Arts & Culture

The Charlotte Area Paranormal Society Goes Ghost Hunting

Specter detectors

The old lady in pink shouldn’t have been there, remembers Tina McSwain, founder and director of the Charlotte Area Paranormal Society.

It was 1989, and McSwain had dropped by her friend’s Myers Park home before going out to dinner. The friend wasn’t ready yet, so McSwain made herself comfortable in the living room. She hadn’t been seated for five minutes when she saw movement out the corner of her eye. McSwain turned and watched a little old lady walk down the hallway straight up to her.

The lady smiled and waved, then turned around and started back up the hallway.

“She got maybe four or five feet from me,” McSwain says, “and just disappeared — poof — into thin air.”

Charlotte Area Paranormal Society
Tina McSwain at a recent Charlotte Area Paranormal Society event. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

The hair on the back of McSwain’s neck stood up, her knees went weak, and she felt a little sick to her stomach. Finally, McSwain’s friend came into the room, and McSwain reported what she had seen. McSwain’s friend casually mentioned that her deceased grandmother liked to ramble around the house from time to time.

McSwain had just seen her first ghost. It would not be her last.

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Ghosts, spirits, spooks, specters, haunts and apparitions are all in a night’s work for the Charlotte Area Paranormal Society (CAPS), which McSwain founded in 2005 to further the investigation of ghostly phenomena and paranormal activity in and around the Queen City.

McSwain, the society’s director and founder, employs scientific methods to investigate and research things that go bump in the night. Relying on site visits, client interviews, witness statements, and historical, genealogical and geological research, she and her staff of 14 volunteers validate and document hair-raising and uncanny occurrences.

It often starts with an email or a phone call, McSwain says.

“Some people have questions which we can answer on the phone,” she offers.

Charlotte Area Paranormal Society
Prepping the ghost hunters (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Others request an investigation if only to prove they’re not crazy because they’ve seen objects moving or heard stairways creaking in the dead of night. Still other clients require no investigation.

“They are absolutely sure that they have something there and they want [us] to urge the spirit to move on, [and] to help [the client] regain control over their home or business,” McSwain says.

In fact, Charlotte Area Paranormal Society maintains a separate, highly skilled Spirit Remediation Team with over 30 years’ experience in convincing spirits or entities to move on or vacate a premises, McSwain says.

“It’s almost like acting as mediators between two opposing sides,” she explains, the two sides being the living and the dead.

Charlotte Area Paranormal Society Provides a Service

The nonprofit society accepts no payment for its services, McSwain maintains. Furthermore, she says no reputable practitioners in the field should charge for their assistance, and CAPS strongly advises against using anyone who busts ghosts for a buck.

Sometimes the solutions to clients’ problems are not supernatural at all. In those cases, CAPS looks at obvious mechanical issues. Do water pipes have air in them, making them bang and clatter? Is the heating and air system pinging and popping, so it sounds like footsteps?

McSwain recalls that one lady called CAPS because the drawers in her bathroom were being opened.

“So, we set up a camera there for several hours, and lo and behold, her cat was actually opening the doors with his paws and just leaving them open.”

Into the cellar at Rosedale. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Another client said their kitchen cabinets were being opened. The investigators came over, placed a level on the cabinets, and discovered they weren’t plumb. The cabinet doors were also loose, and consequently they swung open easily.

But often prosaic solutions can’t answer clients’ queries.

“We’ve gotten several cases where something is there,” McSwain says. “We have gotten ghost voices on recorders. Some things show up on video or in pictures. We’ve had instruments react to something that’s not there.”

Charlotte Area Paranormal Society has a self-financed battery of equipment to detect specters. There are several cameras, including the forward-looking infrared (FLIR) thermal imaging camera, plus cameras specially designed to see all spectrums of light, or cameras that can record images from the ultraviolet spectrum.

Temperature guns shoot a laser that gives a temperature readout of the area it hits. The guns are used to detect cold spots and hot spots. Both can be a sign that there’s a spirit in the vicinity. EMF detectors are used for detecting electromagnetic fields and fluctuations within them. Flashing lights can mean that there’s a ghost nearby.

The Ovilus is designed to deliver words and messages from the spirit realm. The device measures changes in the environmental energy fields around it, and can modulate the energy changes into audible speech using a synthesizer chip, an extensive English word dictionary, and a function that phonetically sounds out words. The Ovilus also spells the words out on a digital display.

Uncanny Energy

There’s a reason these devices measure changes in temperature or fluctuations in electromagnetic fields. It’s because ghosts are, in a word, energy, says McSwain.

“It’s the energy that is left when the body dies,” she expounds.

Our bodies are like batteries, she explains. Bodies require food that goes through a chemical synthesis to create energy for us to move about.

“It takes energy to fire synapses that cause your brain to flick a finger,” McSwain says. “We believe that once the body and the flesh die, there is a source of energy that remains, and this energy is what ghosts are. You can call them the spirits of dead people.”

Charlotte Area Paranormal Society
Cher Lambeth’s car selection leans into the fun aspect of her work with CAPS. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Some of this energy is mindless but does have a direction. There is energy that seems to imprint on time, much like an old video that just keeps replaying, McSwain explains. There’s not necessarily a person associated with it.

An example would be a figure that walks down a specific staircase in an old home at cyclical intervals, she says.

“That event is imprinted on time, so every year on that day, whether there is somebody to witness this or not, it’s still going to happen.”

Those energies are non-intelligent or just a residual energies.

Cher Lambeth holds an electromagnetic field detector in the cellar. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Then there are energies with agency, McSwain offers, intelligent hauntings that conform to our notions of a classic ghost. They were once people, and for whatever reason they still walk in the realm of the living.

“Intelligent haunts are those that are able to effect some change in the environment, move something, cause a cold spot, make a sound,” she says.

While energies and entities most often cling to a place, they can also become attached to objects.

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“You can bring in an old antique clock, for example, and things start to happen once you get the clock in the house,” McSwain offers. “You could have some sort of spirit attachment to a piece of furniture, or a coin, or a doll.”

People can also have energy attachments, spirits that cling and follow them from place to place.

The Different Ways to Haunt a House

There are other types of hauntings as well.

“Poltergeist is German for noisy ghost,” McSwain maintains. “Usually it is associated with a young girl in the home, probably 10 to 13 years old.”

Without her knowledge, the young girl is creating kinetic energy that causes banging, noises and things rocking and moving in the home. There is no actual outside entity present.

McSwain has dealt with three poltergeists in a professional capacity, she says, and each time, a young girl was at the center of the kinetic energy maelstrom.

Although young boys can conceivably be accountable for poltergeist activity, it’s rare. McSwain believes poltergeist activity is more common with young girls because of the energy unleashed by puberty. Although boys’ bodies change at that age, the changes probably don’t release as much energy as the changes girls experience, McSwain posits.

The main house at Rosedale. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

The most severe kind of supernatural encounter is a demonic haunting, McSwain says.

“It is [a haunting] in the true sense of religious beliefs,” she maintains. “It is some sort of demon that is trying to come in, run amok and cause all kinds of strife.

McSwain confirms that she has encountered demonic possession a dozen times in her profession, and that she has performed exorcisms.

“These are rare, thank goodness, but they are very extreme,” she says. “It takes a lot of consultation with the victim to see what their beliefs are.”

Even milder hauntings can unleash a lot of energy, McSwain cautions.

She’s experienced something pulling at her clothes. She’s seen her shirt go straight out like somebody had grabbed it between their thumb and forefinger and pulled it.

“I’ve had my hair pulled,” McSwain says. “I’ve been grabbed. I’ve been burned. The worst thing was I’ve been shoved down from a standing position to the ground. [Ghosts] are energy so therefore they can manipulate other energies. You’d be surprised at what they can do.”

With that caveat, Queen City Nerve accepts Charlotte Area Paranormal Society’s invitation to take part in one of the society’s public meet-ups. These are outings where McSwain and her investigators bring members of the pubic along to a haunted yet safe location, where lay people are allowed to work with some of CAPS’ equipment and see what they may experience in a haunted locale. (Charlotte Area Paranormal Society never brings members of the public to private homes or businesses where the society may conduct investigations or remediation.)

The Haunting of Rosedale

Two nights later, I and Queen City Nerve editor-in-chief Ryan Pitkin are at historic Rosedale, the federal-style plantation house that was built on North Tryon Street in 1815. The house is strangely calm and peaceful, despite being mere yards away from the traffic and noise of North Tryon.

Although Rosedale is currently a restored event venue open to the public, it has been a private residence for most of existence, home to the Frew, Caldwell and Davidson families.

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McSwain calls Rosedale the most haunted building in Charlotte. Certainly, the house has witnessed tragedies. Archibald Frew, who built the home, died mysteriously in 1823. His grave has never been found and it is conjectured that he committed suicide.

In 1844, Dr. David Caldwell’s wife Harriet and three of the couple’s children died from erysipelas, a virulent disease similar to strep throat. These occurrences could conceivably contribute to the appearance of entities or energies in the house.

“At Rosedale we’ve heard footsteps,” McSwain says. “I’ve heard someone speak when no one was there. I’ve looked beside me and there was spirit standing there.”

Waving the EMR in the Rosedale cellar. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Soon after night falls, I descend the steps into Rosedale’s cellar. About 40 visitors have received a brief introduction and orientation to tonight’s supernatural investigation from McSwain before splitting up into four groups.

Our group files into the long low-ceilinged cellar with two fireplaces. In the 19th century, the cellar doubled as the estate’s laundry room and kitchen. That was an unusual setup then, because kitchens were seldom attached to a main house. A stray ember flying out of a fireplace could rapidly burn a wooden building to the ground. The decision earned the property the nickname Frew’s Folly during its early existence. 

Charlotte Area Paranormal Society investigator and Rosedale staff assistant Cheralyn Lambeth tells the group that people have seen and heard apparitions in the cellar. Some have even smelled bread baking, and have believed the aroma heralded the arrival of Nancy, the ghost of an enslaved woman who worked for the Caldwell family.

Members of our group start to a explore a small root cellar attached to the main room through a stereotypically creaky door. I’m reminded that in Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense classic Psycho, the root cellar is where mad momma’s boy Norman Bates keeps the mummified corpse of his mother.

Lambeth directs our attention to a bin filled with ghost-hunting equipment. She places an Ovilus on a long table in the center of the room, setting it up to spell out words. Then Lambeth switches off the electricity, leaving the cellar bathed in the dim but warm glow of lantern light.

I start picking up surges on an EMF detector. They are consistently pulsing into the red like a hyperactive VU meter. Ryan says he’s also getting readings on his EMF detector.

Meanwhile, the Ovilus has turned into a chatterbox. By the time the main lights come back on, the device has spelled out a flurry of words: Akasha, Cellar, Dug, Pole, Ceiling, Justice, Assault. The words could be sequenced into several crime scene Madlibs, but the first word intrigues me. In Sanskrit, Akasha means “aethher,” the supposed universal etheric field in which a record of past events is imprinted for all eternity.

The group moves on to the garden where people have sighted and felt Louise Heagy Davidson, the young wife of Baxter Craighead Davidson, who came to the house in 1918. Miss Louise planted the garden and changed the name of the house from its original moniker Frew’s Folly to the elegant Rosedale.

We head to “The Smithy,” or blacksmith’s building, situated north of the main house on the grounds.

“The Smithy” at Rosedale. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

This is reportedly the haunted stomping grounds of the ghosts of the enslaved Nat Caldwell and his grandson George Caldwell, two Black men who worked the blacksmith foundries on the property.

At a stop at the estate’s conference room, McSwain shares ghostly evidence Charlotte Area Paranormal Society has captured on the grounds. She shows slides of a series of thermal photographs taken by a FLIR camera of the house’s upper floor. Peering from the windows at the back of the house is the image of a woman, crouching and then moving from window to window.

“You see hair. You see eyes,” says McSwain. “If you think about energy, it’s moving at a fast pace and creating heat. Where that woman is, it’s the hottest part of the picture.”

McSwain also shows a picture taken in June 2018 which she says shows Louise Heagy Davidson out for an evening stroll.

Seeing Is Believing

As the crowd breaks up and heads home, I ask McSwain if any of the supernatural phenomena people witness throughout the world could be a thought form, an apparition created by the energy of the observers. According to this theory, a thought form is not only a case of seeing what you believe, you’re also creating what you expect to see.

McSwain allows that thought forms are possible, saying they could account for some of the apparitions witnessed by participants in the infamous Salem witch trials in 1692.

“[Thought forms] are like mob mentality,” she says.

I wonder if that might be the case with some of the sightings at Rosedale, but does it really matter? If ghostly visitations are residual energy, spirits of the dead, poltergeist projections, or the rippling effect of shared imagination, aren’t they all in a sense a haunting?

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I say good night and head for my car, thinking about energy and the forms it might take. I’m not ashamed to admit that before leaving the parking lot, I check the back seat of my car, just to make sure nothing is there. I can’t say for sure if there is or isn’t.

I’m reminded of the closing lines of perhaps the finest ghost story ever written, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

“Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Except, with the haunting of Rosedale, whatever walks upon the house and grounds of the centuries-old estate is warmly welcomed by CAPS and the legions of the living eager to extend a hand to the world beyond the veil of death.

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