Brittany D. McClure
The Valdosta Daily Times
It may or may not surprise you that many of America’s most haunted places are located in the South. Whether you believe in ghosts and ghouls, you must agree that there is a sort of fanaticism that has grown around the idea of the after-life, especially in relation with Halloween.
There are always a slew of movies, such as more recently released “Paranormal Activity” (1,2,3 and 4), that attempt to capture the idea that ghosts and demons walk among us, and on occasion, toy with us.
As is the case with “Paranormal Activity,” they are usually cheesy and border on the comedic as opposed to the intention of horror.
However, acts of violence and horror are very much a part of the American and the Southern tradition. Whether it be genocide of the Native Americans, the Civil War and the long history of the slave trade, it can be argued that the South has a few “skeletons” in its closet.
So, just in time for All Hallow’s Eve, here are a few of the South’s historically accurate horrors. Take them as you will, but keep in mind the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: “Where there is no imagination, there is no horror.”
Being from Savannah myself, I know a thing or two about spooky surroundings. Growing up, I had a friend whose family lived in a large, historically Southern house that was used as a hospital during the Civil War. While many of my friends claimed to not believe in ghosts, you rarely saw any of them accept slumber party invitations. The house was as beautiful as it was creepy.
Even just behind the house, there were gravestones with cages around them. For years, I had just assumed they had been vandalized at some point or another but I later found out that they were believed to be the graves of accused and executed witches. It was believed that the cages would keep the witches from rising.
While there are several
instances throughout history in Savannah — fire, diseases, war and even murder — that lay the way for a good ghost story, the graves throughout Downtown Savannah have always been the scariest to me. There is just something about knowing that there is a corpse just feet from you that is unsettling. Even more unsettling is the bells located by the graves, particularly in the famous Laurel Grove Cemetery located on the block of Ogeechee Road and 39th.
The fear of being buried alive is perhaps as old as the fear of death itself. While you don’t hear of this happening today, premature burial was actually something of a problem throughout the 18th and 19th centuries (though accounts of live burials date much farther back). These accounts and fears were included in famous works of literature such as “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and Edgar Allan Poe even wrote a paper in 1844 called “The Premature Burial” that allegedly contained accounts of people being buried alive.
This caused a fear in many and spawned the invention of the safety coffin.
The first recorded safety coffin was constructed on the orders of Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick before his death in 1792.
A number of safety coffins can be seen in Laurel Grove Cemetery. The seemingly typical graves have poles standing next to them from which a bell hangs. On the top of the bell, a piece of rope is tied and the rope travels down into the ground. The rope is actually tied around the wrist of the corpse. The idea is that if a person awakens in the coffin after it has been buried, this person can ring the bell and alert those above ground to dig them up.
This has spawned tales of restless souls in the cemetery who ring the bells to give passersby a spook, but many just attribute the ringing to the wind. Nevertheless, after a long night of River Street, walking by the cemetery at 2 a.m. and hearing the subtle ringing of the bells still strikes a chill.
While many publications name Savannah as the number two most haunted city in America, New Orleans is most always named as number one. It also, on occasion, sneaks its way onto lists that name some of the most haunted places in the world.
Known as the “city of the dead,” New Orleans has a reputation for the paranormal and embraces it along with its checkered past and rich cultural history.
Hands down, one of the most haunted houses in New Orleans is the infamous Royal Street Mansion in the French Quarter previously owned in 1832 by Madame Delphine LaLaurie and her husband, Dr. Louis LaLaurie.
The LaLauries allegedly were intensely cruel to their slaves and some accounts state that they performed heinous medical experiments on them. While some historians dispute the extent of the torture, the LaLauries did flee town without ever being heard from again.
While the LaLauries, along with the world-renowned Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, are the city’s more famous inhabitants, one of the most unusual guests was Jacques Saint Germaine.
During the roaring 1920s, Germaine mysteriously popped into town. There is no registry of where he came from, but we know that he was around 40 years of age and was fairly wealthy.
Germaine was known for throwing lavish dinner parties where all of New Orleans’ elite would attend.
While everyone else would indulge in conversation and good food, Germaine supposedly never ate a bite and would only sip his wine.
No one thought anything of it, as Germaine was an avid collector of wine. In his home, he had barrels and barrels of wine.
Aside from his wine and parties, Germaine also built a reputation for being quite the ladies man. Many a lady would be seen being escorted to Germaine’s residence in the French Quarter but no one would see the ladies leave. It was assumed that in shame, the women would escape out the back in the wee hours of the morning to avoid the ridicule of the town’s people.
However, one very late night, the town awoke to the horrible screaming of a woman. The men ran out into the streets and saw a woman, near death, bleeding on the entryway to Germaine’s home.
The authorities were alerted and immediately responded. They pounded their fists on Germaine’s door yelling at him to open up and come outside. Germaine did not respond.
The police then beat down the door and forced themselves inside. They searched every inch of the home but Germaine was nowhere to be found.
More unusual than the vanished Germaine was the state of his home. There was little to no furnishings, no food in the kitchen and only barrels and barrels of wine.
After a long night where a townswoman died and hours looking for Germaine, the police were ready for a drink. They tapped into one of the barrels and quickly took a gulp.
They spit it out immediately. Authorities claimed that it was not wine in the barrels but wine mixed with blood.
Whether the accounts were exaggerated or even true, they exist making Germaine quite possibly one of the first documented accounts of a “vampire” in what is now the United States.
According to a man I only know as tour guide Jeff, there are still “vampires” in New Orleans today. They are a group of people who come out at night and believe that they are in fact the walking, or flying, dead. Some years ago, the city of New Orleans was even petitioned by a few of them who claimed the power lines were too low and they were getting tangled in them when they flew around the city. The city, of course, ignored the petition.
KEY WEST, FLA.
A staple of the late 1980s and early ’90s was a series of horror films starring the serial killer possessed doll named Chucky. As ridiculous as the movies are, they are actually based on a shred of truth.
Last year, I went on a story assignment to an allegedly haunted house in Valdosta with a group called V.A.P.I.R. (Valdosta Area Paranormal Investigations and Research). One of the members informed me of a doll named Robert located in Key West, Fla.
Dressed in a white sailor suit and clutching a stuffed lion, Robert now resides in the Fort East Martello Museum. However, it was quite a journey before he resided there and so goes the story of Robert ...
In 1896, a servant of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Otto who was known for performing voodoo gave their young son Robert Eugene, nicknamed “Gene,” a doll that stood three feet tall and was stuffed with straw. Gene called the doll Robert.
Gene became very attached to the doll and Mr. and Mrs. Otto would often hear Gene talking to Robert ... and even answering back in a different voice.
Gene began to have nightmares and would scream in the middle of the night. When the parents responded to their son’s cries, they often found furniture overturned and Robert the doll at the foot of Gene’s bed. Gene would tell the parents, “Robert did it!” The Ottos put Robert in the attic where he remained for many years.
When Gene’s father died years later and the home was deeded to him, Gene decided to move back into his childhood home with his wife.
Shortly after moving back, Gene discovered Robert in the attic and again became very attached to him. Bizarre things began happening again and Gene’s wife banished the doll to the attic.
Gene became very upset and demanded that Robert have a room of his own where he could sit. He placed Robert in the turret room by a window. At this point, Gene’s wife began to question his sanity.
Key West citizens began spreading rumors about the doll and many children were scared to walk by the home.
Tired of all of the rumors that stirred in town and Robert’s “antics,” the doll was banished to the attic.
Gene died in 1972 and his wife promptly sold the home, leaving Robert behind in the attic.
Once a new family moved into the home, the Robert stories began to die down. That is, until the 10-year-old daughter of the new owners found the doll after playing in the attic.
As did Gene, the little girl began having nightmares and screaming in the middle of the night. The little girl claimed that Robert would crawl into her bed and attack her as she slept.
Robert now lives at the Matello Museum where he is well guarded. Employees inform guests that in order to photograph Robert you must first ask his permission. However, many opt out of the picture and just assume not take their chances of facing the wrath of the curse of Robert.
So, when Don Mancini went out to write a horror movie, what better inspiration than a possessed doll.
The film “Child’s Play” features a killer doll named Chucky who is given the soul of a serial killer named Charles Lee Ray. Similar to Robert the doll, the character of Chucky can move and talk and its “fictional” existence has scared millions around the world.
Many have been scared by Chucky but few know the origins of his existence. Now you know one of the industry’s most infamous horror movies was spawned from a myth in no other than the South.
Whether you believe them or not, many take pleasure in indulging in everything spooky and horrific just in time for Halloween. It’s become something of an American tradition to fill your belly with sugar and your mind with unthinkable instances that only happen in Hollywood.
However, every lie and tale begins with a shred of truth and while those truths are often exaggerated, twisted and spun into wicked webs of what ifs and once upon a times, many take root in the South.
You may or may not believe in ghosts, vampires and voodoo spells but many believers would argue that it doesn’t take affirmation for them to exist, and like everyday people, they just are and will always be.