Page 2 of 3
THE RICHMOND AREA is alive with spirits. In addition to the ghost tours, zombie walks and carnival haunts, there are at least 15 different paranormal societies like Ghost Raps RIP operating around the region — intrepid ghost-busters ready to document or refute claims of spiritual activity. Armed with ghost boxes, EMF meters — for measuring electromagnetic fields — and infrared digital cameras, these groups, consciously or not, act out the same kind of haunted investigations that viewers enjoyed in the film, "Ghostbusters," and thrill to every week on popular television shows such as "Ghost Hunters" and "Ghost Adventures."
Ghost busting makes sense here. If any place is haunted, it's River City.
"Richmond has a lot of very old buildings, plus there has been so much trauma and sadness built up here," says Taylor, the author. He's been a guest on a few ghost hunts, and recalls one memorable excursion. "There were 30 people or more and they all had their equipment and their cameras," he says. "I said at the time that any self-respecting ghost wouldn't show his face."
"The paranormal groups are loosely divided up into three categories, says Todd Schall-Vess, manager of the Byrd Theatre, which has been the site of numerous investigations by more than a dozen different paranormal teams. "There are the ultrascientific groups that are really trying their best to be as structured and as scientific as possible. ... There are those that are on the scientific study side but also try and make contact by holding séances and so forth. And then the smallest group is the outright fraud."
What have these investigations uncovered? "Usually what I get is an inconclusive report," Schall-Vess says. "Or I get a couple of guys with laptops who want to play me some recording, saying, 'You hear that? You hear that voice in the background?'" The Byrd's manager hasn't had a personal encounter with the spirits, he says, but he's "heard stories that run the full gamut, from the clearly fabricated to the somewhat credible."
"The people I interview for my books are very sincere in their belief," Taylor says. "But I have yet to have an experience myself. I have seen tons of photos. ... I can't explain them. But I think 99 percent of what people perceive as spirits can be explained through rational means."
"We like to disprove before we say that there's something weird," says Steve Dills, a founding member of Transcend Paranormal, a Richmond-based group that recently changed its name from RIPVirginia. "I can't say I'm a full-fledged believer. I haven't seen a person disappear into a wall. Most of the stuff we get are EVPs [Electronic Voice Phenomena — or spirit voices]. But who is to say what an EVP is? It could be a radio frequency. That's why we try and disprove it first."
Beth Brown, who's written two books on the spirits of Virginia, has served as an adviser to local ghost hunters and founded the Virginia Society for Paranormal Education and Research. She says Central Virginia is one of the richest hotspots for paranormal activity in North America.
"Not everyone who studies the paranormal is a thrill seeker," Brown stresses. "I don't go out to be scared. I want to figure out what happened." Because mainstream scientists shy away from studying the supernatural ("they are afraid of tarnishing their reputations"), Brown says she thinks it's natural that private groups would be out looking for answers.
Allen Slonaker, of the Virginia-based Center for Paranormal Research and Investigation, agrees. "Science is supposed to be the study of the unknown and this is the great unknown," he says. "You look throughout history, every culture you'll find, regardless of where they are on the globe ... some sort of ghost phenomena and ghost lore."
Formed a decade ago, the Center for Paranormal Research and Investigation is arguably the most difficult to convince of the area paranormal societies. "We try to approach things skeptically," Slonaker says, acknowledging that a "vast majority ... 90 percent" of the cases his team investigates turn out to have rational explanations. "You have to be very [wary] when any group goes in saying that some place is definitely haunted."
The center doesn't believe in using psychics, dousing rods or other metaphysical means when investigating. Instead, it searches for alternate explanations, such as evidence of high electromagnetic fields, or EMF.
"EMF can be an indicator of paranormal activity," Slonaker says. "But on the flipside, high exposure to EMF can trigger visual and auditory hallucinations, headaches, nausea. We get people who complain that, when they try to go to sleep, they see a ghost. When we do our EMF sweep, we'll find old, poorly insulated wiring behind their headboard. So we'll suggest that they move the bed to the other side of the room. All of a sudden, they aren't being haunted anymore."
"I don't think there has to be outright fraud to fool people," the Byrd's Todd Schall-Vess says. "People fool themselves better than anybody else. I think you have to take a very critical eye when you look at these things, because the desire for there to be something is so great."
Thirty-four percent of Americans believe in the afterlife, according to one recent poll. That's a lot of desire.
"This fascination with ghosts has always been with us," Schall-Vess says. "There was a whole Victorian surge in spiritualism. It's never really gone away. ... There are so many things today that seemed like magic or pseudo science several decades ago, who knows? Maybe there is another level to the world that we don't know about. I'm willing to keep an open mind."