cover_story (2006-43)

A frame-by-frame breakdown of the Bijou Ghost, captured on infra-red video in the second floor mens room.

Do you believe in ghosts? Do you believe in hauntings and poltergeists and voices from Beyond? Do you believe that there is much in this world that is forever beyond the ken of our mortal understanding; that sometimes spirits of the dead may wander our earthly plane restive and yearning for the peace eternal, for their release from nameless torments which the living might only glimpse in darkest dream?

Or do you think it’s all treacle; the fatuous imaginings of soft-skulled nincompoops suffering under the duress of acid flashbacks or not enough brain oxygen or too many games of D&D?

If you fall into the latter category, then put this story down right now. Go on, do it. Put it down and go watch Dobie Gillis reruns on TV Land, or whatever weak-ass thing you do for shits and giggles on a dark and stormy night. Because this story is for believers, and we don’t want you here. Not to be rude or anything, but the spirits are sensitive, sometimes, particularly to inflexible non-believing anal-retentive jackass-cynic types such as yourself. You’d only spoil the mood.

Marshall Dudley believes, and he’s a former nuclear design engineer. So does his wife, Donna, and his son, Sean, a computer hardware salesman. When Sean was an inquisitive lad, but eight years old, he walked into his father’s study upon a dark evening, saw a disembodied white hand floating in the air, float all the way across the room and pull open a drawer in the ancient mahogany desk that had belonged to his long-dead great-grandfather nearly a century past.

Donna was just 12 when she came home from school one late afternoon, strolling past the old cemetery a few blocks down from her house, as she had done so many times before. Only this time, Something followed her home; Something or Someone, the figure of a woman, as ephemeral and shimmering as a morning mist, came into her room where she lay on her bed. The woman seemed to cry and wring her hands, Donna says, before fading into the ether.

And Marshall, he’s always had a sense. He’s never seen a ghost—though he has seen a UFO, when he was in college, one that flew past him and then hovered in the air and landed behind a huge tree scarcely a quarter mile away—but his sister did; she had the gift. She was a chaplain in a children’s hospital, ministering to the sick and dying. She often watched, silent and knowing, as their little spirits hovered between here and hereafter.

“They would resuscitate a dying child, and the child would say ‘I saw my mother and father, they came and greeted me before you brought me back.’” Marshall recounts. “The doctors would say, ‘Oh, that’s just your brain doing this, dah-dah-dah.’ But my sister would be standing there, and she’d seen them too. Of course, she never said anything to the doctors about it.

“More people have the gift than you might think. And a lot more have experiences of some kind. But they have either dismissed them, or they’ve learned not to talk about it.”

Seated in the living room of Marshall and Donna’s lovely home in far West Knox County, the Dudleys seem just like any other sweet, slightly eccentric upper-middle-class Farragut family, save for the fact that all three are dressed in pristine new black East Tennessee Paranormal Research Society (ETPRS) T-shirts. Ghosts and paranormal goings-on are a source of consuming interest for the Dudleys, as they are for 65 other members of the ETPRS.

People like Mike Case, a 36-year-old pharmaceutical insurance salesman from South Knox County, who says the spirit of his deceased father never left his childhood home. Or 32-year-old Tracy Franklin, a Greeneville welder and president of ETPRS, who was bitten and clawed on the shoulder—still has the scars to prove it—by an unseen entity in the supposedly haunted attic of his best friend’s home.

Founded in 2002, disbanded in 2005 but resurgent this year, ETPRS is a loose-knit coalition of mostly Knoxville-based paranormal enthusiasts whose collective aim is to “gather, assimilate, and collate data that will lead to the better understanding of spirits and hauntings.”

In other words, they’re ghost busters, of a sort. Or ghost hunters at any rate. Paranormal investigators, to be more politically correct. At the request of property owners, ETPRS investigators visit suspected centers of paranormal activity, scour the grounds armed with digital recorders and infra-red cameras and other tools of the trade, looking for the unexplainable, usually in the form of orbs or ghost-light pictures (photographs that capture light phenomena that may represent disembodied spiritual energy) or recordings of EVPs.

EVPs—Electronic Voice Phenomena—that’s the really creepy stuff. King-hell spooky. You make a voice recording—preferably with a digital recorder, the reason for which has something to do with the electret microphone and modulating the electric field and lots of other things that someone like Marshall Dudley can explain, but would make most people’s heads throb, blow apart and splatter gray-matter all over the living room carpet… You make a recording, and you listen back, and if the recording was taken someplace fraught with restive spiritual energies, you’ll hear voices that shouldn’t be there, voices that aren’t your own. Sometimes they’re garbled and affectless and weird, and sometimes the things they say don’t make any damned sense. But they’re unmistakably voices, inaudible to the naked human ear except via digital playback, crying out from somewhere… Check out the tnseeparanormal.com website for a sampling, or else Sean Dudley’s own website at friendly-ghosts.com.

In this year of their organizational rebirth, investigators from ETPRS have been mighty busy, chasing down leads on supernatural phenomena all over the region, the most notable of which have been from the Pressmen’s Home community in Hawkins County, and from the historically remarkable building in downtown Knoxville known to us as the Bijou Theatre. The group’s first public showing of video capturing possible evidence of a Bijou ghost will appear on local TV news, WBIR channel 10 on Halloween.

Maybe you haven’t heard of Pressmen’s Home near Rogersville, but there’s small wonder the ETPRS folks chose it for their first official investigation of 2006; it is a certifiably weird place. Former headquarters for the International Printing Pressmen’s Union of North America, and former home to a sanatorium for pressmen come down with tuberculosis, the once-immaculately picturesque little burg is now a sub-Appalachian ghost town, overgrown with ivy and fescue and its buildings abandoned and fallen into soulless disrepair.

And there are rumors, too, of shady business—men with big guns who now own the old buildings, scarcely seen except when they materialize to guard them zealously from curious trespassers; some say they’re white supremacists or dope fiends or just violent gun freaks, maybe some kind of twisted paramilitary organization. Hints of murder and arson… and ghosts, too. Spirits left behind from the old sanatorium, or maybe from an early 19th-century plantation, long disappeared, and the oppressive rows of slaves’ shanties that had once surrounded it.

But the family who contacted ETPRS about the home on the outskirts of the Pressmen’s area said they were living there contentedly enough, until the voices came, EVPs that began showing up on home recordings made by the young man who shared the rent with his mother and sister.

“The guy had been taking audio notes or something, playing the tape back and hearing these voices that didn’t belong,” Sean says. “He started asking questions, doing it all the time. He got hooked on trying to capture more EVPs.”

“They evidently had problems with a poltergeist, too,” says Marshall, noting that the women who lived there reported seeing apparitions and shadow people and objects that mysteriously flew across the room. “They wanted someone to come out and document it, tell them they’re not crazy.

“We can’t say whether they’re crazy or not, but we can say that place certainly had a lot of activity.”

When the Dudleys visited the home along with ETPRS president Tracy Franklin on a sunny afternoon last April, the first thing they noted upon exiting the car was the air, which was suffocating, heavy with some ominous portent. “There were vibes,” says Sean; “Oppressive,” says Marshall; “It was creepy,” says Donna.

“I could feel myself closing down, to keep stuff out,” Marshall adds. “Moreso than anywhere I’ve been before. I had the feeling of some sort of evil presence.”

They deployed, Sean setting up his high-definition Sony infra-red video recorder on a tripod in the back bedroom of the tiny home, Franklin and Marshall wandering the grounds with still cameras and digital audio recorders, and Donna sitting down to interview the principles. From the residents, Donna heard an awful story about a man named Edgar who had supposedly owned a home that once sat on the same plot of ground, a man who was believed by many to have shot his wife and children in cold blood, then torched the house to hide the crime.

Franklin fell sick one point at one point in the investigation, so overtaken by the place’s disruptive psychic vibrations that he had to walk outside. After 90 minutes, the four from ETPRS packed up their equipment and headed home for analysis and sober reflection.

Most of the results from the Rogersville trek are posted on the ETPRS website. Some may take issue with how the Dudleys interpret the spirits’ oft-distorted otherworldly murmurings, but it’s hard to dismiss the aggregate heft of inexplicable, seemingly psychic phenomena—EVPs that seem to speak of sex and hate and children’s rhymes, and of someone named Edgar, who maybe has a gun.

Most compelling to the Dudleys is the veritable maelstrom of psychic activity that followed their traditional investigation-closing invocation, a prayer in-the-round inviting any wayward spirits to seek the freedom of the Light. “Our feeling is there was probably an evil presence, maybe a demonic presence, keeping the other spirits under control,” Marshall says. “We told them there’s no way he can keep them, that they can go to the Light and he cannot stop them. Then we got all these EVPs, all of them talking about going to the Light, seeing the Light.”

That night, long after Franklin and the Dudleys left, family members at the Rogersville home reported that objects began to hurtle through the air like guided missiles, seemingly of their own accord, until they fled in terror. Sean suggests it was the violent retaliation of angry demonic presences, lashing out at those who would dast rescue lesser spirits from their malign sway.

The most notable haunted house in the Knoxville vicinity is arguably downtown’s Bijou Theatre, née the Lamar House, a 200-year-old construct (or nearly so) that has been at various points in its long and storied history a hotel, soldier’s quarters, wartime infirmary, bordello, and playhouse. Says Marshall Dudley, “On the list of places you’d really like to investigate around here, the Bijou is up toward the top. There’s a lot of reported activity.”

Paranormal enthusiasts believe that hotels and old theaters are popular points of congress for spirits who linger on the earthly plane, and the Bijou was both of those things and more.

“I think what happens is that when people die, their spirit still has a free will, and spirits tend to migrate to areas where when they were still alive, they enjoyed themselves,” says Marshall. “Maybe a hotel where they spent their honeymoon, or a theater where they performed or saw a show. Or in the case of the fourth floor, a bordello, either because they worked there or they went there… for fun.”

In its first incarnation, ETPRS saw several of its investigators visit the Bijou back in 2003. Mike Case remembers that “there had been experiences of people getting touched and poked (at the theater.) We went and picked up lots of orbs (spirit lights) on camera, but not much else. We wanted to go back again, this time with more people and better equipment.”

The rejuvenated ETPRS did just that on July 21 of this year, when nine of its members equipped with digital cameras and digital recorders and infra-red video cams joined seven Bijou employees for a marathon six-hour evidence collecting spree spread through all four floors of the building, beginning at 8 p.m. on a proverbial dark and stormy night.

It was indeed a fine evening for chasing spirits, according to Marshall. “The storm may have aided things, because sometimes electrical fields (from a storm) can energize a place,” he says. “Everyone felt something that night.”

In four groups, the investigators and their Bijou escorts combed the floors, and Sean says they didn’t have to wait and review the tapes to discern that strange things are still going on in the old building that hosted countless stage performers, countless more hotel guests, and a pair of gutshot and dying Civil War generals in its two centuries of existence.

“While we were there, several people said they got touched by something unseen,” says Donna, “people from our group as well as people from the Bijou.”

“One of the other (ETPRS) guys and I climbed up to the attic area above,” says Sean. “When we were climbing back down that eternally long ladder, he all of a sudden yelled up, ‘Don’t freak out if something grabs you, because something just grabbed me.’”

On the second floor balcony, and in the men’s room on the second floor, Marshall noted feeling “some of the same vibes as in Rogersville,” an observation that would later prove frighteningly prescient.

Combing through hours of digital audio days later, the investigators heard a host of new EVPs on all floors, most of which are posted on the aforementioned websites. “It seems there’s two groups, or societies of spirits there,” Marshall says. “One of them related to the bordello on the fourth floor, and another as you come down the stairs related to the stage, the actors and actresses and performances.”

Unlike many of the Pressmen’s Home EVPs, the Bijou gatherings are often plainly heard, relatively free from confounding distortion. In one instance, the voices of a man and woman seem to discuss the advisability of taking a shower up on the fourth floor, where Marshall says showers were once located; yet another fourth floor spirit seems to exhort visitors to “Get Back!” in a voice that’s as harsh and shrill and sudden as a wildcat’s howl.

Yet another voice, captured in the first floor auditorium, seems to make a request for someone to “Call Paige… Adrienne, too.” Paige and Adrienne happen to be the names of two former Metro Pulse arts writers, by the way, both of whom are particularly fond of theater. But we’re sure that’s just a coincidence.

But the most intriguing discovery from that late-night, late-July Bijou expedition comes in the form of a video, soon to be aired on WBIR-Channel 10 and posted on the ETPRS website, a video so compelling and seemingly inexplicable through the agencies of reason and sober analysis that Mike Case calls it “the Holy Grail of paranormal evidence.”

As Sean’s camera pans slowly across the toilet stalls in the second floor men’s room, it appears, a luminous white hump in the lower right-hand corner of the lens. It rises as it darts across the lower half of the frame, reaching its highest point as it reaches square center, looking not unlike someone’s hand might, or else maybe the head of a small child, were it to dart across the frame draped in a white sheet or pillow case. Except that once it passes mid-frame, the image starts to morph, expand and nearly bifurcate and then begin to dissipate as it moves leftward, disappearing at frame left before it loses the last vestiges of solidity.

Though ETPRS investigators make no definitive claims about any of their findings, Marshall Dudley believes whole-heartedly that the footage is bona fide evidence of a Bijou Ghost. “I think he came up through the floor, and basically got caught by surprise at Sean being there, and immediately took off,” Marshall says. “I think it was trying to change shape, as it took off, trying to hide by becoming more ethereal.”

Now I’m no psychic, but I’m reasonably certain that at least half of you who’ve come this far in this little story don’t believe a word I’ve set to page; you didn’t stop reading, like I told you to, way back in the third paragraph. And now you think I’m lying, or the ETPRS folks are lying, or both. Or you think we’re all demented fools who’d do well to give up whippets and stop watching so many old Vincent Price movies on late-night cable TV. After all, the whole thing is just a bunch of overheated gibberish, half-truths and hearsay and hack reporting backed up by nothing more than some sketchy website photos and scratchy MP3s.

And you’re just about ready to stop reading now, I’ll wager, ready to throw this story aside and line the catbox with it, or else wrap some day-old fish and then never, ever pick up another issue of this stupid and contemptible rag again.

But I’m here to tell you that would be the wrong move for you, bubba. Contempt Prior to Investigation, I believe they say. There’s even a special Latin phrase for it—which doesn’t come to mind right now—but trust me, it’s a bad, bad thing. Because you never know where the truth lies.

And you never know when some rogue Pressmen’s Home poltergeist will turn up rattling in your pantry, tossing around kitchen implements like lawn darts, raising other spirits and generally making things go bump in the night. Then you’ll only wish like mad hell for some gently eccentric former nuclear design engineer turned ghost hunter like Marshall Dudley to come and help bail you out of the pretty fix you’re in. Minds are like parachutes, bubba. Enjoy your Halloween.