Have you ever woken in the middle of a fall night, covered in cold sweat, to a creak on the stairs or a whisper in the dark? Have you seen mysterious shadows or felt unexplained blasts of cold air?
With groggy, human eyes and imperfect ears, can we trust these sights and sounds of the night? When presented with these issues, some suspect ghosts or various creatures of legend. Others take an investigative, scientific approach to unexplained phenomena. Whether you hang out with the "X Files" crowd or Agatha Christie fans, you'll find plenty of folks in your corner who wouldn't mind arguing on ghosts, aliens or Bigfoot at the dinner table.
TAKING UP THE HUNT
Attendees of the recent Jamestown Paranormal Convention seek ghosts, ghouls and other creatures of the night in their spare time.
Rochester's Cookie Stringfellow said she doesn't need to go too far for a paranormal encounter. She just leaves her house and heads for the car. "I have a ghost in my garage," she said. "I've had a gift since I was a child. I realized I could communicate with spirits."
According to Ms. Stringfellow, she isn't the only one who can. "The women in my family are gifted," she said. "My mother has it. My sister has it, but she won't admit it."
Steve Constable, co-founder of Paranormal Investigation Association of W.N.Y., claims to use his ghost encounters to assist fellow hunters. "I have personal experiences all the time. I might have a technology or style that someone else might not use or know about," he said. "Helping people and helping to further the field keeps me going."
Some, but not all, ghost hunters are like Constable and Ms. Stringfellow. They hunt in hopes of reaffirming their beliefs on the existence of ghosts. Others take up the hunt to fuel their curiosity.
Chrissy Lis, investigator for Buffalo's Beyond Ghosts, fits into this group. "I want to figure out what the paranormal is all about," she said. "There are so many ghost stories out there."
Likewise, a thirst for answers keeps Patti Unvericht, founder of The Spirit Diggers, searching for signs of the paranormal. "We have a lot of things that we can't explain. That keeps us going."
Others have used their curiosity to search for other creatures of mystery, including the hairiest one of them all. For Pennsylvania Bigfoot Society Director Eric Altman, the search began three decades ago.
"I've been involved in this since 1980. I had seen a couple movies about Bigfoot. They were pretty popular in the 1970s," he said. "I spent about 17 years educating myself, reading about reports. In 1997, I got started actually investigating cases."
During his searches, Altman has found soft evidence, including unidentifiable footprints and sounds. In 2008, the society discovered strands of dark brown hair on a Pine Tree in central Pennsylvania after there had been a sighting in the area not long before. The discoveries of anecdotal evidence get Altman out of bed each morning. "Curiosity, the intrigue of the mysterythat's what keeps me going. This, I think, has the most concrete evidence that there's something out there."
Some experts dispute that claim, including those at the paranormal convention, where the Halloween martians of Orson Welles were not forgotten. UFO researcher Richard Dolan took the Renaissance Center's stage for a lecture on his green friends from outer space.
Like Mulder and Scully of "X Files" fame, Dolan believes the truth is out there. However, a government and media conspiracy keeps these truths about the existence of aliens from everyday citizens.
"These UFO reports, they are messed up. It's a lot more bizarre than just metallic crafts going through the sky being chased by our crafts," he said. "Where has the academic world been in all of this? Where are the journalists? There is control over this."
Dolan believes the truth will reach the surface regardless of whether all parties involved want it to. "Disclosure is inevitable. There is an inevitability of the end of secrecy on UFOs," he said. "We as a civilization, we live in a sort of upside down reality. When you turn on the TV, you are not experiencing that reality. They want to strip you of a reality that is actually true."
TO PROVE OR NOT TO PROVE
Drawing upon her experiences, Ms. Stringfellow and 120 others gather in her home city each month as a part of a social ghost-hunting group, Rochester Phantom Finders. Some of the members don't believe in the paranormal at all. "Most of our members have had experiences since they were kids, but we do have skeptics."
Dawane Harris, of The Spirit Diggers, falls into the group of skeptics. "I love the scientific side of things," he said. "We're always looking to de-bug something."
Don Traynor and the Fredonia Ghost Hunters go into their investigations with a similar mind-set. "We tend to go in with a skeptical view of things. We use some of the tools in the field like digital recorders to look for EVPs (electronic voice phenomena)," he said. "We'll look for those bumps and those bangs that people hear in the night. We try to find natural causes for them. If we can't, that makes us wonder. It might not be a ghost, but it will require more investigation. We try to rule out the explainable and think about the unexplainable. It would probably be impossible to ever prove that ghosts exist."
For Traynor and his fellow investigators, the unexplainable has shown up in audio form. "Unexplainable sounds, EVPs, are more curious," he said. "Sometimes we ask questions to the air, and we get answers."
The group has investigated several western New York locations, including the Dunkirk Lighthouse, Hotel Lenhart, Chautauqua County office buildings, the old Mayville School and the Central Terminal in Buffalo. Through the group's Village Haunts program, it hopes to entertain ghost seekers and pool funding back into historic locations. "We're trying to use this hobby that we have to facilitate public paranormal investigations to plug money back into those organizations."
Like Fredonia Ghost Hunters, John Crocitto and Ryan Willard started Beyond Ghosts in hopes of bringing history to life.
"We have a background in history. We got together, and we had a paranormal interest," said Crocitto, a self-proclaimed para-historian. "It's like going back in time. We educate other people using the paranormal as the unifying theme. We get people excited about the past through our paranormal exploits. Whether or not you have a paranormal experience, it's all about the history."
BRING ON THE SCIENCE
In contrast to the ghost seekers and the undecided group of ghost-hunting skeptics, Joe Nickell knows he does not believe in ghosts or the other creatures of legend. As an investigator - Nickell, a writer for The Skeptical Inquirer magazine - would fall into the Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes crowd. He likely has not TiVo'd any "X Files" or "Ghost Adventures" episodes recently.
"I'm probably the world's only full-time paranormal investigator," he said, "but I'm almost ashamed to admit that I am because of these so-called investigators. They take a lot of equipment that does not in fact detect ghosts. It is laughable. It is pseudoscience. Bless them; they just don't know what they're doing."
Nickell began his investigations more than four decades ago on CBC Radio in Toronto. "In 1969, I started a seance to channel Houdini's spirit," he said. "He was a no-show. The medium said he was there, and he made 50 bucks, but he wasn't."
Nickell, who has a magician background himself, began work as a detective. In 1972, he solved his first haunted house mystery, debunking the Mackenzie House Ghost in Toronto. "They heard footsteps on the stairs, but that was an illusion," Nickell said of the residents, whom he discovered had heard footsteps from a neighboring stairway. "People are jumping to conclusions that it was ghosts. If you've got a house and you're a believer, all of the sudden the ghost moved your keys. You didn't misplace them. It must've been a ghost," he said. "People who see lake monsters, what sometimes is causing that is three or four otters swimming in a line right at the surface, making multiple humps and an illusion."
When investigating houses, Nickell tries to bring his magician and English and folklore education backgrounds into his detective work. "I try to bring in anything of a credible or scientific basis," he said. "I show up at a place and ask, 'Why is your place haunted?' I use my magic and detective and Ph.D backgrounds to successfully solve mysteries."
Through his experiences, Nickell has learned that people often jump to conclusions when they suspect paranormal or other-worldy activity. "We often see things or hear things that look one way but are not as we see them," he said, claiming that his experiences tricking others have assisted him in his investigative ventures. "Magicians make their living fooling people. People are often fooled by what they hear and what they see."
According to Nickell, his branch of investigation and that of most ghost hunters vary greatly. "They're not trained," he said of the others. "They're using an argument from ignorance. If you don't know what the noise in the house is, you can't say, 'Oh, it's a ghost.' 'We don't know what the bright light in the sky was last night, it must've been an extraterrestrial.' 'Well the doctors can't explain why the cancer went into remission, so it must've been a miracle.' It's better to have a generalist like me who understands how evidence and faulty logic work."
Using his background, Nickell believes he can continue to find answers other have not obtained. "This is not about belief. You investigate using the techniques of investigation and you can solve mysteries," he said. "Science is not in the bias business. I'm not trying to debunk or disprove ghosts. I'm trying to solve mysteries."
When asked if he had ever found anything during an investigation that led him to believe in the existence of the paranormal, Nickell replied with a simple "no." However, his full answer to the question was far more involved. "That's not to say I can explain everything everyone has told me. Whenever I've had a reasonable chance to investigate a place, I've solved it. We live in a real and natural world, and I see no explanation for that which is not natural. It's not for me to prove that ghosts don't exist. It's for them to prove that they do. Science is not just in the belief business, it's in the evidence business."
From a scientific standpoint, Nickell does not understand how ghosts could exist. "When your brain is dead and your brain decomposes, your brain has stopped," he said. "This idea that ghosts don't need brains is not a scientific idea. Even if there were a ghost energy that didn't need a brain, that energy would dissipate."
According to Nickell, investigators with pre-established beliefs in the paranormal hinder their investigations. However, he said he understands why ghost hunting has become such a sensitive issue. "The believers are often approaching these ideas with their emotions. People all have dead relatives they would like to communicate with," he said. "We could do better sometimes. I've seen skeptics not be quite as sensitive as they could be. One needs to understand the emotions related to the situation. One needs to be human. These issues matter to people."
At The Skeptical Inquirer, Nickell believes it's his duty to take these issues seriously. "The average scientist thinks that ghosts and UFOs and Bigfoot are all pretty silly and a waste of their time," he said. "We think people should look into these things seriously and defend science against pseudoscience and mysticism."
LOOKING FOR ANSWERS
Even some of those who attended the inaugural Jamestown Paranormal Convention left without knowing their own beliefs concerning ghosts and creatures of mystery. Mike Pollaro, co-organizer of the event, felt that he opened up some eyes.
"When I first brought this idea to Jamestown, people looked at me and said, 'Are you serious?'" he said. "I've talked to two people tonight who weren't believers, but they came in and looked at everything. They might not be believers now, but they're not sure anymore. They've opened up their minds."
Next time you hear a creak on the staircase or a whisper in the dark, you can decide who to call for comfort or advice: the ghost hunters or the scientific investigator. Those who aren't sure will just roll back over and fall asleep, ignoring paranormal issues until next October.