As the tour bus rolls through the dark, rain-swept backroads of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the couple in the seat in front of me are huddled over a dime-store microcassette recorder, listening feverishly to the tinny static-filled recording they just made at Sach's Covered Bridge, a supposedly haunted bridge in one of the many parks that fill this area of the eastern United States. They're listening for whispers, shouts, screams, the rattling of sabres or the crack of gunfire, anything, as long as it's a ghost. The recording is a bad one, like most examples of EVP (electronic voice phenomena) are undistinguished mono, filled with so much background noise that even the living sound mysterious.
"There! Did you hear that!? Rewind it!"
Click. Whirr. Click.
"You're right, honey! It sounds like a scream!"
"It does! It does sound like a scream!"
Yeah, right. It sounds like somebody zipping up their jacket. To my ears, anyway. To these Dedicated Scientists, these Curies of EVP it is Much Much More. Since radiation isn't an issue here, I wonder what'll kill this couple. Systemic shock, perhaps? Caused by the slammimg of their constant jaw dropping? Or maybe boredom when they realize that it probably is just a zipper after all.
They kept listening all the way back to the hotel.
The hotel was the Gettysburg Holiday Inn, host to the second annual Ghost Hunters convention, sponsored by the International Ghost Hunters Society.
The Society was formed by Dave Oester and his son back in 1996 when they decided to start a website where they and others could post their ghost pictures, photographs of balls of light and wispy trails that they believe are spirits of the dead captured on film.
Now, two years later, the Society boasts over 4500 members in seventy-five countries, all dedicated to gathering evidence of, as the Reverand Sharon Gill who co-hosts the website full time with Dave puts it, "life after life". You can view the pictures collected by members, which has grown from Dave's original six photographs to over a thousand photos in all, as well as listen to examples of EVP at their website at www.ghostweb.com. You can also purchase their new CD ROM, which contains the photos and recordings, plus a flurry of papers on various ghost theories.
Having read some of the postings on the site, I wasn't sure just what kind of crowd to expect. The theories behind the phenomena range from the curious and informed to, well, the convinced and loopy. Most of the members are what I'd consider serious hobbyists; willing to spend some cash on specialized equipment and eager to travel to sites and poke around. But unlike someone interested in, say, home theater or coin collecting, the ghost hunter's goals are more amorphous. Even if a numismatist has only a few pieces in his collection, he can still show them to his friends and say with certainty that they are coins, whereas the best a ghost hunter can do these days is point to their pieces and say, "Look, a picture of a bridge with a blob on it." And just who the hell would want to haunt a bridge, anyway? Me, I'm coming back and haunting a massage parlor. But I digress.
The crowd of 150+ registrants was more diversified than I had expected: John Deere baseball caps sitting next to pierced ears and goatees, Miatas with NIN stickers rubbing bumpers with campers from the Good Sam Club. All sitting together in the same room and listening to bad recordings of jacket zippers and looking at pictures of bridges with blobs on them.
No, that's not really fair. Some of the recordings are convincing (I've experienced EVP myself, so I believe the phenomena is valid), and some of the pictures contain suggestions that something was there that shouldn't have been when the shutter was snapped. What bothered me about some of the conference participants was their absolute certainty: these voices are ghosts, these whispy trails are spirits of the dead.
I asked Rev. Gill how she and Dave came to the conclusion that the smears of light in the photos were the source of the voices and sounds on the tape.
She told me that she and Dave, along with two other people, were investigating Yankton Cemetary near St. Helens, Oregon back in September of 1997. As they were walking through a corner of the cemetary, she saw a ball of light rise up from a nearby copse of bushes, hover for a moment,then wink out. With tape recorder in hand, Dave asked it if there was anything they could do to help it. Upon listening to their tape recording later, they heard a voice say, "Help me, David" (the recording can be heard at the website; the photographs are in Ghost Gallery 2, named Yankton Cem 1 and Yankton Cem 2 at the website and on the CD-ROM).
While I have no reason to disbelieve them, and while the event related doesn't violate my own personal beliefs, I do have trouble believing that every photo shown at the conference or posted on the website is of an invisible intelligence, somehow captured on film. Honestly, I don't know what the hell those pictures are of, and they do only seem to occur in areas that are reputed to be haunted. I do know I'm more comfortable referring to them as energy fields, not necessarily of human origin, and not necessarily intelligent. Some may argue that I'm splitting hairs, but hey, AC and DC may both be electricity, but they don't work the same way or power the same devices.
Most of the ghost hunters I spoke to weren't certain what it was they were encountering, they just knew that they were witnessing something, and that it was fun and interesting. Many, like Frank Swisher, are more attracted to the folkloric aspects than they are in gathering data to prove the phenomena exists.
Frank is a writer and dramatic Victorian storyteller, prefering fictional tellings of events over documentation. He has written and self-published Shades of Fear, a collection of stories that are represented as such; a refreshing attitude in a genre that loves pushing highly embellished or downright fictional events as fact. He was there as a guest lecturer, to sell copies of his book, and to mix with people who shared a common love for good ghost stories. He was dressed in clothes of the era, waistcoat, top hat, the whole nine yards.
Others, like historian Mark Nesbitt, fall in between the folklorists and the hobbyists. Mark used to work for the National Parks department, and as a result encountered story after story about phantom regiments, headless cavalry riders, etc. When he noticed that park-goers who knew nothing about the stories were often reporting these spectral soldiers, he began to suspect that at least some of the tales might in fact be more than just legends. He began to research the stories and has collected them in Ghosts of Gettysburg, a four-volume collection.
"I got interested in these stories back in 70's. Back then the Parks Department moved me around a lot, and it seems that every house they stuck me in had a reputation for being haunted. After a while you just start to ask up front what you can expect," he laughs.
But while Swisher and Nesbitt were there for business (selling their books) as well as pleasure, most were there to learn from the lectures, go to the onsite investigations, or just soak up the atmosphere.
One such person was Sara Culler, who had driven the hour up from just outside Washington to attend the conference.
"I'm not even a member of the group," she said. "A friend of mine found the website and told me about the conference, so here I am."
Sara makes frequent trips up to Gettysburg for the same reason that Dave and Rev. Gill chose it as the site for the conference: the tragic, violent history of the area seems to have made it, inch for inch, one of the most haunted areas in the world. She enjoys dressing in clothes of the period and visiting these areas, reading the ghost stories and listening to the local folklore. Her decision to dress in antiquated fashions didn't strike me as weird. It certainly isn't as strange as getting your nose pierced which is an acceptable fashion statement these days. Besides, she doesn't wear these clothes full time, just when she's in Gettysburg.
"It helps me to immerse myself in the surroundings. I'm able to get a better feel for the environment this way." She admitted that because of the conference, she was fascinated by the science end of it, an aspect she had never really considered before.
"Up until this weekend, I'd really been more interested in the stories, although I did do a lot of research on the possession case that inspired The Exorcist. I came away from that doubting that the kid was ever possessed by anything demonic. I guess now I'll have to start reading more on the science of all this."
The convention featured lectures, workshops and visits to locations reputed to be haunted, such as Sach's Covered Bridge.
The lectures were interesting, covering legends of the area, ghost photos, and EVP, but the real pull for a lot of the attendees was the workshops.
I only went on one. A tour bus picked up groups of 48 people and took us out to the bridge, where it was freezing and an overcast sky was spitting out snow and rain. When we all got out of the bus, suddenly the surrounding countryside was awash with camera lights for the video crews and the bright pops from camera flashes. Jeez, is this an investigation or a film premiere?
One guy dressed in army camouflage (so the ghosts can't see him, I guess), pointed a remote thermal reader up the old timbers in the bridge's ceiling, trying to get a temperature reading (a reading lower than the surrounding area can mean a ghost is there).
"Look!" he gasped. "A cold spot!"
I rolled my eyes. It's thirty degrees, Homer. The whole state of Pennsylvania's a cold spot.
The fifty-yard-long bridge was crawling with nearly fifty people, all of them snapping pictures, or shooting video of people snapping pictures, or walking around and holding up these tiny microcassette recorders (just like me, I must admit) and hoping they might get a voice on tape. And I bet some of them did. I got one saying, "Look! A cold spot!" And when it got colder and I zipped up my jacket, I got a weird sound like a woman screaming.
So I wandered out into the woods by myself, trying to get away from everyone and see if I could pick up any sounds that I knew weren't spills from nearby conversations. Except for the sounds of my boots on the path and the click from my camera as I squeezed off a roll of underexposed pictures that would come back completely black, I got nothing.
I understand others got voices, gunshots, bugle charges and horses. I just got on the bus.
By and large, the conventioneers impressed me as sincere, intelligent people. Those I spoke to were open in their views, and very respectful of skepticism, especially Dave Oester and Reverand Gill, who were gracious enough to squeeze me in to the conference at the last minute, and spend some of their few moments of spare time answering question after question. And besides, not one person there had on a single damn X-Files shirt. Thank God.
The convention went so well, in fact, that Dave announced that it will become an annual affair in Gettysburg, so if you missed it this year, plan to attend the 1999 convention on March 28 and 29.
Oh yeah. Back in my room, I listened to the tape I recorded in the Gettysburg Cemetary, where we stopped on the way back to the hotel.
Near the end of the tape, right before I stopped recording, I passed a woman taking pictures of a gravestone. She asked me if the cemetary extended across the street. I told her I didn't know, but since I didn't see any popping flashes from ghost hunters taking pictures, I doubted it. As we spoke, two people walked out from the shadows across the street and she asked me if they were with the conference. I wanted to say, jeez lady, it's thirty degrees out, it's raining, and we're standing in the middle of a graveyard, who the hell else do you think it is? Instead I just smiled and said, "Probably. There's no one out here but us and the dead ones."
At this point on the tape you can hear a man laugh (there were no men nearby except for myself) followed by what sounds like a woman wheezing or--you guessed it--a zipper being jerked. Maybe something thought something was funny at that moment. I can't imagine what, but I also can't imagine what was being unzipped.
Maybe some things are just better left unknown.