Maryland's 'Supernatural Investigators' say the evidence speaks for itself. Did you hear that?



For the third or fourth time during the interview, Jayne Hitchcock is assuring that she is not, in fact, a lunatic.

No one has leveled the accusation at her, but Hitchcock's defensiveness is understandable. She has seen the customary rolling of eyes after identifying herself as a spirit chaser. Enough of that sort of reaction and she changed the name of her group from "Maryland Ghosthunters" to something she deemed more sober-sounding: "Supernatural Investigators of Maryland."

The next afternoon, her organization of sleuths would be launching itself into action, visiting an Ellicott City pub supposedly haunted by more than the occasional drunk. It is a case tailor-made for the investigators. Just as well for a newspaper, it's only days before Halloween.

"Do I look crazy?" Hitchcock is asking now, but only rhetorically. Having dispatched her two yapping but exotic dogs to a back bedroom, she is settled on the living room couch in her modern, well-appointed Crofton home. "I have a real life, and I have a real job," she says, before emphatically adding, again, "I am not a lunatic."

Open-minded is a description much more to her liking. Does anyone disagree, she says in her most patient, most pedagogical way, that there are phenomena that simply cannot be explained? Superfluous voices on audio tapes? Chilly spots in regions of a house? Images darting through the periphery of one's vision?

"Ghosts?" she is asked expectantly.

Hitchcock, a 38-year-old woman with tumbling curls of auburn hair, suddenly becomes a model of circumspection. "I'm not saying that," she says, raising her right hand in caution. "I have never seen a ghost. I've seen things and heard things that I can't explain. I'll just leave it at that."

Hitchcock's "real job" is as a part-time Internet instructor at the University of Maryland, but her business card identifies her as an "International Author & Speaker." One of her books is the "Ghosts of Okinawa," a collection of ghost stories she gathered in Japan while her husband, a military officer, was stationed there. It was there that -- in her words -- she honed her ghost-hunting skills.

Hitchcock admits that at the start of every investigation, her fondest wish is for a face-to-face encounter with a visitor from the beyond. At a minimum, she hopes to meet up with some bit of strangeness. She is scientist enough, though, to acknowledge this won't always be the case. She has seen too many examples of a supposed spirit turning out to be nothing more than faulty plumbing or the settling of a new house.

"Sometimes I have to tell people they have a small rodent problem," she says.

Of course, being the expert, Hitchcock sometimes is able to pick up what laymen may not. She leads the way back to her office, where she has an audiotape from a Halloween seance she attended in Okinawa. On the tape, she says, are extraneous voices; that is, voices not belonging to any of the flesh-and-blood people participating in the seance. One of these voices is supposedly saying, "Oh, my God, it's you!"

"Listen carefully," Hitchcock says, and plays a tape that seems to last for less than a second. "Hear that?"

Well, no.

She replays it. Silence. She goes on to other parts of the tape supposedly containing other ghostly communications. Still, her thick-headed visitor hears ... nothing.

Happily, though, Hitchcock does not rescind her offer for him to tag along for the next day's field trip, a journey that promises a full-fledged encounter with the deceased.

At 4: 50 under gloomy skies the next afternoon, Hitchcock, video camera in hand, marches up to the Judge's Bench, a bar along the historic stretch of Ellicott City's Main Street. Accompanying her is Denise Broessel, another group member whom, Hitchcock has boasted, is "somewhat psychic."

Broessel, a 39-year old medical secretary, is more modest in her claims. "It's not psychic really," she says. "Let's just say I'm a bit more sensitive, more emphatic to them being here."

Broessel says her own Woodlawn home is haunted by, among others, the ghost of a child who died there. She and her family have seen figures darting through the house. They've returned home to find their appliances turned on and their pets released from closed quarters. Broessel once heard a spirit mimicking the voice of her teen-age daughter; during a seance in the house, that same daughter heard a spirit say he wanted to kiss the hand of one of the participants.

As if that weren't spooky enough, Broessel adds, "Oddly, he seemed to have a French accent."

A year ago, Broessel, Hitchcock and other group members visited the Judge's Bench, which is on the first floor of a three-story, 100-year-old building. They had heard reports of liquor bottles unaccountably falling from behind the bar and of strange noises coming from the upper floors. Supposedly, late at night, employees had heard the toilet in the ladies' room flushing and the toilet paper roller spinning by itself.

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