They See Dead People. (They try to, at least.)
Updated: Nov 10, 2021
“JOE HUNTS GHOSTS” ballcap on his head, Joe Turino killed the lights and called out to the dead.
“Do you like having so many people come in here?” he asked the unseen as he held a device called a “spirit box” in the darkness of the old firehouse at Yesteryear Village in suburban West Palm Beach.
Ten guests on the Saturday night ghost tour huddled around the device, a modified AM/FM radio that scans for radio frequencies. To the untrained ear, it sounded like pulsating bursts of garbled static white noise.
But Turino, an insurance claims adjuster by day and paranormal investigator by night, was sure he heard voices. So were a few others.
“‘Get out.’ I think it said ‘get out,’’’ said paranormal investigator JP Granstaff.
“I heard ‘no,’” said one enthusiastic guest.
Others heard something else — the distant screams of satisfied customers a few hundred yards away at Fright Nights, the Halloween attraction next door at the South Florida Fairgrounds.
But the night was young, still plenty of time for the restless spirits of Yesteryear Village to make their presences known.
And on this spirit safari, the visitors were in the capable hands of the ghost hunters of War Party Paranormal.
They’re engineers and retired cops, insurance brokers and paramedics, soccer moms and bleacher dads, conservatives and liberals, ordinary people living mostly ordinary lives with families and mortgages and pets and a shared fascination with things that go bump in the night.
They seek dead people.
And they’re everywhere.
The Retford Ghost Hunters in Sheffield, England. The Indian Paranormal Society in Mumbai. Italy’s Gruppo Investigative Attivita Paranormali. The Greek Paranormal Research Team in Athens. Paranormal Interventions Australia.
Thousands roam just about every corner of the United States, from the California Haunts Paranormal Investigations Team in Sacramento to the Believe it or Not Paranormal Society in Oklahoma City to the Texas Ghost Gals near Houston to The Atlantic Paranormal Society in Rhode Island.
In Florida, more than 200 paranormal research groups are listed in one online directory. Among them: Big Lake Paranormal in Clewiston, Gold Coast Paranormal in West Palm Beach, the Key West Paranormal Society, Sarasota Paranormal Investigative Science and the Florida Bureau of Paranormal Investigations in Vero Beach.
Armed with “ghost meters,” “spirit boxes” and SLS cameras, along with old-school tools like dowsing rods, plastic cat balls and baby powder (to track footsteps), they search for the presence of the unseen, be it voices, visuals or from-out-of-nowhere physical tugs of a shirt.
One of the busiest is the non-profit War Party Paranormal of South Florida, made up of a dozen investigators from Miami to Jupiter.
“There's nothing that connects any one of us to each other other than our pure fascination with paranormal investigating,’’ Chessy Layne, an artist and professional angler from Palm Beach Gardens, said about her War Party colleagues.
“It’s my church. Every Saturday night when ‘normal’ people are out at bars or dinner or parties, this is our serenity. This is where we find peace.’’
It’s also where they can spread their ghost-seeking wings without being ridiculed.
“My wife hates it. My kids are embarrassed. They think I'm crazy,” Eric Vanderlaan, 54, of Fort Lauderdale, said with a laugh.
“Then my (teenage) daughter notices her friends think it’s pretty cool, so now she’s getting more interested in it. ‘Oh my dad’s a ghost hunter.’”
Many investigators promote local history, leading public tours in places like the Gold Coast Railroad Museum in Miami, Stuart’s House of Refuge and the old Fellsmere School in Indian River County.
War Party’s tours of Yesteryear Village cost $35, with the proceeds going to the South Florida Fair for upkeep of the village’s historic buildings.
But ghost tours are ancillary to the services War Party and other groups say they offer for no charge — responding to the requests of frightened homeowners to investigate strange noises and happenings in their homes.
“We’re here to help people,’’ said War Party co-founder Marla “Scottie” Burns of Palm Beach Gardens.
“We do a lot of tours, but it's all about getting our name out there so if somebody needs help, they know there’s somebody they can call. And I get a lot of calls.’’
Just don’t call them “ghost busters.’’
“If you say you're a paranormal investigator, a lot of people look at you like you have three heads,’’ said Burns, who said she grew up in a 200-year-old house in Pennsylvania haunted by “Annie” and other spirits.
“Then I say ‘I'm a ghost hunter’ and they're like, ‘Oh, OK,’ and then they think we’re like Ghost Busters in the movies. No, it’s not like that. We don't run around with our backpacks and catch ghosts. It's a lot more mundane.’’
But like other paranormal teams around the United States, they do wear matching shirts with the War Party logo on the front.
And they say their investigations don’t set out to prove the existence of ghosts. Instead, they try to debunk claims of alleged hauntings.
Sometimes it’s just rats in the walls or or faulty wiring or kids pulling a prank.
Sometimes it’s something else entirely.
One of the earliest ghost stories, a trilogy of Greek tragedies first performed in 458 B.C., features the character Clytemnestra, a ghost who seeks justice for the son who murdered her.
In the first century A.D., the Roman statesman Pliny the Younger wrote letters about the specter of an old man with a long beard haunting his house in Athens.
By the 19th century, a fascination with spiritualism took root. At the University of Cambridge, intellectuals started meeting in 1855 to discuss ghosts and psychic phenomena, leading to the formation in 1862 of London’s Ghost Club.
King George IV, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill and President Harry S. Truman alleged having paranormal experiences.
“There has been too much over the millennia to say it’s somebody’s imagination,’’ said retired police officer Larry Lawson, owner of Indian River Hauntings and founder of the Florida Bureau of Paranormal Investigations.
“To say it doesn't exist would deny the countless number of rational educated people who have had experiences.’’
Real or not, people over the years have found ways to cash in.
Ghosts and the undead have appeared over the centuries in the writings of William Shakespeare, Washington Irving, Bram Stoker and Stephen King. Cartoonists created “Casper” and “Scooby Doo.” The Ghost and Mrs. Muir in 1947 introduced moviegoers to a romantic ghost.
In the 2000s, television shows like SyFy's "Ghost Hunters," A&E's "Paranormal State" and the Travel Channel's "Ghost Adventures" popularized ghost hunting and made it comfortable for more and more people to share personal stories of alleged hauntings.
Online stores like The Ghost Shop, Gotcha Ghost and GhoSt Augustine hawk the latest ghost hunting equipment — from $65 K2 meters (to detect spikes in electromagnetic energy) to a $549 Structured Light Sensory Cameras (to capture spirit forms that can’t be seen with the naked eye.)
“Home Protection Kits,’’ with hand-rolled sage, piece a Palo Santo Wood and spray for warding off unwanted spirits, are offered for $40 at the Paranormal Existence Research Society’s online store.
Many groups offer Paranormal Boot Camps, teaching ghost hunting basics. Ghostly Experiences, War Party Paranormal's business branch, charges $60 for boot camps (“Learn it...then Do it!’’).
And on Sept. 25, National Ghost Hunting Day, Yesteryear Village sold out of its 50 slots, $60 each, for the World’s Largest Ghost Hunt, featuring simultaneous ghost hunts live-streamed on nearly every continent.
“The TV shows brought it out of the closet, but there’s some shady stuff out there,’’ Port Salerno paranormal investigator Tricia Mesmer said, referring to disreputable hucksters who take advantage of people.
When Mesmer and her husband, Patrick, launched Port Salerno Ghost Tours in 2010, “people thought we were nuts,’’ she said. “Religious people give us a hard time. They like to pray for us.’’
Eleven years later, their mostly-weekly ghost tours attract dozens of people, some of whom pull them aside to share personal stories.
To bolster their beliefs, many ghost hunters cite Albert Einstein, who once said, “Energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be changed from one form to another.”
On a tour in September, a woman borrowed Tricia Mesmer’s spirit box and called out to her deceased mother. A garble that resembled a woman’s voice crackled through the static, moving the woman to tears.
“I don’t think it’s easy for spirits to cross over,’’ Patrick Mesmer said. “Just as it’s difficult for us to see them, I think it’s just as difficult for them to see us.’’
Ghost hunting can be dangerous, too. Paranormal investigators have been hit by trains, fallen off buildings and dodged gunfire, resulting in death and injuries.
While there have been no reports of police arresting ghosts for attempted assault on ghost hunters, some paranormal groups take no chances.
On some tours, guests are doused with smoke from smoldering sage — said to prevent unwanted spirits from following you home.
Guests of Port Salerno Ghost Tours are required to sign waivers, perhaps in jest, absolving the operators of responsibility "for any ghosts or spirits, or any other paranormal entity that may frighten you in any way.''
Boo to all of that, say skeptics who dismiss the existence of ghosts and the ability of electronic devices to detect ghosts.
“Electronic voice phenomena have continued to rank among the most prominent ‘evidence’ offered of paranormal activity, it seems, precisely because humans are hardwired to dredge meaning out of chaos,’’ author Colin Dickey wrote in The Atlantic in 2016.
“Looking for proof of the paranormal, they will find it in anything, but most readily in static, gibberish, and errata — technological noise in which we’re hardwired to find false positives.’’
The same goes for photographs supposedly showing ghostly faces, skeptics say. Humans are wired to find meaning in the meaningless, a process known as pareidolia (pear-eye-DOH-lee-ah), often experienced while staring at clouds and seeing faces or animals.
“Ultimately, ghost hunting is not about the evidence (if it was, the search would have been abandoned long ago),’’ Benjamin Radford of Skeptical Inquirer wrote in 2006.
“Instead, it's about having fun with friends, telling ghost stories, and the enjoyment of pretending you are searching the edge of the unknown. (It's also about making money selling "Ghost Hunters" T-shirts, books, and videos.) Ghost hunters may be spinning their wheels, but at least they are enjoying the ride.’’
“The Long Hair Ghost Hunter” arrived as an orange glow pulsated on the horizon west of the South Florida Fairgrounds, the last gasps of a dying sunset.
Tim Arnwine, blond hair flowing down his shoulders, yanked open the steel entrance gate to Yesteryear Village and strode purposefully into the darkness, off to rouse “Joseph,” “Michael” and the other spirits said to lurk in the historic homes.
He wasn’t alone.
Eleven other War Party colleagues were waiting for him at a pavilion, unloading cases of ghost hunting gadgets they said had a combined worth of $100,000. Among Arnwine's "ghost hunting toys," one stood out: a teddy bear stuffed with electronics that detects movement, temperatures and vibrations.
The investigators split into teams of two, each stationed with their ghost-detecting gear in the village’s six buildings.
“The Riddle House isn't even the most active house here. The firehouse is hot,’’ Arnwine said, no pun intended. “The Bell House has the most action. We get a lot of EVPs and people get touched.’’
Before he retired, Arnwine saw plenty of death in his job as a Miami paramedic. He tapped his open mind and wondered about the possibilities of life after death.
“I began to think there had to be something more than just putting someone in the ground,’’ he writes in his bio on the War Party Paranormal website. “After being touched in an empty hospital area, I went from thinking ‘there must be something more’ to ‘why are they here?’”
If they were “here” inside the Pineapple House on this Saturday night tour in October, they weren’t going out of their way to make themselves known.
“Is Capt. Richards here?’’ Arnwine asked, speaking into a voice-activated recorder. When he played it back, his was the only clear voice on the recording, though some guests thought they heard another.
“I thought he said ‘leave,’’’ said one woman.
On the porch of the Riddle House, built in 1905 and at one time a funeral parlor, paranormal investigator Sara Brooke yelled to an approaching visitor, “Hey, skeptical reporter, come listen to this.”
She played back a recording, made a few minutes earlier, that she insisted was the voice of "Joseph," who is said to have hung himself in the attic to escape financial problems in the 1920s, telling a guest to leave.
All this “skeptical reporter” heard was white noise. I asked her to play it again, this time to record the audio on my iPhone to study later.
But something odd happened. The shutter button on the camera suddenly stopped working. I closed and relaunched the photo app several times but the camera refused to take any photos or video.
“That seems to happen to a lot of phones inside this house,’’ Brooke said.
After guiding the group upstairs, Brooke tried to summon “Joseph.” He’d been active with the previous group, she said, but not with this one.
“He’s not as chatty as he usually is.’’
At the Bell House, my camera phone started working again and I took several photos of the Halloween decorations including a plastic skeleton in a phone booth. But when I got home later, none of the images were on my phone. It was as if they vanished.
The handiwork of mischievous spirits? Or just a temporary technological glitch that had never happened to my phone before?
Despite a polite and persistent interrogation from two War Party investigators, the spirits of the Bell house tour failed (as far as I could tell) to make their presences known.
“Ghosts are just like cats,’’ investigator Amaris Fairchild said before the guests called it a night and went home. “They do what they want, when they want.’’
The ghost hunt would resume another day.
Retired police officer Larry Lawson of Indian River Ghost Tours made a career of gathering solid evidence that held up in court to crack murder cases, solve burglaries and put pedophiles behind bars.
While he said he personally has never seen any conclusive proof that ghosts exist, he has seen and heard things he hasn’t been able to explain, like the apparition he saw walking down a cellblock in the Dade County Jail when he worked as a corrections officer in 1980.
“I've been asked, ‘How can you be a cop and you believe this stuff if you can't prove it?’ A cop has to have an open mind. If I come to your house to investigate a crime, you want me to investigate everything and come up with a conclusion. That's the same with this,’’ he said one day over the phone.
"While I have certain beliefs, the evidence isn’t there to support it yet. Even if you want to talk about religion, a lot of that is pure fiction. We don't have lot of evidence to back that up, either.’’
Lawson, who has worked for police departments in Delray Beach and Port St. Lucie, isn’t about to give up on his hunt for the unseen.
“Is it really something on the other side? Is it Einstein's theory of dimensions? I believe there is something out there that we have yet to explain,’’ he said.
“Until the day Abe Lincoln pulls up a chair, sits down in front me and says, ‘Larry, this is what's going on on the other side,’ it's going to be tough to prove anything. But I guess that's the adventure.’’
© 2021 ByJoeCapozzi.com All rights reserved.
Sign up for a free subscription to ByJoeCapozzi.com
IN CASE YOU MISSED my previous blog: It’s Always Halloween in the Whimsical World of Artist Kyle Smile
MUSIC FROM OTHER KEYBOARDS
Molly Fitzpatrick in the New York Times: Quarantining With a Ghost? It’s Scary
Elizabeth Yuko in Bloomberg: The Terrifying Rise of Haunted Tourism
Livia Gershon in Smithsonian Magazine: 3,500-Year-Old Babylonian Tablet May Contain Earliest Known Depiction of a Ghost