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Wickland: The Only Ghost Tour Reality TV Hasn't Found - Yet
The new Syfy channel show "Ghost Mine" is, geographically, a new low for the genre, suggesting that the torrent of paranormal reality programs has exhausted every haunted site above the earth's surface and left no above-ground spirit unquestioned in the presence of a camera crew. So I had to wonder how in the heck all 3 billion of these shows have missed Wickland in Bardstown, Kentucky, where young, modelesque mediums give a tour every week and practically guarantee that you'll get to talk to dead people - without any frightening specters of evil or demons or confidentiality waivers.
That's what happened to me both times I visited last year, anyway. That's right, as crazy as it sounds, I believe I conversed directly with dead people, even someone I knew, at Wickland. It definitely wasn't Bardstown's famous bourbon talking, because I hadn't had any.
I heard about the little-known Spirits of Wickland Tour from a friend, who happens to be a pastor and, as such, has some extra credibility in the afterlife department, in my eyes. I have no interest in the paranormal, but my husband wastes a few hours each week on ghost-hunting shows, so the next time we visited family near Bardstown and wanted something to do, we signed up for this tour:
If you didn't make it through the videos, here's the crux: Wickland is a well-preserved Georgian-style mansion built in 1826 for a family that produced three governors - two of Kentucky and one of Louisiana. Dixie Hibbs, a former mayor of Bardstown and respected historian in the area who has written more than 10 books, oversees the landmark. Until five years ago, it was open only as a historic attraction, and Hibbs wasn't aware of any ghostly activity. That changed when a pair of local teenagers, Katie and Michael Wilhite, volunteered to help decorate for the holidays.
The twin sisters (Michael is named for their father) were already aware of their "sixth sense" sensitivities - they had been seeing and hearing dead people for years, usually in a scary way, and they weren't happy about it. But during the decorating session at Wickland and subsequent visits, they had their first friendly encounters with spirits - in this case, some of the home's former residents. They told Hibbs what they were experiencing, and it didn't take long for Hibbs to match up the names and physical descriptions the twins provided with her records and launch the interactive tour.
Since then, either Hibbs and the twins have carried on an elaborate ruse of Manti Te'o proportions, pretending to have detailed conversations with spirits every single week, or they've been offering the best-kept secret in ghost tourism for a mere $15, cash or check.
"All we really ask is come with an open mind, and all we promise is entertainment," Hibbs says. "You get to be involved. You get to interact. At most of these spirit things, you don't get the opportunity to ask questions and get answers."
She's being modest about that promise. On both of my visits, copper dowsing rods moved every which way I asked them to; we got logical answers to questions about life in the 19th century; and Katie diagnosed me with a benign spirit attachment and suggested I pray it away. There was also a totally surprise encounter with my deceased father that sounds too nuts to explain without lots of preamble, but I still can't chalk it up to anything logical because both my sister and I smelled his cigarette smoke, as clear as day.
Second in amusement only to the twins' stories of their encounters - including a recent trip to a Civil War battlefield in Kentucky where they stunned the park's director by identifying nearly every dead soldier by first and last name (a record only he had, in an Excel spreadsheet) and found themselves ducking from bullets - are cameos from spirits not connected to the house. Katie and Michael never know who will show up from an unknown time and place to bend their ears. They once heard from someone claiming to be an infamous outlaw, and the more Hibbs questioned him - through one of the twins - the more she doubted that he was telling the truth about his identity. "Ghosts lie, there's no question," she says.
Hibbs, more than anyone, dreads the inevitable end of the tour, which has been an unconventional boon to her work as a historian. She records every word the twins repeat from the spirit world and researches its veracity. Last fall, she says she located the home's long-lost slave cemetery based on tips from past patriarch Charles Wickliffe.
It was the first time Mr. Wickliffe had appeared to either twin, and a moment Hibbs had been anticipating for years. "The craziest part is he's calling me by name," she says. "I said [to Katie], 'When did he die?' His answer wasn't a date; he said, Dixie, you know that. Two weeks ago, he came again. I asked why he had returned. He said, Dixie, you ought've known I would come back. I told my friend, it's really weird that I'm on a first-name basis with Charles Wickliffe, who's been dead 150 years. If I had been told seven or eight years ago I'd be doing this kind of thing, I'd have thought someone had lost their mind."
Friday nights at Wickland could be numbered. Though the site isn't showy enough for reality TV, major cable channels are well aware of the twins and their camera-readiness, and at least a couple have considered a pilot. So far, the twins haven't found the right format. But it could be only a matter of time before they move on from Wickland to TV land - later this year, even, Hibbs believes - and then the enchanting Spirit Tour will become a ghost itself.
[Photo credit: Visit Bardstown]