Saturday, November 14, 2009

Chasing Down the Dead

“Is there anybody here who would like to speak with us?”
It’s a simple question, but when asked to no one in particular and standing next to an obelisk in the middle of a cemetery, every body hair snaps to attention.
Chris Califf and Chris Ong, two ghost hunters with Salem Paranormal Investigators, chose this particular headstone not only because of its size but because of its position. It sits between two well-defined rows of other graves; aligned with neither.
Ong places a digital audio recorder on the ground and asks the first question.
Califf follows up by asking, “If so, can you give us a sign?”
And so it goes: “Is there anything you’d like to say to us?”
“Have we disturbed your rest in any way?”
“Is there anything we can do to help you?”
“If you have a message for us or anybody else, please say it at this time.”
This night, the recorder picks up nothing but the wind as it blows over the burial plots. Other nights have been more exciting.
Help me, Daddy
About a year ago, Califf was sitting at home watching episodes of Ghost Hunters on television when his brother-in-law called to ask what he was doing that night.
Califf replied that he was thinking of going out to get some recordings in Lee Mission Cemetery. Within hours, and after enlisting the help of Ong, a group headed out to the cemetery.
“I thought if we were going to find anything, that cemetery would be the place. You always hear about people getting spooked out there,” said Califf.

After spending an hour or so walking the grounds, and with night shifts as cashiers calling their names, they packed up their gear and crowded back into their car.
On the way home they played back the recordings they took.
“You hear me ask, ‘Is there anyone here who would like to speak with us?’” said Califf. “Then, as broad as possible – not muttered, not faint – you hear, ‘Help me, Daddy.’”
In that moment, Califf knew what he wanted to spend the rest of his life doing.
He and the others made plans to meet there the following night, and the next, and the next. It turned into a six-day investigation.
Soon after, Califf registered the SPI name with state officials and the team members began doing everything they could to get the word out.
“We ran off Rockstar and NoDoz for the first four or five months,” he said.
They met with some disapproval, but most people embrace their enthusiasm, if not the cause itself.
Califf and Ong arrive for an interview at the coffee house wearing their SPI shirts. The shirts beg the question, “What’s SPI?”
They pass out business cards.
“We’ve got a ghost upstairs,” states the barrister.
Twenty minutes later, Ong and Califf crack open their second Rockstar each and another employee of the shop interrupts the interview to ask if they are the “paranormal guys.”
She tells them about the ghost seen upstairs.
The Chrises crunch knuckles.
“He’s up on the third floor, the guy peers from right outside the kitchenette in a hat, suit and coat, turn-of-the-century style. The lawyer who works up there said he saw him one night after he moved in. He thought (the ghost) was checking in on him,” says the middle-aged woman.
“They’re usually a lot more active when someone moves in or moves out,” says Mike Watson, SPI spokesperson.
Before she leaves the woman regales the trio with tales of experiences not only in the coffee shop, but places in Texas, her brother’s paranormal experiences, and her brother’s friend’s supernatural encounters.
Its not an uncommon occurrence, but all three wish there were more like her.
“It’s about a 70/30 split. Most people are open to it and want to know more, but we also get calls telling us we’re doing the devil’s work,” says Watson.
There’s precious little middle ground when it comes to ethereal machinations.
For Califf, that’s the most difficult part.
“Doing this kind of work, you find God, in whatever aspect you believe in him. Having people shake their fingers at us, it’s discouraging. If we don’t find the answers, at least we tried. But when we succeed, it’ll be that much sweeter,” he says.
Just the facts
According to Watson, the biggest challenge in conducting paranormal investigations is finding ways to present their work that assure they’ll be taken seriously.
“It’s hard to get into the places that we’d like to get into; to convince property owners that we’re not going to bring a bunch of crazies in there,” he said. “All we want to do is get in and record the data.”
Watson isn’t interested in histrionics. He doesn’t light candles or burn incense before trying to make contact with energies that inhabit the spaces the SPI crew investigates.
Most of their encounters are classified as simply “energies” because people’s perceptions of them are highly subjective. One person might view an interaction in a positive light while another may feel a more malevolent presence.
To separate perception from reality, SPI crews collect recordings first.
“If you go into a place where you know someone hangs themselves in the back closet every ten years, you’re going to go in with a skewed mindset,” he said.
If any sounds, voices or apparitions are recorded, SPI scours public records to document the history of the site.
“There are people who are suffering from legitimate paranormal activities, but there are also those suffering from legitimate mental illnesses. If we can’t validate the things they see or feel, I hope they take it as a sign that they may have some issues they need to address,” said Watson.
Califf and Ong are adrenalin junkies who love a good scare as much as they love having their questions answered. Watson classifies himself as “a skeptic who wants to believe very badly.”
Watson, 37, was born and raised in Maine, a hotbed of local lore and the home of horror scribe Stephen King.
The encounter that first opened his mind to the paranormal occurred when he awoke one night and saw a blue orb at the foot of his bed. The ball exploded shortly after he woke.
“I learned later that it was ball lightning. We had storms passing through the area that night,” he said. “But it kind of opened my mind to the idea that there may be something else out there.”
Watson moved to the Salem area a couple of years ago and became aware of SPI when a story about them appeared in the pages of a daily paper.
Califf’s first encounter came at the age of eight while spending the night at a friend’s house.
“We had been up watching scary movies and my buddy, Josh, went up to bed while I was crashing on the couch. I fell asleep briefly and when I woke up there was another presence hovering over my face,” said Califf.
He bounded off the couch and raced to Josh’s room.
“I was freaking out. When we got back to the living room it was quivering in the corner. Josh and I looked at each other to make sure we were both seeing it and by the time we looked back it was gone,” he said.
Ong was most influenced by paranormal activity in his grandparent’s house.
“You could stand in one room, look into a mirror and see another person in the room across the hall,” he said.
His sense of curiosity only grew from that point onward. Califf calls him the most courageous and stupid investigator on the team.
“We’ll see something in a dark corner and Chris is the kind of guy who turns to me and asks if I want to go in there. I’m going to say ‘no’ and we’re both going to go in there anyway,” said Califf.
The Fairgrounds
Not every investigation is successful. In the last nine months, SPI conducted about eight full-on investigations. Only three yielded solid evidence in the form of electronic voice phenomena (EVP) or photographic anomalies.
One of those was at the Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem.
While the site supplies a steady stream of haunting stories and other accounts of paranormal phenomena, the SPI crew investigated a specific case.
“We’d heard about an accidental hanging that happened about three years ago,” said Watson. “Apparently, the person was engaging in autoerotic asphyxia and either slipped or had a partner who abandoned the body.”
Traumatic deaths often leave behind energy signatures, Watson explained.
“Accidental hangings aren’t quick. A lot of intensity builds up in those areas,” he said.
Califf and Watson locked themselves in the stall where the hanging reportedly occurred, and had what amounted to an uneventful evening.
“We heard some sounds like someone had thrown a stick against the wall or wood had cracked, but we didn’t get much else,” he said.
Then they listened to the recording. It stopped them in their tracks.
This is what they recorded:
Watson: Do you have a message for us or for anyone?
EVP: (whispered) don’t (unintelligible whisper) (odd reverb noises) to walk the world is horrible.
Watson: Can you tell us your name?
EVP: Help me, help me up. (Loud noise) (Heavy whisper unintelligible).
Califf: Is there anything you’d like to say?
EVP: (Unintelligible whispering).
Watson: Is there any reason you haven’t passed on?
EVP: (Unintelligible) you (unintelligible) (unintelligible) all of you (Loud crashing noise).
The energies they’re tracking have chased SPI crews out of cemeteries, scratched them, slapped them and called them out by name during the course of investigations, but they have yet to be swayed from their mission.
“To me, all it means is there is something after death,” said Califf. “What we’re trying to find out is why the energies get left behind.”
Califf is spurred on by his own near-death experience, but for Ong and Watson the objective is more about taking in all the possibilities science and spirituality have to offer.
“Every now and then something happens that I can’t explain. It makes me stop and consider a lot of different options,” said Watson.
Ong added, “They say we only use a certain part of our brain. Well, what are we doing by opening ourselves up to the possibility of the paranormal?”
By sticking to an objective approach, the investigators hope to gain access to places that have remained closed to them thus far, such as Mission Mill and the Elsinore Theatre.
“You have to be as honest as you can, understand the technology that you’re using and be as professional as possible,” said Watson.
Even if they never find the answers they seek, the SPI crew is bonded by the pursuit.
“No matter what, we’ve still got a hobby. Something we can do for the rest of our lives if we want,” said Ong.
For more information, or to contact SPI, visit their web site at Sound files and photographs from their investigations are available on the site.

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