The ghosts of Erwin High

The statue of its much-attacked Indian mascot looms above Erwin High School’s campus, a symbol of the disquiet that seems perpetually to afflict the school.

Psychic scars here are still fresh from the bitter, but never satisfactorily resolved, controversy that culminated in the ousting of Principal Mal Brown. The football team is notorious for its intractable losing streaks — such as the record-setting 33 consecutive defeats it suffered from 1991 to 1995.

And to cap — or perhaps explain — Erwin’s ill-starred reputation, the school is infamously said to be haunted. Teachers, students and custodians say they have witnessed pictures jump off classroom walls, doors slam when no one’s there, televisions turn on unexpectedly and trash cans move inexplicably around.

Erwin High School could inspire a Poltergeist sequel.

Walk around behind the mascot figure and between the tennis courts that will be demolished this summer to make way for a new performing-arts center, climb the hill that rises above the bleachers of the football stadium and the third-story rooftop of the school building, and you will come upon the lonely little field that many folks say is the reason for the black cloud hanging over Erwin High. On a moonlit night, as I discovered a couple of years ago, you can walk over the uneven ground and see bare spots in the grass that are shaped uncannily like human bodies.

Most of the school employees who’ve witnessed weird goings-on nearby didn’t want a reporter to use their names. They’re more afraid of the living than of the dead, concerned that Buncombe County School District might put an untimely end to their careers.

And they’ll hasten to assure you that there could be conventional explanations for what looked, sounded and felt to them for all the world like … well, ghosts. One former employee, for example, chalks up unexplained footsteps to wayward dogs or trespassers, and even a paranormal researcher wonders whether it’s easier to explain the football team’s losses as something otherworldly rather than simply admitting Erwin had a bad team.

Development … or desecration?

This small knoll, watched over by a couple of ancient oaks, is all that remains of a century-old “potters’ field” — the final place of rest for the poor, homeless, neglected, racially despised, or otherwise discarded elderly people whom Buncombe officials housed in the Old County Home that once stood nearby. In 1973, when the Buncombe County Board of Education decided to build a new campus for Erwin High School, it ordered the old paupers’ graveyard dug up and carted off to make room for the massive new school building, which was completed four years later.

“My first thought was they didn’t need to move [the graveyard] in the first place,” recalls a retired assistant principal who worked for 17 years at the old campus (now Erwin Middle School, on the opposite side of the football stadium) and 18 years at the new one. (Like many of the people interviewed who are still associated with the school, he asked not to be named.) “None of the school is [directly] built on it. The cemetery was between the fence of the football field and down onto the bank right above the third floor of the school. In my opinion, they could [have] built [the school] in there and never had to move any of [the graveyard].”

According to 1973 reports in the Asheville Citizen-Times, many other locals, including several Buncombe County commissioners, objected strongly to what they saw as a sacrilege and a needless expense.

But move it, the school board did — most of it, anyway. (The lonely hill was left untouched.) According to the retired school official, the board hired Phillip Ellen Contractors, Inc., whose crew traveled around the country removing cemeteries from the unsentimental path of progress — using little more than shovels and mattocks, a bulldozer, and a cable winch for pulling up coffins and vaults. The remains were re-interred on a hillside behind West Buncombe Elementary School, just across Lees Creek Road from the high school, under military-style rows of identical white crosses.

Some coffins were marked by tombstones, says the retired school official, because the cemetery had been used by local families before the county took it over. (The official believes it was founded in the late 1800s by the Rhodes family. The Buncombe County Home for the Aged — nicknamed the Old County Home — was built in 1906, according to records in Pack Memorial Library.) Others were sealed in stone vaults, which the grave un-diggers removed intact.

Most of the graves, however, were unmarked, including those containing victims of a tuberculosis epidemic who died at a TB sanatorium; the brick building that housed the sanatorium still stands near the current middle school. The contractors searched for the unmarked gravesites by plunging a T-handled rod into the ground and feeling for soft spots. As the number of graves they excavated rose from their initial estimate of only 200 to at least 1,000, the gruesome toil aroused morbid curiosity.

“I did get the job of having to sit over there at lunch time and keep people away,” recalls the retired school official. “I sat over on top of the hill under that big tree … smoking a pipe, and said, ‘You get back to school!’ It wasn’t just students, either. Teachers [were] coming, too. I tried not to see what [the contractors] were doing.”

Some of those who did look, however, told paranormal researcher Joshua Warren (as reported in his book, Haunted Asheville) that they were horrified to see corpses pulled up that had apparently had nothing but blankets wrapped around them. The contractors dumped the anonymous remains — most of which were badly decomposed — into little wooden boxes, many only three feet long. Also according to Warren’s research, a county commissioner, R. Curtis Ratcliff, reported that he saw workers punch a hole in a coffin, drag out a skull, and throw it on the ground; some of its false teeth fell out, and its hair fell off. An anonymous teacher claimed to have seen a coffin opened that contained the remains of a woman with flowing red hair, dressed in an old gown, and cradling in her arms a small corpse that appeared to be a stillborn baby.

It was after students got hold of some of the skulls and began playing pranks with them, Warren reports, that the strange phenomena at Erwin began flaring up.

They’re ba-a-ack

“The elevator goes up and down by itself all the time. You’ll be taking a break or something, and it’ll just take off and do its own thing.”

In the several years R___ has worked as a custodian at Erwin, he’s never literally seen a ghost, but he and his co-workers have observed plenty of goosebump-raising phenomena in the cavernous school building that they can’t otherwise explain.

“C___, he just started in January,” relates R___. “One evening, his first weekend, we were downstairs in the lunchroom in his part of the building. He let me out the front door to go to the gym. All these doors are padlocked. He went to the closet, and when he came back out, two trash cans were out in the middle of the lunchroom floor. That just freaked him out. He said, ‘You playing tricks on me?’ I said, ‘You just chained me outside the door. How am I going to get back in?'” (C___ independently confirmed the experience.)

One Friday, the rest of the school was at the football stadium for the homecoming game. R___ and two other custodians were taking a break on the sofas in the library. Upstairs from the library, as R___ showed this reporter, is a large common area lined with about a half dozen heavy wooden doors that open onto hallways. That day, the janitors had all the doors propped open.

“We were sitting downstairs, and we heard all the doors slam, just like that. We thought, it couldn’t have been the cannon [fired when somebody on the home team makes a touchdown], because our football team’s not the greatest.”

They ran upstairs, and discovered that all the doors were closed.

R___ demonstrated how the beefy shock absorbers on each of the doors prevent them from being slammed — by physical pranksters, at any rate.

So infamous is Erwin’s spectral school spirit that, for one half-time show during the football team’s losing streak in the early 1990s, the marching band conducted a mock exorcism. (The team still lost, though.)

One Erwin legend recounted by two of the custodians is that Mal Brown was in the building alone one night when he heard boots treading along the floor overhead. When he rushed to investigate, the story goes, he found no one. It’s said that this happened very shortly before the superintendent transferred him out of Erwin in the wake of an extended controversy over alleged financial improprieties. Brown was found not guilty in court, he then filed a lawsuit against the board and others. (Brown couldn’t be reached to confirm the ghost tale.)

The custodians, who frequently work in the building late at night when no one else is present, report that the building’s motion-detector alarms often go off, but neither they nor the police who respond to the alarm can find any fleshly culprits.

The former assistant principal, however, is sure he knows what set off the burglar alarms when he patrolled the building at night — and he’s not talking about supernatural visitors.

“It was always a four-legged one … or two-legged one running down the hall when the alarm went off. It wasn’t a ghost. …. They were breathing and their pulse was beating.

“If you get in that old big building at night, and those steel beams, all that big stuff, and it’s 28 degrees outside, and it’s cooling off, and you hear that ‘crack, clunk’ … in buildings like that, you’re going to hear stuff like that. Far as I’m concerned, that’s a lot of bull.”

Animals abandoned by pet owners on the grounds of the Humane Society next door to the school account for many of the phenomena, he believes. And it may not be spirits of the rudely disinterred dead that are acting out their revenge on the school, he hypothesizes, but their living relatives.

“There are people that still live and had loved ones buried and moved. I’m just about sure that they’re not happy about that,” he said, citing one relative who came out from California looking for his grandparents’ graves shortly before the administrator retired. The relative was very upset to discover they’d been moved. “I didn’t see, and I don’t believe in any of those ghost tales that I’ve heard other people relate.”

But another former Erwin teacher and administrator does believe some of those tales, because they happened to him.

“There have been two occasions that I know of where there have been pictures hanging on the wall that, for no reason at all, just fell off — and fell off in such a way that they didn’t fall straight down, but they fell out and away from the wall,” the former employee explained. “There again you could always explain that maybe somebody was doing something on the other side of the wall that maybe forced them off.”

R___ adds, however, that these pictures flew off the wall while the former employee was teaching in a classroom with the reputation of being the most haunted in the school (located right next to the grave-filled hill), and that one of them narrowly missed an assistant teacher’s head.

In the same room, recounts the former employee, “I’ve seen the VCR eject a videotape that had been in all day long and not been played, and the VCR just without any warning automatically popped the tape out. Now I’m sure probably somebody could explain how the thing turned itself on, because it was off. Then again it could have been somebody out in the hallway I wasn’t aware of playing a trick on me. You have to take it with a grain of salt.”

R___ was cleaning up in that room one night recently when, “Bleep! [The] TV comes on. That happened twice.” The TV is used to show educational programs during homeroom; that night it showed only static.

A student of the unexplained

Directly across a narrow hallway from Room 3212, paranormal researcher Joshua Warren gives a talk on his work once a year to the very same psychology teacher’s class that he attended when he was a student at Erwin.

“Interestingly enough, there have been occasions when I’ve been in front of the classroom demonstrating some of my equipment and, right in the midst, picked up some sort of anomalous activity. It was a great live demonstration!”

While still a senior at Erwin (class of 1995), Warren wrote Haunted Asheville, a book about Asheville’s best-known ghosts and spooky sites, including not only a thorough documentation of the grave-gouging history of his alma mater, but also the Pink Lady of the Grove Park Inn and the haunted headquarters of WLOS-TV. The book’s publication the next year immediately made him a local celebrity.

What sets Haunted Asheville apart from the usual collection of Appalachian “haint” tales is that it describes the research Warren and a team of fellow parapsychologists conducted on these spectral phenomena — measurements, photographs, eyewitness accounts and so on.

Today, Warren is a very active paranormal investigator who says he researches all unexplained phenomena, but specializes in studying ghostly activity.

“When I wrote the [book] in 1995, a lot of technology was not yet developed,” he says. “It’s amazing how much [paranormal research] technology has been developed in the last few years.” Now that he’s got the tools, he’d like to do a thorough study of Erwin’s haunted halls.

“I think that it would be good to spend an entire night there in the school and really monitor all the energy levels, do infrared and ultraviolet photography, and see if we could document anything scientifically.”

What does this technology — which includes measuring and recording various parts of the electromagnetic fields and various parts of the audio spectrum that can’t ordinarily be detected by the human eye and ear — show when a ghost is supposedly passing by?

“One of the most basic telltale signs of a ghost is an extreme anomalous fluctuation in electromagnetic fields,” Warren explains. “Electromagnetic fields are produced by all things, living and non-living, to some degree. But they are especially enhanced around living things, and particularly humans. I have meters that will register the field of energy around your body, and it’s quite clearly an organically generated field because of the way it moves. If you take these same meters, place them in an area that is supposed to be haunted, and monitor it remotely while you are nowhere around it, oftentimes the meter will respond just like it’s responding to a human body — but again, no one is there.”

Warren says he approaches the controversial subject of spectral evidence “as any good paranormal researcher would do it: You don’t have an idea of what you’re going to find necessarily. I’m not going out there to prove what I believe — that there’s this or there’s that — I simply go out and see what I can record in the objective environment.”

He’s been speaking at Erwin about paranormal topics every year since he was a freshman, and he praises the school for the fact that no one associated with it has ever tried to censor him. In fact, since his book came out, people have become much more open-minded, he notices, and more willing to volunteer their experiences.

All the same, he’s well aware that many people see more to ghosts than a spike on an electromagnetic meter. Some have very strong opinions on what ghosts’ existence implies about the nature of the human soul.

“Obviously, when you’re talking about ghosts and spirituality, there’s always a certain segment of the population that considers that to be satanic or some kind of a horrible negative thing, which in fact it’s not at all. And so you have to contend with that perspective as well.

“Everybody knows what a problem it is to bring up anything in schools which may have a religious connotation. And this whole concept of death, dying, the afterlife, what may or may not happen to you, is very tightly connected to religion. That’s [one] reason why it’s difficult to do this kind of research at a school.”

Another reason for that difficulty is — well, this particular school. Did he ever hear much talk as a student about the “curse” on Erwin? He was there, after all, during the football team’s most dispiriting run of defeats.

“There were certainly people who told me there could be some sort of a dark cloud hanging over the team because of the location. I guess that’s probably the preferred theory over just having a bad team.

“One of the reasons I didn’t go back later on [after writing the book] and pursue the location that much is because there was always some kind of a controversy going on there, which was their top priority at the time. I never felt like there was a time when I could just step in and do something that controversial.”

So as an expert in this field, just what does Warren think is going on at Erwin? And — although this doesn’t appear to be in the cards — what might happen if the upcoming construction of the performing-arts center were to disturb the hundreds of graves that remain in the hill beside the tennis courts?

“I think really the situation at Erwin is your perfect sort of dynamic for a good ghost story. Everybody’s familiar with this idea of tearing up the old cemetery where the forgotten souls are buried, and disturbing perhaps the only peaceful slumber they’ve ever received. It’s very traditional that if you disturb a cemetery, especially one of that caliber, that it also stirs up paranormal activity.

“We can’t necessarily say scientifically exactly what is happening in that situation, but it seems pretty clear that if you do believe in spiritual activity, they [would be] disturbing ground which perhaps should not be disturbed. I’m not saying that should prevent them from doing it — that’s not a practical way of looking at it — but it might explain why the activity is prevalent.”

Warren points out that, as a researcher, he would actually welcome such a disturbance — it would give him a chance to study ghostly phenomena while they are especially stirred up.

But Warren probably won’t get that particular opportunity. According to one of the custodians (who didn’t wish to be named), engineers made some test drills into the hilltop a few years ago to find out whether it was structurally suitable to be graded and turned into a soccer field. (Currently, the field is used only for storing a couple of portable soccer nets.) The drill hit way too many hollow pockets, he said, for the ground to support any athletic field or, for that matter, any building.

Marshall Robert of the Buncombe County School District Facilities Department didn’t have to be told why this reporter was asking him whether the construction of the performing-arts center this summer would impinge on the little hill with the old oak trees. He assured me that the project will be strictly limited to the footprint of the tennis courts — which, as the retired assistant principal had confirmed, was never part of the cemetery.

“We know about the history of the graves [there],” Roberts emphasized. “We’re going to be very careful not to disturb any gravesites.”

[Joshua Warren will sponsor a paranormal conference at the Grove Park Inn Jan. 10-13, 2003. For more information, see his Web site, www.phantoms.cc.]

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