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Explaining Apparitions

Explaining Apparitions
Ghost hunting: Scientific methods underlie paranormal investigations
The Beacon News - Aurora, IL
October 31, 2004
Joan Wagner

When Lidia Montoya was in college, she spent a lot of late nights studying in her mother's Aurora home.

Just about ready for bed, she glanced at the kitchen one night. A young boy met her gaze.

Thinking it was her then-10-year-old son, she asked the boy what he needed and took a closer look.

This boy, who wore a striped sweater, looked back incredulously.

"It was like: 'You can see me? Are you really talking to me?' " she recalled. "And then he just vanished."

Frightened, she called for someone else to check the kitchen. No one was there. Montoya had just seen the reason the television and lights mysteriously turned on and off at home.

Days later, a friend would also see the boy. Seeing the smile on his face suddenly disappear, she whirled around to catch a glimpse of the boy playfully tiptoeing past the doorway, like a kid up to something.

"I don't mean to scare you," her friend said. "But I think you have a ghost."

Years later, Montoya began a hobby that has become a passion ghost-hunting.

"Other than this, my life is completely normal, kind of boring," said Montoya, who works in a science-related field and since has moved from Aurora.

Healthy skepticismSkeptics may dismiss ghost hunting as nonsense, but those who research paranormal phenomena are skeptical themselves, which is why they base investigations largely on science and history. Rob Johnson, a ghost hunter who lives in Chicago and works construction, acknowledges some stories are urban legends, especially phantom hitchhikers. "Resurrection Mary is the greatest ghost story in Chicago, but I've never seen her," Johnson said. "Maybe I'm just not her type." In fact, Johnson said the first goal in any investigation is to try to find natural explanations. For example, an electrical problem could cause lights to flicker. The paranormal investigation begins after all other possibilities are dismissed. But not every investigation will yield something.

"I've taken about 40,000 pictures and maybe caught two dozen things," Johnson said.

The most common hauntings are residual, Johnson said. They often manifest as energy, not forms. These hauntings can sometimes adhere to a kind of schedule, like they don't know they're dead.

While investigating an abandoned mental institution, Johnson and his team picked up what sounded like a nurse paging a Dr. Frederickson over the PA system at the same time every night on a tape recorder.

A little research found there was a Dr. Frederickson who worked in that wing. Frederickson had died, however, so Johnson's team could never confirm his shift with him.

Generally, untimely death or grave desecration cause public places to become haunted, Montoya said. Unfinished business and emotional ties often prompt spirits' return to homes.

The first step in any investigation is to find historical records or newspaper accounts of a location.

"When it comes down to grim details, that's our bread and butter," Johnson said.

On a recent home investigation, Johnson said a 4-year-old boy would see a man at the foot of his bed every night. Research found a suicide took place years ago.

Using a tape recorder in the room, Johnson and his team asked general questions to a seemingly empty room. Listening to the tape later, they heard responses. When they asked why the ghost was in the boy's room, the taped response was simple.

"He's in my room," the spirit said.

The investigation left the spirit agitated, and the homeowners began finding handprints on the neat bed, as if someone were angrily pounding the mattress. The boy was moved from the room, and the door stays closed. There have been no problems since, Johnson said.

The science of spiritsIt was a dark and about to become a stormy night recently in Montgomery.

Such a scene might be the ideal setting for a hair-raising Halloween tale, but rainy conditions are bad news for paranormal investigators. Bad weather such as rain, snow and fog cancel and invalidate any investigation.

Fat raindrops recently splattered across the windshield as Montoya, her fiance, Brian Burknap, and her ghost-hunting partner, Monty McClellen, were en route to investigate a tiny cemetery along a main road in this town. (The team asked the location to remain undisclosed to prevent potential vandalism by visitors.) The cemetery had fallen into disrepair, and a near-tornado decades ago damaged the stones. No one has been buried there since about 1936.

Because of the rain, the team left their voice recorders, magnetic field readers, video-recorders and 35-mm cameras in the car. Bad weather, they say, can cause water spots to appear on a photo.

"People won't take you seriously with evidence like that," Montoya said. "You need to protect your reputation, especially in a sensitive field like this."

Weather conditions, moon phases, and other possible distractions should be documented. Equipment can be as simple or sophisticated as one wants. Spirits usually disrupt magnetic fields, which a simple compass can detect. Even bringing an animal can help, as they are especially sensitive to spirits.

Burknap, a new ghost-hunter who approaches it with a skeptically open mind, took test shots on a digital camera. In a real investigation, he wouldn't use a digital camera because those photos can be manipulated. With 35-mm film, photos can be compared with negatives if questions arise.

He caught what he thought was an 'orb' next to a gravestone, the most commonly photographed presence that manifests as a small ball of light. But he'll have to wait for a clear night and a 35-mm camera to try again.

"Most of what we do, our evidence is concrete to one another," Johnson said. "Unfortunately, we can't trap a ghost in a bottle."

Thrill of the chase.For many investigators, the thrills and chills are enough.

"Getting the crap scared out of you is part of the fun," Johnson said.

Johnson's team had a scare recently while investigating fields near the old Elgin state mental hospital. One woman had her hair fondled. Another had his ear lovingly tugged. And another got smacked in the side of the face so hard it left a red mark.

Montoya and McClellan were chased out of a famously haunted South Side cemetery where mobsters used to dump bodies in the lagoon a few years ago. They spied a dark, upright figure moving across the path earlier in the night. They proceeded slowly, feeling an "oppressive energy" in the air. All of the sudden, the gate began rattling. Pictures taken later revealed the dark, misty figure seen earlier near the gate, erasing any skepticism the pair may have had.

"I almost stopped ghost hunting that night, I was so scared," said Montoya, who usually remains calm on investigations.

"But not quite."

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