Any old ghost can haunt a house—and some don’t require even that much real estate. I lived in one West Asheville apartment for six years, despite a thick, uneasy presence. If you stood at the kitchen sink for any length of time, you found yourself whipping your head around in defensive confusion—the better to catch an encroaching something sneaking up from behind.
But your more ambitious apparitions won’t be contained by four walls. The battlefield at Gettysburg, for example, makes the lists of “America’s most haunted places” more routinely than any mansion or hotel. Western North Carolina, home to its own Civil War horrors, claims a share of spooky spots: Judaculla Rock in Jackson County, a soapstone boulder covered in fading petroglyphs; the famed Brown Mountain Lights near Morganton, an unexplained natural light show of dancing, twirling, white-and-red orbs; and über-eerie Helen’s Bridge on Beaucatcher Mountain, where a grief-stricken woman hanged herself after her daughter died. Helen’s spirit still lingers in the area today, allegedly draining car batteries, appearing when summoned and generally scaring the poop out of passers-by.
Asheville’s own Ichabod
But what of WNC’s lesser-known outdoor haunts? Asheville Paranormal Society founder Sarah Harrison offers a few scary leads.
Because of its famous residents (including O. Henry and Thomas Wolfe), Montford’s Riverside Cemetery tends to get all the tourist-rag ink. But the real ghosts hang out at Lewis Memorial Park Cemetery on Beaverdam Road in north Asheville. In the older parts of the graveyard, workers have reported seeing and hearing a ghostly horse and rider (not to mention a phantom dog). “They believe it’s the man who donated the land for the cemetery,” Harrison explains. Robert J. Lewis was the funeral director who commissioned the building of the park in 1927. His spirit demonstrates that workaholics die hard.
Not the best place to party
More sinister is what Harrison simply calls the “haunted picnic area” on the Pisgah Highway (N.C. 151)—a tight, scenic coil of mountain road that bleeds into the Blue Ridge Parkway. You’ll find the Buncombe County picnic shelter on the left, about six miles south of the Smoky Park Highway.
“Many years ago, during the moonshine and Depression eras, it had a reputation as a place [where] people dumped bodies,” says Harrison. And in 1996, the body of visiting Philadelphia resident Judy Smith was discovered near the picnic shelter. The murder case remains unsolved. Nighttime revelers have reported being chased into the woods by apparitions, including that of a man and a small boy, and members of Harrison’s paranormal-investigation team heard ghostly footsteps, she says. “It’s very uncomfortable there. Walking from the parking lot, you get a tight, claustrophobic feeling.”
Another grave situation in Shelton Laurel
Ten years ago, members of the League of Energy Materialization and Unexplained phenomena Research wanted to locate and explore the hidden mass grave of the 13 men and boys who died in the January 1863 Shelton Laurel Massacre. Headed by local ghost-authority-turned-international-paranormal-consultant Joshua Warren, LEMUR’s findings sent shivers down my spine.
During the Civil War, a group of Shelton Laurel men and boys needed salt to preserve game for winter food supplies, but a downtown-Marshall shopkeeper refused to sell it because he suspected they were Union loyalists—a common charge in the remote mountains during the war. When the salt went missing, the group was accused of stealing it, and they were rounded up. The plan was to march them to trial in Knoxville. Instead, not far from their homes, Col. James A. Keith executed all of them. When one of the wives discovered the massacre site, hogs were devouring the bodies.
“Haunting phenomena are most pronounced in areas where extreme emotion has been expended,” says Warren. “And war is as extreme as it gets.” Although a state historical marker acknowledges the event, the exact location of the buried dead is not identified. After coaxing directions from locals (no easy task, though Warren notes, “My family has lived in [WNC] since the 1600s”), the ghost hunter and his crew were directed to a small, derelict graveyard.
A single slate marker noted where the 13 victims lay. But the strangest thing to Warren was a house, not too old, that looked as if it had been built inside the cemetery. “It wasn’t even 20 feet away from the graves,” he says.
What happened to Warren and LEMUR in that graveside house that night is a story too lush in gory details to be told here. Warren’s short version is this: He and his crew have not been back, and he declares the grassy knoll and its environs “one of the truly creepiest places I have ever been to.” And this from a guy who’s spent whole nights in some of the world’s most notorious haunted houses and hotels.
Over the years, artsy types have occasionally been drawn to the Shelton Laurel Massacre, yielding a play and a short film. But that’s not enough for Warren, who stresses the incident’s unique historical context: Internal strife over desertion made that part of WNC “a particularly treacherous area during the Civil War,” he says. That context and the life stories of its key players are often glossed over, says Warren.
“It’s one of the most interesting, tragic untold stories of that war,” he asserts. Add to that what LEMUR team members saw, and the chills don’t stop. Warren cautions, “There are so many details that people still don’t know.”
To learn more about Warren, local ghosts and LEMUR’s work, visit www.joshuapwarren.com.
[Melanie McGee Bianchi is a stay-at-home mom and freelance journalist.]