If you’re here, please give us a sign. We aren’t here to hurt you. We only want to help you…if you want help.”
The room is silent. Light from the street lamp throws eerie shadows across the walls as we sit in the dark, waiting for an answer. Michele Hale and Noah Carlisle, members of Cincinnati Area Paranormal Existence Research (CAPER), are sitting on the floor directly across from one another. Hale sighs. Carlisle crosses his legs at the ankles, his fingers locked behind his head, and leans against a couch cushion. There is a tiny infrared camera on top of the television in the corner of the room. This would be a casual setting, this child’s bedroom, if the express purpose for being here wasn’t to commune with the dead.
“If you’d like to communicate with us, feel free to tap us on the shoulder or arm,” Hale says to the air around her. “Or if you get close to the little gray box in the middle of the floor, we’ll know you’re here.”
The green light on the little gray box—an EMF meter, which detects changes in the electromagnetic field—doesn’t change colors. If it had, it would be a sign that a spirit is trying to “manifest,” that is, gather enough energy from the room to visibly appear. At least that’s the theory. In talking to CAPER members about what they do, I quickly come to understand that just about everything is only a theory.
My mind races. What if something does respond? What will that “something” be? What if it attacks us? What am I doing here!? It seems like an eternity before my inner monologue comes to an abrupt halt. I feel something touching my back. Poking, really. Fingers. Fingers? I sit up straight and suck in my breath. I don’t turn around because I know there’s no one there.
I have a love/hate relationship with all TV shows and movies that are meant to unnerve or flat-out frighten. I have a healthy dose of misplaced paranoia, but I find films like The Shining, The Orphanage, Dark Water, and The Devil’s Backbone—more psychological horror than actual gore—irresistible. As a child, I remember being mildly creeped out by the music from Unsolved Mysteries. In my teens, it was The X Files that scared the bejeesus out of me. These days, I can’t stop watching shows like Ghosthunters International, Supernatural, and Paranormal State. Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments? Love it. But no matter how enthralled I am with what’s happening on screen, my finger always hovers over the “off” button on my remote, ready to teleport me back to reality if things get too intense.
For people like CAPER cofounders Joy Naylor and Michele Hale, there is no such button. They’ve been into the paranormal for years, fueled by their own experiences with the supernatural. After meeting through another ghost hunting group in 2004, the two middle-aged women decided to start their own nonprofit organization with the goal of investigating haunted houses. They created a Web site and set up a phone line so home and business owners could reach them, and set about trying to determine whether those properties are really frequented by spirits. Four years later, they run 12 to 15 investigations a year, each one consisting of multiple visits to the site in question. Once Naylor and Hale determine that the person in need of help isn’t a) experiencing things that can be explained away (for instance, a light that flickers on and off could be an electrical problem) or b) mentally unhinged, they agree to help. Depending on what happens while the team is on site—more unexplained activity means a longer investigation—each visit could run from three to six hours. That’s a lot of work for a hobby.
“Most people are like, ‘Oh, that’s creepy.’ And we’re like, ‘Oh, that’s creepy—and I want to know exactly why it happened,’” Matt Hoskins, the group’s tech specialist, says of ghostly encounters. “The hope is that one day we’ll be able to scientifically explain why these things happen.”
I contacted the group in mid-July, hoping to tag along on an investigation or two. I don’t know if too much TV has made me susceptible to believing in ghosts, but participating in a real, live ghost hunt would put my curiosity about the paranormal to the ultimate test. Honestly, despite my paranoia, I like to be scared sometimes. Just a little bit.
On a humid August evening a couple of weeks later, Naylor, Hale, and I are bringing up the rear in a caravan on its way to a house in Hamilton. This is CAPER’s third trip to the home, where the owner has been experiencing strange activity since he started major renovations back in March. He and his wife swear they’ve heard children’s laughter coming from the northern edge of their property. They also claim to have seen shadowy figures lurking in the corners of their bedroom, one dressed inexplicably like a farmer in a plaid shirt, overalls, and a straw hat. They’ve heard a tapping sound on their walls and on occasion have gotten the distinct feeling of someone climbing into bed with them. Deeply creepy, right? I thought so, too, but for CAPER, investigating is about applying logic at every turn.
“We work on debunking,” Naylor says behind the wheel of her blue pick-up. The truck is packed with the gear the group will use for the night: infrared cameras, a monitor, electromagnetic field (EMF) meters. “It’s usually something that can be explained,” she adds. “We want to help people.”
Sarah McEvoy, an investigator-in-training, and Hale are in the back seat nodding in agreement. They’re both wearing gray T-shirts that say “Cincinnati Area Paranormal Existence Research” across the back. The words curve upward and then down, outlining the shape of a cartoon ghost. It’s Boo, the group’s “mascot.”
A little later, Naylor discloses how all of the CAPER members feel. “Ninety-eight percent of the time, it’s pretty boring,” she says with a shrug. “It’s that two percent that gets us going. Sometimes it’s hard to stay calm when something happens. You don’t want to scare the client, but it’s exciting. This particular house has got me questioning things.”
“Questioning things” is Naylor’s way of saying there are things happening that she can’t readily explain. The group tells its clients to think about what they’re experiencing as logically as possible. They encourage clients to keep a journal of their experiences, noting each one in precise detail. “Do your best to find a rational explanation for what is happening,” says the CAPER pamphlet. “Many events, originally thought to be the creations of ghosts, end up with perfectly reasonable explanations.”
When we pull into the long driveway of the house we’re investigating, it doesn’t look out of the ordinary. It’s a plain two-story frame house sitting on nearly eight acres of land. There’s one house with a large pond to the left of it that sits even farther back from the street; another large house occupies the lot directly across the street. The rest appears to be woods. A U.S. land sale document on file with the county auditor’s office tells the investigators that the property dates back to the early 1800s, when the area was nothing more than farmland. In fact, it’s believed that the original owner, possibly one of the county’s largest landowners, used it to graze cattle. I’m not scared yet, but in the movies, isn’t the quiet country home on acres of land always haunted?
The owners (who wish to remain anonymous) greet the CAPER members, show them around again, then leave. Noah Carlisle, another investigator-in-training, tapes down the infrared cameras throughout the house; Naylor and Hale help Hoskins set up the equipment outside while McEvoy and Marie Peterson, the case manager, head inside. They’re establishing room temperatures and getting EMF readings so that the base team—the two investigators charged with monitoring activity inside the house from the backyard—will know if anything changes while the rest of the group is indoors.
The investigators then break into teams of two. When the first team is ready to go inside, the last bit of sunlight is fading fast. It’s going to be a long night.
The air is stiflingly hot, but a trickle of cold sweat runs down the center of my back. I want to walk out. Stand up, say good-bye to the ghost hunters—and anything else in the room—and leave. I close my eyes, holding my breath.
I open my eyes and breathe again. The rush of oxygen to my brain makes me dizzy. The sensation on my back stops as quickly as it started and I immediately begin trying to rationalize away what just happened. Maybe it was my muscles relaxing? I had been moving furniture earlier in the day and now, after hours of rest, my muscles were expanding again. Right? It’s hard to be irrational when you’re hanging out with a group of individuals who are doing everything in their power to debunk the strange phenomena they’re encountering. Especially with EMF meters and infrared cameras.
Yeah, that’s it. It was my muscles.
We leave the room and I don’t speak again until I’m outside. The cool night air is soothing and eases my mind a bit. The monitor glows in the darkness as Hale serves up chocolate chip and raspberry crunch bars, a homemade treat for her fellow investigators. It’s a welcomed break. I convince myself that nothing touched me, and don’t mention the incident for now. After a short bathroom break another team—McEvoy and Laura Carney, another trainee—moseys inside with no effect. After I alert them that the basement door, which was not open on my first trip inside the house, is now slightly ajar, we spend 15 minutes in complete darkness down there. McEvoy wonders aloud if there are any mice in the basement.
“I’m a bit of a chicken,” she says, laughing. The irony of a paranormal investigator being afraid of rodents isn’t lost on any of us.
In the living room, McEvoy tries to entice the would-be entities by letting her hair down because the owner told CAPER that something purportedly pulled his cousin’s hair while she slept. No response. After 45 minutes she and Carney give up.
It’s closing in on midnight and nearly three hours of hanging out in dark rooms, talking to thin air, has made me sleepy. Peterson and Naylor are the last team up tonight, and I tag along. Everything is nice and uneventful until we reach the master bedroom on the first floor. Sitting on the bed with a headlamp strapped to her head, Peterson, who claims to be extremely sensitive to EMF waves, starts asking questions.
“What’s your name?”
“What year is it?”
“Do you have any children? What are their—”
That’s when it happens. In a flash, the EMF meter jumps from green to yellow to orange!
“Did that just…?” I can’t finish my sentence. To finish my sentence would be to verbally admit to what I’d just seen. There’s a lump in my throat.
Peterson continues asking questions. When she mentions the current owner’s name, the EMF meter spikes again. Naylor, who’s standing at the foot of the bed, perks up. “I just saw a shadow go in front of the window.”
With great difficulty, I manage to suppress the urge to run. Naylor radios to base and asks Carlisle and Hoskins to come around to the front of the house to “look for deer.” Maybe one walked past the window, she says. At the exact time that the EMF meter went off? Sure.
A few moments later, Carlisle radios back. No deer. Naylor crosses her arms and then puts her hands on her hips. Peterson is smiling, her eyes the size of quarters.
In a small windowless room at the Sharonville branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, CAPER members set up their equipment and prepare to go over their EVP (electronic voice phenomena) readings from the Hamilton investigation. EVPs are recordings of static noise that some investigators believe can capture the voices of the dead. Founded by EVP pioneer Sarah Estep in 1982, the American Association of Electronic Voice Phenomena breaks such recordings into three classes: a Class A recording can be heard clearly without headphones; a Class B can be heard with headphones, though listeners might disagree about what’s being said; and Class C, the least conclusive, requires headphones and amplification. It’s a few days after the hunt and everyone has had time to examine their own individual recordings, which requires hours of listening to static or, worse, chatty investigators. Everyone naturally has their fingers crossed for a Class A.
Hoskins has isolated three recorded incidents that could possibly indicate paranormal activity. Incident No. 1 happens in the kitchen while everyone except Carlisle is outside. Through the buzz of dead air, a creaking sound comes from the tiny speakers plugged into Hale’s laptop computer. Everyone gives quizzical looks and she plays the sound again.
“Did someone move a chair?” Naylor asks.
“It sounds like a zipper,” McEvoy says.
We all turn to Carlisle. “No, I wasn’t playing with my zipper!” he says, exasperated. Everyone laughs.
They agree that the sound is Carlisle taping down the camera in the family room during set-up and we move on to Incident No. 2, which takes place in the kitchen while no one is in the house. It sounds like the water is running. Peterson says she came in to get water but it was 20 minutes before the recorded incident. Everyone gets closer as Hale plays the recording again.
“Could it be the refrigerator running ice?” Peterson asks.
Hoskins is skeptical of the ice theory. “When you listen to it with headphones, you can very clearly hear water running,” he says. “I won’t argue it any further, but I just thought it sounded kind of cool.”
“I’m gonna have to say no,” Naylor pipes up. “I’m gonna have to say it was the refrigerator.”
Again, everyone agrees and it’s on to Incident No. 3, a series of weird noises picked up on the recorder in the living room, which are quickly dismissed as Michele Hale entering the house to use the bathroom shortly before the first group of investigators set up inside.
“Anyone else have anything?” Naylor asks.
When McEvoy plays what she picked up, I get goose bumps. It’s from the master bedroom, where Naylor, Peterson, and I were sitting when the EMF meter spiked into the orange. On the tape, Naylor is talking to Peterson. Suddenly a male voice bursts from the speakers.
It’s my house….
The lump in my throat is back. Once again, everyone leans in as close as possible, straining to hear the recording as Hale plays it over and over again. One by one, they each listen to it with headphones.
“You can definitely tell it’s male,” McEvoy says, her hands clamped over her ears. “It sounds like, ‘It’s my house.’”
“It isn’t a Class A, but it’s definitely a Class B,” Hoskins says.
Everyone remains calm except Peterson, who’s beside herself with giddiness. She slaps her hands together, congratulating herself for asking the questions about the kids. “I’m excited!” she whispers to me, bursting into giggles. “Aren’t you excited?”
I’m not sure “excited” is the right word. “Freaked out” is more like it. The EVP coincides with the shadow Naylor saw in front of the window, which coincides with the EMF spike. It’s all a little too much coincidence for me to not mention being poked in the back earlier that same evening.
I sigh heavily. “OK, I wasn’t sure if I should say anything about this, but, well, it sounds silly—”
“You’re hanging out with people who believe in ghosts,” Hoskins says. “How silly can it be?”
“Well, I think some…thing touched me when Michele, Noah, and I were in the upstairs bedroom. It felt like two fingers. Touching my back.”
Everyone looks at me inquisitively. Peterson grins. She wants me to be excited, but I just feel uncomfortable.
“Well, that’s what we call a ‘personal experience,’” Hale says in a very soothing tone. She’s good at validating the concerns of others. “We can’t prove it.”
“It’s much more impressive when you can say, ‘Listen to this EVP, watch this video, and look at this picture.’” Hoskins says. “We can’t say, ‘This place is haunted because I feel like I got touched.’”
Which means all I’m left with is my paranoia about what may or may not have happened to me in that upstairs bedroom. I came into this wanting to test my fear of the unknown, and yes, to get a thrill. Now? Not so much. I didn’t think that a ghost would reach out and literally touch me, but I find myself reevaluating my attraction to the creepy. In a couple of days, Naylor will tell the homeowner about our findings; I get the impression he doesn’t really care. The point of investigating isn’t necessarily to “get rid” of whatever’s there. (How would you do that, anyway? I mean, unless you think Ghostbusters is real.) For CAPER, it’s about helping clients “obtain peace of mind.” “Politely ask any ghost to leave you, your family, and your home in peace,” is another gem from the CAPER pamphlet. “Sometimes that is all that is necessary to bring the undesired paranormal activity to a halt.”
Peace of mind is putting this experience behind me post-haste, but I have a feeling it won’t be that easy. Scary movies somehow seem just a bit scarier. Any unexplained noise has me thinking the ghostly farmer from the house in Hamilton is lurking just over my shoulder. Why did I think this was going to be interesting? Clearly, I’m not cut out for paranormal investigations. But I hope that the group from CAPER eventually finds what they’re searching for. As long as it doesn’t come looking for me, I’ll be just fine.
Originally published in the October 2008 issue.
Photograph by Jonathan Willis