The Columbus spirit scene is legendary, and not just for the intriguing elixirs your corner bartender conjures. No, there’s a less celebrated set of spirits you don’t always hear about from those behind the taps and bar tops, and they do much more than go bump in the night.
Anyone who has ever worked a closing shift alone has probably been a little freaked out at least once. Silence invites suspicion, and empty restaurants and bars only amplify it. Whether it’s the creaky floor in the kitchen or fear of the guy you cut off earlier lurking in the parking lot, our imaginations easily get the better of us.
But sometimes, maybe, it’s something more.
Cue Bucky Cutright, preeminent authority on local haunts, the places where we eat, drink, and frequent everyday with strange histories and supernatural happenings seldom spoken.
“I was a bit gloomy in my adolescence, and the stories coworkers would relate about mysterious noises emanating from empty banquet rooms or unexplained shadows and figures encountered in darkened hallways really stuck with me,” Cutright recalled, having worked in restaurants and bars himself since his teens. “After that, it wasn’t too far of a line between being fascinated with the experiences people were telling me about and connecting them with the historical record.”
That macabre convergence of history and mystery, coupled with Cutright’s passion and penchant for storytelling, were the inspiration for Columbus Ghost Tours. From seasonal Spirit Strolls and the more family-friendly Creepy Columbus, by far the most popular is Booze & Boos, a bus tour of our otherworldly underbelly.
“Before I knew it, I was plotting a narrative and a corresponding course through the downtown area, while honing my knowledge of the city’s dark past,” he explained. “Initial tours were just meant for friends. Everywhere we went, people would ask for business cards and want to know how they could sign up. It’s more like the business chose me than the other way around.”
Cutright’s costumed stagecraft and curatorial credibility aren’t ancillary. He confessed he had his own brush with the unexplained about a decade ago in the basement of a certain Short North establishment where employees have reported more ominous encounters, like the sensation of being shoved or having their hair pulled.
“I was sitting in this room after bar close with a friend and we were discussing the building’s hauntings. As we were talking, the fluorescent lights in the corner of the office began to flicker. This, in itself, wasn’t anything out of the ordinary,” he explained. “It was when the flickering began to be accompanied by the sound of something clacking its nails and scratching down the wall that things became unnerving. We were both sitting within a few feet of this sound and could see that the corner was clear of anything that could make such a noise.”
The basement walls were solid stone so the sound wasn’t coming from the other side. But with abandoned drains and old pipes connecting several buildings in the area, Cutright rationalized the sound away as perhaps a rodent that must have become trapped. He even wrote a note for the owner, hoping to help free the poor creature stuck inside—until a closer look revealed otherwise.
“I inspected the corner and discovered it wasn’t a drainage pipe at all, but a support beam that was sealed off at both ends,” he said. “There was no squirrel or mouse in the pipe. The sound of claws scratching down the wall was coming from something else. When I realized this, all my hair stood on end as an eerie sensation overtook me and I quickly fled the basement.”
Cutright isn’t alone in his unease, and the bartenders at Char Bar—often the first stop on the tour—have stories that could scare you sober.
Built near a graveyard that was relocated to Green Lawn Cemetery, unmarked graves and decomposed bodies still turn up periodically amid perpetual Short North construction. Char Bar’s basement seems to be the center of unrest, once a funeral parlor that was on the first floor, later buried below street level when the road was raised to cross over the railroad tracks of the old Union Station. Rumor has it even Lincoln’s remains were there briefly. Following weeks of travel by train after his assassination to let a grieving nation bid farewell, even “Honest Abe” needed a little touch up.
“It was Christmas Eve and I was the only one closing up. I grabbed the padlock out of the cabinet for the back door and the remote for the TV and put them on the end of the bar like I do every night,” explained Zack Price. “Earlier in the evening, a few people asked me about the strange experiences some customers have had in the basement.”
Price gets those questions a lot, but was always a polite skeptic—before that night. While checking the bathrooms downstairs he felt a rush of air as he passed the dilapidated antique piano, like someone breathing into his ear. He chalked it up as only in his head, but when he got to the top of the stairs, the lock and the remote were gone.
“I know I put them on the bar. But after checking to make sure no one else was there, I found the lock back in the cabinet, and the remote on the counter,” he said. “I locked up fast and got out of there.”
Bartender Erin McIntyre’s experience was directly with the piano, which some say they still hear playing upstairs, even when no one is in the basement.
“As I was coming out of the restroom, the piano made a huge noise and seemed to move away from the wall a little,” she recalled. “I ran up the stairs and after a few minutes talked myself into going back down, even though I was alone. I’d only seen it move out of the corner of my eye, so I dismissed it and didn’t tell anyone.”
The next night, two terrified patrons, in separate incidents, also came running up the stairs swearing they too had seen the piano move away from the wall. The bartender on duty credited the spirits—not “the spirits”—until McIntyre arrived and shared her similar tale from the previous evening.
“There were three of us, who didn’t know each other, and we all saw the same thing,” McIntyre said emphatically. “At this point, the piano was a few feet away from the wall, and it took five people to move it back. That’s not anyone’s imagination.”