I am sitting in the dark, in a bedroom of my 1860s farmhouse, in a scene reminiscent of a seance enacted on TV.
I’m perched on the bed on this Friday night in late September, next to my teenage son. Two women I met tonight are sitting on the floor in front of us, a couple of gadgets before them. A tall guy with a ponytail is in the room, too. Someone is recording with a night-vision camera.
All of the lights in this house — built by my great-great-grandfather and owned by my family ever since — are turned off.
There is a full moon.
Eight members of Michiana Paranormal Investigations are wandering the old Victorian homestead.
Melodie Wisniewski, one of the group’s senior investigators, is leading the questioning in what was probably once the master bedroom. She and her husband, ponytailed Rob Wisniewski, have explained to any spirits in the room how they can communicate: Just turn on or off one of the small flashlights, or make a noise, or touch one of the people in the room. Also, the group is recording, in case an entity wants to speak but can’t be heard by the human ear.
“Was there once a balcony off this bedroom?” Melodie Wisniewski asks, referring to a door in the room that now leads to nowhere. Only silence greets this question.
“Was this your bedroom?” she continues after a few seconds. And then, “How old were you when you first lived here?”
Still nothing. More questions, some from others in the room, are met with silence.
Then I decided to ask about a family story whose details are murky to my generation.
“Did anyone,” I ask, “go insane in this house?”
Immediately, blue lights spark dramatically, almost angrily, on one of the gadgets on the floor.
“Wow,” Melodie Wisniewski breathes excitedly.
What were those noises?
We found ourselves here, in the dark, because of some inexplicable noises. One afternoon last year, I was downstairs in the kitchen, washing my hands after some yard work, when I heard a loud noise that sounded like a door slamming.
I had thought I’d heard something in the front of the house downstairs earlier, but I didn’t find anything. No TVs or radios were on.
After the door slam, I headed upstairs. No windows were open. No doors looked any different.
Then it occurred to me: Was someone hiding in the house? Now spooked, I called my brother, who gamely arrived to check under beds and in closets but found nothing.
Flash forward to this past summer, when I met up with a cousin I had not seen for more than three decades. She had spent more time with our mutual grandparents in this house than I had. We had barely started talking when she said, unprompted, “I always thought that house was haunted!”
“Really?” I perked up. “Why did you think so?”
“All kinds of stuff, noises, doors slamming …”
Let me just say right here: I don’t believe in ghosts. But I don’t not believe, either.
Coincidentally, I had been asked to write about a local ghost hunting group, Michiana Paranormal Investigations.
So after a first interview with the group’s founders, Mishawaka police officer Jeff Price and former police dispatcher Liz Brownbridge, I asked: What could be behind the sound of a door slamming without obvious cause? One thing led to another, and they offered to come check out my house.
Price, a seven-year veteran of the police department, got to know Brownbridge as a dispatcher, and they discovered their common interest in the paranormal. A few years ago, they formed Michiana Paranormal, which now includes 13 members.
Rick Bunch, a local psychic, often works with the group. Brownbridge has since left the police department and now works full time for Bunch.
With the rising popularity of ghost-hunting shows and polls that reveal a growing belief in the paranormal, they believed the time was right.
In fact, Pew Research Center reported a 2009 survey in which 18 percent of respondents said they had seen or been in the presence of a ghost. What’s more, 29 percent said they had “felt in touch with someone who has died.”
Price considers himself, a trained investigator with a background in video and TV production, to be the group’s skeptic.
“I’m the kind of person, I have to see something to believe it,” the 33-year-old says, adding that half the time, phenomena can be outright debunked. “What is the logical explanation?”
Brownbridge, 53, became convinced there are spirits who linger for whatever reason, partly because of personal experience. She describes a house she, her now-ex-husband and two young children lived in, where scary, unexplainable things kept happening. They finally moved out, but she says her oldest daughter, now 31, still has nightmares from the things she witnessed.
They describe two main types of hauntings:
* Residual, when something odd tends to happen about the same way and same time frame — a creak, say. These incidents are tied to a place or an event. Nothing will interact with you.
* Or classic — most of their cases — where a communication isn’t as predictable. You ask a question, and perhaps a cup rattles in response.
After one of their first investigations, on 4th Street in Mishawaka, they later heard in one recording, “Get John,” and a whistle on another. They went back to the homeowner with what they found. It turned out the man had a brother, John, who had died in that house — and who always whistled.
Sometimes, they find nothing at all. But they won’t call a homeowner crazy.
“Not every investigation you go on is going to be paranormal,” Price says. But maybe things really do happen there despite the lack of evidence, and “it was an off night.”
In search of clues
A couple of weeks ago, the team visited Corby’s in South Bend. Owner Joe Mittiga good-naturedly opened his bar to them on a Sunday night, although he admits he’s never seen or heard anything suspicious there.
But the building was built in 1890 and is attached to what was reportedly an old hotel and possible brothel, now unused space. The bar has changed names over the years, and Mittiga’s family took it over in 1988.
What better place to look for lingering spirits than an old building that has attracted so many people over so many years, bringing with them so many potentially anguished stories?
On this night, though, the team didn’t find much.
While the investigators set up equipment, ask questions and monitor for noises, lights and other possible responses, Bunch — the medium — walks around, waiting to see whether he picks up a feeling or a message.
His first impression at Corby’s, he says there, is on the second floor of the abandoned hotel area. He is feeling anxiety.
“When I came up on the second floor,” he says, “it was an energy that really pushed against you. I personally had to step back and take some breaths. I have to look at that as an impression of what’s going on here.”
He feels the energy of a dominant male, who seems to be attached to the building and hasn’t crossed over. Bunch, who says he doesn’t research a site beforehand, is also picking up the sense of illegal transactions from many years ago.
This is the busy season for the group. Bunch held a spirit circle at a local church last weekend. Price and the group have given several demonstrations this month, including a few events just this week. After today, things will calm down.
The investigators see their role as helping to educate people about what they do and don’t do — things aren’t as dramatic as you see on TV, for instance, where events are sometimes doctored — and helping families unsettled by possible paranormal experiences. They explain how others can become ghost hunters, too.
They want to contribute to the growing body of evidence that might settle the question once and for all.
Michiana Paranormal does not charge for its services, although donations are accepted to cover the cost of gas and equipment, which their members buy.
But Price hates it when people call him a “ghost hunter.”
“I consider myself a paranormal investigator,” he says, with some exasperation, noting that even the members of the group have opposing views of the afterlife. “Paranormal is anything you can’t explain. We’re going out and we’re trying to explain things we can’t explain.”
Price and Brownbridge take a fair amount of ribbing for their time-consuming hobby. But then, Price notes, some of the same people pull him aside later to describe something odd they saw or heard.
I ask the two about some of the events in my farmhouse. The advantage was I knew nothing had been rigged beforehand — it was my house, after all. But it was later suggested to me: Even though we hadn’t seen any sign of such a thing, was there perhaps a remote control that could trigger some equipment responses at interesting times?
“I couldn’t live with myself if I did something like that,” Brownbridge says. Price agrees.
A cellar, and a great-grandmother
Back in my farmhouse that late September night, the meter was still furiously lighting up blue as we pursued more questions about whether someone had gone insane there. Examining the audio and video recordings later, though, no obvious words were discernable on tape.
I had purposely not told the team any family history, including family lore regarding my great-grandmother, Minnie, who might have been mentally ill. The facts have been related differently over the years; it’s possible she had what we’d now consider early Alzheimer’s disease. I do know one of Minnie’s children, a boy, died at the age of 7, and that could rattle even the most stable mother.
Moreover, one story goes, a young family member was frustrated by the task of having to watch Minnie, and so sometimes locked her in the cellar instead.
Both Price and Melodie Wisniewski had initially picked up high readings of activity in the cellar as the evening began.
One group headed down, turned on a flashlight and told whoever was listening that if he or she did not want them there, please turn off the flashlight. The flashlight slowly dimmed and turned off. The flashlight was turned back on, and the question repeated; the light slowly turned off again. So they left.
Price and Brownbridge later headed down the cellar steps themselves, accompanied by my teenage niece Sarah. They took turns asking questions, with no response. So Price turned to Sarah and suggested she ask something.
The minute my niece began to talk, the meter lit up.
Bunch, in an upstairs bedroom, said he picked up a sense of peace in the house, of welcoming. He asked about children he felt he was sensing, who may have died there. He said there are indeed spirits who visit my house, who seem to be relatives who are grateful the house is still in the family, that someone cares about the place.
So, at the end of the investigation, do I believe?
Given the age of the house, it might not be unusual that children might have died there. But is it just coincidence that activity was so high in the cellar, that the lights responded so dramatically to my question about insanity? Maybe. But the stories about my great-grandmother are not available by googling her name, or mine.
So, especially on this day, I will choose to believe.
I choose to believe — and take some comfort in — the notion that maybe the spirits of my ancestors are in this house sometimes, approving and protective.
I choose to believe there are forces in our world we cannot yet fully explain, and that we merely differ in our attempts to search for answers.
If on this Halloween, a door slams somewhere, with no discernible earthly cause, I will jump.
But then I will smile.
Virginia Black: 574-235-6321