March 08, 2010
Last week was a momentous one for television. There were the Oscars (most of which I missed). There was the birth of The Office baby (the birth of a baby being the second in the three stages of impending sitcom apocalypse). And we can’t forget the premiere of Jerry Seinfeld’s Marriage Ref, in which real-life married couples receive advice from such marriage stalwarts as Alec “Thoughtless Little Pig” Baldwin and Madonna “Crazy Arms” Ciccone.
But the real momentous event for me was the 100th episode of Ghost Hunters.
I started watching Ghost Hunters in 2005, the same year I left a four-year marriage. (What better way for a thirty-something divorcee to spend a Saturday night?) Since the show’s inception, it’s garnered two spin-offs, Ghost Hunters International and Ghost Hunters Academy, and tens of thousands of fans.
“Before the show,” Jason says during the 100th episode, “we’d get maybe 30 people at a conference. Now we get 3,000 at a single lecture.”
To the uninaugurated, the reality show might not seem like much: a bunch of guys walking around with a night vision cam, saying, “What was that?” every five minutes. But it’s so much more.
Founded in 1990 by Rhode Island natives and Roto Rooter repairmen, Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, TAPS, or The Atlantic Paranormal Society, investigates claims of paranormal activity free of charge. They have an evidence-based approach. You won’t find psychics or mediums here, just infrared and digital video recorders, digital audio recorders, thermal camera devices, and other equipment that may – emphasis on may – indicate signs of the paranormal.
EVPs, or Electronic Voice Phenomena, according to TAPS’ website, are “disembodied voices and sounds imprinted on audio recording devices,” and are sometimes not heard by human ears at the time of the recording. Team members conduct “EVP sessions” in which they ask questions, hoping for a response. Is anyone here? Can you give me a sign? Do you want me to leave?
If the team members get no response, they’ll sometimes “provoke” the presence, bringing up painful topics, at least according to history or legend, and even name-calling. Once Dave Tango, one of the few members not from New England but New Jersey (my home state), provoked by using foul language. “Here comes Jersey!” he says before letting loose a string of bleeped-out swear words.
EMFs, or electromagnetic fields, are another measurement the team uses. High EMFs, often from faulty wiring or cell phone towers, can cause paranoia, nausea, and general unease, which can explain away the feeling that “someone is watching me.” However, fluctuating EMF patterns, often along with cold spots, may indicate the presence of something otherwordly.
The TAPS team is always careful to make the distinction between a personal experience and cold-hard evidence. They may have heard a whisper, but unless it was picked up by one of their many recorders, it’s simply another story. An auditory personal experience backed up by a recording, as well as similar other experiences, is the ark of the covenant for paranormal investigators. The sighting of an apparition backed by video recording and others’ experiences is like the ark of the covenant held by the Loch Ness monster, kicking it in Atlantis.
What makes the show believable, at least to me, is that the TAPS members are always cynics upon entering an investigation. That knocking noise? Probably just the house settling. The knocking noise in response to one question? Coincidence. To a second question? That’s weird. A third? Could be paranormal.
They’re always eager to debunk claims. I’d say at least half the visits yield no evidence. A door that seems to open and close on its own may be caused by the movement of another door. Eerie disembodied voices could be another team member or street noise. Footsteps in the attic? Look for droppings. You might need an exterminator, not TAPS.
Their findings are usually subtle – a barely discernible whisper, a shadowy mass, a blurred figure – but occasionally not so subtle. A moving chair, a sliding lamp, a broken glass. More than once team members have been knocked down. At least twice there have been scratch marks.
One of my favorite episodes was one in which Grant and Jason both see a full-bodied apparition in an old theater. They acknowledge to each other that they’ve seen the apparition, but then each go to another team member to tell him what they saw: a woman in an old-fashioned white dress. It turned out they had seen the same thing, and without telling each other.
It must be fake (as my boyfriend likes to remind me). But these guys are not actors. They’re regular joes, not necessarily attractive, sometimes overweight. Their excitement and astonishment are real. They’re like guys and women you might know, only they hunt ghosts.
* * *
I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with spooky stuff. When I was nine, I saw The Exorcist by mistake. It was at my parents’ friends’ house during a mah-jongg party. Usually the kids played James Bond movies, but for some reason that day it was the Linda Blair-headturning-peasoup-vomiting-The-power-of-Christ-compels-you extravaganza, after which I developed acute insomnia, exacerbated by too much cough syrup for a bout of the flu.
Afterward, I was both drawn to and repelled by horror movies. Like the soon-to-be-killed dummy who goes on his own to investigate a scary sound, I knew I should stay away from the likes of Terror in the Wax Museum, Sleepaway Camp (don’t laugh, that shit was scary), and The Shining, but I couldn’t. Before I knew it, I’d find myself watching, a blanket drawn halfway up my face.
Of course I always regretted it afterward. I’d lie in bed trying to sleep, the images playing and replaying in my head.
* * *
For this 100th episode, TAPS investigated Alcatraz island, a former prison 1.5 miles from San Francisco, home to such notorious criminals as Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and the Birdman of Alcatraz himself, Robert Stroud.
Relatively new to San Francisco, I haven’t had the chance yet to visit the island, but now I can’t wait. Will I hear a mysterious voice whisper “no”? Will I feel a phantom hand grab my shoulder? Might I smell soap where there is none, leftover from when the Birdman bathed and weirdly shaved his whole body every day?
Would I stick around or turn tail and run?
* * *
The closest thing to a ghostly experience I’ve had was in college. One night, my friends and I decided to play with a Ouija board. I swear the shuttle moved by itself. One spirit we talked to claimed to be B – A – D. Why? we asked it. K – I – L – L, it spelled before we ran screaming back to our rooms.
* * *
Ghosts can’t harm us, Jason and Grant have said again and again to their clients, usually when they’re freaking out from hearing a creepy EVP, or seeing a video of some inexplicable dark mass. They’re just energy that’s hanging around, either residually or intelligently.
I’m always amazed when the TAPS folks remain calm while investigating those deep dark places – abandoned mental hospitals, former prisons, old as shit castles. One of the most beloved episodes is the team’s visit to the St. Augustine lighthouse in Florida. This was one of those ark of the covenant-Loch Ness-Atlantis rarities: the witness by several team members of a dark head peering down, the capture of the dark head on video, and corroborating stories by previous witnesses.
Another favorite episode of mine is the visit to Fort Mifflin in Philadelphia, PA. While Grant is investigating, he’s so startled, he drops his flashlight. “I almost crapped my pants!” he cries. What he’s seen is a face, clear as day, right in front of him. There, then gone. While startled and excited by his sighting, Grant has no problem continuing the investigation. I’d have run away screaming like a little girl.
Kind of like Brian in the first Eastern State Penitentiary investigation. One moment things are calm, the next Brian and the cameraman are running for their lives, having seen a black looming figure. A normal response for you and me, but not for professionals. Needless to say, Brian didn’t last too much longer.
* * *
A couple of years ago, I went on a graveyard tour in Charleston. The guide told us about plat-eyes, a mischievous ghost from Gullah culture. They’re most active during the full moon – which it had been the night before – and take the shape of a white creature. Supposedly during a tour on the night of the full moon, a woman saw a white cat with green eyes, and at the same time felt a severe stabbing pain in her side.
Chilled, I kept my eye out for something white to dash among the headstones. I didn’t see anything, but as we left, I said to my cynical boyfriend, “You wanted to see the cat,” and at that very moment, a cat leapt out in front of us.
It wasn’t white – in fact it was black – but that didn’t stop me from yelling, “Oh my God!” and jumping ten feet, much to the amusement of my boyfriend and the rest of the tour group.
Later we had dinner at Poogan’s Porch, one of the most haunted places in America. Many years ago, two spinster sisters lived in the house. After one of the sisters died from a fall down the steps, the living sister, Zoe, went nuts and died in an institution.
When the the house was renovated into a restaurant in the ’70s (according to TAPS, renovation of a site can stir up paranormal activity) weird stuff started happening – the apparition of a little old lady waving from the second floor after the restaurant was closed, stuff being moved around, and the topper, someone in the second floor bathroom looking up to see the image of a little old lady in the mirror.
As we were eating, we overheard the waiter telling another couple the Zoe story.
“Oh my God!” the woman said. “I was just in the bathroom and felt totally creeped out.” And she hadn’t even known the legend then.
This was my chance. I could do a real live EVP session, only without a recorder. I could shut the door with the light off and ask “Zoe” questions. Are you here? If so, could you give me some sign? Is it true you appear to people in the mirror? Will you appear to me? Are you lonely? Do you miss your sister?
“Wish me luck,” I told my boyfriend.
He rolled his eyes. “Good luck,” he muttered.
I made my way up the creaky stairs. Of course the second floor was empty, and the bathroom all the way at the end of the hall. My heart was already pounding. The door was slightly ajar, the light off. I pushed the door open: nothing. Taking a deep breath, I plunged myself in and shut the door behind me. Total darkness.
I lasted less than ten seconds. Slapping the light back on, I peed the fastest pee in the West, didn’t bother washing my hands, and ran back downstairs.
“Chicken shit,” my boyfriend said.
He was right. I wouldn’t last five minutes, let alone 100 episodes, with TAPS.