Getting Personal–Cherokee, North Carolina

Nota Bene: My thoughts regularly return to my second home, Cherokee, NC and recently these wonderful memories have been jarred again. This is a freshly edited account from 2012 of some of my paranormal experiences in Unto These Hills Cast Housing, a place lovingly referred to as “The Hill,” and at the Oconaluftee Indian Village.

“To the Cherokee, the supernatural is just natural.” a Native friend said in and I think it succinctly sums up the attitude of the Cherokee towards the spirit world. They are simply blasé about it; it is just another facet of the world that exists around them. Overall, this world is very different from the world of Western thought where magic and superstition, in the name of science, are banished to the remote deserts of distasteful fiction. Working here among the Cherokee has been a challenge to how I think about the paranormal.

Since late May I have been working in Cherokee, North Carolina, at the heart of the Qualla Boundary Reservation, as a reenactor at the Oconaluftee Indian Village. The village is a recreation of a mid-18th century Cherokee village and is operated by the Cherokee Historical Association which also operates the outdoor historical drama Unto These Hills where I spent three glorious summers in college. While I’m working in the Village, I’m living in cast housing for the drama (known as “The Hill”). When I worked up here previously, I heard stories from the Mountainside Theatre and a few stories from The Hill, even having an experience of my own (which I discussed here). Returning some nine years later with a paranormal blog, I began asking for stories just after arrival and I’ve been bowled over as the stories have poured forth.

The Cherokee possess a deeply engrained spirituality and connection with nature. Certainly they are so much more open to the interactions between the living world and the spirit world and in inquiring about their experiences, their responses are often related in a mundane tone than those I would find elsewhere. From an early age, children here are warned by parents and elders about sgi-li or boogers and how they should not fear them. Children will be taught about the Yun-wi Tsuns-di or Little People, mischievous and protective beings that live all around. Their world is populated by wonderful, scary and magical creatures like the Nunne-hi, Uktena and the witch, Spearfinger, who steals children’s livers while they slumber. Truly the world of the Cherokee is a marvelous place of signs and omens, spirits and boogers, good and bad medicine. To truly appreciate the Cherokee universe, one must adjust their worldview and see it through very different eyes. These are also eyes that see spirits everywhere and not just in specific, “haunted” locations.

 It’s unusual for me to have paranormal experiences. I’ve had a few throughout my life, but they are scattered and fairly rare. But since my arrival here in May, I’ve had a variety of unusual experiences; personal experiences that have, at times, even left me questioning my own sanity. Perhaps I’m too eager to experience things. After all, I’m fascinated by ghosts and I’m surrounded by people who have unusual experiences frequently. However, I do believe these experiences should be documented, thus adding to the plethora of information available on the weird world that we live in.

Only a couple weeks into my stay I had my first experience. Two of my fellow reenactors were hanging out on the lower porch of the Boys Dorm. Joining them, we discussed, joked and laughed about a number of things including ghosts. The hours stretched on and we found ourselves still chatting around three in the morning. Everyone else on The Hill appeared to be in bed. My two friends were sitting and I was standing at the top of the porch stairs with my back to them.

The porch of the Boys Dorm where something poked me. Photo September 2012 by Lewis O. Powell IV, all rights reserved.

I felt a finger poke me in the middle of my back. It had definite pressure and it lasted for a moment just as someone would poke someone to get their attention. I immediately felt with my hand, in the event that it was an insect, but the pressure had been too much to be from that. There was nothing there and I turned to see if someone was standing behind me. The Hill was quiet and empty. Nothing else stirred. I mentioned it to my two companions, both of whom are Native American. Both simply raised their eyebrows and one addressed the spirit, “Thank you for letting us know you’re here. “Please, leave us alone.” he said calmly.

Until just a couple weeks ago that was my only experience on The Hill this summer. The drama had its final performance and most of the cast left fairly quickly to resume their normal lives. I’ll remain, with the other reenactors, until the Village closes. Only a few people were left and I was off to watch a movie with a few people in the day room of the Boys Dorm (on the opposite end of the building from where I was poked). While walking up the hill towards the building I hear the whinny of an Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio). Being a birder, usually I would have thought, “Eastern Screech Owl, very cool!” but being in Cherokee, the sound sent a shiver through me. The whinny of the owl is considered to be an omen of death to the Cherokee. In accordance with Cherokee tradition, I tied a knot in my shirt to acknowledge that I’d heard the “laugh of death” and I continued into the building.

The Boys Dorm. The Day Room where I saw something pass the window is at the top of the building at the left side of this picture. Photo September 2012 by Lewis O. Powell IV, all rights reserved.

While watching the movie I turned to one of the young ladies sitting near me. I had intended on saying something when I saw something white and vaguely human-shaped move past the window next to her. For a moment I watched to see if it would happen again and nothing happened. I waited also to see if someone else saw it. Alas, no one else saw anything; they were all intently watching the movie. I turned to the window behind me and looked towards the door expecting someone to enter, but there was nothing but darkness. After mentioning the incident and finding that no one had witnessed the figure but me, I stepped outside to see if anyone else was about on The Hill, nothing else stirred. Perhaps this was the same sgi-li or booger that I’d heard before entering the building.

Just last week I’d headed out with a native friend to see the Thomas Divide Lights, we saw them and spent the time discussing many of the haunted places in Cherokee. When she dropped me off back on The Hill, we spent some time talking in the parking lot, directly in front of the Boys Dorm porch where I’d been poked. As we stood talking, I began seeing a dark shape move back and forth across the porch. This was all in my peripheral vision. When I looked directly towards the porch, there was nothing there. I began to wonder if I was seeing the frames of my glasses but I was not sure. I asked my companion if she was seeing anything. “You mean the thing on the porch?” she replied.


“Yep, there’s something up there. I keep seeing it out of the corner of my eye.” And she was not wearing glasses. Nothing else was stirring.

In the Village there seems to be a good deal of activity that’s being witnessed by employees, myself included. Just last week during my lunch break I decided to lie down and close my eyes on the porch just off the costume shop. Twice I heard the definite sounds of footsteps on the porch. Raising my head, the footsteps ceased. These were definite footsteps from a hard soled shoe on the deck. I was alone on the porch.

Within the Village I spend most of my time in one of the cabins. Interestingly, this seems to be the cabin that has been the subject of numerous stories. One afternoon while returning to the cabin with some firewood I glanced up to see a figure enter the cabin. Usually, it’s not uncommon to find tourists or other employees in or around my cabin when I return. I sped up my pace to greet the visitor, but arrived to find the cabin empty.

The beds in the cabin are sometimes too inviting and I may nap when there’s no one around. While napping one afternoon I was awakened by the sound of a man’s voice speaking in Cherokee. Before opening my eyes, I imagined a small Cherokee man standing in the corner, though I could not understand what he was saying. I raised my head and no one was in the cabin. Getting up, I looked outside and even looked behind the cabin and no one was around. Nearby, nothing else stirred.

The entrance to the Oconaluftee Indian Village. The box office in under the round sign on the right and the gift shop is located on the left side. I saw a figure walking between these two sections. Photo September 2012 by Lewis O. Powell IV, all rights reserved.

My parents came up for a visit about a week before the drama ended. We saw the show together and I walked them to their car afterwards. They had parked in front of the Village visitor’s center and as we approached I saw a shadowy form move under the breezeway between the gift shop and the box office, an area that is not well lit. The figure passed behind a column and I fully expected to see someone emerge into the light on the opposite side of the column. No one did. My parents saw nothing, but I walked over to see if someone was walking around. Not a soul was there.

A native friend suggested that perhaps I may have become more sensitive as I have spent more time in the mountains. Or perhaps all of this is simply the product of an over-eager imagination. All I can say is that these things happened and I have no immediate explanation for them. Perhaps the spirits really are getting personal.

Tragedies in a Tourist Town—Gatlinburg, TN

N.B. This article was edited and updated 21 April 2020.

In the mountains of southern Appalachia, Gatlinburg is one of the premier tourist towns. Growth in tourism here has been exponential over the past few decades, as Gatlinburg, nearby Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville have fought to capture the most market share of tourists. With that growth has come countless tourist inns, motels and hotels; restaurants; candy stores; t-shirt shops; and even haunted house attractions. While most of these are inauthentic experiences created to attract tourists, in Gatlinburg one has to only look as far as a few hotels and restaurants to find authentic ghosts.

Gatlinburg Tennessee space needle Historic Nature Trail
View of the Gatlinburg Space Needle, ca. 2005. The Space Needle sits at the foot of Historic Nature Trail. The Edgewater Hotel is located across Cliff Branch. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Before it became a burgeoning mountain tourist town, Gatlinburg was a quiet hamlet with very little crime. With the arrival of hordes of tourists has come crime; some of them horrific. In his Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, Christopher K. Coleman writes about the Edgewater Hotel and Conference Center (402 River Road) where in 1972, a 7-year-old child plunged to her death from a hotel room balcony. When the police began to suspect the father’s involvement in his child’s death, the parents fled.  Their car overturned on a winding mountain road pitching the vehicle, and its occupants into the Little Pigeon River. According to Coleman, the child is seen on the anniversary of her death standing in the stream below the hotel pointing towards the balcony she fell from. While this is a fascinating story, I can find nothing to corroborate the horrible details of this event.

River Road Gatlinburg Tennessee Edgewater Hotel
The view down River Road towards the Edgewater Hotel which rises above the trees in the middle of the photo. Photo 2014, by Evan Nichols, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Branching off from US-441, the main road through Gatlinburg, is Historic Nature Trail which was the scene of two horrible crimes in the 1980s. In July of 1980 two teenage girls visiting from Kentucky were found dead at the Holiday Inn. One girl was found in a stairwell leading to the roof while her friend was found a few hours later in her room lying on the floor next to the bed. The girls, friends from Crestwood, Kentucky, were taking a short vacation to Gatlinburg before the start of their senior year of high school. After going out to a local lounge and steakhouse, The Rafters, the girls were seen leaving with a local drifter. He was arrested the following day and charged with strangling the teens.

US-441 and Historic Nature Trail Gatlinburg Tennessee
The intersection of US-441 and Historic Nature Trail in 2014. Photo by Evan Nichols, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Like many ghost stories, later retellings often embellish the circumstances of the murders, and this is no different. Coleman’s and internet versions of the events have one girl being drowned in a bathtub while her friend was strangled and her body dragged to the roof; contemporary articles on the murder from one of the state’s most prestigious papers, Nashville’s The Tennessean, dispute those details. One article does note that the girls were staying on the fourth floor in separate rooms: 401 and 413. The ghost stories do center on room 413, so these stories are correct in that aspect.

It seems that reports of paranormal activity in 413 mostly concern odd noises within the room, noises that often frighten staff working there. But this isn’t the only haunting within the hotel. A spirit named Alvin, supposedly the spirit of a longtime employee, has been reported in the kitchen, though this story cannot be corroborated. Alvin seems to cause more poltergeist-type activity with kitchen utensils flying through the air. Another more spectacular ghost story has been told about the hotel’s seventh floor where a scout leader murdered members of his troop. This is a story that would have probably found its way to the front page of The Tennessean and many other newspapers. No information exists on this so it must be chalked up as just a story.

The Holiday Inn was later renamed the Garden Plaza Hotel (formerly 520 Historic Nature Trail) and operated until fairly recently when it was demolished. The hotel has been replaced with a Hampton Inn It’s unknown if any of the spirits have remained here.

If you follow Historic Nature Trail from the site of the old Holiday Inn back towards US-441, you’ll pass a very new Courtyard by Marriott. It occupies the site of one of Gatlinburg’s most notorious murders. On 13 September 1986, a desk clerk and security guard were brutally murdered by a pair of thieves intending to rob the inn. Two lives were snuffed out violently for $499 and the purse of the young desk clerk. Shortly after the murders a shadowy figure was frequently seen in the parking lot and a guest was awakened to see a young woman standing at the foot of his bed whose description matched that of the young clerk. Despite the demolition of the Rocky Top Village Inn (formerly 311 Historic Nature Trail) stories of the horrific tragedy and the resulting spirits continue to be told.

One of Gatlinburg’s oldest tragic spirits still resides at the Greenbrier Restaurant (370 Newman Road). Originally the Greenbrier Lodge, this quaint log inn catered to wealthy hunters and tourists. The lodge was renamed and reopened as the Greenbrier Restaurant in 1980. Legend holds that at some point in its early history, a young lady named Lydia stayed here on the eve of her wedding. On her wedding day she dressed in white and headed into town to marry. When her fiancée failed to show at the church Lydia returned to the lodge heart-stricken. Still clad in her wedding dress Lydia hung herself from the rafters over the second floor landing. A postscript added to one version of the story states that days later Lydia’s fiancée was found dead after being mauled by a mountain cat.

Still broken-hearted, Lydia roams the Greenbrier Restaurant generally frightening staff and guests, and causing a bit of trouble when she knocks food off the shelves of the restaurant’s pantry. The sad revenant has possibly been observed by the owners who saw a figure pass a doorway after closing time. Some years ago, the young son of the owners did see a woman who vanished when he called his father’s attention to it. In 2007 the Greenbrier’s owners allowed the members of the East Tennessee Paranormal Research Society investigate the restaurant. The investigation did capture some photographic anomalies, though the best evidence was an EVP. In it a female investigator addressed the spirit, “God bless you, Lydia, I’d be happy to hear from you if you’d like to speak to me.” A moment later a female voice cheekily responded, “Then I’m not dead.”


  • Coleman, Christopher K. Ghost and Haunts of Tennessee. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 2011.
  • Kinney, Rachel. “’Rocky Top’ murderer killed in prison fight.” WBIR. 11 March 2015.
  • Madden, Tom. “2 women found slain at resort.” The Tennessean. 30 July 1980.
  • Nauman, Tesa. “Paranormal groups hunts for G’burg ghost.” Sevier County News. 23 February 2007.
  • “Strangled teen’s mother thought Gatlinburg was safe.” The Tennessean. 31 July 1980.
  • Whittle, Dan. “’Ghost Lydia’ legend adds to Smoky Mountains haunting haze & lore.” Mufreesboro Post. 19 October 2014.
  • Williams, Michael. “Walking among the dead.” Tennessee Star Journal. 15 October 2014.