Fixed to a tripod, the camcorder is trained on the stalls. I peer through the viewfinder: the infrared gives a cool, greenish tint to the pipes and cement walls. But it’s a deceptive cool. A heat wave is on and the Stratford Motor Hotel AC is dead. Even here and now, the ladies’ room at 2 AM, Bing Crosby breezing from the portable tape deck sitting on the baby changer (eerily crooning “all the way from Phil-a-del-phi-ay”), it is hotter than blazes.
I get the feeling Rene would stay with us until dawn if it meant we would see a ghost–that our documentary will be incomplete if we don’t leave converts. Ed, my partner, leans against a sink and rubs his eyes, headset collared. Our equipment looks measly next to Rene’s, which requires two duffel bags and a caddy (tonight that caddy is me and Ed). She carries backup batteries for everything: electromagnetic meter, Sony infrared camera, thermal scanner. Ghosts, she says, will sap a battery dry “at the drop of a hat.” They will throw cameras out of focus. To ward off such snafus she asks the spirits for permission. She coaxes them like houseplants. Dabbing at her neck with a cold beer from the hotel bar, Rene Horath, PhD, professor of industrial engineering, attempts to bridge the gap between sound-wave physics and supernatural orbs of light. Or to explain why non-entities prefer swing (Der Bingle) to church hymns. But midlecture we’re cut off. Someone needs to pee.
Rene, like most of her fellow ghost hunters–150 plus have convened here at the Stratford in Alton, across and just up the river from Saint Louis, for the third annual American Ghost Society convention–is quick to say that there are no experts in her field. It is a dodgy qualifier that we will hear many times over the weekend. Even the conference host, Troy Taylor, has been investigating only six years. Before that he ran a paranormal bookshop and a haunted trolley tour in Decatur. He was an active member of the nation’s largest pack, the International Ghost Hunters Society. Soon after he left the IGHS–or got kicked out (it depends on who you ask), schisms and secessions being common among the wonkish egos of the ghost club capos–he organized his own posse, the American Ghost Society. He moved his bookshop to Alton last year. Pressed to explain ghost theory, he is candid but circumspect. Troy hedges his bets. When I ask if he considers himself a scientist, he says, “I’m sure that any scientist would call me a pseudoscientist of the worst sort.”
Ed and I arrived yesterday. We’re staying at the Comfort Inn across town. It turns out to be OK that the Stratford was booked. Not just because of the fritzy AC, but because it’s nice to have a retreat. Ed, who works for CNN Radio, first interviewed Troy last Halloween. We’ve come to Alton as freelancers to do a more thorough documentary.
There are no level streets here. You’re either driving uphill or you’re driving downhill. The city teeters on bluffs. Home to the tallest man in history–Robert Wadlow, 8 feet 11.1 inches–Alton also claims the distinction of being Golgotha to the first white abolitionist martyr, the Reverend Elijah Lovejoy, shot dead by a mob in 1837. Come winter, migrant bald eagles hog the bridges and docked barges. From its aerie, the Stratford looks down upon the town’s colossus, the Conagra grain mill. The desk manager at the Stratford told me about the eagles. As for Robert Wadlow, the Guinness Book of World Records says so, and I saw his statue, so it must be true.
Troy is introducing the keynote speaker when we straggle into the convention. Behind him a gaunt techie fiddles with a mess of blinking gizmos laid out like a smorgasbord. There’s nothing in the way of refreshment but 14 brimming pitchers of ice water. Ed, pouring himself a cup while I scout for seats, dumps a full pitcher. Troy Taylor, who wears a Band-Aid over his left eye and a strawberry blond goatee, whose forearm is tattooed with a rose, who is both cherubic and menacing and could play either good cop or bad cop, disregards the ice floe moving steadily toward the podium. When the woman at the door hands me my name tag she whispers that the lady in the front row wearing turquoise separates has asked to be pointed out to me. It is the Pennsylvania AGS rep, Rene Horath.
A few weeks ago, Rene kindly answered my probing E-mails. She explained her theories in progress about sound vibration and the appearance of orbs, or “spook lights,” the lowest-grade apparitions (full bodies being the rarest and, naturally, most coveted). We discussed how a ghost “manifests” by feeding off electrons (or protons, it’s unclear) and how that transference causes cold spots and disturbances in the electromagnetic field–thus the need for EMF meters and thermal scanners. She sent a sampler of orbs she’d captured on infrared video and regular 35-millimeter film. “Orbs” with distinctly similar shapes appear in precisely the same areas of multiple pictures. Where a gibbous milk spot appears in the upper left-hand corner of a cemetery, a gibbous milk spot appears in the upper left-hand corner of a garage, and a gibbous milk spot in the upper left-hand corner of a basement staircase. In Troy’s always considered opinion 90 percent of orbs are either dust or the fickle play of light. He dismisses most spirit photographs as double exposure, chemical accident, or fraud. Nonetheless, I will take up Rene’s offer to play with her equipment the night after the haunted trolley tour.
The gaunt techie turns out to be the keynote speaker. President of the Chicago Ghost Research Society, Dale Kaczmarek is Troy’s mentor. He’s been ghostbusting for 25 years.
It’s considered a faux pas to profit directly from ghost research. Most ghostbusters don’t charge for actual investigation. If they don’t have day jobs–most of them do, including Dale, who’s a forklift operator–they make money selling books, equipment, and conference registrations (this one is $150 a head). The IGHS now offers a “Home Study Course for the Certified Ghost Hunter Diploma” ($149.95). Dale’s assistants sell T-shirts and hats and videos and a bunch of used books on everything from bigfoot to the Amityville horror. Tomorrow conventioneers will pay ten bucks to walk through a condemned building.
Without so much as a bad joke, Dale cuts to the chase, to his ghostbusting repertoire, a blinking nexus of motion detector, Geiger counter, negative-ion detector, EMF meter, voice stress analyzer, and oscilloscope–all networked to a laptop that he proudly lets us know sets its watch “by military time.” An experiment concerning ionic charge that I vaguely remember from sixth grade is repeated here when Dale’s assistant comes up and scrapes a comb across his pate.
From where I sit I can see Dale’s homunculus in the viewfinder of a Sony digital camcorder manned by a dude in the front row who is outfitted like a war correspondent. Beside me, a lady with dimply knuckles takes voracious notes. A thermal scanner peeks out of her purse like a Glock. A woman in front of me wears a handmade T-shirt with the URL of her local spook guild. I’m haunted by the thought that we might as well be at a metal detector enthusiasts convention. Both groups employ expensive gadgetry with gauges and needles and knobs marked “squelch.” Both draw history geeks. It is difficult to get a demographic profile. The closest thing to a child is a 16-year-old pierced through the lip with what looks like a golf cleat. There’s a redneck or two in a John Deere cap. Other than that, dimply knuckled Botero ladies hold the court.
Dale pontificates. While fast-forwarding through a video of raw footage, he tells us that we are coexisting with the spirit world. That when you see something out of the corner of your eye it’s probably paranormal. That dogs can smell ghosts. That when you see a cat pawing at an invisible speck on the wall, it’s probably not an invisible speck to the cat. That when you feel or hear something strange you shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand as “natural.” That when your lights flicker, when your TV goes fuzzy, it’s probably a ghost. That ghosts are like parasites because they feed off our electromagnetic radiation (the same way they feed off toaster ovens and car ignitions). That visions upon waking are probably real (not, as sleep researchers define it, hypnopompic). That when your eyes play tricks it’s probably no trick.
It’s no trick even after staring at six hours of empty hallway on videotape. Which Dale allegedly did to get this piece of dramatic footage he has finally keyed up. That’s the hardest part, he says, the boredom of wading through hours of nothing, staring at hours of wallpaper, hours of linoleum. The audience leans toward the television: a blip no more tempestuous than an eyelash crosses the screen. Ooohs and aaahs erupt from the audience. “Oh freaky, oh cool,” says someone behind me. “Really freaky.” Asked why he’s never bothered to submit his evidence to Sony for analysis, Dale says that even if they couldn’t find an explanation they’d never admit it was paranormal.
The Ghost Hunter’s Handbook–the quasi-official guide penned by Troy Taylor–defines two sorts of ghosts. The “intelligent haunting” is the spirit who lingers because of unfinished business. The intelligent haunting has personality; it is conscious; it was probably murdered. The “residual haunting” is less soul than celluloid. It is the actual moment of trauma “imprinted” on the atmosphere. The bleeding armchair. The incorporeal shadow. The mood itself trapped. “A piece of time,” Troy writes, “stuck in place.” Boarded-up mental hospitals are thought to be especially prone to residuals. In fact the famed ghost hunter Hans Holzer, making the distinction between “spirits” and “ghosts,” wrote that the spirit’s “unfortunate colleague,” the ghost, is similar to the “psychotic….All he can do is repeat the final moments of his passing, the unfinished business, as it were, over and over until it becomes an obsession.” And yet the existence of ghosts reassures many here. Cold comfort, I think, if ghosts are nothing but broken, imprisoned souls. Of course, there is also a New Age school that believes its greatest service is to help these trapped haints cross to the other side.
A crew is going to see The Haunting, but we beg off. Back at the Comfort Inn I go for a scalding dip in the heated pool, and then watch C-SPAN2’s Book TV. Barry Glassner, author of Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things, quotes Nixon: “People react to fear, not love. They don’t teach that in Sunday school, but it’s true.” Ed, listening to tape from our first batch of interviews, is nodding happily. Giving me thumbs-up.
In the lobby I run into War Correspondent taking a thermal scan of the baby grand. Loaded with the highest-quality digital ghost gear on the market, he makes little automatic shrugs the way a SWAT captain might. I know how much all this stuff costs from the on-line catalogs–one can arm oneself handsomely in the service of advancing ghost research for not quite half the budget of The Blair Witch Project. But I don’t have to ask how he affords it all. He tells me that he’s recently liquidated $40,000 worth of Elvis memorabilia.
“It’s like there’s enough mundaneness in my life–I work nine to five, whatever. I want to get out there and experience something out of the ordinary.” That W.C. is a correctional officer tacitly corroborates something Troy’s already said. Ghostbusters prefer working with “law enforcement” over scientific types, because of the badge wearers’ superior “investigative” skills.
This time last year, W.C. was in Oregon at the IGHS convention (since then he’s defected and started his own on-line ghost club). He went with a group to investigate the site of a town wiped out by an avalanche. They were at the entrance of a train tunnel when he heard what he thought was a dinner party. He heard voices, the clink of champagne glasses. “So I turn around to these guys up the embankment and I say, ‘Do you guys hear this too?’ And they’re like, ‘Yes we do.'”
“In a situation like that,” I start to ask, “when you’re with other people who are open to–”
“Yes! Yes. I’m anticipating your question. Yes. Definitely.”
I remark on his go-go approach. It’s athletic. He’s, like, a ghost jock. “You’re–I wouldn’t want to say eager…”
“You gotta let ’em know what you want,” he says. There is nothing profound or psychic about it. Each encounter he’s earned by sheer willpower. He summons ghosts at will. After he saw his first full body apparition he celebrated his new status like a giddy debutante. “Now,” he gloats, “I’m part of that club!”
One thing that bugs me is the apparent arbitrariness with which “phenomena” are captured. Some, like Troy, claim they wait to photograph until they have corroborating phenomena–motion detectors going off, aberrant thermal measurements, electromagnetic fluctuations–but most admit to just snapping pictures whenever.
Curious about one of W.C.’s pics of ectoplasm–not the eggy spooge disgorged by mediums of the seance era, but the term as used by today’s G’busta to describe “ghost fog,” a protean, misty substance somewhere on the evolutionary scale between an orb and a full body–I ask how he knew when and where to aim his camera, since ectoplasm, like its cousin the orb, is invisible to the naked eye.
“At that point it was pure desperation. I just yelled out, ‘OK, everybody! Thank you, I’m going home now, and this is your last chance to get in a photo!’ And then I got that nice ecto and I was like, Yes!” He pumps his fist like he’s scored a goal. “These are the little peaks in the valleys. The thing you live for.”
Despite his enthusiasm, W.C. is disenchanted with the conference. He came to see the experts. “To see the people who knew more than me.” He sighs impatiently. “But God, I know as much as these people–or at least I’ve formed opinions, you know, in my eight, nine months that I’ve been doing this. No, it’s a year now–since last July.”
Later, just for kicks, I pass several of W.C.’s ecto pics to Troy. Troy responds, “I have to say that I believe them to show a very spooky camera strap.”
Innumerable theories support the existence of ghosts. But many ghostbusters seem to find particular comfort in Einstein’s special theory of relativity (the mystical part about energy and mass being the same) and in the first law of thermodynamics (the part about how energy cannot be destroyed). Something a speaker says about sanity being what’s most at stake in any paranormal imbroglio resonates as the conference goes on. The bottom line here is that people are actively trying to woo the dead, some with equipment that is Soviet surplus.
Troy announces that booths will be closed during speeches because the registers are too noisy. Then, with glowing fanfare, he introduces his “boyhood hero,” the author of half a dozen books on Sasquatch. This cryptozoologist’s slide show begins with a quote he attributes to cryptopioneer Charles Fort: “One measures a circle beginning anywhere.” His own circle began, he tells us, after “fictionalized” accounts of yeti in movies like The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas inspired him to take seriously his previous decision to become a naturalist (via Wild Kingdom). At age 14 he started chasing monsters full-time. Twenty-five years later without so much as a toenail clipping, he plugs on undeterred.
The rest of his slides are mainly sketches, sketches no more or less accomplished than the handiwork of any 12-year-old of average imagination. (Ed’s filched a deck of playing cards bearing these sketches, along with stats on werewolves, phantom clowns, and so on. The cards were printed by the American Realist Company.) When he starts talking about “devil monkeys” (last mistaken for kangaroos in Utah), I excuse myself. Ed, keen on cryptozoology, stays.
I retreat to the bar. A fella who looks like Harry Dean Stanton, but shadier, is at the bar with another guy whom I recall seeing around here during an interview with a local psychic named Antoinette. It turns out they are Antoinette’s assistants. I order a beer and join them. They’re kvetching about how the Masonic Temple (the high point of tonight’s haunted trolley tour) is going to be hotter than bitchcakes, and this somehow leads the guy who doesn’t look like Harry Dean Stanton to tell me that he’s a former worshipful master. This leads to a discussion of the Shriners, because, as this Shriner explains, every Shriner is a Mason but every Mason isn’t necessarily a Shriner. Warming to the topic, I confess a soft spot for the Shriners’ “tin lizzies.” How I probably wouldn’t bother with Memorial Day parades if I didn’t think the baton twirlers and Jaycees would yield to happy old men in sequined lapels and tasseled fezzes switchbacking the double yellow line, working the sidebars like one-armed bandits. “Those bastards can turn on a dime,” he gloats. He says it’s too bad I missed the big national convention in Saint Louis. More tin lizzies than you could shake a stick at. I change the subject to ask what the hell bigfoot has to do with ghosts, and Harry Dean Stanton, left out until now, chimes in. His pallid fingers nervously thrum his chin.
“Bigfoot can influence your mind. Do ESP. That sort of thing.”
That’s why people run away. Bigfoot scares people by putting bad thoughts in their heads. I have to ask. “They weren’t just scared because he was a nine-foot-tall hairy anthropoid?”
Nope. “He actually telepathically makes you feel an emotion.”
The Shriner looks at his wristwatch. Antoinette is upstairs prepping the conventioneers for the tour, and they’re supposed to be helping, I guess. Truant lackeys. Just before he leaves, the Shriner leans conspiratorially close and whispers, “Did you know a ghost was listening in while you guys were interviewing Antoinette?” Taking the bait, I follow outside to where the trolleys are lined on the uphill curb. Albert, the trolley pilot, stands off smoking.
I ask the Shriner what he meant.
“I was just sitting there listening to the interview when I felt somebody walk up on my left-hand side. I didn’t pick up much more than he was just there kind of watching you guys ’cause he felt you were doing something really odd in the bar and he was being nosy! He wanted to see what the hell was going on, that’s all it boiled down to. He stayed there about five, six minutes and left.”
The Shriner knows because he’s a psychic in his own right. Antoinette has her special powers and the Shriner has his. Specifically, he possesses the power “to catch a ghost and hold it still,” with his bare hands. He describes electric shocks in his palms, cold shivers down his arms. He compares the sensation to sticking your tongue on a nine-volt battery. He tells me that, generally speaking, at the lodge he can pretty much nail the same ghost every time. And what’s this ghost’s name? Jim. Jim who? Jim Brown. He promises to let me fondle Jim Brown if he comes out tonight. (A promise to be heartlessly broken.)
I start to talk to Albert when suddenly here come the conventioneers filing out of the hotel. “Uh-oh,” Albert says. “Time to roll.” Ed is with Rene. I ask if I missed anything and they tell me Antoinette cloaked them in a “blue-white light of love and protection.” Not to worry, Ed’s got me covered.
It only seems right that the AC on our trolley is busted. Antoinette wears the same big clacky bracelets and flowing blouse she wore during our interview when she gave both Ed and me psychic readings gratis (the results of which I won’t bother to divulge). The faces of the camcordered glow an eerie, grainy, viewfinder blue. But this time we’re not left out. I have Rene’s Raytek Raynger ST2L thermal scanner and Ed’s packin’ a Natural EM (electromagnetic) Meter. The permed head in the seat ahead of me is fluctuating between 88.7 and 89.4 degrees.
As Albert hauls us up the first severe grade, it feels less like a trolley than a gondola on a straining winch. We are pressed into miniature wooden benches. Our first stop is an easy 75 degree tilt outside the Unitarian Church. Antoinette explains how a nice man–but a pagan by virtue of being Unitarian–hanged himself in the rectory. “Oh freaky, oh cool.” A fresh expression yesterday, today everybody says it. “Really freaky.” What charismatic planted this meme? At each brief stop outside this or that haunted edifice, the cabin fills with sharp flashes off the interior glass. Ghostly images of a trolley filled to capacity float across my eyes. I overhear W.C. explaining his ideas of paranormal taxonomy. He’s describing a new phylum he believes he’s discovered and jokes (not exactly for laughs) that maybe one day they’ll name it after him the way they name new galaxies after astronomers.
I am flash blind and seeing orbs when we are let out at our destination. The Masonic Temple is crematorium hot. (Ed’s back reads 95.8 degrees.) After a brief apprisal of how we’re expected to conduct ourselves, a frenzy as frantic as an Easter egg hunt ensues. Everyone is busily investigating upstairs and downstairs, waving meters, popping flashes, searching for the moody dead. The third floor sways like a barn. Aimless flashlight beams frolic to the aid of no one. At first I try to affect the same purposefulness with my Raynger as the others but soon realize there’s just too much damn activity to reasonably expect any useful reading. (The only steady reading is my head at point-blank, 92.5 degrees.) I decide to get impressions with my tape recorder instead. In the pitch-black ballroom everyone is crowing about a rocking chair. It moved on its own! The EM meter is “off the charts,” Ed says, “off the charts.” I get a word with one of Dale’s team who’s off to the side with a Geiger counter. He’s a limo driver by trade. He tells me the Geiger picks up radiation, but aside from that he isn’t sure what he’s doing. He tells me they’re not even sure ghosts produce radiation–they’re still exploring that idea. He does know that when the Geiger clicks off more than three it’s registered radiation, and we’ve clicked two just standing here. A distracted psychic whose life I heroically save by pulling her out of the way of the stampede toward the animate rocker tells me that her hands feel “tingly” and she thinks maybe she saw some strange shadows up in the balcony. Soon Antoinette’s lackeys–I now see their function: they are chaperons–herd all the ghost clubbers up yet another floor to the assembly hall. I lag behind and end up on the dais with the throne second to what must be the incumbent worshipful master’s. Though I feel pretty self-conscious, my throne is cushioned, unlike the wooden sauna benches everyone else gets.
Antoinette, elbow on the marble-slab altar in the center of the floor, like she means to arm wrestle, dangles a pendulum and asks if we have a spirit in the room. She explains if the pendulum moves forward it’s nodding; sideways, it’s shaking no. Then the lights go off and we cook in the dark for about ten minutes. Antoinette assures us that what’s going on is not a seance. Only a dark-room session. A good time, she says, to get answers.
But not to my stockpile of questions. What, for instance, would move the pendulum to answer “no” if no spirit were present? Why do all ghosts seem to be wearing Victorian clothing? Isn’t there something openly defiant about using instruments specifically designed for specific scientific and engineering tasks to hunt for something that by its very definition is beyond the realm of ascertainable reality? Why does the “frequency” of an orb make it invisible to the human eye but visible on film? If ghosts feed off electromagnetic radiation, and if paranormal activity is strongest during solar flares and thunderstorms and within geomagnetic fields, why then, in the 20th century, where the general hertz of any household out-hertzes entire cities of the 18th century, is there not a constant flood of paranormal activity? It seems we should be plagued by ghosts, doesn’t it? Even if Troy is really so discerning, if he really doesn’t subscribe to the “fringe,” what are all the psychics and cryptozoologists doing here? Why, after repeated requests, does Troy fail to produce photographs for my perusal? Did Rene really see a psychic puke on a Ouija board? Is belief contagious? Does anyone here understand the burden of proof? Does anyone here understand the difference between proof and evidence? If a man dies, shall he live again?
As the trolley crests the town’s highest peak, Overlook Point, we are gifted with a spectacular view of the Mississippi. It’s the night of the lighted regatta. Barges and pleasure boats dressed with Christmas lights. The dark water spangles emerald and pink from the Alton Belle riverboat casino. The Raynger plunges subzero when I point it at the cornmeal yellow full moon. It is beautiful. I want to take a photograph. But just as I’m trying to focus there is a bloodcurdling scream.
Two ladies behind us, on their feet, screaming bloody redrum. Sourceless water bursts down on their heads. And this is the sequence of my thoughts (telescoped and reduced in speed for analysis): The women are plants. Something staged for our bemusement. But then the unfaked terror in the women’s eyes (however enhanced by the paparazzi’s blaze) and the sheer force of the water falling from the roof of the trolley convinces me, momentarily, otherwise. I know I’m thinking what everyone else on the bus must be thinking. We have manifestation. Poltergeist! Water Demon! Scooby, where are you? Then sobriety. Aha! The AC unit’s water just broke. If anything, the ladies seem grateful for the cool-off.
Much later, back at the Stratford, after Rene has concluded her lecture on resonant frequency in the ladies’ room, we trawl the third floor for ghosts. The hallway is pitch-black but the infrared turns the carpet a vivid shadowless underwater green. It is completely eerie. Ed and Rene look like zombies. Ed with his hands in his pockets, jangling keys. Rene looking straight at me, wide-eyed, expectant. I’m getting nothing. Rene suggests we try something else. She switches on an optional light above the lens. Now Ed is down the hallway with the camera and I’m staring into a very bright light surrounded by the vaporous, telltale halo of halogen. Ed says we have orbage. Rene takes the camera. “Omigod, omigod, it’s crawling with orbs!” Rene presses Ed for his impressions while I take a gander. I press my eye to the viewfinder. Within seconds, a few slow blips about the size of brussels sprouts float by haphazardly. Another blimpet appears. Then some blotchies. Rene is practically doing cartwheels. I say wow, and (I’m lying) how amazing. But mostly I just wonder what effect the combination of halogen and infrared might produce.
As we see her to her car–Ed’s got her tripod, I’ve got one of her duffel bags–Rene seems to be taking our unresponsiveness as awe. For some reason I’m reluctant to ask about the light. (Infrared sees wavelengths below the visible spectrum. What’s the wavelength frequency of halogen?) But I ask. She doesn’t know if the light on the camera is halogen. She’s just glad we’ve had the experience of a lifetime. “It totally makes my day, you guys. I was so scared you wouldn’t see them.” But we did. We did see them, and thank you, and good night.
We spend the night in a motel that abuts some endless span of corn. After one final buffet-style dinner, we sit on the patio in the humid mealy air, drinking beers, listening to the pizzicato of crickets, staring at the implacable wall of corn, the heatstroked stalks greenish pale in the moonlight. I think of Robert Wadlow in his bronze three-piece suit. His 371/2 AA brogans. I think of the tallest man in the world and picture him wading through the field, toward us, waist deep, head above the wispy tassels. I wonder if I could really believe in him without ever having seen him with my own two eyes and easily conclude that, yes, I could. Then I wonder if people used to run the other way when they saw him coming.
If he had ESP.
If he could put bad thoughts in people’s minds.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.