July 20, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
Believe it or not: Ghost hunters go high-tech
With those gizmos and many others in tow, Leong treks to reputedly haunted homes, battlefields, bars and hotels, gathering what she thinks may be evidence of a world beyond this earthly one.
The pursuit of ghostly evidence has been a popular pastime for centuries. Now, instead of Ouija boards, ghost hunters are increasingly turning to high tech gear to assist in their search.
Such ghost hunters rely upon digital equipment to document potential signs of hauntings. Cameras and voice recorders pick up eerie sights and sounds, while handheld gadgets measure electromagnetic radiation and odd drops in temperature. Jumpsuits like those from the movie Ghostbusters are unnecessary, but pocket-laden cargo pants and fishing jackets are handy for stashing all of the gear.
Hobbyists like Leong find equipment either in pedestrian electronics shops or at custom online emporiums, such as Ghost Mart, which specializes in "discount paranormal research equipment." Although most of the equipment is built for more ordinary purposes, others, like a $30 electromagnetic field (EMF) "ghost meter," are clearly targeted at amateur ghost seekers. Complete kits can be ordered at a wide range of prices, between $250 and $2,000.
"We'll probably seem medieval to people in the future, running around with our cameras, but you've got to start somewhere," Leong said. "Something is causing these instruments to go cuckoo, but we're not sure what or why."
Leong has traveled to famed spooky sites, like the Alcatraz prison, with fellow members of the San Francisco Ghost Society. It is one of hundreds of ad hoc paranormal groups that together comprise many tens of thousands of members in North America. The International Ghost Hunters Society has members in more than 90 countries.
The Internet allows enthusiasts to share footage they've captured instantly and anonymously, finding like-minded souls while escaping public ridicule. Ghost Village is a top hub for this community. It receives 80,000 unique visitors each month, twice that around Halloween.
Web 2.0-era social-networking tools enable ghost hunters to hook up via large Web communities, such as MySpace, and on niche sites including I Am Haunted. Live chatting, blogs and user videos on that site attract 30,000 monthly visitors and several dozen new members each day. Some ghost-club Web sites offer real-time "haunted cams" of notorious locales. YouTube has become a warehouse for tens of thousands of videos claiming to show lonely ghouls and other apparitions.
The craze has even reached the iPod; Apple iTunes lists more than 1,000 paranormal podcasts. Among them is the talk show of the San Francisco Ghost Society, led by group founder Tommy Netzband. He and his associates make free house calls to investigate what they believe to be three types of hauntings: "residual," "intelligent" and "inhuman."
"Ninety percent of these things have a reasonable explanation," Netzband said. "When people call me and say, 'Shadows are chasing me,' I automatically think they're crazy. We're not here putting ideas in people's heads to make them think this is a glamorous job. I've experienced shadow people, residual hauntings, and I've been tricked by ghosts, but it took me years and years."
Netzband finds that most hauntings fall into the "residual" category, understood as impressions of past events that remain ingrained within a place, replaying in the present time like a stuck record. These could be sensory traces of acutely emotional moments in someone's life, such as anguished last breaths, a song, or the scent of perfume. For instance, Netzband leads ghost tours of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood past a sidewalk said to be haunted by the sound of running boots worn by a teenager shot to death in the 1970s.
Netzband and others find that paranormal pastimes have grown in popularity in the last decade along with sitcoms like NBC's Medium and reality shows like Ghost Hunters on the Sci Fi channel, which attract millions of viewers. MTV produces the Celebrity Paranormal Project, while the Discovery channel airs A Haunting episodes. A Web promotion for the Travel Channel's Most Haunted program offers an application that turns a mobile phone into an EMF reader.
Ghost hunters both on television and on the street tend to favor digital cameras, which capture light in infrared and ultraviolet spectrums that regular film cannot pick up. Yet, some haunting hobbyists prefer film cameras--especially Polaroids--because printed images are harder to doctor than pixels. Leong, for one, carries a Canon PowerShot 5.1 megapixel digital camera in addition to a disposable, film point-and-shoot. She recommends using a wide angle lens and a tripod, especially when leaving video cameras to record for hours on end.
However, in the field, ghost hunters rarely come up with pictures of stereotypical shadowy figures or white-gowned women. Instead, they consider photographs that show floating balls of light to be the most common sign of a spirit's presence. The orbs are normally caused by a flare of the flash or a trace of dust on a lens. But Netzband thinks that some light blobs represent genuine "ghost poo." This type of discharge, otherwise known as ectoplasm, may appear as a glowing light or mist once, say, Elvis has left the building.
Many ghost hunters believe that hauntings are tied to changes in electromagnetic frequencies, and that uncanny activity spikes during a solar flare or a full moon. Netzband, Leong and their cohorts therefore sport handheld EMF detectors and Geiger counters for radiation readouts when exploring a haunted locale. Hand-cranked or Faraday flashlights are handy, should a spirit drain the batteries. Old-fashioned compasses and newfangled infrared thermometers also come into play.
Ghost hunters say residual hauntings are a holographic glimpse into another dimension or time. But they believe that the "intelligent" class of hauntings, more than echoes of the past, actually respond to people and events in the present time and thus require different equipment.
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