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Sunday, November 21, 2004

Hunters mix science, seance

By Millie Lapidario | News-Journal Staff Writer

ESPANOLA — On a dark, cool night, the faint howling of nearby hunting dogs could be heard at the Espanola Cemetery.

Who ya gonna call?
Ghost researchers Tesha Shepard and Kayla Benefield check a diagram of their research arae as a team of field investigators, calling themselves Central Florida Ghost Research, attempts to measure paranormal activity in the historic Espanola Cemetery, Friday, Nov. 12, 2004. (N/J: Brian Myrick)

It was the only sign of life here, where hundreds are buried, their graves covered with overgrown weeds and fallen branches.

Four twentysomethings, each equipped with an electronic device, walked slowly along a dirt path, guided by flashlights.

These brave souls, members of a Palm Coast group called Central Florida Ghost Research, were conducting an investigation. Their so-called “scientific based, paranormal investigative agency” and a few groups in Volusia County are among many in a ghost-hunting movement sweeping the nation.

These folks scoff at seances, tarot cards and Ouija boards. To them, they’re too impossible, too intangible, to prove. They prefer the method seen on the Sci Fi channel’s new TV show “Ghost Hunters,” an “alternative reality show” that documents the adventures of TAPS, The Atlantic Paranormal Society. Nearly 1.7 million people watched the show’s Oct. 6 debut.

Those methods have skeptics and outright detractors, too, particularly when ghost hunters charge for their service. The Flagler group, though, offers its services to the public, free of charge. If someone suspects that occasional gust of wind, slamming door, or chill up the spine is the result of a restless soul, these curious ghost hunters will seek the truth.

“I’ve always kind of been into ghost stories,” said Tom Iacuzio, 26-year-old founder of the group. “I wondered what the truth was behind those things.”

The local researchers believe they are pioneers of a field ahead of its time, testing theories dealing with life after death. They said notions they’re pursuing are as critical to mankind’s understanding of the universe as Galileo’s belief 400 years ago that the planets revolved around the sun, not Earth.

Still, they concede ghost hunting is no exact science.

“I don’t think it’s ready for the full mainstream,” Iacuzio said. “There’s a lot more to be proven before it’s said to be a true science.”

Iacuzio and others in the ghost research movement say they believe the field is slowly moving toward becoming an accepted practice.

Parapsychology, the study of the paranormal, is making its way to some higher education course catalogs, including the University of Central Florida’s.

And studies show people want to believe an afterlife exists. According to a Harris poll taken last year, 51 percent of the public believe in ghosts and 84 percent believe in life after death.

But before jumping to paranormal conclusions, members of the Palm Coast group do their homework. They research the history of the building or the area, look for nearby sources of electricity, cracks that could cause cold drafts — anything that could rule out the possibility of ghosts.

From there, they use their electronic devices to tour the site. So far, they’ve explored a few Palm Coast homes, Flagler County cemeteries and the Daytona Playhouse.

Earlier this month, a Jacksonville group called North Florida Paranormal Research collected similar data at the Shoestring Theatre in Lake Helen at the request of actors who had heard and seen strange things.

But on this recent Friday night, nobody had called the Flagler group to explore the cemetery. In the name of research, they came here because they said it is the most “active” cemetery in Florida they’ve visited.

Iacuzio started the tour by distributing the equipment. Jason Shepard held the gauss master measuring the electromagnetic field and the thermoscanner measuring temperature. Kayla Benefield held the digital camera while Tesha Shepard took notes.

The sound of crunching leaves accompanied every step.

Flowers adorned an upright gravestone bearing the names of a husband and wife. Close by, the team noticed a spike in activity. The indicator line of the gauss master jumped back and forth. Benefield snapped a photo that revealed white circular forms, which they believed to be balls of energy called “orbs.” They decided to set up their camcorder on the tripod to catch a spirit in passing.

Throughout the night, they noted temperature drops and electromagnetic field spikes, continually replacing batteries they believed ghosts had drained. In one tense moment, they watched as the wind blew pinwheels at a little girl’s grave.

“It ain’t blowin’ that hard,” said Benefield, recording the pinwheels on paper.

Despite the sometimes-nervous energy in this group, Iacuzio insisted Rule No. 1 for any member of his team: “Never run away.”

They’re also not allowed to smoke during their ventures because smoke can affect the photo images, he said. And although Iacuzio said ghosts are around in the daytime as much as they are in the nighttime, he prefers recording at night to avoid potential interference with the sun.

Dale Kaczmarek, president of the Illinois-based Ghost Research Society and a 30-year ghost research veteran, has handled several thousand ghost cases.

Often, Kaczmarek said, ghosts don’t realize they’re dead because they died suddenly, whether through a plane crash, train wreck or drowning.

He said in most of his cases, he discovers audio and visual evidence recorded on his electronic devices after visiting the site. Various ghost researchers debate whether orbs or “electronic voice phenomenon” are visible and audible with the human eyes and ears.

A game ear, more commonly known as a device for hunting deer, can also be instrumental for detecting those barely audible, faint voices of the ghosts, Iacuzio said. About four or five years ago, in a New Jersey cemetery, he recalls his game ear picked up an area full of children’s laughter.

When he walked closer to the sound, he said, he felt a tug pull at his shirt. It was as if one of the children were trying to catch his attention, he said.

But what these ghost-hunting groups call evidence, skeptics like Pat Linse call “crapola.”

Linse is co-founder of the California-based Skeptics Society, a 12-year-old group that examines unusual claims and debunks them in the name of science.

“Scientific jargon doesn’t mean that what they’re doing is scientific,” Linse said.

Her fellow group member, Tom McDonough, is an astrophysicist and former lecturer at the California Institute of Technology. McDonough said changes in the electromagnetic field can be caused by numerous factors in the environment, including power lines and underground pipes. He also dispelled the myth that “cold spots” or sudden temperature decreases could signal the presence of a ghost, stressing that drafts are common in old buildings.

As for the photos that these ghost researchers believe illustrate orbs, Southeast Museum of Photography Director Kevin Miller says the white spherical images could easily result from a software glitch.

But technology, ghost hunters argue, is the key to pushing the field of ghost research into a more exact science.

By the end of this recent outing, the group hadn’t collected much evidence aside from what they believed were images of moving orbs and a faint sound caught that they believed to be electronic voice phenomenon.

But it didn’t leave them discouraged. Tesha Shepard explained cemeteries were typically less hostile than haunted houses. And since it was their third visit to this cemetery, she said, they may be familiar to the spirits.

Night after night, they seek to answer the age-old question: “What happens after death?”

In Iacuzio’s numerous expeditions, he has seen the unimaginable, he said. He recalled the time he visited an old Civil War hospital in Gettysburg, Pa., and witnessed the image of a uniformed soldier writhing in pain as a doctor amputated his leg. He recalled the time a Creole man from the 1800s appeared in a bathroom mirror in New Jersey, asking him to find his name. And at the Daytona Playhouse a few months ago, Iacuzio recalled sitting in the dressing room and seeing a rack of clothes get swept as if someone had just walked by and brushed a hand through it.

“Am I convinced (ghosts) exist?” he asked rhetorically. “Absolutely.”

Did You Know?

The word “ghost” usually brings to mind the apparition of a deceased person, but there is a term for a “living ghost:”

* A “doppelganger” — a German word meaning doublegoer — is the ghostly double of someone who is still alive. Some believe that to meet a person’s doppelganger is a portent of death.

Ghost Finders’ Glossary

Here are some terms used in ghost research:
Electromagnetic Field Meter: Also called a gauss master or magnetometer, it’s used because the presence of spirit is thought to affect electromagnetic energy.

Electronic Voice Phenomenon: This is the capturing of spirit voices on recorders. Researchers advise asking questions and pausing to get answers.

Orb: A sphere of energy looking like balls of light on film, thought to be spirit energy.

Thermoscanner: Used in ghost research to detect cold or warm spots in an area.

SOURCE: North Florida Paranormal Research, Inc.

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