Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Who Ya Gonna Call? My Time as a Ghost Hunter

I mentioned way back in my early biographical posts that I've done quite a few interesting things over the years, but one of the experiences I've had that I still get the most questions about is the years I spent as a Ghost Hunter (1999-2002.) The success of overproduced cable shows that wildly distort the processes used and experiences of a paranormal investigator were years away when I got my start, but I suspect my story is an unusual one.

I've read books about real life ghost stories since I was a very young man. I can remember that one of the first books I checked out of a public library was on the subject, and the very first book ordered in school from the Scholastic catalog was about ghosts. (Incidentally, I believe the second was a book on Greco-Roman mythology, I was an odd child.) I'd read about haunted sites, seen photographs of mists and orbs and the rare (and almost always fake) photos of an actual apparition, and I wanted to take one of those myself. One of the gaming groups I was in had someone in it with a similar interest, and we knew of a supposedly haunted site not far from where we gamed.

First book on hauntings I ever read.

After various sessions of D&D, my friend Mark and I would load up our cameras and get into either his car or mine and head to Robinson Woods in Norridge, IL. The site is an Indian Burial Ground, literally, with a headstone marking the grave of Pottowatami Chief Alexander Robinson not too far in. Now and again, we'd look around, take a few rolls of film... we didn't really know what we were doing. One night, we arrived at the site and saw two suspicious looking individuals already there, my friend and I acknowledged the pair, but not knowing if they were drug dealers or not, we moved deeper into the woods. From behind us, we saw a camera flash, and realized the pair was there for the same reason we were. We moved back to speak with them, camera in hand, and the taller of the two, dressed in a trenchcoat laughed, saying “We thought you guys might be drug dealers!”

To be fair, I was likely dressed like this.

That night the four of us went out to eat at a late night Denny's (an American restaurant that serves breakfast 24 hours per day in many places) and talked about our experiences. This is how my friend and I got started with Haunted Chicago Paranormal Research and Investigation. The pair we'd met were the last two of a group of investigators who'd had a personal falling out, and were about to “give up the ghost” (pun most definitely intended.) We agreed to go with them to a few other sites that the two of us had planned to visit someday anyway, and after a few months of weekly trips, we were officially inducted into the group.

At the time, we structured our group to be different from most other ghost hunters in the Midwest, and particularly in Chicago. Most other groups used ghost hunting as a way to sell books, or run October bus tours, or otherwise make a living. We didn't want to sell anything. We wanted to have strict controls on the data we'd gather, and come at the subject in a manner that would please people like us, interested skeptics. We did photography experiments to have examples of equipment malfunction, water on the lens, lens flare and a host of other entirely normal phenomena usually cited to debunk haunted photography. For every photo that made it to the website, we'd discard 10 with results that weren't good enough to satisfy all of us.

One of the shots I took that was most often linked-to and discussed, as drops of water
and lens flare don't move, and specks of dust don't move that fast.

We created forms, tracked down and used night vision goggles, electromagnetic field meters, ambient temperature gauges and lots of cameras. We visited virtually every site in the Chicagoland area, graveyards at night, forest preserves, the site of the Eastland disaster, Resurrection Cemetery (Of Resurrection Mary fame) and the alley where a man who may or may not have been John Dillinger was shot to death. We spent a lot of time in Bachelor's Grove Cemetery and we met our share of drunken teens, other investigators and angry policemen ready to chase us out. We took data. Lots and lots of data. We may not have been proper scientists, but we were going to take our research many steps closer in that direction than anyone else had.

The process of being a paranormal investigator is a lot like I've heard being in law enforcement is... hours of boring routine punctuated by moments of excitement. We heard and saw unusual things on rare occasion, but they were difficult to test in a scientific manner. We recorded abnormal EMF readings, sudden drops in air temperature and took photographs with anomalous results. However, for every experience like this, there were a hundred that were either entirely normal (and kind of dull) or suspect, in that they might have an alternate rational explanation. In the end, we had a lot we couldn't explain, but our findings were inconclusive.

A photo I shot in the infamous Bachelor's Grove Cemetery.

We did have several television appearances, I gave a few interviews before cameras and our group was profiled on a cable show or two, before they realized that the groups not using rigid standards of data collection and a healthy dose of skepticism made for better TV. We even did a few home investigations and had conversations with many of the other well-known personalities of “the scene.” Our largest project to fall through came after we had drinks with a paranormal investigator in New Orleans, who gave us a tour of a graveyard she had the keys to. An arrangement for a Haunting-themed train trip on the City of New Orleans run from Chicago with presentations at either end from members of our respective groups fell apart due to poor communication.

Over the years, group members drifted apart, we went on fewer and fewer trips out as other things in our lives took priority, and now I rarely see or hear from any of them besides Mark, who I knew well before becoming involved. It was an interesting experience, and I came away with it with a hypothesis that didn't quite get enough testing to call a theory. I believe based on what we saw and recorded that certain powerful emotions can leave an imprint on a place. Not talking about psychic energies or any other New Age kind of stuff, I mean an actual measurable change on the environment, in particular in naturally occurring levels of Electromagnetic Fields. EMF has unusual interactions with people, making them feel things, see/hear things and can even move objects or distort photography. Unfortunately, that doesn't sell as many books or blocks of television time as spirits of the restless dead.
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Jay said...

That is quite a cool experience, even if there were more inconclusive findings than convincing ghosts. :D

H A R R Y G O A Z said...

Have a SUPER week !

Conspyre said...

It is one of the great sadnesses of my existence that Tobin's Spirit Guide is not a real book.

The Angry Lurker said...

".....but I suspect my story is an unusual one".Very interesting though.

Alpha said...

Hot damn, do you get around.

Astronomy Pirate said...

This certainly sounds like an interesting venture. I honestly can't say that I can suspend my understanding of physics long enough to believe in ghosts. Weather can be unpredictable and cause rapid temperature change, and magnetic fields are complex enough as it is, if a region was already distorted there's no need to bring in the supernatural.

Dave said...

You never know. One day we most certainly will.

Kelly said...

It sounds as though you had some interesting adventures while ghost hunting. I like the pictures, too. Great story. Actually, I lived in a haunted house. Very haunted. I talked about it extensively on my blog. My whole family, friends and other visitors experienced everything from voices in the attic, TV going off and on, spirits shouting your name in your ear while you're in bed trying to sleep, strange light whizzing past a room, chairs moving on their own and more.

A paranormal group very badly wanted to research my mom and dad's house but I told them that I would rather that they didn't. I thought it might hurt the sale of the house. Dad was trying to get the house sold around the time I ran into this group at a convention. Anyway, in case you were interested, I thought I'd tell ya about this.

Rob said...

That sounds cool! I wouldn't ever be able to do that stuff. I'm too chicken.

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