BETTY WEBB'S HAD her hair pulled here in Weston Plantation. She's watched light bulbs flicker and heard phantoms cleaning the fireplace.
Once, the former Weston tour guide thought she was alone in the historic Hopewell house — until she heard someone walking in the front passageway. It was "almost like they were pacing," she says. "I remember turning around and holding my breath, and it was then that I felt something go right up my back."
Built in 1789, Weston is one of the last remaining plantation homes on the Appomattox River. Standing as dusk approaches on a pleasant Saturday evening, the stately white house has just played host to an afternoon wedding. But five minutes after the happy bride and groom drive away to new beginnings, dark clouds approach. The search for the dead now begins.
"We'll sweep first," says "Big" Ray Rucker of the Ghost Raps RIP paranormal society, before he talks with Webb. "We'll use dousing rods, and send in the intuitive to pick up rhythms. We'll compare that data with our research and what the client tells us and see if anything matches up."
Tonight's client is the Historic Hopewell Foundation, which owns and operates Weston as a museum. It wants to know if the old place is really haunted — by a "lady in blue," among other entities. Built by William Gilliam, one of Prince George's wealthier residents, for his bride, Christian Eppes, the estate once used dozens of slaves and encompassed more than 400 acres. Even during the Civil War, people around this house saw ghosts.
"I do hear noises," says Dave Harless, president of Historic Hopewell's board of trustees, and a nonbeliever. "The house was built in 1789 so I expect to hear noises." Still, he's none too happy when the house alarm goes off in the middle of the night. "It's been happening a lot lately," he acknowledges.
Weston's so-called paranormal activity already has been well documented. "Supposedly you hear a baby crying in the house," says L.B. Taylor, the author of numerous books on Virginia's ghosts. And paranormal author and consultant Beth Brown says, "There've been rumors of apparitions, children heard on the second floor."
While they have investigated other area plantation homes, such as Tuckahoe and Edgewood, the Ghost Raps team never has visited Weston. The brainchild of Rucker and his partner Ken "K.B" Ballos, Ghost Raps RIP LLC includes a dozen members, and has investigated numerous locations since 2002. The organization straddles the line between serious research and entertainment — Ghost Raps conducts free investigations such as this one, but it also offers paid ghost tours of area hotspots. Big Ray and K.B. are behind "Ghost Raps Radio," an hour-long paranormal program that airs on WLEE. "We don't just talk the talk," says K.B., a retired Richmond police officer, "we walk the walk."
The Ghost Raps team — which includes tech manager Chris Smith, case manager Sally Simons, camera technician David Williams, and researcher Jeanie Saunders — allow Style Weekly photographer Scott Elmquist and me to join them tonight. There's also an intuitive, Tina Worley, who will make a psychic reading before all of the cameras and audio recorders are set up.
Betty Webb's adult son Brian and his girlfriend, Johnie Cochran, also are here, mainly to comfort Webb. Years ago, Brian Webb had his own experience at Weston, witnessing a female spirit. Cochran is a skeptic, she says: "Maybe it's a religious thing, maybe that's what keeps me from believing in ghosts." Nevertheless, she says she's a fan of "Ghost Hunters," the Syfy Channel television show that features a team of spiritual investigators checking out haunted locations.
"I've never experienced anything myself," says Historic Hopewell's Carolyn Hoagland, also present. "People upstairs in the master bedroom feel a certain pressure on their chest, and in the other bedroom, there's an imprint in the bed like there's a person sitting on it. You smooth it out and it comes back."
Meanwhile, Webb shows off a door that once kept mysteriously swinging open, until someone had the bright idea to take it off its hinges and reverse it. The swinging stopped.
"And right here," she says, pointing a wavering finger at the ground. "That's where I came in around the Fourth of July and it smelled like something had died in here."
THE RICHMOND AREA is alive with spirits. In addition to the ghost tours, zombie walks and carnival haunts, there are at least 15 different paranormal societies like Ghost Raps RIP operating around the region — intrepid ghost-busters ready to document or refute claims of spiritual activity. Armed with ghost boxes, EMF meters — for measuring electromagnetic fields — and infrared digital cameras, these groups, consciously or not, act out the same kind of haunted investigations that viewers enjoyed in the film, "Ghostbusters," and thrill to every week on popular television shows such as "Ghost Hunters" and "Ghost Adventures."
Ghost busting makes sense here. If any place is haunted, it's River City.
"Richmond has a lot of very old buildings, plus there has been so much trauma and sadness built up here," says Taylor, the author. He's been a guest on a few ghost hunts, and recalls one memorable excursion. "There were 30 people or more and they all had their equipment and their cameras," he says. "I said at the time that any self-respecting ghost wouldn't show his face."
"The paranormal groups are loosely divided up into three categories, says Todd Schall-Vess, manager of the Byrd Theatre, which has been the site of numerous investigations by more than a dozen different paranormal teams. "There are the ultrascientific groups that are really trying their best to be as structured and as scientific as possible. ... There are those that are on the scientific study side but also try and make contact by holding séances and so forth. And then the smallest group is the outright fraud."
What have these investigations uncovered? "Usually what I get is an inconclusive report," Schall-Vess says. "Or I get a couple of guys with laptops who want to play me some recording, saying, 'You hear that? You hear that voice in the background?'" The Byrd's manager hasn't had a personal encounter with the spirits, he says, but he's "heard stories that run the full gamut, from the clearly fabricated to the somewhat credible."
"The people I interview for my books are very sincere in their belief," Taylor says. "But I have yet to have an experience myself. I have seen tons of photos. ... I can't explain them. But I think 99 percent of what people perceive as spirits can be explained through rational means."
"We like to disprove before we say that there's something weird," says Steve Dills, a founding member of Transcend Paranormal, a Richmond-based group that recently changed its name from RIPVirginia. "I can't say I'm a full-fledged believer. I haven't seen a person disappear into a wall. Most of the stuff we get are EVPs [Electronic Voice Phenomena — or spirit voices]. But who is to say what an EVP is? It could be a radio frequency. That's why we try and disprove it first."
Beth Brown, who's written two books on the spirits of Virginia, has served as an adviser to local ghost hunters and founded the Virginia Society for Paranormal Education and Research. She says Central Virginia is one of the richest hotspots for paranormal activity in North America.
"Not everyone who studies the paranormal is a thrill seeker," Brown stresses. "I don't go out to be scared. I want to figure out what happened." Because mainstream scientists shy away from studying the supernatural ("they are afraid of tarnishing their reputations"), Brown says she thinks it's natural that private groups would be out looking for answers.
Allen Slonaker, of the Virginia-based Center for Paranormal Research and Investigation, agrees. "Science is supposed to be the study of the unknown and this is the great unknown," he says. "You look throughout history, every culture you'll find, regardless of where they are on the globe ... some sort of ghost phenomena and ghost lore."
Formed a decade ago, the Center for Paranormal Research and Investigation is arguably the most difficult to convince of the area paranormal societies. "We try to approach things skeptically," Slonaker says, acknowledging that a "vast majority ... 90 percent" of the cases his team investigates turn out to have rational explanations. "You have to be very [wary] when any group goes in saying that some place is definitely haunted."
The center doesn't believe in using psychics, dousing rods or other metaphysical means when investigating. Instead, it searches for alternate explanations, such as evidence of high electromagnetic fields, or EMF.
"EMF can be an indicator of paranormal activity," Slonaker says. "But on the flipside, high exposure to EMF can trigger visual and auditory hallucinations, headaches, nausea. We get people who complain that, when they try to go to sleep, they see a ghost. When we do our EMF sweep, we'll find old, poorly insulated wiring behind their headboard. So we'll suggest that they move the bed to the other side of the room. All of a sudden, they aren't being haunted anymore."
"I don't think there has to be outright fraud to fool people," the Byrd's Todd Schall-Vess says. "People fool themselves better than anybody else. I think you have to take a very critical eye when you look at these things, because the desire for there to be something is so great."
Thirty-four percent of Americans believe in the afterlife, according to one recent poll. That's a lot of desire.
"This fascination with ghosts has always been with us," Schall-Vess says. "There was a whole Victorian surge in spiritualism. It's never really gone away. ... There are so many things today that seemed like magic or pseudo science several decades ago, who knows? Maybe there is another level to the world that we don't know about. I'm willing to keep an open mind."
A THUNDERSTORM RISES over Weston just as tonight's ghost hunt begins.
Psychic Worley, up to this point waiting outside, walks the house, occasionally stopping and closing her eyes. She picks up the name, Christine or Christina, and says she feels the presence of children. "It's kind of weird," she says after her reading. "It's almost like I am [the ghost] for a minute ... sometimes I can go in and not feel a thing and sometimes it's instantaneous."
In the basement the investigators finish installing a closed-circuit video system, where they can keep watch on cameras positioned around Weston. "This one right here," K.B. points out on the screen. "If there's any kind of motion in front of it, even a cockroach, it will pick it up."
Big Ray reviews the investigating protocol. "When we say 'flash,' a camera is going to go off," he says. "Make sure you close your eyes or you'll see sunspots. And if you make a noise, if your knee creaks or you touch something, make sure you announce it so it isn't logged as evidence."
On the closed-circuit screen weird dots seem to float around two of the four rooms — orbs. Any self-respecting ghost-show viewer will recognize these strange floating particles, often identified as apparitions attempting to manifest. I point them out to members of the team but no one seems interested. Later, Big Ray says: "We can't worry about that stuff. We see it all the time. Some of it is dust. It's only when it seems to move intelligently that we take notice."
Tonight, the investigators — and their guests — will operate in teams. The first will pair Ghost Rap's Worley, camera technician Williams and Big Ray with photographer Elmquist and me. Also along, to entice activity, are Webb and Hoagland.
We begin the hunt downstairs. "We are not here to harm you," Worley says to the air.
"Is there someone in this room with us?" Big Ray asks. "Knock once for yes, twice for no."
There is a noise by the fireplace. "Thank you," Worley says.
More questions follow, followed by fewer and fainter knocks. We adjourn to the next room, which contains a portrait of the lady in blue who is said to walk these halls. "Do you like Betty telling the history of this house?" Williams asks. "Knock one for yes, twice for no."
After a few seconds, Big Ray barks, "Is there a lady in this room?
We hear a crack on the floor near where Worley and I stand. While she thanks the noise, I make a mental note that 85 percent of the home's wood is original to 1789.
We leave the room to find a malfunctioning video camera in the hallway. Lightning flashes. "What are you doing, messing with my camera?" Ray yells out.
That's when Betty Webb speaks up. "Did you just touch me?" she asks Williams. "Something just touched my shoulder."
We spend the next half hour collecting more faint knocks. Waiting downstairs in the basement while another team has a go, I look again at the video screen. The orbs in the upstairs bedrooms have intensified even as the thunderstorm outside is passing us by.
"LET'S HAVE THE skeptics this time," K.B. says when it's our turn again.
Five of us are soon sitting in Weston's front parlor, where Webb says she felt a presence and where cigar aroma is often detected. With three different recorders going, Ray suggests we go round robin with spirit questions. Cochran, the "Ghost Hunters" fan, is present but declines the opportunity.
"Do you realize you are no longer on the living plane," Ray asks.
"Could you touch somebody in this room?" KB asks.
"Was this your office?" I ask.
"Did you smoke cigars in here?" Elmquist asks.
We hear nothing. K.B., in a gruff voice, tries again: "Can you touch one of us?"
Cochran, quiet up until now, rises up with a jerk. "Something ... is messing with my hair. It's like the third time it's done it. I didn't want to say anything. ..."
Elmquist announces "flash" and takes a series of photographs. One of these images — a long exposure — shows something unusual in the top right corner, something brownish and smoky. If you squint slightly, you can trace the form of a human skull in the mysterious swirl. If you squint even more, you can trace the outline of New Jersey.
"It didn't hurt. But something definitely touched me," Cochran says, touching her head.
Ray's thermometer shows that it's 82.5 degrees. A follow-up reading a few minutes later reveals a 3-degree drop. "We should have brought a K-2 up here," Big Ray whispers to K.B.
The temperature is checked again and it's dropped another degree. "This time I didn't touch the button," Ray says.
When this activity calms down, we go upstairs. Big Ray sets up a word generator, a database through which ghosts are said to be able to communicate. "Introduce," the computer ghost voice says. "Grandmother."
I see no flying orbs up here. And I actually find myself saying, "I'm looking for the butt imprint." But the haunted bedspread of Weston has not been mussed.
Big Ray feels a pain in his side — "like someone jabbed me with a pin" — but everything else seems normal. Still, when reviewing my tape, I hear a baby crying in the background ... three times. None of us heard these wails at the time.
WHEN I LEAVE Weston, I'm no less a skeptic about the paranormal than I was when I drove up to the place. But I think to myself that the night's proceedings would make for one hell of a TV ghost show in the hands of the right video editor — orbs, cold chills, hair-pulling, loud knocks, pin jabs. Add to that a photo with a strange apparition and an EVP of a crying baby.
So imagine my surprise, a few weeks later, when Big Ray informs me that the evidence collected from Weston is "inconclusive." He says Ghost Raps is returning for another investigation. While he seems intrigued by our photo — "yeah, it does look like a skull there" — he discounts the crying baby as something mechanical, perhaps the whine of one of the recording devices.
The most compelling evidence Big Ray has to show me is a piece of video. At a time when no one is downstairs, the soundtrack reveals music playing eerily in the front passageway — a chiming, mechanical melody not unlike that of a music box.
According to the people at Historic Hopewell, there's no music box on display at Weston. Where did the music come from?
And so the ghost hunt continues. S