If you're wondering what a team of ghost hunters look like in person, try imagining 20 middle-aged roadies for a touring rock band and you're not far off. When I meet the men and women of Northern Paranormal Investigations at Vancouver's former morgue and autopsy facility, they're unpacking mysterious but expensive-looking gear from more than a dozen Pelican cases, each wearing matching T-shirts emblazoned with the NPI logo.
As cofounders Nikki and Darryl field questions, a brusque, businesslike tone dominates the group's chatter. There's lots of shorthand I don't understand, including talk of "EVP sessions" and "ghost boxes" (although, sadly, no mention of proton packs).
"One camera or two?" someone asks.
"Are we cannibalizing?" asks somebody else.
For the next six hours, the the organization will split into two teams and conduct a series of investigations, live-streaming the experience to their 587 Facebook followers. This is not the first time NPI has investigated the old morgue (and current police museum). Apparently their return has been hotly anticipated by members of the group.
"NPI has wondered [sic] the halls and rooms of the VPM a few times and in that time we have experienced, heard, felt and seen more then [sic] a few oddities," co-founder Darryl wrote in a September 2017 blog post. It should be noted early that I'm in attendance, girlfriend reluctantly in tow, as both a museum volunteer and a skeptic. And not just a mild skeptic—the kind of skeptic you would get if Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, and a resurrected Christopher Hitchens all had an intense, undead three-way, got pregnant, and somehow carried the child to term.
But you know what? Fuck it. I'm willing to be convinced. Maybe I'll see something that will shake me to the core, something that will transform my hardened skepticism into belief. There was my 10-year-old Ouija Board Phase, and a brief moment where I was convinced I saw the Okanagan Lake sea monster "Ogopogo" (hey, this fucking thing exists. Anything is possible).
Most important, it must be noted that NPI has brought cookies. This will rank among the most exciting discoveries of the evening.
About 20 minutes later, as The Girlfriend and I sit in the office, cofounder Darryl, a mustachioed fellow whose face wears a look of perpetual concern, steps in. According to NPI's website, he identifies as a "sensitive"—describing this, in another 2017 blog post, as "the ability to notice things that seemed to be outside the normal realm of things."
"Listen," he says, gravely, "before we get started, I just want to let you know: if anything happens—nothing ever has, but if it does—if anything drastic happens, if something goes flying across the room, just don't run."
Then, satisfied, he returns to the lobby.
At first glance, the police museum seems like a strange place to hunt for ghosts. During its days as a morgue and analyst's lab, it certainly saw its share of dead bodies, but other than former Chief Coroner Glen MacDonald hurling a whiskey bottle at a technician (leaving a permanent dent in the ceiling), and a morgue tech being busted for trying to steal deceased film legend Errol Flynn's genital warts, the building has been relatively drama-free.
The first excitement of the evening occurs shortly thereafter, courtesy of a mysterious bang that may or may not have been heard downstairs. After a flurry of discussion, it's discovered that it was simply the result of an NPI team member knocking something over. Nonetheless, discussion of the Mystery Bang will continue well into the evening.
"I may be wrong on this," Darryl says, to nobody in particular, "but is there somebody relevant to this room named Max or Maxwell?" (There isn't).
Then, led by the museum director, a handful of us descend into the bowels of the museum to begin our very first EVP session. The building's lower floors are a place where it would be easy to get creeped-out; they've been closed to the public for more than 20 years, and they look like something out of a Philip Marlowe novel; 1930s tile-work and frosted glass and hand-lettered doors, ancient safety posters and even more ancient equipment (in addition, every inch of the place is filled with asbestos, lending the proceedings an added element of danger).
In the realm of paranormal investigation, EVP—which stands for "electronic voice phenomenon"—is the practice of entering a potentially haunted place and making a series of inquiries of its resident spirits. Audio of the session is captured using highly sensitive voice recorders, and then, after a filter is applied to remove the inevitable white noise, investigators play it back to see what they've managed to pick up. In skeptic's terms, it means sitting in the dark for 20-25 minutes with your ass going numb while a bunch of strangers ask questions to an empty room. Yet, according to NPI's website, the EVP sessions conducted during their last visit yielded a number of definitive communications with the spirit world, and they're eager to follow up on that success.
"It was not long before we sat in stunned silence looking at each other wondering which was going to be the first person the [sic] say 'what the hell was that'?" Darryl wrote of those initial sessions. "Yes we had discovered what we thought might happen and that was activity did exists [sic]. But we definitely were not ready for some of the things we heard."
Having heard these recordings for myself, I can verify the following with a great deal of certainty: 1) They are definitely recordings. 2) Said recordings definitely involve sounds.
Of particular interest to the group is a clip that, to my untrained ears sounds like a stomach growling, but which NPI claims is a voice saying the cryptic phrase "Becky saw it."
Our team (having no idea whether the teams have official names or not, I have taken the liberty of designating them 'Ghostbusters 1' and 'Ghostbusters 2') is a fairly even split—three men and three women—and includes a rather talkative fellow named Patrick, who, while operating one of the group's many video cameras, manages a more or less continuous monologue that touches on everything from Egypt to toxic building materials. We all hunker down—some in chairs, some on the cold tile, spread between the building's blood drying room and the overflow morgue. Nightvision cameras commence filming. Recorders commence recording. All doors are shut. All lights are turned off, to avoid having them "interfere with the equipment." And above all else, we're told, we must remain quiet.
"It's important that you move as little as possible," Patrick says. "And don't whisper. If you have to swallow, do it during the questions."
It's somewhere between meditation and some exotic torture; sitting, unmoving on the tile for 25 straight minutes. Everyone who wants to participate is given the chance to ask questions, and each person's questions give a bit of insight into their character; some want to get inside the mind of a ghost. Others want to help. Others want names and dates. Questions range from simple, such as "Who do we have here with us?" and "When did you die?" to more offbeat fare like: "Do you draw your energy from the sun? Can you draw on it to manifest yourself?" Sadly, no one asks a single question about genital warts, something I view as a major oversight.
"I give you my permission to touch me," an older woman says. "You can touch my elbow. Or tug on my hair."
I stifle a snicker.
At the conclusion of the session, we change rooms for a second EVP investigation, this time in the basement area that houses much of the museum's collection. Although I've been tasked with keeping an eye on NPI, and making sure their investigations don't impact any historical artifacts, the team seems relatively well-behaved—perhaps owing to the shame of the Mystery Bang, still less than an hour old. Almost two hours into their investigation, the group has begun to relax, chit-chatting about the building, the night's endeavours, and shared interests—particularly ghost-hunting television (as an interesting side note, a 2011 study showed that belief in the paranormal can be fostered through narrative—either passed from person to person, or through stories told on TV). However, one person who clearly isn't relaxing is The Girlfriend. After only 90 minutes, her powers of diplomacy are rapidly waning.
"This is so dumb," she says.
"Oh, come on," I hiss. "Let's just see what happens."
Outliers notwithstanding, there's a palpable sense of anticipation amongst the members of Ghostbusters 1 as we settle onto the floor of the basement—some seated, others, like The Girlfriend and I, opting to lie down, thus minimizing any potential ass-numbing.
"It's really important that you don't move." Patrick says again. "Don't even whisper. I don't know if I told you."
"Yes, we know," The Girlfriend says. "You already said that."
An hour later, following a much-needed pizza break, I descend once again to the basement, where Ghostbusters 2 have already begun the evening's first "ghost box" session. The din of static is overwhelming, but that's to be expected. Ghost boxes are essentially modified AM/FM receivers that scan endlessly through the band, spending a half-second or so on each frequency. The belief amongst paranormal investigators is that spirits can manipulate the audio remnants on these frequencies to communicate with the living. In skeptic's terms, it means sitting in a dark room while your ass goes numb and a group of strangers yell questions at a portable radio. So far, the evening's findings have been underwhelming, and some team members are getting testy.
"We're going to need a response from you," the ghost box operator says. "Otherwise, there's plenty else we could be doing. Just tell us to go, even. We will. We're not unreasonable."
"We usually get good hits in here," someone says, annoyed.
Occasionally, the machine picks up a fragment of radio chatter—a commercial for insurance, or a syllable spoken by a late-night DJ. Sometimes they're men's voices, sometimes women's. Sometimes it's music. But anytime it happens, it generates a flurry of excitement.
"Did you hear that?" someone asks, after a blip that sounds vaguely like talk radio.
"What was that?" someone else adds. "We can't quite hear you." Silence.
"We could certainly use a name."
"Last time we were here, you said that 'Becky saw it.' Is Becky here?"
It goes on like this for 20 minutes, until eventually they pack up. Someone muses that perhaps tonight's ghosts "don't have the energy" to respond.
In short order, I rejoin Ghostbusters 1 for a third EVP session on the lab level, where Patrick has begun talking at length about the Flat Earth Society (a group which, it must be noted, has substantially more than 587 Facebook followers).
"It's amazing to me," he says. "That there are people who actually believe the world is flat."
"People believe all kinds of crazy things," I reply.
"It's all about energy," he says earnestly. "You know snow? On your TV? That's just residual radiation from the big bang. So what happens to our energy when we die? What happens to it? That's why we're here."
Some people are complaining about the lack of response thus far, so I take the opportunity to ask them what would constitute a success. One team member tells the story of a night spent in "a private residence" where, during an EVP session, their REMpod (a device which allegedly interacts with the electromagnetic fields given off by ghostly presences) went crazy.
"Darryl went to use the flashlight, and it wouldn't work," she says. "And when he opened it up, he found that the wires were fused."
Everyone makes a series of creeped-out sounds. As we hunker down, Nikki asks if I'd like to start the session off by asking a question. I shake my head. Believer or skeptic, it's not worth angering the ghost of genital warts.
By 1 AM, the night is winding down. The final "ghost box" session has yielded little in the way of responses, and morale is flagging. On the way upstairs, I ask the ghost box operator if the night was a success.
"It was much more active last time," he says ruefully. "We had a full sentence. 'Becky saw it'."
"Is that unusual?" I ask.
"Oh yeah. We never get full sentences."
"Last time we were here, we had a UBC anthropologist with us. To study us, I guess. And he heard it, too. He didn't say anything, but you could see in his eyes he'd started to believe."
Driving home that night, I reflect on my evening of ghost hunting. Paranormal investigation had always struck me as decidedly unscientific. And now, having seen NPI's methods up close, I'm more skeptical than I was before we started. In the end, all I saw during my evening was pseudoscience and confirmation bias, the adult equivalent of sitting around a campfire telling scary stories—terrifying and thrilling, but without any sort of merit beyond the enjoyment of the thing. Random stimuli acting as a real-world Rorschach test. We've evolved to search for patterns in the world around us. And lacking critical analysis, we begin seeing connections where there aren't any, seeing Jesus in our breakfast burrito, or associating natural disasters with sin, or shadows with monsters under the bed. These are cognitive errors so well-understood, they have scientific names (apophenia, pariedolia, patternicity).
That said, it's unlikely my opinion will change their minds. No doubt NPI members will come forward and defend their investigation, drawing their own conclusions on why the evening wasn't a success. Maybe it's just because nobody ever died there. Maybe they weren't asking the right questions. Maybe the presence of a skeptic (cough) weakened their spirit energy. Such is the power of belief.
Or, to put it another way, belief in the paranormal seems a lot like genital warts: problematic, transmitted from person to person, and once you've got it, damn hard to get rid of.