In September of 2014, Tom Maxwell moved with his family into a large, historic home just outside Hillsborough, North Carolina. With its affordable rent and lush surroundings, it seemed too good to be true. Nine months later, they broke their lease, loaded up the truck, and ran away as fast as they could from the spirits and apparitions that had tortured them. Only afterward would Maxwell learn about the 300 years of bad mojo that had piled up in the house they called Nannie.
“When the earth was new just one deer emerged from it, but he returned below in search of a companion. Thus there are two names in the Deer Clan, ‘He Who Appears First,’ and ‘He Who Returns.’ When the deer came to earth they encountered the first fireplace, but it only contained smoldering embers. So they blew upon it until it blazed.”
— Winnebago Deer Clan Origin Myth
“Salt is good: But if the salt have lost his saltness, wherewith will ye season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another.”
— Mark 9:50
“Remember Lot’s wife.”
— Luke 17:32
Brooke and I were on vacation when we noticed the headaches had gone. We had moved into the house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, only three weeks before, and knew it was time to leave. It had mold, and was making us sick. One bright summer day, we packed two bags, a guitar and the cat into our car and realized we had no place to sleep. We accepted a friend’s offer to crash in nearby Hillsborough, and started looking for a new rental.
The historic house we saw in the ad was big and strangely cheap. The website featured only a couple of out-of-focus pictures, so we walked over to the property and were shocked: It was an enormous place, wonderfully situated. She had five fireplaces and wide wood floorboards, which ran in waves across the ancient rooms. The land was spacious, rolling pasture and old, spreading hardwoods. The Eno River ran placidly only a hundred yards to the south, part of its 40-mile meander from its source to its convergence with the Neuse — indeed, the house sat snug inside the tenderloin of land, bound on three sides by the river’s horseshoe. We could walk to Hillsborough’s modest downtown, but felt as if we were in the country. The night sky was dark and thick with stars.
We moved in Sept. 3. The house was mansion big, but still country, its outside a calm and peeling yellow. The kitchen addition on the north side was far too big, with a large stone fireplace in the center and cheap appliances on one side. The narrow, uneven stairs led to a warren of second-floor rooms. Claustrophobic hallways emptied into cramped bathrooms. Apart from some built-in bookshelves in the living room, the only thing fancy about the house was its exterior. Inside it was plain, even a little severe. It had a musty, stale smell, which we set about cleaning away.
We named the house Nannie, after the wife of its most famous owner. We were looking for refuge and the name had a comforting double meaning: the Nannie of history, and a nanny to take care of us.
Down by the river, there were some historic markers describing the land as once belonging to a Native American tribe. It was easy to see the land as hunting grounds. There were catfish, gar and minnow in the river; frogs and box turtles dotted its banks. Persimmon, Osage orange and mulberry flowered in spring, coming to summer fruition. The pastures were lined with hardwoods: white oak, red oak, willow oak, maple and redwood. Magnolia, tulip poplar and dogwood flowers dotted the forest in spring and early summer. The bear might have been long gone, but fox and wild turkey were not. Families of deer grazed around our house, the spotted fawns keeping close to their mothers. They were so numerous we called them the Deer People. You had only to reach out your hand to grasp a little of this plenty.
The old and sturdy house, set on rolling pastureland alongside a placid river, appeared safe and calm. It was not. Nannie, and the land around her, was thoroughly haunted. In less than a year we would break the lease, perform a binding ritual, and leave.
English explorer John Lawson wrote extensively about North Carolina's indigenous people. In 1701, he visited the Occaneechi tribe in their little town surrounded by the Eno River, only a few yards from where Nannie would be situated. The "Achonechy," as Lawson called them, had been displaced from their Atlantic coastal home on Roanoke Island (where they controlled the deerskin trade and coined a common language) by a militia attack in 1670. In their new Piedmont village, a dozen or so wigwams surrounded a sweat lodge, set in a central plaza. A defensive stockade encircled the town, with cemeteries outside the gates; testament to the destructive power of Iroquois war parties and European disease.
Still, the Occaneechi had done well for themselves. Lawson was unreserved in his praise.
“About Three a Clock, we reach'd the Town, and the Indians presently brought us good fat Bear, and Venison, which was very acceptable at that time,” Lawson wrote. “Their Cabins were hung with a good sort of Tapestry, as fat Bear, and barbakued or dried Venison; no Indians having greater Plenty of Provisions than these. The Savages do, indeed, still possess the Flower of Carolina, the English enjoying only the Fag-end of that fine Country.”
That was all going to change. Creeping south from Virginia and north from South Carolina, the Europeans finally gained full possession of Charles II’s extensive land grant of 1663. “The Country thro’ which we pass’d, was so delightful,” Lawson wrote of his trip to visit the Occaneechi, “that it gave us a great deal of Satisfaction.” By 1722, the remnants of the Occaneechi and other Piedmont tribes, decimated by “disease, warfare and rum,” moved northeast to seek protection in Virginia’s Fort Christianna. A few sagging thatch huts stood a hundred yards from the house we had just chosen to rent, reconstructed to remember the tribe’s brief tenure.
Scotland’s economy had collapsed by the end of the 18th century. Squatters and vandals roamed the land, some of them visiting the Highland farm of James Hogg in Caithness.
"The people in my neighborhood were extremely addicted to theft and pilfering, the constant attendants of slavery and poverty,” Hogg wrote in a letter dated March 29, 1774. “I was fond of improvements in agriculture: I sowed field-turnips, but they were stolen before they came to perfection: I sowed pease, and was happy if they left me the straw: my potatoes and carrots suffered in like manner: and, in short, I found it impossible to save anything from their rapacity.”
“To complete my disgust,” Hogg wrote, “in the end of 1771 a ship belonging to Liverpool, loaded with iron, deals and flax, was driven ashore in sight of my house.” Hogg gave “active assistance to save the wreck and cargo from plunder,” and in return barely escaped with his family when their house was set on fire in revenge.
“Had my situation in other respects been agreeable,” Hogg remembered, “I should not have been easily prevailed upon, with so young a family, and at my time of life, to leave my native country, and expose myself and family to the fatigue and dangers of a long voyage, in order to settle in an unhealthy climate in the woods of North Carolina: but by the barbarity of the country where I lived, I was in a manner forcibly expelled.”
“A list of the murders, robberies, and thefts, committed with impunity there, during my residence in Caithness,” Hogg declared, “would surprise a Mohawk or a Cherokee.”
James Hogg and his family made it to America, then North Carolina, and ultimately Hillsborough, where they would no longer be victimized by the disadvantaged. Hogg became a participant in the largest private sale of land in the country’s history: a naked, extralegal grab of Cherokee hunting grounds west of the Appalachian mountains.
Hogg joined the Transylvania Company in 1775, led by a former judge, Richard Henderson. In 1771, the same year Hogg defended the shipwreck from looters, Henderson was a presiding judge over the trial and execution of six Regulators. The Regulator Movement was an early form of backwoods rebellion, objecting over unfair colonial taxation and corruption. Once released from the bench in 1773, Henderson was free to pursue his burning ambition of land speculation.
The Transylvania Company’s goal, through the acquisition and settlement of the wild lands to the west, was no less than to create the 14th colony. In January and February 1775, James Henderson and some colleagues met with around 1,200 Cherokee who gathered in Tennessee for a Great Council.
In the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, as it came to be known, the aboriginals were given six wagon loads of liquor, guns, ammunition, blankets and trinkets in exchange for some 20 million acres, making up most of modern-day Kentucky and eastern Tennessee.
Tsi’yu-gunsini (“He Is Dragging His Canoe”), a young chief from the Wolf Clan, objected to this European expansion.
“Whole Indian Nations have melted away like snowballs in the sun before the white man's advance,” he said on the second day of negotiating. “Such treaties may be all right for men who are too old to hunt or fight. As for me, I have my young warriors about me. We will hold our land.”
Things reached a breaking point when the colonists asked for even more territory — a Path Deed — as a conduit for settlement.
"We have given you this, why do you ask for more?” Dragging Canoe demanded. “When you have this you have all. There is no more game left between the Watauga and the Cumberland. You have bought a fair land, but there is a cloud hanging over it; you will find its settlement dark and bloody." Dragging Canoe and his warriors then left the meeting in protest.
According to Indian history, the man who would blaze the Path Deed trail, Daniel Boone, helped seal the Sycamore deal by plying the remaining older chiefs with whiskey. Oconostota and Raven Warrior were made so drunk that their interpreter had to guide their hands in order to sign the treaty.
According to White history, the liquor was rum, not whiskey, and the colonists virtuously kept it from Indian reach until the agreement was executed. English explorer John Lawson had already noted the effects of alcohol on the Indian population in December, 1700:
“Rum,” he wrote, “a Liquor now so much in Use with them, that they will part with the dearest Thing they have, to purchase it.”
The proposed 14th colony, founded on the land newly gained, was to be called Transylvania. James Hogg was dispatched to Philadelphia to negotiate official recognition from the Continental Congress. The petition was never considered: The treaty was seen as illegal by the English Crown as well as the colonies of Virginia and North Carolina, both of which ultimately voided the claim. According to European law, the Cherokee could not own land, and were thus incapable of selling any.
In the meantime, Daniel Boone blazed the Wilderness Trail through the Cumberland Gap, creating a highway for settlement to the west.
Brooke’s mother came to visit that autumn. She stayed in the upstairs bedrooms on the left. Its doorframe sagged away from the raised middle of the northside addition, as did the one on the adjacent bedroom, giving the impression of a worried brow. There was nothing in this room save a blocked-off arch which once connected the two rooms, and a large and cobwebbed window, letting in dreary light. The wood floor inclined toward the window, dotted with spider holes. At night, Brooke’s mother heard knocking on the wall separating the two bedrooms. The knocks came slowly, in threes, and were left unanswered.
A few days later, Brooke and her mother went for a walk. As they paused in the pasture in front of the house, Brooke noticed, from her periphery, a figure standing under a small maple about 20 yards away. She turned her head to see a woman, staring at them. The woman’s hand was against the tree. She wore a white bonnet, a white smock and a long brown dress. Brooke looked at the woman for a moment. Then the woman wasn’t there anymore.
The day after Halloween, Brooke stood near the boxwood bushes on the west side of the house. It was a cold morning, and our new dog, Pugsley, needed to go out. Brooke was still wearing a red devil’s cape from the night before. Someone called her name from a dark band of trees a few yards away.
“Brooke?” The female voice was tentative. Its pitch was neither high nor low, but a combination of both: a single voice, spoken in octaves. Brooke answered the first entreaty, thinking we had a visitor and embarrassed to still be in costume. The voice called again, closer this time.
In the weeks to come, the paranormal events increased. Brooke and Evelyn, my daughter, often saw a woman in a white bonnet walking from the west side of the house around to the front porch. This was her routine.
The things outside that presented as human always moved in repetition. From a window in the kitchen, I saw a man in buckskins walk quickly to the back of the shed. Brooke saw him too, another time. She also saw a man in a gray jumpsuit mount invisible stairs into the southern sky.
Other outside things, not readily identifiable as human, moved around the perimeter of the house counterclockwise.
One mild November evening, as I gathered firewood by the shed in the light of a full moon, I looked over to see a vertical, cigar-shaped shadow, about five feet tall and a foot off the ground, floating silently away from me toward the back of the house. I stood there — naked, with an armload of wood — and watched it for the second or two it took to register that the thing was actually there, a real column of tapered shadow, illuminated by porchlight, gliding away from me like a spinning top. I calmly walked inside the house, locked the back door, and cursed extravagantly. Afterward, I realized that, in order to be on that trajectory, the thing must have moved behind me unnoticed.
Some weeks later, we stood on the severe front porch on a cold night. The original porch was made from wood, and was level with the front doors. This porch was brick, and positioned several feet below the entrances. Precarious brick steps led up to each front door. Opening the screen door almost made you drop off the stoop.
We stood on the uneven brick, waiting for our dog to pee. He suddenly strained the leash, pulling Brooke to the west side of the porch, near a dark little band of trees by the shed. Out of the black, a tan figure advanced. It had bowed legs and no head. It shimmied towards Brooke in a crouch, whipping its long, thin arms like tentacles. Then it receded back into the trees.
“If it weren’t so terrifying, it would have been funny,” she told me. “It was dancing, as if to get my attention.”
These figures were aggressive, but not malevolent. Their purpose seemed twofold: to make us know they were there, and that we could do nothing about it.
In the years after the Transylvania purchase, Dragging Canoe became the face of opposition to westward expansion. He preyed upon the wave of pioneers travelling the Wilderness Road, earning the nickname Savage Napoleon. He died on March 1, after dancing all night in celebration of a newly formed tribal alliance.
Back in Hillsborough, James Hogg built a house on the north side of the Eno river in 1794, near the Occaneechi village John Lawson had described almost a hundred years before. It was a large, two-story I-House, with floors of first-growth pine. Two rooms were set over two rooms, with big chimneys on either side. On the front, a large porch was built in the plantation style. It was a simple, if outsize, place, one which Hogg had only a few years to enjoy. He called his new house and farm Banks of the Eno.
The house James Hogg built has stood for centuries, even as his first Hillsborough house crumbled into the earth. It would see additions and half-hearted renovations, and be moved once — only a few hundred yards as the crow flies. It would also collect, inside and out, an absolute army of paranormal inhabitants. Maybe they accrued like emotional residue on the usurious intent of its several owners. It can’t help — at least in our cultural imagination — that it stands, quite literally, on Indian burial ground. This was Nannie, the house of our short and terrible tenancy.
James Hogg suffered a stroke in 1802. Around this time, as a response to “years of ridicule,” he petitioned the General Assembly to change his children’s surname to that of their mother’s, McDowal Alves. They granted the request, leading to this bit of revealing doggerel:
Hogg by name, Hogg by nature
Alves by act of the Legislature
James Hogg died in 1804. His house would be inhabited by Hoggs for another 90 years.
The hauntings increased with the passing months. Misty forms would rise from the floorboards in broad daylight and move about the room on their own volition. They didn’t look like smoke as much as water vapor, and came and went as they pleased. We all saw “headlights” in the driveway, but no corresponding car ever appeared. The distinct scrape of the mud-room door opening would be heard, even when the door, upon inspection, remained locked.
Evelyn and Brooke increasingly heard their names being called.
“Evelyn,” a female voice would say. “Come here.”
If she was upstairs, it would come from below. Brooke once heard Evelyn’s voice calling her from downstairs, and walked downstairs to answer. She called Evelyn’s name, and Evelyn answered from her upstairs bedroom. The side-door locks rattled frantically one night as the three of us sat alarmed in the living room. Occasionally, men’s voices could be heard downstairs, speaking in hushed and excited tones. They stopped as soon as someone reached the bottom of the stairs. We shared a growing feeling that we were to be split up, one from another. Something was trying to isolate us. A hard winter was bearing down. The first cord of wood got burned up in less than a month.
We dressed Nannie up like a pagan hunting lodge that Christmas, twining pine garlands up the bannister and hanging enormous evergreen and holly wreaths on the bare dining-room walls. We fed stacks of wood into the hearths on both ends of the house — the westside living room and the eastside dining room — until the warmth met in the middle archway. The intense heat from the firebricks kept you from getting closer than the apron’s edge. We invited as much family as could fit, eating and drinking our fill. It was an extravagance we could afford only once. The ghosts left us unmolested until we were once again alone.
Before he finished his studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Julian Shakespeare Carr enlisted in the Confederacy. He served as a private in the Third North Carolina Cavalry until the South’s military capitulation the following year. Carr was paroled along with the rest of Robert E. Lee’s shattered army.
“One hundred yards from where we stand, less than 90 days perhaps after my return from Appomattox,” Carr bragged in 1913 when giving a speech on the UNC campus, “I horsewhipped a Negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of the quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 federal soldiers. I performed the pleasing duty in the immediate presence of the entire garrison, and for 30 nights afterwards slept with a double-barrel shotgun under my head.”
After the war, Carr received a $4,000 loan from his father to purchase interest in a Durham tobacco company. Trading on the famous Bull Durham logo, and ultimately acquiring dozens of other businesses, Carr soon became very wealthy.
In 1891, Carr and his wife Nannie bought James Hogg’s old 663-acre farm. Nannie called the house “Poplar Hill.”
Carr hired Jules Gilmer Körner to redecorate Hogg’s plain farmhouse. Körner, under the alias Reuben Rink, was responsible for the Bull Durham tobacco logo. (These became famous because Rink painted bulls with huge balls on outdoor ads. Then he would write letters to the local paper posing as an outraged citizen. Once the whole town came out to see this affront to decency, Rink would return and paint an obscuring fence over the offending bollocks. Most Bull Durham ads show the fence, along with gratuitous and deeply racist depictions of blacks. “My!” exclaims one watermelon-eating grotesque, “These shure am Sweet Tastan.”)
Körner dressed Poplar Hill up to resemble a stereotypical Greek Revival plantation, with a widow’s walk, huge porch columns and a shallow balcony. He inserted French windows in the downstairs and created two formal entrances along the wide front porch.
This reinvention was consistent with Julian Carr’s life. He was an unreconstructed racist; a proponent of the mythical Lost Cause movement, which by the early 20th century was beginning to rewrite the history of the South and its defeat. Because of his support of Confederate veteran causes, Carr was “promoted” to the honorary rank of Major General. In his later years, he was often seen dressed in a gaudy Confederate officer’s uniform of this rank, one he never came close to attaining during his actual wartime service. See him now, in this grainy black-and-white picture, sitting on Poplar Hill’s front porch with Nannie and other family, a portly dress-up general, secure in his fake plantation home: an openly racist Col. Sanders prototype.
“The present generation, I am persuaded, scarcely takes note of what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo-Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war,” Carr boomed to a crowd in 1913, “when the facts are, that their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo-Saxon race in the South.”
The cult of the Lost Cause was, if anything, about appearance over reality. Confederate veterans, beginning to die off in droves by the second decade of the new century, were recast as hale and watchful statues — just like the one Carr dedicated on the University of North Carolina campus — placed in front of courthouses and other seats of political power. The real North Carolina rebels were in fact half-starved scarecrows, fed into that terrible maw in sufficient numbers as to make up a quarter of all Confederate casualties. Their corpses didn’t bloat and rot like their better-fed Union counterparts, but rather simply turned to leather in the sunny fields of Cold Harbor and other killing grounds.
Carr built a railroad spur across the road from his new farm, so his wealthy friends from the city could come visit for weekend parties. “Occoneechee Farm,” as he called his new estate, turned into a big operation, with Carr as the titular gentleman farmer. There are a few surviving pictures of the actual farm workers. They’re all black, naturally, and cleaned up to look postcard pretty. Scowling cherubs hold shiny milk pails.
A tornado struck Occoneechee Farm in 1919, doing terrible damage. Poplar Hill was unscathed. But the farm never recovered. Within a few years, Julian Carr lost his fortune and his health. The 1923 real estate listing for Occoneechee Farm included “a large sheep barn, a large piggery with several breeding pens, a concrete-floored dairy barn with 56 stanchions, five poultry houses (capable of housing 1,500 chickens) and a three-story barn with a slate roof, oak floors, stalls for 36 horses and a basement for mules.”
Julian Carr died on April 29, 1924. Occoneechee Farm was sold and subdivided.
The subsequent tenants of Poplar Hill mostly remembered freezing in the winter. They shut off entire sections of the place, living in one or two rooms to conserve firewood. As the decades passed, the house began to fall apart from neglect.
We too froze that winter, often sick, broke and huddled in front of a fire in a small upstairs room. Although we kept the thermostat at 55 degrees, our February gas bill was still over $700. There was some talk of a cracked heat exchanger, but nothing was done until the old outside unit stopped working altogether in early summer. Inside the house, you could see the packed dirt between cracks in the floorboards. The pipes froze twice.
We began feeding scraps of vegetables and fruit to The Deer People, who looked more miserable than us. At first, Brooke would put the food on the ground and leave. But the deer, generationally used to humans, were not afraid. Soon the animals were eating the food in her presence.
After a half-century of decline, Poplar Hill was saved in by James Freeland, “The Walt Disney of Hillsborough.” A colorful real estate developer, Freeland already had great success with Daniel Boone Village, a kind of strip-mall theme park featuring a small railroad, a wax museum, an ice-skating rink, a burlap-sack slide and “a real bison.” Freeland commissioned a large fiberglass statue of Boone, chubby and holding a flintlock, to stand guard at the entrance. Gone is the canonical coonskin cap: This Boone has a frontier hat pinned up at the front, like a Disney sidekick. He leans forward and looks drunk. He stands there still, by old Highway 86, holding his gun like a drum major’s baton.
By 1978, Freeland began to pursue another business angle. He relocated a Caswell County house George Washington had slept in and made it a Mexican restaurant called Pueblo Viejo.
Freeland had similar plans with Poplar Hill: He would move it to the south side of the Eno, just yards from the old Indian settlement, and turn it into the Occoneechee Steak House. Verbal assurances from town elders appeared to trump zoning laws.
Hillsborough, like so many other historic North Carolina towns, was preserved through penury. No one had any money to destroy landmarks through renovation or replacement. At most, kitchen or bathroom additions to old houses were tacked on during the Depression, often built right on the ground to save the expense of laying a foundation. Very old houses, like Poplar Hill, continued throughout most of the 20th-century without plumbing or electricity, and with nothing but inefficient fireplaces to heat them. Many, abandoned to rot, were simply torn down.
So, in 1980, Poplar Hill’s roof was removed and the remaining house was cut into large pieces and slowly moved from its ancient location. A picture of it, looming over the moving truck as it crossed the river, made the paper.
Freeland had carefully prepared the site: The house was situated facing the river, surrounded by maples, poplars and stone retaining walls. Japanese pagoda trees ran in a line along the road. In a historically ironic twist, Freeland sited the house only a few yards from where the six Regulators, condemned to death by Transylvania Company founder Richard Henderson, were hanged in 1771.
The relocation of Poplar Hill, however, was coincident with bad news: A growing number of citizens, alarmed at this perceived threat to Hillsborough’s historic district, disallowed Freeland’s proposed steakhouse.
The house was set on its new foundation and put back together, although not in a way that was entirely consistent with its historical nature. A hurried plumbing addition was tacked onto the west side, just large enough for some small upstairs bathrooms with low ceilings and plastic shower inserts. An incongruous picture window was framed into the ground floor mud room.
The original fireplace mantles, probably sold off, were replaced with fairly plain and badly constructed substitutes. The original 12-over-12 windows sat warped in their frames. There were a series of renters before us. Most moved out fairly quickly, unable to afford the utility bills. Nannie was not a house that could be heated.
“Just so you know,” a local friend told me conspiratorially one day, “that place is known as the Rape House.” Several years before we moved in, he told me, a local bartender lived there with his mother. This man would supposedly roofie women at work, bring them back to Nannie, and assault them. He was never charged, but was beat up and run out of town.
The rapes happened in one of the upstairs bedrooms — the one, it turns out, Brooke’s mother stayed in months before. My friend was considering moving in after our lease was up, and asked one of the victims to consider moving in with him. She stood in the doorway of that room, the one of her assault, as a way of finding her answer.
“No,” she said, after a moment. “I can’t live in a house where I was raped.”
We didn’t know if the Rape House story was true, but it made a terrible kind of emotional sense. There were several female spirits, mostly contained to the north side of the house — the part Julian Carr added on. Evelyn saw a tall, gray-haired lady peering at us admiringly from the kitchen doorway.
“She was interested in us almost as if she longed to join us in the living room by the fire,” Evelyn told me. “I saw her for a full second before I looked at you and Brooke. When I looked back she was gone, of course. Her hair was gray, about shoulder length. She was incredibly tall. Her head was at the top of the doorway, which was over six feet tall. I didn’t see her clothes or body, only her head peeking around the corner. After noticing that you and Brooke hadn’t seen her, I got up, angry, and rushed into the kitchen, ready to confront whatever was spying on us. The room was cold, but that wasn’t out of character for Nannie.” The kitchen was empty.
We suspected this was the entity that would follow people into the kitchen, and stand behind them as they looked in the fridge. You could hear the floorboards creak as it came. Once, when Evelyn and Brooke cursed the ghost, a bottle of baby shampoo was flung violently across the room.
One night, Evelyn had a sleepover. She didn’t tell her friend about the hauntings. I went downstairs, into the yawning expanse of a kitchen, to make popcorn for the girls. The first batch burned, so I settled on the living room couch while the second was made. Brooke was showering in the master bath.
Evelyn and her friend heard their door handle jiggle. Then they heard our bedroom door being flung open, across the landing. They thought it was me. Brooke thought the same. She got out of the shower, and through a wall mirror saw the bottom of a long skirt and a woman’s bare feet walking away. Brooke described the figure as “monochromatic — a blueish grayscale.”
Evelyn called my name, and I answered from downstairs. Brooke, pursuing the figure, ran to the landing in a towel. When I came upstairs with a big bowl of popcorn, everyone stared at me, confused.
That night, Evelyn’s friend woke to see a female figure standing in their room. “It loomed over the bed as if expecting us to move or notice her,” Evelyn told me. “Fully bent. Horrifying.”
The woman stood outside the bathroom as Brooke took a shower, visible from a mirror. One day, we came home to see all of the bathroom cabinets flung open. Brooke and Evelyn’s tampons were gone and never found.
As the nature and intensity of the hauntings increased, an elongate man appeared downstairs, almost two-dimensional in his flatness. He would peep at you from around corners or through doorways, just inside your peripheral vision. When you looked at him, he would flash a toothy smile, flatten into the wall and vanish.
Scratches appeared on Brooke’s back several times, before my eyes, as we showered.
A hooded thing with long, thin arms began standing over Brooke as she slept. We discussed the possibility of night-hag syndrome, a particularly unpleasant type of sleep paralysis. Whatever it was, it was recurring and utterly terrifying. The thing’s hands were hook-shaped, and its arms looked like black vinyl. It had red eyes. Later on, it would appear near the fireplace, almost as if it had come down the chimney, and walk toward the bed where Brooke lay, horrified and unable to move. It would disappear once she was able to scream.
Between 1983 and 1986, the Occaneechi village described by John Lawson almost 300 years before was found and investigated by The Research Laboratories of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina.
“The site seemed to be well preserved,” the report read, “with no evidence of disturbance other than shallow plowing.” The digging took place just yards from Nannie. The team uncovered postholes for the palisade wall, storage pits, the remains of houses, as well as the “interior rock-filled pit of a small ‘sweat house.’” The team also found a little cemetery, just outside the walls on the northeast side of the village. Fourteen graves were recovered, mostly of young males, killed violently. One appeared to have been scalped. Another, of indeterminate sex, still had a flattened lead ball embedded in its leg from a gunshot. He or she was buried with an iron hoe. Other skeletons were found with musket firing mechanisms and kaolin pipes placed carefully beside them.
Several children’s graves were also excavated. They were buried alongside bundles of valuables: latten spoons, bone-handled knives, iron scissors, lead buttons. Cut shells were scattered around their bodies. One wore a necklace of glass beads; another an anklet of little brass bells.
In the first excavation, most human remains were kept in situ, but some bones were removed to the conservation laboratory. In 1986, according to a landowner’s wishes, human skeletal remains were left in place. That landowner lived across the street from Nannie.
There was much evidence of “death feasting” at the cemetery site, one which the anthropologists associated with the Busk Ceremony. Practiced with near universality by Southeastern Indians, it was a ceremony of renewal, often occasioned by death, in which the sacred fire would be rekindled in every hearth, old debts and grudges forgiven, and old food and clothing discarded. Thus would the community be renewed. This particular little town had many opportunities for this ritual in its short history.
The Occaneechi, though in possession of many European trade items at this time, adhered to their prehistoric subsistence practices. Although they ate a little pig and peach, their diet consisted mostly of maize, fruits, nuts, seeds, fish, and white-tailed deer. This is what the anthropologists found, in abundance, near the burial pits.
As Spring approached, Brooke took the hard little pumpkins we had been using as doorstops and chucked them into the back yard to feed the Deer People. They came to eat from the border band of trees, as usual.
“One day, I was just outside in the driveway,” Brooke told me. “And I saw somebody standing up on the northern slope in the back of the house. It freaked me out. I turned to look at it, and it ran behind the big oak tree.” It was a man, naked save for animal-skin pants. He was dark, with long dark hair.
“When it came out from behind the tree, it was a young buck,” Brooke said. “The thing that ran behind the tree was clearly bipedal.” The deer was now 10 feet from Brooke, and moving towards her.
“I nodded to it,” she said, “and it bowed to me. Not in a threatening way, but as a way of saying ‘I acknowledge you.’” Brooke reached out her hand, but the animal calmly turned and walked back into the screen of newly leafed trees whence it came.
Nine months in, exhausted and traumatized by the house, we decided to break the lease. By this time, we had a list of nicknames for our tormentors: Smokey, Spaghetti Arms, The Spook Parade, Bonnet Lady, Smiley, Buckskin Man, Kitchen Lady, The Upstairs Thing. It was an attempt at control through humor, but the reality was that we were living lives of attenuated dread, waiting for the next, ever more threatening, incident. We had become energetic chattel, carefully split off and preyed upon by the true inhabitants of that place.
The house began life as Banks of the Eno, for a man who emigrated across an ocean to freely use people the way he had been used; Poplar Hill for a vocal proponent of the Lost Cause and enthusiastic member of the ownership class; the Rape House because of another man’s monstrous exploitation; and finally Nannie for us, a transient family looking for a home, and not finding one.
However that house was built, and for whatever purposes it was augmented and repositioned, it had become a Bedlam for bad energy. Negative feelings, experiences and intentions got stuck in that place, and were made distorted manifest. Shadowy tulpas darted around Nannie’s perimeter, maybe because she had been plopped down onto that venerated land with the nuance of a cinderblock tossed into a stream. She only looked like she belonged. Appearances never transcend reality.
As I paused in the downstairs hall while loading the moving truck, I saw a black form flitting between boxes in the living room. It moved in a blur, as fast as thought, appearing to hide even as it wantonly revealed itself. As I described it to Brooke and Evelyn, my voice rose to a kind of hysterical shriek.
We salted Nannie when we left. We didn’t know about the Salt Covenant in the Old Testament, nor was that our tribe. We didn’t know about the ancient ritual of salting newborn babies for protection. We didn’t know that salt is a key ingredient in Hoodoo Hotfoot Powder. The place needed to be cleansed and sealed.
We gathered in the mud room, per Brooke’s instructions, each holding a box of salt, forming a restive single file. Pouring some salt into our palm, we threw it over our left shoulders on our way out the door, as you do when wanting to get that thing off your back. We crossed the threshold, one at a time, and did not look back. We did not re-enter the house. We will never re-enter the house.
Once outside, walking clockwise, we ran a thick line of salt around Nannie’s perimeter, coating every threshold and window sill, one person’s part reinforced by the one coming after. It was an ageless ceremony, intuitively remembered. It was done as a binding and rebuke, as an acknowledgment of an impossible shared reality.
We finished the salting with a cry of triumph, probably something along the lines of “Fuck you, buddy!” I walked behind the house and climbed into the moving truck, parked just yards from where I saw that floating shadow thing the previous year. Evelyn and Brooke, still out front, lingered by the mud-room stoop, where the salt line began and ended. They stood in silence for a moment, looking at the house. Brooke noticed a growing look of shock on Evelyn’s face and turned to see movement inside the mud room’s picture window. A white, vaporous thing resolved into view.
“Do you see what I see?” asked Evelyn.
“I think so,” said Brooke. “Is it the outline of a tall figure?”
The apparition looked like heat waves off hot asphalt. It flitted from one corner to the other, pacing like an angry man. Its movements became more furious as Brooke and Evelyn got in the car and drove away, and then it receded, along with the house. No one turned their head to look back.
We made no effort to document our experience in Nannie. It was a horrible memory, best forgotten. Brooke, Evelyn and I moved to New Orleans — a wantonly haunted place — and one night, when the conversation turned to ghosts, we related our own story. It took the better part of an hour, and we looked at each other, amazed, as forgotten incidents were recovered and corroborated.
I knew about Julian Carr, because I wrote a piece for Al Jazeera America after Dylann Roof killed the black congregants of a church in Charleston. “A Confederate On Every Corner” detailed the many rebel memorials erected in the South in the 1910s and ’20s, many of which were situated in front of public seats of power instead of parks or graveyards. It was, as “General” Carr took pains to point out, a clear political statement.
I didn’t know about John Lawson, James Hogg and The Transylvania Company, or much about James Freeland and the Occaneechi. My understanding resembled shallow plow marks on an unexcavated field. What lied beneath, for us, was a compressed story of exploitation and displacement. Though supposedly long buried, it had found its way to the surface, and we were there to bear terrible witness.