Pig ribs ceremonially dusted with sacred herbs crackle over pit fires. Reality's thin veil is pushed aside with the help of magical craft-brewed medicine from local potion-makers. Thousands of merry-makers, dressed in motley, scary, funny, clever, (and sexy) garb, cavort and caper to modern melodies built on the hymns of their forefathers.
It must be Halloween in Memphis.
The city has an easy, natural magic and its share of heartache and disaster. Mix it together, and that's a Memphis Halloween. We eat and drink and dance and party to savor the moment, before the real traditional holiday seasons begin. But if you look a little deeper into the shadows, beyond Halloween's traditional pagan revelry, Memphis has a witches' brew of paranormal and supernatural activity.
"Just on Main Street, you could do a whole ghost show," says Stephen Guenther, ghost hunter and owner of the local tour company, Historical Haunts of Memphis. If you've mingled with the living on South Main, you've mingled with the spirit world there, too, Guenther says, quickly naming three spooky stories from the street. (More on those later.)
"So, is Memphis haunted?" he asks, rhetorically. "Yeah, I think so."
If you've been here long enough, you know about Mary at the Orpheum Theatre or Annie at Rhodes College's McCoy Theatre. You may have heard about the Lady in the Lake at Overton Park or the haunted jukebox at Earnestine & Hazel's. Or you may believe Elvis never left Graceland.
For most, these are fun fall yarns, a seasonal delight like a pumpkin spice latte. For others, stories of the unexplained aren't stored away each year like an inflatable yard pumpkin. They're out every day, handy and accessible, like a remote control in the living room.
Meet a few of the locals keeping their fingers on the paranormal pulse of Memphis.
The Witches of South Main
Reverend Emily Guenther blesses a pet and then readies herself to officiate a wedding — typical Memphis church duties.
Incense smolders somewhere out of sight, scenting the air with notes of sweet and spice. Candles, gemstones, clear jars of herbs, stoppered bottles of oils, amulets, spell kits, skulls, and tarot cards line the shelves along the walls.
But this isn't Guenther's church. It's her store, The Broom Closet on South Main, home to "readings, metaphysical supplies, and workshops." Guenther and others who believe as she does take the candles, spell kits, oils, and the rest to church, to worship. Guenther's church is in the store's basement, where I'm told other witches await.
Guenther leads me across the store's perfectly creaky floor and down a set of perfectly creaky steps. As I turn into the space, I remember I've been here before. It was a stop on a ghost tour by Stephen Guenther, Emily's husband.
The last time I saw it, the space was dark, rigged with high-tech ghost-hunting gear, and a sepia-toned photo of a well-groomed man on a table. That space, I was told then, was the scene of grisly murder long ago, and the man in the photo was the victim, a Memphis cop whose spirit never left.
But on this visit, the space glows serenely. Soothing art hangs on the wall. An altar, appointed with an animal skin, jewels, candles, herbs, and small bowls of incense, has replaced the stark table and the dead man's photograph. I feel a tingle of dread. My wiccan "education" comes from Wikipedia University. I was after spooky stories for a Halloween story, but this was religion and I couldn't respectfully call it "paranormal," could I? My advantage lay in my vast pool of ignorance and my willingness to show it.
"Are y'all witches?" I ask.
"I'm a witch," Emily Guenther says plainly, quickly.
Reverend Sarah Osborne nods, adding, "I would claim that term."
Relieved and buoyed by the responses, I remember what Stephen Guenther told me when we talked about doing this story.
"It's Halloween," he said. "People want to know what the witches are doing." Sarah Osborne and the Guenthers are leaders of the Fellowship of Avalon, a wiccan Aquarian Tabernacle Church based in Memphis. The church was officially organized last year, when Osborne and the Guenthers became ordained clergy, but the group has been meeting for three years. On a good day, 25 to 30 people will attend church services, mainly held on weekends.
"The important thing to know about what we do is that we celebrate our interconnection with the world, with all living things," Osborne says. "We celebrate the seasons and the cycles of the year. That's why our holidays fall on holidays, and on full moons, because we're honoring our place that falls within nature."
Paganism is the usual umbrella term for their belief system and their church, Guenther says. But much of the Fellowship of Avalon sounds, well, pretty normal.
Then, I ask about Halloween. To wiccans, it's Samhain (and it's pronounced SAH-win, not SAM-hane, as I did). That's when things (for the uninitiated, perhaps) take a turn for the paranormal.
"It is the time of the year that we believe the veil between our world and spirit is at one of its thinnest points," she explains. "We feel that this is a time when we can more easily communicate with our deceased loved ones."
So, it's a good time of year for divination, like mediumship, seances, tarot readings, and rune readings. Rituals honor ancestors, Osborne says, and their connections to them, adding, "Our past influences our future."
Most people would put those beliefs squarely in the "paranormal" column, I suggest.
"Doing any sort of divination and asking for guidance, trying to communicate with loved ones, or showing them honor, doing magic, it's essentially just working with energy, which is a very tangible thing," Guenther explains. "So, it does and could be lumped into the paranormal, but we don't necessarily see it that way ourselves."
Samhain, or Halloween, is one of eight major holidays on the wiccan calendar, Guenther says, but it looms large because wicca is more accepted this time of year.
"Coming out and saying you're a witch or saying you're going to a wiccan circle or a wiccan ritual or something along that line is much more acceptable at this time of year than it will be in March," Guenther says.
Osborne agrees. "It's when we can go out in public wearing the stuff we don't necessarily wear out in public the rest of the year."
- Eric C. (left) and Carla Worth, paranormal night owls, are hosts of “Talk Spook” on The OAM Network.
Crosstown's Fox and Mulder
As most people are settling in for the night around Crosstown Concourse, Carla Worth and Eric C. are just getting started. Call them paranormal night owls. They cover their ears in large, studio headphones. "C." rubs red, tired eyes. Worth pops a beer, jokes with the sound engineer, and tries to go over the show notes with C. He says the lone letter is the last name he's going by these days.
With some basic mic checks and an informal nod, the "Talk Spook" podcast is up and running. The show is part of The OAM Network, the Memphis-based podcast network. It's a recent re-brand and re-launch from Worth's previous show, "901 Paranormal," which focused specifically on Memphis ghosts. But Worth ran into a supply problem.
"There aren't any more ghosts in Memphis," she says. "So, we needed to change the name and come up with something broader."
"Talk Spook" now covers almost anything spooky, weird, or unsettling. Aliens, Bigfoot, conspiracies, and more get seats at the show's table.
Worth and C. bonded over their love of The X-Files, the 1990s television hit that featured FBI Agent Fox Mulder, the paranormal believer, and Agent Dana Scully, the scientific skeptic. It's clear that for "Talk Spook," Worth is Mulder and C. is Scully.
C. studied chemistry and works IT for Columbia University. He likes collecting information, he says, solving problems, and claims to be "the more scientist-y" of the pair.
"I'd like to believe," C. says, in a sly nod to Mulder's famous office poster. "All of these collective stories maybe say something bigger about people and humanity and our need to explain some things. Yeah, maybe there is some stuff to it. Spooky stuff is cool. Some of our spooky stuff is real."
While ghosts and demons peppered Worth's Catholic upbringing, her true paranormal baptism was more terrifying. Seven years ago, she says, she and her husband, Gil, lived in a haunted house in High Point Terrace.
"We sound crazy!" Worth exclaims, as she begins to tell one of her many ghost stories. "But we're not crazy! At all!"
She says whispery voices talked about her on the other side of the shower curtain. Something watched them from mirrors. Scratching and growling sounds filled the bedroom as they tried to sleep. Things broke. Once, Worth says, she was attacked as she sat on her couch.
"It was bouncing me around to the point where Gil took me to the emergency room," Worth said. "They thought I was either epileptic or I was having a seizure or a psychotic breakdown. There were a lot of options there."
She told her doctor about the physical symptoms (not any of the ghost stuff) and was told, "it sounds like you live in one of those Paranormal Activity movies." "What did they prescribe you for that?" C. asks. "No Ghost-O Bismal?"
"Oh, my god," Worth says. "You are tired."
The last straw for the High Point Terrace house was a Barbie "I Can Be Anything" Pet Vet doll. It came with a kitten that would say, "meow, meow, meow" when it "birthed" kittens. One day, while playing with the doll, Worth's daughter asked, "Mommy, do you hear that?"
Worth says at first she heard nothing ...
"Then," she says, "I hear — not from the toy but from some other voice in the room — 'ME-yow, ME-yow, ME-yow' in a gravelly, devilish voice!" Worth says she and her daughter bolted from the house. They moved soon after.
Worth says she's had several other paranormal experiences. During a ghost hunt at the U.S. Marine Hospital in the French Fort, she says a recorder she left behind in the basement picked up a typewriter clacking ... in a morgue, all by itself. Before the Crosstown Concourse renovations began, Worth says she got an electronic voice phenomena (EVP) telling her group to "GET OUT!"
C. says he likes the storytelling aspect of "Talk Spook." At a recent Spillit storytelling event, he shared his personal paranormal story about a chupacabra. He declines to elaborate on this evening, however. As for the paranormal in general?
He says, "I like to hear about weird shit."
Worth's faith in the reality of the paranormal is ironclad, however, especially given her High Point Terrace experience. She says she called a radio psychic about that experience and was told that her house was indeed haunted, and the psychic added, "They really like it when you take a shower."
- Stephen Guenther knows the spooky side of Memphis.
The Mayor of Spooky Memphis
Nothing about Stephen Guenther outside tells you how ghosty he is on the inside. Well, unless he's wearing his trademark T-shirt that reads: "Keep Calm and Haunt On."
He's affable, with an easy smile and a friendly voice. In the daylight hours, tourists feel comfortable asking him for directions to a good place to eat. But he thrives in the nighttime hours, when spiritual tourists ask him directions to the other side. Guenther didn't plan to own a ghost tour company. He says he was just good at hunting ghosts and then decided to go pro.
"I'd be talking to someone [about ghost investigations] over beers or whatever, and they'd ask, 'can I go?'" Guenther recalls. Historical Haunts of Memphis started after he'd heard that question a few times.
The company runs three to six tours every weekend. One tour visits the French Fort, the riverfront, downtown, and Victorian Village. Another, Spirits with Spirits, crawls through the pubs of South Main on Friday nights. His company also does guided ghost investigations at the Woodruff-Fontaine House and Maley Manor, a former funeral home in Covington that's been converted into a bed and breakfast.
Guenther's paranormal wellspring was the spooky stories he heard told around Boy Scout campfires. He sought out books about vampires, werewolves, or ghosts. He loved In Search Of, the 1970s television show hosted by Leonard Nimoy. But he says his grandmother's death is what plunged him headlong into the unseen world for good.
"I was kind of leaning over her when she passed," he says, "and I'm certain that I felt a little wisp of air, her spirit, leaving her body. Ever since then, I wanted to know if we could make contact [with the dead]. Could I tell my son that, hey, we're good? Dad's okay. He's watching over you."
For Guenther, ghosts are science. He cites the first law of thermodynamics, or the conservation of energy, which says that energy in a closed system cannot be created or destroyed.
He wonders aloud if the law extended to "the energy that makes us who we are." Believing that it does and that electricity runs human bodies, his ghost investigations utilize numerous electronic devices to help hunters find spirits in the dark.
Electromagnetic field meters reveal spikes of electricity — sometimes where nobody (and no body) stands. Thermal cameras show heat and possible ghostly energy "hot spots."
Guenther also uses electronic devices to communicate with spirits. He'll ask questions and they can respond by turning lights on and off. White noise machines, called "spirit boxes" in the ghost trade, create electric environments that spirits can speak through, answering more open-ended questions. Electronic voice recorders are always on during investigations. Guenther says the recordings can pick up EVPs — words or phrases unheard by the investigators during the investigation.
"We were doing a session [at the Mollie Fontaine Lounge] one night and someone was making a joke," Guenther says. "They said, 'I want to make a deal with the ghost.' Right after that, a very clear voice says, 'I'm still alive.'" "[It was] very clear. That's what they call a Class-A EVP. If I played it for you, you could hear it and we'd all agree that that's what it says — this whispered voice." Guenther's home base is The Broom Closet, he and Emily's metaphysical supply shop on South Main, next door to The Book Juggler. He knows all the nearby ghosts on that end of South Main.
"You can leave here and stop at The Arcade and they'll tell you ghost stories firsthand," Guenther says. "You can go down to The Vault, the old Double J building, and they'll tell you things that have happened there. Then, you go to Earnestine & Hazel's and you know the stories there. So, it's not me saying it. You can go to these owners and they'll tell you."
The Arcade's founder, Speros Zepatos, still "shows up," Guenther says. And The Green Beetle owner wonders if his grandfather is still in the building. "You can walk from here to North Main and talk to folks in their own buildings and hear their stories," Guenther says. "Then, you can go to Victorian Village, Hunt Phelan, and tons of other places. But, just on Main, you could do a whole ghost show."
Complete interviews conducted for this story and a podcast filled with scary Memphis stories will be posted at memphisflyer.com.
Spooky Memphis: The Top Five
5. Rhodes College: Generations of students in McCoy Theatre have seen fleeting images in mirrors and heard unaccountable noises when the building was supposed to be empty. The urban legend says a girl named "Annie" hung herself in the building, a former sorority house, when she didn't get a bid to Zeta Tau Alpha. Theater students "invite" Annie to the shows to bring good luck.
4. Elvis at Graceland: If Elvis isn't dead, why do so many report seeing his ghost at Graceland? They do, lots of them. YouTube it. The videos are weird, obscure, and/or plain-old hoaxes.
3. Woodruff-Fontaine House: Some visitors smell perfume or tobacco. Some even see the imprint of Mollie Fontaine sitting on her bed. Just looking at the beautiful Victorian Village gem, you know it's haunted.
2. Earnestine & Hazel's: Bartender Karen Brownlee knows the "ragged but right" South Main dive is haunted. She's said the piano upstairs will play on its own. Orbs appear in photographs. And the jukebox seems to have a clear mind of its own.
1. Orpheum Theatre: No doubt the most famous ghost in Memphis is the Orpehum's "Mary." The story says the young girl died in an accident in front of the site in 1921, and her spirit never left. Actors and visitors have claimed to see Mary, in her white dress, in the balcony in seat C5.
A Few Halloween Events ...
- Frightgarten: Railgarten hosts a night of "scary good tunes," featuring Dead Soldiers, Star & Micey, and more. A blacklight dance party in the ping pong bar and "ghoulish games and tournaments." Saturday, Oct. 28th. Starts at 4:20 p.m.
- Spirits With the Spirits: Elmwood Cemetery's annual "party for eternity. "Food and frivolity. Music and mystery. This is the party to die for." Friday, Oct. 27th. Tickets at emlwoodcemetery.org
- Day of the Dead Celebration: Agavos hosts its first Halloween party with contests for Catrinas and costumes, specials, and a DJ until 2 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 28th.
- Stranger Things Upside Get Down: Rec Room goes '80s with tunes from BetaMax, and Stranger Things on six huge screens. There's a costume contest, midnight breakfast buffet, and the seasonal debuts of Wisacre's Starless. Saturday, Oct. 28th.
- Halloween Bash: Young Avenue Deli has a costume contest with "kick ass prizes" plus "free stuff for showing up." Music by Chinese Connection Dub Embassy. $10 cover. Friday, Oct. 27th. The Deli hosts "Trick or Treat" on Halloween night (Tuesday, Oct. 31st) with music by River City Camaro Club.