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Haunted Hampton Roads: The ghost of Willoughby Spit

For many who say they’ve seen the ghost of Willoughby Spit, it’s like a protector, warning locals of damaging incoming storms. (Photo by Connor Worley, WHRO)
For many who say they’ve seen the ghost of Willoughby Spit, it’s like a protector, warning locals of damaging incoming storms. (Photo by Connor Worley, WHRO)



Tucked against I-64 west near the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel is a small parcel of land known as Willoughby Spit. 

It’s bordered by water on three sides: Chesapeake Bay to the north, James River to the west and Willoughby Bay to the south.

The name comes from Thomas Willoughby, who owned land grants in the area in the early 1600s. Sometime in the 1660s, Thomas Willoughby II and his wife noticed something odd the morning after a stormy night: A new extension of land appeared where water previously sat. 

The Willoughbys applied for an extension to their existing land grants, giving them ownership of the new land.

Severe storms and hurricanes shaped the land for multiple centuries. The Chesapeake Bay rose 15 feet during a 1749 hurricane. The Great Coastal Hurricane of 1806 helped solidify Willoughby Spit. 

But there’s an apparition known to walk along the Spit’s beaches, another piece of the area’s history. 

“There have been sightings along the coast, in Ocean View on the beach of a dark figure,” said Josh Weinstein with the Norfolk Tour Company. 

“Someone dressed in maybe a sailor's uniform, roaming the beach, specially during storms … such as hurricanes, nor'easters, people that are out there tend to see this kind of shadowy figure on the beach.”

Weinstein said the ghost is an ominous figure without a defined shape or face.

“A gray shadow, or kind of a fog that looks like a man,” he said. said.

There’s two schools of thought as to why the ghost appears on the beach.

Some locals believe the ghost died on the shore and is a sailor spending its days waywardly searching for its ship. 

Others say the apparition's presence is a warning to the living that a dangerous storm is imminent. It serves as a protector in a sense. 

“I've only personally heard of one person that has heard or, excuse me, has seen this apparition,” Weinstein said. “But you know, if it is nighttime on a beach and you see a wispy shadow, maybe you're alone, you may not know what you see, or you may not want to believe what you saw.”

Weinstein said one of the fascinating aspects of the Ghost of Willoughby Spit story is its hyper local nature.

“I do not think a lot of people know about it. It’s also a sense of place that these stories touch on,” Weinstein said. “We’re a maritime region so it's no wonder that at least one of these ghost stories is tied to not only the water, but somebody who died in the water, somebody who was a sailor, or at least, in the maritime industry.”

The most notorious sighting came in 2003.

Hurricane Isabel slammed into Hampton Roads on September 18, 2003. It brought 75 mile-per-hour winds and storm surge flooding of up to eight feet.

People reportedly saw the figure in the days leading up to Isabel.

“This was a memorable hurricane, and there are other memories tied to it,” Weinstein said. “We're not the only ones that thought it was memorable. This ghost also thought it was a memorable time.”

Supernatural haunts and spooky stories are a communal and personal bonding tool.

In the case of the Ghost of Willoughby Spit, it bonds the people of Hampton Roads, and specifically, the people on that small peninsula in Norfolk. 

“This is not only creating a sense of time, creating a sense of place, but also creating a sense of memory,” Weinstein said. 

“What do we want to remember? And a lot of times what we want to remember is  happy but it's also sad. Most ghost stories, in fact, I’d say close to all of them, because they involve the dead, are melancholy.”

Today, the spit’s waters are placid and tranquil. The beige sands drift and reform. 

And, if you look closely just before a storm hits, you might see the Ghost of Willoughby Spit walking along the shoreline, harvesting seashells and warning others to keep safe.

Connor Worley is a Missouri native who creates long-form content in coordination with WHRO’s newsroom and other departments. WHRV listeners will recognize Connor as an occasional on-air host. Connor earned his Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Print from the University of Missouri and a master's degree in Journalism and Audio at the Cronkite School of Arizona State. Connor enjoys the great outdoors, technology, and music. He lives in Virginia Beach.

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