Standing in the second floor hallway of the old Farrar Elementary School, I’m not feeling very spooky. Maybe it’s the time we’re here. It’s a couple hours before sunset, so bright light is streaming in the windows and birds are singing outside. But whatever the reason, the 90-year-old building — while run down and definitely a little creepy — just doesn’t feel haunted.
However, if JD Campbell and his Paranormal Seekers of Iowa are to be believed, I’m wrong. Dead wrong.
“I’ve been here 18 times,” Campbell says, sitting in an old classroom. “I’ve had doors slammed on us here; I’ve had a board thrown down a hallway behind us.”
Campbell is sitting in one of those mass-produced desk chairs — the ones with the wire rack underneath for books, and the plastic molded “desk” attached to one side. When Jim and Nancy Oliver bought the abandoned school in 2006, it came with all the trimmings. The couple sold a lot of the fixtures off early on as a way to pay some bills, but the classroom Campbell sits in now is fully decked out with 20 or so student desks sit in rows in front of a big wooden teacher’s desk. Bright pull-down maps grace the chalkboards, and old books lean on shelves. The building holds a strange attraction over Campbell.
“I’ll be at work or sitting at home, and this place will pop into my mind,” he says, looking around the room. “I don’t know why, and that’s why I keep coming back. There’s a story here that I have to tell.”
Campbell has been interested in ghosts and paranormal activity since he was a kid. It started with episodes of the Robert Stack-hosted “Unsolved Mysteries” and grew from there. But his first personal experience with the Great Beyond didn’t come from a notorious criminal or a family member.
“My first paranormal experience came through my dog, actually,” he explains, without a trace of humor or irony. “My family had him for 10 or 12 years until he passed away. I was alone in the house one day when I see this dog go tearing through the living room around the corner into the kitchen where we always kept his food bowl. Then, a few months later, the same thing happened again.”
But it wouldn’t be until his adult years that Campbell’s interest became a full-blown passion, and the Paranormal Seekers of Iowa would become a reality.
“I moved to Norwalk,” Campbell said. “My friend (PSI co-founder Aaron Reese) lives a few houses down, and he grew up in a haunted house. So we would trade stories.”
“At the time, all these ghost hunter shows were just getting big on TV,” he continued. “So, after a few nights of sitting around and talking, we thought, ‘You know, we should go somewhere sometime.’ So after about a year-long process of looking for places, we found the Villisca Axe Murder House.”
The Villisca Axe Murder House, for those unskilled at understanding context, is a house in Villisca, Iowa, where eight people — six of them children — were murdered with an axe in 1912. It’s been a favorite site for paranormal investigators around the country ever since.
“What happened that night was stuff that we couldn’t explain,” Campbell said. Clearly, the Axe Murder House had scratched just the right itch. “Right away, we thought, ‘Well we should do something again!’ That’s when we found this place.”
Campbell knows that not everyone is going to hop on his bandwagon. He’s self-aware enough to understand that we’re a world of skeptics and cynics. But when he talks about what he’s seen or what he believes, he doesn’t do so with an air of someone who’s trying to make any new converts. Campbell simply believes that he’s experienced things that he can’t adequately explain and lets those chips fall where they may.
“People are going to think you’re weird and crazy, or they’re going to think ‘that’s pretty cool. I want to come along’,” he said. It’s probably that very basic level of acceptance that allows him to relate stories that seem difficult to take at face value in such a matter-of-fact manner.
“Our first experience (at Farrar Elementary) was amazing,” he recalled. “We have a recording of this little kid saying ‘…or worse’. The theme behind this place is that years ago the principal and the janitor were some pretty bad people. They molested and abused children. So there’s a lot of negative energy in this building. When we were here first, there was a chair in one corner, and someone asked the question ‘was that where you were put for time out?’ or something like that, and we have a recording of this little kid’s (answer).”
“We were taking a break, and I happen to turn on the recorder and heard that,” he continued. “It was like, how can we get this kid’s voice on the recorder, when it was five adults here?”
Farrar Elementary was also the place where Campbell met the fourth and final member of his Paranormal Seekers team: psychic Cheryl Ann Elliott-Fletcher. Campbell had been wanting to add a psychic to his team for some time, and when he and a friend attended an event at Farrar Elementary hosted by an A&E film crew, Elliott-Fletcher was in attendance as well.
“I was very skeptical,” Campbell admitted. “You see how it works on TV, where one question leads to another, and you can kind of see how (psychics) pull things out of you. So (talking to her), I was completely stone-faced. Just ‘yes, no, yes, no’, and she was still telling me stuff about when I was a kid that nobody else would know, stuff about my children that nobody else would know, and she made me a believer.”
It was that night, through Elliott-Fletcher, that Campbell would have the experience that keeps him coming back to the school time and time again.
“We were down in the gym, and (Cheryl) says ‘We need to go to the kitchen and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.’ So we go into the kitchen and she starts talking to these three (kids’ spirits) who were in the room. She turns to me and says, ‘JD, there’s a little girl standing next to you named Jamie.’ So I get down on one knee and say ‘well I have three kids back home, can I have a hug?’ ”
This is the only point in the nearly 90 minutes that I’m with Campbell where he feels the need to double-down on assurances of his sanity.
“I know how it sounds, but I am not kidding you when I say that I felt this little kid’s arms wrap around me. The feeling I felt — people always think I’m crazy — I felt the most compassionate, loving feeling I’ve ever felt in my life.”
The school building in Maxwell, Iowa, was completed in 1922. Serving a tiny community 40 minutes north of Des Moines, the building originally served as the only school in the area, serving grades one through 12.
“It was so important to the community,” said current owner Nancy Oliver. “This was the hub for the area. For many people, their whole school career was inside these walls.”
As progress marched on and surrounding communities began to grow, Farrar eventually became an elementary-only facility, before continuing to be gradually phased out of use and finally closed for good in 2002. Then, the 17,000-square-foot building remained abandoned, silent and dark for six years until the Olivers came upon it.
“It’s a really unique home,” Nancy admits. “But I knew immediately. I just looked into one of the windows and had to have it.”
The Olivers live in one small section of the building — a converted classroom on one end of the first floor. The rest of the building had remained more or less the way they found it when they moved in in 2008. Slowly, the couple is raising and investing money to restore and repair the building, with eyes long-term toward turning it into a museum.
But the going is slow. The cavernous space would be an unaffordable bear to completely heat or cool through the extremes of Iowa weather, so the couple doesn’t bother. Electricity is spotty throughout the building, and much of it stays dark around the clock. Any repairs the couple does — and the building is in need of much — are costly and slow to develop. It’s possible that the Olivers would have had to abandon their plans and sell the building off before now, if Jacqui Carpenter hadn’t come knocking on their door.
Carpenter is a psychic medium, author and founder of International Paranormal Research Association Inc. Originally from Illinois, Carpenter has lived in Iowa since 1992. A year after the Olivers bought the Farrar School, Carpenter was on their doorstep, asking to conduct an investigation.
“I’ve had a couple experiences in the past,” Oliver said of the school. “But I’m not the kind of person who hears something and immediately thinks, ‘ghost.’ ”
Nevertheless, Oliver agreed to let Carpenter in, and she officially declared the building to be haunted. The Olivers took the ball and ran from there.
“That’s how we (fund) the building, is through investigators,” Oliver explained. “We rent it out. We’ve had parties here, and a couple of different paranormal investigation groups have come in and spent the night. We have our room on one end of the building, and we close the door and try to stay really quiet.”
Now, Farrar Elementary has its own website (www.HauntingAtFarrar.com), and the building has become one of the most popular destinations in the state for ghost hunters and thrill seekers alike. At the Olivers’ website, groups of up to six can book the building for their private use for a couple hundred dollars a night. It’s that money that the Olivers then use to pay for the upkeep of the school grounds, as well as to finance the gradual repairs, as they take place.
But Campbell, for whom the building holds such a strong affinity, felt like there was more that he could do besides the regular booking fees that the Paranormal Seekers were giving for use of the building. That’s where the idea of a Zombie Prom came about.
“I thought of the idea for a dance last year,” Campbell explained. “Since it’s a school, the idea of a prom just seemed like a natural fit. From there, it was my partner (Reese) who said, ‘You know, zombies are always big. We should make it some kind of zombie theme.’ ”
Campbell approached the Olivers with the idea, and they loved it. Starting at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 4, the event makes full use of the building’s original function and current reputation. The first five hours of PSI’s planned event will be like any other prom (or, let’s be honest, any other zombie prom) you’ve been to. There will be a live band playing, a DJ spinning dance tracks, and a contest for Prom King and Queen, with cash prizes given to the winners, as well as to the couple with the best costumes. However, once the clock strikes midnight, that’s when PSI’s event starts to use its home court advantage to make this zombie prom a unique event.
Beginning at midnight, Elliott-Fletcher will conduct a gallery reading of the attendees. Think of the stuff that mediums like John Edwards do on TV, only without the cameras and blatant effort to sell you books and DVDs. Then, from 12:45 to 4 a.m., the school is opened completely up, and prom-goers are given free reign to wander where they will.
PSI will have some of its equipment there, but people will be encouraged to break off on their own and explore the dark corners of the largely abandoned building by themselves or in small groups. It’s an experience that Campbell hopes will be intriguing and unique enough to draw in a large crowd of curious thrill seekers.
Aside from keeping out enough money to pay the band and DJ, all the rest of the Zombie Prom proceeds are going to the Olivers, to help them keep the building maintained to some degree, and to keep the repairs going forward. It won’t take the entire burden off, and there will still be a long, long way to go before Farrar Elementary looks like anything resembling a museum, but every dollar helps. Every dollar raised is another day the Olivers stay in their unusual home, another day the building stays standing, and another day that Campbell gets to keep looking for that story he needs to tell.
Campbell takes me on a tour of the entire building, starting from the top floor and ending in the boiler room.
“The first full-body apparition I’ve ever seen was here, in the boiler room,” he said. Looking around at the small, musty, impossibly dark space, it’s easy to conjure up the image.
“There’s this old 3-foot-wide tunnel in the back,” he continued. “And we could hear someone kind of pacing around back there. So I took my flashlight and shined it back there, thinking I’m going to see a mouse or something, but of course nothing’s back there. So I go and stand right in the doorway, and there’s this huge breeze that kind of blows past me. I look (to my side), and there’s this guy, just standing there looking at me. I look away for a second and look back, and he’s gone.”
A few minutes later, standing in the gym, Campbell asks me if I believe in ghosts. I relate a story from my childhood that I can’t explain, then mention how appallingly cheesy I find most of the ghost hunter shows on television.
“I suppose I’m less skeptical of ghosts than I am of ghost hunters,” I tell him.
It’s meant as less of a direct jab than it sounds, but Campbell just nods. He’s heard it all before, but he’s got one of the most accepting, patient personalities I’ve ever encountered, and he’s undaunted.
“I don’t claim to have all the answers,” he said in reply. “I just know that there are things that I’ve seen that I can’t explain. There are things that have happened here that I don’t have answers for.”
As the sun continues to set, he looks around the slowly darkening room.
“So I’ll keep on looking.” CV