Come out, come out, wherever you are …

By Richard Skanse

(LSM Oct/Nov 2010/vol. 3 – issue 6)

LSM Oct/Nov 2010 CoverOffer most people the opportunity to spend a night in a haunted building, and odds are you’ll get one of three basic responses: haughty dismissal (“That’s stupid. There’s no such thing as ghosts.”); thrill-hungry enthusiasm (“Bring it on!”); or common sense (“That’s stupid. No bleepin’ way.”)

From the moment we first decided to spend a night in the Phoenix Saloon as part of our Halloween theme package for this issue, I was very much of the “bring it on” mindset. Having already had a brief encounter with the supernatural some 15 years ago, I’ve long been “a believer.” And LoneStarMusic creative director Melissa Webb, who’s had an office on the third floor of the historic building in downtown New Braunfels for three years, has recounted so many hair-raising accounts of freaky happenings during the day that I was sure a night in the old joint would be memorable. When the big day finally arrived, I was like a kid on Christmas eve, counting the hours until my 1:30 a.m. rendezvous (after closing time) with Melissa and Leah Turnell, the psychic friend I’d recruited to join us just in case anyone or thing from the other side wanted to chat.

I was so excited, I joked with my sister earlier that day about how funny/ironic it would be if things ended up going very, very badly. Had it been a movie, and my character was shown acting all cavalier and/or giddy at the prospect of a night of ghost hunting, anyone watching would just know I’d be the first one to go stark raving mad in a room full of bleeding walls or sucked into a swirling hell portal.

In reality, it was more like a typical episode of TV’s Ghost Hunters — you know, “Let’s watch some plumbers not find a ghost.” Or maybe all the spirits  in the place — including original owner John Sippel, who committed suicide on the second floor 110 years ago — just wanted nothing to do with me, because they sure seemed up for entertaining Melissa and Leah.

“Your problem,” Melissa chastised me, after the third or fourth time she and Leah both heard, felt or sensed something that made them visibly shiver and excitedly compare notes, “is that you’re wanting something to just come up and shake your hand and go ‘boo!’” For the record, a simple, blood-chilling tap on the shoulder would have sufficed, but … nada.

The owners of the Phoenix, Ross Fortune and Debbie Smith, had been kind enough to give us the full run of the place — including their second floor office (an apartment once rented by none other than Randy Rogers) and the infamous basement, which is where we anticipated the most activity. A week earlier, when I first asked Leah if she would join us, she was adamant about going in with a clean slate and insisted that we not tell her anything about the history of the building or any previous ghost reports. “They have really good chili,” I started to tell her. “Shh!” she shushed me, then told me she was going to “open a channel” to try and get a feel for the site remotely. The next day, she emailed me this:

“In case this might be a real flash — a preempted message — I felt I should tell you what I’m getting … I see a dimly lit room, a brick something, an opening with a metal door. Someone is shoveling a huge pile of red embers — it’s a young black boy, and there’s an old, powerful man in the corner barking orders [but] not paying attention. Oh, it’s like a pressure cooker or a still — heat has to be maintained at a specific level. Dangerous … explosion! They never saw it coming.”

Subsequent visions — which she said would flash in her head like frames from a movie, “the memory of an incident” — introduced a little girl, sitting on some stairs, and a woman — her mother, perhaps — apparently pleasuring the man in the corner, thus distracting him from keeping a careful eye on the boy adding fuel to the fire. Then, always, boom.

“I kept getting those flashes until I got to the Saloon that night, over and over again,” Leah wrote in a later report. “And from the moment I finally walked into the building, I felt the four that I had seen in my flashes — and more. I was dying to get downstairs to see if the fire pit with a door on it was there. And it was!” Melissa, who had seen the basement prior to its current remodeled state, explained that the fire door had been removed. When Leah told her about the explosion, Melissa said that the building had in fact burned down at least once or twice in its long history. Elsewhere in this issue, in Ross’s essay about his own experiences at the Phoenix and his research into the building’s history (page 36), he mentions “talk of some hushed-up accident in the basement.” It’s worth noting that he had not heard anything about Leah’s “flashes” prior to writing his article.

We had more tools at our disposal than just Leah’s psychic visions, though. Melissa brought along her camera and a little EMF meter, which handily detects spikes in electro-magnetic frequencies. I had two different audio recorders running, along with a video camera and, on a whim, a 99-cent “Ghost Radar” app on my iPad, which would periodically bleep out random words supposedly picked up by unseen entities. If there was an orb, EVP or tech-savvy Apple fanatic from the spirit world that wanted to be documented that night, we gave ’em plenty of toys to play with. Alas, no takers. The EMF meter spiked a lot at seemingly convincing times (at the mention of the word “fire” while in the basement, and on the stairs leading from the second floor up to the third floor, where the Masons reportedly used to have meetings), but it would also spike anytime we got near electrical piping or wiring. So much for a controlled experiment.

The basement has two main rooms: the chamber where Leah’s exploding furnace scenario took place, which now has a bar and pool table, and a much larger storage room, which still has two blocked passage ways to Prohibition-era tunnels. One of the passageways has a little window that opens up onto a pile of rocks. Before locking us up for the night, Ross jammed the window shut, demonstrated the tightness of the seal (impossible to just blow open, especially with no air current to speak of on either side), and then told us that it’s not unusual to come back and find it wide open again. And oh my, did I ever want that silly window to do its magic for us that night. “Open that window,” I said. “Just. Open. The. Window. Please.” As the night progressed, my pleading turned to taunts. “You can’t, can you? Can you do anything?” All of which got me no better results than you might barking at any window or door in your own home. But at the time, I honestly felt pissed.

Meanwhile, Leah and Melissa were seeing, or at least hearing and feeling, more dead people than dead Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense (oh, sorry — spoiler there). They’d both hear bangs, stomps and clatters that may as well have been dog whistles as far as my deaf ears were concerned, or talk about quick flashes of light seen out of the corner of the eye. There was only one time all night when the three of us were separated: I was standing outside the door of the lady’s room in the saloon, waiting on Melissa, and Leah was down in the basement, communing with the “hushed-up-accident” gang. All of a sudden I heard her squeal loudly — the sound a person makes when if you catch them unawares with a splash of cold water on the back — and she came flying up the stairs flushed and laughing nervously.

“I was sitting on the couch down there, explaining to the ghosts that they were dead and telling them that their loved ones were waiting for them on the other side, blah blah blah — it’s what I do,” she explained later. “And then all of a sudden, the whole back of the couch pushed into my back, like when you’re in a car and someone kicks or punches your seat from behind. I screamed and ran up the stairs with chills going up my spine. I didn’t need them to touch me to know they were there. Creepy!”

The couch kick gave her the willies; but the man she saw in a hallway on the second floor, leaving out the fire escape? Didn’t bother her a bit. She described him (trench coat, fedora) to Melissa, who nodded and said there’s been numerous sightings of him. But Leah didn’t pick up anything else of note on the second floor, including any hint about the (verified) suicide of the original owner. Melissa and I didn’t tell her about that until after we were done, as we were both surprised she didn’t pick up Mr. Sippel in one of her flashes. “Eh. Suicides know they’re dead,” she said with a shrug. “It’s the ones that don’t know they’re dead that stick around.” Or the ones that need to stick around, like the Mason apparently standing eternal guard at the stairs leading up to the third floor. Leah said it’s most likely the Mason who has the bad habit of pushing people on the stairs — which happened to her twice that night and that Melissa swears has happened to her and just about all of her friends. Except, of course, me.

“Masons, schmasons,” I said out loud dismissively as we were coming down that third set of stairs from Melissa’s office back to the second floor. Just then, a securely closed bath room door on the third floor behind us creaked open. Melissa and Leah both howled, utterly delighted that finally, at the very end of our night in the Phoenix, I got my “proof.” A long dead guardian of a long gone Masonic Lodge heard my taunt, and … opened a bathroom door.

I repeat: Schmasons.

And that was that. As we said our goodbyes by dawn’s early light, and Leah and Melissa traded post-game analysis about what they felt was a pretty eventful and satisfying night of ghost hunting, I still felt disappointed — like they both got E-ticket rides and I was stuck all night on the lame tea cups. It’s not that I left a skeptical non-believer: my faith in the unexplained remains unshaken. I’m just sadly resigned to the fact that, having been unimpressed by the bathroom door trick (the basement window would have somehow been another matter entirely), I’ll just have to experience whatever ghosts still haunt the Phoenix Saloon vicariously through more psychically gifted friends.

“Hey,” I’m sure I’ll ask Melissa again, wide-eyed and hopeful like a little kid hopped-up on s’mores at a campfire, “tell me again about the time you were up in your office working, and you heard that real faint woman’s voice scream in your ear …”