Michele Stableford, a professional medium and friend of The Searcher Group, would certainly consider herself someone who believes in ghosts. It’s mid-afternoon during my day with the investigators when Roe brings her to the Players’ Guild theatre. He met her a few blocks away; until now, the address was kept from her so she couldn’t research the house in advance. She leads us to the basement to start searching for spirits.
It’s dark, the only light coming from a door we’re passing through and some small frosted windows on the far wall. I walk through the door. It scrapes shut a couple of inches, pushing the brick that’s keeping it open. “Okay, I didn’t touch that door!” Nathan Marshall says behind me. I stop walking, content not to venture farther than I already have. Stableford walks forward another six or so feet, looking around. “He doesn’t want us in here,” she says. “He’s very negative. It’s like he’s still angry that he died.”
“Tag, my stomach,” says Roe. He does this frequently, telling his voice recorder about sounds that he and others in the group make, even if they’re not speech, lest anyone mistake them for ghost noises. We continue through the house for the next two hours, going from room to room as Stableford tells us about people that the rest of us can’t see. It’s about 5 p.m. by the time we decide to break for dinner.
Even though we’re heading out of the house for food, this is perhaps the most important part of the investigation. The video cameras and voice recorders are left running while we’re gone. “Spirits are social,” Richard Palmisano says. “They’ll talk just like you and I talk, and we’ll gain lots of information like names and things that are going on.” The hope is that they’ll talk to each other more freely when there aren’t any living intruders among them.
I volunteer to leave my recorder behind, too, placing it in a room on the second floor. Roe suggests putting it on something plastic — we find a black wig in a bag — so if it moves at all while we’re gone, I’ll hear the rustling in my recording. About 10 minutes later, after more recorders are set up, we leave. Roe shouts from the kitchen: “Bye now!”
We return at 7 p.m. and settle in to see if we can get the ghosts talking. The room we’re in now was once part of an apartment for the theatre’s caretaker, Jim Hamilton, who was also a painter; he died about five years ago. A new group of theatre people has joined to observe as Roe, McCulloch and Stableford try to communicate — Stableford through automatic writing, a technique where a medium writes words from a spirit while in a trance-like state, and the investigators with an Ovilus III, a black rectangular device sitting on the coffee table.
“In theory,” McCulloch says, “spirits are supposed to be able to manipulate this device and produce words.” It contains a pre-set dictionary — The Searcher Group owns a model with 2,000 words — and takes readings of the electric fields, light and temperature of the room before announcing a corresponding word in a monotonic electronic voice. It’s mostly gibberish and seemingly unconnected to the questions that McCulloch and Roe are calling out: answers like “foliage,” “factors,” “lesser.” But they continue asking questions and, in spurts, the Ovilus keeps talking back.
“Can you tell us your name?” Roe asks. A heartbeat passes, and then the electronic voice: “Jim.” My eyes snap to a photo of the departed caretaker on the wall that shows him looking over his shoulder as he works on one of his paintings, much like the one that still hangs on the wall to my left. “You know, we’ve had that name come up in here before,” says McCulloch, “that your name is Jim. Is one of your paintings in this room, Jim? Is —” The Ovilus interrupts: “Cleansing. Sent.” “You were sent?” Roe asks. The Ovilus: “East. Letter.” Okay, so back to nonsensical responses. But that one moment of congruence was unnerving.
It could have been a coincidence — Jim is one of the 74 common names loaded into the device’s dictionary. “We have to treat [data from the Ovilus] as very suspect because it’s so random,” Roe says. When he sends me his final report about the night weeks later, the “Jim” moment isn’t even mentioned. That’s because, to the investigators, a name only becomes evidence when it comes from multiple sources: like if a medium, the Ovilus and a recording device all pick up the name of an actual person who used to live on the property.
This conception of evidence isn’t the same as a scientific standard of proof. It’s correlation, not causation, using methods that aren’t widely accepted. Richard Palmisano readily admits this. “According to the laws we use in science, we can never prove the spirit side exists,” he tells me. He sees this as a problem with science, which says it’s impossible to prove anything without controlled experiments, repeatable across time and by different researchers, with consistent results — you can’t exactly ask a ghost to participate in a lab test. And the methods that the investigators use — checking for electromagnetic fields, hearing recorded voices and listening to the words of mediums — don’t have any scientific basis, just theoretical support from other believers in the paranormal.
While mainstream science has always been hostile to the study of ghosts, the British Society for Psychical Research and a corresponding American branch were created in the late 1800s to explore unexplained phenomena. Unlike today’s ghost hunters, those involved led double lives as traditional scientists. Among their ranks and supporters were William James, one of the founders of psychology; Lord Rayleigh, who won the fourth Nobel Prize in physics; William Crookes, who invented the radiometer and Crookes tubes; and Charles Richet, another Nobel Prize winner. Much of their work involved investigating the popular mediums of the time, and they found many were frauds looking to make money. But a few exceptional cases left them convinced that this was a useful subject for science to explore.
Today, academics only look at ghosts from a social
perspective, researching why they’re such a powerful and enduring symbol
within our culture. The question of their existence is left to the
paranormal investigators; to scientists, it’s not even worth
This story originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of The Observer with the title "Ghost whisperers."
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