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

The Washington Post/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."

Paranormal investigating is the latest incarnation of the movement called spiritualism that began about 160 years ago in Upstate New York. Propelled by the phenomenon of Maggie and Kate Fox, two young sisters who said that the dead spoke to them by knocking or rapping on walls, the movement grew into a nationwide craze. It became trendy in Victorian households to host séances, where people reported seeing furniture levitate and spirits write messages. Mediums traveled the country and the world supposedly facilitating communication with the dead.

The admission from the Fox sisters, in 1888, that for 40 years they had been cracking their toes and knee joints to produce the knocking sounds they said were spirits, did little to derail the burgeoning spiritualist movement. Instead, it galvanized a faction that had been growing in step with the movement: those who sought to prove the existence of the paranormal by using scientific methods to weed out the frauds. Many in the faction were intellectuals and academicians, all fascinated with the paranormal, in search of hard data to explain the unexplainable. Calling their new field parapsychology, and focusing mainly on the role of the human mind in unexplained phenomena, these first researchers were the predecessors of today's paranormal investigators.

Meanwhile, such phenomena were becoming stranger. During sittings, mediums began producing a substance from their noses and mouths, supposedly material evidence of the spirit world, which researchers called ectoplasm. The ectoplasm occasionally assumed a human shape or contained images of people. In a 1932 photograph of the medium Mary Marshall, a giant white blob descends from her nose; wedged in the middle, like a piece of food in a beard, is the face of avid spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had recently died.

Over the years, the most egregious fakers were outed, but by then parapsychology was well established, albeit on the periphery of the mainstream scientific community. Horror movies about hauntings and possessions have been popular for decades, but it wasn't until recent years that the interest began to shift from being terrorized by ghosts to actively seeking them out.

There are no globally accepted guidelines about what constitutes good investigating. As the number of groups has grown, the scene is at risk of feeling like the era of old-time medicine shows, with most investigators positioning themselves as the experts and everyone else as quacks.

Nor are the parapsychology field and a related field, anomalistic psychology, eager to associate themselves with the current craze. Chris French, head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, and editor of the Skeptic magazine, wrote in an e-mail: "I suspect that most serious academic researchers ... would share my view that, by and large, these amateur groups do not really know what they're doing. ... Despite all the trappings, it isn't science."

Sally Rhine Feather, daughter of founding parapsychologist Joseph Rhine, says it is "the beginning of a science ... the beginning of organization. Hopefully, with enough effort, [investigators will] set those standards."

Before the team left Labenz's house, Tommy Hopper, and his wife, Alice, who live a couple of blocks from the Claremont Town Hall, stopped by. The Hoppers had brought a copy of the 1919 schoolhouse photo and some stories of activity in their own house: the occasional sound of something big falling off the wall in the dining room and breaking; unexplained smells, such as flowers and tobacco; cold hands on their necks.

"I'm not a believer in spiritual things," said Hopper, 47, a big, weather-beaten man. "Never have been; never will be. But there are things in that house I can't explain. You never sleep alone in that house."

It was getting close to sunset. Warfield, his curiosity piqued, had decided to take the team through the Hoppers's house before setting up at the town hall, and we drove over to their snug wood-frame cottage, which had been in Hopper's family for years. Warfield and his team shined their flashlights around the rooms as Hopper described the ghost's antics. When he and Alice, 53, were first dating, he said, they were sitting in the living room while from the kitchen came a cacophony of "crashing plates and dishes."

"Doesn't that bother you?" he recalled Alice asking him. So he got up and went into the kitchen. "Knock it off, you're scaring her," he said, and the crashing stopped.

Alice, a slight woman with glasses and long brown hair, said that one night after getting into bed, she watched an invisible pair of hands tucking the sheets around her legs. In the dining room, candles would relight after she had left the room. "At first, I thought I just hadn't put them out all the way, but then it happened while I was standing there looking at them," she said glumly. "So, I don't leave candles in that room anymore. I'm afraid they'll light when I'm away." The couple seemed less like ghost enthusiasts with overactive imaginations than like the beleaguered owners of a badly trained dog.

Back at the town hall, the event had begun to take on the feel of a slightly madcap barn raising. A small knot of onlookers, attracted by the activity, had gathered on the lawn. Warfield was greeted by Claremont's vice mayor, George Lee Edwards, a lanky man in a green shirt whose family had lived in the area since 1642 and who called the story of the little girl being murdered "genuine accepted folklore" in Claremont.

"Paranormal activity is kind of an accepted thing around town," he told us. "It happens on such a regular basis, no one pays much attention to it anymore." It was Edwards who had heard the voice in the mayor's office, as he had helped himself to one of the candies they kept in a bowl on the desk. "Someone whispered in my ear, 'Can I have some?' " he said. "It was a small child's voice. It was plain as day -- it made the hair stand up on my arms."

It took Warfield and his team almost an hour to set up, unspooling reams of cable through the cavernous building and its labyrinthine basement for their six infrared cameras. In the big room at the back of the building where the town holds its city council meetings, Warfield set up a giant monitor that broadcast the view from each camera simultaneously, each off-kilter scene awash in an eerie luminous gray. Setting up the cameras had been the bulk of the evening's work so far, and I wondered what types of things the team generally captured on camera. "We've never gotten anything on camera," Logan Reed said. He and Schlosser were munching on the candy bars Warfield had set out. "You guys are welcome to have some of those; just leave some for my trigger object," Warfield said.

"Once you start your investigation, I can put this place on lockdown," Labenz told Warfield, "so you don't have people meandering around causing a disturbance in the force."

When the last of the onlookers had been ushered outside -- a few set up lawn chairs in the parking lot to keep an eye on the action -- it was after 10 p.m. Warfield turned out the lights, and we proceeded by flashlight to the upstairs room where the supposed apparition had appeared in the photograph. We were accompanied by the vice mayor's girlfriend, whom Warfield had allowed to join us, although he usually limits investigations to team members. Warfield started his recorder, warning the team to speak in regular voices rather than whisper, lest it be confused for EVPs on the recordings.

"I'd like to start off -- my name is John," he said. "Is there anyone in this room that would like to speak to us? It's okay, you can come out and talk to us; we're friendly. We just want to know why you're here."

The building was pitch black and still, but so far the investigation felt about as frightening as a slumber party. After 20 or 30 minutes of trying to contact the spirit in various ways -- complimenting the pretty dress she was wearing in the picture, guessing her name ("Susie?"), asking whether she needed help "finding the light" -- with no discernible response, Warfield and the team moved down to the mayor's office, a tiny interior room off a long hallway.

The mayor's office was too small for all of us, so the vice mayor's girlfriend and I stood in the doorway. After more pleasantries, Warfield took a different tack, pressing the spirit on what had happened to her. "Did you know the janitor? Was he a nice man or a mean man?" he asked. "We definitely want your story to be told; you just have to find a way to tell it to us. Tap on an object, turn on a light, speak to us!" Warfield exhorted. "Why are you still here?"

There was a pause. "If you are here," said Reed, "could you knock twice, like this?" He rapped sharply on the mayor's desk, once, twice. A few yards behind me in the hallway, faintly but distinctly, I heard another two taps: once, twice. I opened my mouth to say something, but, just like in the movies, nothing came out.

Like virtually every other investigator I spoke with, Warfield attributes his interest in ghosts to strange experiences he had as a child, in his family's old house in Lansdowne, Md. "We heard hammering sounds in the basement, and when we would get to the top of the stairs, it would stop," he told me. Once, lying in bed, "I heard a crashing sound and the sound of glass breaking all over the place." A neighbor told him that the home's previous owner was a carpenter who died of a heart attack in the basement.

Warfield enlisted in the Navy at 17, went to boot camp at 18 and trained to become a medic. He spent the next decade performing rescue missions, many by helicopter, including, he says, pulling 17 people out of a burning 747 that had crashed into a mountainside in Guam. He married a woman who also was in the military, and they had a daughter, Courtney. Along the way, spurred by his childhood memories, he read extensively on ghost hunting and the paranormal. After surviving a helicopter crash, Warfield decided it was time to explore other career options, and he began training to be an occupational therapist. When he retired from the Navy after 20 years and took a job as a therapist, he found he had enough free time to pursue ghost hunting in earnest.

Since Warfield took over DCMAG, he has assembled a team of seven volunteer investigators from the legions of interested wannabes whose e-mails flood his in-box. Previous experience is not a requirement, nor, necessarily, is fervor; the ones who profess their obsession with ghosts are rarely the ones who work out, he says.

Warfield and his crew investigate private residences for homeowners as well as public buildings that are thought to be haunted, as a way for the team to hone its skills. Like many investigators, Warfield does not charge for his services. "When you start putting money into the equation, people start expecting answers," he says; he also thinks that charging a fee would lessen the team's credibility, as people would think it was fabricating results simply to have something to show. Along with his team members, he has performed more than 50 investigations, including a case in a private residence in which people were being scratched and pulled from their beds. He has heard what he considers to be a malevolent spirit speak to him while he was on the phone -- "I heard a voice say, 'You're going to die in 30 days' " -- and has seen the top half of a man in a leather jacket passing through a closed door.

The issue at the core of paranormal investigation -- how to prove (or disprove) what one perceives -- can be ticklish for investigators, who would like their findings to be accepted by mainstream science but often pride themselves on their openness to nonscientific methods. Warfield uses a medium in Virginia, for example, whom he consults by phone when starting a case, and he is studying to become a medium himself. He says that his communication with spirits, including the quality of the EVPs he records, has improved as he has become "psychically more open to them. I sort of describe it as a radio; you have to tune into a certain station to listen."

The fact that research is still being done to disprove what one feels to be true speaks, at the least, to the willingness to trust the senses: Even the most skeptical researchers in these fields are still spending time and money to disprove what has never really been satisfactorily proved in the first place.

For Warfield, his experiences in the field have been convincing enough. "You realize there's another world out there; maybe there's more to life than just life itself," he told me.

Some weeks after the investigation in Claremont, I visited Warfield at the apartment he shares with Courtney, now 13 -- he and his wife split up when Courtney was very young -- in Columbia, to take a look at the data he had gathered from the investigation. In one of the rooms in the basement, Warfield said, a little voice had repeatedly answered "uh-huh" when a team member asked whether the spirit wanted candy. "It was so perfect, I started to question it," said Warfield, who thought it might have been an owl or other animal, and sat outside for half an hour to see whether he could hear it, to no avail. The vice mayor's girlfriend left the investigation early, and, after she left, the activity "sort of died down," so Warfield theorized that the little girl might have felt close to the woman and retreated when she departed, or even that the woman might have brought the spirit with her -- people, he said, can be haunted too. And, he said, "there's always a way [the girl] could possibly fool me. You've always got to think of that."

Warfield's apartment is neat and cozy and decorated, somewhat jarringly, with a collection of "haunted art." There is a small, colorful abstract done by a man who committed suicide, the ghost of whom Warfield says "acts up" every December and opens Warfield's refrigerator, and a large painting of a shotgun through which another painting, the portrait of a woman, shows faintly through, reputedly done by a man who killed his wife.

The team had caught nothing on video, but Warfield said he had gotten some interesting EVPs on his audio recording, and he called them up on his laptop. On one, made in the basement, Warfield asked, "What is your purpose for being here?" He and I strained for the response. "That was pretty clear," he said, of the resulting static. "I think it said, 'Get out of here.' You hear it?" Now that he had mentioned it, I could make out the shape of the words, but it was like seeing faces in clouds. The "uh-huh"s that he and the team had heard so clearly had shown up only faintly on the recordings, which he said was not unusual: Sometimes the recorder caught words the team had not heard, and vice versa. And anyway, Warfield said, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

In the time since the investigation, I had replayed the scene in the mayor's office a hundred times in my mind, and always, in my mind, there they were: two taps, behind me in the hallway, the same rhythm as Reed's taps on the desktop. Like an echo, only too delayed to be an echo. Like an answer. I was fascinated to find, as I toggled the scene back and forth in my mind, that the moment was like a line I had crossed: On one side, I was utterly skeptical, and on the other side, I believed. What else could it have been? The building was empty. No one was behind me. I knew what I had heard.

And yet, I could see, from the looks on the faces of my family and friends as I had described it to them later, how it sounded to them. To heck with the absence of evidence; I wanted proof. Would it be possible, I asked Warfield, to find the place on the recording where I had heard the taps? Warfield had not flagged that spot in the data, but he obligingly clicked through dozens of files until suddenly there we were in the mayor's office, Warfield and Reed asking about the janitor, their voices close in the cramped room. "If you are here," Reed was saying, "Could you knock twice, like this?" He rapped on the table, and I held my breath. The static unspooled past my memory of the moment, uninterrupted, as steady as rain. There was nothing there at all.

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