Where I come from, there are three ways to celebrate Halloween. You can go to the Home Depot and steal those pumpkins out front, then throw them off an overpass. When you're a little bit older, you can do the same thing, but with convenience stores and Miller High Life. Or if you screwed up and had kids, you can take them trick-or-treating and stand in the street smoking. Then, if any of your neighbors have bad candy or turn their porch light off, you can call them assholes. That's about it.
But if you're in Los Angeles, you have more options. Last night, for example, you could have headed out to the Heritage Square Museum in Montecito Heights to see real ghost hunters investigate real haunted houses. You knew the ghost hunters were real because they were on the TV, and you knew the houses were haunted because they were Victorian, so old that Raymond Chandler could have gotten away with calling them "rickety" back in the 40s, and had creaking hardwood floors.
I showed up to the event—held in conjunction with Stan Lee's Comikaze Expo—knowing exactly nothing about ghost hunting shows; I file them under "stuff I'll never watch," like those programs about gold mining or how hard life is on a fishing boat in Alaska. The only thing I was hoping not to find was bunch of USC kids with too much money who pre-gamed this thing in the parking lot and thought it would be awesome to loudly misremember their favorite Ghostbusters quotes. Luckily, I was spared that hell. The people who went to this were into it. Everyone was attentive and interested in ghost investigating, which is the type of crowd you want for this sort of thing, I suppose.
I went to four houses, each of which had different investigators. The first excursion was led by a guy named Ben Hansen, from Syfy's Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files. He sat us all down and said, "If you've ever seen any TV shows, I don't like to get expectations up too high. Whatever you bring to this, the more energy you bring, the better the interactions we have. When I get a quiet group, things are pretty quiet. When people are talkative, things start happening. There's activity."
That means ghost activity, but he didn't say that. Nobody talked much about ghosts. They'd talk about energies and activity and things and reactions, but no "ghosts." "If anyone feels uncomfortable, a pressure, just tell me," said Ben. "Some creepy stuff will happen, but if it feels dark, I stop."
After the group learned the "no food or drink" rule was not being strictly enforced, Ben got out his old EMF meter. It picked up "electromagnetic disturbances," as registered on a needle. So Ben would ask questions to the "presence" and try to make it set the meter off. Here it turned out you should refer to the "presence" as a person, and you should talk to it like a disobedient child. "Was it you who was moving the needle?" he asked conversationally. "If it was, could you come back to the box and make the needle move again? Don't be shy."
The needle never moved. So he switched to an EVP reading. EVP is short for "electronic voice phenomenon." Anyone can do an EVP reading. Here's how it works: You place a recorder in the room. It doesn't matter what kind. It can be an iPhone. Then you just ask questions. "Is there anyone here? Why don't you talk? Why are you dead?" with pauses in between so the recorder can pick up the ghost's answer. Then you listen to the playback and scrutinize the white noise for the ghost's response that wasn't audible to the human ear but was audible to the Voice Memo app.
When we listened to playback, everybody claimed to hear something at one point or another, but nobody agreed collectively about any particular thing. A stifled laugh here. A growl there. Hello. Goodbye. Any outlier in the usual white-noise profile can be a ghost talking. Ben mentioned that "in Roswell, I saw a full-black figure that had a cloak walk through a wall. I'm like, whoa." On to the next house.
The second investigation team was a man named Mario and a woman named Kristen Lumen, from Syfy's Ghost Mine. Apparently there was a young child ghost in this house, so Mario brought a green stuffed bear that was supposed to respond to being touched or waved at. But it turned out touching it didn't do anything and waving only worked under light, so the bear was useless.
That's when Mario got out the dowsing rods. A volunteer would hold them perfectly straight, and he would ask the usual questions. "Do you like us? If you like us, cross the dowsing rods." The results of this sort of test were inconclusive. Then we did an EVP reading. He said he'd post any findings on his website. The the climax came in the dining room, where a cabinet door opened. That was a big deal, because it was a heavy old cabinet door and those don't just open on their own. Everybody got excited about that. Next house!
Our investigator here was a man named Don Staggs, 63. A lifer. Don's a psychic and paranormal investigator who carries himself like a detective. Not a movie detective, but the kind who gets pissed off when you pretend to be shocked your spouse is cheating on you. He's very respected in the community, or so I was told.
He said a ghost told him to go fuck himself once. Then he did an EVP reading. Everybody asked a question for the ghost. Then he played back the recording through a small Fender amp. He said that picked up noise better. I asked if the ghost thought L.A. had gotten too crowded, and the whole group was interested in a possible reply to that. They all thought the ghost said yes. But then somebody said, "It sounds like nothing, actually," and we moved on.
There was a little girl ghost in this house, so Don brought out a doll that looked like a slightly oversized cotton Christmas ornament. "She's got red hair and she's got a broomstick and she's a little witch," Don informed us. "This little ribbon on top, you hold it between your thumb and index finger. If there's a spirit, she'll pull it out." Only women could do this test. It had almost no success with men.
Don then commanded the disobedient ghost child to pull the doll away from a series of women. "Can you pull on that for me? Do it when I ask. Please? Pull it out. Pull. I'd pull the doll if I were you. Pull it! Pull it! Pull it! Just pull! Pull it out!" It fell a few times.
Finally, after much discouraging from Don, a man tried the doll test. It fell promptly to the ground. We were done early, so I asked Don how he got into his field.
He told me that he had grandparents down in rural Kentucky, and they lived in a big 1800s home with log walls. When he was nine, his grandma died, and afterward his grandpa told him that "she came to visit all the time."
The house didn't have closets, just a piece of bailing wire strung between two wall corners on which to hang your clothes. One day, Don saw the clothes hangers swinging back and forth, and they were squeaking out the hymn "Rock of Ages." It scared a neighbor so bad that he went off running down a country back road at night. This led Don to discover that he had a psychic gift, that he could go to places where people died and immediately know how they died. It all fell into place after that. Time for the last house.
Our fearless leaders this time were Susan Slaughter (Ghost Hunters International) and Chad Lindberg (Ghost Stalkers). Where all the other houses at least had a lamp on someplace, they operated in complete darkness.
They did an EVP session. We all went around the room and introduced ourselves to the ghost. Every once in awhile a pop or hiss in the white noise profile of the room would get a "wow!" or "oh!" or "whoa!" or "holy shit!" from someone, though nothing ever made more than one person freak out.
Susan talked about the energy of the house changing in the hours she'd been there. She thought she was getting petted on her back. The vibe had changed. The vibe was growing. There was electricity moving over her head. It got heavy. "Very heavy. Really heavy." It was draining now.
Then Susan and Chad introduced a device none of the other investigators had. It made rapidly cycling static sounds. I asked if it was a radio. Susan told me it was a modified radio. "We chose AM instead of FM because obviously there's less channels on that frequency." You would ask the radio a question like "are you in here?" and see if the radio said something that sounded like yes. It might have at one point.
Sitting in a 130 year-old house in the dark listening to a rapidly scanning AM radio was a little like listening to Einstürzende Neubauten, and that was nice. Chad buried the lede though: He never told any of us he had an IMDB page and was in The Fast and the Furious. At midnight we all left.
So what did I learn about searching for ghosts? I learned it involves listening to a lot of static and wondering if it means anything. And while a life of scrutinizing static to find secrets is the scariest thing in the world on a metaphorical level, it's not instantly gratifying, and Halloween is about split-second hedonism. All things being equal, I'd rather just throw a pumpkin off an overpass.
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