Haunted Orlando: True tales of two local haunts 

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In this week’s issue, we’re telling you tales from the dark side. Even the most cynical among us can’t resist a good horror story – there’s something primal about allowing the imagination to conjure the worst-case scenario, the scariest psychic phenomenon, the darkest basement. So we reached out to local writers to ask them to tell us their best horror stories. The following tales, from a connoisseur of Orlando’s most haunted and horrifying locales, are true stories.

The Doctor is in

As if being located next to a cemetery weren't frightening enough, murder, mystery and despair fuel the frequent paranormal activity found at one of Central Florida's most haunted houses: a ballroom-style Queen Anne Victorian built in 1903 that was originally located across from Apopka's oldest cemetery.

In the 1920s, a physician named Dr. Thomas McBride bought the mansion. He lived with his wife, Helen, on the second floor and saw patients on the first. For more than 50 years, the good doctor kept up his practice, and countless lives were ushered into the world by the popular doc. In 1956, though, his wife, an aviation trainer, took things in a darker direction.

"Apopka, FL (United Press) – Mrs. Helen McBride confessed to shooting an airline ticket agent to death after he slapped her down in a property argument, police said."

Charles Richard Green, who worked for National Airlines in Orlando, was shot dead in the McBrides' home.

Helen McBride was allegedly confined to the home after the murder, thanks to her husband's influence and prominence. She died in the master bedroom of her home some five years later. She passed in her white gown early one morning. Dr. McBride remained in practice at the home until his own passing in 1978.

For seven years after that, the house stood abandoned, an empty, neglected murder mansion, silently standing guard over the adjacent cemetery. Soon, visions of ghosts roaming the second floor, tales of doors opening and closing on their own and strange sounds fueled the local lore.

In the 1980s, the McBride home was under threat of demolition, so it was moved to its current location on Main Street in Apopka. The building was expanded and updated, and in the 1990s, it was equipped to function as a modern restaurant. Patrons of the establishment soon began to notice that all was not well. According to one worker, "There were reports of a lady in a blue dress walking down the stairs. [People would] move out of the way to let her by. The stairs were rampant with cold spots, and lights would turn off and on by themselves. I worked there one Halloween. They were having a séance on the third floor, and the chandeliers were swaying violently on the second floor. I left after my shift, and the air felt heavy." Others recalled that another manager would be sure to wish the empty building good night upon turning off the lights for the evening.

The popular dining destination went bankrupt, leaving Dr. McBride's home to once again sit abandoned – this time, for another 11 years. Or so it would seem.

Witnesses claim to have seen lights in the attic, spectral forms gliding past windows, even screams heard from within the vacant Victorian mansion. Alarms would draw the police, only for them to find the premises secure with no evidence of intrusion. One account tells of an investigator who noticed a curtain drawn back and a light on in the second-floor window.

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Empty, dark and foreboding (if not decaying), the home bore the mantle of a classic haunted house, making a perfect setting for Halloween events – and over the years, it was home to several. While planning for one such event, Keith Lock, of Magical Art and Design, toured the second floor. As he and his team entered what used to be the master bedroom, he noticed a portrait of the doctor.

"We walked through to lay the plot of the haunt," he says. "Shortly after, we went downstairs and heard a crash from the second floor. When we got to the room, the portrait was face down on the floor. No one else was in the building, the windows were closed and there was no air moving in the room."

During a Halloween radio broadcast in 1999, more than faux phantoms haunted the home. Reporters were taunted by sounds thudding from the locked third-floor attic, chilling drops in temperature and the sensation of unseen objects brushing by. At another event for a group of horror writers, handprints allegedly materialized and danced around the possibly possessed portrait of Dr. McBride. During a recent photo shoot at the majestic mansion, chandeliers swayed as if from a phantom breeze in the otherwise still, quiet ballroom.

Some may recall this building as the Captain and Cowboy restaurant that was once located here. To others, it will always be known as Townsend's Plantation, so-called for the Orlando lawyer who moved the home from Apopka-Greenwood cemetery to its current location at the corner of routes 436 and 441. But to most, this venerable Victorian mansion, which is now owned by the city of Apopka, is known as Highland Manor, a popular venue for weddings and other private events.

Location is everything

Nightclubs come and go all the time in downtown Orlando. Some say location is the key to success, but if that were the case, one would think that a historic building just a few steps from the hustle and bustle of Orange Avenue and at the back door to Church Street would be the perfect place for a long-lasting club. However, the two-story structure at 17 W. Pine St. has endured many incarnations: the Blue Room, Deja Vu, Liquid Night Club, Club Zen, Voyage Night Club. What many people don't know is that the building is known as a gateway for phantoms, haunts and spirits.

In the late 1800s, a man named Elijah Hand moved to Orlando. He was a skilled carpenter, and he set up shop in the building at 15-17 W. Pine St. While his retail furniture business benefited homes across the community, Hand had a far greater impact on Central Florida with his other, more unconventional talent – he was an undertaker. Not just any undertaker – he was the first in town.

Prior to his arrival, people who passed away needed to be buried within a day or two of their death because there was no way to slow the process of decay. A new process of preservation called embalming allowed families to delay burial for several days, giving families time to contact distant loved ones who wished to pay their respects. This new way of preserving bodies was brought to Orlando by Hand, who set up a furniture and funeral business in the heart of downtown.

Elijah Hand was eventually succeeded by his son, Carey, in 1914. By 1920 a new funeral home was built across the street (in what is now one of UCF's downtown campus buildings), known as the Carey Hand Funeral Home. It was the first in the region with a chapel, and a few years later it also had the distinction of being the first with a crematorium.

The original Hand funeral home at 15-17 W. Pine St., meanwhile, served as a daycare and a school. Renovations in 1985 brought the property up to date with its current look as a nightclub, but it seems that workers may have disturbed more than just dust during their renovations. In addition to reports that people could hear phantom footsteps emanating from the second floor, nightclub acts waiting in the upstairs green room complained of a heavy presence in the air. Some reported seeing ghosts of a woman or small children running about on the second floor. A TV psychic once filmed a segment of her cable TV show from the second floor of the former funeral parlor. Encountering several spirits during her walkthrough, she confirmed the name of one of the spirits as Robert.

When preparations began for the first Orlando Hauntings Ghost Tours in October 2000, the venue was home to the Blue Room nightclub. Employees of the club described feeling cold spots and sensing eerie activity in the building.

One employee told us that she befriended the young child of the club's owners, and that he would come running to greet her whenever she called his name. One day, she said, she called for the child, and he didn't respond. Alarmed, she called out for him several times while searching the first floor. She ran upstairs to the second floor, calling the child's name again, searching from office to office. She finally found him sitting cross-legged on the floor in one of the rooms, and she was taken aback by the sinister grin on his face. She scolded him, demanding to know what he was up to. In a voice that was clearly not that of a little boy he replied: "Just playing." After some interrogation, the child told her that he was entertaining an imaginary friend by the name of Mr. Robert. The child was never allowed to play on the second floor again.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MICHAEL GAVIN
  • Photo by Michael Gavin

These days, the building is once again active as a nightclub known as Ice Orlando, and the most popular spirits available are those served to the patrons at the bar – perhaps a fitting remedy to mask the cold spots that were once reported to spook visitors to the former Elijah Hand furniture store and funeral parlor. Will the new life brought to 17 W. Pine St. be enough to keep the building's ghosts at bay, or will the building eventually succumb to its darker design? Find out for yourself.

Michael Gavin began his spirited journey working at Terror on Church Street (which he says was haunted). He wrote and co-produced Orlando's first haunted history tour in 2000. He's also been a commercial photographer, co-host of a paranormal radio show and a writer for GHOST! Magazine. As the "Paranormal Paparazzi," his photos (and writings) have been published in Forbes, Playboy, the St. Augustine Entertainer, Inside the Magic and Gores Truly. He's currently crafting a book chronicling his ghostly adventures and dark-themed photography.

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