Focused On The Phantasmal

Posted: August 31, 2013

Seen by day, Catherine Furnace (TOP) is an imposing, antebellum structure. During a recent weekend trip, the Rockingham County Paranormal Research Society (ABOVE) investigated the cold blast furnace for supernatural activity using items found below, including an electromagnetic field reader, a motion detector, a digital voice recorder and a temperature gauge. (Photo by Katie King / DN-R)
(Photo by Katie King / DN-R)
Ironmaster Noah Foltz, a pig iron producer for the Confederacy, is said to have been forced to touch the metal of a support beam before it cooled as punishment when his Union sympathies were discovered. (Photo by Katie King / DN-R)
The Rockingham County Paranormal Research Society relies on devices such as electromagnetic field readers to provide evidence of supernatural activity. (Photo by Katie King / DN-R)
Moonlight filtering down through the forest, members of the Rockingham County Paranormal Research Society clasp hands and form a circle.

Whether investigating a home, a former orphanage or a spot in the woods, the group always starts the search the same way — by asking God for protection.

Elaine Irving, one of the founding members, leads everyone in a simple prayer. Hands unlocking, the group splits in half and heads out into the night.

However, Elaine’s daughter Brittany heads back to the van.

“I don’t do the woods,” she said, matter of factly. While Brittany is willing to brave potential ghosts, she says bats are a different story.

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As the first group ventures deeper into the forest, Debbie Alexander, another founding member, and Kim Lowe stick by the main attraction — the remains of Catherine Furnace. According to its historical marker, the cold-blast furnace supplied the Confederacy with pig iron during the Civil War.

Ironmaster Noah Foltz, however, was a secret Union sympathizer who helped Federal soldiers escape.

He was eventually caught and arrested, but was later released to continue his work. According to local legend, the hand prints located on a support beam belong to Foltz, who — as punishment for his disloyalty —  was forced to touch the metal before it cooled.

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Beaming their flashlights up the imposing 30-foot stone structure, Alexander and Lowe study its surface, looking for anything unusual. After flicking on a digital voice recorder — capable of capturing more frequencies than the human ear — Alexander calmly begins a series of questions.

“Is there anyone here who would like to tell us something?” she asked, seemingly to no one. After a long pause — during which only a chorus of crickets can be heard — she continues.

“Do you know what year it is?” “Were you a Confederate?”

As Alexander continues her questioning, Lowe studies the electromagnetic field reader for activity, but finds nothing out of the ordinary. The temperature gauge shows some mild fluctuations, but with a creek nearby, no one deems that abnormal. Additionally, the pair agree that neither senses anything significant.

As if insulted, a bat periodically swoops down, making its presence known.

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With neither Alexander nor Lowe picking up any ghostly vibes, they walk back to the gravel road and meet up with the others. It appears that, despite the energy-orb-filled photos taken earlier in the evening, no one since detected any other strong signs of the paranormal.

Unless the digital voice recorder picked up inaudible voices, they may dismiss the photographs as circumstantial. As member Jess Whittaker explained during dinner, the group prefers not to rely on photos as primary evidence, unless they’re “blatantly obvious.”

“We don’t hold photographs as proof because there are other factors that can determine how a photo turns out,” she explained.

“We like to do everything as scientifically as we can — we try to eliminate [other] possibilities,” added Alexander.

As the group drives back to the campsite, everyone joking and laughing, no one seems too disappointed. As Alexander insisted earlier, the RCPRS isn’t an organization intent on finding high levels of paranormal activity at every spot.

Nearly midnight, the group arrives back at camp and gathers around a fire that’s been tended by Alexander’s husband. It’s time for ghost stories.

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While all the members had some sort of paranormal experience that led to their involvement with the RCPRS, the Irvings’ story is perhaps the darkest.

Before moving to the Valley, Brittany and Elaine lived in “an old farm house” in Chesapeake. Elaine says Brittany, as well as her two siblings, immediately hated the home.

“They heard voices-whisperings,” she recalled. “Sometimes, they were playing the radio and [the volume] would go up and down — little things like that.”

Elaine also experienced some odd occurrences, but says she didn’t know much about the paranormal, and was able to dismiss her own fears.

“I just thought it was a creaky, old house,” she explained.

Though she hoped her children would adjust, the situation only got worse. Brittany, now 24, says she struggled with vivid nightmares, and recalls that even as a teenager, she refused to go upstairs alone. Though no one in the family struggled with outbursts at work or school, inside the house everyone was quick to snap.

“It destroyed our family, in a way,” remarked Brittany.

After four years of subtle activity, the Irvings said the spirit became more aggressive. Brittany’s sister developed welts after being scratched in the shower by an unseen force. Though she heard her sister scream, Brittany said she stayed in bed and let her parents handle it.

“I’m more the [type of] person who would rather not talk about things — I tried to file it away, to pretend it wasn’t happening,” she explained.

After studying the home’s history, the family was unnerved to learn that a previous owner had died in the bathroom, after hitting her head on the counter.

After a few more scratching incidences, as well as the unexpected death of a visiting family member, the Irvings called it quits and moved to a ghost-free home in the Valley.

Though they’ve had enough of their own ghosts, they participate in the society to help those in similar situations.

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Although the Irvings had what would be considered a dangerous experience with the paranormal, Alexander says that isn’t the norm, and estimates that 90 percent of their cases are harmless.

According to Whittaker, helping others determine if there’s danger is the RCPRS’s primary job.

Pointing out that they do not charge for their services, she says the group “just wants to help people feel more comfortable in their homes.”

Contact Katie King at 574-6271 or

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