Melissa M. Cordell, L Town Radio Staff Reporter
“This could be the two most boring hours of our lives,” Ryan Burleson of First in Fright said before last Saturday’s Court House paranormal investigation. “We might be talking to thin air the entire time, but if we’re with friends, then we’re having a good time.”
I met up with First in Fright at 3:30 p.m. that Saturday, but they had already been working since noon that day to make sure that everything was set up properly for the live viewing parties at GameSwap and Untapped Territory. If we’re being honest, though, planning for this had started about 10 months ago. A paranormal investigation at the Lincoln County Court House isn’t just thrown together in a day.
The previous day I had met up with Ryan and Melany Dawn, another team member. We went over the logistics of the following day, and Ryan showed me clips from a video. The video was like a debut for each First in Fright team member. Most had been there since the team’s formation, but there was a need to highlight each person’s personality and to allow the Lincolnton community to get to know them beyond the usual two-hour investigations. Along with the video, more preparation had been done in the previous months in attaining the proper permits and permissions to go into the Court House after hours with a video camera. Because of the sensitive information contained in the building, the first year the team investigated, Raleigh officials had to sign off. Luckily this time there were fewer hoops to jump through, but hoops nonetheless.
So, I’m in Good Wood at 3:30 p.m., sipping on my Pumpkin Chai Latte from Fausto (you should try one!), excited to be joining the team. I’ve been on investigations with First in Fright before. My uncle bought me a birthday ticket to a Cultural Center investigation, and then I bought tickets for my sister and me to an investigation at the Catawba Valley Community College. Both were pretty fun, but I honestly don’t remember being especially spooked. I’d played with the flashlight and received some answers, but I wasn’t really scared. I didn’t know that would change on this night’s investigation.
The only team members I had gotten to know at that point were Ryan and Melany. Seeing the other members in this behind-the-scenes environment was unique because I could actually see who they were. For instance, Andy Burleson is pretty quiet, so it was cool to see him chatting vibrantly with his teammates.
Andy actually prides himself on his ability to listen, which is why he may seem rather quiet during investigations. He’s always been interested in the paranormal, and his fascination kicked off more when he and his brother, Ryan, visited Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Kentucky a few years back. That’s where he had his most intense paranormal experience to this day.
At Waverly Hills, “they have this thing called a death chute. It’s a 500-foot drop. You can’t see a thing under your face, really. We were at the top of the chute and you can barely see the end of the tunnel, only because it goes outside and the moon was out that night,” he explained. “There was a woman there that came all the way from Florida by herself. We’re standing at the top, looking down, asking questions.”
“She [the woman] goes, ‘What is that? What is that?” She just got excited; I didn’t see anything at first,” Andy said. “She actually grabbed Ryan’s head to direct him and he goes ‘oh, I see it’! As soon as he said, that I saw it.”
“Here’s the best way I can describe it; if I were telling me this I wouldn’t believe it,” he laughed, shaking his head as if he still couldn’t believe it himself. “This, whatever it was, light came shooting very quickly and got within 15 feet in front of us. It looked like a jellyfish. Ryan said he saw a face, and no sooner he said that I saw a face. It had a tie, a collar, and a nose. No eyes, but a forehead. I could see an outline of a face but you couldn’t really see a face. I flipped out. I mean, who wouldn’t? I got scared, and that’s the only time I’ve ever been scared.”
That was before the fancy equipment they have now. Back then, they only had a recorder. Now the team is equipped with several electronic devices and cameras. They’re after proof.
After pizza, we arrived at Untapped Territory. Alex Gaddy, who considers himself the “techie” of the group, fiddled around with the Bluetooth sound devices and projector to make sure the Facebook Live stream would be ready to go later. He wants to be able to “give the fans an interactive experience.” Alex actually helped come up with the name for the team on an Xbox Live group chat one night after his paranormal trip to the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in West Virginia.
Alex’s experience there was physical and quite brutal from the way he described it. “We started hearing what was someone walking down the hall, and we took our lights and flashed them down there,” he recounted. “There was no one down the hall, but you could hear footsteps walking. We thought it was someone coming up one of the stairwells, and we were waiting for someone to come around the corner and they never came.”
“The footsteps kept getting louder, and it got to the point that I was freaking out,” he said. By the look in his eyes when he was telling me this story, I could tell he still vividly remembered how this had made him feel. “This was the first experience I had. I remember I had my arm on Andy’s shoulder because I was freaking out so bad. As soon as it got 15 feet away, we heard a growl. When that growl came, I started freaking out and hyperventilating. I had no idea what was going on. That whole time it was totally unreal.”
But that didn’t scare him away. It pulled him in deeper. “I fell in love with it. We [have] stuck together since then. It’s just grown and we’ve taken on more and more events,” Alex said.
At 8 p.m. we swung around to GameSwap, where the crowd was growing as it was getting closer toward investigation time. Before the main event, though, the team had scheduled 30 minutes each at Untapped and GameSwap to talk with fans before the live stream parties began. Though the team might not admit it, they’ve had quite a claim to fame in Lincolnton. People who see their activity on Facebook are enthused to finally meet the team in person and tell them their personal paranormal stories from Lincolnton. In fact, Melany discovered First in Fright on Facebook, which is how she eventually joined the team.
“I saw them on Facebook, and I thought it was neat that there was a team that was sort of local. I didn’t know them,” she said. “I shared one of their posts, and Cathy Davis at the Cultural Center saw it on my page and shared it on the Cultural Center page. She gave them a call and asked them to come to investigate.”
When the team came out to investigate, Cathy called Melany and told her to come out. She assumed Melany already knew the investigators, but that was actually Melany’s first time interacting with them in person. Since then, she has joined them on investigations as a sort of official team photographer.
Before joining the team, though, “they invited me with them to go to West Virginia. I thought I was a nut because I was going to West Virginia, in the middle of nowhere, with a whole bunch of people I didn’t know. Like, what if I don’t come back?” she laughed. “Now I just kind of go with them whenever they investigate. In Lincolnton, there’s been an unlimited amount of people ready for them to come and investigate.”
Melany’s weirdest experience happened at Rí Rá Irish Pub in Charlotte a couple of months ago. “I’m not a very emotional person. I can go with the flow or whatever,” she said. “I’m good; I don’t get sad.”
“They [First in Fright] were investigating and asking the flashlight if the spirit missed its family. And when the flashlight came on [indicating yes], I burst out in tears,” she said. “Like, I was sadder than I could have ever been. I was trying to be really quiet, because what in the world? What am I doing? It was so bad my nose was running and I was sniffling. Ryan was videoing everything and heard me sniffling and looked over his shoulder at me. It went away just as quick as it started. It was weird because I’m not an emotional person.”
That night, I understood her experience a little more. But more on that later.
Even after that experience, she’s still a skeptic. “You just move on to the next thing and find more to do,” she said. In her photography on investigations, she has only been able to catch “a white light ball” at the Cultural Center. Of course, this is frustrating to her, but it’s a proud reminder that the team doesn’t fake any evidence they provide.
After 30 minutes at GameSwap, our golf cart for the night came around, and we were off to Untapped again. A rather huge crowd had gathered there, as well. Carol Humbert fielded a couple of questions. She’s usually joined by her husband, Jeremy Humbert, but he had work that night. While each member would like to consider this a possible full-time job in the future, that’s not an option, yet.
Carol plays an important role in the investigations. As weird as it sounds, sometimes the spirits won’t respond to a male’s voice. Carol considers her “softer voice” an advantage in this way, as she can often get more information from the spirits than her male peers.
Like Melany, both Carol and her husband are skeptics. She explains that they’re “both non-believers unless it’s right in front of us.” The first trip that got them hooked was visiting the old Pittsboro Hospital in Tennessee. Then Carol visited Trans-Allegheny with the rest of the team. That’s where she remembers her freakiest experience.
“Me and Melissa G. [a friend] went into a room all by ourselves where supposedly another inmate killed an inmate, bashing his head in. And she [Melissa] was physically taken over by something,” she said. “Her demeanor changed. She’s always been a happy go lucky person, and then all of a sudden she’s like, ‘we gotta get out of here!’ So, as we’re walking out, we all have handheld recorders and things placed all throughout the morgue, and as we’re leaving out and we go back to review it, you can hear the man saying in the background ‘where is she going?’ and it was just the most evilest, awfullest voice. We knew it wasn’t any of us. That’s probably the most scared I’ve been. It was totally pitch black dark, and you’re in there where the craziest people stayed. As soon as we came out of that room she was totally normal again. It was just the heaviness feeling and the temperature changing in a room. You’ll just feel it and know.”
She feels like she’s in good company in Lincolnton after that experience. “We’ve had a lot of people behind us here. You have some towns that don’t believe and don’t want to be part of that, but here in Lincolnton because this is such an old town, and you’ve had all different kinds of wars fought through here, I think there are more people who believe than not,” she said. “And now that we are in town, people tell us their stories so we’re like ‘alright, we’re not going to be the only crazy ones here.’”
We left Untapped at around 9 p.m. One of the funniest memories from this trip is driving the golf cart through town blasting the Ghostbusters theme song, courtesy of Alex’s phone, as we drove up to the Court House. Aside from watching Clerk of Court Fred Hatley join our investigation, of course. These are not your traditional “Ghostbusters,” though. Although they have taken a few house calls, it’s not exactly in their wheelhouse. They might help lead spirits in letting go, but they by no means are into exorcisms or anything of that sort. If you’ve been on an investigation before, you know Ryan always clarifies that there is no antagonizing.
“We believe in being polite. Niceties and declaring we’re not there to harm them,” Ryan said. “We think that goes a long way in ensuring they don’t want to attach to us and go home with us. At times you push, of course. But you get to the line and know when to stop. If nothing is happening, just leave it alone. You know, ouija boards, witchcraft, seances, we don’t mess with any of that stuff. We are 100% without mediums, without sensitive folks joining us; we are 100% electronic devices. Machines don’t lie. Numbers don’t lie. It either happens or it doesn’t. It’s not as easy to debunk and gives us proof.”
And that rang true for this investigation, as well. Before the Facebook Live started, we broke up into teams and each took a floor of the Court House, saving the basement for later in the night. I was with Melany, Carol, Mr. Hatley, and a Secret Identity who wished to stay anonymous I’ll name S.I. from now on.
My team started in Court Room 2 on the second floor. Nothing really happened that I wasn’t prepared for. We were able to get the flashlight to switch on easily, but the spirit wasn’t really that attentive to us. The spirit in Court Room 1 was, however. This one genuinely freaked me out a little, and it looked like it spooked Mr. Hatley, too, as he left shortly after this room’s investigation began. The device we were using was like a spirit box, but instead of searching for radio waves, it searched internet streams including podcasts. This spirit seemed to not want us there, and often a demonic sounding voice would come through the box. Several team members, including Ryan, heard female voices out in the hall, but I didn’t really catch that.
The basement was spooky by itself, no spirit activity needed. Its hot air seeped through every crevice in your body, and it smelled slightly of gas. All of the team members were in the brick basement for its investigation. I was feeling really sick to my stomach when we settled into that room but credited it to the heat. At one point, I genuinely felt like I might pass out and was startled albeit relieved when Andy chirped up and said that he didn’t feel good. Carol also felt sick to her stomach, which prompted us to move out quickly. Paranormal experience or not, I was glad to be greeted with the cold air of the first floor when we made our way out.
We still had about 30-45 minutes left of the investigation, so we asked viewers of the live stream to tell us where we should go next. A couple of them mentioned the women’s bathroom on the third floor. This is where things really took a turn for me. The guys stayed downstairs in the courtrooms, while Carol, Melany, S.I., and I climbed the stairs to the third floor. Making our way to the women’s bathroom, we all began to get chills over our whole bodies. We finally came to the door of the bathroom and pushed it open. I immediately flipped the lights on, because I wanted to clearly make myself aware of my surroundings. I noticed each spot everyone had chosen to stand in, and then with Carol’s go ahead, I flipped the lights off again. S.I. and I stood against the wall closest to the door, with Melany and Carol standing near the stalls.
Carol tried to prompt any spirits to close or open the stall doors to no avail. S.I. spoke up and said it was hot in our side of the room, something I didn’t think to note. Carol and Melany, though, were freezing on their side. This was definitely weird, but I remained pretty calm. As we were talking about that and feeling each side of the room, a noise went off, and we all screamed and jumped. I think I screamed loudest, and probably looked more scared, but we burst out laughing as we realized what the sound was: it was the paper towel machine. It’s the kind activated by sound. As we held each other, laughing, Melany, the person closest to the dispenser, made clear that it wasn’t her. She wasn’t near the motion activator when it went off.
As we were discussing that, I heard a sigh in my ear. A FULL ON SIGH. Not some little puff of air, not a little rush of wind. It was a female sigh. I almost peed my pants on-site, y’all. Carol looked at me with eyes wide open and asked if we had heard that. I’m not sure if Melany and S.I. had caught it, but to know at that moment that someone else had witnessed it, too, was enough to scare me. S.I. helped me calm down, and we stood against the wall again. I was terrified that something was going to whisper in my ear, or worse, touch me. Luckily, I was left alone.
It started to get more intense when Carol and Melany asked if the spirit was sad. An overwhelming sense of sadness came over all of us, which reminded me of Melany’s story earlier. A few more questions were asked, and I found that I was shaking a little uncontrollably. I wasn’t cold or afraid, so I’m not sure what brought that on. Shortly after that, Carol felt a touch on her elbow, and she bolted out the bathroom with the rest of us following quickly behind. Carol left the door open and told the spirit she could be free and pass on. We felt a strange cold front escape the bathroom. Later the guys came up to investigate but didn’t have much luck. The experience followed us out of the bathroom only in our memories, the recorder, and the weird, strong metal smell that Carol and S.I. had on their hands immediately after that investigation.
After that, the whole investigation was coming to a close. The team talked about how hyped they are for the upcoming Cultural Center investigation. That location is where Ryan had his scariest experience on the job.
“We were in the green room, and I was sitting next to one of the theatre doors. We had asked the flashlight sitting on the floor if it was mad. He [the spirit] was upset, and it came on. Andy was like ‘alright, cut it off.’ And he [the spirit] cut it off. Then Andy asked ‘if you want us to leave, we’ll all get up and we’ll leave the room right now if you cut the flashlight back on,’” Ryan said. “It came right back on. As soon as it did, everybody got up and walked out of the room, but I didn’t because I felt very unsafe. It was almost to the point of paralysis where I couldn’t move. I knew that if I couldn’t move or get up that something bad would happen. I felt like something was around me.”
“This has happened twice now,” he said, looking amazed. “I had a mood change the second time I was there, which isn’t like me. I don’t have feelings with this. I don’t get attached to this; I never do. Whenever that happened, I didn’t know what to think of it. I felt like I had lost control of what was happening with me. I didn’t like that feeling. But it’s one of my favorite places hands down.”
Each of the team members, excluding Melany, live quite a bit away from Lincolnton. So why do they come here so often? “Lincolnton is so accepting; that’s where we want to be,” Ryan said.
He doesn’t consider himself a believer, or at least that it’s not how you should look at it. “I don’t believe in it. I believe in God. It’s not a belief,” he explained. “People misconstrue paranormal. It’s not about believing in a ghost existing or not existing. It’s about trying to prove if it’s real or not. That’s what we’re after. We want to know if it’s real or not real.”
He concluded, “Be a light in somebody’s dark world.”
You can join First in Fright at the Cultural Center and have your own investigative experience with the team for only $10. They have two events on October 18 & 19. Tickets can be purchased at the Lincoln Cultural Center or GameSwap of Lincolnton. If you’re from out of town, you can also message First in Fright to have a ticket reserved. Tickets are limited, so be sure to get yours quickly.
So how far does each team member travel to join us in Lincolnton?
- Carol & Jeremy Humbert, 30 minutes
- Andy Burleson, 1 hour and 15 minutes
- Alex Gaddy, 40 minutes
- Melany Dawn, 5 minutes
- Ryan Burleson, 1 hour
Melissa Cordell is an alumna of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a B.A. in Political Science and Women’s & Gender Studies and is the Staff Reporter to L Town Radio. To email Melissa with a story idea or news tip, contact her here.