They arrived at the restaurant at dusk, carefully unloading equipment from half a dozen black satchels.
Night-vision and infrared video cameras came out. A beat-up laptop was switched on. Voice recorders and electromagnetic field readers got batteries.
“I don’t want to work here anymore if anything else happens,” said Brittany Whetstone, 18, a new hostess, as part of the crew prepared to go into the basement. “I’m not going down there.”
She thought for a minute.
“I’m allowed out if I want to leave, right?”
John Allen, 38, leader of the Virginia Investigators of Paranormal Studies, looked up from the laptop. The monitor’s light masked his glasses, hiding his eyes.
“You’ll be all right,” he said.
Allen and five of his colleagues were at the Cork Street Tavern in Winchester for the second time to investigate otherworldly activity at the fabled city pub. Allen was eager to get started.
The first time the group provoked spirits here, he said, he was physically grabbed on the shoulder by an apparition. And of all the places he’s brought his team to, “nothing holds a candle to Cork Street.”
There’s no shortage of legends explaining how lost souls got trapped during the building’s hardscrabble past. Many tales trip over the plots of others or involve the same characters.
The tavern, at 8 W. Cork St., was built in the 1830s and took fire during the Civil War. Equally agreed upon is that it once was a brothel, or at least a speakeasy. Waitresses, cooks and barflies have heard rumors that bodies are buried in the basement.
Some of the stories “almost were a part of employee training,” said Joel Smith, a longtime co-owner who left the restaurant in 2008. Extinguished candles would frequently relight. An enormous crash in a vacant kitchen would reveal nothing out of place. Lights inexplicably would turn on. Others, too, have said they’ve been touched.
They say only the “old side” of the restaurant, which opened in 1932, is haunted. An adjoining building built about 1960 became part of the eatery in 1995.
Sightings come and go.
“If something happened to me, it might make me not so skeptical,” said Tara Rutherford, 23, a waitress. “I feel like I haven’t personally seen something, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”
Allen, of Millwood, is just the most recent ghost hunter to poke around. Cork Street allowed him and his team to explore the restaurant after he approached them. A tool and die maker by trade, he is friendly and quick with words.
His method is simple: Cut off the lights. Ask the spirits questions, and expect answers. But most importantly, record everything. Most EVPs — electronic voice phenomena — only can be seen or heard on the recordings, he said.
“You get a lot of good responses to questions. You do get answers,” he said. “Everybody says, ‘No, I don’t believe any of that.’ But you get them one on one, everybody’s got a story to tell.”
Allen sent most of his group to the basement and took the rest to creaky upstairs offices, where he said he was grabbed.
“Lights,” he said.
It got dark.
He and colleague Michelle Lamica began pacing. For an hour, they loudly traded questions based on their interpretation of audio captured during the first investigation.
There were breathless moments.
“We want to know about the little girl,” Lamica said. “We heard you scream last time. Why were you screaming? Was somebody hurting you?”
Allen asked for a knock on the wall.
“Three or four times we heard the name Richard and the name Franklin,” he said. “If that is your name, please make your presence known. We mean you no disrespect.”
There was only silence. But when Allen later analyzed the tape, he said he heard someone say “get out” several times.
When he’s finished, Allen gives all the evidence to the client. His services are free, he said. But one thing his group doesn’t do is exorcisms.
“I’m not a priest,” he said. “Imaginations come and go, and people run away with them. A lot of times we can give a logical explanation for what’s happening” that doesn’t include ghosts, he said.
The group’s second visit to Cork Street was the eighth investigation he’s done this year, he said. More are piling on.
“We’re getting so busy so quick,” he said. “Word of mouth is spreading so fast.
“We’re not trying to convince everybody. But then again, 300 years ago, the world was flat.”