Around 8 p.m. on a chilly October night, a small group of men are gathered in front of the Temperance Building in Harriman. The red brick building is obviously old. No one builds conical turrets anymore. Though the streets are still fairly busy, the Temperance Building seems to loom ominously.
You'd never know it had a reputation for being one of the most haunted places in East Tennessee by the way the guys in front of it are cheerfully chatting and gearing up for a long night. Justin Keen, his brother Jeff, and his buddy Frank Cockram are waiting for the local fire department to bring the keys to the building so that they can investigate it. For ghosts.
Rich Ruland, owner of G.H.O.S.T. Paranormal, a ghost-hunting company that contracts with the city to allow ghost-hunting teams like Justin's to do their own investigations of the building, is talking animatedly about all of his experiences with ghosts in the Temperance Building, its history—and some of its new occupants.
"There's 300 or 400 bats up there [on the third floor]," he says, helpfully adding that there's guana all over the place.
The Temperance Building has twice been used as a city hall in this little town in Roane County founded as a sort of utopian, alcohol-free community in 1891. In between, it was used as a university, whose degrees were apparently worthless. Now a couple of its rooms are occupied by a state representative. Some of the profits made through Ruland's contract go toward refurbishing the building, which shows many signs of age inside: The stairs and warped and tilted. At least a couple rooms' ceilings are falling down. A layer of dust—thinner in some areas, but still present—covers the entire place.
A fireman arrives in a white sedan with the lights blinking and jumps out of the car just long enough to hand over the keys. Ruland leads the way in to give Justin's team a walk-through of the building. They start in the basement.
The floors are dirt, with one pathway made of plywood. Ruland says there's a ghost down here called Gerald, an elemental ghost—which apparently means he can use energy from the sewage system and drift past people, giving them a nice waft of the sewer.
"He likes to mess with women especially," Ruland informs the team. "He'll pull their hair...one time he got a woman on her rear."
Justin's team chuckles a bit and stays alert for any sewagey breezes.
The walk-through continues to the second floor of the building. In a long, spacious room, a ghost named Carolyn is supposed to reside. Also on the second floor is an angry ghost named Chuck. Ruland gives the names of a couple other ghosts—names determined through a psychic he brought to the house, he says—including Juan and Julian. The place is home to more than 70 spirits, also according to the psychic, Ruland says.
"If you don't get 30 EVP's [electronic voice phenomenon] in four hours, you're not trying hard enough," Ruland advises them before he leaves.
And then their lights go out.
Justin Keen and his group of investigators aren't exactly unique in Knoxville. Since "reality" shows like Ghost Hunters became popular on cable TV since 2004, Knoxville's paranormal scene has attracted dozens of would-be supernatural detectives and ghost-tour guides. (The Online Paranormal Society Directory at ParanormalSocieties.com lists 11 Knoxville groups, ranging from the Office Of Paranormal Studies to Paranormal P. Eyes.)
"It sparked my interest and it looked fun," says Travis Cover, lead investigator of the Southern Paranormal Organization of Knoxville. "[SPOOK] pretty much started as me just watching TV shows like Ghost Hunters."
But others like Ruland say they were in the field long before Ghost Hunters (he's been investigating the paranormal for 14 years), and local ghost hunters aren't just frequenting historical places. SPOOK and other groups also act as personal paranormal investigators for people who request their help in checking out their houses or businesses.
Steve Sparks and Kelly Baker, lecturers at the University of Tennessee who both teach about American's views of the paranormal, say the interest in ghosts is not new and it's not going away.
"It's a thrill. It's a way to touch the darkness without getting it all over your hands," Sparks says. Adds Baker, "It's also kind of the vogue moment of the supernatural. Roughly three in four Americans believe in some form of the paranormal."
But genuine, local ghost hunting still isn't something you hear about every day—Knoxville sleuths are not exactly skulking in dark attics on a daily or even weekly basis.
Cheri Allfrey says she might get a call every month or two to investigate a home. She and her husband Patrick got serious about their work last Christmas after years and years of frequenting ghost tours of haunted places. (The tours in St. Augustine, Fla., are favorites of the Allfreys.) Patrick bought his wife her first Electromagnetic Field meter (frequently called a K-2 meter among ghost hunters) last December, which started their quest to amass a collection of tools common in the trade: digital voice recorders, video cameras, infrared lights and camera attachments, a big-screen computer monitor, and a hard drive big enough to hold all the video footage they collect.
Fully equipped, the Allfreys started their own ghost-hunting group, the Tennessee Investigators of Paranormal Phenomena, and have conducted four investigations of houses in the area.
"It's not something you can do [full-time] since investigations are so few and far between," Allfrey says.
She also says that her group—which consists of her husband, herself, and four other people with regular day jobs—accepts donations (though they don't really get many of those) and does not ask homeowners to pay them for their services.
"This is strictly volunteer," she says. "Anyone who charges you is not on the up and up."
Allfrey has always felt a connection to goings-on beyond the physical world. When she was a young woman, she says she predicted three people's deaths—those of two friends and the mother of another friend.
Religion and spirituality also play a big role in Cheri's dealings with spirits. She became an ordained minister (nondenominational) to officiate weddings, and says she has "undeveloped" psychic abilities—undeveloped because she's not able to turn them on at will. Allfrey believes people are reincarnated through families and inner circles of friends—she and her husband, she says, have been together in lives before. She says she believes in God, though she's not a church-every-week Christian.
"My beliefs are not standard by any means," she says. "I don't believe this is our only chance to get things right."
When Allfrey and her team go on an investigation, she says a prayer of light before starting, and instructs whatever spirits may be around to stay in the house—she's heard of some people being followed home by ghosts. In her experience, the spirits Allfrey has encountered have been pretty benign, and even if they weren't, she's not that afraid of them.
"I don't believe they could actually hurt you," she says. "I think it takes something a lot stronger to hurt us than a ghost that might be Aunt Sally hanging around. I believe it has to be of evil intent in order to hurt you, which would be a harmful spirit or demon."
That said, she did get a request to investigate a house with a less-than-thrilled spirit occupant. The homeowner always got a bad feeling walking into the basement of the house, and when Allfrey and her husband were checking the place out before the investigation, she says she couldn't stand to go any further than the first couple steps inside.
The creepiest part of the experience? Something down there, she says, spoke in a deep voice and had a serious message to deliver. The team heard that voice on one of their recordings.
"It was a very gruff, single word: ‘BASEMENT.' There was no mistaking it," Allfrey says, as if the ghost was reiterating the sinister atmosphere the man felt when he went into his basement. She advised the homeowner to get additional help with such a clearly unfriendly spirit, and prayed in his house.
Allfrey is aware that simply determining whether something is present—a spirit, a ghost, whatever—won't ever be the end-all be-all for homeowners. "I don't think we're ever going to get the answers we want," she says.
Justin Keen and most other ghost hunters like to do their investigations of buildings at night, with the lights out to minimize any outside interference. There are fewer cars on the road late at night and early in the morning. Lights that are left on can flicker on their own and emit electricity that can impact EMF readings or give off a buzzing sound that may interfere with sound recordings.
Once the lights go off at the Temperance Building, Justin's team heads straight for the basement. They plan to do a quick sweep to get a basic idea of the activity in each room pointed out to them by Ruland.
But by midnight, the guys start to get antsy. They've been in every supposedly haunted room in the building and have only heard one voice—it may or may not have been on of the team members, though no one remembers saying "I'll get it."
Slumped in a chair in what they guys have called "the brown room" (the walls are painted brown), Justin has a recorder and headphones hanging around his neck at almost all times to try and catch any voices they may not have heard in real-time while trying to communicate with spirits. Meanwhile, Jeff Keen is in constant motion with a K-2 meter clutched in his hand, moving it through the air in search of a spot that might make the meter's lights turn red—or at least orange, which would indicate a high electromagnetic field (and maybe a ghost).
Cockram says he's the most skeptical of the trio—the debunker—though he's pretty gung-ho about finding the ghost called Chuck. Cockram's much more playful than Jeff, and laughs easily. He carries a thermometer with him to test for cold spots that might indicate a ghostly presence, and also holds onto a K-2 meter that he sets down in each room to see if any ghosts walk past it.
"When I was a kid I read a book called America's Very own Ghosts by Daniel Cohen. It was pretty much a wrap for me after that. I was hooked," Justin says.
The book, written for elementary school-aged kids, is a collection of ghost stories. Some are scary, some are not. But it didn't matter for Justin. Now, he's definitely the one leading his friends into this modern ghost adventure—they refer to him as "bossman" all night, deferring to him for the next steps in their investigation.
After a quick smoke break to relieve some of the frustration of finding zero activity, the group sends Cockram down to the basement armed with only a walkie-talkie to see if he can't coax Gerald into communicating. The group uses the walkie-talkies to let each other know if they're making noise or if they hear anything.
Justin and Jeff head back upstairs, laughing while they mutter truck-driver lingo back and forth through the walkie talkies.
"Ten-four, over," Justin says.
"S.O.P.," crackles through the radio.
"What's an S.O.P.?" Justin asks.
"Standard operating procedures," his brother Jeff tells him.
They laugh some more and admit they couldn't be truck drivers.
"It's not like you go into a place and it's active all the time. It takes a long time. A lot of it," Justin says.
And he's had a few years to work out how to do it. He and his group have been going around to haunted places for the past four years. But when he first started, he had some trouble finding out whether places were actually haunted. He found a few directories online, but most were just based on legend or rumor—not recent investigations. So Justin took it upon himself to create a list of places known to have ghost activity, HauntingsGuide.com.
"I said to myself, here's a niche I can do," he says. "It probably took me about two years of doing research...to build the guide I have."
That guide includes more than 900 haunted places in all 50 states (and Washington, D.C.) with contact information for each building. He's also made contact with people at each place listed and has first-hand accounts of ghost activity—not just urban legends with no proof or real accounts.
He created HauntingsGuide.com himself, while also working full-time. During the day, Keen's an executive recruiter for engineering and transportation companies. He's also owned a landscaping business. But he says he's used to working 80-hour weeks, and that HauntingsGuide.com is a real labor of love.
"Most of all, I want [ghost hunters] to use the website as a tool to get into haunted places," Keen says. "We want people to trust our reviews and use our guide to help them make decisions on where they go to investigate paranormal activity...[and] so we can share our best practices that we learned the hard way through trials and tribulations."
J-Adam Smith wasn't really into the paranormal as a kid, or even as an adult until he bought a house in Florida. As he was working on it outside, someone walked by and told him his house was haunted.
From that point on, he was pretty much a believer.
He started feeling cold spots in his house, pets that came over acted strangely, and Smith constantly felt like he was being watched.
"It started getting pretty real," he says.
But as a prominent figure in his community—he owned a music school where he taught violin—he was hesitant to talk openly about seeking help with his ghost problem. He had no idea who to turn to and recalls thinking, "Am I going to call the Ghostbusters? I can't talk to anyone about this because I don't want to be called a lunatic."
So he read some blogs, burned some incense, and immediately felt better in his home. And that's when his research began in earnest. Smith scoured the Internet for tips on how to get started on paranormal investigations. Like many groups that may feel ostracized for their beliefs, ghost hunters connect with like-minded people on the Internet—and maybe even shield themselves from people who would call them crazy.
"I don't care what other people say. I believe," Smith says. "Even though we're in the Bible Belt, I think that people are becoming more open to it. People are not afraid to talk about it. I think ghosts are more able to be talked about than Ufology."
Upon his move to Knoxville, Smith fell in love with the city and its history. He spent days in the East Tennessee History Center researching its history, and eventually decided to realize his years-long goal of starting a ghost tour—but not just a tour of haunted places around town.
Haunted Knoxville Tours, the company Smith started, offers people the chance to be ghost hunters themselves.
"We are actually doing something different: putting the equipment in [customers'] hands," he says.
Armed with some common tools of the trade, Smith and his fellow tour guides lead people around downtown in search of ghosts. They show participants how to use each piece of equipment and allow them to find the ghosts themselves.
"There is a 99 percent chance that we're going to have something unexplained...on our tour," Smith says, which could range from an orb in a picture to high EMF readings in a place that shouldn't have them (i.e. a place with no electrical output or exposed electrical wires).
Smith says he's very much aware of, and in contact with, other paranormal investigation teams, having trained or worked with several local ghost hunters including Cheri Allfrey and Travis Cover, as well as Laura Still, who owns a Knoxville walking-tour company. Allfrey acknowledges there's tension between some groups, but doesn't elaborate; Cover says he is friends with a few other groups in the region. Despite the cooperation espoused by Cover and even Justin Keen's hope that he can help other ghost hunters like himself, Smith says "There's lots of drama in the paranormal field."
Smith considers himself a psychic, and has been certified as a ghost hunter through a Tampa, Fla.-based group called SPIRITeam, which trains and certifies ghost hunters, and provides paranormal investigative services. Smith now certifies his tour guides himself using the training materials and test he took with SPIRITeam. He takes his job in the paranormal field seriously.
"And then you have those [dabblers] who are out there to have fun," he says.
Finally, around 2 a.m., Justin Keen's guys start getting some major EMF spikes—the indicator lights on the K-2 meter turn orange and red, showing high electromagnetic energy—in what they referred to as "the carpet room" (it has some heavily padded flooring), a small corner room with a bay window that curves into a semi-circle. Jeff Keen sets his EMF meter on the ledge of a boarded-up window and notices that as he paces around the room, the meter spikes when he moves closer to it.
He begins running toward it from across the room as if to charge the meter, which lights up as he approaches, and then backs off.
After a few minutes of playing that game, the group wonders if they are dealing with a child ghost.
"Are you a little boy?" Keen asks into the quiet room.
The meter's light stays green.
"Are you a little girl?"
The meter spikes to red.
Justin stops the recorder he's had running and listens to the conversation again through his headphones. There are no other voices in the playback.
Jeff asks another question, referring to the ghost Ruland called Chuck, who, he mentioned, murdered infants, according to a psychic.
"Is Chuck the reason you're here?"
The meter's lights turn orange.
"We could be getting totally random spikes, but why?" he wonders out loud.
"It's pretty bad when we got to resort to this," Justin says, referring to relying solely on spikes on the EMF meter. But just as the meter's lights change again, everyone hears a thump—a door closing? Something falling? No one knows, and no one's left the room.
Another buddy-based Knoxville ghost-hunting organization is Appalachian Paranormal Investigations, headed by Josh Ooten and Chris Harder. The two went to Oliver Springs High School together in the Kingston area, and played basketball near a church graveyard as teenagers. One night, they saw a shadowy figure lurking nearby.
"Being the geniuses we are, we ran off after it," Harder says.
They played chicken with the shadow, moving closer to it, before it would inch toward them. When it seemed to jump toward them, they scrammed.
And then they sent their friend to check it out, too.
That's what really started the group on their path to ghost hunter-dom. With just one camera, they started calling around to places to see if they could investigate for ghosts.
"We wanted to find out what we were seeing," Harder says. Shadows like the one they saw don't just move on their own, and "that's what paranormal is—it's not normal."
Harder and Ooten, along with their friends, investigated some personal homes, but once word started getting around what they were doing, they were allowed to check out places like their old high school and the WATE studios at Greystone Mansion.
Along the way, they learned a few things—such as the nearly universal fact that churches will not let you investigate their buildings, and that ghosts affect the battery life of cameras. "They can really drain a power source," Ooten says. And that's why they don't use rechargeable batteries, which seem to be more susceptible to power loss.
Another thing they've learned is that provoking ghosts could get a physical response.
At Fort Southwest Point in Kingston, Harder and Ooten say they first approached its ghosts politely, asking nicely if they'd like to talk. Then, Harder says, "We started trying to provoke them." Ooten asked if the ghost had ever lost his chance with a girl. And that's when, they say, something "slapped the recorder out of Chris' hands."
Like Justin Keen, Ooten and Harder are skeptical of evidence from only one tool. An EMF spike, an orb in a picture—those aren't good enough evidence of paranormal presence, they say.
"We have thrown out more than what some other groups have caught," Ooten says.
The eight members of API go on investigations when they're able—they all have day jobs, and they definitely don't get paid to go on all these hunts. In fact, they've had to finance all their equipment out of their own pockets. They keep them in foam-lined, hard-shell briefcases (the type you might associate with spies or people transporting valuable objects).
"Almost every time, the police stop us," Ooten says, as they carry all their cases of equipment to and from their houses.
"We don't fault them for it," Harder adds.
What unites the group is their curiosity. They come from different religious perspectives—"I've been raised in a church my whole life," Ooten says, while Harder considers himself agnostic—but they each have a desire to figure out what's going on with the paranormal occurrences.
"It's definitely something, I just don't know what," Ooten says. "Who's to say there's nothing that exists that can't be seen in our spectrum?"
It's close to 3 a.m. when Justin Keen and his crew finally get something resembling a break.
After Cockram sneaked up to the third floor to see what was up there—and determined they could, in fact, walk without falling through the floorboards or stepping in guana—the rest of the group slowly climb the warped stairs leading up to the top floor, the one that hadn't been on the walk-through tour.
Jeff Keen, holding onto his EMF meter, walks around the available open space, until he gets right under some duct pipes. There shouldn't be any electricity in those pipes—everyone agrees on that. The meter spikes to the red lights for several seconds without blinking.
Several times, Jeff asks whatever's making the meter spike to turn it on and off—"If you want to communicate, turn the lights red," he instructs the hoped-for ghost—and it seems to do as he asks. Justin, who's listening in on a voice recorder and Cockram, who's holding a camcorder, neither hear nor see anything strange. But still, the glowing lights of the EMF meter seem pretty convincing to Jeff.
"I cannot explain that," he says.
Though the group can't say for sure, they theorize the spirit that could've been affecting the EMF meter was Chuck, the murderous ghost. It may have taken several hours to get a response like that, but no one's concerned.
"When we go into a new place, they got to get used to us," Justin explains.
Cockram nods and interjects, "It's the comfortability issue."
Apparently, even ghosts get shy sometimes.
Get in Touch With The Knoxville Ghost Hunters
Tennessee Investigators of Paranormal Phenomena
Specializes In: Investigating private homes
Southern Paranormal Organization of Knoxville
Specializes In: Helping homeowners deal with paranormal entities
Appalachian Paranormal Investigators
Specializes In: Investigating reportedly haunted buildings
Specializes In: Providing contact information for buildings across the United States that are known to be haunted
Haunted Knoxville Tours
Specializes In: Leading tours through Knoxville, stopping in places where significant historical events occurred; teaching customers how to investigate for paranormal activity
Knoxville Walking Tours
Specializes In: Leading history-based tours through Knoxville