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Investigating the spirit world

Orbs, apparitions, voices… people who study the paranormal have dealt with it all. Just don’t call them ghostbusters.

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2004-10-25


Live in Fort Wayne long enough, and you’ll hear plenty of people complain about how they feel trapped, stuck, unable to move on…

You don’t know the half of it.

According to Betsy Cox, Fort Wayne and the surrounding areas are boiling over with all kinds of people who haven’t moved on yet. She calls them ghosts.

“This area of Indiana is very haunted,” she says. “Because of the history of the area, the part that it played in the underground railroad, as well as the conflicts between the early traders and the Native Americans, you find a lot of activity in these areas.”

Betsy Cox is the Public Relations Director of the Fort Wayne chapter of the Indiana Ghost Trackers, an organization that performs paranormal investigations in homes, cemeteries, and historical sites (they also clean up and restore old cemeteries). The group numbers about 40 in Fort Wayne, and Cox estimates there are probably 200 – 250 members across the state. “People call us or contact us to come out to their home to do investigations privately, or we also go out and do public areas,” she says. “We take digital photography equipment, Geiger counters. We try to capture the paranormal activity on film. You’ll come back and see a lot of activity on tape. Orbs are the most common, little balls of energy or light floating around. You’ll see a glimmer. It looks like heat coming off the sidewalk. Sometimes you’ll see an apparition, but that’s pretty rare…”

“The biggest misconception of what we do is that people are afraid of us, and think we’re doing something evil or bad or wrong, but we don’t do anything more than write down our little data and take pictures,” Cox adds. “We don’t take anything, we’re careful not to disturb anything, we’re not vandals… but people think that we’re just up to no good, when really we’re just little geeks running around with our notebooks and cameras.”

The Fort Wayne chapter of the Indiana Ghost Trackers is just the tip of the iceberg. Call them ghost trackers, paranormal investigators, or ghost busters (though they usually hate that), the small groups that investigate haunted properties and other phenomena are all across the country and number in the hundreds. Typically, they use similar method and equipment to what Cox described — digital and 35 millimeter cameras, digital thermometers, electromagnetic field detectors and voice recorders. “Our group likes to categorize what we do as an intellectual hobby,” says Cox. “There are sensitives in the group who kind of step outside the scientific realm of collecting data sometimes. Some of what we do may not be totally scientific. We try to eliminate anything that can be explained.”

A “sensitive” is a term used to describe someone with psychic abilities. “We call them sensitives instead of psychics because of Dionne Warwick and Miss Cleo,” says Nikki Steward of a New Jersey-based organization called South Jersey Ghost Research. “People have a really bad connotation when you use the word psychics.”

This field of research is called parapsychology, which is the scientific study of paranormal phenomena, or unusual experiences that do not seem to be explainable in terms of our everyday understanding or known scientific principles. Some of these phenomena are ESP, telepathy, clairvoyance, and apparitions, or ghosts, to use the popular term. And, though this may sound like a run-down of topics covered during a season of Unsolved Mysteries or The X-files, one of the field’s leading organizations, the Parapsychological Association, was accepted as an affiliate member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1969, giving this area of study a major boost in credibility.

What parapsychology is not — as most people in the field are quick to point out — is a clearinghouse for anything and everything weird. There’s no Bigfoot, no Nessie, no UFOs, no witchcraft, no occult…

Still, it obviously has its detractors in the scientific community. “Pseudo-science” is probably the kindest term for it that I found. Calls to a few scientific associations and institutions couldn’t drum up anyone who even thought parapsychology was seriously worth talking about, and the prevalence of psychic phone lines, reality television shows, tabloids, and a host of other goofy things sure doesn’t help.

Just ask Dr. Larry Montz. Montz founded the International Society of Paranormal Research (ISPR) in 1971. Montz claims to be one of six legitimate field parapsychologists in the United States and the only one that’s full-time. He leads a team of investigators that includes clairvoyants (people with psychic abilities) and people trained in scientific methods of research. They also work with police and other agencies on a variety of cases that are not considered paranormal. “We currently can measure the environment, we can measure electro-magnetic fields that are temporary and mobile, that have no logical explanations, cold spots, hot spots,” Montz says, explaining some of the methods they use. “I also use a variety of camera equipment, everything from high-speed and low-speed film to infra-red thermal cameras. I’m the only one that uses thermal in the field because the cameras are upwards of $50,000.”

Montz can afford it; the ISPR is called on as an authority for countless documentaries and films, and consulted by city officials and historical societies all across the U.S. and Europe. “We do not go ghost hunting,” he says. “We are the only professional team actually hired to do investigations of this nature. We are the ones called in after the priests have been there, and the ministers, and the witches, and God knows what, when people get to the point where they have to have help. Because the clairvoyants on the team have enhanced psychic abilities, people can’t call us and just say, ‘hey, I think my house is haunted…’ since the clairvoyants can read that individual very quickly, and say no, they’re lying, they want publicity, it’s not as drastic as they’re saying, and so on. So, the majority of the cases I work on are real cases, because we are able to cut through the bullshit.”

In short, if there’s a leading professional in the field of parapsychology, Montz is it, and as such, he has the impatience of a professional who has his work consistently undermined by popular culture on one side and amateurs on the other. When I use the word “sensitives” to describe people with psychic abilities, he sounds exasperated. “Sensitives? Okay, well that’s not a parapsychology word, either,” he says. “The thing is, they (amateurs) make up a lot of words. Like ‘glowing spiritual globules’ and ‘orbs,’ which are merely lens refractions, digital glitches and things. The other day, I heard someone use the word parasensitive. What does that mean? If you people are going to play like you’re in my field, why don’t you at least get a glossary of the terms?”

Montz sees it as part of his mission to dispel some of the myths people have about ghosts and spirits. One example: cemeteries aren’t haunted. “That’s just totally ridiculous,” he says, explaining that entities have the ability to travel, and that essentially they’d no more want to spend their time hanging out in a cemetery than you or I would.

Another popular misconception, according to Montz, is that it’s only Victorian mansions or English castles that are haunted, or that someone has to die a horrific death to haunt a property, and they’re somehow locked in there. “None of that is true,” Montz says. “In 32 years, I’ve found that entities that remain Earthbound, are people, number one. They aren’t demons and devils or all that stuff. These are people, and if they’ve remained Earthbound, they have remained for a reason, which means they have issues.”

And while these issues could include a violent or traumatic death, they’re also just as likely to be somewhat benign. “Each case varies, from an entity that is very upset because this individual died young, and they’ve decided ‘gee, I kinda got gypped, I don’t want to leave and go on.’ And then there are entities that remain because they were just comfortable with where they lived for so many years, they refuse to give it up and leave.”

Montz talks about a recent investigation at a 100-year-old hotel in New Orleans, where his team was asked to come in because some of the guests and employees had had some strange experiences. The management was curious about what was going on. “We located over a dozen entities,” Montz says. “We found that some were employees, some were guests, some were suicides that jumped off the roof when the hotel was the only high rise in the city. One entity we ran in to was a house-keeper that said her great-grandmother, her grandmother, her mother, and herself all worked in the hotel, and she decided that it was her job to make sure that the current housekeepers were doing their jobs. So that’s why some of the housekeepers wouldn’t go in certain rooms on certain floors, because she wasn’t happy with what they were doing, and was trying to let them know, and just scared the hell out of them.”

And yes, occasionally, every now and then, you get a cranky ghost that will break stuff, or push people, or generally act like a pest. Usually, though, Montz says this spirit isn’t any more “evil” than a roommate you’re not getting along with, and just like that situation, the key is communication. Montz describes what he does as similar to being a counselor: you find out what the ghost wants, plan some resolution, and everyone goes away happy.

“What really irritates me the most is that how all these people, and MTV and Fox, all make this out to be as scary as possible, and it’s not,” Montz says. “We’re on TV all the time, but you would never find me dropping a camera and running out of a building, or putting together contrived shows like MTV’s Fear, or Scariest Places on Earth, because I teach to take the fear away. Ghosts are people. How afraid are you of grandma? So how afraid should I be?”

Though Montz seems to have little patience with the hobbyists and ghost tracking groups all over the country, this idea that ghosts aren’t really anything to be feared is something they share. “People think that all ghosts are bad or evil or out to get you,” Cox says. “They’re not. Most of the time, they’re just hanging out doing the things they used to do in life.” Cox admits she can get nervous sometimes when she sees objects move, or hears sounds, or one of their audio recordings turns up a “voice” that wasn’t there when they first did the recording, but usually, she says, they just want communication. “Most of the time, I think they just like to know that someone knows that they’re there. You’re intruding into what they feel is their property or their space.”

Ghost Trackers of Fort Wayne recently did an investigation of the Embassy Theater, where Cox says they found lots of activity, but mostly benign. “ The people who were involved in the Embassy had a lot of passion for it, so they kind of still like to hang around and oversee things,” she says. “They don’t like to disturb, but they like to see what’s going on.”

When ghost trackers investigate an alleged haunting, the first item of business is to discover any practical explanation for whatever incidents were observed. Sometimes, that slamming door, rocking chair, or cold spot is nothing more than a draft. But if there’s one thing ghost trackers at all levels of the filed don’t seem to question it’s whether or not what they’re tracking actually exists. Betsy Cox points to the recordings and photographs the Fort Wayne Ghost Trackers have taken, but freely admits that that kind of proof probably wouldn’t satisfy most skeptics. Overall, however, she seems untroubled by the question. “We’ve seen them, we’ve heard them,” she says. “There will always be skeptics, but ghosts exist. We’re just trying to find out more about them.”

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