Every year, October brings cooler temperatures, the crunch of fallen leaves, and Halloween ghost stories. Real or legend, ghost stories have figured in folklore all over the world. In the Palmetto State alone, the number of tales of historical hauntings make even a skeptic wonder.
Told around crackling campfires or by flickering candlelight, stories about things that go “bump” in the night have sent generations of South Carolinians off to bed with a case of the heebie-jeebies. Add a little eerie Halloween spirit, and it is no wonder that people’s imaginations run wild this time of year.
Elements of a quality haunting include strange noises, flashing lights, sudden changes in temperature, displaced objects, and — of course — ghostly sightings. Whether an attempt to make sense of the unexplainable, a means to connect with the dearly departed, or just good old-fashioned entertainment, many of the state’s haunted tales stretch back hundreds of years.
While mostly passed down in the oral tradition, some of the best stories are published in books like Forgotten Tales of South Carolina and Legends and Lore of South Carolina. As the author of these and four other books about all things mystic and mysterious, Sherman Carmichael says, “I’m no ghost hunter. I’m a story hunter.”
His interest in the subject was piqued at age 15 when he received a complimentary copy of Fate Magazine, founded in 1948 as America’s longest-running periodical devoted to the paranormal. “I’d always been curious about things like ghosts and monsters,” says Sherman. “After that, a couple of buddies and I started hunting down old graveyards.”
Now 64 years old, this congenial gentleman has been writing about the strange and supernatural from his home in Johnsonville, South Carolina. “When I research a story about a ghost, I dig back as far as I can, sometimes back to the original land grants, often using 10 to 12 sources per story.”
After years of studying this topic, Sherman developed a personal theory. He notes that because many ghost stories feature an apparition repeating an action over and over in the same physical location, it is possible that people who think they are seeing a ghost may actually be seeing a moment trapped in time. “It’s like one of those old eight-track tapes playing over and over,” he explains. “And every so often, a person is able to witness it.”
When asked about his favorite ghost story, he immediately cites The Gray Man of Pawley’s Island. “The Gray Man is South Carolina’s most famous ghost resident.”
The Gray Man
First seen in 1822, the last reported sighting was shortly before Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Legend has it that the Gray Man is the ghost of a young man who was traveling from Charleston to see his fiance. On the way, he and his horse were caught in a patch of quicksand in the marshes where they tragically died.
As described in Legends and Lore of South Carolina: “Devastated by the loss of her true love, the girl began walking the beach, remembering happier days. Two days before the disastrous storm of 1822, the young girl was walking along the beach at North Inlet. She saw the figure of a man dressed in gray clothes in a swirling haze in the distance. The closer she came to him, the more he resembled her departed lover. At about 10 feet from him, she was sure it was her sweetheart although she could not see his face well enough to recognize him. She felt no fear as she reached out to him. As she reached, he disappeared into the mist.”
After the storm passed, nearly the entire population of North Inlet had perished. In the days following the hurricane, the girl believed her love had returned to warn her of the impending tragedy the only way he could. According to witnesses, the Gray Man still walks the beaches before a hurricane hits the island. Every person who sees him says that he warns them to leave the island because danger is approaching. Those who heed the warning of this helpful spirit return after the hurricane to find their homes undamaged, even while houses on either side have been destroyed.
The Legend of Julia Legare
In the mid-1800s, a young lady named Julia Legare was visiting Edisto Island. She took ill with diphtheria and fell into a deep coma. After being pronounced dead, she was buried in her family’s crypt in the graveyard of Edisto Island Presbyterian Church. When her brother passed away 15 years later, the family opened the crypt to find her body pressed against the door as if trying to escape. They then realized that she had been buried alive. Throughout the years, the crypt’s doors would randomly fall open. Eventually, even the chained stone would not remain closed, and the family members gave up and removed the door entirely. Some locals swear that the scratches on the inside of the crypt were made by Julia, desperately trying to escape.
The Boo Hag
South Carolina’s stories of the boo hag come from the Gullah culture in the Lowcountry. According to folklore, boo hags are bad spirits similar to vampires, but instead of sucking a victim’s blood, they suck out their energy. Much like the legend of a cat sucking a baby’s breath, a boo hag finds a sleeping victim and sucks out their energy. This act renders victims helpless, inducing a deep dream-filled sleep and leaving them short of breath and exhausted when they awake the next morning.
Stories from the Midlands
While the Lowcountry boasts some of South Carolina’s most iconic ghost tales and legends, the Midlands has its own share of the spooky and unexplained. For instance, built in 1855, the Longstreet Theater at the University of South Carolina in Columbia has been used twice as a hospital: once during the Civil War for injured and dying soldiers and once in 1918 during the influenza epidemic after World War I. To this day, stories of strange sounds, phantom footsteps, and bursts of cold air have convinced students to use the buddy system while in the building to avoid ghostly encounters.
The Phantom Horseman of Columbia
In the spring of 1914, a man was walking with his dog down Lady Street, not far from the State House. The dog began to bark and slowed its pace. The man hushed the dog and continued walking. Just before they reached the corner of Bull and Blanding streets, the dog began barking again and would walk no farther. When the man looked high above the trees, he saw the ghostly figure of a man riding a horse. Several other eyewitnesses claimed to have seen it as well, and the following night, a crowd gathered for its second appearance. Some believed it was one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Others claimed it was the ghost of General Wade Hampton there to warn about the horrors of the upcoming World War.
The Lady Hitchhiker
On the west side of the Gervais Street Bridge, a ghostly hitchhiker is said to appear on rainy or foggy nights. When the distressed lady is picked up by a driver, she explains that she is headed to Columbia to visit her mother. Giving a Pickens Street address, the apparition is very lifelike and talkative, but by the time the car crosses the river, the lady falls silent. When the driver looks back to check if the lady is all right, she has vanished. Legend has it that, once upon a time, a lady was killed on that very bridge while trying to get to Columbia to see her dying mother.
As explained in Legends and Lore of South Carolina, “Some people believe that on Halloween, the distance between our world and the world of the afterlife becomes very small.” At Newberry College, a lovelorn ghost named Madeline is said to appear every Halloween season. Students report faucets turning on and off by themselves and cabinet doors and drawers opening and closing without any help. Windows suddenly fly open and footsteps are heard when no one is around. A 1959 version of the story in the school newspaper reported that Miss Madeline returns to the college in search of her lover, John, who took his own life when he thought she had been unfaithful to him. In her grief, she fatally flung herself from the bell tower. Over the years, students have reported the chilling sound of screams as well as ghostly sightings of a young girl in the tower.
Whether ghost stories are true or just a good excuse to huddle under a cozy quilt, no one can say for sure. As Sherman explains, “While they can’t be proved or disproved, legends and myths are not built on nothing. They’re not simply made up stories — they always contain a modicum of truth.”
No matter why people enjoy them so much, these spooky South Carolina tales have survived time, connecting generations of wide-eyed listeners year after year. After all, says Sherman, “Everyone loves a ghost story — whether they admit it or not.”