Friday, October 2, 2009

Unveiling the mysteries behind ghosts

by Erik J. Martin

Dr. Larry Montz knows from firsthand experience what can happen when ghosts attack. Irritate one enough and you could end up dead, like his partner nearly did, who was lying before him, breathless on the floor of a creaky old English mansion, gasping for air.

Dr. Montz, America’s only full-time parapsychologist and 27-year expert in the field of paranormal research, had been hired to travel to England and investigate the now-famous active hauntings at Tonge Hall, built in 1594. His research team consisted of himself, two scientific field investigators, and two clairvoyants. One of them tried to communicate with an entity believed to be present in the room.

Suddenly, one of the field investigators clutched at his throat in horror and keeled over in a breathless paroxysm of agony. The entity passed quickly in front of the clairvoyant, heaving her against the wall and knocking the field equipment out of her hand. The next moment the spirit was gone, and the field investigator was able to breathe again. The clairvoyants eventually determined that Tonge Hall was haunted by not one, but three entities: two males and one female—a young child. And everything they experienced was captured intact on film.

Apparition definition
Webster’s defines a ghost as a “supposed disembodied spirit of a dead spirit, appearing as a pale, shadowy apparition.” But ask paranormal researchers for their interpretation of the word and you’ll get a wide array of answers. Many experts maintain that ghosts are lost souls, spirits of people who met their death traumatically and who perhaps don’t believe that they’re deceased. These apparitions are believed to take many forms that can be seen, heard, smelled, and felt.

“There are many different types of apparitions,” says Richard T. Crowe, a Chicago-based ghost hunter who’s been running tours of haunted locations for more than three decades. “Cold spots, phantom footsteps, phantom perfume scents, flickering candle flames, you name it.”

Ghost experts like Troy Taylor, president of the American Ghost Society, based in Alton, Illinois, say there are two kinds of ghosts—active, intelligent ghosts, who maintain the personality of someone who died and who are present in the entity of a conscious being; and residual ghosts or hauntings, in which energy is imprinted on the atmosphere of a certain place and an image or phenomenon reoccurs electromagnetically without an actual personality or presence. The spirit who attacked Dr. Montz’ team at Tonge Hall would qualify as an active haunting. The ghostly apparitions of warring Civil War soldiers still commonly sighted on the fields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania would constitute a residual haunting.

“These spirits remain on Earth for various reasons,” says Dr. Montz, the founder of the International Society for Paranormal Research, who is a firm believer in ghosts. “Often it’s because they have a desire to protect or communicate with family members, or because they died too suddenly and want to continue living.”

True believers
Human beings have held a fascination with ghosts since as far back as 2,000 B.C., when the Epic of Gilgamesh—the Babylonian story of a man who communicates with his dead friend--was etched in clay tablets. Roman history espouses that Brutus, the army general who supervised the plot to murder Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., was visited twice by the ghost of Caesar, who served as an omen of death. Chinese and Japanese cultures continue to carry out archaic rituals and celebrate ancient festivals such as Da Jui (the “Hungry Ghost Festival”) in an effort to ward off evil spirits.

One needs only look to Hollywood and two of its biggest blockbusters of the last several years—"The Sixth Sense" and "The Blair Witch Project"—to understand just how popular ghosts continue to be in contemporary culture.

“There’s never been more interest in the supernatural, and it shows throughout our society and culture,” says Crowe.

“I don’t believe everything I’m told about ghosts,” says Taylor, who has traveled the world in search of ghosts. “I have a skeptical approach, and I like to see things for myself. If you’re a real ghost hunter, you look for evidence—paranormal phenomenon that can be authenticated.”

Dr. Montz agrees with Taylor’s philosophy. “You have to have an open mind to accept all of the possibilities of the unknown. But the concept of ghosts can be frightening to many people because of the way they’ve been raised. Religion, television and movies have given ghosts a negative connotation to make people believe they should be afraid.”

Most ghost stories, whether they’re fact or fiction based, only seem to perpetuate the negative myths and fearful stereotypes associated with the paranormal. But Crowe argues that other ghost legends, such as the tale of Resurrection Mary, cause us to ponder deeper, more spiritual reflections.

The Resurrection Mary story concerns the death of a young woman who was actually killed by a hit-and-run driver outside of Resurrection Cemetery in Justice, Illinois, while hitchhiking home after a dance. Documented sightings of a girl in a long white dress and blond hair trying to thumb a ride continue to this day.

“Resurrection Mary has caused tens of thousands of people to reconsider the survival of the soul and the possibility of the afterlife,” says Crowe. “I think she’s a much more effective spokesperson for religion than all the world’s priests combined.”

Crowe’s most hair-raising paranormal experience came in on a beautiful starry summer night 1974, while visiting a legendary house in Hamm’s Lake, near Kenosha, Wisconsin, where one gang member purportedly slew another gang member and hid the body decades ago. Crowe and a fellow Chicago Sun-Times reporter were walking about the woods outside the house and noticed a shimmering, bluish-gray silhouette floating in the clearing some 50 feet away—a vision that vanished after one fleeting, paralyzing moment.

Phyllis Benjamin, president of the International Fortean Organization—a society dedicated to the scientific investigation of paranormal phenomenon--says she’s not sure if she believes in ghosts, but she find the evidence compelling, including her personal encounters.

In 1994, while lodging with a friend at a small inn in Marlborough, a little town in England, Benjamin dreamt about a small four-year-old boy in 19th century clothes. The next morning, she awoke to a cold room and found that her friend had actually seen an apparition of the same boy walking around their room.

“When we asked the innkeeper if any other guests had had such an experience, he replied, ‘Oh, sure—he’s our resident ghost, a little boy ho died in the 1870s.’”

Jim McCabe wasn’t a believer until he and his wife spent the night at the Old Colonial Inn in Concord, Massachusetts, site of the legendary ghost of Dr. Timothy Minot, physician and owner of the inn back in 1775. Mrs. McCabe awoke in the middle of the night with a stomach ache and, for kicks, called out, “Oh, Dr. Minot…”

“Suddenly a wave of electricity shot through her body and she couldn’t move,” recalls McCabe. “It was a terrifying experience that reoccurred twice in less than a minute.” Since that encounter with the ethereal, McCabe has dedicated his life to studying ghosts and conducting a year-round ghost tour of Boston.

Searching for spirits
Still not convinced that we live in a world haunted from ghost to ghost? If you’d like to go on a spook hunt of your own, be prepared, say the experts. Hauntings can happen anywhere, although some areas are more spirit-infested than others (McCabe’s ideal itinerary for sightings includes cities like York, England, Glasgow, Scotland, St. Bridgette’s Well in Lisconner, County Claire, Ireland, Williamsburg, Virginia, Charleston, South Carolina, New Orleans, Chicago and Boston). But you probably don’t stand a ghost of a chance of encountering an entity unless you try these tips from the pros:
  • Do your homework. Read up on the locations you want to visit and ask questions of current occupants and neighbors. Check to see if there’s any local folklore about the place. Research obituaries at a local library for people who once lived at the location.
  • Study previous sightings. Learn about when it happened, the time of day, who was present, and other important details.
  • Learn to use the tools of the trade: Professional ghost hunters often use Polaroid instant cameras, 35mm cameras loaded with high-speed black and white infrared and color film, tape recorders, thermometers, Cathode ray magnetometers, negative ion detectors, Gauss meters, night-vision binoculars, infrared detectors and spectrographs.
  • Never go alone, in case of accident or injury caused by non-paranormal factors during your investigation.
  • Be respectful of the dead. Don’t desecrate a monument or building, ridicule, tease or make fun of the deceased. Dr. Montz warns that ghosts can be dangerous if you upset them.
  • If you ever encounter a spirit or experience a paranormal phenomenon, Crowe says to follow the ghost hunter’s golden rule. “Be quite—don’t try to communicate. Just stand still and take it all in. When you movie or speak, you disturb the environment and cause the ghost to vanish.”
The 10 most haunted sites in America
Professional ghost hunter Troy Taylor ranks these locales:
  1. The Bell Witch Cave, Adams, Tennessee. Associated with the story of the infamous Bell Witch, who haunted a family and was believed to have escaped into this cave.
  2. The Old Slave House (Hickory Hill), near Junction, Illinois. This mansion marks one of the only places where slavery existed legally in Illinois and is today believed to be haunted by the ghosts of slaves who were imprisoned and mistreated there.
  3. The Lemp Mansion, St. Louis, Missouri. This home was one the pride of an eccentric brewing family named Lemp. After Prohibition was passed and the family fortunes dwindled, the house became the scene of suicide and tragedy. It is believed that several members of the family still linger today.
  4. Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery, near Midlothian, Illinois. Believed to be the most haunted place in the Chicago area, this abandoned and desecrated cemetery boasts more than 100 documented paranormal events.
  5. Gettysburg National Battlefield, in southern Pennsylvania. The site of the Civil War’s bloodiest battlefield is now thought to be haunted by ghosts of the soldiers who fought there.
  6. Alcatraz, San Francisco, California. This former "escape-proof" prison, closed down in 1963, has been reportedly haunted ever since and documentation by staff members and visitors leads many to believe that many of the former prisoners are still waiting here to be freed.
  7. Dudleytown, in northwestern Connecticut. Residents of this cursed and abandoned village, first settled in 1738, were plagued by accidents, suicidal urges and insanity. One of the most haunted sites on the East Coast.
  8. The Winchester Mansion, San Jose, California. This mysterious house—which features maze-like interiors--was constructed in 1884 by Sarah Winchester, who believed she was haunted by the spirits of those who died by Winchester rifles.
  9. The Myrtles Plantation, near St. Francisville, Louisiana. This house, built in 1796, has been haunted for more than a century by the ghost of a former servant who was hanged for poisoning the young children of the plantation master.
  10. The Whaley House, San Diego, California. This house was built in 1857 by Thomas Whaley, whose entire family and the ghost of a man hanged there in the 1850s allegedly still haunt it.