Notes on the Otherworldly: Of Cinematic Ghostbusters' Knoxville Visit, and the Chili Man Called Christ

There's a new movie out called The Conjuring. For a spooks flick, it's gotten very good reviews.

It stars Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as real-life New England ghostbusters Ed and Lorraine Warren. A few movies have been partly based on their work in the paranormal, notably the Amityville Horror films, but this is the first time they've been portrayed as main characters.

Back in 1986, I got to spend an interesting evening with the Warrens. Their late-night talk on demonology before a packed house at the University Center was illustrated with slides and tapes. Ed Warren identified himself as the director of the New England Society for Psychic Research. His wife Lorraine was the clairvoyant psychic, and the star of the show.

Lorraine cast a "Christ light" over the audience to protect them from their discussion of demons. She spoke of an Antichrist who was then in his early 40s and living in Europe, who would emerge violently sometime well before 2000. "Many people will die," she said.

Life gets away from you sometimes, though, and maybe he just didn't get around to it. I guess by now the Antichrist would be pushing 70.

Afterward, even though it was past midnight, somebody persuaded the Warrens to walk up the hill to Hess Hall, in the rain, to investigate what was, that semester at least, UT's most famous ghost. I was freelancing for the daily back then, and got to tag along.

Every university's a moving target of transient students and transient faculty. UT's arrangement of ghosts changes with every freshman class. In 1986, the Hess Hall ghost, allegedly that of a student shot in his own bean bag in 1976, was the boss.

Both about 60, the Warrens seemed a little mismatched, like Fred and Ethel, but a comfortable old married couple. In a dark three-piece suit, Ed Warren was kind of a gruff, heavyset guy who reminded me of another Ed—McMahon, perhaps in a rare solemn mood. He seemed a matter-of-fact, businesslike, and perhaps out past his bedtime. Lorraine Warren was more to type, cultivating an exotic presence, a slightly ethereal perspective with a bit of gypsy flair.

In Hess, with her hands on her temples just like an old-movie fortuneteller, she walked slowly down the fluorescent-lit hallway where the murder happened. The dorm room's number had been removed, and the room was no longer used as a residence. She stopped suddenly, touched the wall, and described a boy in moccasins and no socks. She kept talking about the fact he had no socks, as if it were especially peculiar.

Her conclusion was that it wasn't a proper earthbound ghost at Hess Hall, but merely a temporary "impression" of a life that ended suddenly. Like a TV screen right after you turn it off, she said.

Ed Warren, who claimed no special skills, deferred to Lorraine on all things spiritual. He was the common-sense guy, there to make it all seem believable. He died several years ago. I understand Lorraine Warren is still among us.

I haven't heard much about the haunts of Hess Hall since then, except that authoritative-looking websites report blood-curdling screams are heard there, attributed to a student who committed suicide in the 1970s. Neither screams nor suicides were mentioned back in ‘86.

But stories change with the tellers. You just never know.

...

Last week's hubbub in Cocke County about a judge's religious objections to naming a baby "Messiah" reminded me of a name that once startled me.

The Anagnosts were once a prominent Greek family. Their last name may sound like "agnostic" to American ears, but in Greece, an anagnost is an Eastern Orthodox cleric. The Knoxville Anagnosts were not clergy, themselves. They were once known as Knoxville's Chili Kings.

For almost 30 years beginning in the '20s, they ran a downtown chili parlor called the Biltmore. It was on Union Avenue near Gay.

The building's still there, and houses what's now Coffee and Chocolate and Räla. In fact, you can still see a bit of the Biltmore's old advertisement, on the alley side. Their establishment was originally called the Eat More Lunch Room, but they became persuaded that Biltmore sounded classier. At the time they changed the name, there was suddenly a lot of interest in the region's most famous mansion, near Asheville, recently opened to the public. It was the Depression, and everybody wanted to be rich.

Those who couldn't afford to dine in Asheville's Biltmore could probably afford ours. In 1934, a journalist called it "a well-appointed cafe...where a glass of cheery Budweiser makes one feel in tune with the infinite!"

There's a famous photograph of the cafe, ca. 1935, with a whole platoon of waitresses standing out front, some with beer mugs. They sold hot dogs and tamales and chili, all advertised in big lettering over the sidewalk. I've wondered whether the Biltmore was the birthplace of the old Knoxville dish known as the Full House, but that's strictly speculation.

The manager of the Biltmore, the smiling, burly, shaven-headed fellow, was named Christ.

Christ Anagnost was born in 1896 in Tripoli, Greece, in Arcadia, on the Peloponnese, far from the mainland region known as Evrytania, which was home of most of Knoxville's Greek families. He lived in Cincinnati before he came to Knoxville in 1924, bringing his brother, George. The Biltmore's motto was "Since 1924 in Romantic Knoxville." The Greeks had a much greater appreciation for the romantic than my people did.

At least one other downtown restaurateur shared that name. Christ Perdikes ran a lunchroom called the Savoy Cafe at Central and Depot in the '30s. Lots of Greeks like to name their sons Christ. Apparently it didn't trouble judges in those days.

When Christ Anagnost was approaching 60, the Anagnosts closed that cafe, and following the postwar trends, moved out west, to Bearden, where they ran a motel, also called Biltmore, Biltmore Court. He died in 1964, and is buried at Lynnhurst, in Fountain City, with an alpha and an omega framing his birth and death dates.