We're ushered into a musty stockroom. The air feels different here, but it's tough to say what's real and what's faulty perception. Eric Olsen, noted local writer bedecked in fine suit tonight, understands. He's not always been one to give in to the whims of the supernatural.
Of course, that was before he saw something — something "pixelated" and not of this world, he says — in a second-floor corner of this very building in which we've gathered on this very autumnal evening. Olsen's looking on now with a near-giddy sense of encouragement. The rest of us look around the storage room at Willoughby Coal, trying to sense something that may or may not be there.
Theresa Argie and Cathi Weber — the Haunted Housewives — are describing some of the deaths that took place in this building and the echoes of life that reverberate unseen. They've been doing this sort of work for years, and this building, constructed in 1893 and serving as a beacon of sorts for Northeast Ohio spirit-hunters, calls to them.
"This seems to be where we get a lot of activity," Weber says, waving an arm around the room. "Something happened here the other night. We came back here and put three recorders here, and I said out loud, 'We're gonna leave these recorders out here. If you choose to say something, that's fine. But just so you know, we're in the building and just wanted to say hello. Thank you.'
"I shut the doors and — you can hear it on the recorder, the very first thing: 'You're welcome.' Then after that, you can hear someone on the recording saying, 'Hello, hello, hello...'"
The story is spooky in its own right, compounding the curiosity and unease that gathers during regular tours of Willoughby Coal. Argie and Weber flip on their old-school Sony recorders and attempt another round of communication with whomever might be in the room with us. Olsen's still smiling.
When we play the recording back, you can sort of hear these faint clicking noises. Weber insists that "that was a 'hi.'" We all look around, shedding disbelief for a moment and wondering just what in the world is really going on here.
To the uninitiated, of course, the whole thing can be a bit hokey. The supernatural world isn't easily accepted until one crosses paths with something from the other side. For Olsen, that experience of seeing a "pixelated" figure on the second floor of Willoughby Coal was a bit of a game-changer.
"I had a really odd, intense feeling," Olsen says. "And Cathi, who is a medium and a psychic, she looks over and says, 'Yep. There's a guy right there.' So that was my first experience — the first time in this building."
Despite Willoughby Coal still existing as a functioning coal company and hardware store, its abundance of eerie goings-on have prompted something of a cottage industry in the small eastside town. The numerous eerie experiences that have unfolded in the austere brick edifice open up America's Most Haunted, a new book written by Argie and Olsen, published just this month via Penguin. The book explores 10 creepy locations throughout the country, bookended by Willoughby Coal and the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield. Each chapter is broken up by personal stories of trips through these places.
It's a breezy, engaging read, and the duo's prose is immersive throughout. There's always something simultaneously disquieting and fun to reading about the world's spooky places. To find out that some of the most haunted spots in the U.S. are sort of right around the corner to us Clevelanders ups the ante a bit.
Right in the heart of the book, Bobby Mackey's Music World in Wilder, Ky., ranks among the best trips for the reader. It's "one of the most fascinating establishments in the United States," the authors write, featuring "classic country music, cold beer and hard liquor, a mechanical bull, cowboys and cowgirls, ghosts and demons, perhaps even a portal to hell."
The chapter, of course, follows the format of the rest of the book: introducing a location through history, describing a pretty in-depth haunted tour of the place and offering firsthand personal accounts of experiences in various parts of the building. Argie relays the time she and Olsen went on a nighttime tour of the basement at Bobby Mackey's. Olsen remembers her terror as being genuine that night.
"She saw an extremely palpable shadow figure," Olsen recalls. "She said it was staring at her and just... taunting her. She's elbowing me, and I look over. Nothing. It's gone." Argie's write-up in the book (pp. 173 - 177) comprises several gripping pages — adding a touch of humor now and then, and enough sensory details to bring the reader into the uncanny basement with her.
She says the shadow figure's presence is among her most profound interactions with the supernatural.
And it's but one of many notches in the history of the crew behind the book. "America's Most Haunted," taken as a whole, has become a major brand in the world of the supernatural. (The name came via a burst of inspiration from Olsen's daughter; the team was surprised to find that the sendup of "America's Most Wanted" hadn't been taken.) They launched the brand in July 2012. Instantly, they began podcasting and working on the book.
With Argie's experience as part of the Haunted Housewives and Olsen's journalistic openness, the project came together smoothly. There are a number of places within a day's drive of Cleveland that will get people closer to the other side, and this new book works well as an entry point.