Truth may be stranger than fiction, but sometimes it’s just plain scarier. Historic haunts offer more than a quick fright or spook around the corner, as they reveal stories of real people who in many ways still reside there. For the 2015 Halloween season, Poplar Grove Plantation is celebrating its own spirits and haunts—err, haints—of the past.
For more than three decades the plantation has been open to the public for private events, fundraisers and daytime tours. This year they’ve strayed from their normal kid-friendly Halloween festival to attract an older demographic. They’re hosting their first Paranormal Ghost Tour series on Friday nights throughout October. It will lead up to the inaugural Haint Blue All Hallows Masquerade on Saturday, Oct. 24.
“We have been wanting to show off the restoration of the house, particularly of the back porch with the haint blue,” Poplar Grove Executive Director Caroline Lewis excites. “Most Southern porches have that blue in the ceiling of their porch and it’s an old Gullah Geechee tradition to mimic water, because they believed evil spirits couldn’t cross water.”
Lewis has a long history with the plantation. She first set foot on the grounds when she was 10 years old. At 12, she started working as an usher of sorts.
“My job was to follow behind the tours to make sure everyone was exiting out of each room,” she tells. “I remember once coming downstairs to the main floor, and in my periphery [there] was like woman in a dress just fluttering across . . . I remember telling myself at the time it was silly.”
Over the years many people have had senses and feelings upon entering certain rooms in the Manor House. Some have seen unexplainable people and things. “There have been adults and children who will not go into rooms,” Lewis says, “and this is during daytime tours.”
Lewis has recovered handwritten notes from guides and volunteers, detailing some of their experiences. One stands out, then addressed to Nancy Simon in 1988, who ended up being the director of Poplar Grove:
“I have never been more scared in my whole life than Sunday night . . . I looked up and saw at the top of the staircase a woman wearing a long, grey dress and white lace, and gray hair. Beside her stood a black woman wearing a brown dress and white apron . . .”
For the past two-and-a-half years, the Poplar Grove Manor House has been undergoing renovations. Activity has increased and more history uncovered—not only of the wealthy white families who lived there but the slaves they kept there as well.
“We feel like we’re doing a better job of recording and documenting their history and presence here,” Lewis says. “We are still piecing together family history of the slaves who were here from 1850 to 1870—cross-referencing [and] trying to see how many of the descendants of the slaves were still on the property as tenant farmers.”
Before organizing the tours, Lewis and long-time docent and rental facility manager Chrissy Fennell wanted to better understand what had been going on throughout the property. Thus they invited paranormal investigators from Port City Paranormal and the Cape Fear Paranormal Society to spend several evenings in various parts of the Manor House and other active areas. “I have no experience in paranormal investigation other than just being with [the investigators],” Fennell says. “I know what they’ve gone and seen, and I know what I’ve experienced.”
In her six years of working at the plantation, Fennell often has detected tension and unrest, particularly during restoration projects. “Someone was working on scaffolding upstairs, and I looked up to ask him if he was ready to go to lunch,” she shares. “I saw this black shadow, about 3-feet tall, run into the children’s room.”
Most of the spirits are suspected to be family members from the four generations of Foys. They’re descendents from Joseph Mumford Foy, who, with slave labor, built the home of wood and resources from the property. Fennell explains this as she guides the ghost tours. She briefs its history. Each person on the tour gets a “scroll of the dead,” which outlines most of the people known to have passed away in the house. With a K2 meter in hand to detect electromagnetic fields (EMFs), Fennell leads the group into the main parlor. Small lanterns, which are passed out at the start, clank about as everyone finds a spot on the floor. Soon after, she sets the K2 meter in the center of everyone—as far away from any potential electrical interferences as possible. Soon, it flickers with telling oranges and red.
“Oh, do we have someone here?” she asks. “It’s OK; we all want to meet you.”
“Not me,” a young woman whispers.
A couple of children, aged 10 or older, are in the crowd, but cautiously curious adults make up most of the tour. Others anxiously await a knock or thud to follow the next flicker of light on the meter. The clock chimes to break the silence, and the group moves along to the office room. It is here where David Hiram Foy, oldest son of Joseph, mostly stays.
“David was going to school in Chapel Hill and came down here to run the plantation,” Fennell tells of the heir. “He ran it for about six months and decided he really didn’t want to oversee the plantation, so he joined the Confederate Army . . . he contracted typhoid and came back here, where he died in the back parlor three days later.”
Fennell is particularly sensitive to the office. It’s one of her least favorite places to be. She reports how people have felt physically ill just standing in the room.
Before the tour moves upstairs, a guest asks if anyone had been purposefully hurt or killed inside the house. “I have heard of a family member being pushed down the steps,” Fennell recalls. “They were injured but they didn’t die . . . it was one of the children.”
Fennell encourages people to take photos with a flash to catch an orb or anything out of the ordinary. Even recorders can be brought. Though not everyone sees or senses anything amiss, she explains how mostly women and young people report strange occurrences. “Some people say children’s minds are more open to spirits,” Fennell continues—“that they see more things, understand them and don’t dismiss them so quickly.”
Upstairs in the winter bedroom on the southwest side of the home, more sunlight streams in, and it stays warmer than other rooms. The summer room on the opposite side stays cooler. Standing in the left corner of the summer room, Ashley High School teacher Tiffany Clark suddenly rushes from her spot in a group out into the hallway. “Something tapped my purse,” she later tells.
The tour goes into the children’s room next. A dollhouse and several dolls, resting in chairs and baskets, surround two small beds. Caroline Lewis’ Victorian girl—a painting of a girl from the French Revolution that wards spirits, according to Lewis—watches over from above the fireplace. The children’s room tends to be the most active. “The [paranormal] investigators put a flashlight in the dollhouse and it was clicking on and off by itself,” Fennell recounts.
As the tour nears its end, a group heads into the tenant house where new and intriguing stories of residents have been emerging. Originally built post-Civil War with the remains of slave quarters, the house was for Israel Jackson (who cared for the property for several years), as well as other tenant farmers. Nemrod Nixon and his brother, Cleveland, were among the tenants. Yet, Cleveland took interest in Nemrod’s young wife, which resulted in a story of rage and murder in the 1930s.
“Cleveland came at [Nemrod] with an ax and a knife, and Nemrod shot and killed him here,” Fennell tells. The group carefully fills the tight quarters—a far cry from the high ceilings and vastness of the Manor House.
Fennell and Lewis hope the new tours will draw more interest in supporting the plantation and the upcoming masquerade. “We want it to be inter generational and start bringing people in their 30s and 40s out to the property, and really make it relevant for the 21st century,” Lewis says. “We feel like what we’re doing today is why it’s going to be here 100 years from now.”
The Paranormal Ghost Tours will be held each Friday night throughout October, with tour groups of 15 going on the hour at 7 p.m., 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.
The Haint Blue All Hallows Masquerade on Saturday, Oct. 24 will feature an open bar with candy apple martinis, an oyster bar and cigar bar, a DJ on the back porch, dancing and, the Phantom Playboys playing underneath the windmill from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit http://www.poplargrove.org.