The flag moved. I saw it with my own eyes. It moved.
The woman saw it moving as well. Her name is Dana. She claims to be 24-years old, and by Tennessee standards, her home state, she may be considered attractive. To my snooty, suburban, New England expatriate standards, the woman is a damn wreck — used beyond belief. Tired. Her voice is that of a baby crying; it makes you want to shake the hell out of her or smother her with a pillow.
She stands on the other side of the storage room from me. Between us is the American Flag in question: a courtroom sized mammoth of patriotism hanging from a self-stable flagpole. Dana’s eyes are the size of saucers, I can see them despite the darkness of the room between us.
“Did you see that?” she questions out loud to me, her southern drawl blends the words together into an ignorant-cacophonic collapse of syllables. “jyaseetheeyat?”
Yes, the flag moved. It waved in the moonlight from a nearby window. Maybe would have brought a tear to the eye and a salute to the brow of any passing veteran or patriot.
“Ya had ta see theeyat!”
Yes, Dana, I saw it. I saw the flag wave. It sent a shiver down my spine. And suddenly, I noticed that I could see my breath in front of me.
Here we go.
Dana and I were locked in a storage closet in the Old Decatur Courthouse in Decatur, GA, my town of residence. Decatur is a small town oasis surrounded by the mess of an urban landscape called Atlanta. The old Southern city’s streets are dotted with beautifully trimmed gardens and lawnscapes, the people of Decatur are forward thinkers who fear the governmental control of their money, but are willing to pay extra taxes to make sure their public city school system does not fall into the hands of the much greater feared Dekalb County system. Outside the courthouse, down three blocks is the high school, the solitary high school in this small city. This is where I teach American literature to an even mixture of apathetic teenagers and overzealous teenagers. It’s a good job, not what I pictured when I changed my major all those years ago, but it sure beats many alternatives.
The Old Decatur Courthouse is my second workplace. Often I am here with the rest of the English Department, holed up in one of the judge’s offices-turned-workspace to rattle out lesson plans or spend common planning time. I know every twist and turn in this place, every sound is familiar from inside and outside, and behind every door is a room that I can draw for you. Locked in a closet, with Daisy Duke (after years of meth addiction), with a self-waving flag is something I never experienced in here before.
We are both participating in a “walk-through” for GRASP Paranormal — one of the South’s leading and most respected paranormal groups. I heard about them previously through a television news report that painted the group to be a pack of weirdos in black, running around the dark asking random questions to empty walls: “Is there anyone here who wants to speak with us?” “What is your name?” “Did you die here?” I remember watching the broadcast and laughing hysterically. They were depicted to be local yokels, hicks, and rednecks, claiming to have sensitive powers to the supernatural, and owned equipment that could track ghosts around the room.
It was a joke. I was embarrassed. And I wasn’t even a member yet.
Being a part of a legitimate paranormal research team has always been a dream of mine. I remember my childhood friends all spouting out the latest Red Sox statistics, knowing every lyric from that new band called Guns and Roses’ latest album, and discussed new and exciting ways to turn any object into some explosive device that should be put out on the railroad tracks and whether or not that said object could indeed completely derail a passing freight train. These topics were of great importance to myself as well, I could hold my own in the “You-Buy-100-Air-Rifle –CO2 – Cartridges-and-Wrap-It Tightly-in-Duct-Tape” debates of the 7th grade, but my mind was absorbed with the writings of Loyd Auerbach, the Winchester House, and Borley Rectory. That was my thing. I didn’t talk about it with anyone — if I did it would result in strange looks, shaking heads, or, the worst case scenario, a Bible lesson.
And it remained this way for a long time — I stockpiled books and newspapers of the paranormal, from haunted locations surrounding my residence to cheaply designed and poorly edited novels hidden in the darkest and farthest corner in the local bookstore, right between the Death and Dying section and the Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual one — the two most taboo and largely avoided sections of the store. I carried these books home, and stashed them throughout my bedroom like Howard Hughes and his feces.
In the darkest of nights I would flip through these books (also, like Howard Hughes and his feces — which by the way would be a great band name) and absorb these tales of sorrow, lost lives and mislead adventures. I memorized the names, the places, the dates. The photos became instilled in my memory — I could tell you all the backstories of each of them — the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, Ghost Faces of the SS Watertown, these weren’t just images in a book — they were a doorway into the unknown. They represented everything that a select few would experience, something that separated them from the masses — a shared experience of life and death for a brief moment co-existing in the form of blurry colors on a reversed negative. All that I knew was I wanted to experience it, even if just once.
For many nights of my childhood I stayed up into the morning breaking light with a flashlight in hand, listening to the room around me. A creaking board, a low moan of wind, or a strange light from outside would send me flying out of bed with my beam of light lighting the way, expecting the shrouded figure of a dead monk possessing my house. These first fumblings of paranormal investigation always lead to the same conclusion: it was usually my cat. That stupid nocturnal beast made up of carbon elements and not EMF.
And that was the extent of my paranormal experiences for my entire life; it all mustered around the feline persuasion.
I wanted something. I wanted a moment for me, something to signal if this world is the only world or is there something out there, bigger and greater than this seemingly complex world or intricate sorrows and pains of life that shape our existence. There has to be more out there, after this, and I wanted to see it!
The night that Dana and I were stuck in a closet with the seemingly haunted flag was my try-out for GRASP. I was relieved to discover that GRASP was misrepresented by the local news team (well, most of them were misrepresented). The “looky over yonder ma, it’s a one of dem ghostses!” personality was far removed. Instead, the team was well-oiled and well-managed by two fiery leaders, Ben and Jim. The team ran the place with an aura of professionalism that dazzled my eyes. It was impressive. They had truckloads of equipment: video monitors, Infra-red cameras, digital audio recorders, EMF detectors, and tons of other gadgets that I couldn’t recognize. I wanted to grab them by the handful and run into the basement of the Courthouse, capture a few EVPs (jargon for a recording of a voice that was not audible to the ear), follow a trail of an electro-magnetic field (evidence of a ghost, supposedly — more on this in later blogs), and, the granddaddy of them all, a photo of a blurry Confederate Era judge stuck in a time when the South was at its most epic but disasterous time.
I wanted to capture anything that could be paranormal – something that didn’t have whiskers, get stuck in trees, and shit in a litterbox.
Instead, Ben, GRASP’s founder and leader, looked at me in the only way an experienced paranormal investigator could look at a sweaty-palmed, shaky kneed, and gum chomping pile of nerves noob of a ghost hunter could and said: “Why don’t you and Dana go hit that utility closet for an hour.”
It’s no Peter Venkman blasting the Stay-Puft Marshmellow Man, but I will take it.
And there I was. Trying out for a paranormal team like it was high school baseball try-outs. And I was obviously all ready cut from the team, because I was trapped in a closet with the banjo kid’s sister – the equivalent of playing right field.
But then the flag waved. And things changed.
“Deedya just seeya theeyat flag wayeeeve?”
Yes, I did.
“It fuckin’ moved!”
Dana pulled out her EMF detector. “Turn on your voice recorder, let’s do some EVP work!”
I didn’t move. I didn’t have to.
“Is thar anyone who wans ta speek wid us?” Dana called into the darkness.
“Dana,” I said.
“No, don’t talk, we gotta doc yoo ment this! Whats yer nayeem? Speak ta me!”
Dana ran the EMF detector all over the flag, reading nothing. She started finding cold spots all around her. Something touched her hair. Something whispered in her ear, she thought. “Ahm getting a weeyerd feelin allasudden!”
Five minutes later we are downstairs. Dana is talking Ben’s ear off about the flag, the cold spots, the touch on her neck, and the gentle playing of her hair. Ben nods his head with a look on his face that gives no preferences to approval or disapproval; he is aloof, cold and distant. He turns to me, “What did you experience?”
I look Dana in the eyes. My words are set to crush her, to take her paranormal evidence and toss them away in just six simple words. In an instant, Dana would look like a horse’s ass.
“The window behind her was open,” I replied. “It explains everything. I experienced nothing.”
Ben nods his head with the same look. “Good job.”
Dana stares at me with daggers for pupils. I should have told her in the closet that she was experiencing a wind draft from across the Decatur Courtyard, but I didn’t. I let her have her moment, and took it away from her in a single sentence a little while later. It was a dick move, but I did it anyway. After all, there is only one spot on the GRASP team open, and I wanted it.
Her eyes narrow and she storms off, I never speak to her again.
I get a call from Ben a few weeks later and he invites me to join GRASP which I accept without hesitation. This is the real deal — major league. And even though I didn’t capture my entity on tape or film, I did debunk a supposed haunted event and it didn’t involve a cat this time.
Once again, the quest for the undeniable paranormal event was lost to me; easily explained by simply looking around the room.
And finally, I learned the most important lesson of all:
There is no Zu’ul — only Dana. Ghosts exist when people want them to exist. It’s not that I don’t believe in ghosts, I don’t believe in the people who see them. The human imagination can create the most common event to something far larger than the human brain can comprehend, the simple becomes complex, like the beauty of a flower obvious to the florist but lost to the botanist.
And I would have to remember this lesson a few months later, as I stand on the top of the stairs of a 19th century farmhouse, and see the outline of a woman walk past me in the darkness of the cold winter night. . .