It’s 11pm and I’m shivering in a cemetery in the woods of New Hampshire, trying to coax information from the spirit realm out of a creepy-looking wooden idol. The icy wind is whipping through the trees and the noises coming out of the darkness seem like ghosties just out of reach. What the hell am I doing here? I think to myself. And why didn’t I bring gloves?
What I’m doing is investigating the paranormal at the Mount Washington Hotel, a notoriously haunted location. I’m one of a group of weekend ghost hunting warriors who are all on a Strange Escape together. Some of us have been on one of Amy Bruni’s investigations before. The Kindred Spirits and Ghost Hunters star hosts paranormal trips to notoriously haunted locations all over the country. For this weekend, people have brought along their own equipment to record EVPs (Electronic Voice Phenomena, ghostly recorded communications), and other above-my-pay-grade tools like K-II meters, EMF detectors and spirit boxes. The pros say spirit boxes aren’t totally reliable, but they do add to the spookiness factor - which at the moment, in this cemetery, is high.
I’ve dabbled in the paranormal before - I once went on a ghost hunt at the Sprague Mansion - but I wouldn’t say I’m a total believer. If anything, since that other hunt produced no credible evidence of the supernatural, I arrived this weekend feeling skeptical. The other escapees seem to be fully expecting (and very excited) to experience ghosts and get face time with some of their favorite celebrity paranormal investigators. (Those are a real thing. Just trust me on this.) Still, I’m open to the possibilities of the weekend. I guess you could call me para-curious.
The investigators with me at the Crawford Family Cemetery - as in Crawford Notch, one of the earliest settlers of the White Mountains - are Dana Matthews and Greg Newkirk from Planet Weird, who specialize in haunted objects. They’re encouraging us to pose questions to the aforementioned wooden idol, whom they call Billy… Idol (because if you don’t have a sense of humor about ghost hunting, you’re just going to come off as creepy) and who will then, ostensibly, respond by transmitting information from the spirit realm. Greg and Dana encourage us to ask him “out-there” questions, because sometimes those elicit the best answers. At one point, someone asks him, “Billy, how many people are here?” His raspy answer, as best we could decipher it: “Alive or dead?”
Greg Newkirk at Planet Weird's Traveling Museum of the Paranormal and Occult
“It’s OK to try weird things and to feel silly,” Greg had told us earlier that day during Bigfoot Is a Ghost: Tracking Monsters as a Paranormal Investigator, one of the preparatory talks for the night of investigation. “It’s always good to have people who are a little crazier than you.” He was referring to his and Dana’s investigation with some really out-there Bigfoot hunters on Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot. But all the same, it’s good advice. “Don’t be afraid to be strange,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to hang out with the weirdest people you can find.”
In another lecture that day – Paranormal 101: Those Ghosts Though – Ty Gowen, a paranormal investigator from Haunt ME, a web series about a team of young paranormal investigators in Maine, gave us his seven rules for ghost hunting. Rule 1, helpfully, is “don’t die.”
The session gave us the basics on how to investigate spirits. The takeaway: “Hunting ghosts” isn’t really a hunt. It’s an attempt to communicate with someone or something beyond what our senses can perceive. A lot more goes into it than sitting in a dark room and waiting to be spooked. Knowing the history of a house can help you identify who might be there and connect with that spirit. “If you resolve why they’re here,” Amy Bruni says later, “and it might be as simple as identifying them, the paranormal activity simmers down. We don’t need to be like, Go into the light.”
In keeping with Rule 6 – “know your surroundings” – Ty spends a lot of his talk on the history of the Mount Washington (he calls it “the Ritz Carlton of paranormal investigation”) so that we’re better prepared to ask good questions and positioned to have an encounter. On TLC’s Kindred Spirits, Amy and her TV partner Adam Berry go through deeds and town records, scour local libraries and bring in area historians to find out as much as possible about the homes they investigate. We don’t have the time, so Ty gives us the rundown: The hotel was built in 1902 by railroad magnate Joseph Stickney, who died less than a year later. His wife Carolyn Stickney inherited the Mount Washington and later married Prince Aymon de Faucigny-Lucigne. Her room, 314, is still known as The Princess Room, and has her original four-poster bed in it. (There’s also always a table set in the dining room for her. As Ty puts it, “This hotel leans into its history.”) Of all of the ghostly legends in the hotel, The Princess is the most widely circulated - she’s rumored to be a (friendly, we think) presence here, watching over the guests. “I encourage you to ask The Princess about the parties she used to attend, and New Year’s Eve,” Ty says. Apparently she still enjoys talking about them.
Ty Gowen's Rules for Ghost Hunting, featuring Amy and Adam on an investigation
I’ll get an opportunity to investigate The Princess Room, but first, there are other places to examine: the Presidential Wing with illusionist Aiden Sinclair (of America’s Got Talent fame) and the stables with John E. L. Tenney, a paranormal investigator who got his start on Unsolved Mysteries (“[host] Robert Stack’s Tuesday drunk was everybody else’s Friday night drunk,” he says). Investigating the Bretton Arms Inn, a totally empty building on the property, I definitely/maybe see some things: a weird light in a room, and a door moving on its own. Not much to go on, but others have better luck. Adam plays us an EVP of a ghostly voice angrily shouting, “GET OUT!” “Well,” Adam says, “we don’t know if he’s really angry or if he just sounds angry.” Then he starts another EVP session to try to get more out of the spirit. Let’s just keep poking this angry ghost with a stick, I guess.
When we get to The Princess Room, mine is the last group of the night. It’s midnight, we’re all tired, and Ghost Hunters’ Grant Wilson doesn’t think we’re going to get all that much out of her. Still, we ask questions into the darkness and hope to get something back. Grant tells us to give the ghosts everything we want to hear in return: say your name, say something about yourself, venture an opinion or a question. “If you’re interested in the paranormal, be on a search for truth, not a search for ghosts,” he says. “It’s OK if those noises are the plumbing – you’re still solving the mystery for the homeowner.” Grant also says he’s never liked the title of the SyFy show that shot him, Amy, Adam and the rest of their investigative team to fame. “I’m not hunting ghosts,” he says. “I’m searching for truth and trying to help people. I like to consider myself in interdimensional customer service.”
Haunted items from the Traveling Museum
“When I was 18 I had a heart attack and died,” John E. L. Tenney says the next morning. “They obviously got me back. Otherwise this would be a really great lecture.” He dresses exactly like you’d expect a paranormal investigator to dress: white shirt, skinny necktie, trenchcoat (all the time, even inside). He also has some fascinating things to say about (living) humans’ view of the nature of spirits. “We say we believe in ghosts, but we’ve never had a conversation about what a ghost is,” he says. “Every person in this room has a different idea of what a ghost is.”
John talks about the nature of psychic energy, and his ideas about why so many women say they’re “a little bit psychic” and so few men do. “At the same time men start being interested in war and violence, women start playing with Ouija boards, and doing cootie catchers to predict the future, and doing numerology to figure out who you’re going to marry,” he says. “You do all this weird mystical stuff, and we’re on the playground punching each other in the stomach.” His talk gets at the heart of why we’re all here, why people have traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to participate in a weekend like this: to gather with likeminded people who all believe (or, at the risk of going full Mulder, want to believe) that there are things beyond our comprehension. “I like to live in world of ghosts, and Bigfoot, and elves. And Loch Ness monsters, maybe. And time travel, maybe,” John says. “We need to talk to each other about the strangest things that happen to us, because we find out that they’re not strange.”
“If these stories are meant to do anything, they’re meant to draw us together,” John ends his talk saying. “The world is very small, but we often feel disconnected from each other. At an event like this, you meet a stranger and you share something and all of a sudden you’re both crying. Maybe that’s how the spirits talk to us and each other - they connect us through these experiences.” I don’t know if I’m more of a believer in ghosts after this weekend, but I’m definitely more of a believer in the power of adventures, especially ones that push you a little out of your comfort zone, and into a different - ok, pretty spooky - realm.
The next Strange Escape is to investigate Lizzie Borden's house in Fall River on January 13.
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