The Haunted: The debate about whether ghosts exist will never be settled, but for paranormal investigator John Warfield, it's all about the search for proof

John Warfield and his team from D.C. Metro Area Ghost Watchers visit Claremont, Va., to search for spirits.
By Lauren Wilcox
Sunday, June 20, 2010

Among the residents of the tiny town of Claremont, on the James River in Virginia, there is a long-standing tale: In the early 1900s, a little girl was killed -- by whom, no one can say for sure -- in the basement of the square, brick schoolhouse in the center of town. Soon after the murder, in 1919, the students had their photograph taken on the school's front lawn. In the photo, a couple dozen children are lined up on the grass. High above them in a second-floor window, against the darkness of the room beyond, there is someone else -- a small figure alone in the frame, barely more than a white smudge but definitely readable, if one is so inclined, as a little girl.

Almost a century later, on a fall evening at dusk, John Warfield, paranormal investigator, stood in the same second-floor room of the building. Warfield, head of the ghost-hunting outfit D.C. Metro Area Ghost Watchers, had come to Claremont with a couple of his team members to investigate the schoolhouse, now the Claremont Town Hall, considered by some locals to be haunted. Warfield strode across the empty room to the windows, his footsteps echoing in the dimness.

"In the picture, her head came up to about here," he said, holding a hand partway up the window frame. "Which means she was my height. Unless," he added thoughtfully, "she wasn't touching the floor."

Ghost hunting, as Warfield approaches it, is a curious combination of procedural rigor and leaps of faith. During a typical investigation, he will use digital recorders and night-vision cameras to collects dozens, even hundreds of hours of audio recordings and video, all of which he sorts through himself. For Warfield, 41, a former Navy medic who took over DCMAG from its founder in 2006, his hobby is less about thrill seeking than an exercise in patience and persistence. It is his meticulous approach, he thinks, that sets him apart from less serious investigators -- "a couple of people with a camera who go stomping around a graveyard."

The pursuit of ghosts, which has its roots in 19th-century spiritualism, has undergone a revival in recent years. The current movement is generally considered to have started with the 2004 debut of "Ghost Hunters," a reality show on Syfy about two plumbers whose hobby is paranormal investigating. It inspired a rash of similar reality shows -- "Paranormal State" and "Paranormal Cops," both on A&E; "Ghost Lab" on the Discovery Channel; "Ghost Adventures" on the Travel Channel; and "Celebrity Paranormal" on VH1 -- as well as dramatic series such as CBS's "Ghost Whisperer" and "The Medium," and movies such as the ultra-low-budget hit "Paranormal Activity." But "Ghost Hunters" did something else: It made paranormal investigating seem less like the province of esoteric geeks (as with the 1984 movie "Ghost Busters") than of regular Joes with inquiring minds. In short order, regular Joes were trying it.

One of Warfield's team members, Chris Schlosser, poked his head in the door. Like Warfield, he was wearing the team's uniform: a gray golf shirt embroidered with their logo, and black pants. Schlosser, 28, is studying for his master's degree in forensic toxicology at George Washington University; the other investigator along tonight was Logan Reed, 19, a rugby player on an Army ROTC scholarship at Maryland's Loyola University.

"Did you sense anything?" Warfield asked Schlosser, who shook his head. "Something drew me to that room" -- Warfield gestured at a small storage room at the back of the building's cavernous hallway -- "when we first came up. Could be nothing," he said. "Could be something."

The investigation at the Claremont Town Hall had been arranged in part by a friend of Warfield's, a former Navy SEAL named Greg Labenz, who had offered his house as a base camp for the evening's activities. A few hours earlier, Warfield had been sitting at Labenz's dining room table discussing paranormal activity in Claremont.

"This place is mad spirits around here," said Labenz from the kitchen. Labenz said that local hauntings included the houses around the town hall and possibly his own property, which he said was the site of an old Native American burial ground. At the town hall, locals had long reported unusual occurrences, like the sound of footsteps in other rooms and someone calling their name in an empty building. Recently, the town's vice mayor had reported hearing, in the mayor's office, the voice of a little girl asking for candy.

Warfield, a compact, red-haired man, began outlining the plan for the evening: First, perform a sweep of the building with electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors, to find the sources of electricity. Spirits don't have bodies, he said, "so they need a source of energy, like an electrical storm or the full moon." An EMF reading might, theoretically, spike in the presence of a ghost, but it also could spike in the presence of a refrigerator on the other side of a wall. Next, he would set up his cameras, and the team would move from room to room with its voice recorders, attempting to make contact. Warfield had brought what he called trigger objects -- a tattered doll and some chocolate bars, given the ghost's apparent fondness for sweets -- that he thought the spirit might respond to.

Warfield, whose work as a Navy medic often involved rescuing people by helicopter, has an unflappable, pragmatic mien that seems slightly at odds with his fascination for the paranormal. He was optimistic about the investigation, but his expectations were modest. He has investigated plenty of places where he is confident he has encountered paranormal activity, but he says that "for me, to say a place is haunted, you have to have a smoking gun, like a full-bodied apparition," which he has never seen.

The data he relies on most are EVPs, or electronic voice phenomena, unexplained sounds that turn up on the hours of recordings he and his investigators make, some of which he interprets as attempts at communication from spirits. He played us a few of the sort he hoped to collect that night, short clips in which he had located an identifiable phrase: "hey, you," "get out of here," "whore." On one, which Warfield said was from a "demonic investigation" (and then corrected himself, as though the phrase sounded a little hysterical -- "They don't use the word 'demonic' anymore; it's 'malevolent spirit' "), I could make out something like footsteps on a wood floor, and then an electronic whooshing noise, like an e-mail being sent. It was admittedly creepy, but on the whole, even the clearest of the recordings sounded only like the crackling of heavy static at the end of an LP. Warfield nodded when I said I couldn't really hear the words. "When I first started doing this, I couldn't hear them," he said, "but then they just started popping out."

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