Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series on ghost stories in the SunLight Project's coverage area. To read part two, please see Monday's Daily Citizen-News.
Every town has one.
A story about a house where strange things seem to happen.
An account of someone who disappeared right before someone’s eyes.
Or stranger still, someone who has appeared long after they were supposed to be gone.
As October comes to a close and the chill in the air gets a little bit stronger, it is the perfect time to revisit ghostly legends that are shared across the SunLight Project coverage areas of Dalton, Valdosta, Thomasville, Milledgeville, Tifton and Moultrie, Ga., and Live Oak, Jasper and Mayo, Fla., along with the surrounding counties.
The Dalton Little Theatre has been housed at 210 N. Pentz St. for almost 40 years. It was initially built in 1888 as a two-story fire station.
It is also the home of a ghost named Carl.
"Carl Johnson was a firefighter back in the 1950s, when the building was still a fire station. I don't know the exact date," said Connie Hall-Scott, author of "Haunted Dalton." "He and the other firefighters had been out on a call. They came back and the other firefighters went upstairs to shower and change clothes but Carl said he didn't feel well and sat down to rest. When the others came down, they thought he was asleep. But after some time, they tried to wake him and found he'd died of a heart attack."
Since, firefighters and later members of the theater troupe have said they have seen paranormal activity in the building.
Firefighters would return to the building after a fire, go upstairs to shower and come back down to find their equipment had been put away. Members of the theater company would arrive to find their props rearranged. People would see a man out of the corner of their eyes, turn and no one would be there.
"Everyone in the theater has heard of Carl," Hall-Scott said. "If anything goes missing, they blame it on him. But I don't think anyone really believes it.
"My own son, six or seven years ago, had an experience there," she said. "We were upstairs. My daughter was upstairs auditioning for a play, and my son was getting bored. He was 13 or 14 at the time. And he kept asking when we were going to leave. He stepped out onto the stairs. When he came back in he was quiet and asked me, 'Mom, did a man come in?' I said, 'No, why?' And he said he was adjusting one of his contacts. He saw a man coming up the stairs and stepped to the side. But the man never came by. I said, 'I think you just had a Carl experience.'"
Valdosta's Bell House
If you ask anyone who has been in Valdosta very long, the Bell House on Ashley Street near downtown is the city’s number one haunted hot spot.
With a peculiar history added to its grand exterior, it’s easy to see why the 145-year-old house would be the center of Valdosta’s ghost stories. Currently vacant, the Bell House has previously been a pizza place, a cajun restaurant, a bed and breakfast, and a home to its namesake, Dr. David S. Bell.
Dr. Bell was not a true medical doctor, but rather, a medicine man. Bell traveled and sold a number of various tonics and potions, according to Jim Miles, author of the book "Haunted South Georgia." The remedies included “Re-Nue-U,” a tonic which Bell stated would “bring you back” when you were gone. Perhaps his tonic worked in an unexpected way.
Since his passing in 1964, stories have circulated about strange things happening within the walls of the historic house.
Miles’ book tells a few accounts of investigations that took place in the Bell House.
William Roll, a professional parapsychology professor, and some of his students visited the house in the 1990s to test for paranormal activity. They found abnormally high electromagnetic field (known as EMF) readings in different spots of the house. Roll said strong EMF readings can cause people susceptible to their effects to have hallucinations and even trigger psychic abilities.
“So, what you see, in fact, occurred in the past,” he said.
Another account shared in Miles’ book came from some of the home’s previous owners, Robert and Kayza Nixon. Robert, at one point, saw an apparition of someone walking through the house while it was being used as a restaurant.
“It walked through the dining room, around the bar area and disappeared. It was like 2 a.m., and I had to ask someone else if they saw it too. They did,” he said.
Collecting a story from every county for his series of "Haunted Georgia" books, Miles said some stand out from the rest. The Bell House stories stood out from others because of the longevity of the tales.
“It’s a long-term story. We know the family lived there. And three businesses with owners and workers have experienced activity. That brings authenticity to it.”
In "Haunted South Georgia," Miles notes that Southern Ghost Hunters Paranormal Investigations of Georgia investigated the home in 2004.
Danice Brault, formerly part of Southern Ghost Hunters for roughly 13 years, had experiences while investigating the Bell House when it was still open and operating as Vito’s Pizzeria and Lounge. The team investigated many locations in Valdosta and the surrounding counties. While conducting the investigations, Brault and the SGH team said they encountered two types of haunts: residual and intelligent.
“Intelligent haunts are the fun ones. They’re interacting with you,” Brault said.
During intelligent haunts, some of Brault’s equipment is said to help make communication between the living and unseen easier. Using a “GB,” or ghost box, entities can communicate in real time using radio channels, she said. Brault said her most compelling incident using a ghost box occurred when asking how many beings there were in one location; the number eight was said eight times in eight different voices.
While intelligent haunts are often the most interesting for investigators, the activity Southern Ghost Hunters found at Vito’s was what they called "residual."
“Residual activity happens on a daily basis. What’s there doesn’t really know anything is around,” Brault said.
Residual activity often means a spirit is following a routine, allowing multiple people to experience the same sounds or feelings, she said.
In the residual Electronic Voice Phenomenons (EVPs) that Brault captured upstairs in the house, the same voices were captured more than once saying the same things, she said.
“They don’t communicate with anyone; they just do what they do,” Brault said.
During investigations, Brault said it can take hours to get one piece of evidence, or just minutes. She also emphasized that not every house with strange noises is haunted.
“Just because your house creaks, doesn’t mean your house is haunted," she said. "Just because you see a shadow, doesn’t mean there is a ghost.”
Orbs in photos are reported as a common experience for amateur ghost hunters and people looking to prove legends of a haunting. Brault said orbs are also the biggest misperceived phenomenon.
“It helps when you have photos, but if you’re outside taking a picture on a dirt road," she said, "is it really an orb or just dirt?”
Brault said an important part of investigating is to “debunk” activity. If a strange occurrence can be explained by something not so strange, it puts homeowners at ease to know their paranormal activity is actually quite normal.
Also in Miles’ book, he includes an account for Berrien County of a residential home in Ray City.
“The activity in the Ray City house was poltergeist-like,” Miles said.
As it turns out, Brault’s sister lived there for a short period of time.
“We investigated for six months — every weekend. It was serious activity,” Brault said.
“The EVPs are off the charts in that place,” she continued.
The former paranormal team recorded many instances of the words “Get out” being said, as well as “Get the hammer,” followed by “Kill her.”
After hearing a name in an EVP, a professor who was part of the team did some research into the home’s history. The same name was found to be a former resident who had died in the home.
During one investigation, a member of the team made a funny comment. In response to the comment, a soda bottle was thrown and hit her, she said.
Another unexplained experience in the home came from the radio. Turning off and on throughout the night, the team took the batteries out of the remote control. The radio continued to turn off and on, so it was unplugged.
“About 10 minutes later, it was back on and had been plugged back in,” Brault said.
Brault’s sister eventually moved from the home because she couldn’t take the activity anymore.
Since the disbanding of Southern Ghost Hunters, Brault has investigated for friends on her own but isn’t actively seeking investigations. The paranormal is always something she has been interested in and she has experienced activity everywhere from Alaska to Georgia, but she said her sister’s house was one of the most active locations she had experienced.
Houses aren’t the only buildings that seem to keep their tenants around longer than expected. Brault also had an experience while investigating the Tifton Agrirama.
“It has good hot spots,” she said.
At one point while investigating, her leg was yanked while she was sitting at a table. Upon looking at her leg, she discovered a bruise and what appeared to be finger imprints where she had felt being grabbed.
There are other locations that have more legend behind them in Tift County. One is Hickory Springs Primitive Baptist Church.
Stories surrounding the church have been around for decades. No one knows the origins of the legends but everyone knows about the ghost lights and the immovable Bible.
Hickory Springs is a plain, quaint white church with a cemetery around it, much like many others in the area. The church itself is more than 100 years old.
The cemetery is where the story begins. They say if you drive slowly around the cemetery, your car will be followed by red and white ghost lights. The lights will follow you until you leave, watching to ensure that the dead remain undisturbed.
If you enter the church, there is a Bible on the altar that cannot be removed from the church.
According to the legend, years ago a group of teenagers broke into the church and began to vandalize it. They painted on the walls, moved the pews and tossed the hymnbooks around.
When they tried to pick up the Bible, it was unnaturally heavy. The vandals tried taking it from the church, but the closer they got to the door, the heavier it became.
One of them tried carrying it at first, then a second tried to help, and then there were three of them trying to carry it. They got no farther than 10 feet from the front door, and the Bible slammed itself to the ground and was unable to be moved.
The vandals fled, leaving the Bible on the floor.
To this day, the story goes, the Bible cannot be removed from the church.
In recent years, it seems the haunting has expanded. No longer is just the church haunted but the area surrounding it as well. Night-time visitors see shadows where there shouldn’t be any, shadows that follow you.
Supposedly, law enforcement now makes extra patrols through the area to keep people away.
The historic Tift Theatre also has tales of a ghost.
The legend goes the theater is occupied by the ghost of a man who made a deal with his girlfriend.
They had a fight and had agreed to meet at the theater on a certain day if they wanted to continue the relationship. Before the date came, the man was killed in a car accident.
Supposedly, the man’s spirit made it to the theater and is waiting to see if she will arrive.
The ghost has been credited with moving things and making the lights flicker.
This week's Halloween-inspired SunLight Project is meant solely for entertainment purposes. The accounts and beliefs included are representative of those interviewed. The SunLight Project team of journalists who contributed to this report includes Jessie Box, Patti Dozier, Eve Guevara, Alan Mauldin, Charles Oliver of the Daily-Citizen News, Sarah Warrender and Will Woolever. The SunLight Project is directed and edited by Jim Zachary and Dean Poling. To contact the team, email email@example.com.