When I was a kid, my dad occasionally took me to Cassadaga, about an hour outside Orlando, known to some as the Psychic Capital of the World. We went for the message services — events during which several psychic mediums deliver messages to members of the audience from the spirit world. Sometimes the messages don’t resonate with the recipients, but sometimes they beam, nod vigorously or even cry. Meetings are usually free, donations are considered polite and there are snacks afterward.
My dad liked going to message services in Cassadaga after Mass on Sundays, which could have been a matter of scheduling, but I think he just enjoyed loading up at the belief buffet. Catholic enough to have considered the priesthood, he also loved philosophy and divination and believed in extrasensory perception.
I never got a cogent message at a service, but I do think I had a brush with the other side many years later at the Hotel Cassadaga. During a stay there in the early ’90s, I had been told that the heavy Victorian clothing worn by early inhabitants made body odor a sign that a spirit might be near. My friend Steven and I spent the night, and as we were leaving, an unmistakable smell suddenly hung heavy in the room. I like to think we had a visitor from the great beyond.
Since then, I’ve visited or stayed in eight allegedly haunted hotels. I vacation to get away from real life, and a brush with the dead is as far away as it gets. I’ve always enjoyed myself, despite having few actual encounters with the supernatural. Some will say, “That’s because ghosts don’t exist,” to which I say, “Do not rain on my jack-o’-lantern.” That sort of womp-wompery is not in the holiday spirit any more than mentioning the divorce rate in someone’s wedding toast.
This is the time of year when “most haunted” lists abound. Some hotels and tourist sites have long-established reputations, such as the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colo., famous for being Stephen King’s inspiration for “The Shining,” or the Hollywood Roosevelt, where Marilyn Monroe once lived and reportedly continued to appear after her death.
There are plenty of “wheres,” so I consulted some ghost hunters, researchers and authors on the “hows” of reaching out to spirits, and what you may need to detect and record otherworldly encounters. No one wants to come face-to-face with a ghostly apparition and think, “Now what?”
Brandon Alvis and Mustafa Gatollari are co-stars of the A&E series “Ghost Hunters” and co-authors of “Elements of a Haunting: Connecting History with Science to Uncover the Greatest Ghost Stories Ever Told.” Both say attitude is everything.
“Respect is key,” Alvis says. “If we believe ghosts are people, a consciousness retained after death, you’re going to want to treat these people the same way you would everyone in everyday life.”
Gatollari suggests channeling “that feeling you have when you go on a first date or you’re meeting your spouse’s friends for the first time.” You put your best self forward. And don’t lie to yourself about your confidence level. If this seemed like more fun when you were eating kettle corn and watching it on TV, you should reckon with that. “Ask yourself, ‘Can I honestly have fun and feel good while getting done what I need to get done, which is a paranormal investigation?’ ”
“Everyone can get freaked out,” says Rich Newman, author of “Passport to the Paranormal: Your Guide to Haunted Spots in America,” via email. “By all means, leave the area if you need to,” he advises, “but get right back in there as soon as you can. You’re a ghost hunter!”
It’s also okay to own being more of a curiosity seeker than a Ghostbuster. In 2018, my friend Susan and I got creeped out while exploring the 19th floor of the Lord Baltimore Hotel, where a spectral presence is rumored to linger. We did not persevere; we went back to our room and ordered pizza instead. In the morning, the pizza box had ejected itself from the trash and was sitting on the desk.
Of course, it’s easy to get scared when the pop culture we’ve all grown up with depicts ghosts as mostly scary or even demonic. Carol Nesbitt, who co-founded Ghosts of Gettysburg tours with her husband, Mark, says that’s really quite rare. “Most ghosts are mischievous or pleasant,” not harmful, she says.
Mark was a ranger for the National Park Service at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania before going into the paranormal. His own supernatural experiences at the Civil War’s bloodiest battlefield led him to write more than 20 books, including “Haunted Crime Scenes: Paranormal Evidence From Crimes & Criminals Across the USA” with Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychologist at DeSales University in Pennsylvania.
The co-authors advise doing heavy pre-trip research and asking employees for advice. Bartenders hear a lot, Ramsland says via email, while Mark says “cleaning, maintenance and security staff can be the best sources for unusual happenings.”
I asked Mark why there were so many ghosts at Gettysburg. I’ve always thought it was counterintuitive that ghosts are alleged to appear at the scene of horrific events. Why not go where you were happy? Why aren’t beaches and dance clubs choked with specters?
Mark thinks it’s a matter of emotional resonance. For most of the combatants, he says, Gettysburg was “the biggest thing that ever happened to them in their lives.” After all, the survivors returned to the site, even in their 80s and 90s, for the battle’s anniversary. “Why wouldn’t they go back when it’s easy to travel as a ghost?” he says.
The Crescent Hotel & Spa in Eureka Springs, Ark., has plenty of hot spots, including its own morgue, built in the 1930s when it was a hospital run by notorious medical fraud Norman G. Baker, who was ultimately sent to prison for peddling a bogus cancer cure.
Its most famous ghost is Michael, a 17-year-old stonemason who, according to the lore, fell to his death in 1886 while trying to wave to a girl. Michael still likes the ladies, ghost tour supervisor Debra Workman says: If a person staying in Room 218 takes burst photos of their sleeping female companions, “sometimes you have nothing in the first two pictures, but then, in that third picture, there’s a hand.”
The property typically runs five to eight ghost tours a day — that number shoots up in October — and Workman says some of their guides use electromagnetic field (EMF) meters to detect the presence of spirits. Others prefer simpler gear for detecting disturbances to magnetic fields. “I always recommend a compass,” Alvis says.
How else can you detect an unseen presence? Gatollari says an electronic barometer can come in handy. “We can check the time stamps [of the event], and sometimes it correlates to a decrease or increase in barometric pressure.” Motion detector lights are inexpensive ways to alert you to a moving object you can’t see — just like they do in your driveway.
Carol Nesbitt goes even lower-tech, preferring to use a pendulum, which conveys information from spirits depending on which direction it swings. Any necklace or even your car keys can work, she says.
Or you can just take Fido along. “If they allow pets, you should bring your pets,” Mark Nesbitt says. One of my favorite haunting trips was to the Gibson Inn in Apalachicola, Fla., in 2009. Upon our arrival, I noted a little dog in a jeweled collar who absolutely refused to go from the lobby up the stairs, which is where the alleged hauntings were.
Alas, none of my researchers recommend my beloved Ouija boards. For one thing, people use them and then forget to say “goodbye,” leaving portals open so who-knows-what can come in like raccoons through a dog door.
In 2021, it’s the smartphone that’s roundly recommended as the perfect ghost-hunting tool, with a quality digital voice recorder, camera and a couple of features that can enhance what you capture. Make sure your phone is in airplane mode, Alvis says, to keep outside cellphone and radio frequencies from contaminating your audio recording. Workman suggests transferring photos to your computer to enhance the view; you may catch sight of something you missed on the tiny phone screen.
Not surprisingly, there are almost too many ghost-hunting apps to scroll through. Carol Nesbitt recommends iOvilus and Ghost Radar, which I tried because it was free. The interface looks like a green radar screen with a needle turning in circles.
My luck hasn’t been stellar with these sorts of things, but right out of the gate, something weird happened. Ghost Radar caught a blip in the southeast corner of the room. The app shows one word at a time at the top of the screen, and mine said “Parent.” Then it started rapid-firing “fffffffjjjjjjffffffjjjj” in the lower-right-hand corner of the screen. “FJ” are my dad’s initials. The word “Parent” was replaced by “Pride.”
Coincidence? I don’t care. My dad would have loved this story. The app said some other things that didn’t seem germane, and I turned it off, for once in my life satisfied with what I had. It may be nothing, but I just like the idea that my crazy, loving, proud dad finally figured out how to work a smartphone.
Langley is a writer based in Orlando. Find her on Twitter: @LizLangley.
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