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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptical Inquirer > July August 2017 > Murder by Darkness: Does Mammoth Cave’s Specter Harbor a Secret?

Murder by Darkness: Does Mammoth Cave’s Specter Harbor a Secret?

Joe Nickell, a former magician and private detective, did graduate studies in English (folklore, linguistics, criticism, etc.), culminating in his doctoral dissertation, Literary Investigation (1987). Since 1995, he has been CSI’s senior research fellow, examining fringe-science claims.

If reported encounters are to be believed, Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave—the longest cave system in the world—holds an almost-lost secret. Supposedly revealed “to those who have witnessed her spirit” (“Ghost Stories” 2016), a murderer’s ghost haunts the cave’s winding passageways—especially “the area known as Echo River” (Hauck 1996, 188).

The Dark Side

To understand the following ghost story, it is important to appreciate what it’s like to be in the deep recesses of any great cavern such as Mammoth Cave and have the lights turned off. The result is darkness so absolute it impresses all who have experienced it. I can attest to this not only in Mammoth and Carter caves of Kentucky but also in Carlsbad Caverns of New Mexico and many other commercial caves where this brief entertainment has become a mainstay of tours.

It once happened to me accidentally in southern Kentucky’s Sloans Valley Cave System—a “wild” (i.e., noncommercial) cave I often explored with fellow spelunkers during my undergraduate years of university. I was climbing down a well-like shaft when the carbide lamp mounted on my hard hat suddenly went out. By then an experienced cave explorer, I knew what to do and did it—without panic. (I stuck a penlight in my mouth and, nestling into the rock wall, proceeded to ream out the lamp’s brass tip and—I’m leaving out a few steps here—restored the light [Nickell 2016].)

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