Audrey holds two Dowsing Rods in the middle of Gordon Wilson Hall. While Audrey attempts to communicate with possible spirits within the theatre, Smith uses a night vision app to detect possible spirits venturing near her. (Photos by Rhiannon Johnston)
I stood on the threshold of the black box I had seen a million times before. It was the Lab Theater at Gordon Wilson Hall, a name almost as familiar to my lips as my own.
I am a student of theatre, four years into a BFA. I’d slept in this room; I’d kissed in this room. I’d laughed, cried, died, sang, danced, played and fought within the painted black walls of the Lab in Gordon Wilson.
But I had never imagined that perhaps I’d been watched the whole time — that perhaps we all were and would continue to be.
A shiver ran down my spine.
So the ghost hunt began.
It was 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2023, and I was waiting for the arrival of Tamela Smith, possessor of a doctorate of education, WKU retiree, part-time instructor and full-time author of an in-progress book on the supernatural history of the Hill.
“It’s an ongoing history. Sometimes I hesitate to say history because it’s still going on,” she told me a few days prior.
Active hauntings?! What was I doing alone staring into the abyss of a dark room? My vision turned fuzzy. I awaited both Smith’s keen ghost hunting expertise and her cheery, unfazed disposition to soothe my nerves. She was a woman of science, a woman of research. Ghostly curiosities fueled her hypotheses.
The chill that ran down my spine was the same one that piqued her interest and stimulated her drive to empirically understand. She had spent the past four years codifying her research of ghostly encounters on the Hill. As far as companions go, we seemed like a good match to go traipsing around the hillside in search of the unseen.
My mind flashed back to my first conversation with Smith. We were sitting in a room on the first floor of the Commons at Helm Library.
“I don’t get scared, not exactly. I just think it’s cool,” she told me.
Meanwhile, my understanding of ghosts was that they made me cry. While some “fight, flight or freeze,” my adrenal response to horror up to this point was tears. I hoped Smith hadn’t wept through the totality of “The Conjuring” like I had. In fact, she said she doesn’t much care for scary movies — they never capture the feeling of the real thing. Again, we seemed like a good match.
9:35 p.m. My phone lit up with a message from Smith: “Let me know when you’re inside. I’m at the back door by the black box!”
I remember breathing a heavy sigh, happy to soon have the distracting presence of another person. Another living person. I stood still for a moment and watched the darkness of the Lab. My mind rambled anxiously.
A ghost light, a single bulb on a stand left burning on a stage through the night, is a tradition in theater. The folklore behind them differs. Some say they keep the ghosts away; some say they offer light for ghosts to perform while the actors are away. Some say they’re purely for safety reasons. Theater people are always changing their minds.
My wandering eyes landed on the Lab’s ghost light. I asked myself, “What happens if it turns off?”
“Someone told me once that they thought that every theater in the world is haunted,” Alan White, an assistant professor of acting and directing, said two days previously.
White claims to have once heard the heavy, invisible footsteps of the ghost I was presently hoping to encounter.
“Theaters are the place where people who never existed are brought to life, so why wouldn’t ghosts feel at home in them?” White said.
On Tuesday, I sat in White’s office and poked them for the story of their ghostly interaction.
“A little birdie told me you heard a ghost in the Lab,” I said.
“Yes,” White responded nonchalantly. I pressed them for details.
It was the fall of 2021, their first semester working at WKU, and White walked into the Lab. It was dark – the ghost light wasn’t on. Walking across the stage to plug in the white light, they heard loud metal banging near the ceiling.
“Like someone was stomping on the electric pipes where the lighting units are,” they said.
I was awed at the rational tone of their account. Heavy metal banging above my head in a pitch black room? Seems like the perfect time to be irrational.
“And I kind of said, ‘OK, ghost, I know you’re here; now knock it off,’ and then it stopped. And I mean, that’s the whole story. That’s all there was,” they said.
Now I waited, hoping for a similar encounter. At approximately 9:37 p.m., Smith hobbled in on her recently twisted knee and deposited her Kate Spade ghost hunting bag on the Lab’s rickety wooden table.
During my four years as a theatre student, I had previously used that exact same table as a stand-in set piece, a director’s chair, a lounge and a serving table for Great American Donuts. It now supported a wealth of tools required of any savvy ghost hunter.
“If you’re wanting to learn about how you really do a ghost hunt — a paranormal investigation — my video camera is my favorite piece of equipment because you catch things,” Smith said. “You might go back and look at it and see something later that you didn’t see at the time.”
Her Southern drawl made the information that much more eerily appetizing.
“How many times had I walked by someone or something that I didn’t see?” I wondered. “How often had that something seen me?”
If the Hill is as haunted as Smith said it is, probably pretty often.
I flashed back to a conversation I had with Doug Tate, the assistant director of housing administration at WKU, earlier that week. Tate graduated from WKU in 2012 and currently co-hosts a podcast called “Creepy Campus.” His episodes feature college ghost stories from around America set to painfully eerie music.
It was midday, and I had just returned from a run, so I was beet red and sweating. I was perched on the edge of an uncomfortable, yet magnificently retro yellow couch in his office.
Tate said he was a resident assistant in Barnes-Campbell Hall for two years as a student. At the sound of the dorm, my mind jumped to the 2019 parties my friends and I used to throw on the ninth floor. Every place on campus holds a memory it seems. Barnes was torn down in 2021 to make room for the behemoth Regents Hall.
“I was actually the RA of the fifth floor, and that is supposedly the haunted RA floor,” he said.
My ears perked up. What else did Barnes have to hold besides the echoes of drunken footsteps and cackling laughter from my freshman year best friends?
“The story about Barnes is unique in that it’s one of the legends of campus that we can prove. We know it happened,” Tate said.
He began the tale of Barnes’ tragic history, setting the scene in 1967 – one year after the nine-story dorm was built.
“An RA was on his way back from the shower, and he knew the elevator was stuck between the floors,” Tate said. “Elevator safety back then wasn’t a priority.”
Tate then slipped into a quiet, detailed telling of the confirmed death of 20-year-old James Wilbur Duvall. The fifth floor RA pried the elevator doors open to reach into the shaft and flip the reset switch when his damp feet caused him to slip, Tate said. Duvall was then crushed to death in between the car and the shaft of the elevator.
“The quote I’ve heard attributed to it, which is just terrifying, is that he left the building in buckets,” Tate said.
I recoiled and leaned in simultaneously, caught in the hook of morbid curiosity. My innate response to ghosts kicked in. I could feel tears begin to well in my eyes as I anticipated Tate’s continued tale of a ghostly encounter.
Together, we traveled to 1968, a year after Duvall’s death.
“The RA staff had returned. I think it was right before spring break, and they were gathered in the study room on the first floor, just hanging out, and they heard this loud banging noise coming from somewhere,” Tate said.
In the emergency staircase, trash cans had been thrown down the stairs, Tate said. When the RAs reached the fifth floor during their investigation, they discovered that every sink and shower was on in the bathroom. After they turned them off, they turned to see wet footprints leading down the hallway toward the elevator.
Stories like this are littered across campus; they’re woven into the limestone of the Hill and sewn into the history of its buildings.
Smith said the most haunted place on campus is Gordon Wilson, the dimly-lit beating heart of the theatre and dance department. Gordon Wilson was the place I was standing in, knees-locked in trousers and a striped crop top, hoping to discover life after death.
Smith kept talking.
“If you’ve ever watched a ghost show or anything, they always talk about electromagnetic meters,” she said, pulling out a curious small box resembling a TV remote. “This is an EMF detector.”
Electromagnetic field detector! This was real ghost hunting equipment as seen on TV and as used by electricians. No psychic feelings or silly noises — we were dealing with bona fide tools.
At the end of the remote were a series of colored lights, from green to red. Smith said that if the instrument were to come near an electromagnetic field created by an electrical box, sound board or ghostly apparition, it would light up and flash from green to red. I walked it around the room.
The light stayed green. I stepped slowly and meticulously, with more caution than I have ever moved through the space before. I chuckled, remembering time spent in this room performing as a dragon, cat, monkey and fish, but never as a tentative ghost hunter brandishing a TV remote. It was my most genuine performance to date. I finished my round and set the EMF detector on the table.
Smith, meanwhile, was unloading more of her paranormal tool bag: a secondary EMF detector, a thermal energy camera and a diet “special ghost hunting” Dr. Pepper. The soda was for Smith, not the ghosts.
At this point I had wandered to the back of the theater, near the sound booth and behind the seating. Any ordinary passerby would have tripped in the dark, but my steps were sure. These were known waters. I struggled to keep my mind open, to center myself and “stay true to myself,” as I had heard Tate instruct me to do when searching for ghosts.
“Some people will go in and try and provoke a ghost, and I’m not into that,” Smith said. “If they’re not giving activity, people’ll say, ‘Scratch me; push me; show me you’re here. I don’t believe you’re here. You don’t exist,’ but if we really believe that these are human spirits and this was somebody who has passed on, you don’t wanna just be mean.”
I rounded the corner.
“There’s a certain ethicality to it,” I responded.
At this point, we were rounding toward 10 p.m. and had struck up a lilting conversation. It was the kind of conversation that comfortably fills up time. We were establishing a lazy waltz of normalcy on the dark stage, trading silence and mumbled questions. I settled in to take a seat on the floor.
Smith was in the middle of recalling the paramilitary aspects of her time at the police academy when I heard — wind? It was an intriguing sound to me in a room that epitomized a suffocatingly insulated box, and I turned my head to consider it.
A feeling filled my head and coursed through me to the bottom of my stomach.
It was beyond what my mind could classify, and I didn’t have the vocabulary to express it. All I knew at that moment was that something had changed. My mind began to wrestle with gut feeling and logic.
Something had changed.
I turned to mention something casually to Smith so as to not give away that I was grappling with the thralls of intuition when she said, “Oh, well, see my EMF detector? It’s going crazy.”
The TV remote was lighting up rapid-fire: green, yellow, red, green, yellow, red.
Something had changed.
Smith began to ask questions.
“Are you still here with us?” The EMF detector signaled to us once again.
“That would be a yes,” Smith said. She looked at me. “Now you’ve been ghost hunting,” she said.
We introduced ourselves. My mind was a balloon of glorious wonder. What had previously brought a well of fear to my eyes was now a marvelous mystery; we had snared the attention of the beyond. The unseen was lit, visible to our eyes as green, yellow, red, green, yellow, red.
According to Smith, ghost hunting is a lot like fishing. Tackle is required, sure, but patience is the key. You could go hours without a nibble or just 10 minutes. The light stopped flashing.
My adrenaline, however, was ticking faster than the lights of an EMF detector ever could. What would happen next? Would the spirit knock? Would it seat itself to watch the performance? I scanned my eyes around the room in fascination, willing something to happen, willing the indescribable feeling to wash back over me again. I was hooked.
Smith and I continued our comfortable conversational drudge, but I was only halfway engaged. The thrill of the hunt had engulfed me. “That’s so crazy,” I kept whispering, repeating.
10:10 p.m. – scraaaape – a deep, echoing sound of scraping entered the room. I couldn’t have just heard that. Once again in response to the unknown, my rational mind kicked and bit my intuition into submission. I looked to Smith to gauge my reaction and saw in her a look that matched my own.
“That was the building, right?” she said.
My mind scrambled to place the noise.
“It sounded like a table being moved,” I said.
“Are we assuming there are people upstairs?” she said.
As the most able-bodied of the two of us, we decided I would be the field researcher to climb the steps and investigate. Curse the lack of accessibility in Gordon Wilson; it’s no wonder the ghost spent most of its time on the first floor.
“You’re not supposed to do things by yourself, either, but you’re not ghost hunting up there by yourself,” Smith said. “You’re just going to see if there’s a human up there.”
It felt like a reassurance for both of our sakes.
“All the lights are on around here anyways,” I said.
It was a flimsy relief. As soon as the Lab doors closed behind me, the wonder of discovering life after death squealed out of me like air out of a balloon. I began to climb the steps to the second floor with fragile confidence. The light on the second floor was flickering.
“Hello?” My voice cracked across the second floor dance studio. No one answered. In the next room, I forced a shadow of authority into my voice: “Hello?” I opened every door, even the janitor’s closet. “Hello?” There was neither human nor table in sight. The mystery continued.
When I returned downstairs, Smith had the door to the Lab open and was peeking out for me. I wondered if she felt my absence as much as I had felt hers. What were we doing if not doing it together? Who were we to tempt fate, design and the tenets of responsible ghost hunting?
Smith held two curious-looking metal sticks toward me.
“Dowsing rods,” she said. “Less scientific, but they’re pretty interesting.”
She filled me in on their functions; they are used to find water when digging wells, and they tune into communications with ghosts. Any household’s ideal tool.
Smith set her stance hip-width distance apart and held the two dowsing rods in each of her hands. I wondered if her knees were locked. The longer section of the rods quivered parallel to one another like strange copper extensions of her arms.
“Are there any spirits here that would like to communicate? Can you cross for yes?” Smith said. “If you’d like to communicate with us, we mean you no harm. We’re just here to try and learn more about you.”
The rods remained trained forward.
“Do you not like us being here? Can you go out if you don’t like us being here? Can you swing out?” she said.
My vision sharpened with fear. A thought laced through me that hadn’t occurred to me before: perhaps we were the trespassers here. I trained my gaze on the rods, willing them not to move. A chill prepared itself to run down my spine, dancing at the nape of my neck.
The rods remained trained forward, unresponsive. A dual sigh rushed out of both her and me. Smith ended her dowsing rod experiment with a shrug.
Perhaps it was my curiosity, my performing arts craving for the limelight or an aching remembrance of the adrenaline that had coursed through me not 30 minutes before, but I requested to try the dowsing rods.
The copper rods chinked in my hands as I found the handles and walked to the center of the stage. “Hello,” I said. I giggled, feeling the depth of the insanity of the moment. “If you would like to speak to us, would you cross the bars?”
The rods crossed.
After Smith’s instruction to shake the bars out after every question, I reset my hands and settled into my investigation.
“If you are a woman, would you cross the bars?” I silently willed the connection to be with some greater feminine power, but somehow I knew the identification didn’t feel accurate. Call it a woman’s intuition.
The rods remained trained forward.
“If you are a man, will you cross the bars?”
The rods stayed put.
“If you are neither woman nor man, will you cross the bars?”
The rods crossed.
Of course the ghost was non-binary! They had settled into the stage on the Hill after all; I felt silly to not have expected gender queerness. I silently apologized for misgendering them all night and willed them to forgive me.
I craved more of a conversation than a delayed yes or no. What is your name? How did you die? Do you remember your life? They felt like a friend; I wanted to invite them for coffee at Spencer’s, to collaborate with me on a performance, to sing with me at a cabaret.
The thought occurred to me: perhaps they already had.
“Do you like having the theatre students here? Cross for yes,” I said.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Smith turn her head quickly. It may have been a trick of the light, she said, but a bright ball of light had whizzed by her when I asked that question. We laughed. My head felt light, and I consciously made sure my knees weren’t locked. The rods crossed so far together that they swung around.
“I think they like you,” Smith said. Validation from a ghost was a new sensation for me.
There were several more affirmed answers. The ghost does watch theater performances; the ghost was not a theatre student; the ghost wishes it were a theatre student; the ghost prefers to be called Gordie; the ghost likes to dance.
The yawns I had been stifling previously were gone; I felt more alive speaking to the dead at 11 p.m. than I had all day.
I began to quietly sing “I Want it That Way” by the Backstreet Boys as a thank you to Gordie. I’m not sure if they enjoyed that song, nor my rendition of it, but it was the only song I could will to my consciousness at that moment.
11 p.m. ticked by, and we were several minutes past my adventure with the dowsing rods.
I suggested we explore the prop closet. Closet is a misleading term for the prop haven housed at Gordon Wilson; the closet is a three-story abyss of every prop known to man and is accessible via an inconspicuous, locked brown door backstage of the Lab.
I singled out the correct key for the entrance, and, red headlight in hand, we hunters ventured out the stage right exit of the Lab.
The heavy brown door to the prop closet was ajar, propped with a sizable weight, and light was cascading out of the entrance. Did someone leave it open for us? Was this the work of a forgetful, rogue stage manager or Gordie the friendly ghost? I walked inside, brandishing the EMF detector in front of me.
“Is anyone in here?” I said loud enough to snake the sound up to any ears on all three floors. No answer. My eyes ravenously raked the stacks of wooden chairs on the first floor. No movement in sight.
We continued on.
Our investigation of the prop closet was uneventful, save for a scare involving a few dimly-lit mannequins. The curiosity came, instead, from closing up shop. Moving the heavy door prop out of the way to close and lock Gordon Wilson’s treasure trove, I was struck by a thought. Could this have been the scraping Smith and I encountered hours earlier? I asked Smith to stand in the Lab and listen while I moved the weight across the floor again.
“Yep, that was it,” she said.
It’s a balance of coincidence and cause. Could the same force that stirred the lights of the EMF detector have opened our entrance to the prop closet? Or was it simply a coincidence?
I recalled what Smith had told me earlier in the night.