Few things get a room full of Southerners debating more quickly than a good ghost story. From bedtime stories told by the snug warmth of lamplight to wide-eyed tales whispered over the dying embers of a campfire, firsthand accounts to scout’s-honor retellings of family legends, every good Southerner has a tale to tell. We’ve compiled some of the best here:
- Brown Mountain Lights: Brown Mountain, North Carolina Though many have sought to explain the Brown Mountain Lights with logic and science, all attempts have proved fruitless (photo courtesy of Ken Thomas)
There are few supernatural mysteries that have stood up to the critical eye of scientific query as well as the Brown Mountain Lights; these winking balls of light have moved mysteriously among the green-carpeted shadows of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway since the area’s earliest habitation. Despite in-depth research from everyone from ghost hunters to government seismologists, the lights defy all attempts at explanation, fostering a host of ghost stories that have been passed down for generations. Some say that they’re the phantom torch of an Indian maiden searching for her love, others that they’re the lantern glow of a faithful slave looking for his lost master, but almost all agree that the lights are fueled by something not of this world.
- Skirvin Hotel, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma Visitors to the Skirvin Hotel claim to hear an infant crying and see the shadowy figure of a woman roaming the halls (photo courtesy of Rutlo)
Like many overnight-millionaires in the Texas Oil Boom, William Skirvin had a taste for the opulent. While some speculators invested their money in grand homes or monuments, Skirvin wanted a hotel, one ten stories high and filled with a host of lush appointments to suit his taste: English Gothic decor, retail shops, a cafe, and a host of pretty maids to keep him company. Legend has it that one of the latter, a young maid by the name of Effie, caught the oil tycoon’s eye, and when the inevitable result of their affair began to show, he locked her in a room on the tenth floor of the hotel. After months of being isolated and snubbed, Effie sought revenge by throwing herself from her top-floor window with the infant in her arms. Their ghosts are said to still torment hotel guests today.
- Old Charleston Jail: Charleston, South CarolinaOld Charleston Jail claims a death count of over 14,000 (photo courtesy of Torrey Wiley)
Built in 1802, Old Charleston Jail has held a host of infamous criminals, from high-seas pirates to Civil War POW’s, but the most notorious of its inmates is said to have never left. Lavinia Fisher, considered by many to be the first female serial killer, owned an inn on the outskirts of Charleston with her husband John, where they preyed on the unsuspecting travelers who sought refuge under their roof. Though she played the role of gracious host well, Lavinia would seduce her guests, poison them with oleander tea, and then leave them for her husband to rob, dismember, and inter in the basement below the inn. Her last words before hanging from the gallows—“If anyone has a message for the devil”—are said to echo against the stone walls to this day.
- Witch Dance: Natchez Trace Parkway, Mississippi Legend has it that witches used to convene in Witch Dance; everywhere that there feet touched the ground, the grass withered, never to grow again (photo courtesy of Jimmy Emerson)
Just south of Tupelo, at milepost 233, you’ll find one of the most infamously spooky spots on the Natchez Trace Parkway, a clearing tellingly named “Witch Dance.” According to local legends, the peaceful ancestors of Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes once made their homes here, though once they moved on, the mounds in which they buried their dead attracted a much more sinister element. Bands of witches began gathering here for nighttime ceremonies, and everywhere their feet touched the ground, the grass withered and died, never to grow again. The bare patches—which still exist today—have elicited curiosity from visitors from Andrew Jackson, who noted them in his journal, to notorious murderer “Big” Harpe, who reputedly came to a nasty end shortly after mocking the sanctity of the spots. Tales of campers and hikers getting pushed and taunted by unseen tormentors still abound today.
- Orpheum Theater: Memphis, TennesseeThe playful ghost of twelve-year-old Mary is said to haunt the aisles of Memphis’s Orpheum Theater (photo courtesy of Sarah Glaser)
Though many ghost stories tend to hinge on a malicious spirit or two, Mary, Orpheum Theater’s resident spook, proves that some ghosts just want to have fun. Locals say that Mary was only twelve when she was struck by a trolley outside the theater on Memphis’s infamous Beale Street, and though bystanders brought her into the Orpheum to tend to her wounds, she died shortly after. Today, Mary can be found—white clad and pigtailed—playing the pipe organ, singing, running through the aisles, or sitting in her favorite seat, C-5 of the Orpheum’s opulent Mezzanine.
- West Virginia State Penitentiary: Moundsville, West VirginiaWest Virginia State Penitentiary earned such a reputation for violence that Charles Manson reputedly put in a request to be transferred there. His request was denied. (photo courtesy of Tom Kiser)
Before ending its 119-year run, West Virginia State Penitentiary held the prestigious title of one of the United States Department of Justice’ top ten most violent correctional facilities, but once it closed in 1995, it gained a new title: one of the most haunted places in the country. Over 998 inmates took their last breaths at Moundsville, finding their end in the penitentiary’s gallows, infamous electric chair—“Old Sparky”—or at the hands of other inmates during one of numerous prison riots or in the anything-goes “Sugar Shack” deep in the basement. As if this weren’t enough to secure a haunting or two, the prison’s location on top of an Indian burial ground—the town’s name, Moundsville, is no coincidence—all but ensures that West Virginia State Penitentiary retains its title.
- The Alamo: San Antonio, Texas San Antonio’s most famous landmark, The Alamo, where hundreds of Texan defenders and Mexican soldiers alike lost their lives nearly 200 years ago (photo courtesy of M Mehan)
On February 23, 1836, Mexican General Santa Ana began a siege that would live forever in American memory: the Battle of the Alamo. For almost two weeks, fewer than 200 Texans held off thousands of Mexican troops, and though in the end, all the defenders would be killed—the army finally bombarded and overwhelmed the stronghold and were under strict orders to take no prisoners—the Mexican casualties were over triple that of the Texans. Today the quiet fort, now a national monument, belies its bloody history, though many say that the wind still carries the cries of those who lost their lives defending it.
- St. Albans Sanatorium: Radford, Virginia The site of St. Albans Sanatorium has a long history of violence (photo courtesy of Chrono1999)
The site of St. Albans Sanatorium bore the weight of tragedy long before the first brick was laid. It saw the loss of five lives—including an infant—in the 1775 Draper’s Meadow Massacre at the hands of Shawnee Indians, and countless more when it served as a battlefield for the Civil War. Later incarnations, first a boy’s boarding school, then a state-of-the-art home for the mentally insane, promised to be less violent, though the school proved to be rife with violent competition, and despite the best efforts of the sanitarium’s proprietors, patients still fell prey to “innovative” medical practices at the time, including electroconvulsive therapy, hydrotherapy, and insulin coma therapy. The centuries of tortured souls that met their end at St. Albans are said to still haunt the grounds today.