Amy Pennington rewound the DVR set up in the old Craighead County jail in Jonesboro to see if her night vision camera caught a ghost knocking over a box of files.
Pennington, of Palestine in St. Francis County, and members of her team, Arkansas State Paranormal, were inspecting the two-story vacant jail to find evidence if it was haunted. County employees had reported hearing strange noises in the jail and the adjoining annex courthouse building for years, and Pennington’s team thought they had found something.
A box of green legal files were scattered across the floor of a second-floor hall near an area full of jail cells. None of the members remembered seeing the mess while walking through the area and setting up the night vision cameras. Later, when the ghost hunters checked on a loud noise they had heard — a deep, metallic slamming akin to a jail cell door being closed — they found the files in disarray.
Pennington ran the video back on her DVR, which recorded four cameras placed in the jail’s hallway, near a first-floor cell, in a large second-floor cell and in another hall leading to cells in the back of the jail.
She stopped the video at 9:45 p.m., about the time the cameras were set up.
There on the floor were the files. They had been there since Pennington’s team had begun its investigation.
“Debunked,” she relents.
Still, there was that loud clanging noise, and team member Tracy Gossett, of Jonesboro, captured odd noises called Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP) on her recorder, making the night worthwhile. When Gossett asked if any ghosts knocked over the files, the recorder captured an eerie growl. Later, she also recorded what sounded like a sharp intake of breath and whistling. Bobby “Peanut” Pennington, Amy’s husband, said he also heard whistling in the jail. Members also heard footsteps on the second floor. The pace seemed to quicken and get louder and then suddenly stop.
Gossett also noticed electronic impulses in various spots in the jail when she used a device to check energy frequencies.
Such is the fare in ghost hunting, a trend that is increasing among people with the advent of cellphone cameras and recorders that allows anyone to look for ghosts.
“It’s like hunting for deer,” Bobby says. “Sometimes, you sit in your tree stand all day and don’t see a thing. Other times, they’ll walk right up on you.”
Whether it’s hunting or haunting, there are similarities. Participants of both hunker down in some out-of-the-way place and wait. They’re quiet, communicating with each other only with whispers, and after periods of inactivity, a sighting can bring excitement. Sometimes, they go home empty-handed. Other times, they capture the 16-point buck of specters.
Although around for centuries, ghost hunting took off in popularity with the general public in 1984 after the release of the movie Ghostbusters, a comedy starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson and Harold Ramis portraying people who trap and remove ghosts from buildings.
“There’s no idea how many groups there are in Arkansas,” says Rhonda Burton, a member of Arkansas Ghost Catchers and an instructor at UA-Pulaski Technical College who teaches a Ghost Hunting 101 course. “It is a hobby for many. Go to Facebook, create a page and, boom, they’re a group.”
Within a year or so, many simply become phantom groups, deleting their Facebook pages and disappearing.
There is some conflict among ghost hunters about the surge of groups. Some do it merely for the fear factor, Burton says. They hear of a haunted place – like a cemetery, college auditorium, vacant house or a remote road – and go there.
“They only want to be scared,” she says. “They don’t want to go through the expense of buying equipment or spending time doing the research.”
She says of every 30 hunting teams, only one uses tried ghost-hunting methodology.
“All the rest just have cellphones,” she says. “There’s a lot of work and time involved in finding a five-second voice on a recorder.”
Other, more serious organizations purchase the night vision cameras, recorders and electronic gear needed to document a ghost hunting expedition.
Gossett began searching with her Arkansas State Paranormal group after a trip to Nashville in 2006. She and others took a tour of downtown that included ghost stories.
“I loved the history of it,” she says.
A year later, she went to the Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Louisville, Ky., a known hot spot for spooky activity.
“We caught a lot of paranormal things,” she says. “I was hooked.”
Since then, Gossett has conversed with ghosts using a “spirit box” that scans radio frequencies; something once stated her name and what color shirt she was wearing. She’s heard growls and felt presences, and she recorded a voice saying “Go away.” Once, while inspecting a western Arkansas hospital, she rolled marbles down a hallway in an attempt to get a ghost to roll it back. After several failed attempts, she gave up. Suddenly, a marble whizzed past her head.
The concept of trying to answer the unexplained may have been perpetuated by a darkroom accident and subsequent hoax, then followed by technological oddities.
William Mumler, a jeweler’s engraver, was developing a photographic plate in 1861 when the shadowy figure of a young girl appeared on it. He knew it was an error; Mumler failed to sufficiently scrub the plate of a previous exposure, making the ghostly girl float behind the photograph’s subject. He showed it to a spiritualist who said it confirmed there was life after death, and Mumler saw a financial opportunity using his chimera camera.
His most recognized photograph was of Mary Todd Lincoln with the appearance of her since-slain husband, Abe, standing behind her.
Mumler was eventually tried for fraud and larceny. Circus showman P.T. Barnum testified against Mumler in the bench trial. A judge acquitted Mumler, but his reputation was shattered, and he later died in poverty.
Later, in 1953, youngsters in Long Island, N.Y., were watching the popular children’s television show Ding Dong School when the face of a woman appeared on the screen. The youngster’s father shut the television off, but the face remained. He then turned the television to face the wall because they were scared.
In the late 1950s, an English filmmaker was recording birds chirping in his garden. When he played the recording, he heard voices claiming they were his dead father and wife calling his name.
Skeptics say the recorded voices were merely ambient noise in the background interpreted to be human.
Others believe there’s something else out there.
Whether real or not, ghost stories have been around for centuries, says Virginia Siegel, a folk arts coordinator at the University of Arkansas Libraries in Fayetteville.
“If an experience can’t be explained, we tend to fit it into an available narrative,” she says. “Part of what makes a legend and makes it more believable is the localizing of the legend. ‘This must be true. It’s not a random headless ghost, but it’s one at an exact location.’”
There are countless tales of ghosts haunting theaters or courtrooms, of ghosts searching for their decapitated heads at train yards and on tracks, of haunts hunting for their children after they drove off of bridges or roads. One of the most visited haunted sites in the state is Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, which once served as an experimental cancer hospital. Those who died there are said to haunt the place, especially in an area where a morgue once was.
“Part of what makes these legends so alluring is the negativity of belief,” Siegel says. “Could it be true? Someone you know is telling the story, and it’s been altered to make it more local. If a friend of a friend has seen or heard something like the crying of a baby or the disappearing hitchhiker, it adds to the availability of truth.”
Arkansas is located near the buckle of the Bible Belt, an area fervent with Christian beliefs. The only ghosts here, many believe, is the Holy one. The concept of spooks haunting places for eons doesn’t fit the theology. After you die, you have two choices of where to go: heaven or hell. There’s no lingering around for spirits.
“People have had experiences, but they don’t have the answers,” Burton says of human contact with the unknown. “Some people have open doors to what it could be. Some have doors partially open. Others have the doors closed. Religion has closed the doors. It’s hard for [people] to accept.
“There is evil. There are bad spirits. But you’re going into that situation knowing that when you investigate ghosts.”
She says some ghost hunters say a prayer of protection before entering a suspected haunted place.
“You can’t help ghosts get to where they need to go,” she says. “They’ve been there for 100, 200, 300 years. They’re not going back if you just say, ‘Go back to the light.’”
Burton believes. While inspecting a Berryville sanatorium, she watched in a hallway as several doors to former patients’ rooms slammed violently shut. She also recalls taking a group picture there while her recorder continued. The group was laughing because they couldn’t choreograph a decent picture; people were either moving or out of frame, and eventually, it became hilarious.
Later, when replaying her recording, Burton heard the ruckus associated with the picture-taking. “I could hear someone say, ‘Ready for the shot,’” Burton says. “Then, plainly, you could hear, ‘This is silly. Stop.’ I imagined maybe this was a stern nurse tired of the noise.”
She says bad places could also result in bad ghosts. The Crescent Hotel, where many died of malpractice when it was a hospital, is one that comes to her mind. The old Craighead County jail, built in the mid-1930s and used until a new jail was constructed in the late 1980s, is another.
“It’s not just Casper the Friendly Ghost flying around,” she says.
At least two people died in the jail, former police officers report. One hanged himself with sheets. Another prisoner ate part of a light bulb in a suicide attempt.
Before the jail on Madison and Washington streets opened, prisoners were held in another facility about a block from the old county jail. On Dec. 25, 1920, Wade Thomas was arrested for fatally shooting Jonesboro police officer Elmer Ragland, who raided a gambling joint where Thomas was playing.
Thomas was locked up in the jail that evening, but a day later, an angry mob surged into the jail, took Thomas out and hanged him at the corner of Main and Monroe streets. When he didn’t die from the noose, someone shot him several times.
“Nothing good happens in jails,” Burton says. “There’s a chance they may find something in the Craighead County jail.”
She suggests that since no one has hunted for ghosts in the jail in years, spirits may interact with visitors more.
“If a place has never been investigated, [ghosts] may be more interactive,” Burton says. “It’s what you hope for. If no one has been in there for a while, they may be ‘fresh.’”
The ghosts at the Craighead County jail were more stale when the Arkansas State Paranormal team visited, but there were still moments.
While sitting in a hallway next to a large holding cell, Gossett says she suddenly felt extremely cold to the point of goosebumps popping up on her arms. At the same time, in a different area, another hunter felt a dark presence in an already darkened room.
“It’s dark on dark,” Bobby Pennington says. “It’s when you’re in darkness, but you see something even darker.”
Several police radios set on a rack on the second floor had been quiet the entire evening. But when members neared it, static and distorted voices squawked out of the speaker for a moment before becoming silent again.
Lightning flashed on the horizon and thunder muttered in the distance early that evening. It may have been good ambiance for ghosts, but it was a hindrance for the paranormal team members. Noise of rain or thunder could ruin the EVP recordings, Gossett says.
At midnight, the storm broke, sending cascades of torrential rain. Lightning flickered through the barred jail windows.
Around 1:30 a.m., the group began packing their equipment. Even in ghost hunting, manners prevail. Generally, four hours is long enough for a visit.
The team has inspected several other haunted sites in Arkansas and in other states over the years. They’ve also responded to requests of homeowners to investigate houses for ghostly residents. Once, Gossett says, a night vision camera left in a woman’s bedroom while she slept captured something snake its way into the bed; blankets and sheets rose as if something was moving under them while the woman continued to sleep.
Now, the requests have dwindled, and the visits to popular sites have nearly stopped because of the novel coronavirus.
Still, they go on hunts when they can.
“I believe in God,” Gossett says. “I believe in Satan. We’ve seen things. You’ve got to question it; there is something out there.”
Editor’s Note: Do not trespass on private property. The Arkansas State Paranormal team received approval to investigate the old Craighead County jail for this article.