MOST PEOPLE in this area know of the Oatland Island Wildlife Center as that secluded area about five miles East of downtown that’s home to a wide variety of wild animals in their natural habitats.
There, in addition to walking trails, historic wooden cabins and various structures, one can find wolves, bobcats, deer, alligators, bald eagles, owls, turtles, sheep and bison just to name a few.
According to Shannon Scott, there’s plenty more to discover on the grounds of this environmental education center run by the Savannah-Chatham Co. Board of Education.
Like restless spirits, for instance.
Scott, who operates Sixth Sense Savannah —a popular walking tour company which specializes in recounting local tales of the paranormal and supernatural— forged an exclusive agreement with the management of Oatland Island a few months back. That open-ended contract allows Scott and his staff to conduct “expeditions” on the Center’s grounds after normal operating hours.
These expeditions are geared toward both history buffs and amateur (and sometimes professional) “ghost hunters” who —like Scott— see in this isolated and mysterious location a wealth of opportunities for up close and personal encounters with real (if not live) spectres. Scott says that over the course of months of research, he has uncovered no small amount of anecdotal evidence suggesting Oatland’s main administrative building has enjoyed more than its fair share of odd and occasionally frightening “poltergeist moments”.
With a true believer’s zeal and the flair of a professional storyteller, he’s happy to compile those old, spine-tingling tales —and, possibly, fresh ones— and employ them as a springboard to spur interest in one of the region’s most under-utilized and overlooked educational attractions.
“This is a lovely gem of an institution,” enthuses Scott with a gleam in his eye.
“Yet for sitting so close to the Historic District and Tybee Island, it has for too long remained in a kind of cultural blind-spot. In some ways, it retains a wanderluster’s ideal discovery. It’s a bit ‘wild’. It’s overgrown, unkempt and extremely rustic.”
“From a Ghost Tour guide’s perspective, I love being able to ‘reveal’ this place to guests. It’s like Savannah has its own secret zoo that doesn’t feel like a zoo in the traditional sense of the word. With the many surrounding buildings, it actually feels more like a mad scientist’s back yard — which isn’t far off the mark, considering it’s amazing history as a research facility.”
According to Scott, the main building, which now houses offices, conference rooms and exhibits, once served as a pre-cursor to Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, much of the research into modern mosquito control was developed on its premises. He also notes another little-known fact: that “the formula for Hartz’s flea collars was ‘accidentally’ developed there.”
Yet it’s the main building’s earliest incarnations that fuel the majority of speculation into its connection to the “other side”.
Built in 1927 as a retirement home for railway workers, it saw dozens of aging train men spend their final years inside its walls. Says Scott, “It doesn’t take much to imagine those ‘old timers’ sitting by the banquet hall’s immense fireplace, waxing about having been a part of the opening up of the West and more.”
“If you really open your mind to all that Oatland has been, such things begin to seep into your being. You realize so much joy, sadness, hope, life and death coursed through the land and the hallways there. This venture is about revealing all of these.”
Also key to Sixth Sense’s contention that this building and its surrounding acreage are teeming with phantoms is the later period in which the facility served as a research hospital specializing in women and children who suffered from venereal disease — many of whom were in advanced, untreatable stages.
“We’re still looking into the extent of that particular chapter,” Scott admits, “so it’s difficult to say just what went on.”
In the end, though, it may simply be the mood of the place after dark which provides the most convincing —and tangible— argument for Oatland Island as being a hotbed of supernatural activity.
“It’s basically thousands and thousands of square feet of ‘creepy’,” Scott chuckles. “It’s not surrounded by or in competition with city noise, city lights or other tours — all of which directly interfere with gathering information and experiences. This place is perfectly removed and lends itself ideally to ghost hunting.”
In other words, when the sun goes down, it’s extremely easy to imagine Oatland Island’s facilities and wooded areas playing host to untold numbers of wandering souls from decades past.
To date, over the past few months, Scott’s company has held nine of these two-hour long excursions, each one filled to capacity at 35 attendees, Initially, those taking the tour were given flashlights to help them navigate in the dark, but Scott says he’s been using ticket proceeds to purchase high-tech electronic equipment for his guests to use in their search for supernatural activity.
“I’m dedicated to making this hands-on, along with enhancing knowledge of field research,” he explains. “It’s in keeping with Oatland Island’s criteria too. It’s education and fun wrapped into one.”
“Providing Electromagnetic Field Meters (EMF’s) gives the user a stronger sense of where there are and are not atmospheric anomalies. It’s really the only opportunity in Savannah like this in that it actually offers everything people love about watching this kind of thing on TV. It gets people off their couches and into the action!”
Scott admits, though, that there are some ghost hunters who shun the notion of using gizmos to seek out spirits.
“We get many purists on the tour too. They much prefer to use their own psychic radar to scope out the place. That’s perfectly respectable —if not more so— but let’s face it, some people love geeky gadgetry!”
By now, many readers may be asking themselves if the whole notion of traipsing around an historic wildlife preserve telling creepy stories and searching for signs of a haunting isn’t on some level a bit unseemly.
Those readers may be pleased to know that Chris Gentile, the current Director of Oatland Island wholeheartedly endorses this venture. According to Gentile, Scott designed the scope of the tours in tandem with Oatland’s staff, and copious effort was expended to make sure they are every bit as accurate and informative as they are speculative and entertaining.
“Initially,” says gentile, “when I heard the name Haunted Oatland, I thought it might not be exactly what we were going for, but once I realized Shannon was interested in promoting the history of the place as opposed to the idea of ghosts jumping out and scaring people, I saw it as an opportunity for folks to see this wonderful facility in a different light. This place has such a rich history before it became what it is now, and this allowed learning about that history to be fun and interesting.”
“Shannon and his team have been very responsible, and if there’s ever anything that strikes us as verging on cheesy, they’re quick to change it. Our staff have attended his presentations and been very pleased. His tours contain an element of science as well, so it’s not all about ghosts.”
Gentile himself took in one of Scott’s tours, and describes it thusly: “They start with a half-hour presentation in one of our conference rooms that gives an overview of the facility’s history, as well as tales about strange experiences people have had on our grounds over the years. Then they break into smaller groups and explore around the center. His staff are all very mature and respectful. We insist upon certain rules of conduct from those on our grounds —like no smoking or drinking— and they enforce those rules very strictly.”
Scott, who says he is often confused for being a parapsychologist (“which couldn’t be further from the truth”), considers himself “more of a spokesperson with an amped-up interest level in developing certain kinds of projects.”
Yet he is quick to note the bevy of well-known advisors (“from the departments at Duke University all the way to the University of Glasgow”) he’s consulted over the years to try and make sure the approach he takes with his ghostly business model is both technically accurate and philosophically correct as far as academia is concerned.
He says for him, this burgeoning series of investigatory tours at Oatland Island serves two very specific purposes: encouraging the willing reception of supernatural information, and supporting a worthwhile facility that can always use more funding.
To that end, twenty percent of his profits from these tours is donated back to Oatland Island to further their own educational programs, and everyone who takes his tour receives a pass that allows them to return to the facility during daytime hours and enjoy all the rest it has to offer.
So far, Gentile says that over fifty percent of Scott’s guests have taken advantage of this offer, resulting in large numbers of brand-new visitors who’d likely never have come to Oatland were it not for this tour.
“It could be said that ghosts are the real historians and storytellers,” says Scott. “If anything, we’re just kind of their obedient mediums hoping to make sense of this for others.”
“This is definitely a prideful pet project, but just you watch. In a year’s time it will be widely known as a ‘buzz destination’ and the hottest thing to do here at night that doesn’t involve something depraved. (laughs) My greatest satisfaction, though, is knowing I’m helping to keep this great place with a troubled past in business.”
Sixth Sense Savannah’s next Haunted Oatland Island Tour is May 31 at 9 pm. Tix and Info: hauntedoatlandisland.com.