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Haunted AVL: Appalachian Witches, Paranormal Phenomenon & Ghostly Spirits in the “Land of Sky”

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14 Oct 2021

Every historic city has their share of frightening folklore and spine-chilling stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. From tragic and terrifying endings to unexplained phenomenon, these tales have a way of inciting fear and fascination within us. Whether you’re a paranormal pundit, mystery maven, or supernatural skeptic, the haunts below offer bewitching insight into our region’s rich history and culture, and they give you the perfect excuse to explore the stranger sides of this beloved city.   

Unexplained Phenomenon

Brown Mountain Lights: Aliens, Ghosts, or Natural Occurrence?  

Known for its pastoral landscapes and quaint small town feel, Morganton is home to one of the Blue Ridge Mountain’s biggest mysteries: the Brown Mountain Lights. For the last century, people have seen ghostly lights moving through the valley, and one of the earliest records occurred in September 1913 in an article by the Charlotte Observer reporting a mysterious light seen by members of the Morganton Fishing Club. Congressman E.Y. Webb was so taken with this mystery that he contacted the US Geological Survey to investigate the matter further, but their study concluded that the lights had merely been train headlights seen in the distance. However, this was later contradicted when the lights appeared when no trains were running after the Great Flood of 1916. 

Numerous studies have taken place after this initial one but to no avail. This unexplained phenomenon continues to baffle scientists, government researchers, and local residents alike, and while there are many theories as to what the lights may be, no one truly knows for certain what these enigmatic illuminations are or what causes them. Local legends suggest that the lights are paranormal in nature and are most likely linked to tragic tales of early settlers or Native Americans. In pop culture, this mystery has been the subject in shows like The X Files that hint it could be connected to aliens and UFOs. Not surprisingly, Scientists have applied a more methodical approach suggesting something like natural gasses or ball lightning as the cause. Despite the many theories, no one has been able to provide conclusive evidence to solve this mystery once and for all.

For those taken with this mystery, there are multiple vantage points in the Linville Gorge area where the lights have been spotted. The most popular observation area is the Brown Mountain Overlook between mile marker 20 and 21 and Wiseman’s View, located about five miles south of Linville Falls. Sometimes described by eyewitnesses as a single glowing orb, multiple oversized fireflies, or distant lanterns, and other times described as streaks shooting across the ridge, most can agree the lights are a rare occurrence. That said, it’s important to note that the lights don’t always appear. While eye-witnesses have claimed to see the lights throughout the year, October and November are reported to be the best months to try and catch the show, and there also tends to be an increase in sightings after it rains. 

Chimney Rock Apparitions: Divine Visions or Pure Imagination? 

 Visible for miles, Chimney Rock is an epic 315 ft. stone outcropping soaring to an elevation of 1,096′ that lends the surrounding town its name. Located within close proximity to the town of Lake Lure, this popular destination is just shy of 45 minutes from the city of Asheville and was once the site of a strange series of sightings ever recorded in North Carolina’s history—including angelic hosts and an aerial battle between armies on winged horses.

In late summer 1806, an eight-year-old local girl named Elizabeth Reaves told her older brother that she had seen a man on top of Chimney Rock. Unsurprisingly, this was a time before rock climbing was a standard hobby and would have been unheard of. Her brother refused to believe her, but when she persuaded him to look, he saw not just one, but thousands of people flying through the air around Chimney Rock. Both children described the people they saw as being clothed in brilliant white and generally human in shape, but they couldn’t make out distinct features, and there was no clear differentiation in age or gender.

The sighting was further corroborated by their mother, youngest sibling, a neighbor, and another local woman who all spent the next hour watching a strange spectacle unfold before the apparitions disappeared into the heavens. Several years later in the summer of 1811, another strange apparition appeared by Chimney Rock: a pair of armies riding tiny, winged horses meeting in a fierce battle in the air. Over the course of several evenings, multiple witnesses in different locations saw two opposing cavalry riding winged horses and circling each other in the sky. On the final evening, the two armies finally engaged each other and clashed in the sky over Chimney Rock. The incorporeal cavalrymen were armed with swords, and 5 witnesses said they could hear the distant sounds of clashing metal and the groans of the wounded. The battle lasted only about ten minutes, when the defeated army retreated and the victorious army evaporated into the darkness. 

After that, a public meeting was held in Rutherfordton, and the public soon settled on the idea that the battle was a divine vision from the looming Revolutionary War, but there was never a scientific or logical explanation made for either of these awe-inspiring spectacles. 

Ghosts, Spirits, and Phantoms

Helen’s Bridge

Famous perhaps for the Asheville writer, Thomas Wolfe, who included it in a passage of his book, Look Homeward, Angel, the lore surrounding Helen’s Bridge might actually be the source of its enticement. The arched stone bridge was constructed in 1909 to provide access to the Zealandia Mansion close by. The legend tells of a woman named Helen who lived at or near the mansion with her beloved daughter. After Helen’s daughter died in a fire that destroyed their home, the distraught mother hung herself from the bridge. Her anguished spirit is said to still appear when her name is called. People who have attempted to summon the spirit have reported that their car will not start when they try to leave, or they find handprints atop their vehicle.

Highland Hospital

Located within the stunning, historic district of Montford that was once home to a number of private hospitals for tuberculosis and other ailments, the most well-known of these establishments was Highland Hospital, originally known as "Dr. Carroll's Sanatorium," founded by the distinguished psychiatrist, .Dr. Robert S. Carroll. His treatment program for mental and nervous disorders based on exercise, diet, and occupational therapy, attracted patients from all over the country. The campus included landscaped grounds for patients to roam, a variety of buildings erected in Georgian Colonial, Norman, and Arts and Crafts styles, and Dr. Carroll's personal residence, Homewood. Dr. Carroll's wife, Grace Potter Carroll, was a world-renowned concert pianist and actually ran a music school out of their house for many years. Among her notable students was the “High Priestess of Soul,” Nina Simone. 

Apart from its medical legacy, this hospital is known for a tragic event that took place on the night of March 10, 1948. During the late night hours a deadly fire broke out in the main building. One of the nurses, Doris Jane Anderson, was among those who testified. According to a 1948 Asheville Citizen article, Anderson discovered the kitchen table on fire at 11:35 p.m. When asked why she hadn’t tried to put it out, the nurse said she “had never witnessed a destroying fire before.” This devastating fire took the lives of nine women, and among the victims was author Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

In a recent Asheville Citizen article, columnist Rob Neufeld pieces together some ghostly accounts of the larger than life artist. While most of the campus was destroyed in the fire, “enough of the architecture has been preserved to draw Zelda’s ghost.” Those who have spotted her spirit note her “doll-like face, paintbrush in hand and red ballerina shoes, the last things to disappear when Zelda’s ghost vanished progressively from head to feet.” If you visit the Montford area, take time to walk around the neighborhood. Who knows, you might be able to join Zelda on one of her afternoon strolls.

Lake Lure’s White Lady & Other Ghosts

The beautiful Flowering Bridge is a popular spot for visitors to the area and full-time residents alike, but very few know that it used to be referred to as Clementine’s Bridge. Said by some to be haunted by Clementine, the beautiful young woman was water skiing in the 1960’s, lost her balance, and was hurled into the bridge, where her spirit is said to still linger.

Close by, the Lake Lure Inn, has its own haunting history that’s been known to raise a few hairs on the back of the neck. In the 1930’s, a newlywed couple was staying at the inn when the groom flew into a jealous rage and murdered his blushing bride after he found her talking to another man in the Inn’s lobby. The couple was staying in rooms 217-218, which at that time was one large room. Since that tragic incident, guests have described an overpowering smell of roses in those particular rooms, and some have even reported seeing a lady in white at the foot of their bed or roaming the hallway. 

Interest in the apparitions of the Lake Lure Inn was reignited with the publication of a photo taken inside the inn by the Events and Catering Manager in November 2010. The photo, showing an ice sculpture prepared for a vow renewal, also reveals a figure. The figure is said to be the spirit of a young boy standing behind the sculpture. Hotel staff insists he was a local boy from Hendersonville that drowned in the nearby bottomless pools and made his way over to the inn around the mid-1980s. While the ghostly activity varies among guests, it has remained a captivating destination since opening its doors in 1927.

Riverside Cemetery

Located near downtown Asheville in the historic Montford neighborhood, this historic cemetery was established in 1885 and contains the graves of more than 13,000 people. Somber and scenic, this ancient spot is famous for being the final resting place of many notable residents of Asheville, including famous authors like William Sidney Porter (aka O. Henry) and Thomas Wolfe. At Wolfe’s grave, many visitors leave a pen in the flower urn, and at O. Henry’s grave, many visitors pay homage to his most famous work, “The Gift of the Magi" by leaving pennies on his grave in recognition of the opening line which reads: "One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied."

Although some are more well-known than others, all of the grave sites here have a story, with the oldest known grave site dating back to December 1885. Quite a few of the graves are so old that the inscriptions are barely visible, and there are several unmarked graves. Hundreds of veterans are also buried in this cemetery, including a few Confederate generals.

One notable figure of the Confederacy was Zebulon Vance. He was known as “The War Governor of the South,” and a politician who served as a state senator and later a U.S. Senator and Governor of North Carolina. While there are many confederate soldiers buried in the veteran’s section of the cemetery, there are also 18 German sailors from World War I. 

No doubt a hot spot for paranormal energy and activity, Riverside Cemetery is also a place of profound beauty where you can walk, take photographs, paint, read, and contemplate the meaning of life and death. 

Legend of Petunia

YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly is known for its retreat center which offers recreational programs and services for all ages, but its Abbott Hall is well-known for a friendly ghost inhabitant named Petunia. According to a collection of ghost stories archived at Swannanoa Valley Museum in downtown Black Mountain, 

“The slamming doors and mysterious sounds first started on July 22, 1956. A guest named Petunia fell, or jumped, from a window in Room 13 of Abbott Hall at 3:15 a.m. That same morning two guests who were doctors also staying in Abbott, were awakened by groans coming from underneath their windows. The two men rushed outside and discovered Petunia on the ground under the window of Room 13. She was dead.”

Looking back at the Asheville Citizen newspapers from July 23 and 24, 1956 reveal that “Petunia” was actually a 51-year-old woman named Elsie Larsen Wilson traveling from Shreveport, LA to the Blue Ridge Assembly in order to serve as the VP for the annual Blue Ridge Conference of Social Workers.

Elsie’s room on the second floor had no AC, so she slept with the window open. While no one saw her fall from the window, the ironically-named Dr. William L. Leap who was staying in the room below her, heard cries and went outside to investigate. He found Elsie alive albeit unresponsive at 3:10 a.m. and immediately called an ambulance, which rushed her to Mission Hospital. 

Ruth Shiffman, a friend who rode with her in the ambulance, told deputies that she regained consciousness on the way to the hospital and told her that she woke up during the night and turned on the bedside lamp. Because she had a knee injury, she braced herself against her single bed as she got up. The bed, however, was on wheels, so when Elsie stood, it rolled across the floor. She lost her balance, tripped over the window sill, fell out of the open window, and landed on her back onto the ground.  

As explained by local historian Anne Chesky Smith in Black Mountain News, guests staying in Abbott Hall can rest a little easier knowing that the “mysterious bangs they might hear in the middle of the night are only the spirit of the woman making sure that the windows on the upper floors are closed and locked, working in death as she did in life for the welfare of the community.” 

The Pink Lady of the Grove Park Inn

Constructed in 1913 by Edwin Wiley Grove and his son-in-law Fred Loring Seely, the Grove Park Inn has hosted a number of famous guests in its more than century-long legacy. From U.S. Presidents like Woodrow Wilson and  Barack Obama to inventors and industrial icons like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford to magicians and musicians like Harry Houdini and George Gershwin, the guest list has always been dazzling. However, its most infamous guest is one that has stayed checked in for 90+ years.

The story begins in the roaring 1920s when a beautiful young woman fell to her death from her fifth-floor balcony. Although her body was removed, she is still known to roam within the halls and grounds of the hotel. The playful Pink Lady spirit is very friendly, and most of her hauntings are very childlike with the opening and closing of doors and tickling of guests' feet. Her presence is felt the strongest in room 545, and she appears most often to children either as her person or as a pink mist. On one occasion, a doctor and his family were staying at the Inn, and when they were checking out, he told the concierge to thank the lady in the pink gown who worked there for entertaining his children.

Unnamed to this day, the Pink Lady was rumored to be a servant girl from a local residence who was having an affair with the man of the house. When he learned that she was pregnant, he pushed her over the balcony to keep their affair a secret which could account for the ghost being so taken with children. However, there are others who argue that the ghost could be the spirit of Zelda Fitzgerald, who died when the Highland Hospital burned to the ground in 1948. Her husband, notable author F. Scott Fitzgerald, stayed at the hotel on and off for some two years while Zelda was being treated nearby. Some say she may have associated the Grove Park Inn with happier times and taken up residence there as a result. No matter the identity of this rose-hued apparition, she has become a paranormal icon to locals and tourists alike. 

The Siren of the French Broad River

Rooted in Cherokee legend, one of the scariest tales in Asheville’s arsenal of stories is undoubtedly that of the Siren of the French Broad River: Lorelei. The story first appeared in "Tzelica, A Tradition of the French Broad," a 64-line poem by William Gilmore Simms published in his Southern and Western magazine, but is more widely known from the 1896 retelling in Charles Montgomery Skinner's Myths and Legends of Our Own Land. Early on, he references a German yarn about a “Lorelei” who enchanted and lured fishermen to their deaths:

“Among the rocks east of Asheville, North Carolina, lives the Lorelei of the French Broad River. This stream—the Tselica of the Indians—contains in its upper reaches many pools where the rapid water whirls and deepens, and where the traveler likes to pause in the heats of afternoon and drink and bathe. Here, from the time when the Cherokees occupied the country, has lived the siren, and if one who is weary and downcast sits beside the stream or utters a wish to rest in it, he becomes conscious of a soft and exquisite music blending with the plash of the wave.

Looking down in surprise he sees—at first faintly, then with distinctness—the form of a beautiful woman, with hair streaming like moss and dark eyes looking into his, luring him with a power he cannot resist. His breath grows short, his gaze is fixed, mechanically he rises, steps to the brink, and lurches forward into the river. The arms that catch him are slimy and cold as serpents; the face that stares into his is a grinning skull. A loud, chattering laugh rings through the wilderness, and all is still again.”

As the passage above describes, once the men are fully captivated, she appears to them in full form, and as soon as they reach out, her warm and supple skin becomes scaly and cold, and in the blink of an eye, they are yanked into the water by a "monster." Whether this legend is based in fact or fiction, it’s clear that many places have some variation warning men of a tempting and dangerously beautiful nymph. 

The Granny Witches of Appalachia 

As European settlers arrived in the colonies during the 18th century, they brought with them the traditional folk magic and healing practices of their home countries. Primarily women, these healers used the concepts they'd learned in Scotland, England, and Ireland that were eventually expanded and sharpened upon meeting their Native American neighbors, who taught them about the plants, roots, and leaves indigenous to the mountains of
North Carolina, Tennessee, and beyond. Making their home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia, The Granny Witch “lives as moss upon a stone among the youth and elders alike in her community. Using divine tools to find wellsprings for her neighbors, laying hands on an ailing child, brewing concoctions made from the sources yielded by Mother Earth, she
is lauded as the powerful healer everyone turns to for a variety of issues.”

In their time, Granny Witches harnessed magic to heal sickness, birth babies, remove curses, and predict the weather. In the far reaches of Appalachia, Granny Witches were often the sole source of medical care and spiritual guidance for their intimate communities. Their practices were simple, inventive, and always grounded in the natural world. Although folk healers had mostly disappeared from the hills of Appalachia by the 20th century, their focus on self-reliance continues to have significant appeal. Modern herbalism, midwifery, foraging, and homesteading carry on the spirit of the Appalachian Granny Witches today.

Our favorite haunts

Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria marks the sight of one of Asheville’s most grisly mass shootings. On November 12, 1906, an escaped convict named Will Harris came to Asheville in an attempt to elude Charlotte’s jurisdiction and to find an old flame, Mollie Maxwell. Unable to find her, he made his way to her sister, Pearl Maxwell’s place. She allowed him to stay, but as Harris got more drunk, he became increasingly more violent and was ready for a brawl when Pearl’s husband, Toney Johnson, came home around 11 P.M. Fearful of the convict’s mad ravings claiming he was the “Devil,” Johnson ran to the local police station for help. Two officers arrived at the scene, Captain John Page and Officer Charles Blackstockbeing, the former was shot in the arm and managed to escape and the latter was killed instantly. After this confrontation, Harris made his way onto the street and killed 3 innocent citizens as well as a neighborhood dog. Captain Page reemerged with another officer, James Bailey, and they got into a gunfight with the fugitive. The battle lasted all of ten minutes which saw Bailey shot and killed and Harris wounded.

Harris took off south out of the city, and a mob of 300+ revenge-driven men showed up at the police station and were organized into groups and sent out to help search for the missing convict. It took two days, but on November 15 Harris was found sleeping in a barn outside of the town of Fletcher, by a group of men led by a railroad agent named Frank Jordan. When someone from the group shot at him with a shotgun, he dove into a laurel bush for safety. He promised to kill anyone who came too close, and he shot his rifle into the air over the mob. The group waited for reinforcements to arrive, and when the men stopped firing, 500 bullets had been shot and Harris had over 100 bullet wounds. Will Harris’s body was put on display for the townspeople to show the nightmare was finally over, but the body mysteriously vanished afterward. 

Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria is in the immediate area, so it seems the ghosts venture into the pizzeria on occasion. People have reported seeing an old-fashioned cop running up and down the streets, hearing the sound of a dog barking and howling in dark alleyways, and spotting shadowy figures along the street. During your next pizza stop, be on the lookout for a man dressed in all black strolling down Biltmore Avenue and into the front door of Barley’s.

Pack’s Tavern is one of the most haunted locations in Asheville. In fact, the Tavern’s managers and owners will tell you that the building, comprised of two structures built between 1907 and 1912, was once a epicenter of illegal liquor smuggling during the Prohibition era via a city-wid underground passageway. Evidence for this activity is on the lower level of the restaurant where two heavy iron doors serve as an entrance to a dark tunnel rumored to be a part of the underground web of passageways. In addition to bootlegging, this underground system mostly likely had even more nefarious purposes aiding criminal activity linked with prostitution and more.

Officially, Pack’s Tavern was a lumber warehouse back then, with the ferrying of lumber from the hills and out to the city and beyond which made for the perfect cover. However, under the surface, tunnels were dug, routes were established, and the liquor, partying, and wickedness flowed.

Boos & Spirits: Best cocktails in Asheville

  • Little Jumbo-Located at the corner of Broadway and Elizabeth, just north of downtown Asheville, this award-winning cocktail bar pays homage to a bar of the same name, owned by famed bartender Harry Johnson in NYC in the 1880's. From the vintage light fixtures to the medieval tapestries, this cozy spot is definitely worth visiting. While there, be sure to try one of their famous Gin + Tonics or the Spicy Dead Lady. 
  • Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar-Located in The Grove Arcade in the heart of downtown Asheville, this gem calls to all Oenophiles and Bibliophiles by marrying “two of earth’s finest pleasures, books and wine, side by side.” With an extensive drink list and ever-expanding collection of books, this is the perfect spot for introverts who also like to go out on the town now and again. While there, be sure to try a champagne flight alongside one of their literary-themed charcuterie boards before finishing strong with a decadent dessert.
  • The Crow and Quill-Located on Lexington Ave in downtown Asheville, this “liquor library” is laden with velvet, lace, and dried flowers worthy of a Victorian Gothic novel or Edgar Allen Poe short story. Boasting over six hundred whiskeys from around the world, along with hundreds of rums, mezcals, and gins, there are currently over one thousand spirits on their shelves, with new selections added every week. The eerie and elegant ambience alone is worth the visit, but while there, be sure to try some of their world-renowned whiskeys or one of their specialty cocktails like the Death at Dusk or Iron Hand in a Velvet Glove. 

Haunted Tours, Houses, and Performances:

  • LaZoom’s Ghosted: Comedy Bus Tour is the perfect outing if you’re looking for something spooky and hilarious. Grab a local beer from the LaZoom Room (76 Biltmore Ave.), hop on board, and enjoy an interactive tour of Asheville’s most gruesome murders, hauntings + hangings. Tours run nightly through the month of October. Pro tip: Use promo code BOO to save $5 per ticket. Riders must be 17+.
  • The Haunted Farm is Western North Carolina’s scariest attraction and has previously been Voted Best Haunted House in NC. Located in rural farmland near Hendersonville, The Haunted Farm sits on a mysterious, blood-soaked stretch of land where the locals claim an age-old Blood Feud between the Lively and Tate families has devastated the local farming community. The haunted history of curses, derangements, ghosts, and terrible bloodshed brings visitors from near and far–hoping to survive The Haunted Farm.
  • Grayline’s Haunted History & Murder Mystery Tour illuminates Asheville’s darkest history with astonishing stories of spirits & spies, ghosts & goblins, hauntings & hoodlums, and mountain-made murder & mayhem. Along the tour you’re certain to hear stories of the legendary Pink Lady at the Grove Park Inn, the 1936 unsolved murder that shook Asheville, arson at hospital that claimed Zelda Fitzgerald, and much much more!
  • Joshua P. Warren’s Haunted Asheville Walking Tour will allow you to stroll through the streets of scenic downtown Asheville and be safely guided to the area's most haunted hotspots. You'll hear the legends and history of the chilling apparitions from a suicide at Helen's Bridge, a body entombed in the wall of St. Lawrence, a young lady brutally murdered in the Battery Park Hotel, and even more. Not only will you experience Asheville's dark underbelly, but you'll also learn about ghost hunting yourself. It's the original adventure produced by Asheville's original ghost expert.
  • Pinhead’s Graveyard, located in Canton just outside of Asheville, was voted #1 North Carolina Haunted House in both 2018 & 2019. Surprising to most given the horror-centric name, the graveyard is actually appropriate for all ages and groups, and small children can expect a toned down version of scares. Although the realism of their haunted house is beyond impressive, they also take pride in being a family-orientated and family-friendly attraction. 2021 is rumored to be a big year for the graveyard with chilling surprises in store! 
  • Dracula: The Failings of Men is an action-horror reimagining of the classic Bram Stoker novel presented at the Mountainside Theater in Cherokee. This October, walk along with Ada Van Helsing as she battles against the darkness in this cirque-inspired adaptation. This unique production will have patrons follow the action as they stroll through the theatre. Please note that this show is not recommended for children under 10.
  • Rocky Horror Music Show at Asheville Music Hall continues the decade-long sensation now by presenting the songs of Rocky Horror in a rock club setting. The costumed characters, an all-Star lineup of Asheville musicians, will be playing the songs live with snippets of the classic dialogue you want to hear and on-stage narration telling the story between songs. Be sure to dress in costume for a Halloween Costume/DJ Dance Party to follow the show. In the iconic words of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, “So, come up to the lab and see what’s on the slab. I see you shiver with antici...pation!”

For the faint of heart or for those looking for family-friendly Halloween fun, be sure to check out these enchanting events, spellbinding shows, and fang-tastic fall festivals

If you're still looking for a weekend cabin rental, be sure to check out our last minute "Spooktacular" Savings here! Along with halloween candy and treats, score 10% off discounts at select Greybeard homes for a hauntingly-fun Halloween weekend!