A Trip to Sweetwater Mansion

A Writer's Experience with Ghost Hunters of Southern Territories

A Trip to Sweetwater Mansion

As a beginning writer, I’m nervous on every assignment. The field work. The word count. The interviews. The deadlines. Actually writing and trying to write well. Writing six sentence fragments in a row and choosing to leave them there. It’s all stressful. But none of that comes close to the apprehension and unquantifiable terror that I felt with Robert Simone and his band of southern ghost hunters at Sweetwater Mansion in Florence, Alabama. Robert’s crew is called GHOST, an unmatched acronym that abbreviates Ghost Hunters of Southern Territories.

As a child growing up in the South, I developed an interest in the supernatural. Whether it was due the abundance of paranormal mythology in the South or to my parents’ and grandparents’ natural, seemingly mechanical tendency to use haunting folklore — accounts of children being carried away by the bogeyman—to frighten us into good behavior, I learned to love ghost stories, even if they kept me up at night.

But Robert Simone had a relationship with the spirit realm. Very early in his life, Robert had a harmony with those who had given up the ghost.

“As a child, I saw apparitions and shadow people and all kinds of things. I was scared half to death. I used to go sleep at the foot of my parents’ bed. And they never really believed me. They thought I was just having a nightmare, but I was actually seeing stuff,” he said. “At that time, I didn’t know I was a draw to spirits.”

When I got to Robert’s house to ask him questions about his paranormal investigation crew and his experiences with and beliefs about the supernatural, I was first greeted by Robert’s dogs, a boxer-pit bull mix named Spirit and a Golden Retriever named Magic. He took the dogs to a separate room and led me down a short hallway to an office crowded with electronics. The walls were lined with racks and shelves housing a variety of cameras, microphones, electromagnetic field detectors, barometers and an array of things I had never seen before.

Robert is a wounded veteran. He was hit by an ammunitions trailer in Germany, breaking his wrists and dislocating his shoulder two weeks before he was scheduled to be deployed in Vietnam. He believes that if he had gone to Vietnam, he would’ve died there. He receives compensation from our government and, with that money, he’s able to support his passion and maintain the highest level of professionalism by using top-of-the-line equipment. Like Fox Mulder, Robert Simone is dedicated to the truth. He studies his findings intensely, tenaciously trying to “debunk” himself. Not everything is what it seems, but most of the time it is.

While Robert and GHOST do visit others’ homes and investigate on call, they love to bring their equipment to Sweetwater Mansion and turn off the lights. Before Robert founded GHOST in 2000, he knew about the history-rich plantation. He knew about the reported supernatural sightings. He knew about the mansion’s previous owners and their unsettling passings. And, somehow, like some unknown member of the Addam’s Family, he just knew he had to visit. Now, Robert and his wife Karen are so devoted to the property that they have taken on the responsibility of being the caretakers of the 182-year-old mansion.

Robert said that Sweetwater Mansion is the site where he’s witnessed the most accounts of unexplainable activity. He believes the ex-inhabitants of the property may have come home to Sweetwater because they felt a deep connection with and affection for their home.

The mansion was designed by John Brahan, a general in the Alabama Militia during the Civil War. But the general died before the house was completed, and his son-in-law Robert Patton had the mansion finished in 1835, 30 years before becoming governor of Alabama and 50 years before he died inside that very mansion.

My interview with Robert was going well. I was learning and having laughs with Robert and Karen. We were connecting, and I was enjoying the positivity and the company of these recent acquaintances. The nervousness that comes during an interview had almost gone away. Then, he said, “Well, I thought about doing something where you’re actually part of the team. And we’ll use Sweetwater.” He was going to keep talking, but I immediately got nervous at the thought of walking through that mansion in the dark, so I started rambling off excuses: “This is going to be a short story,” etc.

I’ve viewed more than ten hours of footage and countless photographs captured by GHOST’s equipment. In that footage, I saw things that I can’t explain: objects being moved by an unseeable force, a flashlight being turned on with no one near it, unexplainable puffs of smoke or mist. In one photograph, I saw a semitransparent child leaning against a tree, wearing clothes that appear to be from the 1800s. Robert said he was just taking a picture of a tree. I’ve heard EVP (electronic voice phenomena) that can’t be explained. Some seem to address the investigators personally, by name.

EVP stands for electronic voice phenomena. It’s an idea that’s been around since the 70s. EVP are highly controversial and still not explained definitively. It happens when an event is documented with an audio recorder and upon playback reveals a sound that was not detected by the naked ear during the recording. I’ve heard some of these EVP, and they are quite spooky. Most of the time, EVP come in the form of a human voice, almost out of breath, speaking a word or short phrase. Robert believes that the brevity of EVP can be attributed to the way spirits acquire and use energy; spirits feed off of negative energy to become stronger, but they must expel energy in order to manifest themselves in a way that is noticeable to the living.

After seeing those videos and photos and hearing those EVP recordings, I wanted to believe. But I couldn’t. Without seeing it with my own eyes or hearing it with my own ears, I couldn’t entirely trust it. I knew I had to go to Sweetwater with Robert.

Approaching the gate, I felt fine. Robert was ahead of me in a pick-up with a trailer hitched to it sporting a sign that read “Ghost Hunters of Southern Territories.” He stepped out of the truck wearing baggy black pants and a dark gray t-shirt and he walked up to the gate and unlocked it. He got back into his truck and we drove confidently through. After he closed and locked the gate, we headed down a surprisingly short driveway that curved around two trees that stood in the front yard, hanging over Sweetwater Mansion.

We parked our vehicles near a side entrance to the mansion made of 182-year-old bricks. The area was dimly lit by streetlights, although there were no streets. Under one light was a rusted horse-drawn tiller that had lost its seat. Another shined down on the kitchen, a separate building that was demolished by a falling tree. Vandals had broken windows and vines clung to the mansion’s walls.

We started unraveling spools of cable to carry to chosen locations in the house. When I first disobeyed the “no trespassing” sign and stepped through the side entrance, I felt weak. I got lightheaded and felt uneasy. I took a deep breath and tried to relax, and I carried the ends of the cables to the places where we would set up the six infrared cameras.

We walked around, contemplating where to place the electromagnetic field detectors and audio recorders, and we placed them. The ceilings and walls were falling apart. We swept pieces of the mansion off the floor. Big chunks were taken out of the wooden handrails.

It was time to turn off the lights. We walked outside, turning off the lights as we left the mansion. And as we walked around the building, discussing the history of the property and the people who lived there, I saw two trails, now overrun with vegetation, that lead through the woods behind the mansion to a creek and to a graveyard. Robert said the mansion was built out of mud from the basement and materials from that creek.

After we walked around long enough for the dust we had brought back to life to settle, we entered the house for the second time, it was dark — pitch black. The infrared camera on my chest had a small monitor, but I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. My little notebook was useless. Robert told me to turn on my headlamp and switch it to its dim, red setting and point it downward so that I could see where I was stepping. I thanked him as we turned left and into the parlor. I was in front, and I could have chosen to turn right into a room I recognized from Robert’s videos. It was what I saw in that video that influenced my decision to turn left; in the video, I saw mantle ornaments violently swept from the mantle followed by a terrified team of ghost hunters.

In the parlor, we stopped. Robert said they had witnessed a considerable amount of activity in this room. I stood in a corner for two reasons: nothing could attack me from behind, and the cameras attached to my chest could capture the entire room. I stood there for about ten minutes, wearing this heavy equipment on my chest, listening to Robert and Karen ask potentially present spirits to make their presence known. They spoke in a very diplomatic way, asking them questions about their feelings.

When the question was asked, “Are you okay with someone new buying and living in this house,” we heard a noise that sounded like a rock dropping to the wooden floor. My fear grew.

We searched the area where we thought the noise originated and eventually found a piece of a brick. We considered this to be the cause of the sound, but where did it come from? We swept the floors of debris less than an hour before for our safety.

We walked up the stairs, and as I reached the top, that uneasy, troubling feeling doubled. I admitted that I couldn’t stay in the mansion much longer. Karen led me through three rooms and a hallway until both of our audio recorders were drained of battery. Robert is very thorough, and he replaces every battery in every piece of equipment before each investigation. Because of the age of the battery, and the coincidence that our recorders died at the same time, the crew deemed this a possible paranormal occurrence. It was enough for me. I politely asked if we could end the investigation.

The reactions of the investigators to the things they find are undeniably genuine. When they’re reviewing the large amounts of data gathered by their extensive collection of equipment and discover an anomaly, they light up. They aren’t afraid. They are ecstatic because their hard work has paid off. And, trust me, it’s hard work, especially for a wounded veteran. I’m 27 years young; my back still hurts from setting up equipment and wearing that harness for 45 minutes, and they usually spend several hours on a site.

I believe that they believe. They don’t make money by investigating the paranormal, and they don’t seem to have some sick desire to misinform. That makes them trustworthy. The only gain these people have to show for 17 years of investigating the unexplained is knowledge, and it’s important to them to educate others on their findings, not to persuade or force a belief but to comfort, because there is comfort in knowledge. There’s always that foreboding feeling when we just can’t make sense of something.

With my heart racing it felt like time was going by torturously slowly, so I was surprised by the brevity of the DVD Robert produced to document our visit’s findings. We were in there for 45 minutes. It felt like hours. And the DVD is only 10 minutes long.

The video starts out with a scene taken from one of Robert’s stationary cameras that he placed on a stump in the front yard of the mansion. While eerie music plays, it shows Karen and me walking through the grass, her telling me about the history of the mansion and those who lived and died there, and me listening, taking notes. An incorrect timestamp in the bottom left corner says it’s September 18, but a title quickly spins into view with an animated graphic from Windows Movie Maker: Sweetwater Mansion, September 23, 2016.

After the opening scene, Robert compiled a series of still photographs of the crew, me, and the mansion. Since most of those photos were taken candidly during the process of setting up equipment, they give the viewer a sense of what it was like to be there with us. When I watched the DVD, and those pictures appeared, I was instantly reminded of that agitation I felt at the plantation. I remembered being curious but mostly just wanting it to be over. The moment I stepped through the door and into that mansion, I wanted to go home.

But the DVD doesn’t quite live up to the anxiety of being there. Robert mentioned three occurrences in the video that he considered to be paranormal in nature. The first, and, to me, most controversial, is a “spirit orb” that appears in front of me and is captured on digital video by a camera mounted on my body.

Robert and his crew have relied on “orbs” as paranormal proof since their founding. After watching countless videos the crew has taken, I can confidently say that these orbs are their most common finding. To me, relying on these anomalies as proof of the paranormal is problematic because they are usually more easily explained by reasonable, earthly or natural evidence. Most of the time, I think these orbs could be explained as light reflecting off of an object. The object is usually semitransparent or at least mostly invisible to the naked eye in the given situation. For example, the light from the camera’s flash or a videographer’s headlamp reflecting off of a particle of dust, pollen or hair, or an insect or even moisture in the air could reveal an image that seems naturally unexplainable, especially by someone who truly wants to believe. But there are different types of “spirit orbs.” Some are very bright. Some aren’t. Some are big. Some are small. Some hover, and some don’t. Believers and nonbelievers argue about multiple aspects of these phenomena: the shape, the transparency, the position, etc. Those believers who want to be taken seriously must concede that the reflection of light can create an image of an “orb” and most do. Now, the general opinion among believers in orbs is that, while most orbs are a result of the reflection of light off of a particle of dust or similar object, not all are. They believe that some orbs have distinct characteristics that set them apart from dust orbs.

A popular term used by believers when defending their opinions on orbs is “flight pattern.” In videography, orbs that seem to have a mind of their own, hovering, moving back and forth, in and out of doorways, rather than following a path that easily identifies it as a particle of dust caught in the wind, have, as far as I know, not been scientifically explained. So, this type of visual anomaly might be representative of a supernatural or extrademinsional being, but there is no way to prove such a claim, yet. We can, however, prove that most “orbs” caught on camera are simply reflections of light off particles of dust.

On Robert’s DVD, when the “orb” appears in front of my camera and floats past the top of the frame, I feel no reason to think that anything unnatural or supernatural has occurred. It’s obvious that our presence in the house has stirred up dust, and one of many particles is reflecting light from one of our headlamps back toward the camera. It’s unfortunate that Robert spends such a great portion of his time considering the paranormal possibilities behind these dust particles. I think that life after death is something worth looking into, but it should be taken as seriously as possible and its students should conduct all research in the most thorough and professional manner possible, especially since there is such a large amount of skepticism surrounding the subject and the methods of finding answers in the realm of the supernatural are limited by technology and lack of educated analysts.

Robert typed text on the frame that said “take note the dust, bugs and debris fly in all different directions and totally transparent. The Orbs captured tonight navigate with intelligence and have substance to them.” I believe I have some, not many, videos of orbs that seem to “navigate with intelligence.” One of those videos was one of Robert’s. But, unfortunately, the orbs in this video do not seem to me to navigate with intelligence, nor do they seem to have any more substance than the particles of debris that accompany them.

The next scene that Robert believed to exhibit supernatural activity was in the parlor, where the piece of brick fell to the floor. In the video, my camera shows a mostly empty room with only an empty bookcase against the left wall, a staircase and Robert and Karen. Along with the creepy music, the audio is filled with Robert’s voice. “So who’s gonna be first to step up?” As he finished his afterlife-aimed question, we hear the brick hit the floor. At the time, we didn’t know what it was. Karen was obviously startled. Her ponytail flipped as she jerked her body around to face the commotion, and Robert’s caption appeared on-screen once more: “Suddenly at the end of the Main Hallway a loud noise filled the night air.” I do commend Robert’s attempt at flowery language.

“Okay. Where did that come from?” Karen asked Robert. “You moved in front of the camera when that happened, so it may not have seen it.”

“Hey, Becky?” Robert called out to our eyes in the GHOST trailer. She didn’t see the object, either. She was looking down at her log, making note of the previous “orb” sighting.

After watching the video, Robert noticed that an “orb” manifested at Karen’s head and floated to the left and then upward and out of the frame less than a second before the brick hit the floor. This orb does not seem to move intelligently. I believe the orb to be a dust particle. As we were walking around the parlor, looking for the origin of the then-mysterious noise, an “orb” appeared to fly past Robert. At this time in the video, Robert added another caption that says “again the ORB that has followed us around appears by me this time. It has interacted with each one of us and was not seen again the rest of the evening.” Based on his caption, I can assume that Robert believes that there is one single orb, one single supernatural entity, appearing in the footage.

Robert found the piece of brick and brought it into view of a camera. He does not consider the brick falling to the floor to be evidence of paranormal activity. The mansion is old, and pieces of it fall off all the time. He has no doubt, however, about the “orbs.” I view them with more skepticism, but with an open, scientific mind.

After we discovered the piece of brick, we continued to ask questions to the dead, and the third and, to me, spookiest occurrence happened. Robert said that newcomers such as myself have gotten responses in the past and asked me to attempt to communicate with the spirits.

“Can I get a name of anyone who’s here right now? Is there anyone here right now?” I asked.

As Robert was examining our footage as closely as he could, he heard a human voice — an EVP — in the audio after I asked my question. Although the language is not distinguishable, the voice sounds like that of a human male. Robert added a caption that says, “Wesley asked a question and got an EVP. Were [sic] not sure what it says so use your own judgement and let us know.”

EVP have been studied by serious researchers trying to find answers to questions that seem unanswerable. Many cultures throughout history have used a variety of methods to try to communicate with those who have passed on to the afterlife: séances, mediums, psychics, etc. It makes sense; if these beings are somehow able to communicate with us, then they can answer the age-old question of what happens to us when we die. It isn’t surprising that technology has given rise to new methods of possible communication with the dead.

What is surprising, however, is the influx of EVP and the lack of scientific explanation despite the curiosity of credible researchers. These researchers have classified electronic voice phenomena as mysterious vocal activity that is not heard at the time of the recording. EVP are only heard during playback and researchers study them by classifying them according to three categories. Class A EVP are easily understood by almost anyone with little or no dispute. They are usually the loudest EVP. Class B EVP are usually characterized by warping of the voice in certain syllables. They’re lower in volume or sound more distant than Class A EVP. Class C EVP are characterized by excessive warping. They are the lowest in volume, often whispering, and are the most difficult to understand.

Since we cannot blindly trust the word of other people, we must question the legitimacy of all EVP, unless we were there or completely trust the source. Although the EVP we recorded that night at Sweetwater would be considered a Class C EVP, it inarguably sounds like a human voice, and I trust that Robert has no reason to lie to me. I’m not an expert by any means on audio or visual recording equipment, but it seems possible that these voices could be picked up from an interfering radio or cellular signal, or part of some latent residual recording from a previous account on the same device. I know about as much about recording equipment as I do the afterlife: very little. In that same view, it seems possible that EVP are voices of people who have died, beings from a different dimension, angels, demons or maybe even people from the future. Or, EVP are nothing more than dramatic realizations of the researcher’s own subconscious and hopeful results.

Although no one knows if he was serious or playing a joke, reports from the 1920s say that Thomas Edison was working on a mostly unheard-of invention: a machine that would allow the living to communicate with the deceased. So, the idea of using electronics as a means for the living to communicate with the dead is almost as old as the idea of using electronics as a method for the living to communicate with the living. EVP have baffled researchers since the early 1900s and researchers from around the world continue to investigate them. They have shared their findings with each other as well as the public on the internet and in books, and EVP have yet to be proven to be anything at all. I am completely intrigued by the continuity of the mystery of EVP. One would think that such a tangible idea could be analyzed until scientifically explained. The struggle to gain any real proof in the realm of EVP is something that keeps the attention of spooks as well as legitimate researchers.

Legitimacy and paranormal investigation are two things that are sometimes at odds with each other, and I attribute this to the incursion of “reality” television shows in which the producers have a common goal: to make money. Investigators who don’t make money by studying the supernatural agree that 99 percent of recordings turn out to be full of a whole lot of nothing — no paranormal activity. Therefore, it takes a lot of time, effort and dedication to produce even a minute of interesting material. We spent 45 minutes in Sweetwater Mansion, and Robert was able to compile ten minutes worth of interesting material. And most of it was showing the same things, over and over, in different speeds and volume. The misconceptions that “reality” television is an accurate interpretation of the real world and that everything on the internet is true have led to many false impressions on the public. It’s way too easy to fabricate “proof” with the growing abundance of technology and information, but, if we remain enlightened enough to question all information we’re given, we can, eventually, as a society, learn to weed out inaccurate information and, at the same time, keep an open mind toward new and seemingly radical ideas. We can enjoy movies like Paranormal Activity as drama and still question the idea of real supernatural occurrences. Our ideas can live somewhere in the grey area, between I don’t want to know and that’s impossible. We can accept the fact that we don’t know but not the idea that we will never know.

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