Leaves rustle across the cracked sidewalk. The wind blows cold on a small group of people huddled in the shadows under the Battery Park Apartment building. A man wearing a Panama hat gestures at the windows. He tells the tale of a brutal murder that happened here in 1936, and the lingering aftereffects that may have led people to jump off the roof to their deaths.
When the man finishes speaking, the group—equal parts locals and tourists—stands for a moment in silence. Then its members scurry to the nearest tavern to calm their shivers with a whiskey or beer.
Welcome to the Haunted Asheville Pub Crawl.
Asheville has a haunted reputation. While it’s not quite New Orleans (reputed to be one of the most haunted cities on earth), but ghosts per square mile are higher than the norm, according to local ghost-tour guides.
At least three tour companies offer a nightly variety of ghost tours. Most take place downtown, although trolley tours drive the morbidly intrigued to the haunted Grove Park Inn and Helen’s Bridge.
Downtown is apparently full of ghosts, so you don’t have to walk or “crawl” far to find spooky stories. As Asheville’s No. 1 paranormal investigator (and ghost-tour operator) Joshua P. Warren likes to say, “Things die slowly in the mountains.”
Warren’s tours of Asheville have been popular since their introduction in 1996. In June, Warren added an adults-only tour—an R-rated Haunted Asheville Pub Crawl, which has since become his most requested tour.
The pub crawl typically begins at Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria, site of outlaw Will Harris’ 1906 six-person killing spree (visit mountainx.com to see a video of tour guide Christopher McCollum telling some of the story, including Harris’ own gruesome demise).
Depending on the drinking interests of the pub crawl’s participants, the tour hits a variety of local watering holes in addition to Barley’s, including Zambra, Carmel’s, Hannah Flanagan’s, The Thirsty Monk and The Asheville Yacht Club. Some taverns reside on haunted ground, some provide respite between ghost-story stops, and Zambra sells a liquor that may help you see dead people.
The pub stops alternate with sordid tales told on Church Street, in front of the WPVM radio station and the Jackson Building, as well as near the Grove Arcade. Next time you’re eating at the Grove Arcade’s restaurant row, remember that there may be a corpse walled up in the basement beneath your feet.
Interesting historical tidbits about Asheville accompany the gore and ghouls, such as the history of various buildings and the story of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s friendship with a store owner from whom he bought cigarettes on Haywood Street.
“It’s a cool way to get to know Asheville—you get the historical aspects and get to look at the architectural details,” says Beth Buck of Raleigh, at the end of the Haunted Asheville tour.
Her brother-in-law, Malcolm Buck of Atlanta, has attended several ghost tours, including ones in Wilmington and Phoenix. He claims Warren’s tour is “one of the best.”
Courting the green fairy (or ghost)
Before visiting the former Battery Park Hotel, site of Helen Clevenger’s murder, the tour group stops at Zambra. Absinthe, a spirit renowned for its potential to produce both courage and visions, is one of the bar’s specialties. Absinthe contains up to 75 percent alcohol and was banned in the United States from 1915 until 2007 because of its supposed psychoactive properties.
McCollum believes absinthe, often called “The Green Fairy” because of the drink’s color, can heighten one’s abilities to sense the paranormal.
He says a number of people have been startled when they’ve thought they’ve seen someone jumping from the Battery Park building, only to discover (often after calling 911) that they’d seen something otherworldly.
Until last year, it’s doubtful absinthe could have been a cause. McCollum says he’s observed paranormal activity twice at the building, and absinthe wasn’t involved.
Which doesn’t mean a few ounces of the stuff won’t mess with your head or your heart once the stories of specters start swirling.
“One of the most haunted areas of Asheville is Church Street,” declares McCollum, as he strides across the street lit mostly by old-fashioned lights affixed to arched church doorways.
That’s because Church Street’s asphalt may cover a number of unmarked graves, the tour guide reveals. Yet another reason may be the story McCollum tells: In the early 1900s, a pregnant nun was murdered by her lover, a minister. He secretly buried her between the two ancient trees that front what’s now Central United Methodist Church. McCollum says there’ve been numerous sightings of a ghostly female figure pacing between the trees.
Deb Maddox, Haunted Asheville and Ghost Hunters of Asheville tour guide, carries a notebook of ghostly photos and proffers two she says were taken on Church Street. They include incorporeal figures and bright fuzzy lights against a dark sky. Maddox swears the photos were not altered in any way.
The tours promise you’ll capture some kind of ghostly activity if you bring your digital camera, though this photographer had no such luck.
The walking part of the tour lasts about 45 minutes, but the drinking stops can increase the timing of the pub crawl from 2-1/2 to 4 hours. McCollum says he’s along for the ride, however long it may take, and he’s eager to share Haunted Asheville ghost stories late into the night.
[Anne Fitten Glenn is an Asheville-based freelance writer and blogger.]