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Home Arts and Culture  I want to believe, really, I do
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Wednesday, October 14,2009

I want to believe, really, I do

A would-be ghost hunter's tale

by Mary C. Cusack
I have always been fascinated with the supernatural. Or should I say the “paranormal,” which I think is the PC term these days for the unexplainable. If there is a distinction between the two, it’s lost on me. Spooky is spooky, plain and simple.

As a child, I consumed books about truelife, unexplained phenomena like they were bags of chips. Scholastic book fairs came to school, and I’d haunt the tables for books about, well, hauntings. I never missed an episode of “In Search Of,” the late '70s TV show hosted by Leonard Nimoy. Week after week I’d be glued to the TV, watching stories about the Bermuda Triangle, Bigfoot, haunted houses, spontaneous human combustion, UFO abductions and creepy cults.


There were other shows, from “Project Blue Book,'' a '70s series about governmental UFO investigators, to the smash hit series it inspired decades later, “The X-Files.” Even these fictionalized accounts of strange occur rences and creatures were enough to keep me rapt.


I couldn’t get enough of the possibilities offered by otherworldly phenomena. And yet, I have never experienced an unexplain able event. No UFOs have hovered outside my window, I never saw Bigfoot’s big foot prints in the woods where I grew up, and I’ve nev er seen so much as a wisp of a ghost. A CBS poll from 2005 shows that half of Americans believe in ghosts, and about a quarter of us think we have had direct contact with one. I’m not one of those one-in-four. Like the famous poster says, “I Want to Believe,” but the universe hasn’t made it easy for me to do so.


For the past 10 years or so, my friend Jeff Westover has been investigating phenomena and sending me pictures and audio files on a regular basis, unintentionally rubbing in the fact that he experiences things I haven’t. Perhaps picking up on the hints that I’d been dropping over the years, he finally extended the invitation to join an investigation.


Westover recommended I meet with his fellow investigator, Williamston resident Joe Stewart. Stewart has been investigating for more than 20 years, but he’s more than just a “ghost hunter.” There are ghost hunters who love the thrill of a possibile encounter at a haunted site, as well as the social aspect of investigating in groups. Stewart, though, is a true scholar and researcher. In fact, he does not charge for his services, because he sees these investigations as opportunities to further his research; The access is worth more to him than cash money.


The actual visit to the site of the haunting is just one small part of the whole investigation. A typical investigation usually starts with pre-visit interviews with the living residents of a haunted place, followed by exhaustive research into the history of the place through public records and newspapers.


Stewart may then do a site visit, walking through the space and asking questions of the ghost, making audio and video recordings. The communication process is usually one-sided. Stewart culls through hours and hours of audio and video, listening for electronic voice phenomena (EVPs). EVPs are more common than any visible phenomena, and they may be anything from a word to entire paragraphs of dialogue.


Stewart explains it’s rare for an EVP to sound like normal speech. Most are buried in the lower frequencies and distorted. “Sometimes they’re accelerated. Sometimes I have to slow them down 60 to 70 percent to get them to sound like human speech,” he said. “There’s so much in the lower subfrequencies, and that’s where I go. I had an EVP that took me three days to get to where it could be understood.”


At our first meeting, Stewart plays me a series of EVPs. He puts them in context, talking about each investigation and the question he asked to elicit each response. Certainly, a few are chilling enough to cause the hair on the back of my neck to stand up. Some are hard to understand, even when Stewart tells me what he thinks it says. They run the gamut. One long EVP is clearly a woman's voice speaking in Polish.


In a truly chilling moment, a voice answers Stewart’s question “Who is here?” by giving her name. It happens to be the name of my former mother-in-law, who had died a year before Stewart recorded the EVP. A coincidence, I’m sure, but an unexpected moment in what I expected to be a routine interview. This EVP was recorded at the site of a vortex, which Stewart explains is something like an entry point into this world for ghosts, an area of high activity where the personalities are always changing. It’s a stunning moment, but still not enough for me to say I believe, because I wasn’t there when it was captured.


Stewart continues to explain the investigation process. After a site visit, he culls through his audio files to learn what he can about the ghosts. Then the cycle of more research, site visits, recordings and culling through audio files continues. In the course of the investigation, Stewart often hopes to find a way to help the ghosts settle their earthly affairs so that they can move on.


To accomplish that, Stewart must figure out what the ghost needs to hear or say in order to let go of this world. He sometimes works with psychologists to figure that part out, and he has used psychics to help with communicating with ghosts.


An investigation can take years, and it’s not the glamorous, dramatic affair TV and movies make it out to be. In fact, it can be downright boring. Ghosts don’t perform on command, a lesson I learn over the course of the several weeks during which I worked on this story.


My big chance to witness an investigation comes when Stewart and Westover are invited to do a follow-up session at a haunted house in East Lansing. The last time they visited, they had felt the presence in the back yard that keeps the dog from going there at night. That first visit was a walk-through and interview, so no recording was done. Our visit will be more thorough.


I bring my digital recorder and camera, watch the men set up their equipment and talk with the home owner (who asked to remain anonymous). We walk through the house while the owner points out areas where she’s felt the presence. Westover sets up his electromagnetic detector in one hot spot. It goes off once, but we can’t repeat the phenomenon again here or anywhere in the house. This particular night, as we walk around the back yard, Westover, Stewart and the owner agree they aren’t feeling the presence they felt before.


We train a video camera on a picture that the owner frequently finds skewed, despite the fact that it’s firmly mounted on the wall. The closest thing I experience to any kind of phenomenon is that after two hours of videotaping, the video file is non-existent. I verify to Stewart that I checked the camera several times myself and saw it was recording, and I am standing there when he stops the recording and discovers that there’s no file. Still, it’s enough to give me pause. As a firm believer in electronics voodoo and gremlins, this is not proof of ghostly activity for me.


The
investigators, the owner and I agree the evening is a bit of a bust,
although Stewart holds out hope that he’s captured some EVPs.
Disappointed and hoping for some meat for this story, a few weeks later
I ask Stewart to accompany me to the Bath Schoolhouse site. He and
Westover have not only captured many EVPs, they also claim to have
experienced physical interactions with the murdered children and with
Andrew Kehoe, the man who blew up the school in 1927. It seems like
with that many ghosts in a confined area, the chances are good I’ll
experience something.


Stewart
gives me a tour of the area, points out the hot spots where he has
experienced phenomena, then lets me wander on my own. I have my camera
and digital recorder and do a mini-investigation myself. I walk around,
try talking to the children with hopes that they interact with me in
some way. I feel nothing in particular except the bone-chilling
dampness of the day. I sigh and tell Stewart that while I think I
believe, maybe I don’t believe strongly enough.


“It’s not a matter of belief. t’s a matter of going out there, keep looking, keep looking,” he replies.


Essentially,
it’s about being in the right time and the right place. This gives me
some hope that I still might experience something, it and reminds me
that it’s not about me and what I want, it’s about what a ghost wants
and needs.


This
thought sticks with me, and on a whim the next day, I stop again at the
Bath site on my way home from work. No recorder, no camera, just me — a
solitary figure sitting on a bench as dusk closes in, talking to
ghosts. Or myself; it’s hard to say. No ghost children come out to
play. I sigh, deciding that I’m still not in the right place at the
right time. It’s easy to see how someone might become obsessed with
pursuing such encounters, always hoping for that one interaction that
cements one’s belief. From that, a true ghost investigator is born.


Stewart sees his mission as three-fold: to
help ghosts move on, to provide answers and maybe some peace for people
living in haunted places, and to gather scientific information about
ghosts. “I’m not trying to prove anything to anybody. I’m just
collecting the data, putting it out there, and you decide for
yourself," he said.


The
statistics say half of you already have decided that you believe. More
than a dozen friends I spoke with about this article expressed their
belief by recounting their own first- or second-hand ghost story. Me? I
still want to believe, but the jury is still out.


For more information on Joe Stewart’s investigation work, go to www.theparanormalnomad.org

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