In the clear chill of a mid-October midnight, all is quiet, but in Clyde, a hunt is on. Within the walls of the county’s oldest house, the Cold Mountain Paranormal Society is holding an investigation — in laymen’s terms, they are ghost hunting.
This particular evening, the Shook House is their haunt, and they’re hoping to encounter some spirits of the past in this gem of Haywood County history.
The house itself was built in stages, starting in the first few decades of the 1800s and continuing renovations and additions until the 1890s, when Levi Smathers and his family owned and expanded the home. The third level of the house served as a Methodist chapel and pulpit for the traveling circuit preachers in the early days of the county.
On the wide-board walls the scrawled signatures of many are still evident, like a centuries-old guestbook preserved in the planks. One of the home’s claims to fame is the lauded and legendary visit by Francis Asbury, traveling preacher and early Methodist church father. And while his name is not to be found on the chapel walls, his letters confirm a visit to the area in 1812.
But on this night, the quest is not for God, but for ghosts — or at least their early manifestations. As the paranormal crew lays their cords and sets up their infrared cameras, the group’s leader, Tony Ruff, explains what, exactly, they’re looking for.
Tony is a lifelong Haywood County resident, and both the high-tech equipment and the idea for the group’s inception are his.
“We kind-of hope to find any paranormal activity,” Ruff says, going on to explain the three basic stages of paranormal apparition.
The first is orbs.
“Some people say that’s the first stage of a spirit trying to manifest itself,” says Ruff, bedecked this evening in a “Ghost Hunters” T-shirt in honor of the occasion. An orb, to the untrained eye, looks like a little white circle, the halo of light that develops when a drop of water hits a camera lens. And Ruff says that it is easy to mistake a bug or some other easily explained phenomenon for an orb, so to be sure, photos must be blown up and analyzed.
The second stage is a mist, which is the step between an orb and a full-blown apparition and, apparently, is almost exactly what it sounds like: a mist.
When asked which they’re looking for this evening, fellow enthusiast and group member Laura Elizabeth, who describes herself as an author and medium, chimes in.
“An apparition would be wonderful,” says Elizabeth.
“That’s like the holy grail,” agrees Ruff.
Once the recorders are set — infrared cameras, a full-spectrum camera, several digital point-and-shoot models, motion detectors and a few electronic voice recorders, “because with most spirits, the frequency is lower and you can’t hear it with your ears,” Ruff explains — the investigation begins in earnest right around midnight.
While most of a ghost-hunting expedition is rather less exciting that one would anticipate — it is largely a waiting game — the three-person investigations have all the right ingredients for spookiness at times. With the lights off to prevent false-positives and the rooms empty of all but their furniture to avoid evidence contamination, the full weight of the house’s long history comes to bear, and every creak of the floorboards or breeze blowing through the walls prompts a look over the shoulder, conjures thoughts of Shooks and Smathers and Morgans, haunting the halls of their historic home. And although asking questions of empty rooms feels, at times, foolish, Ruff says it is sometimes the best way to get a response from an apparition.
To prepare for this night, Ruff and his compatriots did exhaustive research, trying to learn the ins and outs of the house’s history.
“The more you know about a place, the better off you are,” says Ruff. “Knowledge is the best thing to prepare for an investigation. The more history you have, the better chance you have of catching something.”
And if this is true, the group could not have chosen a more opportune location. The Shook house predates the creation of Haywood County, and following its restoration, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, to be preserved as a treasured monument to the region’s growth and history.
The group spends the evening using their knowledge and equipment attempting to make contact with those who lived, loved and likely died here.
And after four hours spent trying to entice the spirits into appearance, the paranormal enthusiasts pack up their equipment and go home to analyze their data.
In the end, the ghosts of Shooks past didn’t manifest themselves fully, but Ruff, Elizabeth and the seven others joining them all agreed that there were orbs to be had.
“You don’t have to see anything to have activity,” says Ruff.
And who knows, if the orbs were flying on this investigation, maybe the ghosts themselves will soon follow.