photo by Jodi Ford
Joshua Warren, our tour leader, and his assistant Caleb Hanks stand outside Barley's Taproom smoking a final pre-tour cigarette. As he chats with our small crowd, Warren emits the confidence of a well-practiced magician. He seems far older than his mere 28 years, and if he's nervous, he doesn't show it.
But he'd have good reason to be nervous, frankly. This isn't just some early-evening walk around scenic downtown Asheville. Tonight, we're hunting ghosts.
Warren is president of the League of Energy Materialization and Unexplained phenomena Research, or LEMUR, and he's spent the last 10 years in serious study of ethereal presences, phantom lights and other strange occurrences that most scientific researchers would likely dismiss as paranormal bunk. He's even written a book about area ghosts, Haunted Asheville (Shadowbox, 1996), which has since become the de facto guide for area spook seekers.
The tours remain a little rough, having started only a few weeks ago, and Warren is still in the process of training his guides. As a result, the aura is anything but frightening. In spite of this lighthearted mood, though, Warren makes it clear that he takes his pursuit of the unseen very seriously.
He remarks: "One thing about this tour, as opposed to other tours, is that we are ghost hunters" (read: not everyday tour guides). His voice is as clear and professional as a radio announcer's -- not surprising, since he also hosts the Saturday-night paranormal call-in show "Speaking of Strange" on AM 570 WWNC.
As we walk toward Church Street, Warren begins telling us about the old unmarked graves said to have been paved over to make room for the roads. This street, he says, is home to many strange sightings. Before we get to the row of churches that give the street its name, however, our leader stops us and begins fishing around in the bag his assistant is carrying.
"Sometimes you get lucky," says Warren, pulling out a few strange items from the satchel. "You get to see something anomalous or ghostly with your naked eyes. Other times, if you take a picture, you get something you might not be able to see. I'll give you a demonstration of what I'm talking about."
He pulls out a tiny electric pocket fan, and turns it on. Like the twirling blades of the fan, he says, many extra-natural events happen too fast to see unaided. In his other hand is something that looks like a 1950s sci-fi movie weapon -- a miniature strobe light. He flicks a switch and makes the beam hover over the whirring blades. In the flashes, we see what he means: frozen glimpses of ghostly propellers.
"Your camera's shutter speed," says Warren, "allows the invisible to become visible."
At this point, Warren's assistant begins passing out "EMF Meters," the tour's prime ghost-hunting tools. We are each handed a smallish box, roughly the size of a Zippo lighter, made of milky-white plastic. (According to Warren, they also glow in the dark.) On top is a thin antenna, flexible and coated in black plastic. There's a single, unmarked switch along the side. At the very bottom, next to the seam that joins the two plastic halves that conceal the inner workings, is a red light.
When that light turns on, Warren says, this tiny machine is detecting a powerful electromagnetic field.
"What we find is that there is some kind of strange connection between electromagnetic anomalies and the places where people experience ghostly activities," he explains.
We are told to keep an eye on our meters throughout the tour. If they come on, we could be in the presence of something not of this world.