Strangers in the Night

Since the great Columbia University scandal of 1984, paranormal investigations have had a bad rap in the United States, at least on the East coast. Seattle writer MATTHEW BALDWIN joins up with A.G.H.O.S.T. for a night of spirit seeking.

It is ten o’clock on a moonless Friday night, and I have spent the last hour searching a cemetery for ghosts. Actually, having seen no paranormal activity thus far, I’m now just wandering around and reading the graves.

Before me is a large, marble tombstone in the shadow of a tree with an inscription I can’t quite discern. Lacking a flashlight (I was too stupid to bring one, and too embarrassed by my stupidity to borrow someone else’s) I’ve discovered I can ‘see’ things in the cemetery by taking pictures of them with my digital camera and then viewing the photos in ‘preview’ mode.

I snap a photo of the monument, and then look to the display screen to see what I have captured. A moment passes while the camera saves the picture to disc. Then the image appears: a gravestone reading ‘BABY MONSTER.’

* * *

Earlier in the evening I met Ross Allison, President and Founder of A.G.H.O.S.T. (Amateur Ghost Hunters Of Seattle/Tacoma), who had invited me to join tonight’s Expedition. I arrived a bit early at the semi-official A.G.H.O.S.T. staging ground (Denny’s) to fortify myself with a B.L.T. and read the A.G.H.O.S.T. history I had printed out from their website.

The organization began in 2001, when Ross and a few acquaintances began periodically gathering to discuss the possibility of life after death. Although the group took small-scale field trips to potentially haunted sites, A.G.H.O.S.T. remained little more than a neighborhood club until the Vice President, Patricia Woolard, managed to wangle permission to investigate the Kalakala, a Seattle ferry rumored to carry more than just passengers. The subsequent Investigation (during which Ross concluded that the vessel was ‘filled with a lot of residual hauntings’) gave the group direction, and the attendant media coverage put the fledging ghost hunters on the paranormal map.

Since then, A.G.H.O.S.T. has performed a number of Investigations throughout the Pacific Northwest, but only a few A.G.H.O.S.T. members are allowed to attend these rigorous and serious excursions in order to keep the cooks-to-kitchen ratio at an absolute minimum. So as the group’s membership grew, Ross initiated monthly Expeditions: for-fun explorations of potentially-haunted sites that any member can join.

Shortly after I finished reading, Ross approached and asked if I was Matthew. As I shook his hand I wondered why he was alone, thinking, ‘is it just going to be this complete stranger and me tonight, alone in a graveyard?’ When I asked if anyone else was joining us, Ross gestured to a corner of the restaurant where a score of people were already gathered, animatedly chatting and ordering dinner.

I seated myself on the fringe, next to a man in his mid-forties who promptly introduced himself and began to tell me of the many spirit-infested places he and ‘the Wife’ had visited. He spoke of the ‘ghost tours’ they had taken and the ‘haunted hotels’ they had slept in, ending each narrative with ‘but we didn’t really see anything’ or, ‘nothing happened while we were there.’

By the time he launched into an account of their stay at the Manresa Castle, a century-old manor located on the Washington coast, I’d stopped taking notes and was only half-listening. ‘We stayed in 306, a haunted room where a women committed suicide,’ he said. ‘But nothing happened.’ I nodded like I was even vaguely interested. ‘After we checked out,’ he continued, ‘the Wife was taking one last shot of the castle with the video camera. And just as she got to the window of room 306, the curtains opened slightly.’

‘They—what?!’ I exclaimed a little too loudly.

‘Yeah,’ the man said. ‘I figured it was probably a maid, but the Wife made me go up and check it out. So I ran up to the room. The door was open and the cleaning people were down the hall. They said they hadn’t been in there.’

‘And you have this on video?’ I asked

‘Right,’ the man replied. ‘The Wife and I went home and watched it and could can see the curtains open. Later we went to some friends’ house and showed the tape to them, but just when it got to the window, the picture started skipping around. It didn’t stop until after the room 306 window was out of the shot. The tape’s been like that ever since.’

I’m not one to give unsolicited advice, but I considered telling the man to lead with this story in the future.

* * *

Half an hour later we piled into our cars and caravanned to Saar’s Memorial Cemetery. It was five-minute trip, and I listened to the radio during the drive. For some inexplicable reason the local ‘alternative’ station was playing Frank Sinatra’s ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin.’ By the time I arrived at the graveyard I was thoroughly creeped out.

* * *

Wolf is the group’s Director Of Research—it’s his job to find out all he can about the sites A.G.H.O.S.T. visits. ‘But they won’t let me research a place until after they’ve done an Investigation,’ he says, as we stand chatting in the graveyard. Ross doesn’t want his team to have any advanced knowledge about the sites they visit, fearing it might prejudice their findings. This, Wolf tells me, is in accordance with international ghost-hunting protocol.

‘So, you don’t know anything about this cemetery?’ I ask. Wolf says no. ‘All I know,’ he continues, ‘is that Peter Sarr started this cemetery in 1873 after his wife died and he couldn’t cross a flooded river. The last person was buried here around 1950.’

‘Wait,’ I say confused, ‘So you did research this place.’

‘Oh no,’ Wolf replies, ‘I’m just reading that.’ His flashlight beam is pointed to a large wooden sign that states all the aforementioned facts.

I ask why A.G.H.O.S.T. chose to visit this particular cemetery. ‘We scouted this place out before, and noticed a lot of the graves were desecrated.’ Wolf says. ‘Look at how many of the tombstones have been broken or pushed over, by high school students or something.’ He looks frustrated and angry. ‘Kids need to learn that you shouldn’t mess around with people. It doesn’t matter if the people are sleeping.’

Jennifer joins us. One of the group’s psychics (or ‘sensitives,’ as they call themselves) Jennifer tells me there’s a little girl’s grave somewhere in the middle of a huge bramble that has taken over a corner of the graveyard. ‘She says we need to come back and pull up those bushes, so people can come visit her again.’

Wolf says he’s also slightly psychic, but nowhere near as sensitive as Jennifer. ‘I can see figures standing over there,’ he says, pointing to some graves a ways off. ‘And I can also hear the girl in the WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?!’

I whirl around and look where Wolf’s pointing, but don’t notice anything unusual. ‘What did you see?’

‘I saw flickering red lights!’ Wolf says eagerly. ‘They looked like THERE THEY ARE!!’

I see them too, unnaturally bright red lights zipping across the brambles’ leaves.

‘Oh, that’s me,’ says another A.G.H.O.S.T. member from nearby. He has a hi-tech, instant thermometer with a laser pointer, and is trying to get a reading from the thicket, hoping to find a ‘cold patch’ and confirm the existence of Jennifer’s little girl.

Though digital cameras have made ghost hunting easier, they have also leeched some of the wonder out of the sport

A.G.H.O.S.T. prides itself on its use of technology. In addition to the thermometer, they also employ electromagnetic field detectors, Geiger counters, barometers, and a laptop hooked up to a host of sensors. The latter has been dubbed ‘S.P.E.C.T.R.E.’ for Special Paranormal Energy Computer Tracking Research Equipment. Someone in A.G.H.O.S.T. loves acronyms.

The primary tool in ghost-hunting, however, has become the digital camera. Ghost hunters of yore had to develop their film before they knew if they had captured anything, but now spirit seekers can just wave a camera around, take pictures at random, examine the photos in ‘preview mode’ and immediately delete the ones that come up empty.

A.G.H.O.S.T. photographers (and videographers) are seeking ‘orbs’ and ‘ecto,’ the two ways, they say, that ghosts manifest themselves in photographs. An orb looks like a sphere of illumination; ecto—short for ectoplasm—appears as wisps or misty patches. Ross acknowledges that it can be difficult to distinguish true orbs and ecto from light-tricks and poor photographic practices; as we entered the cemetery Ross pointed out that it was a cold night and urged us not to photograph our own breath and mistake it for ecto.

I snapped dozens of pictures in the cemetery, but failed to capture even a single orb. Often I would examine a photo and see a mysterious something-or-other, but quickly determine it was nothing at all. Though digital cameras have made ghost hunting easier, they have also leeched some of the wonder out of the sport, enabling you to immediately zoom in on a spooky item and reveal it to be a nothing more than a distant street lamp or your own camera strap.

* * *

It’s eleven-thirty, and the festivities are winding down. The Expedition participants gather in the entrance of the graveyard, cheerfully discussing what they saw and felt during the visit. Sensitives describe the voices they heard and the figures they saw. Photographers share the images they have captured. One guy shows me a particularly nice-looking orb, which looks for all the world like the full moon—despite the fact that there is no moon tonight. ‘Sure,’ I say knowingly, ‘but zoom in on it and let’s get a better look.’ He increases the magnification to x2 and then x5 and then x10. As it grows larger, the orb looks just as mysterious, and I realize it’s also translucent—I can see trees and a headstone behind it. When the orb fills the preview screen I surrender with a shrug.

As we wait for the stragglers to join the group, I query Ross about the voluminous press coverage they have been recently receiving—A.G.H.O.S.T. will be featured on a local TV show this Halloween, and radio stations have been clambering for interviews. ‘Do you think there’s genuine interest in ghost hunting,’ I ask, ‘or do you think they interview you for the novelty value?’ Ross says there are a lot of paranormal enthusiasts in the Pacific Northwest, but that he’s not particularly interested in the motives of the media. I restate the question and get much the same answer. I am trying to goad Ross into railing against the disbelievers, but he isn’t taking the bait. ‘But when you’re doing radio interviews,’ I say, dropping the subtlety, ‘do the DJs ever, you know—ridicule you guys?’ Ross shrugs. ‘Our goal is to explore the possibility of the supernatural and have fun,’ he says simply.

Patricia, standing nearby and listening to our conversation, interjects. ‘We tell people what we do and what we know. If they don’t believe it, that’s their problem.’

Ross asks if I believe in ghosts. I admit that I do not, but that I’m open to the possibility. Then, on a lark, I ask Ross if he believes in ghosts. It hadn’t occurred to me to ask before, because I assumed I knew the answer. Ross surprises me by saying he isn’t certain.

‘People are essentially energy,’ Ross says, ‘and we know that energy can’t be destroyed, so it makes sense for there to be something left behind after we die. But I’m a little bit on the skeptical side.’ He tells me he’s seen a lot of strange stuff since he started A.G.H.O.S.T., but nothing that would constitute conclusive proof. ‘I’d love it if a full-size apparition just walked up to me,’ he says. ‘But it hasn’t happened yet.’

It’s time to go. Ross takes a quick headcount of the assembled group. ‘I think everyone’s here,’ he says, but calls out into the graveyard to be sure. I squint into the darkness but can’t see anything but the silhouette of trees.

Then, in the distance, a shadow passes by, momentarily occluding the gaps between two trees.

‘Did you see that?’ Ross exclaims. I nod excitedly. The two of us trot back into the cemetery.

‘It’s probably just a person,’ Ross says, perhaps to himself. As we get closer, I can just barely make out something moving in the darkness. Suddenly I wonder if maybe I shouldn’t let Ross go first, since he’s, you know, the expert and stuff. But I keep apace.

Our shadow turns out to be one of the A.G.H.O.S.T. members, saying final goodbyes to the graveyard’s inhabitants. Ross looks at me and we both laugh guiltily. ‘Damn,’ he chuckles. ‘I thought that was it.’

‘I know,’ I reply. ‘I was, like, ‘I’m going to have the world’s best ending to this story!’’

Information about the Amatur Ghost Hunters Of Seattle/Tacoma, including Investigation reports, photographs, and membership information, can be found at