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Chasing ghosts: the weird science of tracking the dead

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On a warm night in the winemaking town of Sonoma, California, the slightly moldy smell of eucalyptus trees hangs heavy in the air. Amidst the rustic stone buildings and tidy gravel pathways of the historic Buena Vista Winery, five middle-aged paranormal investigators from the San Francisco Bay Area gather in matching black t-shirts. There have been reports of hauntings here. One of the tasting room employees saw a “guy in a white t-shirt” climb the stairs then vanish. Could it be the ghost of the original owner, an exiled Hungarian Count who was supposedly eaten by alligators? The group, whose name is The Amateur Ghost Hunters: R.I.P., is on the scene to find out.

On the top floor of the wine cellars, they turn the lights off, and wait for something to happen. “It’s ok for you to come out and speak with us,” says Ellen MacFarlane, a stay at home mom from Napa, California sitting cross-legged on the floor with her eyes closed. The other four glance at Julie Blankenship, sitting next to Ellen, or rather, they look at the KII meter she’s holding. It’s a little white box that lights up when it perceives spikes in EMF, or changes in the electromagnetic field. Most ghost hunters believe that spirits cause EMF spikes.

It’s not lighting up.

But – creak! What was that? It’s a loud noise from above. And then another. The group collectively gasps. There was no way
it was trees. They’d already checked it out, and no trees touched the building.

“Steps on the roof!” someone exclaims.

“Thank you,” says Ellen. “Did you die in this winery?”

Plumber by day, Ghost Hunter by night

If you’ve been half paying attention, ghost hunting is having its modern pop cultural moment. An explosion of reality TV shows like SyFy channel’s Ghost Hunters and the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, have made what used to be viewed as a really goofy hobby now seem not only acceptable, but cool. “People used to look at you like you were crazy if you told them you investigated the paranormal,” says one ghost hunter. “We’ve finally come out of the closet.”

TV ghost hunters travel to creepy-fun locations while the rest of the humdrum world is sleeping: Haunted lighthouses, old tuberculosis sanatoriums, insane asylums. They get to use blinking meters and gauges that would look right at home on the set of Ghostbusters. And you don’t have to be an engineer or scientist to use them. On Ghost Hunters, the original two stars of the show, Grant Wilson and Jason Hawes, are plumbers.

Inspired by the shows, there are now multiple grassroots paranormal investigation teams in every major city around the country, and many of the medium-sized ones. Insurance claims adjusters, tech support guys, homemakers, and yes, plumbers, are just some of the regular folks who form groups, choose a name, make a Facebook page, and begin looking for ghosts in their local historic haunts. Billings, Montana alone has seven different groups.

“They fight over turf – almost like West Side Story,” says Massachusetts-based paranormal investigator Jeff Belanger, who writes for the show Ghost Adventures. Who can lay claim to having “investigated” which haunted mansion? Who got there first?

There are ghost hunting conventions like ParaCon, featuring stars from the shows, and even ghost hunting cruises. There are YouTube videos of investigations (by groups no doubt looking to cast themselves in future reality shows.) In fact, Amateur Ghost Hunters: R.I.P. came together in a bid for a TV show that never materialized. Now they’re just filming a web series of themselves.

“We have proof. What is the proof? The data. The evidence.”

There are books about the right and wrong ways to document the supernatural (Always work in a grid, don’t just wander around a haunted building willy nilly!) And most tellingly there is a cottage industry of websites like ghostoutlet.com that peddle the gadgets seen on TV.

Besides various types of sensitive audio and video equipment, the tools generally break down into a few categories: those that measure temperature, as ghost hunters believe spirits can cause temperature drops, and those that measure EMF. The more unusual readings a ghost hunter can collect in a reportedly haunted location, like, say, a temperature drop coupled with an EMF spike, and maybe an unexplained noise or shadow caught on tape, the more compelling the evidence. At least in the opinion of the ghost hunter.

“Technology you’re seeing in the paranormal field has made tremendous leaps and bounds in the last five years,” says paranormal investigator and spirit medium Chris Fleming. He also runs the ghost hunting gear website, GhostOutlet.com. “I don’t believe in ghosts, I know ghosts exist. We have proof. What is the proof? The data. The evidence.”

In the wine cellars at Buena Vista, Dennis Sheil, a jolly pizza restaurant owner and office engineer for a construction management company, has lugged in two aluminum cases full of gear. He’s got three different digital audio recorders for picking up electronic voice phenomena, or EVP. These are ghostly voices and noises you can’t hear with your naked ear at the time they’re made, but become audible upon playback for mysterious reasons.

He’s also got several different models of EMF detectors. One lights up with spooky looking fluorescent green lights and lets out a crescendoing “bleeeEEEP!” reminiscent of a metal detector running over a nickel. Another contraption can be clipped onto a “trigger object” that might lure a particular spirit, such as a toy ball, says Sheil, “if you have a child that passed away.”

Sheil plants these around the winery, in hopes that one of seven cameras he’s set up will catch any funny business. After the investigation, someone will have to comb through hours of video and audio footage. “A lot of what goes into this is really, really boring,” says Sheil.

Scientists with bad attitudes

“I felt the force. It looked like the Nike swoosh, but it was sideways.”

Gloria Young, a retired ER nurse and the leader of Amateur Ghost Hunters: R.I.P., was visited by her father after he died. She and her kids would smell his Aqua Velva aftershave, and the cigarettes he smoked, late at night

“A couple times, I got up to use the bathroom and I’d almost run into him,” says Gloria. “I felt the force. It looked like the Nike swoosh, but it was sideways.”

According to a Pew Research study from 2009, one in five Americans believes in ghosts. And for over 100 years, we’ve been hunting for hard evidence of their existence. In the 1840s and well into the 20th century, people regularly tried to contact the dead through spirit mediums and séances.

Unfortunately, most of the levitating tables and rapping ghosts were debunked as theater. In her book Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, author Mary Roach describes how at one point, mediums had science convinced that they could extrude a substance from their bodies that was a physical byproduct of supernatural activity. Called “ectoplasm,” it could be seen, touched, and photographed – Scientific American even published an article about it. But upon closer scrutiny, ectoplasm turned out to be lengths of cheesecloth pulled out of mediums’ body orifices at the right dramatic moment. Ectoplasm was later re-envisioned as green slime in the Ghostbusters movies.

But what about modern day paranormal evidence? To date, there have been no scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals about supernatural beings giving off electromagnetic radiance. Or about ghosts causing temperature drops. EVPs, the mysterious sounds that show up on recordings, have been compellingly described by scientists as most likely resulting from fragments of radio broadcasts, equipment malfunction, or noises accidentally made by the ghost hunters themselves. (One paranormal investigator in Ohio wrote about having mistaken his friend’s upset stomach as a supernatural growl.)

In other words, pro scientists have not found evidence that ghosts exist.

Ghost hunters, for the most part, think that scientists are refusing to approach paranormal research with an open mind.

“The scientific community has never gotten over the egg in the face where the spiritualist movement played them like monkeys and made them all look foolish,” says David Rountree, a New Jersey-based audio engineer, who runs a paranormal research “think tank” called S.P.I.R.I.T. “The funding for research isn’t there, not a journal in the country would publish a paper with the word ‘paranormal’ in it.”

Ben Radford, author of the book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries, and research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, says he thinks that’s just not true.

“If they could prove ghosts existed, it would open up a whole new world of physics that would lead directly to a Nobel prize.”

“The paranormal community seems to think that scientists’ world view would crumble, they would curl up in fetal balls and sob or something if ghosts were proven real,” says Radford, who is not a scientist, but uses the scientific method when investigating things like haunted houses and crop circles. “The idea that scientists are afraid to look into this unknown realm of ghosts is patently ridiculous! If they could prove ghosts existed, it would open up a whole new world of physics that would lead directly to a Nobel prize.”

The problem, says Radford, is there’s no decent evidence for them to work with. And so the ghost hunting community, like a backyard astronomist intent on finding a new comet, goes out at night determined to gather it. The KII company, makers of the most popular EMF reader, now sells more of its product for ghost hunting than it does for the device’s original purpose: detecting potentially harmful EMF fields produced by things like overhead power lines.

“Things that people laugh at now will genuinely be tomorrow’s finds,” says Richard Estep, Director of the Boulder County Paranormal Research Society, of Boulder, Colorado. “But will scientists be using our reports? Or will psychologists be using them to describe mental health problems? Regardless, I’m very excited to be a part of it!”

On the fringe of the fringe

“I’m feeling queasy,” says Gloria Young, her hand on the rock ledge. It’s rumored that part of the Buena Vista’s wine cave collapsed when it was being built, killing a Chinese laborer. Sure enough, a temperature gauge shows it’s getting a little colder in that spot.

“Stone carries so much energy,” says Julie Blankenship, joining Young at the haunted ledge.

There’s a school of thought among ghost hunters that inanimate objects, particularly stone, and even more specifically limestone, can “record” traumatic events from history and play them back, much the way sound is recorded, physically, in the wax grooves of a record. So, say you’re on a battlefield, you might see a line of soldiers marching by, and it would look like a hologram or High Def TV, but you wouldn’t be able to interact with them.

This isn’t universally accepted. Even in the ghost hunting community, some stuff is considered too out there. David Rountree, of S.P.I.R.I.T., is working on a scientific paper that he says will show evidence that when you see a spirit, you are actually getting a glimpse into another dimension, via a quantum-physics-style wormhole. And then there’s the controversial gadgetry, like the SB7 Spirit Box, a sort of hacked radio scanner that looks for empty channels that spirits can speak through. When asked about the SB7, Steve Gonsalves, resident “tech whiz” for The Atlantic Paranormal Society, or T.A.P.S., the group that’s on Ghost Hunters, was dismissive.

“Nooooooooo, we stay away from that stuff,” said Gonsalves. “If we could truly take an electric frequency and convert it to a voice to talk to the other side, it would be on every newspaper and CNN, it would be the biggest breakthrough the world has ever seen!”

Ditto the Ovilus X, derided by some ghost hunters as a “parlor game.” It’s a box that responds to EMF readings and spits out recorded words that are tied to particular frequencies, in a robot voice. Fans of the Ovilus X say they’ve gotten amazing “results” — paranormal researcher and ghost equipment seller Chris Fleming tells how the Ovilus X said the word “baptism” when he took it into a room at the Rolling Hills Asylum in Bethany, NY. Turns out there had actually been baptisms there! He says he’s sold around 500 Oviluses (retailing at $229) through his site in the last five years.

There’s now even an Ovilus smartphone app, that despite the fact that it cannot detect EMF, and hence seems completely random, has its fans. One reviewer wrote: “I was texting my girlfriend. And she took awhile to reply so I opened up the app and it didn't hesitate to say ‘snake’ and I asked if my girlfriend was a snake, it immediately said ‘generally.’ The next day I found out she was cheating on me... its been creeping me out ever since.”

Dennis Sheil, of Amateur Ghost Hunters: R.I.P., doesn’t believe in the Ovilus. He’s also skeptical of the SB7 (but says he’s hoping Santa will bring him one anyways).

The investigation complete, Sheil and the rest of the Amateur Ghost Hunters break down their equipment and get ready to drive home for some much needed shut eye. They’re running on caffeine and adrenaline. A few days earlier, they’d been up until 4AM investigating a famous concert hall in downtown San Francisco which shall remain nameless, because Young had pulled some strings to get them in. It had been an amazing investigation, and they were still high from it. At one point, they’d all heard a ghostly voice say: “get alcohol!”

A few weeks later, Young finds a few barely audible, ghostly voices on the audio recordings, and a weird shadow that shouldn’t have been there on video. Add that to the sounds on the roof and the feeling of queasiness by the ledge, and there you had a grand slam of evidence. Maybe not enough to convince modern science that life exists after death, but plenty to keep her going until the next big hunt.



Photo by Margaret Killjoy

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