Thursday, October 25, 2012

Is the old bank building in downtown Castleberry haunted?

Is the old bank building in downtown Castleberry haunted?

That is the question that myself and two other men attempted to answer during an investigation this past Saturday night.

For the third straight year, The Courant teamed up with award winning reporter and photographer Josh Dewberry of The Monroe Journal and John Higginbotham of the Alabama Paranormal Research Society to investigate a supposedly haunted location in our neck of the woods. The decision to investigate the old Castleberry bank was easy, given all of the spooky tales we’d heard about this unused building.

Located on the corner of Cleveland Avenue and West Railroad Street in downtown Castleberry, the building is one of the oldest structures in town. Once a busy financial institution, the original bank failed during the Great Depression and the building was later used as a post office for the town. On and off, it’s also been used as a town museum and continues to house a number of old-timey relics from the town’s past.

There are more than a few creepy tales about the building and according to one story, it’s haunted by the ghost of the original bank president. This banker supposedly committed suicide inside the bank after he lost everything in the famous stock market crash of the Great Depression. A town official whose mother worked inside the building during the mid-1980s also told us that employees would sometimes hear a man’s voice when there were no men in the building. Employees would also smell cigar smoke just like the smoke from the cigars smoked by the original bank president, she said. Objects would also get moved around during the night for no apparent reason, she said.

We began our investigation on Saturday night around 8 p.m., and we could tell right away that this was no ordinary building. Once inside, we all admitted that the confined space of the building’s interior gave us feelings of claustrophobia, and the air inside the building seemed oppressive and heavy, almost stifling.

Another unusual thing about the building was that it was devoid of all signs of life. The old bank has obviously been the victim of vandals over the years and more than a few of windowpanes are missing from the building’s exterior windows. Despite these direct openings to the outside world, the entire time we were there, we didn’t see a single insect. We never saw a single spider, spider web, roach, moth or anything else you’d expect to see in a vacant building.

The building was also eerily quiet, almost as if the building seemed to absorb sound in some strange way. Our small group sat quietly for long stretches of time in hopes of hearing something out of the ordinary, and the sound of the dead silence was almost overwhelming. Absent were the sounds you’d expect to hear of an old building creaking and settling. Absent were the sounds of passing vehicles up and down U.S. Highway 31, just up the street. Absent were the night sounds you’d expect to hear in any other small town on a Saturday night.

Throughout the night, John, an experienced paranormal investigator, picked up some unusual readings on an electromagnetic field (EMF) detector he used inside the bank. Paranormal investigators, like those you may have seen on television’s “Ghost Hunters” or “Ghost Adventures,” claim that EMF detectors can help determine when a spirit is trying to manifest itself. The theory is that the ghost is drawing energy out of the environment, so that it can make itself seen, felt or heard. John picked up unusual EMF spikes throughout the night on his handheld detector.

While using a handheld digital thermometer, John also experienced what’s known as “battery drain.” Prior to Saturday night’s field trip, John loaded the device with fresh, fully-charged batteries, but at one point on Saturday night the thermometer began to give a low battery warning. Paranormal investigators theorize that battery drain like this is caused when ghosts try to draw energy from electronic power sources, especially when they are trying to communicate or move objects.

With that said, the oddest thing that happened that night occurred at 10:05 p.m. Josh, John and I were sitting quietly in the building’s middle room when Josh said, “Do you smell that?”

"One side of my nose is stopped up,” John said. “But yeah, I smell it. It smells like a cigar.”

I didn’t smell anything, so I got up and stood between Josh and John. Breathing deeply, I still didn’t smell anything. I continued across the room and made my way towards a back office. Just as I crossed the threshold of the adjoining office door, it hit me like a slap in the face – the clear, strong, distinct aroma of a cigar. I was so stunned by this that it took me a few seconds to say anything. Just that fast, 15 or 20 seconds later, the smell was gone, but not the feeling that I’d just encountered something supernatural.

Later in the night, we thought we could see pinpoints of light and shadows moving in adjacent rooms, but we explained those away as tricks of light or due to passing cars and trains.

In the end, can it be said that the old Castleberry bank building is truly haunted? Without more concrete evidence, it’s hard to say for sure, but one thing is certain. I can say without reservation that the old Castleberry bank building is one of the creepiest places I’ve ever been. It will be a long time before I ever forget that sudden, unexpected whiff of cigar smoke that seemed to come out of nowhere last Saturday night.

(Special thanks to Castleberry Mayor J.B. Jackson and to the Castleberry town council for giving us permission to visit the old bank building on Saturday night. This story would have been impossible without their gracious cooperation. Many thanks.)

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