At 8 p.m. on a Wednesday, Jose Castillo sits alone in an unfurnished room. In front of him is a table lined with electronic equipment: digital voice recorders, flashlights, microphones, walkie-talkies, contraptions the size of Blackberry phones with lights and attachments, a computer and a split-screen monitor showing rooms and hallways being filmed by infrared cameras placed throughout the house. This is the headquarter room of a ghost hunt. And it’s taking place in McDonough.
In an hour, a team of investigators will arrive. But for now, there are only four people - that we know of - in the house.
Built in 1885, the house is a beautiful two-story structure with a large columned porch and fireplaces in every room. It’s had its share of scandals, deaths and mystery. In 2003, renovators unearthed artifacts from India in the backyard, which is nothing compared to the human skeleton they found in a crawl space near a downstairs fireplace. The house is well known among investigators as being an "active" house.
Castillo, a Vietnam veteran and professional photographer, is the co-founder of Freelance Paranormal Investigation. "We’ve all experienced stuff," Castillo says. "We're not scared. We don’t use Ouija boards and we don’t do seances. By working with them, you open the doors to other entities to come in. In my opinion, if you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t mess with it."
The purpose of the group is to investigate - and if possible, explain or debunk - unexplained phenomena such as doors that close in empty rooms, windows that mysteriously open, objects that move on their own, random footsteps. "We go in to document what’s going on, but we don’t get rid of them," Castillo says. "Most of the time we find out what it is."
A walk through the house while the sun is still up reveals large, empty rooms, except for one on the bottom floor that’s filled with the remnants of former tenants – boxes, clothing and a floor lamp. On the second floor, a sitting room with an old pink chair leads to a bathroom. It’s dark and quiet – and creepy. A solo venture is not made into that room.
As night falls, other investigators arrive. Among them are Andy and Albert Roberts of Henry County Ghost Hunters. By day, Andy is a banker and Albert is in law enforcement and the Army National Guard.
"We’ve only had a handful of incidents that really freaked us out," Albert says. "One that comes to mind is when we were doing an investigation on a small house. We were sitting on this bed, it’s pitch black, and lo and behold, the bed lifts up while we’re sitting on it and just collapses ... I think we have it on the Website and I think we had to do some editing because we were kind of saying choice words when that happened. Then there’s the woman saying ‘I’m here.'"
The brothers have EVPs (Electronic Voices Phenomenon) posted on their Website from various investigations, including this house. The EVPs are recordings made on a traditional tape recorder or digital voice recorder during an investigation. The recordings pick up whispers and voices that the investigators normally don’t hear. In one EVP, an investigator calls out the name of a ghost believed to be present. After a moment of silence, a voice says, "I’m here." Everyone in the room heard it.
"There was about 45 seconds of silence and nobody could breathe. It was so unbelievable to hear it," Andy says. "It was about three feet behind us." The voice was captured on two recorders.
"I don’t understand why sometimes you hear it and sometimes you can’t," he says. "Most of the time, you can’t."
When all of the investigators are present, Castillo explains the rules of the investigation: Work in small teams; if you have a recorder, keep it still; if you make a noise, document it; keep talking to a minimum; contact him if there’s a problem. Afterward, the investigators mingle in the hallway, collecting flashlights, recorders, electro-magnetic frequency detectors (EMF), cameras and video recorders before breaking off into groups.
Dan Brooks, Shannon Ashbury, Caprice Walker and Jeff Anderson are in my group. Ashbury and Walker own the bookstore Bell, Book and Candles on the square. There is an EVP on the Roberts’ site of two women speaking German and a voice whispering, "Gosh...they think we’re ghosts." It was captured in their store. Walker confides that she never sees anything on the investigations, but she wants to. The entire group is excited about exploring the house.
Ashbury comes out of the headquarters room with an EMF (which, Castillo later assures me, cannot be manipulated) and it’s beeping wildly. But then, there are two recorders, a camera and a video camera distributed among the group. We’re also standing next to an electrical outlet.
The first room we enter is in the back of the house, upstairs. There are two rooms off this room. The middle room is referred to as "The Weird Room"; the smaller, back room is a step down. This is where the "I’m here" EVP happened. We go into that room first. Walker asks if there is anyone there who like to communicate with us. Silence. Not even a beep from the EMP. In fact, the EMF hasn’t beeped since we walked up the stairs.
Walker asks again. Silence. Ashbury contacts Castillo on the walkie-talkie, and he instructs her on how to reset the EMP. It starts beeping. Again, we’re standing near and electrical outlet.
After a lot of unanswered questions (apparently, no one wanted to communicate with us) and now, a lot of beeping, we try another room: The second-floor bathroom and sitting room. Now things get weird.
There are three of us in this room. Walker holds the recorder and the microphone; Ashbury has the EMF. "Is there anyone here who would like to communicate with us?" Walker asks. The EMF beeps rapidly and stops.
"Is there anyone else with you?" Walker asks. The EMF beeps rapidly and stops. "Beep once for ‘yes’ and twice for ‘no,’" Walker says. "Did you live in this house?"
"Did you die in the train wreck?" (On June 24, 1900, a passenger train traveling from Macon to Atlanta crashed when floods wiped out the train trestle a mile and a half from McDonough. Thirty-five people were killed, and many of the bodies were laid out in the square.)
"Did you die in this house?" Ashbury asks.
By now, curiosity has clearly overridden the instinct to flee, and the yes-no communication leads us to the fire escape, where we could see a neighbor watching the house out of her window, then to two other rooms upstairs, and finally to a bathroom on the first floor.
Castillo, who has been watching this on the monitor, tells us that round lights were following us through the rooms.
Two days after the investigation, Walker calls to ask if I listened to my recorder. Hers captured two different voices, one of which said, "I’m here."
For the inaugural issue of H Magazine: For and About Henry County, I wanted to show that there was more to this community 30 minutes south of Atlanta than hospitals, McMansions and golf courses. The goal was to show the quirky, human side of the area. In my research, I learned that there was not one, but two, groups of ghost hunters. This story chronicles a night of ghost hunting with both groups. The events really did happen, but I still remain skeptical (most of the time).