by Ray Pawulich
When I first heard I was going to embed with a group of local ghost hunters for an investigation of the Hannah House, purported to be Indy’s only “real” haunted house, I was excited. After all, back in high school I’d written a number of well-received pieces on creepy-but-not-haunted places and I expected this experience to be much the same: a freaky situation easily turned into an entertaining story. Yet what I found inside the foreboding manor was somehow both more and less.
A little bit o’ history
The Hannah House was built by Alexander Hannah in 1858 at the corner of what are now National and Madison Avenues on Indy’s Southside. He was a prospector who’d hit it big in the gold rush and his hand-built home was a monument to mid-19th century rebelliousness. Hannah defied the government by putting doors on all his closets — unheard of at a time when number of doors determined a property’s taxable value. (And you thought we had it bad.)
Yet his most charitable act of independence is also supposedly the source of the house’s sinister reputation. According to legend, Hannah’s home was a stop on the underground railroad — the secret network of abolitionists who sheltered escaped slaves during their exodus to Canada.
Allegedly, a group of slaves burned to death one night when an overturned lantern transformed the home’s then-straw-floored basement into a hellacious inferno. The fire, it is said, was extinguished before it did any serious damage to his house ... but unable to remove the bodies lest he reveal himself as a social radical, Hannah was forced to entomb the slaves’ corpses somewhere within the home itself, where spirits are said to haunt the halls to this day.
Blood dripping from the walls
To say I was apprehensive when fellow NUVO reporter Kate Franzman and I pulled up to the Hannah House is a bit of an understatement. In the days leading up to our investigation, I’d become so tweaked-out by the dangers of purposefully meddling with the spirit world that a journalistic commitment to truthfully documenting the experience was one of only two things keeping me from turning away from what I was sure would be treacherous to my immortal soul.
These fears were not assuaged when Kate cavalierly produced a Ouija board that she fully intended on using to open a portal between the lands of the living and the dead. Nor when NUVO photographer Kris Arnold unveiled a crystal skull designed to make summoning spirits easier. (According to Kate a crystal skull is “like Viagra for ghosts.”)
Luckily when we were greeted at the door of the aging homestead by my old friend Justin, I suddenly felt reassured. That’s because, in addition to being an old friend, Justin is part of Proof Paranormal — a group of volunteers who investigate supposedly-supernatural activity.
Like other members of Proof, Justin prefers to keep his full name off the record to avoid being harassed for doing what others might see as strange, occult, bizarre or just plain weird. Yet, when Proof approaches an investigation, they do so with a skeptical mind and an almost scientific seriousness; if a piece of “evidence” is unverifiable by multiple sources, Proof gives it no weight.
“I guess I’m the asshole of the group [for being skeptical],” Justin later told us. “But in a lot of ways, I want to believe in this stuff more than anybody.”
After introducing us to the other members of Proof who were present for the Hannah Investigation, Justin handed us off to Ali Austin, the P.R. Director for the Hannah House, for a tour of the home. Although not technically non-profit, the House has learned that the best way to finance their historical restoration efforts is by exploiting the home’s mysterious history — thus the close working relationship with Proof.
As Austin took us from room to room, she described various phenomena that have been reported over the years: unexplained cold spots, an odor reminiscent of death, spinning tables, rocking chandeliers, green orbs of light ... even ghostly figures spied peering through windows.
“If you look [the Hannah House] up in the ghost-hunting books, they’ll tell you the walls have dripped blood,” Austin said. “But you can’t believe everything that you read.”
We regrouped with Proof as Austin took us into the basement, the site of the supposed slave burning. In the midst of its annual transformation into a stereotypical Halloween “haunted house”, the subterranean level housed monstrous props and half-completed facsimiles of unspeakable horrors. Yet the very real (and nearly-collapsing) shelves of unlabeled and unrecognizable jars from “Grandma’s” 19th century canning collection were far more disturbing — not only did they look ready to fall at any moment, but their eerie out-of-time-sync nature seemed to suggest the presence of a spirit equally historic.
Despite a lack of hard evidence or historical documentation of the Hannah House’s legendary past, Austin says there have been unofficial reports of extensive tunnels found near the property.
“A lot of people ask why we haven’t used sonar to see if there are any bodies,” Austin said. “The truth is we just don’t have the budget. But if someone wanted to come in here with their equipment, we would do it.”
As she took us past the southwest corner of the basement, Austin said visitors are routinely drawn to it — even before she points out that it’s been a hot-spot for paranormal activity — including unseen hands grabbing at visitors and unexplainable orbs of light.
I let Austin lead the others on as I lingered in the corner. Was there something here? I put my hand against the wall, closed my eyes and tried to open my mind to sensations beyond the physical world. I could feel the presence of ... something, but it was nondescript and formless.
Even an open mind could not put a finger on it and I scurried to catch up with the others.
Together with Proof and separated from Austin, we took to the attic and turned out all the lights.
Paul, Proof’s resident academic and equipment specialist, explained that the Hannah House is believed by some to be home to a residual haunting — a sort of psycho-kinetic imprint of a traumatic event on its original location. In contrast to poltergeists or apparitions, residual hauntings are without a will or intelligence. (Think of a DVD stuck on an endless playback loop.)
As part of their investigative process to determine what — if any thing — is the true nature of a “haunting,” Proof attempts to record what is known as electronic voice phenomena — unexplainable verbal communication found on audio or video recordings. (If this sounds familiar, it was the topic of a lackluster horror film starring Michael Keaton.)
Proof’s methods for capturing EVP involve posing questions aloud then giving any “ghosts” time to answer. Later, Proof will review the recording to search for evidence of a response.
“Is there anyone here who would like to say anything?” Paul asked after firing up his audio recorder. As he did, I attempted to open my mind once again. And again, on the fringes of perception, I felt ... something peering in from the edge of the attic.
“Do you believe in God?” Paul asked. It was a powerful question, and I could feel its energy ripple across the room. From deep inside me, I felt a voice say “Yes.”
“Can you do anything to show us that you’re here?” Proof member Kathy pleaded. “We’d really like to know you are here.”
When asking nicely doesn’t work, Proof will often utilize a method known as “provoking.” True to its name, provoking attempts to anger the ghost in order to, well, provoke a response.
“There’s nothing here,” Nick, another Proof investigator, indignantly added in a clear attempt to spur any ghost into revealing itself.
Needless to say, it didn’t work. And whatever I’d felt was gone.
“Why won’t you forgive yourself?”
We relocated to the basement for the final leg of the investigation.
I took a seat on the floor closest to Grandma’s jars. As Proof joked about the stability of the shelves — or lack thereof — I imagined the jars crashing around me, spilling their undoubtedly putrid contents. (At least, I figured, if that happened, it would help spice up the story.)
With the lights out and our video camera’s battery dead, the only light in the room was the faint red glow of Proof’s infrared surveillance camera. Again, Paul fired up his audio recorder.
“Is there anyone here who would like to say anything?” he asked. As he did, I closed my eyes and again attempted to reach out. What was it that happened here? Could I sense it?
As the other Proof members carried on their questioning, I tuned out. Again, I could feel something formless peering in from the edges and I tried to draw it out with welcoming thoughts.
“Do any of you want to ask any questions?” Paul asked us.
I cleared my throat. “There wasn’t a fire here, was there?” I asked and waited for a response. I didn’t feel a conclusive answer. I felt moved to ask a deeper, more probing question — “Why won’t you forgive yourself?” — but before I could, others had started speaking.
“Can you do something to show us that you’re here? Touch one of us, move something around ... anything?” Paul said.
“Ah, it couldn’t do anything even if it wanted to,” Nick said with contempt and I knew we were all alone.
As we drove away from the Hannah House, I turned to Kate. This wasn’t anything like what I’d expected. No summoning spells, no Ouija boards and no portal to hell opened. Turning this into a white-knuckle account of spiritual terror was going to be difficult, if not impossible.
“Whatever’s in there: ghost, spirit, whatever you want to call it,” I said. “Provocation isn’t going to work on it. This is not an angry spirit. It’s curious about people, but it’s also shy and easily scared.”
She didn’t believe me.
Haunted House at the historic Hannah Mansion
3801 Madison Ave. Indpls.
Oct. 26 and 27, 7 p.m to midnight
Children under 6 not recommended
Note: see web site for year round opportunities to experience the Hannah Mansion.
by Kris Arnold
A little off the beaten path, down a gravel road just outside of Brazil, IN, lies an infamous hill, known only for its mysterious nightly phenomenon.
The story goes that a strange and mysterious light zips across this hill just off state highway 59. Many have seen it, but few can explain it.
I was first introduced to the local phenomenon by my cousin Nathan as we sat around the table at his quiet country home.
“You won’t believe this place I checked out last weekend,” he said.
As he proceeded to tell me about his experience out on the hill, I began to doubt his story. Nathan assured me it was real. “We really saw it. If you don’t believe me, let me take you there.”
We got to the country road. Drove over the first hill, proceeded to the top of the second hill, turned around and parked. Nathan informed me to keep my eyes on the hill and to be patient.
About half an hour passed and nothing. Not a single sign of anything interesting, let alone spooky.
Then, suddenly, a zip of light ran across the hill.
“Ha! Did you see it?” Nathan yelled.
“Yes, what was that?” I asked.
“I think it’s a spirit, or maybe a demon.”
We sat for another hour. Occasionally the light would zip by. And then it happened.
The light came on to the hill and stopped. It resembled a small orb with a bright “face” on one side, and started spinning in a circle, as if to scan the small valley and the hill across from it.
It lunged straight for us.
As the light got closer, moving fast, it faded. Nathan put the car into gear and we sped off, facing the fact we were going to have to drive through the very spot where the light just disappeared.
As we approached that point, a shadow appeared in the headlights and vanished underneath the car. Terrified, we drove on, speeding as fast as we could.
After this experience, there was much debate about what we saw, and several subsequent trips to investigate further. Every trip we made, we got a light show. But nothing as intense as that first night.
Nobody is really sure what causes the phenomenon known as Spook Light. Theories range from swamp gas, to military testing, even ghosts. But whatever it is, I know what I saw, and it sure wasn’t typical.
For more on this spooky light, see: http://www.angelfire.com/theforce/haunted/terrehaute/spooklighthill.htm
by Scott Shoger
The Ellettsville House of Prayer, an evangelical church where most parishioners ride motorcycles, spreads a fundamentalist Christian message with a biker gang’s disrespect for authority. Their eighth annual Hell House (Oct. 26 to 29) is the only one of its kind in Indiana, and like hell houses across the country, it’s become something of a lightning rod for critics and supporters alike. But Pastor Larry Mitchell says, “We don’t care what the other churches think; they thought the same thing about Jesus.”
A “hell house” is an evangelical hybrid of a carnival haunted house and the Stations of the Cross developed at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University (as the “ScareMare”) and popularized in the late-90’s through a step-by-step kit distributed by Colorado’s New Destiny Christian Center. New Destiny sells the whole kit at $300 (an initial investment some churches are hesitant to make, according to Mitchell) while individual scenes (including the High School Shooting Scene Package and the two-fer Mother’s Womb Abortion Scene and Heavenly Resurrection Scene Package) are available for around $50.
The House of Prayer works off the Colorado script, adding their own scenes maligning the Ku Klux Klan and domestic violence. “Demon guides” take visitors through stations dramatizing drunk driving, AIDS, fortune telling, abortion, computer pornography, teen suicide, heaven and hell. The demon urges sinners in each scene to offend against God, and hectors them eternally after they’ve acted badly.
The church hopes to exploit the shocks inspired by grotesque attractions to bring visitors to Jesus, giving them the opportunity to commit themselves to God (in heaven, no less) at the close of the tour. That’s a variation on traditional haunted houses, where surplus fear fuels binge cotton-candy consumption or necking on the Ferris wheel.
The tour begins with its most provocative scene – a man lies on his hospital deathbed stricken by complications from AIDS, contracted through unprotected same-sex liaisons. This pre-AZT certain-death scene has drawn protestors in past years from nearby Bloomington – Mitchell says that the church fed them cookies and hot chocolate throughout the night.
The teen suicide scene has drawn converts, as a comment card filled out after the production attests: “Hell house was wonderful. Hell is very scary. I have thought about killing myself. After seeing this I have change [sic] my mind and will talk with God.” In the scene the devil sneaks out of a darkened corner of the room to suggest suicide to a teenage boy dejected after being cut from the football team.
Mitchell says it’s difficult for 200 non-actors to stay professional throughout – with 17 groups touring the house each night over four nights, performers have a “tendency to stray from the script”. Mitchell just tells them to “keep in mind that it’s each group’s first time.” At the same time, Mitchell says the Hell House is a great opportunity to teach his congregation to work together towards a common goal. “They know they’re doing something that may change people’s lives eternally.”
While the Church of Christ’s Hell House appropriates the haunted house tradition for fundamentalist ends, they also distribute pamphlets that condemn the “satanic” (or pagan) trappings of Halloween. What’s the difference then, between a haunted house and a Hell House? Mitchell answers: “How many haunted houses do you see where people get saved?” A church survey for 2005’s Hell House records 41 salvations and 247 rededications (reaffirmations of Christian faith) out of 1073 visitors.
Mitchell qualifies his views on the AIDS and abortion scenes: homosexuals can be saved and abortions may be performed for medical reasons. Despite these caveats, there are no moral gray areas in the Hell House, only blood-red-lit scenes of horror and sin. There’s no time for sober debate in the Hell House’s amateur theater revue of eternal damnation.
Pastor Tony Stangas has these spooky last words: “Watching something like this on TV can’t make the same impact – you can actually see somebody thrashing a whip, actually see somebody dying of AIDS. It always comes back to you, even if it doesn’t hit you at first. It always comes back.”
Hell House: A Demon-Guided Tour That Will Change Your Life
House of Prayer Ellettsville (4100 N. Hartstrait Rd., Bloomington, IN)
Oct. 26-29, tours begin at 7 p.m., $5, no one under 11 admitted
876-9002 for reservations