Kristin Lee owns a rental property in Bellaire, Ohio, a sleepy 4,000-person town that rests gently against the bank of the Ohio River. For several months last year, the state’s coronavirus-related restrictions meant that she had to temporarily close the century-old Bellaire House. When Ohio revised its stay-at-home order in early May and she was given the green light to reopen, Lee added a set of COVID-19 guidelines to the historic home’s already lengthy list of rules and regulations for guests.
Overnight visitors are now asked to bring their own bedding and towels, and they also have to agree to the property’s previous requirements that prohibit them from using Ouija boards during their stay or carrying already “haunted objects" into the house. “ABSOLUTELY NO RITUALS OF ANY KIND,” Lee’s website warns in excitable red letters. “NO OPENING OR CLOSING PORTALS—NO EXCEPTIONS!”
Oh yeah: Lee’s Bellaire House has been called one of the Top 10 Most Haunted Houses in the country, a distinction it shares with the Amityville Horror house and the rambling Massachusetts property where Lizzie Borden allegedly axed her father and stepmother to death. Lee said that she and her son lived in the house until its spirits—which include the ghost of 19th century business magnate Jacob Heatherington and a malevolent entity that pretends to be a little girl named Emily—literally scared them to the other side of town. Shortly after moving out, she decided to open the home to ghost hunters, to visitors who aren’t freaked out by the séance pics on its Airbnb listing, and to serious afterlife researchers.
“We have 11 portals in the house where the spirits can port back and forth, and we do sit on a ley line, which is a hotspot for paranormal activity,” Lee told VICE. “A lot of people have reported seeing full-fledged apparitions, and some have said they became physically ill because of the energy overload. Some of the spirits here aren’t as welcoming as others: People have been scratched, pushed, and they’ve had doors closed on them.”
In addition to being a psychic medium, Lee is also a paranormal investigator—which isn’t as uncommon a profession as you might think. ParanormalSocieties.com, a website that describes itself as a comprehensive directory of ghost hunters across the United States, says that it has indexed almost 4,900 paranormal investigators and ghost-related organizations across the 50 states.
Even those in the ghost biz have been affected by the ongoing pandemic. And, much like people in more secular industries, the paranormal pros have had to adjust to upended schedules, to increased personal and professional isolation and, uh, a shitload of time on Zoom. They’ve also had to find ways to safely field an increasing number of calls from people who have been stuck at home for the past year and are convinced that every unfamiliar sound upstairs is caused by an unforeseen demon infestation.
Although the months of lost bookings weren’t great for Lee, she said they were even worse for the ghosts. “Because we were closed, the Bellaire House spirits had no communication or an exchange of energy,” she explained. “When we opened back up, so many spirits wanted to communicate. It was like an old-school radio with the dial turned all the way up to 10. For the negative entities, it was a mix of ‘Whoa, you guys are back’ and ‘We need to suck out of the energy out of you because we haven’t had anybody here.’" The more "positive spirits," she said, "just wanted to catch up and tell their stories.”
Lee’s first guests after the lengthy hiatus were two nurses from New York who had stayed at the house before—and presumably knew what they were in for. “We investigated together, and the information that we received was phenomenal,” she said. "We fired up our Huff Portal, which is a rare piece of equipment to get. You can hear spirits talk in real time, and have conversations with them through this device. Everything was nice and welcoming, and then all of a sudden, the switch just flipped. We heard this demonic growl and it was not...well, we just shut things down after that. It was difficult to work through that energy.”
Ross Allison, the founder of A.G.H.O.S.T. (Advanced Ghost Hunters of Seattle-Tacoma), said he pretty much lost all of his gigs at once. “I’m not trying to say, ‘Oh, woe is me,’ because I know the pandemic has hurt everybody,” he said. “But being a full time ghost hunter, I make my career and my money doing ghost tours, lectures at colleges, and doing book tours. It really hit me hard, because my career is about getting involved with the public and depending on big groups of people, which hasn’t been happening.”
Last March, Allison was booked to speak at a college in New York City. The day he arrived, he learned that the school had canceled all of its public events. When he returned to Washington state—which was already being hit hard by the coronavirus—he had to shut down Spooked in Seattle, his twice-daily ghost tour. “That was one of the hardest things,” he said. “What are you going to do when you can’t make the money that you’re using to pay the rent?”
Brian Cano, a longtime investigator who’s a regular on the Travel Channel’s Paranormal Caught on Camera and appeared on all three seasons of Syfy’s Haunted Collector, also had to scratch a lot of dates off his own calendar. “This past year has been quite a challenge, but not one that we’re ill-suited for in the paranormal,” he said. “We operate on weird hours and in areas that aren’t always filled by a lot of people, so social distancing and things of that sort kind of are our bread and butter anyway. As far as investigations go, the spirit world doesn’t have to deal with these problems, or worry about COVID. The living do, and we really had to alter the way we do things to comply.”
Cano, who makes frequent appearances at paranormal conventions and takes amateur ghost hunters on destination investigations, said that he’s held some small in-person lectures and has done some live-streamed ghost hunts. But he's had to postpone larger events—like a nine-day trip to explore “The Mystical Legends of Wales”—until next summer.
“No one really thought about Zoom for what we do [before the pandemic], but we can go on ghost hunts and people can sit in their living rooms and watch us do our thing the way they’d watch us on TV,” he said. Still, he has mixed feelings about having to take some of his content online. “When I do my presentations and I’m just talking to a screen, I have no idea whether my jokes hit or that the audience is absorbing what I’m saying. I just have to trust that what I’m putting forth is being received—and I can’t get heckled that way.”
Noah Leigh, the founder of Paranormal Investigators of Milwaukee (PIMS), said that he has had to figure out how to FaceTime and Zoom his way through people’s homes when his team gets called to investigate...whatever happens to be scaring the shit out of somebody. “Last March, we decided we shouldn’t be going to anyone’s house, unless it was a very major situation where someone was at their wits’ end,” he said. “Thankfully, it never came to that. Instead, we had to really ramp up our process for helping people over the phone or on FaceTime, where they could walk us around their house, explain where things happened, and let us see the space.”
In-home investigations are “the most common” service that PIMS provides, and despite—or perhaps because of—the weird-ass circumstances, they started getting a lot more calls for help. “Obviously, most of us used to be gone during the day, so we don’t know what noises our houses make in the afternoon,” he explained. “Now, people are sitting there, they’re hearing all this popping and thumping and they think, ‘Oh my gosh, I hear footsteps upstairs,’ when it’s just their heating system. We’ve also had a huge increase in people looking at security camera footage, because they ended up getting bored and will check every motion activation [notification] they get. There’s a huge increase in that type of call: wanting us to look at pictures or video to evaluate something they believe they’ve captured.”
The in-home aspect is a crucial part of any residential ghost hunt, and investigators like Leigh—who takes what he calls a “debunk-first” approach—have to be equal parts plumber, electrician, HVAC technician, and property inspector as they attempt to explain what’s causing the weird clunks, strange temperature variations, or unexplained flickering lights. Since last spring, Leigh says he’s occasionally had to take on the role of counselor as well.
“Fear is a big motivator for humans, and it can make people irrational at times,” he said. “I’m not blaming anyone, obviously, but if you’re not understanding something that’s going on, and you think [a spirit] is going to hurt you or your family—that’s a place people go to. We have to work to bring them back. Mental health has been a huge thing with the pandemic—and isolation, too—so they can start manifesting things that weren’t there before.”
“There’s a fine line we have to walk, because we’re not medical professionals or mental health professionals," he continued. "But there have been times when we’ve been like, ‘We think you should go see your primary care physician.' We don’t want to offend people—and some do take offense to that—but at the same time, we don’t want to feel responsible for feeding a psychosis that really needs to be addressed professionally.”
Like the rest of us, the ghost hunters who spoke with VICE have tried to find literally ANYTHING positive that has happened in the past year. Kristin Lee says that the Bellaire House has been booked steadily since it was allowed to reopen, but she’s seen a lot more families coming to stay instead of investigative teams. She’s also had time to work on a book, as well as a reality show, Paranormal Apprentice, that is scheduled to film later this spring.
Noah Leigh says that PIMS has done a number of streaming events with libraries throughout the state, and that Zoom has enabled him to give presentations—and do virtual home visits—in places he might not have had the time to drive to. Ross Alisson wrote a book about haunted cemeteries, put his Spooked in Seattle tour on the internet, and sells tickets for a regular “Tea & True Crime” online series.
“We’re doing that kind of thing just to try to make ends meet,” he said. “We’ll maybe continue to offer a few things online in the future, but tours and things like that are much better, when you can stand at a location and experience it for yourself.”
Cano, for his part, said the downtime gave him the opportunity to upgrade his museum-style "History of the Paranormal" exhibit before taking it on a tour of the United States. “In two weeks, I’m going to be showing it at the Oliver House in Middleborough, Massachusetts, and at night we’ll have a [ghost] hunt,” he said. “Everyone will be asked to wear masks, and if they have proof of a vaccine or a [negative] test, that’s great—show it to us. I think we’re all going to have COVID PTSD for a while, but I’m happy to get back out there, to see people, and show that it can be done safely. But I tell you, if I get a little bit of a sniffle or a cough, I’ll be paranoid for days.”