Maybe it's not surprising that it started with Harry Houdini. When Dominick Mondelli was a kid, he watched Houdini, the early-50s biopic about the legendary magician, and picked up a few kid-friendly magic tricks. As a teen, he discovered that Houdini was buried in a nearby cemetery in Queens, New York, and started making the occasional late-night visit to that oversized marble memorial.
"One Halloween, all of us young guys, were hanging out doing stupid stuff, and we went to the cemetery," Mondelli told VICE. "There was a crowd of about 20 people in front of Harry's gravesite. I asked what was going on, and they said that every year, this organization does a seance at the gravesite, trying to communicate with Houdini. I'm scratching my head, thinking these people are weirdos. You can't communicate with the dead, right?"
But when Mondelli and his mates finished their beers, picked up their empties, and started walking to the cemetery gates, the winds suddenly picked up. It felt like a storm was rolling in, fast. "I turn around and see Houdini's gravesite," he said. "On top of the monument, there's a little bust of his head, and the eyes on the bust started to glow. I'm thinking, 'Okay, too many beers for me.' I didn't know whether I was imagining it, or if the wind blew something in my eyes, but it scared the hell out of me."
That still-unexplained encounter sent Mondelli on a two-year quest to determine whether there was life after death. He read every book that he could find about the subject and started interviewing his neighbors, asking if they'd ever had a casual encounter with a spirit. "I start thinking to myself that if I could actually have a meeting, a one-on-one sit-down with someone from the other world, a spirit, and catch it all on video, I'll make history," he said. "I wanted to either prove it or disprove it, and I've been doing it ever since."
Or at least he had been, until recently. After more than three decades at the helm of an organization called Ghost Hunters of Southside Tidewater (G.H.O.S.T.), Mondelli is selling all of his ghost hunting equipment on Craigslist, and getting out of the paranormal investigation game for good. If you scroll through the For Sale listings on Craigslist in his long-time home of Norfolk, Virginia—past the flattened Wheaties boxes ($12), the framed portrait of department store founder Richard Warren Sears ($40), and a messy pile of wrapping paper ($0)—you'll eventually hit Mondelli's ad.
The $900 collection of equipment and supplies includes the sort of gear that will sound familiar to anybody who's watched "Ghost Hunters" for 15 minutes, including the spirit enthusiast's standard K-II Meter Deluxe EMF Detector, an infrared thermometer, and five CCTV cameras. "And as a bonus, I will include 9 brand new Ghost Hunting T-Shirts for your team to look professional," the listing reads. "There is nothing else to buy to start your ghost hunting adventure."
Mondelli's former team of paranormal investigators, G.H.O.S.T., had a revolving cast of more than 80 members during its multi-decade history. But the group got smaller and smaller as people moved away from the Virginia coast, ran out of free time, or just lost interest in videotaping weird-looking stairwells. "I'm not going to start a new team, because it takes a long time to find someone who's knowledgeable and has experience," he said, sighing.
The G.H.O.S.T. investigators were called to check out, well... pretty much what you'd expect. "[The clients] think there's a spirit in their house, or something strange is going on that they can't explain, or they believe that one of their relatives came back," Mondelli said. "But I always say that your relatives don't haunt you; you're haunting them. If you have some kind of guilt, or a feeling that you did something wrong to someone who died, then you're doing the haunting, with your guilt or your sorrow."
G.H.O.S.T. was once hired to examine the Prentis House, the circa-19th century building that houses the Suffolk (Virginia) Visitor Center—and "the most haunted home" in the city, according to some locals. Mondelli and another investigator set up their gear on the second floor, and started recording as they asked whether any spirits were in the room with them. "We didn't hear nothing," he said. "The following day, I go through my recordings, and right when I started recording, before I'd even said a word, I heard 'Hello? Hello, hello?' just like that. Clear as day."
On another occasion, they worked with a Virginia Beach family who believed there was a presence in their home after seeing strange shadows, feeling like they were being watched, and, um... being mysteriously rescued from a house fire. "I awoke to a calm voice urgently saying, 'Wake up, wake up,'" Kristen Shuman told The Virginian-Pilot, several years after the fire. "Standing next to my bed was my Aunt Peggy. She had been dead since September 1991 [...] I have never seen my aunt again, but had she not come back to wake me up I likely would have been killed."
G.H.O.S.T. didn't find Aunt Peggy—or any other undead houseguest—but they were able to provide mundane reasons for some of the family's experiences. "We look for logical explanations first. That's our first goal. Then, if we don't find any, we look for paranormal explanations," Mondelli said. "But I tell people, all the word 'paranormal' means is 'not normal'—it doesn't mean ghosts, supernatural, boogieman. Is it normal for your faucet to turn on by itself? No, but it doesn't mean that you have a spirit in your house."
Mondelli said he always looks for potential scientific explanations for any unexplained phenomena, whether it's an object that seems to move by itself, or a strange cold spot in the center of a room. "At the end of our investigation, whatever evidence we have, we'll present it to the property owner or the homeowner, and we explain what it is," he said. "We don't tell them that it's a spirit, because where's the proof of that? They can make up their own minds about what made the ashtray move, or why that book fell."
If you do buy all of his gently used ghost-hunting gear, he'd advise going into any investigation prepared to find a logical reason for even the strangest situations. Because, despite his encounter with Houdini's marble head, or that audible "Hello" on the tape recorder, he's still not convinced that ghosts or spirits exist. He never found any real evidence, and he's ready to stop looking.
"I can't prove that [Shuman's] aunt came back. I told her that if that's what she believed in her heart, then sure, she came back—but don't jump in front of a car expecting her to save you," he said. "The way I see it, when you die, you go six feet under, or you get cremated, and that's the end of it. Your soul doesn't leave and go somewhere else where everybody's having a party. It doesn't work that way, because if it did, we'd have proof—and we don't."