Back in the dark recesses of a decrepit textile factory, a cavern of concrete, brick and chipped white paint on Old Salem Pike in Murfreesboro, a team of workers was hammering away one sweltering day last June. One by one, as Terry Mayo tells it, workers spotted a man in overalls. His features were indistinct, but he looked vaguely 60ish: a baseball cap shaded his face. When the men called, he didn’t answer. It was as if he didn’t hear.
The crew got annoyed. They went to find Mayo, one of the men who ordered the construction. They told him there was a strange old cuss standing around goldbricking who wouldn’t speak or respond. It was left to Mayo to break the bad news. “Guys,” Mayo told them, “he doesn’t exist.”
The crew lasted only one more day.
If Mayo’s account is on the level, the workers ended up fleeing exactly what they’d been hired to build: a haunted house. The crew was in the process of converting the empty factory’s 18,500 square feet of dank, shadowy space into a Halloween attraction called the Old Salem Insane Asylum. They were there to tack up drywall mazes, passageways and hidden chambers, from which as many as 60 teen recruits and actors would jump out dressed as Freddy, Leatherface and other movie monsters.
But ever since work started on the Asylum, and even after it opened for business last month, co-owner Tommy Poston says employees have reported a variety of unexplained phenomena. For some reason, of the thousands of lights used throughout the building, red lights refuse to work. The temperature will drop mysteriously to bone-chilling cold. A trap door recently opened and closed, back and forth, with no visible effort. These are little things, easily explained by working in a drafty old rat-trap of a building on gusty autumn days.
And then there’s George.
Poston, a stocky, white-haired Murfreesboro car dealer, was doing a progress tour shortly before the opening with a couple of employees. He wanted to check out an old boiler room he thought would be perfect for Freddy Kreuger’s basement hell: a concrete pit with iron bars on one side and only one entrance. He was impressed to see the room already staffed. Two boys facing each other appeared to be playing patty-cake, and Poston loved the special effect that made their faces blurry but their hands and fingernails “as clear as you were watching them on TV.” They were watched by another figure, silent, in baseball cap and overalls. The trouble was that no one else saw them.
“I was mad,” Poston says. “I thought somebody was messing with me.” He ran down the nearby ramp to grab the pranksters. When he threw the door open, the room was empty. Mayo thought Poston was going to punch him out. It was his business partner’s first encounter with an apparition people had taken to calling “George.”
“I don’t want to say they were ghosts,” says Poston, who loves Halloween haunted houses but claims he doesn’t believe in spirits. “I saw something I can’t explain, that’s all I’ll say.”
He’s not alone. Workers have reported seeing a 7-foot figure balanced atop the maze walls in the farthest back room, as if trying to upstage a re-creation of the Hostel torture chamber. A woman in a 1960s-style red dress with white polka dots has been spotted—a woman Mayo believes was murdered in 1964 next to the nearby railroad track and stashed in the building.
But the most common stories involve the spirits of two boys, who have communicated their names as Josh and Joseph. Tim Harrison, who plays a preacher in the Asylum’s mock-up chapel, shows off the toothmarks on his finger where he claims one impish spirit nipped him. “He just wanted attention,” Harrison says, spitting tobacco laconically into a plastic water bottle. The same night Harrison says he got bitten, another employee, Iva McKinney, says her 9-year-old came up and told her about his new friend who liked to play tag and untie his shoes. His friend’s name was Josh.
“I work back in the maze, and I’ve seen the shadow of that little boy,” says McKinney, a hairstylist at Heads Up. “I put out a trail of Smarties for him one night, where nobody could step on ’em. By the end of the night, they weren’t there. I think he just wants to play, so I always invite him to come out.”
None of this phases Mayo, a self-professed 18-year ghost hunter with a baseball cap that reads “Ghost Hunter” to prove it. “I can stand out in a cemetery at 2:30 in the morning and not get spooked,” he says. In the trunk of the ’94 Ford Taurus he bought from Poston—a purchase that ultimately led to their working together—the retired teacher keeps an array of household items that double as registers of paranormal activity: a digital Radio Shack thermometer, an electromagnetic-field detector available from any electrical-supply house.
These were among the items Mayo used with his ghost-hunting team—SPIRIT (Society of Paranormal Investigation and Research in Tennessee), a 16-person crew of students and fellow enthusiasts that shares its findings every month at the Murfreesboro IHOP—when he did a paranormal investigation of the building last June. The building, a flat, nondescript industrial monolith speckled with broken and replaced window panes like knocked-out teeth, served as a textile mill from 1925 to 1954. A few years later, it operated as a ribbon factory until 1963. For the past 40 years, it’s been used for flea markets and other “odds and ends,” Mayo says.
“You have to see it to believe it,” says Alex Bond, a lanky, goateed 19-year-old with tinted shades and a late-night DJ’s laaaid-back voice. Now vice president of SPIRIT, he joined the group after waiting on Mayo at Shoney’s. (Like most people, he asked about Mayo’s baseball cap, and the conversation went from there.) In terms of psychic activity, Bond says, “I’d definitely rate [the building] in the top 10.”
The investigation turned up one nugget, Mayo says: a digital recording of a gruff masculine voice “clear as day” growling, “Get away from me…. Get out of here!” Mayo does not have it handy for a visitor to hear. But that was nothing, he says, compared to the one genuinely scary thing he’s experienced in the building. He leads the way to the scene of the fright.
Mayo was barreling through a row of grimy old bathroom stalls one night near the Asylum’s most popular attraction, a set-up based on the movie The Ring. The stalls, disgusting enough in themselves, have been outfitted with strobe lights; an employee is stationed nearby as the movie’s eerie little-girl ghost. Mayo was doing a checkup. Between strobe-lit blinks, he nodded to the creepy figure briefly illuminated in the second stall.
“Don’t scare me, coming through,” he barked. That’s when he bumped smack into his employee, standing outside the bathroom. If you’re here, Mayo asked, who’s that in the stall? The two looked at each other, then bolted.
There is, of course, one unavoidable explanation for all these phenomena: real spooks would be good for business, and two savvy showmen could be cooking up the whole shebang to offset their admittedly high start-up costs. At $15 a pop, with crowds as large as 600 people a night, there’s gold in them thar cobwebs. But Lisa Pancake, who owns the property, says she thinks they’re “completely sincere.”
“They’re always asking me, ‘Are you sure they haven’t done this or that?’ ” says Pancake, who runs a banquet hall in one end of the building and hopes to convert the rest into shops and restaurants, like The Factory at Franklin. “There’s nothing I could remember the least bit, but I don’t go on that side a lot. I believe what they tell me is so. Luckily, I’ve not been scared.”
And it’s possible she won’t be. From his encounter, Tommy Poston says, he would’ve expected nothing but cold shudders. Instead, the feeling he got from what he saw was as “warm as a blanket on a cold night.” Iva McKinney thinks “they just want to help us scare people, but they don’t know how.” When the Asylum boards up after Halloween night, she says, “my little boy’s really going to miss them.”
At any rate, the ghosts, real or imagined, of the Old Salem Insane Asylum can rest easy. Their landlord doesn’t plan to serve any eviction notices.
“As long as the ghosts stay friendly,” Lisa Pancake says, “they can do whatever they like.”
For a list and description of Middle Tennessee haunted houses, go online to nashvillescene.com.