David Hirt never expected to encounter a ghost on a MARTA train.
As a corporate commuter in the mid-1980s, Hirt cut out of his Peachtree Street office early one wintry afternoon and rode toward his Stone Mountain home on public transportation. While listening to music on his headphones, he noticed something move next to his reflection in one of the windows on the nearly empty train.
"Why'd you have to sit next to me? The car's practically deserted," Hirt thought to himself of the 40ish, black-haired man in a business suit sitting next to him. But when Hirt turned to look directly at his companion, no one was there.
At the time, he didn't think much of it, and still isn't sure it was a paranormal experience. "Did I see something, or did I just have a bad sandwich at lunch? I don't know," he says. "It looked just like a regular business guy. At the time, I thought ghost stories were supposed to have cloud-like things or evil masks or ooo-ooo-oooo."
Today Hirt works as an actor, a holiday Santa Claus and a storyteller at events such as Stone Mountain's Tour of Southern Ghosts. He appreciates that an enigmatic encounter can inspire a chilling tale to be shared around a late-night campfire. "Was he someone killed on a MARTA train, or someone who died during the building of MARTA and was buried in his best suit," Hirt wonders about his experience. "I think a good storyteller will be able to take something like that and make it into a story. But a lot of ghost stories don't have a beginning, a middle or an end."
You don't have to believe in spooks to embrace the power of a ghost story to tease the imagination and evoke the secret histories of people and places. Often you might find that ghosts aren't just separated from their corporeal lives, but from the stories that explain them. "Sometimes the most haunted spot doesn't have a good story, just a lot of reports of things that happened," says Cynthia Rintye, who leads Lawrenceville Ghost Tours under the name Madame Macabre.
In Atlanta, urban legends, online accounts and other reports of spectral behavior at times lack explanation. A headless Confederate soldier patrols Downtown's Five Points area at night. A package-laden woman rides down the Peachtree Center escalator but never reaches the bottom. In Marietta, the statue of Mary Meinert in St. James Episcopal Cemetery is believed to weep tears of blood at midnight. At Six Flags Over Georgia, a small boy rides the black horse on the vintage carousel, and may have originally died in Chicago before the carousel was moved.
You might hear about them on a ghost tour, you might even see portentous signals on your iPhone Ghost Capture App, but you probably won't learn the reasons behind the poltergeist activity surrounding a specific location or event. The mystery often gives the rumors staying power. The possibility of a spirit taps at the shoulder of your skepticism: Is there more to life than what we can see and touch? A Saw movie may provoke revulsion with its graphic violence and then be quickly forgotten. But the right ghost story can be too ambiguous to be quickly dismissed.
Atlanta lacks the booming ghost population of an atmospheric Southern city such as Savannah, perhaps because so many of the ATL's historic buildings were either destroyed in the Civil War or razed in the name of development. Local author Christina Barber, who writes books and investigates spirits with her teenage daughter under the name the Ghost Girlz, suggests that local phantasms dislike metropolitan clamor. "My theory is that ghosts don't seem to haunt noisy places such as cities too often. Perhaps it's either too noisy for the ghosts, or too noisy for people to notice the subtle clues that there may be a haunting," she says.
Some of Atlanta's most interesting ghosts actually live outside the perimeter. The tales behind our most intriguingly haunted destinations combine historical detail with folklore, supposition and atmospherics to fill in the blanks and build atmosphere. When you talk about ghosts, you have to fill in some blanks.