Maybe it's the first creeping chills in the air or the beckoning of the Halloween aisle in Walgreen's that causes one's thoughts to drift toward the spirit realm with the turning of the leaves. Maybe it's the realization that the cooling weather will keep families inside longer, and that the nights of creaking floorboards will start earlier and earlier. Whatever the case may be, autumn is the time when the spirits seem to reach out to people most often.
Fortunately, two local paranormal research groups can help you get your spooks sorted out before you carry your white linen up the shaky staircase and into the dark, musty attic. "This time of year, we get everything," says Donna Marsh, founder of the Adsagsona Paranormal Society. "It's definitely our busy season."
Marsh, by day an associate producer with CMT, calls herself "sensitive," though some prefer to call her a psychic. She says that she has been able to sense, and even communicate with, the spirit world since she was a child. "I got it from my great-grandmother," she says. "She just called it 'the sight.' "
At 14, Marsh woke up in the middle of the night to the chilling sight of her best friend, Wanda, standing at the foot of the bed in a football jersey. There were glowing flames where Wanda's eyes should have been, and she turned to look over her shoulder, made some kind of motion with her hands, and then vanished. The next morning, Marsh found out that her friend had died in a house fire, along with her brother. She was found wearing a football jersey.
Marsh founded the Adsagsona Paranormal Society in 2005 to investigate supposed paranormal activities around the Tennessee area. (The name comes from a Gaulish goddess thought to serve as the messenger between the worlds of the living and the dead.) Since then, the all-volunteer group has reviewed a number of cases locally. Marsh can sometimes rely on her "sight" to guide her, but she considers it just one of a number of tools. And she has plenty of tools: video cameras, 35mm digital cameras, thermometers, audio recorders, web cameras....
"At Christmas, I ask for Radio Shack gift certificates," she says.
Though her organization's online membership boasts hundreds of spook-curious members, Marsh estimates that Adsagsona (or the "AP Society," for those whose tongues fumble over Gaulish) boasts about 20 true participants—mostly middle-class adults with varying degrees of curiosity and skepticism—and five "hardcore" members who bear the brunt of investigative duties.
Many spirit-seekers come and go, sometimes complaining that the group is "boring." Genuine hauntings are few and far between, and the group must filter through a number of bogus claims before they can even begin a true investigation. Marsh claims that genuine discoveries are their own reward—the group charges no fee for their services.
Joann Shelton, founder of Tennessee Ghost Hunters, concurs. She's headed up her group for 12 years, driven by her natural curiosity about spirits. Marsh and some members of the Adsagsona team were once among their ranks.
"Our payment is the experience and the knowledge that we gain," she says in a grandmotherly Southern drawl.
A daycare supervisor by trade, Shelton discovered the dormant Tennessee Ghost Hunters site while searching the web on her daughter's new college computer. After the leader of the inactive group moved away, he entrusted the site to her, and she immediately began advertising meetings in her local newspaper. At first, the group visited reputedly haunted sites around the area. Gradually, though, they began to field inquiries from frightened locals ranging from unemployed trailer-park residents to high-profile executives. While they couldn't promise to drive the spirits away from the homes, they thought they could offer some dispassionate evaluations to their potential clients.
"A lot of people are just happy to find out that there's really something there, that they're not crazy," Shelton says.
In most instances, both teams say that they can debunk false claims before committing to an investigation.
"There are some people who want something so bad in their house that they just make up stuff," Shelton says. "You don't want to waste your time and gas money if it's just a hoax."
On one occasion, the Tennessee Ghost Hunters visited a household claiming to suffer from strong activity. After careful evaluation, however, they concluded that the mother's teenage son—transplanted from Scotland for his mother's marriage to a Tennessee man—was suffering from extreme homesickness and likely creating the spirit drama as a desperate ploy to convince his mother to return to their native soil.
Another instance found them in contact with a Murfreesboro man who sent them footage of a candle seemingly moving independently across the top of a dresser and falling over the edge. The group concluded that the candle was being pulled by a string, and then discovered that the man's wife had recently left him and taken their daughters with her.
"Some people, I guess, are just lonely," Shelton says.
And some are so eager to believe that their deceased family members are still with them that they're willing to look beyond rational explanations.
"I had a family ask me to leave when I proved to them that Grandma wasn't there," says Marsh.
Following the grandmother's passing, the family began to feel a strange presence in the house. Then they noticed that the closet door in their beloved matriarch's former sewing room began to open on its own. When they reached Adsagsona, they were hoping to have their claim validated. But Marsh's teenage son found a faith-squelching flaw in their reasoning: He discovered a small hole in the closet wall that allowed an outside breeze into the closet. The breeze caused the door to periodically swing open. It hadn't occurred while the grandmother lived there because the closet was filled with her sewing supplies.
As frustrating as these false alarms can be, the groups' dedication occasionally pays off in otherworldly dividends. Shelton recalls investigating a haunting in a house inhabited by two older women—a mother and daughter in their 80s and 60s. Although their investigation was initially uneventful, one team member situated himself in an upstairs bedroom with a tape recorder. He pressed record and attempted to speak to the spirit in a manner familiar to any dedicated Paranormal State viewer: He asked if anyone was present, he asked for the spirit's name, and he said that the spirit would have to leave, that it was no longer their home. Shortly thereafter, when he played the tape to his fellow team members and their hosts, they heard a very clear female voice hiss back: "Fuck you. What's your name?"
While reviewing the audio in the living room, the group's resident skeptic spotted a strange figure passing the doorway. The dogs began barking and jumping excitedly. There was a loud crashing sound, as though a tree had fallen onto the roof, and then the entire group—mother, daughter and three team members—listened in awe as a disembodied voice let out a long and ragged sigh.
While both the Tennessee Ghost Hunters and the Adsagsona Paranormal Society have their share of success stories, they view their experiences through somewhat different lenses. Shelton, a Christian, will not investigate cases which seem to involve demonic activity. One of the posted rules on the Ghost Hunters pages explicitly states that the group will not investigate a home "where Black Magic, the Black Arts or Satanism is being practiced." Shelton says that she believes such activity to be beyond their capabilities and potentially dangerous.
Marsh and Adsagsona take a somewhat different perspective. In extreme cases, Marsh will perform a cleansing ritual herself, using sage and calling upon "the higher power" for aid.
"A ghost, to me, is a spirit who has inhabited a body and been on earth," says Marsh, who believes so-called demonic activity is a somewhat limiting term. "All ghosts are spirits, but not all spirits are ghosts, because there are spirits who have not been in human form. Most of them that I've encountered are almost elemental, one type of energy, one type of emotion."
Despite their differences, Marsh and Shelton both readily acknowledge that their pursuits hardly qualify as thrill-seeking. Spirit detection involves endless hours spent pursuing false leads, reviewing reels of recorded dead air, and examining hundreds of photographs, often in vain.
"I always tell people that the number one tool for a ghost hunter is patience," says Marsh, who periodically teaches a course on paranormal investigation at the Cosmic Connections New Age shop on Portland Avenue. "We're all professional people, we're in our 30s and 40s. We're not a bunch of Goths looking for a thrill."
But in the coming weeks of the harvest season, both groups can expect the annual deluge of adolescent horror junkies, outraged fundamentalists and incredulous pranksters. If they're lucky, they might sift a spirit or two out of the mix.
"Teenagers always contact me around Halloween, asking me to tell them where they can go on Halloween night to be guaranteed a ghost sighting," says Marsh. "I tell them to go to the video store."