Spa-City’s Mystical Ties to the Paranormal

By Judea Robinett

Photography by Chuck Dodson from his book Ghosts & Demons

I was exhausted. It was night three of Henderson State University Theatre’s production of “Can’t Take It with You,” and I was upstairs in Arkansas Hall doing laundry. It was a big task since the cast was huge, and actors tend to sweat a lot under the hot lights on stage. Long after midnight, I sat in the costume closet, which was more of a long narrow room with literally thousands of clothes hanging on tightly-stuffed racks from the door to the end of the room. While I was catching up on reading for the next day’s classes, the gentle hum of the washing machine and dryer was lulling me to sleep causing my head to droop over my textbooks with my eyes fluttering downward. I was almost out when I heard it. A giggle. I was alone in the only room on the third floor sitting near the only door, but there may have been a professor or student or two on the first floor. Only a few other students and I had a key, and I knew they were all gone for the night. There was no one else around, yet that giggle seems to come from inside the closet. Alert now, I waited. Nothing. Then, my voice breaking through the ambient noise of the laundry and the hum of the AC unit… I said into the long, dark corridor, “Simon?” A collection of shoes toppled from the shelf about 2 yards away, seemingly of their own volition. “Cut it out, I said,” properly creeped out. All was quiet once again.

I had heard the stories of Simon, the mischievous ghost of Arkansas Hall, but this had been my first encounter. There had been lore passed down from class to class of Simon and his harmless antics- throwing programs from above the stage, the sound of someone climbing around on the lighting grid, the giggling late at night, and the lights flickering on and off. The costume closet seemed to be his favorite hideout while I was in school. There was always something falling for no reason, a light being turned off, or a strange noise in an empty room.

For the most part, anyone who stays in Arkansas long enough will learn that the people of the state readily embrace the idea of haunted places and ghosts, both menacing and friendly. A lot of people will have a story to tell, as well. Most probably don’t take it too seriously, and everyone searches for a reasonable explanation–be it supernatural or scientific. It could be the influence of Native American spiritualism, West African beliefs brought over by slaves, the old time religion of the Bible Belt, or it’s just all the hardships that living in the south brought with it in the early days and still reckons with today. But even the staunchest of Baptists will at the very least, listen with rapt attention when groups, gathered around a fire, tell a ghost story. There is a reason why Southern Gothic literature resonates so deeply within the fabric of our culture. The South is steeped in mystical stories of all sorts. People in the area are, for better or worse, still tied to the land here in ways that our more urban friends just aren’t, and it is the land here which hold complicated, messy and sometimes bloody history. If you are looking to find ghosts- metaphorical or otherwise- look no further than Hot Springs.

With haunted walking tours of its storied history, there is no shortage of ways to get into the ghule-hunting game in the Spa City. Some of the more notable “haunted” places are the Malco Theatre and the Ohio Club on Bathhouse Row.The famous Arlington Hotel is notoriously haunted as are the Painted Ladies, a set of three Victorian style houses painted in bright pastels. These Painted Ladies, also called “The Three Sisters,” are now owned by local photographer and Foul Play Cabaret member, Madison Hurley Fuentez. Fuentez says the yellow house, “Miss Fancy” sometimes gets a strange reaction out of guests.

“The weirdest thing was a time we had a pin-up makeover, and the lady brought her two-year-old to the shoot. Right after we reached the top of the stairs, she started screaming uncontrollably and running to the window like she immediately needed to leave the room. The mother took her outside and she was totally fine but every time she would bring her back into Miss Fancy, she would scream bloody murder! It was the weirdest!”

Many people in the area have stories just like Fuentez and not just at the locations covered by the walking tour. Some say a strange energy permeates through the entire historic district. Thermal springs and quartz (both of which are in abundance in Spa City) are significant in many spiritualities and new-age spiritualists, 3rd-kind believers, and ghost hunters have all made pilgrimages to the area to try to figure out or experience for themselves the strange mystique of the “Valley of the Vapors.”

The Malco theatre is said to be haunted by the ghost of a young woman, Clara B. Southerland, who disappeared in a magic trick gone wrong. The legend goes something like this–Clara was called on stage during the magic show of a traveling magician. The magician placed a silk sheet over her and commanded her to disappear. When he removed the sheet, no woman stood before the audience. When he commanded her back however, still the stage remained empty save for the now panicked magician. No matter how he tried, he could not bring her back, and no one ever saw or heard from her again. This bit of local lore is only reinforced by the droves of residents and visitors telling of spooky feelings and strange sounds of a woman crying when no one else was there. For now, it sits empty. Is Clara still waiting to reappear?

Some of the supposed hauntings aren’t as specific. The Ohio Club for instance is said to be haunted but no one really knows why. There is even a video of the “aberration” caught on security cameras. The video is on the bar’s Facebook page and is blurry but it does seem to show movement in the empty building.

One local man has even turned the possible paranormal activity into a book of photographs that are both chilling and whimsical.

Chuck Dodson, a lifelong resident of Hot Springs and well-known member of the Spa City’s creative scene had a transformative experience on the last night of his residency in a Bathhouse Row apartment.

“It was my last night there. Most of the furniture was already gone, the rooms were empty. I was there alone, just walking through the place, and some things happened that I can’t explain. The odds of those things happening are so crazy that it’s hard to believe it was chance.”

Dodson began photographing ghosts and put together a gallery show, not knowing then that his work would resonate with so many. The following is an excerpt from the foreword of his forthcoming book called Ghosts and Demons.

“Since this went public that night about 4 years ago, many people – from complete strangers to people I know well – have told me their ghost stories. I was amazed that so many people not only believed in spirits, but had had vivid experiences of them. You may find it hard to believe that I’m still a ghost agnostic after all I’ve seen and heard. When I read the latest scientific books about the universe, especially on the subject of dark matter, it very often sounds like physicists are describing a spiritual realm. I think we’ll eventually have scientific explanations for paranormal experiences. For now, it’s fun to step into the mysterious world of Ghosts & Demons and feel the chill of the unknown….The photographs in this book were taken in the historical district of Hot Springs, Arkansas between 2012 and 2016. The figures that appear in these photos were not created digitally. Only minor adjustments to color and contrast were made, so that the images would be more clear.”

Whether or not one believes in ghosts, there is no shortage of legends and tales to sink your teeth into in Hot Springs and with such a complicated and often violent history and a unique geological make- up, it’s no surprise that the town, though in much more peaceful and prosperous times, is still haunted, at the very least, by the darker bits of its own past.