Twilight time has enveloped the Outer Banks. The night starts sooner now, with the dark creeping in between limbs of trees and settling down for many hours before the light of the sun changes the landscape. Lamps and fireplaces illumine our houses, but nothing shines brightly enough when we hear things that go bump in the night. ‘Tis the ghostly season.
There are those who say these islands have been inhabited by shadowy figures, mischievous spirits and unexplainable happenings for centuries. Ghost stories are still popular sellers in local bookstores, and Manteo even has its own guided ghost tour. Bring up the topic to friends and neighbors and, interestingly, many of them will launch into an account of something weird they’ve experienced on the Outer Banks. I can tell you that I have my own stories, and a few are rather hair raising.
Are the accounts true? Well, what’s true? Our cultural upbringing might predispose us to deny or even scorn stories of so-called paranormal experiences. Then again, our backgrounds might make us even more inclined to believe, and therefore experience, something beyond “normal.” You decide for yourself.
Sitting, as we are, at the edge of the continent, it’s not hard to imagine that the Outer Banks rests in a confluence of energies, energies that are full of beginnings … but also endings. Imagine the number of souls lost in the thousands of shipwrecks here.
Think about the war events – Civil and World War II – that have occurred on our shores. Consider the mingling, sometimes unfriendly, of Native Americans and colonists. All these are the background for some of the most haunting stories we have on the Outer Banks.
All the towns here have their tales. Many of them are well-told, being the stuff of narrations around a campfire or local lore passed down through generations. But there are those stories that few know … well, until now.
Let’s start in Corolla. If you’re there, you might want to stroll along the beach at nightfall and sharpen your hearing. In March of 1876, an Italian ship called the Nouva Ottavia became stranded on a sand bar. The nearby Jones Hill Life-Saving Station crew, which had only been commissioned for a year or so, readied to attempt a rescue. They were an inexperienced group, made obvious by the fact that they forgot to bring their cork life jackets when they left the station. Still, the brave men rowed out to the ship in the churning surf. Tragically, only four life-savers made it safely back to shore. All the others, as well as the entire ship’s crew, perished in the cold March ocean. To this day, many people claim to hear screams and cries coming from the water near the wreck site. And one local man, who walks his dog along the surf most days, says that there are times his dog absolutely refuses to go to that section of the beach.
Corolla’s next hauntings takes place at Whalehead, the magnificent Art Nouveau-style residence completed in 1926 by Edward Collins and Marie Louise Knight. Many tales can be told about strange happenings in the grand house. One was told to me by a man who worked on the restoration project of the mansion. He explained that during the early stages of the restoration, the workmen would camp out on the house’s lawn during the week rather than go back to their homes. They, of course, had an unimpeded view of the house from their tents and campers. On many nights, when the sky was inky black, they would see shadowy figures floating in the front hall, as if gathering for a party. Some of the brave-hearted men would go into the house to investigate but would never see anything once inside. These sightings happened frequently enough that none of the men could chalk them up to imagination. Many of the workers refused to ever go into the house again unless the sun was shining.
A master craftsman who has worked for decades at the mansion tells of another spooky experience at the house. Each evening, he was usually the last one in the house and would make sure all the doors were secured. He would always leave his toolbox in the same place in the gun room. But, upon returning the next morning, he’d find his tools had been moved.
Yet another story involves a portrait of Mr. Knight that, at the time, hung in the dining room. At one point in the house’s history, the Atlantic Research Group, a missile-testing company, used the house as its headquarters. The company allowed employees’ families to join them on weekends. On one such time, the young girl of a family woke up smelling smoke. She awakened her parents and two brothers, and all of them went downstairs to find the source. They searched the entire house to no avail. Nothing was burning. On their way back upstairs to their beds, they passed through the dining room. To their horror, all five of them discovered that the smoke was coming from a cigar Mr. Knight was holding in his portrait. Needless to say, the family left the next morning.
And, one more Whalehead story bears telling. A local man was employed at the house as a caretaker. A hurricane was headed toward the Outer Banks, so the man was given permission to hunker down inside the house since it was, undoubtedly, the most secure structure in Corolla. He and his dog got to the house and made themselves a comfy spot right at the top of the stairs, out of the way of windows that could blow in in the high winds of the storm. Night fell, and the storm intensified. Still, the man says he felt secure in the well-constructed mansion. But, all of a sudden his normally placid dog started snarling and barking at something in the corner. He wouldn’t stop, even after the man tried to calm him. They quickly packed up and left the house, trudging out into rain and wild wind. When asked later why he left such a secure shelter, he said that he’d rather deal with the hurricane than whatever was in that house!
Sanderling Spooky Tale
A quick story is told about the beach area near present-day Sanderling Resort north of Duck. One has to assume that, at some point, a man was killed in a shark attack near this location because more than a few people have reported hearing a man screaming “Shark! Shark!” from the surf. But when they search in the direction of the scream, no one has ever been able to spot the man.
The Forces of Nags Head Woods
Straddling both Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head Woods is a maritime forest with high ridges, freshwater ponds and the most varied flora and fauna of any such forest on the East Coast. Because of its high ground and sheltering trees, it was also the site of many homes several hundred years ago. Within the woods are several graveyards, some marked by fences, some that are stumbled upon by woods walkers. Local kids have often driven along the road that passes through the woods at night – it’s beautiful and quiet. But some of them have gotten more than the peace and seclusion they were seeking. They claim to have been chased out of the woods by a force – some energy that was unhappy that the kids were infringing on their deep woods home. Some of these young people have even claimed to have seen ghosts at one of the graveyards near the road. Driving along this road was once popular as a Halloween activity, but lots of locals say they’re too spooked to go there again on that night.
Roanoke Island Hauntings
Now we head to Roanoke Island where countless stories originate. Our first story takes place along Mother Vineyard Road, a street that runs partly along the sound and that has been the location of some of Manteo’s finest family homes. It’s also an area where many an old timer claims the English colonists actually made camp but also where freed slaves, Civil War soldiers and Native Americans have undoubtedly walked. The Mother Vine, which was written about in accounts of the colonists, is located along this road, and there’s a section that is literally canopied by the branches of cedar trees, making you feel either sheltered or captured, depending on your sensibilities.
Locals have reported seeing a black, amorphous shape creep along the road, sending those witnesses scrambling away from it. One young man was on a dock located along this road and reported seeing the blob then having the dock knocked hard several times, as if admonishing him to leave. Still another account relates how several young guys were walking along the road late at night and heard a bike with a bell insistently ringing coming up behind them, but when they turned around, there was no biker to be seen. Many have reported seeing this ghost rider – an old man in tattered clothing who emits a soft, glowing light as he rides along. Still another story tells of people who heard a cat screeching as if it was being attacked and thrown around by some force then watching as the black blob moved off away from the cat. This area is so haunted that paranormal investigators out of Durham have even visited to see what they could discover. If you’re ever in Manteo, ride slowly along the road at night and see what you sense.
Native American Drumming
One of the spookiest tales I’ve heard is told by Chris Chappell, who now lives in Raleigh but who has spent many summers here as an actor in The Lost Colony. His first year in the show was 1986, and as soon as he arrived he says the strange experiences began. Almost every night, always between 2 and 4 a.m., he would be awakened by Native American drumming. He said it sounded close, and it was loud. He would ask others if they heard the sound, and no one else did. He explains that it felt personal…as if it was a warning just for him. The haunting continued all summer and throughout the years he performed in the Colony until 1998. In 2001, he returned to Roanoke Island to help with a fundraiser for a local acting company, which was held under a tent at the Elizabethan Gardens. Behind are dense woods. After the show, around 11 at night, he and his brother-in-law, Brendan Medlin, were sitting on the tailgate of Brendan’s truck, relaxing and enjoying the quiet. Chris heard the drum cadence begin. He froze and listened for a minute, thinking that, surely, he was imagining it. But then Brendan asked under his breath if Chris was hearing drums. Perplexed, but emboldened by having the other by his side, the two decided to venture into the woods along a path to investigate. About 100 yards in, Chris said it sounded like they were getting closer to the drums. They stood still to listen, then to their horror they realized the drumming was encircling them. Terrified, they stood stock still. Chris recounted how he had never felt such dread and foreboding in his life. He felt certain their lives were being threatened. All of a sudden, they heard a stern voice from back down the path call, asking them what they were doing. With relief that someone else was there, they tried to explain. They saw the guy at the end of the path in an official uniform, and he said, with an unmistakable tone to his voice that they were to obey, “You must leave immediately.” Chris says they followed him back toward their truck, but as soon as they were out of the woods, the man was nowhere to be seen. He feels that they were saved by the man, whether he was real or spectral. As you might imagine, the experience has stayed with Chris and Brendan as one they would question had it not happened to both of them.
To add to this story, I had my own haunting in this exact same spot. One night I decided to go walking there. It was a beautiful fall evening, and I just wanted to be outside. I parked my car in probably about the same place as Brendan’s truck and took off, confidently walking into the dark area along the path. I reasoned that since there were no other cars there, I was safe, and, besides, I had walked this path many times during the daylight. I had been walking a few minutes when I felt for sure there was someone else in the woods with me. I hadn’t heard anything, it was just an undeniable sense that I was not alone. I stopped for a second, telling myself that I just had the jitters from being alone in the woods late at night. But I couldn’t shake the uneasiness. I walked on for maybe a minute more but then had the uncontrollable feeling that I needed to run, as fast as I could, away from whatever was walking with me. I did so and reached my car totally out of breath and shaking. Even when I was in my car, I still had a feeling of foreboding. It was not until I was driving down the road leading to the main highway that I could relax a little.
Hatteras Island’s Grey Man
Hatteras Island is hurricane central. Most storms that come up from the south are attracted to this area due to the warm Gulf Stream current that hugs close to this land, often helping the winds intensify. Throughout the past century, the island towns have been damaged again and again by hurricanes. But it also happens that some storms head toward Hatteras only to veer off, giving the island a scary close call. How do the locals foretell what kind of storm is coming? Even with modern meteorology, satellites that can send back images and storm-piercing planes, there are those natives who say they rely on the presence of the Grey Man. Legend has it that whenever the coming storm is going to be life-threatening, you’ll see a shadowy grey figure on the oceanfront as the first drops of rain and gusts of wind begin. He walks back and forth as if signaling to whoever will see him that there is danger coming. Some have tried to walk toward him, but as they get close, he simply dissipates into the stormy wind.
The Burning Ship of Ocracoke
From the mid-1500s to the mid-1600s, wars caused by conflicts over religion, political power, economics and natural resources raged throughout most of Europe. Huge groups of monied people were made to flee their homes when peasants and other non-nobles turned against those with position and wealth. Many of these people relocated to England, which began to create social tensions as resources were overtaxed. A solution was to send groups of immigrants to the New World, which was just beginning to be colonized.
One such group set sail to the North Carolina area known then as New Berne. The current town of New Bern is located a short distance across the sound from Ocracoke Island, where this haunting takes place. These families packed up the valuables they had been able to bring from their European homes and set out on the dangerous journey across the Atlantic. Against odds, they made it to within sight of Ocracoke, which they mistook for New Berne, and the passengers made ready to go ashore with their riches. But the greedy captain had other plans for them and their gold and jewels. He proclaimed that, for reasons unexplained, they would have to wait until the morning to go ashore. That night, as the passengers slept, the ship’s crew crept below and killed each and every one of the wealthy passengers. They then loaded the riches into the ship’s long boat, set the mail sail and jib of the ship to catch the southwesterly breezes and set the main mast on fire – all to back up the lie they planned to tell of the horrible disaster that befell the ship. The crew started rowing to shore, eager to spend their riches, but then they discovered that, rather than sailing away from them and the shore as they had planned, the ship was somehow sailing straight back toward them, as if under a mysterious wind. The ship bore down on the long boat, rolling it over and over as it was forced under the revenging ship. All the crew was tossed out, and most of them drowned. Only a few made it to shore with their lies…but with no riches. They claimed that they heard moans and screams coming from the hull of the ship. Then, inexplicably, the ship came about and set sail in the opposite direction, now fully engulfed in flames. To this day, on the first full moon in September, people say that the flaming ship appears again on the northeastern tip of Ocracoke Island and makes several trips toward then away from the island before disappearing on the horizon.
Do you believe these stories? Is it possible that spirits stay close to where their bodies died for some purpose – to warn, to remain part of the living realm…or to threaten? We really don’t know, do we? But for those who have experienced these hauntings or unexplainable events, we tend to look over our shoulder as we walk alone and keep our ears open for things that go bump in the night.
Thanks to Julia Scheer, one of the guides for the Ghost Tours of the Outer Banks, for spending time with me, filling in holes in my ghostly knowledge and adding in some spooky new stories. And thanks to Chris Chappell for sharing his spine-chilling story about the Native American drumming.