On Halloween, traditionally the spookiest night of the year, many Americans go to parties dressed up as witches, devils and ghosts. Others use the night when spirits are said to walk the earth to try to meet actual ghosts. While ghosts in Halloween attractions are not real, there are many real haunted places where people dare to enjoy the mysterious, explore the unknown and feel the presence of spirits, not only on Halloween but all year round.
When Chuck Hanson and his wife Joy decided to buy the Mason House Inn in Bentonsport Iowa, in 2001, they knew that the building was haunted. "We were told, at that time, that there was one ghost up on the 3rd floor, and just leave her alone," Joy Hanson says. She adds that the ghost didn't scare them away.
The Hansons bought the mansion and continued to run it as a bed and breakfast hotel. And they became acquainted with the ghost of Mary Mason. "Mary Mason was the daughter of Lewis and Nancy Mason, who bought the hotel in 1857," Hanson says. "She helped run the inn for most of her life and she died up there on the 3rd floor in 1911 of old age. She was in her mid-90s. She died in a rocking chair. And people say they still hear the rocking chair."
Hanson says Mary is not the only ghost living in the house. Other spirits come by every now and then to interact with the guests. "Ghosts open the doors, close the doors, turn the lights off and on, pull their covers off. Sometimes the beds get shaken and that scares the guests a bit," she admits. "There is the sound of somebody walking around in their room but they don't see anything. Other people do see them. They say there's a woman that walks around in their room and then she disappears. Other people have seen the children playing in the room, then they run through the closed door." Hanson says she and her family have also seen spirits in the hotel. "I've seen an old man. I've seen a younger man. They look like real people - until they disappear. My youngest daughter sees a cat. She chases this cat around the house. She'll say, 'Where did it go? It's disappeared.'"
British Journalist Will Storr didn't believe such tales. Intrigued by the supernatural, though, he decided come to the United States and interview Lou Gentile, a well-known demonologist in Philadelphia.
"Will Storr originally came over, for the most part, to poke fun at that, at what I do, and see if he can write a nice little English story on Lou Gentile," the ghost hunter says. "But the problem was that Will Storr was not prepared for something that was the truth in this: which is that there is a reality in what I do. I don't fake or stage anything. And I try to show people that."
"I thought he was clearly a nut-case, and a bit crazy," Will Storr says of Gentile, admitting he had originally planned to write an ironic, mocking piece about people who believe in ghosts. That's why he accepted Gentile's invitation to spend two nights at two haunted buildings.
"I ended up being terrified of the ghosts both nights," he says. "The first night, he took us to a house, which he said had been built on top of a graveyard and the family that was living there had been having these terrific experiences for a while now: slamming doors, faces in the windows, the 3-year-old son complaining of being visited in the night by an old man. Things like this."
Storr says that meeting ghost hunter Lou Gentile changed his perspective on the supernatural. He also started to understand the types of machines a ghost hunter uses, and how they work. The first one he saw in action recorded EVP, or Electronic Voice Phenomena. "[Gentile] told me this is like the voices of spirits, which his tape player can pick up with its powerful microphone, but which the human ear couldn't hear," Storr recalls. "So he set the tape player down and was asking questions like 'Is there a spirit in this house?' And the first thing that I noticed was that the red light on the front of the machine that flashes when it's picking up sound was flashing when he finished asking the questions, even though we couldn't hear anything. And then he played the tape, and there was this awful kind of growling noise replying to the questions. As we were listening to this, something touched me on the back. And I think in the space of those few seconds, I realized 'Hang on a minute, this isn't what I was expecting at all!'"
The EVP recorder was just one of the machines Gentile says he showed Will Storr that night. "I had my regular 35 millimeter camera, my regular digital camera, my EMF - Electronic Magnetic Field Detector - which supposedly reports that there is ghostly activity." Gentile says all this equipment is necessary for his job, which he sees as collecting evidence. He adds, "When you deal with getting evidence, you have to have audible evidence. You have to have video. You have to have some photography."
This visit inspired Will Storr to embark on a journey to haunted sites around the world. In his book, Will Storr vs. the Supernatural, he chronicles what he saw and the stories he was told by ghost hunters and those who were haunted. Though they have different geographic and historical backgrounds, Storr says haunted places have some common characteristics. "I suppose a lot of the places were very, very old buildings. Many of them had a long history, sometimes quite a bloody history as well." As an example, he points to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. "Long before there was a prison on there, the Native Americans [considered it] an unpleasant place. There are places like Hickory Hill in Equality, Illinois, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where the civil war battle took place, that has a huge reputation for being very haunted indeed."
This journey, Storr says, also taught him the etiquette of visiting haunted houses. He says one should always be calm, respectful and open to learn. And he says visiting haunted places can be more than just a Halloween thrill. It can give people a new perspective on life and death… and what might come after as well.