I avoid going by graveyards by myself. Those things are real. For Alphonso, the spirit world is a subject too serious to be trifled with. And the bungalow is freshly painted a colour known here as haint blue — the precise shade of aquamarine that is supposed to have the power to deter ghosts. Carolyn lives on James Island.
The gracious white timber home sits next to a row of slave shacks. When planned construction on James Island revealed an old African-American burial ground, Carolyn was one of the first who demanded that building cease. The preliminary dig had disinterred bodies that had been buried with glass beads, tiny bottles and shells.
These burial practices connected the African Americans with the West African traditions of their distant homelands. She orders Gullah food for both of us: red rice, shrimp and flounder, green beans cooked with bacon. We are proud people. I feel very strongly about my heritage.
African folklore has penetrated deeply into the region. The low-lying land that arcs along the coast between Charleston and Savannah , miles to the southwest, is made up of swampy islands, divided by tidal creeks. The climate is perfect for the production of rice and Sea Island cotton. In these once-remote places, African customs flourished and fused with European superstitions.
Alphonso warns me about the twin threats of haints ghosts and hags, the spirits that belong to a shape-changing practitioner of the dark arts.
They have to go to the graveyard and find a new one. African beliefs persisted in another form: this is voodoo country. Unlike New Orleans , where the grave of the voodoo priestess Marie Laveau is a site of pilgrimage, the subject here is veiled in secrecy. The voodoo practitioners of the Lowcountry are known as root doctors. The most notorious was a man named Doctor Buzzard. When he died in , he was buried in a secret location, for fear that other people would dig him up and use his remains for casting spells.
There may be no more haunting landscape on Earth than the Sea Islands at nightfall as they are enveloped in a swirling mist. The bare trunks of the crepe myrtles and the ghostly drapery of Spanish moss on the live oaks are unsettling even in daylight. The story goes that young Julia succumbed to the yellow fever that was endemic here in the 19th century.
Because of the warm climate and threat of infection, she was buried quickly — too quickly, as it turned out. A few years later, the family vault was opened for another burial. Today, there is no door on the vault.
I snap a picture of the tomb in the darkness. They work separately, but both are based in Savannah, Georgia — two hours from Edisto Island, and billed as the most haunted city in America.
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The Spanish moss waves in the breeze and occasionally drops on to the paths, where it sits like so many discarded grey wigs. He respectfully differs.
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He was persuaded that plenty of them were real. Just a few months earlier, he tells me he saw two ghostly children in straw hats in the cemetery. He thinks the photo I took is interesting, but inconclusive. Patrick Burns is more categorical. He dismisses the picture entirely. Patrick also considers himself a sceptic, but one who believes that paranormal phenomena are real. Ninety per cent of all matter in the universe is unaccounted for. What do they call it? Dark matter.
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Could ghosts be an aspect of dark matter? I join Patrick for one of his night-time tours of the city. Savannah was founded in Like Charleston, it is a city that has lived through slavery, civil war and many epidemics of yellow fever. It was designed around a series of elegant squares and, today, most of the imposing houses have been sensitively restored. He stopped it by a tree and walked down the highway looking for help.
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A headlight started to approach him from behind. He turned back and noticed a car coming forth very slowly out of the gloom. He walked up to it, opened the door, and sat on the passenger's seat. Then he suddenly noticed that there was no driver, but the car was moving! Before the guy could decide what to do, a sharp turn appeared a few meters before the car and it seemed as though the car was going to go off the cliff.
The guy trembled in fright, but just as the car reached the edge a pale hand came in from the open window and turned the steering wheel! When the car finished turning around the curve, the hand withdrew. Every time there was a turn, the same hand would come in and guide the wheels of the car to safety.
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The guy could not believe all this. As soon as he saw the lights of some rest stop by the road he jumped off the car and ran into a bar, pale, wet, shaking, and telling everybody that he had this creepy, supernatural experience. Then two young men dripping in mud came into the bar. One saw the guy and said, "Hey, that's the jerk that got in our car while were pushing.