Spirits Move Them

Novice ghost-hunters swell the numbers of those looking for things that go bump in the night

October 30, 2007|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN REPORTER

STATE COLLEGE, PA. -- Fledgling ghost-hunters step expectantly into the darkened theater. It's nearing midnight, the campus is otherwise deserted, and an autumnal breeze rustles the drying elms. Moody. Just the way they like it.

With hope in their hearts and fresh batteries in their electromagnetic field detectors, they've come searching for signs, for evidence, for validation.

They pad carefully along the carpeted aisles of Penn State's century-old Schwab Auditorium, which, word has it, is haunted by as many as four spirits. Fingers poised on digital cameras and tape recorders running, they peer behind the heavy velvet curtain and poke about the balcony seats. A woman with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair pauses in the shadows offstage, squeezing her eyes tight, listening hard.

"There are things going on in here," says John Sabol, a graying investigator who's leading the hunt. "But I'm not going to tell you where or what."

This pursuit capped off UNIV-CON, a pre-Halloween conference that drew hundreds of paranormal enthusiasts to central Pennsylvania. The show's record-breaking attendance, the popularity of ghost tourism and ever-spookier cable programming shows that while the afterlife may remain elusive, belief in its existence is anything but.

"There's an interesting explosion of belief lately," says Paul Eno, a New England author of books on the paranormal.

Eno thinks the uptick is because many people are otherwise short of things to believe in.

"I think when the economy is sort of questionable or during times of war, interest in the occult skyrockets," he says. He believes scandals involving the Roman Catholic Church and big-time evangelical preachers have the same effect. "People are searching because, as one person put it to me, all the magic seems to have gone out of the world, and we are creatures who chase magic."

At the conference, they chase magic earnestly - academically even - trying to wrap a degree of respectability around an endeavor science finds something less than scientific.

In a workshop the day of the hunt, Sabol, sporting a silver hoop in his left ear and enough cologne to summon a spirit, effuses on his newfound trade - he used to be an actor. He trots out a new name for his occupation with each tick of the clock.

"A ghost excavator is what I call myself."

"I'm a cultural resource consultant."

"I'm a skeptical methodologist."

"What I really call myself is an ethno-archeo-ghost-ologist."

Later that night, after his hunters have poked around the auditorium, Sabol gathers everyone at the foot of the stage to share their findings.

"It was like my feet were jelly," says a Catholic elementary school teacher from Wyncote, Pa., the woman who had had the moment offstage. "I had this strange feeling in my stomach."

Melissa Marx, a young woman from Fort Washington, Pa., who's studying to be an opera singer, says that she, too, had felt something.

"A voice popped into my head. I didn't hear it the way I hear a regular voice," she tentatively explains. "It said, `C'mon, don't be silly.'"

Sabol suggests that she had contact from the Revolutionary War soldier who some say haunts the theater. Marx's theory is that it was actually a show ghost.

"I started singing in my head," she continues. "The voice sang along with me. It was a tenor."

In the lobby after the hunt, the teacher, Teresa Zygala, says she's convinced that spirits can't or won't move on. "I just feel your life isn't really complete when you die."

Not unlike the ghosts they seek, believers often feel just as unsettled, says Ryan Buell, who founded Penn State's Paranormal Research Society, the conference's sponsor. With their black T-shirts, pale skin and unathletic bodies, one gets the sense ghost-hunters are seeking both the supernatural and earthly companionship.

At a ghost-hunters' conference like this one, Buell says, they find it. Here it's OK to admit you've felt a wisp of an apparition. Here when you mention seeing something otherworldly in the dark, there are no funny looks.

In a conference workshop titled "Fitting In," a vampire expert, whose all-black wardrobe sets off her blood-red dyed hair, reassures her audience that marching against the grain is the path to distinction, that even "the greatest writers, poets, mathematicians" once felt like outcasts. "They're going to revolutionize the world," she says, "but in high school, they're out of step."

On hearing this, a shaggy-haired boy attending the event with his mother pumps his fist.

James Randi isn't so understanding. The former magician who rededicated his life to "demystifying" paranormal claims - a role that Harry Houdini played in his time - scoffs at what he calls "woo woo" and dismisses believers as gullible losers.

"They're people that don't really have much going on in their lives, and they invent these things they can relate to," he says. "It's their only excitement."

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