It was dark, as night tends to be, but it wasn’t stormy as I stood beside the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga sign on McCallie Avenue. In fact, there was barely a cloud in the sky, and a half moon hung in the blackness like a decayed apple. There wasn’t even a chill in the air, or a breeze stirring dry leaves. Nonetheless, I was hoping something – anything – would happen over the next 90 minutes that would make goose bumps crawl up my arms.
If something did happen, I wouldn’t be alone. I was with 13 other brave souls plus Donald “Donnie” Kitchens, a guide for Chattanooga Ghost Tours (CGT). The company’s ethereal escapades are a popular attraction in the city, and with good reason. The proliferation of paranormal reality shows on television suggests people are at least curious about such things, if not unabashed believers in the supernatural. Plus, as Kitchens told me, people on CGT’s tours claim to have seen and heard strange things, and even been touched by invisible fingers.
As would-be ghost hunters signed a waiver that absolved CGT of all responsibility in case something scared the bejesus out of us, Amy Petulla, the owner of the company, asked everyone where they lived. For most answers, she supplied a quick story, including a doozy for an older couple that had driven all the way from Fort Smith, Texas to see Chattanooga. (I’d share it, but she and Kitchens politely asked me not to repeat any of the tales they told.) All Petulla did when I told her I’m from Ringgold was express disappointment that the train depot isn’t haunted. Feeling a little like Charlie Brown, I wanted to look up from my tricks-or-treats bag and cry, “All I got was a rock.”
I didn’t mourn for long, though, because it was soon time to begin. Instead of going on a ghost tour, which CGT does nightly at 7:30 p.m. in the fall, we were embarking on a ghost hunt. In other words, in addition to listening to Kitchens’ stories, we were there to experience our own. Before we even set foot on the UTC campus, I had written the lead for this story in my head: “It was a dark and stormy night…”
Since CGT was calling our supernatural sojourn a hunt, they weren’t going to send us forth unarmed. After leading the group up the stairs that bookend the UTC sign, Kitchens opened a small satchel and began drawing an assortment of odd-looking gizmos out of it, all of which he said would detect the presence of a ghost. Although none of the equipment looked as cool as the stuff Bill Murray and company haul around in “Ghostbusters,” I did find the Ovilus intriguing, as Kitchens said it would allow any ghosts we encounter to talk to us.
I declined to carry a ghost hunting device, though, as I wanted to remain armed and ready with my camera. As I checked the settings, I imagined accepting my Pulitzer for snapping the first clear photo of a spirit.
Once armed, we trod into the dim shadows, with some of us holding EMF detectors at arm’s length, and others pointing temperature detectors in every direction.
Kitchens quickly brought us to a garden nook beside Patten Chapel, set up the Ovilus on a sundial, and invited everyone to gather ‘round as a he told the tragic story of a ghost he says inhabits the area.
It was a good yarn. Although the Ovilus yielded only a few words (which to my ears sounded like electronic squawks), it was a great setting for a spooky tale, and Kitchens spun it well. Although typically only adults are allowed on the hunts, this was the one night a year when CGT allows children to accompany the grown-ups, and as Kitchens spoke, an adolescent girl drew her arms tight around herself and surveyed her surroundings with eyes as big as saucers. Each time the Ovilus squawked, she jump about six inches and ducked behind her father.
As the group walked to the second location, Kitchens asked some of the participants why they were taking the tour. “Because I want to be scared,” said one college-age girl. “Because I want to know if this stuff is real,” said a mother who was there with her daughter. “Because we’re curious,” said the man from Texas.
All kidding about goose bumps and ghost pics aside, I was there for the atmosphere. I love scary movies, especially the ones set in a haunted house, and I was enjoying the setting, the stories, and simply basking in the feel of it all.
Those who were hoping for goose bumps got their money’s worth at the next stop, which was outside the entrance to the chapel. As Kitchens told the story of another ghost, he invited individual members of the tour to sit on the steps of the entrance and ask the spirit questions. “Are you here?” a young woman asked. “What’s your name?” asked another woman, who looked a little embarrassed. A man who was there with his teenage sons tried to antagonize the ghost, daring it to give him a sign of its presence and calling it weak when it didn’t. Kitchens let each person proceed as they wished.
Whereas the Ovilus had seemed shy in the garden nook, it became quite a chatterbox while on the steps of the chapel. Saying mostly single words, all of which Kitchens had to decipher, the device said “business,” “coward,” “liar,” and “Jesus.” It also said “Wait,” when a girl got up to leave the steps, earning the biggest reaction from the group that evening.
Everyone had their theories about what the words meant. At first, I entertained the notion that the “ghost” could have been talking about the people on the tour. Perhaps there was a businessperson in the group, or a Christian, or a coward. Then, given the nature of Kitchens’ story, I speculated that it might be speaking about itself.
Regardless, Kitchens was pleased with the amount of “paranormal activity” in the area, and waited for it to die down before moving on.
The remainder of the evening included more stops, more stories, and a walk through Citizens Cemetery. During the latter, Kitchens encouraged everyone to break up and explore the area alone while looking for evidence of the supernatural.
Whereas the campus had been well lit, the graveyard was nearly pitch black and quiet, save for the lights that surrounded it and the whooping of college students in the distance. For sheer atmosphere, it was the creepiest part of the evening. People were worked up from the stories and the activity outside the chapel, and seemed primed to believe anything could happen.
As I walked alone, I spotted the mother and daughter near a set of gravestones. The daughter was crouching on the ground and using her smart phone to read the engraving on a tombstone, and the mother was leaning down slightly to look at the words herself. I saw a good photo opp, and walked up behind them to capture the moment.
As I took aim with my camera, the mother stood, saw me, and screamed. This in turn made the daughter jump and shriek. Within moments, the three of us were in stitches, but at least for a brief moment, the ladies were believers.
After gathering the devices at the end of the tour, Kitchens asked if he could recite the Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel, which he said would protect the members of the tour as they departed. Everyone agreed. While watching him, I was struck by his sincerity. Kitchens didn’t come across as a showman, but seemed to genuinely believe in the paranormal and in the stories he told. That alone did more than all of the electronic gizmos combined to sell the hunt.
For more information about CGT, including their award-winning ghost tours as well as their hunts, visit chattanoogaghosttours.com. Whether you’re a believer or simply someone who loves all things spooky, I believe you’ll have a scary good time.
To see more photos, pick up a copy of the Hamilton County Herald.