People love looking for ghosts and spirits around Halloween. I think I've figured out why.
The transition of seasons at the end of October is historically viewed as a bridge to the world of the dead, when the deceased can come back to life and roam the world of the living.
It's also deliciously cool in October, and cool weather is the perfect time to look for ghosts.
September in the Lowcountry is not.
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A few weeks ago, I found myself on the fourth floor of Moon River Brewing Company in Savannah, a hot, sticky attic space in one of the most haunted buildings in the U.S.
Two TV shows have been filmed at Moon River, "Ghost Hunters" and "Ghost Adventures."
I was there to witness the filming of a third.
The Research Investigation of Paranormal Hunters (RIP Hunters for short) are an organized team of professional and amateur spirit-sleuthers from Orlando, Fla. The group had driven from the Sunshine State to the famous brewpub to film for a potential new show on the Discovery Channel.
"Other TV shows that have come have had some pretty crazy things happen, so I'm excited to see what they come up with," said Josh Winters, the manager at Moon River, a few days before the investigation.
When the Travel Channel's "Ghost Adventures" investigated the brewery in 2009, a team member was momentarily possessed -- supposedly.
Winters has had some strange encounters as well, but he finds the overnights fun rather than frightening, he said.
"The top floors are definitely scarier. They're not open to the public, so there are never people up there, which increases the creep factor."
The leader of the RIP Hunters' paranormal investigation was Mike Damsel, a tall, restless man who talked rapidly and matter-of-factly about the existence of spirits.
Damsel has been conducting paranormal investigations for nine years. When Floridians have an unwanted spiritual presence in their homes, they call Damsel to remove it. He's like a modern-day ghost-busting crusader, only without the slime and the proton pack. He is able to feel spirits' energies.
"Some people are more sensitive, but we all have it in us" to notice the supernatural, he said.
I, however, don't have it in me. The closest thing I've had to a paranormal interaction is watching "Ghost" from my couch. I can't say I even believe in the supernatural per se, but I arrived at the investigation determined to keep an open mind.
The hunt began at midnight, after the restaurant on the main floor had closed and the clinking beer glasses and dinner crowd chatter had gone quiet.
Unlike similar shows, Damsel said, the RIP Hunters' project will have "no lying" and "no scripting." Whatever the cameras and equipment captured is what viewers will see.
Damsel gathered the group of about 20 RIP Hunters and explained that we would be divided into three teams. Each team would spend an hour investigating one of Moon River's floors, which were each equipped with night-vision cameras.
After each hour, the group would take a 15-minute break and then switch floors to ensure that the building was thoroughly inspected.
I was with Damsel's group. I wasn't sure what to expect from a midnight-to-4 a.m. paranormal hunt, but it never occurred to me that part of the deal would be ascending into an upper-story inferno.
Time: 12:15 a.m.
Temperature: Cool and wonderful and did I already say cool?
Spirit count so far: 0
Our group sat in a loose circle around a fold-out table. There was Damsel, a couple who appeared to be on a date, two older men and our medium, Dipika Acharya, a Bohemian Indian woman who says she's able to connect spirit and human frequencies.
In addition to Acharya, we had a number of technological doodads at our disposal. There was a device called an Ovilus, which is essentially a pocket Ouija board with a built-in dictionary. Damsel had an Ovilus-like app on his phone, too.
Yes, an app.
There was also something called a K-II EMF Meter, which is supposed to measure changes in electromagnetic frequency. If it detected a spirit nearby, the green light at the top was supposed to change to orange or red.
One of the older men, "John from Orlando" -- who asked me not to use his last name -- handed me a K-II Meter to use. I turned it on and put it on the table. The light was green. No spirits yet.
"John from Orlando" was at the Moon River investigation because he finds the whole concept of spirits "just really interesting," he said. Especially when it involves things that can't be explained.
"Sometimes things happen that just make you scratch your head and say, 'Hmm,' " he said.
At this point, Damsel quieted the group and turned out the lights, save for a small flashlight that he placed in the middle of the table.
"We are the RIP Hunters group from Orlando, Florida. If there are any spirits in the room tonight, we invite you to make your presence known to us," he said in a slow, deep voice.
Acharya closed her eyes and, after a moment, told us a male spirit was in the room. "Possibly a soldier."
"Sir, please let your presence be known by turning off the flashlight," Damsel asked.
Then, the light flickered off for a second.
Acharya, who I could still see in the dim light, smiled at me and held up her hands as if to say, "See? I didn't do it! This is really happening."
I couldn't explain it, but I was skeptical and sans goose bumps. Also, my K-II meter was still defiantly green.
Damsel began a round of 20 questions with our ghost soldier.
"Did you fight in the Civil War? Answer by turning off the light."
The light flickered off and then back on.
"Do you have a message you want to convey? Answer by turning off the light."
The light flickered off and then back on.
"Were you a general in the Civil War?"
The light stayed on.
After Damsel exhausted the list of military ranks with no response from the flashlight, Acharya informed us that the spirit was angry and didn't want to talk to us anymore.
No matter. She suddenly felt the presence of a female spirit.
"But she's shy. She's not sure she wants to talk to us."
"Sweetheart, we're here if you'd like to communicate with us," Damsel said in a soft voice, as if he were talking to a child.
Then, Damsel's phone app flashed. The number "300" appeared on the screen.
"This building was built 300 years ago. Were you here when the building was built?" he asked our lady ghost.
She stayed silent. I assumed that she -- like me -- was a bit puzzled. See, the building was built in 1821 (as Savannah's first hotel). That's 193 years ago. Not 300.
Time: 1:30 a.m.
Location: Third floor
Temperature: 175 degrees
Spirit count so far: 2
We ascended to the third floor (there was still a group on the second) up a crude flight of stairs with no railing. Everything was dusty and smelled old. The floorboards creaked under our weight -- horror movie style.
Damsel's 20-questions/flashlight game continued -- without any flickers.
"John from Orlando" pulled out another flashlight, toggled the bulb and then placed it on the table.
"If there is a spirit in the room, we invite you to make yourself known by turning off the light," Damsel said.
The first flashlight stayed on. The new flashlight flickered.
Ah, a spirit!
Through further inquisition, we found out the spirit was:
A woman slave.
A woman slave minister.
A woman slave minister who had died from yellow fever.
A woman slave minister who had died from yellow fever while pregnant.
A woman slave minister who had died from yellow fever while pregnant with her master's child.
A woman slave minister who had died from yellow fever while pregnant with her master's child and who had had other children with the master but it was OK because the master treated his biracial children well.
An interesting side note: After Moon River was a hotel, it was used as a hospital. The worst outbreak happened in 1876, a good 11 years after the end of the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery.
Our pregnant woman/slave/minister/spirit's strongest skill might not have been historical timelines. But let's not speak ill of the dead.
At this point, RIP Hunters had lost me, but the rest of the group seemed thrilled with their findings.
During the break, one woman, Louise Miller from Port Orange, Fla., was particularly excited about what her group had witnessed.
"We were in the basement and all of a sudden it got freezing cold," she said.
Miller is a regular at RIP Hunters' meet-ups. She goes as often as she can.
"It's about finding out if there is something out there other than us," she explained.
I wanted to ask her if she could send some of those air-conditioned spirits up to the fourth floor with my group.
Time: 2:45 a.m.
Location: Fourth floor
Temperature: Hot holy hell
Spirit count so far: 3
This is when I began plotting my escape.
The air was stale and heavy. There were no chairs to faint into. And I had no flashlight, which I needed -- not to flag down spirits but to light my path to the nearest exit.
No self-respecting spirit would spend his afterlife wallowing in attic heat, so it didn't surprise me that Damsel struggled to get one on his "flashlight telephone."
As it turns out, no self-respecting ghost hunter stops at just a Maglite.
Damsel turned to the Ovilus-like app on his phone to steer the conversation based on the words that popped up.
Those words were: Smoke. Piano. Wheat. Bird. Pipe.
From this, Damsel surmised we were communicating with a 9/11 firefighter who had died in one of the falling towers.
Smoke. Piano. Wheat. Bird. Pipe.
Sept. 11, 2001? In New York City? But we're in Savannah.
OK. Yes, there was a lot of smoke on 9/11. And granted, I don't know how much wheat there was or whether there were pianos, but my brain -- whether from the profound heat or the current conversation -- couldn't accept this connection.
Then, Acharya -- with her eyes closed -- saw a cursive "A."
"He must have been an Atlanta Braves fan," came a voice from the group. Silently, I wondered if it was the spirit having a laugh at us.
Everyone nodded in agreement. He must have been a Braves fan.
"First off, thank you for your service," Damsel tells the spirit.
"I know a lot of people died that day and you were very brave. I want you to know that we have killed the person that did this and we won't let the terrorists win."
Oh no no.
"Did you hear a piano playing when you entered the towers? Like the people on the Titanic that played violins as the ship sank?"
Oh no no no.
Time: 4 a.m.
Location: Main floor
Spirit count so far: 4
I skipped the second floor.
I told the group to go on without me, and I sat alone in a booth by the bar, where I let the air conditioning blow over me in glorious gusts of cool air. I considered "ghosting" "â‚¬" that is, leaving without saying goodbye to anyone, but these were nice people, and I appreciated that they let me tag along.
While I waited for everyone to return, I thought about what I had seen and about how I wasn't even a little frightened. Did this mean that the spirits didn't exist?
At the end of the investigation, I remained skeptical of the supernatural, but the ghost hunters were unwavering in their conviction. I believed that they believed all of this was absolutely real.
The RIP Hunters planned to travel to other haunted areas to gather more evidence for their pilot. Their findings will determine whether their show gets airtime. In Savannah, the group was running on 5-hour ENERGY and adrenaline, excited by what they had experienced.
When I finally left Moon River, it was 5 a.m. ... in downtown Savannah ... on a Sunday.
Suddenly, I was abruptly aware that I was a woman walking to my car. Alone.
Now, that was scary.