

“You’re not going to believe this,” I overheard the boyfriend whisper to his companion. “I have to pee so bad.”

The bathroom, a single stall tiny, water closet, was clear across the warehouse. Without saying a single word to each other, we all looked across the abyss in the general direction where our host had informed us of the location of this mystery toilet. He didn’t want to make that trek alone and she didn’t want to be left outside the stall alone and we didn’t want to be left in the haunted house alone, so we all went together. In a moving huddle, we made it to a corner of the room where we found a two steps up to a door. He slowly turned the knob and found a glowing white toilet in the dark.

“I can’t find the light switch,” he said. “Do you guys mind if I leave the door a little open?” And us guys nodded and turned around to give him the privacy he needed. While he was mid-stream, his girlfriend decided that she too would use the facilities. Only she made him stay in there with her while she went.

“Do you need to go?” my wife asked.

“No, do you?”

“Nooo,” she said emphatically and then began to fiddle with the spirit box.

Mari a disembodied voice said.

She grabbed my forearm, her eyes wide and wild, even in the dark.

“Everything okay?” our host asked just as the couple emerged from the bathroom.

He informed us that it was time to switch with the other group and enter the former slave quarters.

A little bit after 2 a.m., we packed up our equipment and confidently walked toward the doors that we entered by, this time more spread out. Our host took a quick inventory of the electronics and gave us a few minutes to share our experiences and findings. He reminded us to drive safe, to leave a thoughtful review and to leave the ghosts behind and unlocked the door.

I, in the Cuban spiritualist tradition, brushed away the spirits with my hands in what we call un despojo as my wife and her newfound Anglo friends looked on. Judge all they want; it wasn’t their name that was said over the ghost radio. What if the spirit thought it was a request line? Hell no, pa’ya, pa’ya (away, away).

By the time I got back to the hotel, I collapsed into bed. I thought I would be plagued by nightmares, but I slept soundly. The next morning, we woke up, well-rested and hungry, and ready to explore more of Savannah.

Haunt 3: The Mercer Williams House

“Grab the camera, please,” she called out from the bathroom.

I walked over to the desk to find the camera in its place, only it was on and displaying one of the photos taken at the warehouse. It was blurred with a single orb in the center.

“Were you looking at our photos from last night?” I asked already knowing the answer.

“No, why?”

“The camera is haunted,” I said defeated.

I carefully pressed the off button and watched the display disappear and the lens fall back into place. I slipped the camera in my jacket pocket and, although I felt uneasy about what just happened, I decided to put the scary stuff out of my mind. It was daylight and Savannah was my oyster. I was going to eat, drink, explore, and promenade with the best of them.

“Ready for the Mercer House?” she asked.

And so, we set off to the mansion that is the setting of the murder in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, where ghosts are allegedly most active during the month of December.

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