Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Paranormal Traveler and Historian Mark Muncy is Keeping Florida Weird

By the time Mark Muncy moved to Tampa Bay from West Virginia with his family at age 13, he had already cultivated an abiding interest in the paranormal. He had corresponded with the famous ghost hunter Hans Holzer (an Austrian parapsychologist who wrote more than 120 books on the supernatural dating to 1963) and visited the haunted-object collection of demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, later the subjects of “The Conjuring” movie series.

In 1984, his first year in Florida, he attended a ghost tour in St. Augustine. “Ghost tours were at that point still a fledgling industry,” he recalls. “Where I came from, up in the hills, we told the stories behind the fire. We didn’t walk around and tell people these things. So it was a big culture shock.”

After college, Muncy took a part-time gig as a scare-actor for Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights, where his lingering Appalachian accent led him to be cast as a “Deliverance”-style hillbilly monster. (“I was typecast, but it’s OK,” he says.) In 1998, Muncy started his own haunted house, transforming his backyard into an unsettling “Blair Watch Project” tableau. This attraction would sprout into Hellview Cemetery, one of the preeminent haunted houses in the Gulf Coast for nearly 19 years, attracting some 10,000 people every weekend, with all proceeds supporting local charities.

All of which is preamble to Muncy’s present career as a historian specializing in the dark side of the Sunshine State. Having gathered countless Florida myths and legends while designing his elaborate haunts for Hellview, Muncy published many of them, with his wife and illustrator Kari Schultz, in Eerie Florida in 2016 (published by the History Press). It has been followed by Creepy Florida and Freaky Florida—collections of the state’s spookiest tales, from the Flesh-Eating Cloud of Daytona’s Tomoka Park to the Corpse Bride of Key West.

Muncy’s father, the pragmatist of the family, found his son’s passions strange, and he didn’t live to see Mark’s success as an author and lecturer on the paranormal. “Right when this [hobby] was starting to become a thing was when he passed away,” Muncy says. “He probably is proudest of me now from beyond because [my books are] in Cracker Barrel.”

Why is it important to visit all of these haunted or freaky locations that you write about?

A lot of people on TikTok or YouTube are just reading from Wikipedia or from some haunted book they’ve got, and have never been in the state where this thing happened. You get a different feel when you’re there, boots on the ground. We are not paranormal investigators or bigfoot hunters or UFO hunters. But we go with these teams to these locations, and see what they do. And I’m getting their stories, and we’re getting their experiences with them. It does translate differently.

We were in Spring Hill Cemetery in Brooksville. And we were there with a photography team filming a documentary. I was telling them about the ghosts of the children that play in this gravesite, and a guy that was hanged over there. As we’re packing up, the cameramen were joking, “I wish something would have happened.” I’m like, “well, not every day is Halloween. If we catch something on camera, we’re millionaires.”

As we’re packing up, suddenly we hear children’s laughter behind us. They’re all freaking out, trying to get the cameras out; I’m like, “by the time you get them out, it’s done.”

Isn’t that always the case? The UFO flies directly over you right before you have the camera pointed upward.

100 percent; I’ve seen it way too many times.

Kari and Mark Muncy in search of the Skunk Ape

Knowing how to create certain haunted illusions for so many years for your backyard attraction, does it make you more skeptical when you hear about some of these myths across the state?

It makes it easier to debunk, yes. I’m a big fan of the Amazing Randi, a magician who famously kept a $1 million check for anyone who could prove anything metaphysical, and he never cashed it.

But, of course, there’s that need that we want it to be real. When [paranormal investigators] pull out the little box that scans radio channels to talk to the dead, you’re getting random radio channels; that’s not talking to the dead. When you’ve got a random word generator that the ghosts are manipulating, no—you’ve got a random word generator. So those things … No. But, I do feel people see stuff. People experience stuff. People have crazy interactions. So yes, I am a believer. But I also am a solid skeptic. So I think that puts me in a unique position.

What’s the strangest or most surreal place you’ve found yourself when traveling for these books?

Dozier School for Boys

I’ve got to say the place that was the scariest in Florida was the Dozier School for Boys [a former reform school that, during its 111 years, gained a reputation for hideous child abuse and even murder of children—Ed.] up in the Panhandle, near Marianna. We went up there for a ghost story, because everybody talks about the kids and ghosts and all that, and you read the atrocities that allegedly happened there—a hundred years of state-sponsored child abuse. And you get up there, and you’re not talking about ghosts. You’re talking about the tragedy, and you just feel it. It just oozes palpable evil. Every hair on your body is like, no, this is bad.

In general, are you sensitive to such energies?

Robert the Doll

You just get a feeling in some of these places. You go visit Robert the Doll down in Key West; you just walk in a room with him and you feel it. I think it’s something primeval; the tiger is watching me, so I better be careful. I get it walking in the woods at night. Everybody describes that feeling of being watched. It’s variations on that; I don’t think I’m empathic, but I get an odd feeling.

You’ve got to respect these places, because even if it just seems like superstition or nonsense, what if it isn’t?

Yeah, don’t poke the bear. We always say that. Robert the Doll has his list of rules. [Visitors are urged to introduce themselves to Robert, ask his permission before snapping any photographs, and thank him before departing.—Ed.] Why not follow them? Look at the letters of people who are like, “oops, I screwed up, I’m sorry.” There are things like plane crashes and car crashes and financial ruin and divorces. Something happened to these people, and they trace it all to their meeting Robert the Doll. So yeah, there’s something there.

What’s the most direct experience you’ve had with anything paranormal?

I had something very unusual happen, and it was at the Belleview Biltmore Hotel up in Clearwater. They were going to tear it down … When we went there, they had everybody dressed in ‘30s regalia. It was like a Gatsby-type party. And they had all these bellhops dressed up and running around. Secretly we were going to go up to the third floor to see if the bellhop ghost was there, who died up there and who everybody sees. I was there with a [ghost-hunting] team. I think it was Spirits of Tampa Bay. We were like, oh, they’re all dressed up, this is going to screw things up. But hey, let’s go up to the third floor as soon as we can, we’ll set up the camera, and we’ll see what we can find.

Belleview Biltmore Hotel

We went up to the third floor and we get out of the elevator, and there goes the bellhop coming down the hall. We’re all like, that’s great, they’ve got a guy dressed up like him up there, that’s perfect. We’re all just applauding. He walks by, and we’re all like, great job, man. And then our colleague goes, “who were you all talking to?” She didn’t see him. I said, “the bellhop.” And he’s gone. They have cameras, equipment, and none of it was turned on yet. But I’m going, it’s still a guy in a suit, because that was solid, that was flesh. I go back downstairs. I go, “who was the guy on the third floor?” They said, “nobody. What are you talking about?”

So, did I see a ghost? We saw something unusual that I can’t explain.

Are there times you’ve been personally frightened when visiting these haunted places?

A few. There was a place in Tampa where I got a bad vibe. We were visiting a trestle bridge that supposedly had a monster attached to it. It goes over the Hillsborough River. A bunch of kids have died there; they’ve been hit by trains or jumped into the water and killed themselves. It’s not very high; why are they killing themselves off this bridge, when there are plenty of other bridges in Tampa Bay?

The Bloody Bucket Bridge in Wauchula

When we got there to take pictures, again, every fiber of my being is like, nope. Get out of here. Run. My lovely wife took a bunch of pictures, and I basically had a panic attack. I could not move. I was so terrified. I still can’t explain that one to this day. It was broad daylight and a busy street. It’s not the most scared I’ve ever been, but it was up there.

It seems like there’s more paranormal action north of the Palm Beach County line, and in more rural places than in cities. Any particular reason?

They’re all over the place. Every town has its stories. I think it’s just a matter of the more rural, the less you’re ridiculed about it. In Miami, you’ve got the Biltmore Hotel; Fatty Walsh’s ghost is there, and scared a president! When your Secret Service notes that the president [Bill Clinton] was watching a football game and had to change rooms because of a strange occurrence, and that’s the only note you got, you know something happened. And that’s right in Coral Gables, a big city. But is it talked about? No, because nobody wants to think they’re crazy.

But you go a little further out, it’s a little more accepted. You feel like, I’m not the only one, and people are talking about it more.

You look at Florida from the night sky, from space, and you see those lights on the beaches. There is no dark beach anywhere. Then you’ve got big bright spots in there, which is all the big cities—Miami, Jacksonville, Tampa, even Gainesville, Pensacola. Then you go a little further inland, and it gets a little darker. And that’s all the suburbs. Then it gets a little darker, and that’s the little towns. And then you get the darkness: the green swamp, the Everglades, the Ocala National Forest, the Withlacoochee Forest, these deep dark nothings with just pinpricks of light. And that’s where the bulk of these things happen. That’s because when it’s reported, there’s no one to just deny it and wash it away.

Kari and Mark Muncy

Is there something about the way this state was colonized that accounts for such a rich paranormal history here?

I think the conquistadors definitely didn’t help matters. When the conquistadors showed up at Key West, it was called the Isle of Bones because they saw all the bodies buried there from the warring tribes. So why does Key West have so many ghosts? Well, it’s been there for thousands of years. St. Augustine is the oldest city in America, so of course it’s going to have a lot of ghost stories and a lot of history.

I still think Amelia Island is the forgotten gem up on the Georgia border, because that island was run by pirates for years. I think Amelia Island has just as many ghosts as St. Augustine, and it’s got the oldest European cemetery in America.

Then we had the Seminole Wars with the settlements, and massacre after massacre, and terrible things on all sides. It’s Florida; we were passed around by every European country that didn’t want anything to do with us. It’s hot, things sting you, and giant green things want to eat you in the swamps, and everybody keeps shooting arrows at you. “Just take it, we don’t want it!”

To read about Mark Muncy’s favorite spooky South Florida legend, check out this web extra from our September/October issue of Boca magazine.

John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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