Can a place be evil? Can it be so completely saturated and permeated by negative energy and dark, tumultuous history that it becomes infused with malevolence and malice, squatting there like a hungry predator? There do seem to be some places in this world towards which such forces seem to gravitate, making them cursed or haunted by something far less than benevolent. One such place lies out in a rural part of the U.S. state of Kentucky. On the surface it seems like a rather happy place, full of dancing, drinking, and overall good cheer, but beneath this veneer supposedly crouches a formidable force of supernatural evil, and it has become ground zero for all sorts of supernatural mayhem.
The establishment now known as Bobby Mackey’s Music World is in its present form a small honky tonk country nightclub in the town of Wilder, Kentucky, now owned by local musician Bobby Mackey, who opened it in September of 1978 as a venue for bands to make their music known and a place for people to kick back and have fun. It is a lively place regularly full of patrons enjoying drinks, dancing, and country music, and at first glance would not seem to have much to do with the world of the paranormal at all. Indeed, taking in the fun-loving atmosphere of the place ghosts would likely be the furthest thing from anyone’s mind, yet this modest nightclub has carved itself a reputation as being one of the most haunted places in the state, if not the entire country, full of dark history, murder, suicide, arcane cult rituals, wild tales of the supernatural, and a purported portal to Hell itself.
The very land the club is built upon has a rather tragic past that had tainted the land with blood and woe before any building had ever existed there at all. Sitting right up next to the Licking River, the area was once the gruesome scene of brutal fighting between Native tribes of the area, and this bloodshed continued on when the white settlers arrived, who went on massacring Natives. The area that would be called Wilder then became a bustling railway nexus in the 1800s, with much of the town being built over the unnamed graves of fallen, forgotten Natives. Although the land here had already been saturated with blood, the exact location of what would become Bobby Mackey’s got even more when a slaughterhouse was built here in the 1850s. During its grim 40-year period of service, thousands of animals would make their final journey here, and the nearby river turned red from the blood being dumped there. When the slaughterhouse was shuttered it is said that this blood stained land was used by satanic cults and the scene of human and animal sacrifices. Whether this is true or not, it was certainly the scene of a brutal murder, that of a woman named Pearl Bryan.
Pearl had supposedly fallen in love with a dentist named Scott Jackson and had gotten pregnant with his child, but the two did not want to go through with the pregnancy. Jackson allegedly made arrangements for them to take a trip to Cincinnati in order to have an abortion carried out, but he decided he did not want any publicity and so enlisted the help of his roommate, Alonzo Walling, to try and perform the procedure themselves. They drugged Pearl and went ahead with their plans. The procedure was a tragic failure, leading to Pearl’s death when they realized they had botched it, allegedly cut her head off while she was still alive, and dumped her body in the backwoods near Fort Thomas, Kentucky. Jackson would be found guilty of murder and hanged for the incident, adamantly proclaiming his innocence until the very end.
Pearl’s head was never found, but legend has it that the men threw it into one of the wells once used to contain animal blood, guts, and feces in the remnants of the abandoned slaughterhouse. Other details have been added to the lore surrounding the story over the years, such as that the men had always intended to murder her or that Jackson and Walling were actual satanic cultists, that the head had been found in the center of a pentagram etched onto the slaughterhouse floor in blood, or that Jackson with his dying breath vowed to never rest and to haunt those who had wronged him. It is unclear how much truth any of these eerie details have, but one thing for sure is that an innocent young woman was killed and beheaded, and the legends stubbornly remain, adding a bit more grimness to the area.
By the 1920s the mysterious murder of Pearl Bryan had mostly been forgotten, and the old slaughterhouse building was torn down and rebuilt to become a roadhouse that was soon after turned by mobsters into an illicit bar and casino called The Primrose. This was the era of Prohibition, and The Primrose was by all accounts a hive of bootleggers, gangsters, and other unsavory elements. It would also come to be a magnet for violence, as other gangs tried to muscle in on the territory, bringing down gang warfare that left many dead. In the 1950s the notorious roadhouse changed hands and was renamed The Latin Quarter. It was here that another famous death would occur at the seemingly accursed place.
The story revolves around a woman named Johanna, who was dancer at the establishment and also the daughter of the building’s owner. According to the lore, she fell in love with a local musician named Robert Randall, and their tryst ended up with her pregnant, which did not sit well at all with Johanna’s father. He took it so badly, in fact, that he had Randall killed by his mob connections, which in turn caused his daughter to spiral into a deep depression. She is said to have finally snapped, and after trying to poison her own father she supposedly scrawled a last poem professing her love on the walls of one of the rooms, went down into the darkened basement, which was a leftover from the slaughterhouse days complete with that grimy well of blood, and killed herself. How much of this is spooky lore is true has been constantly debated, but whatever the case The Latin Quarter would survive and stay in operation until 1978, when a series of violent shootings among patrons caused it to shut its doors. Not long after that, Bobby Mackey bought the joint and turned it into Bobby Mackey’s Music World.
Although the establishment and indeed the land it sits on had long been absolutely dripping with blood, violence, and murder, any record of paranormal activity up to that point remains unclear, yet after Bob Mackey acquired it supernatural forces seem to have besieged the place with a vengeance. Almost as soon as Mackey moved in there were intense unexplained phenomena, one of the first being a terrifying incident in which his own wife claimed to have been clawed at and pushed down the stairs by a malevolent unseen force. Workmen and contractors renovating the establishment also reported all manner of paranormal activity, such as moving objects, anomalous noises, and in more sinister cases being pushed, slapped, punched, or scratched by unseen hands, to the point that some of them refused to come back to work.
For his part, Bob Mackey was rather skeptical of all of this talk of ghosts at first, and even discouraged people working there to stop spreading such tales as it had the potential to scare people off before they had even opened for business yet. After all, Mackey had spent everything he had on his dream to have this club and he was not eager to see it all unravel because of some spooky tales. Nevertheless, the ominous phenomena continued on. One of the most well-known incidents revolves around then 20-year-old Carl Lawson, who started work there cleaning and painting, later moving into the attic of the building and becoming a permanent caretaker there. Lawson immediately began to complain of being absolutely tormented by supernatural phenomena, even going as far as to say he was being actively attacked and even possessed by demons that he believed to be crawling out through the slaughterhouse well in the basement, which he was convinced was a “portal to Hell.”
After the club opened to great success, Lawson continued to live there, believing that it had to be cleansed of its evil, and although Mackey was very strict with him not to talk about his supernatural experiences, patrons and employees at the bar began to have their own strange brushes with the paranormal. Besides seeing objects move, having electronics or lights turn on or off by themselves, catching glimpses of shadowy apparitions, and often being overcome with a thick overpowering sense of dread and malice that would descend upon them, many of these witnesses claimed to have been physically attacked by invisible entities, often brutally shoved or even pushed down the stairs. In particular, this activity seemed to intensify greatly the closer one was to the well in the basement, cementing the idea that it was somehow the epicenter of all of the ghostly phenomena.
Such phenomena have gone on to become commonplace at the establishment right up to the present, making it more well known for its hauntings than its music. Some of the spirits said to dwell here and harass patrons and staff are the ghost of Johanna, who likes to hang out in the former dressing room, often appears in mirrors, and leaves the smell of perfume in her wake, as well as the headless specter of Pearl Bryan, who appears without her head and exudes a profound sense of melancholy. There is also an extremely malicious entity fully dressed in cowboy attire and a cowboy hat who attacks people and has even been said to beat people into unconsciousness, a man with a handlebar mustache who haunts the restrooms and is said to repeat “"Die game, die game" (Latin for “Die well”) over and over again, and a very angry dark shadow that likes to break things and seems to especially target women with its nefarious attacks. Indeed, paranormal investigators and psychics who have poured in here have claimed that there are up to 40 different spirits prowling Bobby Mackey’s Music World, all of differing personalities, temperaments, and danger. Even police officers have allegedly seen some of these spirits.
Speaking of paranormal investigators, Bobby Mackey’s Music World has attracted them in droves, and the place has become a popular place for ghost hunters both professional and amateur alike. Many of them have produced all manner of photographs and EVP phenomena, and according to them the location is absolutely swarming with crackling paranormal energy. The club has been visited by several TV shows, and one of the most infamous is a 2008 episode of the hit series Ghost Adventures, who featured it along with host Zak Bagans. During their investigation Bagans claimed to have made contact with the murderer of Pearl Bryan, and even to have been possessed by a demon while poking around down in the murky basement. Bagans was apparently so convinced that he was possessed that an exorcism was carried out on him, and he also claims that he was physically assaulted by a demonic entity down there in the gloom, which left behind claw marks across his chest. The episode proved so successful that there was even a follow-up episode called Return to Bobby Mackey’s in 2010.
Many of the ghost hunters who have come here have made note of the high concentration of negative energy down in that basement, and some have speculated that it is actually some sort of portal or vortex channeling these forces in, although why that may be is not known. With these shows, along with the popular book outlining it all, Hell’s Gate: Terror at Bobby Mackey’s Music World, by Bobby’s friend Douglas Hensley, the place has become widely known as being one of the most haunted places in the country. In the meantime, Bobby Mackey’s Music World has sort of embraced all of the paranormal attention, setting up ghost tours and even posting a sign in front of the establishment that reads: “Warning to our Patrons: This establishment is purported to be haunted. Management is NOT responsible and cannot be held liable for any actions of any ghosts/spirits on these premises.”
Considering the boost for business that all of this ghost talk has provided, it has definitely become ammo in the skeptical argument against the legends. Many of the tales revolving around Bobby Mackey’s Music World have been related by Bobby himself, and a lot of the supposed incidents were first brought to light in Henley’s book, raising concern that they are stoking the fires of urban legend. It has also been pointed out that, while some of the historical violence described has its roots in reality, much of it cannot be concretely verified, and so it remains rather murky on how true any of it is, and where the real converges with exaggeration and myth. As for the numerous witness accounts, this is chalked up to being “primed” for spooky occurrences considering the sinister history and dark lore pervading the establishment, and the ghost shows could just be playing it all up. Regardless, there are plenty of people who insist that Bobby Mackey's Music World is the most insanely haunted place they've ever experienced, so it is hard to know what to make of it all.
So what are we dealing with at Bobby Mackey's Music World? Is this all an ongoing urban legend built up upon the violence and blood spilled here in the past? Is it all just a scheme by the owner to pull in customers? Or is it something more? If this place is indeed as haunted as advertised we are still left with many questions, such as why should the ghosts, demons, or whatever congregate here with such potency and generally violent intent? Is there something inherit to this location that should make this so? And what about the well in the basement, the "portal to Hell"? What part does this have to play in all of the strangeness and does it really funnel in evil forces from beyond our understanding? It is of course at the point where it is practically impossible to disentangle all of the lore and history, but one thing for sure is that Bobby Mackey's Music World has become somewhat of a legend in the paranormal world, with its grim history and macabre lore, and it is perhaps a place worth checking out if you are ever in the area and are feeling brave. Just remember, as Bob Mackey likes to say, "Come for the ghosts, stay for the music!"