From left to right: Brenda Huggins, George Shiels, Victoria Edmonds, Catherine Nichol, and Jaimie Steel
Palmerston North is a picturesque university town on New Zealand’s North Island. It’s home to gardens, wind farms, what’s referred to in travel magazines as a "vibrant art scene," and Core Paranormal—a dedicated unit of home-spun paranormal investigators. The group is led by George Shiels, a man who proudly tells me he’s never been inside a Starbucks. I’m in town to accompany New Zealand’s very own Scooby-Doo gang on an investigation of the 150-year-old Napier Prison. We’ll be spending the evening in a place where murderers and rapists were executed and then buried standing up so their souls can never rest!
George was introduced to the world of the supernatural after the passing of his sister in 2009. Shortly after her death he began experiencing weird phenomena at home. His family and friends would hear singing and talking from the empty backyard shed at night, and inside things would change position despite the door being locked. Visitors to the house would become inexplicably uncomfortable around the shed, and George's stepdaughter, Victoria, reported seeing ghosts and was pretty much in a constant state of terror.
When George finally reported his haunted shed to local paranormal investigators, they were uninterested. Then, in true DIY Kiwi fashion, George began buying and building his own ghost hunting equipment to figure out what the hell was happening for himself.
It’s worth noting this whole enterprise wasn’t borne out of morbid curiosity, but rather a feeling that the community was in need of information and guidance around paranormal events. “When we asked for help it wasn’t there. We needed help desperately. Victoria was jumping out of her skin.”
George “Chemical Brothers” Shiels
George’s team consists of Brenda, a professional embalmer; Victoria, who after the passing of her biological father began to “see and hear things I wasn’t supposed to;” Catherine, who works the cameras; and a security guard named Jamie, who got involved after experiencing incidents of fire alarms going off without being triggered and doors opening and closing on their own. While Victoria and Brenda are the group’s "sensitives"—meaning they have a higher sense of intuition when it comes to communicating with the dead—Jamie acts as the group’s Scully. A good-natured skeptic, it’s his job to look for mundane explanations to the things they experience.
The group uses an arsenal of hi-tech ghost hunting gear to track and document their encounters. They have infrared and ultraviolet cameras running to central control stations, night vision glasses, and FLIR gear that allows them to see heat like in Predator. They also carry electromagnetic field meters, digital laser thermometers, and, most impressively—a laser grid. Excluding Jamie, the team also wears hematite jewelry in the belief it will prevent ghosts from following them back from sites or attaching to them. (If you didn’t know, hematite is an iron oxide that has antiferromagnetic properties.)
George’s table of cameras and general ghost hunting equipment
As we prepare to head to the jail George gives me some pointers about spending the night with a bunch of dead murderers: If things move on their own I should back off, because apparently ghosts need a lot of personal space. Also, ghosts “eat” the electricity from batteries so keep an eye on my gear. Later, the battery indicators on my dictaphone and cell phone go up and down all night, and at one point Brenda’s camera chews through four sets of batteries in less than ten minutes. #spooky
Jamie taking readings
After my briefing we pile into the Paranormobile and head up to Napier Prison, which, since being decommissioned in 1993 has been operating as a backpackers' hostel and folk museum.
Victoria and Catherine give me a tour of the old prison and show me where we’ll be concentrating our efforts: the gallows where the public paid to watch criminals be hanged for entertainment, and the cemetery full of vertically buried dead. We also check out "The Hole," a cell carved into the rock wall of the prison where mentally ill patients were left to die, and another cell where an inmate committed suicide. His suicide note is still stuck to the wall for tourists to read. This may be my first ghost hunt, but these all seem like classic ghost hunting locations.
Victoria entering a cell
We start by taking baseline readings around the prison. We check each area for temperature and electromagnetic activity. Finally, everything gets photographed in case things move throughout the night. We focus on known hotspots. George is explaining their cable running system to me when Brenda runs over. “I got pushed” she says, “ just outside room 7.”
We head over to the scene of the incident. George tells me, “Whatever’s here is getting used to us and coming out more each time.” We reach room 7 and Brenda mimes being thrown across the hall. The temperature drops sharply, marking the first time I notice something unusual that can’t be easy explained. A couple of infrared cameras are trained on the area and we get back to setting up.
The Beagle Boys offered some light relief
Before long we stop again because Brenda gets a flash of the name “Cassidy.” We head to the former detox room, which now holds information on former inmates. It’s also home to one of those hilarious cut-outs you stick your head through for photos. This one features Scrooge McDuck’s sworn enemies, the Beagle Boys. Brenda and Victoria find the name Cassidy on a list of criminals hanged at the prison. With any luck he’ll show up tonight.
The cameras are hooked up to digital recorders, and the team also carries handicams and digital still cameras. Jaimie busts out the FLIR camera. The laser grid is set up in the hanging yard, covering the area in a maze of green and red laser points. The idea is that something invisible to the eye may interrupt the laser light, showing movement through the grid. George climbs the rickety gallows and is reduced to a black shadow as he moves through the grid. At the top he asks the ghosts to come forward, patiently explaining to them why he’s there. Having no luck, he asks if the spirits would prefer to talk to the girls. “I’m always bait,” Victoria complains. “You’ve got to strike the right way of communicating,” George tells me. “If they’re treating this as Whare Tapu (a sacred place) they don’t like the area to be mucked around with.”
Throughout the night the electromagnetic field meter goes off wildly. The temperature drops suddenly several times. At one point I become so uncomfortable in the cell where Brenda was pushed that I have to leave. On my way out, I experience a feeling I can only describe as the hairs on the back of my neck rising, but all over my face. Brenda lets me know this was probably something passing through me. We circle from site to site to check for disturbances while the cameras record in silence. Out in the exercise yard the smell of rotting meat wafts in and Brenda says it’s the smell of death. Catherine snaps some photos of a moving shadow.
Back at the control center, watching the camera feeds, I see a floating sphere of light move across the monitor. At one point all eight-motion sensors light up at once, with nothing visible in the frame. Brenda and Victoria become increasingly uncomfortable throughout the night and say they feel more and more spirits watching them. Both women are becoming physically affected with weird aches.
The various camera set-ups
George presses on, inviting ghosts to show themselves by manipulating the EMF meters, becoming visible, or moving items. For the most part, the only response we get is from the electromagnetic fluctuations. When we return to the hanging yard and the cemetery, however, we experience something weird. In both places, we clearly see spheres of blue light moving through the laser grid. Something is up. Suddenly George looks troubled. “Get out of my head. Get out of my head you bastard!” he yells. He pinches the bridge of his nose and comes back to us, still a little shaky. Jaime checks to make sure he’s OK, and we carry on. We wander from site to site for a while longer but it soon becomes apparent the night has peaked.
George calling out the ghosts
George seems a bit disappointed as we pack up; he’s had better results before. He reminds me of a downhearted father after an uneventful fishing trip. I, on the other hand, was happy it ended the way it did. As a person who has watched enough scary movies to know this jaunt into the spirit world could have ended with a dead girl crawling out of a television, or a painting of a 17th century magician named Vigo coming to life, I was satisfied. I hung out with great people, saw and felt some weird, unexplainable stuff, and walked out with a new appreciation for people who hunt ghosts for a living.