A group of musicians and the strange goings-on at their Civil War-era house
In a haunting Halloween interview, the singer talks to Una Brankin
Could the eerie image captured when Co Antrim musician Ben Glover and bandmates posed for photos in an apparently haunted house in Kentucky be proof there is an afterlife (and it wants to get in touch)?
Co Antrim-born singer/songwriter Ben Glover got more than he bargained for when he decided to write his new album in one of America’s allegedly most haunted houses — and ended up making a documentary on the fright-fest that ensued.
After a string of paranormal experiences, mysterious images on a series of photographs, taken by cinematographer Jim Demain, appear to confirm the presence of unearthly entities alongside the sceptical Co Antrim musician and his two musical collaborators.
The trio were posing for pictures by a window in Octagon Hall, a former US Civil War camp and makeshift hospital in Kentucky, when Demain — shooting from the garden outside — noticed an extra image in the centre pane.
“I always take several shots of the one set-up, as there’ll always be somebody blinking or whatever, and I noticed this face forming in the viewfinder,” says Demain. “It became more three-dimensional with each shot; it was surreal and it definitely wasn’t a reflection from the sky, as I was monitoring the light.
“In the next series I took from the same spot a few minutes later, it had disappeared. I simply cannot explain the image; it’s a really interesting photo.”
Based in Nashville since 2009, Ben decamped to the 1848 Octagon Hall earlier this year, with fellow musicians Neilson Hubbard and Joshua Britt, to seek inspiration for his fifth album. The Civil War-era plantation house and estate, once home to slaves, has a complicated, often tragic past. The house was built by Andrew Jackson Caldwell, a Confederate sympathiser, in the mid-1800s. He lived there until his death in 1866, and his second wife Harriet stayed on until 1918.
“I thought it would be interesting to write songs there and tap into the energy of the place,” says Ben, originally from Glenarm. “I don’t know what was going on but that house was crazy. There were three of us and we had everything from poltergeist activity, to figures appearing, to footsteps and voices and weird noises from nowhere, to the phantom faces in the photographs we had taken professionally for the album’s art.
“We weren’t aware of anything at that particular minute until the photographer shouted ‘There’s somebody in there with you’. When he showed us the photos, we saw a figure behind us with hollow eyes, like a mask, and below that there’s a bizarre animal-like face.
“After that, he took more pictures and there was nothing. He couldn’t explain it; there was nothing wrong with his camera. But it fitted in with the weird things we’d experienced there since day one.”
Very few octagonal buildings exist in the world. According to folklore, an eight-sided structure is supposed to trap energy — as is limestone, which the house is built upon. Hundreds died there, including a previous owner’s four year-old daughter and victims of the US Civil War. Into the bargain, nearby there’s a native American burial ground — thought to be a hotbed of supernatural activity.
“We had an artist manager, who’s as sceptical as me, staying with us for a few nights and he swears he saw a figure in a grey military uniform in his bathroom mirror,” says Ben. “He thought it was one of us coming in from his adjoining room. He’s a cynic but he was absolutely sure what he saw.
“And I clearly heard a little girl’s voice when I was alone in what’s known as Mary’s Room. She was four when she died — her dress caught fire in the basement and she was burned alive. I went into in her old bedroom the night we arrived to write a song, and for some reason I started making up a lullabye.
“About 15 seconds later, I heard this little voice humming back the tune. It was f****** nuts but, weirdly, it didn’t freak me out. I heard it very clearly but I sat there thinking, ‘Did that really happen?’”
The inexplicable humming was to herald three weeks of eerie happenings and things — literally — going bump in the night, according to Ben, a down-to-earth rational person, who relates his experiences in a very plausible manner.
“Big old heavy oak doors would suddenly shut tight and we’d hear these babbling whispers like this (he makes a burbling sound) and there would be sudden smells of pipe smoke for about five minutes at a time in some of the rooms, and the sound of heavy boots treading,” he continues.
“Another time, we were recording upstairs and we heard this almighty crash — it was so loud and physical, we didn’t think for a minute it could be anything paranormal. Then it happened again and the floor shook. We were a little scared — we thought someone had broken in and was throwing stuff around, but when we went downstairs, everything was intact.”
There have been so many reports of paranormal activity at Octagon Hall over the years, the present owner has placed microphones and cameras in various parts of it to record around the clock. Ben says: “When we played back the recordings, you could hear the bangs and crashes, so we went looking for heavy things around the house that might have been caused the noises, and in the basement we found this big 300lb glass-topped cabinet. It took two of us a few minutes to manage to lift it and drop it, and when we played back the recording, it was exactly the same sound as we'd heard.
"There was definitely no one else in the house and it must have taken some force to move that thing. One of the owner's theories is that it was a presence protecting the little girl who had died there, and maybe it had been disturbed by us playing upstairs."
Some of the mystery sounds recorded in the house have made their way onto Ben and his friends' album and documentary, The Orphan Brigade, Soundtrack To A Ghost Story, so-called after the First Kentucky Brigade of the Confederate Army stationed at Octagon Hall. By the end of the project, singer/songwriter Joshua Britt was glad to get away.
"It was fun for a while - a group of people all hearing what sounded like feet walking on the floor upstairs," says Britt. "But as time went on, it definitely started to get to me ... hearing giant crashes and voices when no one was there. I was there in a group of four to five people when one of the guys took a picture of an empty hallway, and there was a little girl on the screen. I was looking at the dark empty place when he snapped the picture and saw it on his screen right then, so I know the image hasn't been messed with."
During the musicians' writing stint, a team of paranormal investigators arrived at the Octagon Hall. They were unaware of the musicians' presence and the creepy carry-ons they were experiencing.
"It was all a bit hokey with their EVP recorders and so on, but one of the psychics had divining rods which are supposed to pick up energy," Ben recalls. "We went to have a look at what they were doing. There were eight of us in the room and the psychic investigator said there was a spirit called Harriet present. She was the second wife of the former owner of the house and I was writing a song about her, called Trouble My Heart (Oh Harriet).
"Anyway, the psychic said she had taken a fancy to someone in the house, who was here in the room, and then asked her to point out who it was. The rods moved 180 degrees towards me and stayed there. Apparently she was very taken and excited by the song I was writing about her. Then the rods moved to my wife Emilie and went nuts. Harriet obviously didn't like her."
The trio also noticed strange changes in the atmosphere of the house, swinging from normal and light, to oppressive and heavy. The temperature would often plunge, then go back to normal again.
"It was so crazy, we wouldn't spend the night in the house," Ben admits. "But these two fellas who came to help us make the album had set up all their recording gear in it and didn't want to leave there unguarded. So they got into their sleeping bags to stay the night. We left about 11pm to go back to the hotel. Ten minutes later, they were out the door - they both swore they heard an old woman's cackle in the room. They slept in the car."
Given the intensity of the musicians' experiences in Octagon Hall, they made a documentary on the events, which has since won awards on the independent film-making circuit in the US. Producer Neilson Hubbard says: "Everyone loves a good ghost story; people seem fascinated. People want to know more about it. I think that is the same way we got hooked into the project. You get drawn in by this mystery, but in the end it's not about whether it's real or not.
"We had a one-time chance to capture something. It wouldn't sound the same if we went tomorrow and did it again. We captured the feeling and essence of that place. We got lucky."
As for Ben, he's keeping an open-mind on whether the paranormal activity he encountered is proof of the afterlife.
"I do believe that energy can get trapped in between two existences and can manifest itself in inexplicable ways," he concludes. "What happened to us there, on a site of tragedy, is something that's seen continually in history - if you don't let go of the past, it continues to haunt you. I didn't know what I was going to write about when I went there but this became the theme of the album. While we were there, the owner captured a voice saying three times over, 'Remember us'. It was weird; it was like the house asking, 'What's going on?' and checking us out.
"After two or three days, the house seemed to realise we could tell its story, and we wrote 12 songs in three weeks. Then it was as if it had enough and wanted to shut us out. It wasn't pleasant then; the energy changed and the creativity disappeared. We recorded the album in three days - including the banging and crashing."
The Orphan Brigade: Soundtrack to a Ghost Story - Neilson Hubbard, Ben Glover, Joshua Britt and Others Tell Stories from a Haunted History, new album and documentary, out November 13. For further details www.theorphanbrigade.com
From Co Antrim to America
Ben Glover's childhood in the sleepy seaside village of Glenarm, Co Antrim had a soundtrack from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. So, when he started playing gigs in the local pub at the age of 13, he played Irish music but he also slipped in songs from Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.
In the summers of his university years, Glover paid his way to travel to the US, performing Irish folk ballads along with the songs of Christy Moore and the Pogues in the bars in Boston, while back home in the pubs of Ireland he was singing Dylan and Springsteen.
In 2009, Glover relocated to Nashville and immersed himself in Southern culture. He began exploring the locations that were closely associated with the music he grew up listening to - Hank Williams' tombstone in Montgomery, Alabama; Johnny Cash's childhood home in Dyess, Arkansas; Robert Johnson's grave in Greenwood, Mississippi. Those experiences informed and infused the soul of his solo album, Atlantic.
His song, Overcomer, co-written with songwriters David Garcia and Christopher Stevens, won a Grammy award in 2014 for Best Contemporary Christian Music Song.