I believe in ghosts.
It might seem an obvious point to start with but, in all honesty, working for Ghost City Tours has only made me more aware of the fact that we are not alone. Cue, my first ghost hunting experience at the former Wax Conti Museum with my coworkers: I am only slightly embarrassed to admit that when my boss, paranormal investigator Tim Nealon, started playing an exorcism recording to lure out the entity at the museum, I clapped my hands over my ears and whispered the mantra, "I am not here, I am not here, I am not here."
Yeah, I was that girl.
So, after that first jaunt into what I like to think of as the "real" paranormal world, you can imagine my enthusiasm when my General Manager, Gretchen, sent out an email to the Ghost City NOLA Crew that they'd decided to open up 1022 Royal Street for us to investigate. They wanted us all to experience how our Local New Orleans Ghost Hunts operate, both for our own paranormal education but so that we could provide a better experience for our guests.
Thing was, I'd spoken with our guides, Michael Bill and Elaine, about the activity which transpires on the regular at the location. I knew all about the little girl, Chloe, who enjoys the candy that the guides bring her as a thank-you for whenever she puts on a paranormal performance for guests. Chloe's spirit, I wasn't worried about. Then there was a ghost named Johnny, who died in the 1850s by a gunshot wound. Bleeding, he dragged himself from the scene of the crime two blocks away to the front steps of 1022 Royal. He died there, leaving no remaining evidence as to whom had shot him or why he'd chosen 1022 Royal as his final destination. Johnny I didn't fear too much either. After all, Michael Bill and Elaine commonly bring him cigarette lighters because he enjoys the flicker of the flame.
No, my internal fear stemmed from the so-called spirit named Samuel. Otherwise known as Belial, one of Satan's crew members. I remembered the stories of a doppleganger imitating Tim's physical body on the first night that he and Gretchen held the first paranormal investigation there. I remembered how, not long ago, one of the guests on the ghost hunt awoke to find three slashes on his shoulder with no recollection of how it got there. The shadows; the dark, guttural EVPs that have been caught.
Yeah, I remembered all of that.
I went to the hunt anyway.
There's no "i" in "team," right?
I'd been tasked with taking photos for our blog. For everyone else, though, the hunt was on.
Monique had brought mini-mufalleta sandwiches, and chips with its necessary salsa dip. The rest of us had brought ourselves. It was a mix of office staff—Brandon, Alex, Gretchen and Tim—and some of our tour guides, including Monique, Randy, John, Michael Bill and Elaine.
Throw a bunch of tour guides and people with loads of personality and you can imagine that it took us a while to start going. But soon enough, Michael Bill and Elaine were showing us all of the proper equipment and I was trying to angle the camera for the perfect shot. They went through the steps they take in explaining guests about the history of the building, as well as to properly use the ghost hunting equipment.
"It's an ghost hunting experience," Michael Bill told us, "But it's also an educational tour. How do I find ghosts? We can't guarantee activity, but guests learn everything about the property and also how to investigate a haunted location."
It was then that I felt it first. A light brushing on the top of my head, as though someone had taken the tip of their finger and stroked my scalp along the part of my hair. Instinctively I shifted my grip on the camera and reached up to touch the top of my head. My gaze darted over my shoulder but my back was to the antique bookcase. No one else was looking at me and I immediately felt that awkward bubble of laughter threatening the escape, the sort of laughter that is rooted in feeling out of your comfort zone.
I forced myself to pay attention to Michael Bill and Elaine. They were here five nights a week—if whatever was in the house was that bad I figured they would have called it quits by then.
Satisfied by my non-answer for whatever had touched me, I listened as Elaine explained the house's history. We hold the hunt in the exterior courtyard and its neighboring dependency, which would have once been the main house's kitchen and its slave quarters. A brick fireplace separated the two halves of the room on the first floor, which was rather common for the 19th century, and the walls were paneled with dark wood. We learned that the property was once a hospital for a small period of time, it was built in the early 1800s, and how a small dig in the outer courtyard revealed a pit of bones.
"Maria, come here."
I looked past where Gretchen stood to see Tim motioning me over. In one hand he held the massive Roland audio recorder, which had the ability to hear a pin drop from a mile away; in the other, he extended out his headphones.
"Listen," he told me. Shifting the camera under my arm, I pulled on the headphones. There was Elaine talking; Randy making a sly quip; Monique's full-belly laughter; and then . . .
It sounded far away, beneath the blankets and layers of conversation, but so very close all at once. As though the female voice had emanated from a different plane but was interested in joining the conversation. From the small snippet of her voice, I sensed distinct bossiness. As if this was a woman who in life had always gotten her way and who wasn't at all amused by our talk of ghosts and hauntings.
Her dry "so what" was strangely apropos: here we were ready to conduct a ghost hunt. We were geared up on the anticipation of catching activity, of perhaps experiencing something otherworldly and unexplainable. But for this spirit, whomever she was, she had already crossed over to the other side. The mystery of Death was already over for her. Old news, like a week-old, crumpled newspaper that served no purpose when the information was stale.
As a group, we were largely torn between wanting to hang out together, and to separate and go off in groups to commence with the investigation.
Hence, for the first few minutes we wandered like headless chickens in the dark courtyard. We couldn't see anything that wasn't less than a foot in front of us, and I flicked my camcorder on to provide some sort of light. The darkness was disorienting. Above us, a skylight circled in the heavy cloud coverage; in the distance I could hear drunks shuffling on the street.
"How was your tour last night?" said one of the guides.
Someone else asked, "Did you know that there isn't much evidence of an intelligent haunting at the Beauregard-Keyes House?"
Then, amidst the conversation, Tim posed the question: "Do you like any of the new people we brought with us tonight?"
Myself and Randy paused in our own conversation to watch Tim in the dim light. A smile breaking on his face, he turned to Gretchen and urged her to listen.
I looked at Randy. "Tim is literally the ghost whisperer," I said. Perhaps it's the fact that he has been a professional paranormal investigator for over a decade that gives him a leg up on communicating with the spirits. Or perhaps it's just that he's got so many other ghosts with him at all times, that new ones think to myself, "I want to join too."
Gretchen's expression was one of acceptance, because since working for Ghost City she, too, has become something of an elite ghost whisperer.
"Hey, Alex, come here."
Alex was one of our new customer service representatives in New Orleans. But she went over to Tim anyway, her shoes moving silently over the bricked courtyard. "Yeah?"
"Listen to this," Tim said.
Gripping the headphones in one hand, Alex commented, "I've always got one with me."
My curiosity piqued and I reminded myself to ask her about that later, but at that moment I could only wait as she listened to the EVP. I saw the exact moment she heard whatever it was, because her expression crumpled and her shoulders shot back as though jolted with an electrical current.
"Want me to play it again?"
Alex nodded. Paused. Waited. Her shoulders caved this time, twisting as she yanked the headphones off. "It was so distinct," she muttered as she stepped back. Her head snapped toward Gretchen. "Can I smoke out here? I need . . . I just need something." After being given the thumbs up from Gretchen, Alex removed herself from the group and took a seat on one of the benches on the perimeter of the courtyard.
What had caused Alex to withdraw like that? When Randy and I were given the opportunity to listen to the EVP, it didn't take long to realize why Alex had reacted so strongly.
For at 1:50 into the recording, there was Tim's voice asking, "Do you like any of the new people we brought with us tonight?"
And then at 1:56, in a breathy and ghostly girlish voice, was the single word: "Alex."
Chills broke out down my spine as I peered past Michael Bill and John talking ghosts to where Alex still sat on the bench, her body drawn up against one side as though if she tried hard enough she could make herself invisible to the spirits who had joined us on our hunt.
Michael Bill and Elaine always say that at 1022 Royal, the ghosts—Chloe, Johnny, and yes, even Samuel—are their coworkers. And as good colleagues often do, they were greeting us. It seemed they had a favorite.
According to Elaine, the most haunted area in the dependency is the upstairs space of what was once the old slave quarters. On a bright and sunny day, I suspected that the interior of the two rooms would be dreary at best. At night, with only the moonlight to guide us, the upstairs area was a maze of darkness and shadows and secrets.
The five of us—Brandon, Alex, John and Elaine–retreated to the bed on the far side of the room to conduct an EVP session. There's something to be said for sitting quietly in an otherwise dead-silent room. There was the rasp of our shoes sliding along the original hardwood floors; the creak of the mattress as one of us adjusted our position; the gurgle of someone's belly, followed by the apologetic, "Sorry, y'all, I'm hungry."
Call it stupid, but I felt as though it was us against the unknown. We were in it together, for better or for worse, and my nerves eased somewhat knowing that I wasn't alone on that bed. In that room. With Samuel, or Belial, or whatever else he often goes by.
The EVP session started out much like a speed dating trial run:
"Is anyone here?" Pause.
"Have we spoken to you before?" Pause.
"Is Chloe here with us?" Pause.
My head pounded fiercely, where my third eye would be. The sensation was oppressive, eliciting the sensation that I was caged in. From what I'd heard, Chloe was a gentle spirit, more prone to silly paranormal games like when Michael Bill or Elaine set up all of the MEL meters on the property and "chase" her as she makes them beep. This feeling in the upstairs, as we sat on the bed altogether, was darker in nature.
I voiced my concern, prompting Elaine to ask, "Are you with us, Samuel?"
The bed dipped beside me, and I could have sworn I heard someone gulp.
"Samuel, are here? If you are, make your presence known now." Elaine's voice was an order, a demand, and sure enough, the MEL meter sprung to life, chirping like a newborn bird. I swung my camcorder to my left, angling it so that the meter was in direct sight.
"Samuel, turn it off."
The spirit complied and the meter promptly shut up.
Torn between feeling impressed and the more inclusive feeling of fear, I sat perfectly still. The door to the upstairs cracked open and the night vision on my camcorder illuminated Tim's silhouette on the square screen. If it were possible, the pressure on my head increased and I felt the incessant need to focus my camcorder on the meters again. With Tim's presence acting like a beacon to spirits on the regular, I had no doubt that Samuel, or whomever had joined us, would not stray from the norm.
I was correct.
For the next twenty minutes (or longer, it was difficult to track the passage of time), Elaine and Tim took turns asking the spirit questions. Some were taunting in an attempt to make him interact with us; others were formed out mere curiosity. But one thing was certain: the spirit felt as though it was intimidating, that it could perhaps do us harm . . .
Neither Tim, nor Elaine, thought it could.
"I think you just want to pretend you're tough. You aren't tough, though. You couldn't do anything to me. I don't believe in you."
Demons, Tim meant. He didn't believe in demons.
I did, however, and was quick to send up a prayer to the High Heavens to keep me safe. But bravery is handy thing, sometimes drawn from spirits (alcoholic) and other times drawn from adrenaline. When I opened my mouth to speak, I was bolstered by the latter: "Are you friends with the owner of this house?"
At that moment, Elaine and I heard what sounded like a distinctive knock. And Tim immediately lifted his headphones to tell us, "When you asked that . . . there was a male's voice that said, "It's me.'"
The MEL meter was beeping incessantly, only hushing when Elaine would order the spirit to make it stop or when she blatantly said, "The beeping is annoying, Samuel. Turn that thing off. Now."
And after that? Silence. The oppressive feeling in my head released and I inhaled the musty, humid air through my nose. With the camcorder as my eyesight, I panned to the left. Panned to the right. Not that I had expected to, but I saw nothing. Through the night vision, all I saw were a collage of gray and black shadows, as well as the Colgate-whites of my coworker's eyes. Were they all just as shocked as me that we had captured so much paranormal activity during our session? I wanted to ask them what they thought, especially those who hadn't been on a ghost hunt before, but there was something telling in the silence.
As though we all agreed that Samuel's presence had riled us, but that it was best not to speak of him in case he decided to reappear again.
I can't say that I was all that upset at the realization that Samuel had taken his leave for the night.
By the end of the evening, at around 2AM, we were all mingling in the courtyard. The living, I mean, though it's a good possibility that the dead were with us too.
We'd given up the pretense of investigating the location as we had for the last three hours, and decided simply to talk. Funny how you can take a bunch of paranormal enthusiasts, give them full leave to investigate to their heart's content, and yet they choose to talk to each other instead.
Irony at its finest.
But as we stood around talking, I had the sliver of realization that this was why we'd banded together tonight. Sure, there was the hope that we'd catch ghostly activity at what I largely consider to be one of the most haunted places in the French Quarter, but in reality getting together was a way for all to hang out. I wanted to hear all about the new stop Michael Bill had added to his tour; I wanted to talk to John about his passion for travel; I wanted to listen as Monique discussed how New Orleans' Cities of the Dead were here particular favorite.
In the dead of night, the New Orleans Ghost City Crew had come together to find ghosts . . . and yet we found each other instead.
(Did you feel slightly nauseous at that cheesy last line? Good. Mission Accomplished).
Till next time, Stay Spooky, y'all
Also: We should have gotten a photo of the group of us.