Engadget goes ghost hunting -- exploring the gadgetry of paranormal investigation (video)

Brian Heater
B. Heater|10.31.12

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Engadget goes ghost hunting -- exploring the gadgetry of paranormal investigation (video)

The rendezvous point is as nondescript as these things come -- a giant convenience store off the side of the freeway, a big cardboard box out front, filled to the brim with pumpkins in anticipation of the upcoming holiday. Stacey Jones approaches us timidly at first, calling my name in our direction, as two of the crew members puff on cigarettes in the unseasonably frigid air. She'd apparently mistaken some other folks for us a moment earlier, a group of college students in hoodies and baseball caps, and is clearly a little embarrassed by the whole experience. It's the first and last time words like "timid" and "embarrassed" can be accurately applied to a middle-aged mother of an adult son who hunts ghosts for a living in central New York State. Group identified, she announces, "We'd better get going. It'll take about an hour to get there." Disappointing news, after the five it took to get to this roadside rest stop. But we nod and smile and get back in our respective cars.

She's careful not to reveal the location until we arrive, for concerns of privacy. I've studied her a bit online. A self-described "ghost cop," YouTube is littered with videos of her leading camera crews through abandoned hospitals, in search of dead people apparently desperate to relate some bit of information to her. The location, however, isn't as classically horror movie as we'd imagined or hoped in the car ride up. It's quite idyllic, really -- a beautiful 100-year-old building off the side of the road, 200 yards from a truly stunning old church. Outside the front door, a small signboard advertises a monthly waffle breakfast.

Decidedly more ominous are the two graveyards that flank the buildings, with tombstones dating back to the early 19th century, generations of farmers under the ground that may well outnumber residents in this sparsely populated locale. The weather, too, is doing its part to set the scene -- strange, gray clouds hanging low in impossible shapes. "The light," says one of the crew members, as we park and begin the unpacking process. "It's...oversaturated." Sounds seem to travel remarkably well in the cold, crisp, pre-storm air. I step across the road with the show producer, to gather b-roll of 150-year-old headstones, still able to hear every word that Stacey says, as she describes her entry into this strange and oft-maligned world, how her son became possessed by demonic forces on an investigation in a graveyard as a teenager. It's a story she'd recount for the Discovery Channel five years ago, coupled with basic cable dramatizations, portrayed by actors bearing slightly resemblances to their real world counterparts, if you're willing to afford them the advantage of a good squint.%Gallery-168911%

Things are far more chipper on the inside, where tables are decked out in yellow and white checkered patterns and a row of industrial-sized waffle irons lines the kitchen counter, in preparation for the upcoming breakfast. The monthly event is one of the last remaining connections to the building's 100-year-old origins, constructed in 1908 as a home for the local branch of The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, a fraternal organization for farmers, spun off of the Freemasons. There was a cheese factory nearby that served as the original meeting place for the grange, until the community raised the $2,500 required to build the two-story structure. Walking through the screen door, Stacey introduces us to two members of Central New York Ghost Hunters and Mary, the Grange's president.

Stacey and one of the ghost hunters excuse themselves to go upstairs, as the crew starts setting up for a series of pre-hunt interviews, walking back downstairs a few minutes later carrying a pair of wedding dresses for reasons that are never fully explained. Mary does, however, happily discuss the space in great detail, having taken on the role of historian as part of her duties as grange master. "The meeting hall is upstairs, and then the downstairs was the actual dining hall, entertainment hall," she explains, seated across from me at one of those yellow and white tables.

The historic transitions seamlessly into the personal, with Mary eager to explain how the position of grange master led to her role as an amateur ghost hunter. "After one of our functions of feeding the public, (I was) sitting here with one other person kitty-corner to me and two people behind me in the kitchen. And it was one o'clock in the afternoon, and by this time, almost everyone had been gone for over an hour. Sitting there rolling silverware, and all of the sudden I heard from up above--" she pauses, make rhythmic pounding sounds on the yellow and white checkers with her hands. "I immediately went running up the stairs. The building was locked. I went running up the stairs; there's nobody up there."

Ghost Hunting with Engadget, exploring the gadgetry of paranormal investigation

"Can we pause for a second?" Stacey asks, with a serious look on her face. There was a strange sound during Mary's explanation, something everyone clearly heard, but no one acknowledged. A sound like distant laughter. Addressing the ominous noise, the room is silent for a moment, exchanging glances. "Oh," Mary answers, after a beat, "that was my cell phone." Breathing finally, the room explodes with laughter. Things, it seems, get fairly tense before a ghost hunt.

To our left, several tables are overflowing with gadgets. These are the tools of the hunt, largely purchased off the shelf and from places like eBay, gadgets with Sony and RadioShack logos repurposed for paranormal needs. The most prevalent during our hunt tonight are digital voice recorders -- those small, thin devices utilized primarily for memo purposes in meetings and classes. The gadgets will be held by each of the ghost hunters, in attempt to capture Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVPs), messages from the dead implanted on recordings. Stacey's theory holds that, in the case of EVP collection, cheaper is actually better, perhaps because higher-end devices house built-in technology for shielding out such interference.

Ghost Hunting with Engadget, exploring the gadgetry of paranormal investigation

When we return to New York, we put the question to Adam Berry, a cast member of SyFy's Ghost Hunters, and part of that exceedingly rare group of people who can actually claim the role as an honest-to-God profession. He shows of a similar digital voice recorder and a multi-directional Zoom device that ran him around 10 times the price. "You don't have to spend a lot of money to ghost hunt," he answers simply, "but obviously the higher tech the equipment is, the better the results are. It's just one of many ways the teams' approaches differ. Certainly there's no sense of standardization for an activity that feels so utterly removed from accepted scientific inquiry -- or as he puts it, "technically there's no wrong way to ghost hunt, but there are methods that are better than others."

Both crews also employ inexpensive, off-the-shelf flashlights for the dual purposes of seeing in the dark and communicating with spirits, leaving them off, but just barely, so a ghost can twist them off -- one flashlight for "yes" and one for "no." The Central New York Ghost Hunters team has employed a good deal of improvisation -- a huge part of a pursuit that, again, doesn't exactly have much in the way of academic backing -- to rig up boxes and metal stands to string together the miniature flashlights and foster more complex communications.

Ghost Hunting with Engadget, exploring the gadgetry of paranormal investigation

And while each ghost hunter we speak with insists that skepticism plays a large role in their own respective pursuits, we reach out to "Spook" author Mary Roach for a bit of insight on the matter. "Whenever a new technology was introduced, there was a sense that maybe this gadget could be a receiver for information from the beyond," she tells us from her office in Oakland, Calif. "Whenever a new technology could detect something out of the realm of human perception, there's a sense that we could capture those communications through infrared or ultrasound. There's a hope that we'll be able to communicate on their wavelength, from the phonograph to the tape recorder, to infrared cameras."

A laser grid is employed by both the Central New York Ghost Hunters and the basic cable TV stars. It's not unlike a standard laser pointer, albeit one that projects hundreds of points on a wall, like small green stars in the sky, in hopes of better detecting movement on the other side of the room. Infrared thermometers are common, too, prized for their ability to detect temperature changes from across the room, as are heat vision cameras, one of which is on-hand, hooked up to a DVD burner. The grange master excitedly describes her first experience with such a device, set up in the area upstairs.

Ghost Hunting with Engadget, exploring the gadgetry of paranormal investigation

"We didn't know this happened, but up on the stage, this very tall figure stepped out, walked across, blocked out the very tall windows that are in the building, blacked out the majority of that as he walked by," she said. "You could see the figure; you could tell it's a male and walked into an area where you can't walk. There was so much stuff on the floors: cement blocks, tarps, everything. We proceeded to turn, and we caught him again as he stepped out another direction. He was pure green. A very light green. You don't get, when you have a live being, throwing one color. It's going to have multiple colors." It was the first time they used the camera -- and it was the best evidence they ever got. It's a common theme across their experiences with technology: the first time's always the best.

Ghost Hunting with Engadget, exploring the gadgetry of paranormal investigation

There's a cheap infrared camera on-hand and a parabola mic -- a toy from a spy kit for kids. Several devices detect changes in electro-magnetic pulses (EMPs). Stacey relates a story in which the team investigated the haunting of a child, only to discover that the effects were being caused by unnatural EMP levels emanating from a nearby TV set -- a phenomenon that apparently causes effects surprisingly similar to those of a haunting. The team fiddles around with a RadioShack transistor hacked to scan through AM stations without stopping, in hopes of capturing words and sentences from across the spectrum. "The first time we used this one here," says Caroline, one of the Central New York crew, "it said 'your brother is coming,' and Stacey said, 'whose brother?' And it said, 'Caroline's.' And I have an unusual name. You don't hear that on the radio very often. And I said, 'what's his name,' and it went, 'Anthony.'"

The radio technique, according Stacey, is the continuation of a theory set in place by no less a scientific mind than Thomas Edison. Mary Roach again: "The last thing [Edison] got involved with was essentially an amplifier for life units. The idea was that, when you die, you become little bits and pieces of life units that, if you just amplify it, you'll be able to communicate with them, and they'll be able to tell you where they are what's going on."

Ghost Hunting with Engadget, exploring the gadgetry of paranormal investigation

Perhaps the strangest among the paranormal gadgetry is the Ovilus I, one of the few pieces of equipment belonging to the group created for the express purpose of hunting ghosts. It's an oval-shaped, metal "handheld paranormal device" attached to a small, blue speaker and bearing the words, "for entertainment purposes only." The gadget is said to measure EMFs, temperature and humidity, detecting changes to generate one of hundreds of words stored inside, in hopes that spirits might use their ghostly powers to let the machine speak for them. Stacey fires the Ovilus up, and the device spitting out a few random words, uttering, finally, "Peter." The ghost hunters' faces brighten at the utterance of those two syllables. They've dealt with Peter before in the space. And when we begin our hunt in roughly half an hour, Stacey and crew will make a point of asking for him by name.

This, it turns out, is mostly what these ghost hunts entail, standing around a room and asking question without response. "Ghost hunting is boring," explains Stacey. "You sit around in a dark room, you ask questions into the air, and you've got all of your equipment running. Very rarely does something happen when you're doing this. The excitement comes when you review your video or your audio. It's a rare thing to have something happen in front of you, and when it does, you dismiss it because that's the way you're raised. You try to find another explanation for what happened." And say what you will about those who choose to spend their free time hunting for spirits in old building, the Central New York Ghost Hunters devote a good deal of their time this evening to shooting down potential EVPs identifying the sounds of passing cars and doors knocking around in the wind.

Ghost Hunting with Engadget, exploring the gadgetry of paranormal investigation

The meeting space upstairs where we participate in the hunt has since been converted into a permanent rummage sale, with racks of clothing and dozens of tables devoted to secondhand knickknacks. On the other side of the room is a stage on which the community once put on plays for the farmers. Now, however, it houses countless wedding dress, an ominous sight in light of Stacey's explanation that spirits can travel from place to place on the backs of beloved objects. Gadgets are spread out all over the room, and the ghost hunters excuse themselves to different quarters before the lights go out and a sea of green laser points illuminates the abandoned wedding dresses.

The ghost hunters form a prayer circle and begin a roll call, each member of the hunt -- ourselves included -- stating their name and leaving a few seconds' gap afterward, in case a spirit should want to get in on the action. Peter, for one, has been known to chime in here, from time to time. Stacey, characteristically, takes the lead with the question. "Is anyone there?" "Peter, if you're here, can you come and talk to us now?" "Are you dead or are we dead?" "Can you make a loud noise for us?" As predicted, the whole thing is largely uneventful, stray noises being explained away as dogs barking in the distance and the neighbors' car door closing outside, with the two ghost hunters on the other side of the room claiming to hear the sound of a female voice faintly between questions. When the lights come up again, and the tape records are reviewed, that final question seems to have triggered something amongst the timid spirits.

Ghost Hunting with Engadget, exploring the gadgetry of paranormal investigation

"It's 'sacred blood!'" one of the ghost hunters says, excitedly. "No," answers Stacey," "I hear 'Stacey, come find us find us!'" It sounds like static at first -- and then upon closer inspection, amazingly, it's picked up on two small tape recorders on opposite sides of the large room. A testament to powers of suggestion, the lot of us is evenly split on precisely what the whispering female voice is attempting to communicate. It's the best evidence we'll get that night, and when we play it for Adam Berry, later in the week, he's noncommittal, but admits that the Central New York Ghost Hunters may, in fact, have something on their hands.

The crew begins packing up their equipment when the entertainment-only Ovilus, silent for the last couple of hours says, simply, "upstairs" and once again goes silent. The room does as well, ghost hunters and filmmakers looking at one another for direction. It's precisely that compound word that leads myself, Mary and two crew members up another creaky flight of stairs to the attic of the hundred-year-old building, huddled up on the one thin area capable of supporting our weight. The moonlight outside has pierced the strange cloud cover and is leaking in through the old building's wooden slats.

There are no more voices that night and certainly no 7-foot-tall green creatures, just more community storage space and a whole bundle of nerves. Certainly nothing that happened over the past several hours would go far toward convincing an afterlife skeptic that, not only are there ghosts walking amongst us, they're eager to have Stacey come find them. If they are, however, the Central New York Ghost Hunters will be waiting for them.

This segment originally appeared in episode 37 of The Engadget Show.

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