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Knowing the unknown

by Monika Jones

The three ghost hunters feet circling the small hotel room at the College Inn is the only movement, save for the rustling of the Venetian blinds shielding the room from the afternoon sun streaming in off the Ave. All are concentrated, eyes wide open, in hope that their infrared lights, electromagnetic-field (EMF) sensors and digital cameras will yield a technical signal of activity paranormal activity aside from their own feet shuffling.

I think I have something, says Kendra Demuth, a 25-year-old UW alumna, breaking the silence. Her hazel eyes dart up and she waves her black EMF wand over an antique chest of drawers crowned with a white doily. The EMF bleeps rapidly. The needle on the sensor waves in unison.

Ross Allison, 30, stands next to the maroon, quilted twin bed in gray and black military pants and a white Amateur Ghost Hunters of Seattle, Tacoma (AGHOST) T-shirt and points and shoots a little camera at the dresser. One of the photos just might capture poltergeist activity the naked eye cannot see.

Im not coming up with anything visual, he says while reviewing his shots. He moves around the bed, brushing past Stefanie Marshall, 20, who has pulled a second EMF sensor out of a shiny silver suitcase lined with soft black cloth. They both watch Demuth.

Are you by an electrical socket? Marshall skeptically asks; a socket would disqualify the charge as paranormal.

No, Demuth says, after peering behind the wooden dresser, no socket. She brushes her curly blonde hair behind her ear, and resumes her wand-waving as she moves toward the bedpost. Allison follows in suit.

Hey, look at this, he says gleefully, an orb.

He peers into the back of the camera. In a frame of the back wall, a rotund phosphorescence-like gleam hovers. There is no discernable trace of such a thing in the room aside from the noisy EMF sensors electronic bleeps making the visual orb evidence that there is indeed something paranormal in the area. A ghost, perhaps? The College Inn is famous for being haunted; there is even a sandwich in the pub named after Howard, a specter who has been around for years.

Regardless of a locations reputation, Allison, Demuth and Marshall are ghost hunters aware of their techniques limitations. One orb doesnt necessitate ghost activity.

They are balls of energy, says Allison, founder and president of AGHOST. But they always double-check their information during investigations. In fact, most take five-some hours, often longer, and they say thats too short.

Today is supplementary groundwork for their upcoming first conference, the Pacific Northwest Ghost Hunters Conference, scheduled for Aug. 30-31 at the University Heights Center, also widely known as haunted, specifically because of an incident that happened Christmas 2002, which scared even the police off.

Ghost-hunting is a growing phenomenon in the Pacific Northwest, according to Allison, but not yet a rival to the ghost knowledge bases of the East Coast or Europe. It is one method of understanding what is difficult and often impossible to understand in life. The contents of the seven silver suitcases the AGHOST members carry with them are empirical tools EMF sensors, cameras and also recording devices for electronic-voice phenomena (EVP) scientific reassurances about the unknown.

The process is a strange mix of belief and science, old-fashioned superstition spliced with new-age beliefs, a new twist to the age-old spirituality debate that has consumed humankind since incarnation: What does it mean to be alive, and, importantly, what happens when we die?

As UW history professor Simon Werrett says: Humans have probably believed in some kind of transcendent realm of spiritual beings ever since [we] became humans it is very exceptional indeed not to. One might also ask if we believe in transcendent beings without even noticing it. Contemporary belief in aliens is almost certainly a modern rendering of deep traditions of belief in angels or other-worldly spirits, for instance.

Werrett taught a seminar last winter that investigated the criteria with which supernatural phenomena have been judged throughout history, and how that frames present understandings. He notes that the study of ghosts is a genre of research that has been condemned for various historical reasons, and will probably never be accepted by the scientific community.

According to AGHOST members, ghost hunting attempts to explain the unexplainable interruptions of daily routines, the cold gusts of wind or misty spirits taking human form, through technology, interviews and time by using tools of science.

Their findings should not necessarily be disregarded. Werrett says not all accepted scientific methodologies provide absolutely irrefutable and clear evidence.

Many accepted sciences deal precisely in extremely precarious entities whose existence may be continuously in doubt or contested (think of controversies about sub-atomic particles, or dark matter for instance), he says. So our modern (academic) conclusion that ghosts or paranormal events simply cannot be real may just be something of a prejudice rather than a fact.

Unfortunately, he continues, scientific study of ghostly phenomena will always have to carry with it the baggage of a long history of fraud and trickery which it might take a long time to discard.

AGHOST members defy normal academic standards; their mission is to explore, and explain, the paranormal. They describe ghosts as the past lingering into the present. More often than not, Marshall says, ghosts are manifestations of energy, unaware they are what we call a ghost. She describes two kinds: residual ghosts and intelligent, actual ghosts, the former a manifestation of excess of energy, not intelligence.

What it comes down to is everything carries energy; we ourselves are energy, Allison says. We put out a lot of energy. When you are dealing with tragic emotions, depression, anger, the energy burns into a certain location and becomes residual: It carries no intelligence, it just reenacts, someone walking up and down a hallway that pattern of energy is left there.

In contrast, he says, intelligent ghosts can communicate with the physical world.

[Intelligent ghosts] are there to relay messages, says Allison. Or, a lot of times, they may have died suddenly, and dont know that they are dead. [Residual and intelligent ghosts] are attached to a person, place or thing, or a tragic event. There are all kinds of things that could lead into why a person stayed around.

Marshall has encountered more residual presences than intelligent presences; however, the specificities between the presences are hard to distinguish. What it comes down to is believing a leap of faith similar to religious dogmas.

Ghosts it is a religion itself, in a way, says Marshall. You have to have faith in what you cannot see. You have to believe in an afterlife.

Since the group organized two years ago, it has conducted more than 100 free investigations of haunted locations. It finds clients are often afraid, and AGHOST members attempts to alleviate some fear.

Clients are scared, thats why they call us, says Allison. Most of the time they are looking for a reason. When they hear that other people have had the same experiences as them, it gives them comfort. We try and explain what is happening, and why.

None of them have ever experienced anything violent, or been threatened absolutely not, they chime in unison.

Hollywood has a big play in making ghosts scary, says Allison. He claims The Sixth Sense and The Others are two movies that actually do justice to ghosts. They have had some experiences that have validated their intuition that ghosts exist. Each experienced an encounter as a child Demuth, however, is the most recent recruit; she pushed the memory to the back of her mind until last winter when she met Marshall at the Seattle Art Institute, and became involved with AGHOST.

Their conference will be a culmination of the two years of investigations, and the three are excited to have the 60-plus members of AGHOST unite with other ghost hunters of the area to share ideas and together investigate the College Inn and University Heights Center.

In the parking lot of the center, Marshall recalls a particularly moving experience she had in the former teachers lounge of the University Heights Center.

I was up at that room at the top, she points to the top of the former elementary school, the setting sun is reflecting a golden imprint of sunset colors on the windows. I was up there alone, and I asked, Are you still here? and on my tape recorder there is another voice, a reply from a little girl who says, I am still here.

This is validation for her, and the documentation AGHOST seeks to collect will be left for people to pass their judgment on.

Its all a part of the mystery, says Allison, thoughtfully looking up at the building, which is nearly at its 100th anniversary. One of the two haunted buildings in the U-District, with art classes and childrens dance classes, the building in daylight is far from spooky. The charm of its history radiates from the creaky hardwood floors of the long hallways.

The history of places, the mystery, it is part of putting the pieces together when you dont know exactly how it will fit, he says.