Every October 31, millions of Americans celebrate All Hallow's Eve, better known in the United States as Halloween, a spooky kind of costume party, harvest festival and Day of the Dead rolled into one. Halloween has become a popular ritual for neighborhood children who "trick or treat" from door-to-door collecting candies. But there's a group of adults who mark Halloween with a much more serious purpose. They're on the lookout for ghosts - REAL ghosts. Several groups of scientists and experts in the supernatural, including members of the American Ghost Society and the National Ghost Hunters Society, believe paranormal activity picks up when the sun goes down on Halloween. Their job is to prove what's real, what isn't - and maybe answer some questions about life after death. Erika Celeste recently met these folks at a Ghost Hunters Convention in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
Historic Parkersburg, West Virginia is home to a Victorian downtown filled with museums, hotels and... hauntings. This morning, 75 people from around the country have gathered for a three-day conference on the paranormal at a ghosthunters convention. President of the American Ghost Society, Troy Taylor, cautions people to keep an open mind before they scoff.
"The misconception about ghost sightings, is that anyone who sees one's either got to be crazy, drunk, or stupid," he said. "Over the years, hundreds of years, we've been able to say that's not the case. Sure there are drunk and stupid people who see ghosts, but for the most part, there's something to this. What it all means, I don't think we've been able to determine, but I do think there's something to it."
Historian and convention organizer, Susan Sheppard says Parkersburg is the ideal place for ghost investigators to gather, for two reasons. First, West Virginia has a long history of famous paranormal stories, including the Moth Man, a strange apparition who, some believe, predicted the 1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge in which 46 people died. Second, says Ms. Sheppard, Parkersburg is situated at the confluence of two rivers. "It's been suggested by some that areas that are surrounded by water or where waterways connect, tend to magnify the psychic energies of the area," said Susan Sheppard. "They sort of make it into a pristine state where it enables the hauntings to occur."
As the conference begins inside the historic Blannerhasset Hotel, strange things begin to happen. Lights brighten and dim with each major point made by the lecturers, and the slide projector keeps turning itself off - as if the spirits were trying to get the convention-goers attention. Mrs. Sheppard believes it may have something to do with William Chancellor, the hotel's builder and now resident ghost. "He has appeared especially on the second floor when guests staying here have awakened in the middle of the night and they'll see an older gentleman standing at the foot of their bed," she said. "He'll be wearing a three-piece suit and he'll look at them in a very sad melancholy way and then he'll gradually fade."
But Mrs. Sheppard says most who visit the Blannerhasset don't see an apparition because it is the rarest form of paranormal activity. More common ghost encounters include strange smells, sounds, and being touched. While ghost stories may make life exciting, Mr. Taylor takes a more scientific approach to ghosts. "What we try to do is eliminate any kinds of impossibilities or natural explanation for anything," he said. "When we do an investigation, we're not automatically assuming ghosts are everywhere. We go into the investigation with the idea that it's probably not a ghost, because 9 times out of 10, it's not."
Throughout the day, conference goers attend several workshops on different aspects of ghost hunting, from collecting and researching evidence to following procedure. Chanda Wright, a doctor of parapsychology and founder of the National Ghost Hunters Society, informs her listeners that following the rules makes all the difference when verifying paranormal presence. "We have a handbook for investigations that we like to follow," said Chanda Wright. "No drinking, no smoking, no fooling around in the cemetery or house. But we like to go there set up, maybe use a little electronic equipment, definitely use photographs and tape recordings a along with video tape to capture things on film that other people can't argue with."
On an average hunt, Dr. Wright likes to have one investigator for every room or area they'll be studying. When possible, each person should have at least two pieces of equipment, which could be anything from an infrared scope to a motion detector and thermal scanner. But Mr. Taylor adds the most popular and inexpensive devices are a still camera and a tape recorder. "We try to find corresponding activity," he said. "In other words, just because a meter goes off, doesn't mean the place is haunted. We like to have a meter and a temperature gage or maybe a strange photograph that can't be explained all at the same time. That's more in the way of evidence than just one thing."
Conference-goer Jack Hyson says he's a little more skeptical of the paranormal since attending some of the lectures. "I learned that not all ghost activity is really ghost activity, a lot of it is just electrical surges, it could be any number of things," said Jack Hyson.
As darkness approaches the event everyone has been waiting for gets underway… the ghost hunt. Night is the best time for a ghost investigation because electromagnetic fields and gravitational pulls are more conducive after dark and there's also less chance of reflection in photographs.
Riverview cemetery is the second oldest and most haunted cemetery in Wood County. The first grave is 1801. There are two West Virginia governors buried here.
A technician from West Virginia University starts up his electronic field meter.
It takes about 10 minutes to warm up and stabilize, but any change in the magnetic field. See how that rotates around?
The group breaks down into smaller groups sectioning off the cemetery and dividing the equipment. Nineteen-year-old Tara Hull from Clarksburg, West Virginia, is a little nervous, but her eyes shine with excitement. "There's a lot more that's explainable this way than there is to just try and disregard it," she said. "It just supports my belief that there are more things than we understand."
An occasional camera snaps as darkness engulfs the cemetery. Flashlights are turned off and voices fall silent as the waiting begins. It usually takes 15 minutes to a half-hour for any paranormal activity to start.
So you feel there's almost like a tingling warmth in your palms. That's psychic energy…the idea is to be aware of what your body is telling you.
Over the next three hours, several more electronic readings and photographs are taken. While the hunters believe they may have caught some paranormal activity - including a spectral photograph - good investigators don't draw conclusions quickly. It will take weeks to analyze and coordinate the evidence. Susan Sheppard says that's all right because time is the one thing we do have on our side when it comes to ghosts. "It's the one mystery that we can't totally solve and that is 'what happens to us after we pass on?' We can guess what happens," she said. "We can have theories about what happens. We can have a belief system where we think we know what happens, but we don't clearly know."