At the end of rows of neatly manicured lawns, freshly polished SUVs, and lush green palms is a long, black, iron gate, behind which are hundreds of marble headstones. From a distance, these chunks of South Florida history look like pale thumbs protruding from the earth. This land backs up to the edge of a lake; massive trees pepper the landscape. Many are covered with moss and spider webs.
We weren't supposed to be inside Fort Lauderdale's Evergreen Cemetery that night. But a photographer and I hopped the fence anyway. All that came to mind was that ridiculous Scooby Doo episode in which the fence suddenly disappears behind a mysterious fog and the gang is confronted by the dastardly ghost of Ebeneezer Crabb.
The trees swayed back and forth, bending toward us disapprovingly. A cracked cement path wound around the graves, taking a massive after-life roll call: Degville, Vincentius, "Crazy Gregg" ("the Godfather of Spring Break"), Dichtenmueller, Murgatroyd (Heavens to!), Lowell. Yep, they were all present and accounted for.
At the north end of the cemetery, under one of the numerous shade trees was a small wicker chair and a black sign: Babyland. It pointed toward a gathering of tiny headstones, the largest of which was shaped like the head of Mickey Mouse, with eyes peeking out over tall weeds.
To the right of a massive gnarled tree covered in moss and to the east of Babyland was what looked like a small house. Crickets chirped an ominous tune in unison as we walked closer. A white-and-gray marble building marked "Huizenga" loomed before us. Now, I'm pretty sure we were the only people in the graveyard that night. There could have been someone else lurking around, trying to scare us, which would have been pretty wrong, but it was possible.
As if on cue, the wind picked up at that moment. A sound like change jingling in someone's pocket broke the crickets' symphony, and I looked at my friend, who was a few feet behind me. It's in situations like this when the mind unwillingly unlocks those caverns of anxiety and fills them with adrenaline. The wind suddenly becomes a sinister harbinger, and the smallest sound is like thunder crashing.
She quickly snapped three digital photos, lighting up the immediate area with a flash. I looked at the viewer. Two of the snapshots showed nothing, but the third displayed two bright orange streaks of light: one jetting out of a headstone, the other from a tree branch. Ruh-roh! It was time to g-g-g-get outta there. We started walking, then running, making sure not to look over our shoulders.
We had been sent to Evergreen by Brian Roesch, a South Florida ghost hunter whose knowledge of Fort Lauderdale history has spurred him to investigate the paranormal. Evergreen is just one of many supernatural hot spots, Roesch says, and it is also one of South Florida's largest intact cemeteries. In 1911, a funeral director moved many bodies from what is currently Southside School on Andrews Avenue to the newly created graveyard in southeast Fort Lauderdale. There are Civil War veterans buried here. Victims of the deadly 1926 hurricane are interred in unmarked graves. There's a Jewish section and crypts of members of Fort Lauderdale's founding families including the Stranahans, Bryans, Kings, Cromarties, and Olivers.
"Ghost hunting is more an obsession for me than a hobby," the 33-year-old Roesch says while strolling through Evergreen Cemetery at dusk just a few weeks before Halloween. "It's fun to walk around and take pictures, but there comes a point when you want answers."
The term "ghost hunter" causes most people to think of that frantic guy with the big white mustache from the TV show Sightings, the one who's always desperately calling out for paranormal attention ("There's a ghost! There's a ghost in the mirror! Hello? Hellooo?"). That's not Roesch's bag. He is an immediately likable guy, dressed in a button-down tropical print shirt and black dress pants, his hair neatly combed to the side.
He's a big brother type: affable, conversational but also a bit reserved. Roesch has been investigating haunted Fort Lauderdale for the past three years. According to him, residents who live across the street from Evergreen claim to have seen an apparition of a lady walking by the gates of the cemetery, and there have been sightings of this same "lady in white" near the Huizenga crypt, where H. Wayne's parents are laid to rest. "I've been to this location several times in hopes of spotting the apparition myself," Roesch says, adjusting his sunglasses and wiping sweat off his brow. "But with no luck. Every time I walk past that crypt, though, my heart starts racing. I set up my EMF meter, which measures the electrical frequency in the air, and it started going crazy."
Roesch uses other ghost-hunting toys in his investigations, like humidity gauges and cameras. Many of the photos he's taken at various cemeteries and hotels include strange orbs, both large and small. "I've sent my photos to scientists and camera specialists who think they're just seismic gases," Roesch says. "Maybe they are. Maybe they're reflections of light. Who knows? I've never actually seen what most people think are ghosts. The only things that make sense to me are streaks, orbs, and mists. The photos of full-bodied apparitions in clothes are bogus! But I want to know why they exist, why they linger, where they go, and why they wear clothes. Clothes don't die."
As we continue past an old couple enjoying an evening walk, Roesch recounts an event that happened in 1993, when he was employed at Wells Fargo Bank and a coworker shot himself in the break room. "A lot of people there claimed they saw him after that," Roesch says. "I never did. But one night when I was clocking out, it felt like someone ran up right behind me and was breathing on my neck. I turned around, and no one was there. That's the only encounter I've had where I was genuinely scared."
Years later, Roesch's experience with the unknown was revisited. "My interest was sparked when I worked at the Hollywood Beach Resort Hotel back in 2000," he recalls. "I would see shadows out of the corner of my eye, experience strange scents, and feel temperatures drop inexplicably. People I worked with had stories too, stories of things they'd seen or experienced. This piqued my curiosity, and I decided to investigate on my own. I was always satisfied that there was something there, especially on the seventh floor."
The Hollywood Beach Resort Hotel sits tucked away from A1A. The front of the hotel has been remodeled, but the west side of the building, partially covered by peeling orange paint, appears to be the side time forgot. The resort opened in 1926, and mobster Al Capone often stayed in the penthouse. At one point, the hotel became a hospital, then a Bible college, and now it is a condo/hotel, which, in some strange way, makes sense. We walk into the front lobby, and Roesch gets nervous. "I hope this guy doesn't give us any trouble," he says, avoiding the prying eyes of a scrawny front-desk clerk. "We're not really supposed to be going up there."
Roesch leads me to the seventh floor via the elevator. As the doors open, we immediately encounter the odd smell of mildew and gardenia. The hallways are an unsettling mixture of old plumbing, which protrudes from the walls like veins, fluorescent lighting, and tacky '80s carpeting. The ghost of Christopher Lowell should be haunting this place. Not Capone. "A few scenes from The Shining were shot here back in the '70s," Roesch says as he snaps digital photos of the area. We're standing in an eerily quiet portion of the peach-colored corridor, right next to an out-of-order vending machine. It's uncomfortably warm.
As we round the corner to take the elevator to the penthouse, a quick motion catches my eye. I immediately tense up, expecting to see the ghosts of creepy Bible thumpers, but breathe a sigh of relief when it's just two blond Euro-tourists with matching Speedos and Ralph Lauren T-shirts.
"I'll tell you where I'd like to go," Roesch says. "The Sunrise Hall Dormitories are supposed to be haunted." Back in the '50s, the future dorms of the Fort Lauderdale Art Institute on North Federal Highway were a "house of ill repute," Roesch says. Multiple murders allegedly occurred in that house, and a few years later, it burned down. A hotel was built there in the '70s, and that became the dorms in 1992. "There have been reports from the second floor that the sound of moans comes from the third floor around 1 a.m.," Roesch explains. "And the sound of metal pipes being dropped and rolling across the floor has also been heard in the ceilings." A visit to Sunrise Hall on a recent Saturday night didn't yield any noticeable paranormal activity, but a few abnormally pale students did wander aimlessly down the halls, and a curious smell emanated from one room. Fer Christ sakes, it is a college dorm. I think we all know what the "pipes" and "moans" are. Zoinks.
"I would stop pursuing this if I could find proof that ghosts exist," Roesch says. "Electrical energy is contained in all living species; it can't be destroyed. If the electrical energy grounds after death, then that's it: Ghosts can't exist. But if the electrical energy does not ground, then it must have an extended purpose." But are most people who claim to have seen ghosts lying? "No," he says, shaking his head, "I believe most people are telling the truth but that they're just misinformed about what they've experienced."
A few days later, I'm drawn back to Evergreen. Trudging through the maze of headstones, I think that whatever was spooking us nights before was most likely the product of an overactive imagination, a collective anxiety.
Then the small wind chimes tied to a tree branch above me start moving even though there hasn't been a breeze for a few minutes.
Or maybe it wasn't moving.
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