In Search Of Those Elusive Things That Go Bump In The Night
The Phila. Ghost Hunters Alliance tries to debunk hoaxes. But not everything has an explanation.
In search of those elusive things that go bump in the night
By Lewis Kamb
INQUIRER SUBURBAN STAFF
LEVITTOWN - Darkness. Somewhere a dog barks. The wind howls through gnarled branches of a three-centuries-old sycamore tree. And something goes bump in the night.
In this case, it's Claudia Havens, a 46-year-old raven-haired supermarket receiving clerk, going bump in the dark and dank basement of the aged and, as local lore has it, haunted Bolton Mansion.
She and about two dozen other ghost hunters armed with night-vision scopes, digital thermometer guns, and other high-tech gadgetry gathered in the historic fieldstone manor Saturday night to learn the finer points of investigating the paranormal.
And after Lew Gerew, cofounder of the Philadelphia Ghost Hunters Alliance and the host of this spooky seminar, threw the basement's light switch, Havens and the others bumped around the pitch-black cellar, doing their best to scare up some spirits.
"So you're telling me that you stay in places like this all night long?" Havens asked, incredulous.
It's true, Gerew said. His band of ghost hunters conducts overnight investigations of haunted houses, battlefields and cemeteries throughout the mid-Atlantic, documenting eerie apparitions, weird balls of light, and other unexplained phenomena.
And Gerew has proof they exist. Sort of.
Earlier in the evening, he and his students huddled in a dim back room inside the Colonial mansion's oldest section, where Gerew passed around snapshots from previous expeditions that appeared to capture ominous mists, unexplained orbs, and, in one case, what appears to be the ghostly image of a man's head.
Light creep? Maybe. Poorly developed film? Perhaps. Double exposure? Possibly, but highly unlikely, said Gerew, a hospital X-ray technician from the Northeast who is familiar with film development.
The bespectacled and soft-spoken 31-year-old explained that, unlike many ghost-hunting groups, his 12-member alliance was founded two years ago on skepticism.
After he and his then-fiancee, Sharon, were baffled by a ghostly presence they say waved to them from a window in an unoccupied house in the Northeast, the couple tapped into an Internet search engine and typed in the word ghost.
But Gerew was not convinced by most of the photographs he found posted on Web sites that claimed to portray images of the spirit world. "A lot of them were like these milky mists that could have been somebody's cigarette smoke or warm breath in a cold night."
Intrigued, Gerew looked into joining a ghost-hunters group, but could find none locally. So he formed his own band of mostly young professionals who have spent thousands of dollars and hours conducting more than 100 ghost-hunting expeditions.
The group incorporates scientific method into disproving seemingly supernatural blotches, lights, mists, moans and groans captured on rolls of film and hours of video and audio tape, trying to attribute them to natural sources. Those they can't - anywhere from 15 percent to 25 percent of their findings - the group chalks up to the supernatural.
"The last thing we want to do is to fool ourselves into believing something is supernatural when it can be attributed to natural sources," Gerew said.
Gerew's own inexplicable images, captured on film, did not convince many in the crowd at the mansion Saturday. Then he brought out his audio recordings.
Through scratchy static, example after example of what seemed to be strange and garbled voices emerged from his cassette deck. There's the whispered "Take the guns out of the hands of the enemy" - a gem Gerew said he recorded in a wheat field in Gettysburg.
Also on tape, during a probe of the historic Inn at Jim Thorpe, was one of Gerew's colleagues asking an empty room, "Hello, is anyone in here?" The low, murky response, apparently from a smart-aleck apparition: "No, no one's here."
Such recordings, Gerew explained, are known as EVPs - electronic voice phenomena, one of several phrases prominent in ghost hunters' lingo. A simple compass is an electromagnetic field detector. And the strange mists that show up on film? They're ectoplasm.
"I really hate that word," Gerew says. "It sounds so Ghostbusters-ish, and we really don't like people referring to us as ghostbusters."
During cigarette breaks from a discussion of technology - infrared camcorder attachments, digital thermal scanners, and other equipment for the well-stocked ghost hunter - several seminar attendees stood outside the old house and told their own ghost stories.
When she's not doing supermarket work, Havens, of Wissinoming, who attended the seminar with her husband, her son and his girlfriend, said she holds psychic readings for friends. "I was born psychic and have had several experiences," she said, including recent hauntings by the ghost of her mother-in-law's dead cat, Puddie.
But the ghost of the hour at the Bolton Mansion on Saturday was Mary, a lovelorn maiden who lived there during the Civil War. Legend has it that after relatives forbade Mary from seeing a Union soldier she had fallen in love with, she hanged herself from the master staircase.
"The story goes that Mary appears in the front window whenever there's a full moon," said Jim Snow, president of the nonprofit Friends of Bolton Mansion, a group that is restoring the 28-room structure, which dates to 1687.
But, alas, during the group's exploration of the mansion's first floor and basement, Mary was a no-show. Outside the old house, there was only a half-moon hanging in the night sky.
"That could explain it," Snow said with a smile.
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