Stalking the Paranormal

For 'Ghost Hunters', Spirits aren't just a Halloween Phenomenon

The sound of footless footfalls down empty halls. The creaky eloquence of organ music where there is none. The sepulchral, distant sound of a spirit sighing within its crypt. If you’re especially sensitive to signs of the afterlife and long to make contact with the other side, you might try haunting the old St. Margaret’s Church in Monticello, where phantom organ music has been heard, or the old Russ House in Marianna, where other spooky goings-on have been reported.

But are there really spirits at work in our old houses and cemeteries? Finding solid evidence is challenging, to say the least. A place may “feel” haunted, maybe a certain heaviness in the air, but actual proof is hard to come by. The quarry never goes “Booo!” when you’re hunting ghosts. Nor do books go flying across the room in bizarre shows of spiritual energy, and eerie green corpse lights never illuminate the night.

Just ask a real ghost hunter what it’s like to capture ghostly encounters. It’s more involved than you might think. You have to interview (living) clients, manage a variety of electronic equipment, do your research, diligently listen for any sound of contact, maintain a healthy objectivity … and, in some cases, keep a machete handy.

Wait, what?

Yes, aside from an assortment of recording devices, infrared cameras and gut instinct, a machete can be useful.

No, not for warding off aggressive spooks and goblins, but for cutting your way through the jungle.

Scott Tepperman, a new cast member of the SyFy channel’s “Ghost Hunters International,” said that happened to him once trying to get to a haunted location in the New Zealand brush.

A native of Queens, N.Y., the 37-year-old Tepperman — a chef by training and a horror flick aficionado — arrived in Tallahassee in 2004 and joined a local ghost-hunting group. Dissatisfied with the direction the group was going, he and photographer buddy Ron Bordner split off in 2008 to form the Association for Locating Paranormal & Haunted Activity (ALPHA). In 2010, after answering a casting call in California, Tepperman was hired as one of the on-air investigators on “Ghost Hunters International,” a spinoff from a domestic version called “Ghost Hunters.”

Both men applied for the TV gig, but Tepperman’s outgoing personality won over the producers. “That was a big thing. I just meshed with them,” he said. “I always wanted to do ‘Ghost Hunters International’ because of their technology. Also, overseas the places are much older than here in America. The cultures are so different; Samoa, Scotland, Ireland — all different. It’s challenging to sensitivities and logistics.”

Macabre Inspiration

Paranormal (adj.): designating, or of psychic or mental phenomena outside the range of the normal. (From Webster’s New World College Dictionary.)

Tepperman got bitten by the paranormal bug at an early age. He’d never seen a ghost but was drawn to strange goings-on by the infamous Amityville murders, when six members of the DeFeo family were murdered, execution style, in their beds. “When my parents split up, my mother was in Queens and my dad was in Long Island so he’d take me (there) on weekends, and Amityville was relatively close,” Tepperman said. “I was very fascinated by the whole story.”

The Lutz family moved into the house just 13 months after the murders and allegedly ran afoul of demonic spirits in the house and fled in terror 28 days later. Novelist Jay Anson chronicled their “hauntings” in “The Amityville Horror,” published in 1977. But the book proved controversial; the events depicted in it are considered to be exaggerated. Other families have gone on to live at 112 Ocean Ave. in peace and quiet. The iconic quarter-moon windows on the Dutch Colonial style home, famous for glaring menacingly from Anson’s book cover and other art, have since been replaced by conventional square windows, making it look like an ordinary house.

Still, that one tragic incident wasn’t Tepperman’s only inspiration.

“I’ve always been a horror movie buff, and to this day I have a ton of horror movies and that’s where my whole passion is,” he said. “And so it didn’t take much convincing to get into this field.”

Apparitions in the Night

Bordner’s enthusiasm for the paranormal also began at an early age. Unlike Tepperman, he said he actually saw a ghost once, when he was 6 or 7. Now 29, the former Miami resident was sleeping over at his aunt’s house when he woke up around midnight and saw a form moving in the house.

“I woke up for some reason, I don’t know why, and I just happened to roll over in bed and just saw a freestanding form just walking down the hallway to my room,” he said. “It didn’t quite resemble anyone I knew in the family … . I freaked out, flung the covers off, ran down the hall and started beating on my aunt’s door.”

Later, his aunt admitted to seeing the same thing.

“I don’t remember if she described how it looked, but the general consensus was that she felt it was the spirit of her daughter,” who had been murdered in a convenience store holdup, Bordner said.

According to a 2009 CBS News poll, nearly half of Americans say they “believe” in ghosts. More than one in five Americans say they have either seen a ghost or have felt like they’re in the presence of one. Women are more likely than men to believe in ghosts, and are about twice as likely to say they’ve seen one.

Bordner said the experience opened his eyes to a different world. He began by absorbing as much literature as he could find.

“At the time, my mom was in school to get her master’s degree so when she’d go to local libraries to work on her classwork, she’d let me kind of do my own thing,” he said. “So naturally I would be drawn to the supernatural section … . Literally, I’d sit there for hours and pore over fiction and fact about ghost stories and metaphysical stuff and anything I could get my hands on. I think my forte was laser-beamed toward ghosts and hauntings.”

Keeping an Open Mind

Tepperman and Bordner both say the key to being a ghost hunter is not closing your mind to possibilities.
“My family has always been open to spirituality and that metaphysical stuff,” Bordner said. However, he said his family wasn’t really “religious,” an attribute he thinks was a positive characteristic. “I think that helps, because I find that the more religious someone is, they’re less prone to be open to paranormal experiences.”

According the website for a group called Christian Ghost Hunters, as many as 51 percent of Christians between the ages of 18 and 49 believe in the possibility of ghosts.

Tepperman said his family wasn’t very religious either, but were closeminded for other, more pragmatic, reasons.
“They were all realists,” he said. “If you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist. Move on. And to me, I was always thinking, prove to me it doesn’t exist. I’m not saying it does exist, but I’m not saying it doesn’t.”

It’s Not CSI

Ghosts don’t leave fingerprints, footprints, strands of fiber or other forensic evidence behind. Tepperman and Bordner acknowledge this and agree that valid evidence of paranormal activity is rare. What they have is gut instinct and a high threshold for acceptable “evidence.” To avoid misleading clients, they’ll even say the investigation is “inconclusive” if the evidence isn’t there. Tepperman polls his ALPHA team members before rendering a decision.

“I think we are one of the few to implement the inconclusive determination,” he said. “We have no problem saying we’re not sure at this time. Sometimes it will warrant a follow-up investigation, sometimes it may not. Sometimes, we don’t agree with the evidence. Some people might read something that we don’t. Overall, it’s got to be pretty much unanimous. If it’s not, then we’re going to vote it as an inconclusive finding.”

“I’ll be the first person to say I don’t know,” said Bordner.

“We just want to find that there is actually something else out there and when somebody dies, their spirit lives on in some form or another,” Tepperman said. “The main thing we tell our investigators that join ALPHA … is the fact we have no problems with saying ‘We don’t know.’ You are allowed to say ‘We don’t know,’ rather than misleading someone.”

No License Required

There’s no special college degree to be a “ghost hunter.” The field is pretty much open to anyone, and the Internet is flooded with ghost hunting training websites (some will send you your own “ghost meter”). If you want to become a “certified” ghost hunter, the trick becomes finding the right online course, Tepperman said.

“One of the things we started out with was an online course — which we shunned because there are thousands of those,” he said. “But we found one that was a respected, long-standing organization. They had us do some field work, some research … it was visual, analytical and we got certified through this.”

Even then, the “credentials” don’t mean much. It’s just a starting point, Tepperman said.

Bordner said perhaps the biggest credential of all is the desire to explore beyond the ordinary. Like other dreams, it’s a passion that has to be cultivated from an early age.

“I think it has to go way (back) to childhood experiences,” he said. “I think something has to happen to you. It’s like being a good artist. Yeah, you can learn it, but some people are just born with the desire and talent to be good ones.”

A good ghost hunter learns early on that you’re never finished learning, the duo said. Every investigation builds upon what was learned in the previous one.

This is How We Do It

Forget “Tobin’s Spirit Guide” and Proton Packs referenced in the 1984 comedy “Ghostbusters.” Only in the movies do “ghostbusters” have handy informational books and fancy nuclear accelerators to trap ghosts. Real-world ghost hunters have the Internet, as well as a bagful of electronic gadgets, to help them in their quest for the truth.
“We’re not ‘Ghostbusters.’ We don’t have ecto-containment chambers, but what we try to do is at least capture documentation of paranormal activity,” Tepperman said. “Now, paranormal activity doesn’t necessarily mean ghosts. It means something that is out of the normal for us, things that we can’t readily explain away.”

Tepperman and Bordner say the ALPHA team conducts very thorough investigations, with methods similar to those used on “Ghost Hunters International.” This means they don’t just run out to a graveyard in the middle of the night on a whim. Potential clients must contact them in writing (which weeds out the spur-of-the-moment types) and then go through a screening interview (to weed out the crazies). They’ll also visit the place to determine if the location is literally safe enough to be in.

The actual “ghost hunting” investigation lasts two full, eight-hour days. This routinely involves making some painstaking “control group” calculations during which the location is extensively photographed and all electrical sources mapped out. That way, if something strange happens, they can go back and make note of the differentials.
“The first day of the investigations we do nothing but site photography and baseline data,” Bordner said. “For baseline data we use our EMF meters, which stand for electromagnetic fields, and we use a digital thermometer. The theory is that ghosts feed off of EMF energy. So the first day we go around with our meters and we test where the wiring is in the walls, if there are any sockets around because that can give us false positives. Then we use our digital thermometer to go around the room and test to see if the windows are shut properly, if the air is coming out, what’s the temperature of it. Because the theory is that ghosts can manifest by using this energy, and so we always want to know where all the hot spots and cold spots are.”

During the actual investigation, ALPHA will break into small groups and use audio recorders and other equipment to capture any noise of a spiritual nature.

“We bring very few people with us on an investigation … The less people, the less contamination,” said Tepperman. “Most evidence out there is contaminated, either knowingly or unknowingly, and you run the risk of falsifying stuff as well.”

Having the proper team dynamic is essential, Tepperman said. Ghosts might not be interested in contacting Person A if Person B is in the room with them. But if Person A comes back with Person C, then that change in dynamic might yield positive results.

“We try to do whatever we can to entice something to come out, and make itself known to us,” he said.

To do that, the team uses audio recorders to conduct what is called an “EVP (electronic voice phenomena) session.” A recorder is placed in a room by itself in hopes that it picks up a voice from beyond. Sometimes, a team member or two may stay in place with the recorder to “stimulate” the atmosphere just by offering a presence, or gently asking questions or by talking among themselves.

Electronic gear isn’t the only tool used during these visits. A certain amount of intuition comes into play as well. More often than not, the pair will “feel stuff” on the first night while taking the baseline studies.
“A lot of times we might feel things and then we know, oops, we need to focus there because we’re already getting familiar with the place and the place is getting familiar with us,” Tepperman said.

Also, investigators have to have just the right personality to make the ghosts want to come out and make contact.
“If I’m walkin’ down the street and I see a bunch of hoodlums walking my way and they’re all loud and abrasive and crazy, I’m probably going to cross the street and walk on the other side,” Tepperman said. “But if I’m walking down the street and see two or three people, mild-mannered, walking toward me, I’m not going to think twice about it. Spirits are the same way. They are in a house, and they have someone abrasive and loud coming in, they’re probably not going to make themselves known. If you slowly take the time to get a feel for the place and let them understand what you’re doing, at least not scare them off, you’re apt to get more positive results.”
Bordner said the ALPHA team wants to go above and beyond in their efforts to find paranormal activity.
“If we get some activity we might stay a little longer,” he said. “But most groups that I’ve seen try to condense baseline data, site photography and investigating into just one eight-hour block, one day, write up a report, call it haunted or not haunted. But people are hanging on to every word you say, so if you say it’s haunted, well, it’d better be haunted. If you say it’s not haunted, then it’d better not be haunted.”

Using Common Sense

It’s only natural. As humans, we’re hardwired to see familiar patterns in natural objects. We look up at the moon and see a man’s face, or a woman holding a baby. Tepperman calls this “matrixing,” and it can fool a lot of people. He and his fellow ghost hunters don’t leap to conclusions when a photograph shows something odd.

“You look at something long enough and you’re going to see something,” he said. “One of the basic things we tell people when we start really investigating is, especially if it’s photography-related, to make a small book of false positives. A false positive is something that very well may look paranormal but it’s human-operator error or of the elements. Like, if it’s raining and you’re taking pictures, you have orbs. You have no idea how many (people) put these things on their websites as evidence.”

“Common sense is a rarity in this field,” said Bordner, who handles the group’s photographic mission. “I had this one person show me a set of a dozen pictures and they claimed it was a ‘shadow person.’ Turned out, the ‘shadow’ was her finger near the camera’s flash.”

Tepperman said people make mistakes all the time in this business. He said some do it on purpose, while others genuinely think they’ve photographed a deceased loved one trying to contact them from the other side. What the ethical, professional ghost hunter does, he said, is take the time to explain to them that they perhaps didn’t use their equipment properly — without bursting their bubble.

“How could you give them false hope or mislead them by not knowing yourself what’s going on?” he said. “It’s very important to know all that stuff.”

No Fakery Here

Tepperman talks with pride about his association with Ghost Hunters International, which airs Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. on the SyFy Channel. Despite smack talk from detractors and cynics who say all “reality TV” is fake and staged, Tepperman said that in his case, no one has asked him or the crew to fake anything on their globetrotting investigations.

“I know the stories — ‘Oh yeah, everything’s fake,’ whatever, that’s what I’ve heard, about these shows in general,” he said. “When I joined GHI, and at this point it’s been close to two years now, they’ve never asked us to fake anything. Never. They basically said do what you need to do, and we’ll catch it. That’s it. And I’m very impressed with that because I did not want to compromise myself at all, and I don’t. What we’re doing on Ghost Hunters International is legitimate.”

’Tis a Spooky Place

Here are some of the places
the ghost-hunting team
ALPHA has investigated.

• Windsor Hotel Americus, Ga.
• Rylander Theater Americus, Ga.
• Camp Sumter Andersonville, Ga.
• Jefferson Co. Chamber of Commerce Monticello
• Jackson Co. Chamber of Commerce Marianna
• Old City Cemetery Tallahassee
• Oakland Cemetery Tallahassee
• 1812 Cemetery Monticello
• Roseland Cemetery Monticello
• Clewiston Inn Clewiston

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