Do ghosts exist? One writer puts his belief to the test during a paranormal investigation—and finds that tales about spirits force us to grapple with more than just whether they’re real.
Let’s be clear: I don’t believe in ghosts.
Maybe it’s the fact that my friend’s stories about seeing shadows or hearing weird noises only ever take place at 3 a.m., an hour when the mind is known to play tricks. It could also be pop culture’s over-the-top depictions of poltergeists (see Casper the Friendly Ghost and Ghostbusters), which make for fun movies but always struck me as too cartoonish and far-fetched to actually have any real-life corollary. Or it might be the fact that many famous ghost stories, like the hauntings at the Amityville house, turned out to be fabricated or were able to be explained by natural phenomena. But the idea of ghosts haunting us—or even simply being among us—has always seemed unlikely to me.
Despite my skepticism, I’m fascinated by the number of people that staunchly believe spirits exist. Nearly 50 percent of Americans are convinced ghosts are real, which makes for some divisive dinner conversation. (I know this from first-hand experience. During a wedding this summer, most of my table—aided by an open bar—spent a good chunk of dinner telling me how crazy I am for not believing in ghosts.) The certainty of others has always made me question if there is something others are attuned to that I’m not.
Was I simply missing something? Or was everyone else reading too much into nothing? With the Halloween season upon us, I decided it would be a good time to consider those questions and put my ghost-less worldview to the test.
In order to do so, I reached out to XX Paranormal Communications, a group of about five females in Colorado that investigate ghost activity in commercial and residential spaces in their spare time. When I told one of the team’s members, MacKenzie Koncher, about my suspicion, she welcomed it. “When people are skeptical, I totally understand that,” she told me. “There are times when I am skeptical of certain things. I usually try to invite people to experience what we do for themselves. I can tell all types of stories, but until you are in the room and seeing things and hearing things and feeling things…”
Translation: I had to see the team in action.
I joined XX Paranormal on a Friday night this October as they investigated the Denver Firefighters Museum near the Capitol downtown. When we arrived around 8 p.m., the museum staff took us on a tour and regaled us with prominent ghost stories about the space, which was built in 1909 and served as an actual firehouse well into the 1970s.
Turns out there were several otherworldly occupants. A ghost of someone who may have been murdered on the property prior to the current building’s construction was known to lurk in a basement closet. A former captain of the firehouse was supposedly lingering in an exhibit that still contained a number of his belongings, including his desk and bed. (Museum staffers say the captain may have knocked down some of the property’s signage that contained minor misspellings.) The spirits of a group of kids who died in a fire hung out in the upstairs bathroom, where loud, unexplainable noises were often heard. Staff members also regularly saw the door knob to the former dining space jiggle back and forth in a manner that couldn’t be attributed to the quirks of an old building.
As the three-person XX Paranormal team got to work, they broke out the detective gear:
- A KII EMF meter, which supposedly measures electromagnetic fields with lights that move from green to red, depending on the strength
- A spirit box, which scans through AM or FM radio frequencies, giving spirits a chance to communicate through any white noise static
- A flashlight that twists on or off and slightly unscrews, allowing ghosts to make it blink with their limited energy
- And dowsing rods, which, when held parallel to the ground, move side to side if ghosts are present
The team was more than willing to admit the fallibility of those tools. The EMF meter, for one, can be set off with a cellphone (so we all put ours on airplane mode). The flashlight can be finicky when set close to the threshold between on and off. And the spirit box definitely picks up voices on select radio frequencies as it quickly scans the channels.
We started the investigation in the basement, where the team laid out the instruments and then began asking questions to any potential ghosts. If there is anyone here, can you let us know? We heard that you like being back here. Is that true? If that was you, can you turn on the light?
During the session the investigators were always very polite, being sure to include thank yous and other pleasantries, because as one of the investigators, Christine Hendrickson, put it, “Good manners still apply to ghosts.”
In all, we spent about three hours searching for spirits. In every room we entered—the basement closet, the upstairs bathroom, the former dining hall—we did the same dance: set up the equipment, ask the ghosts questions, pause to listen, and then consider whether flickering lights or low rumblings over the spirit box were evidence of paranormal communication. The exercise didn’t feel as silly as I imagined it would. I also found the XX Paranormal team’s approach to be more rational than I expected. They were quick to point out when supposed signs might just be coincidences.
Admittedly, there were also some odd moments that caused me to question things. The most notable location was the exhibit with the old captain’s belongings. While there, the flashlight regularly turned on and off directly after one of the investigators asked questions, as if to serve as some sort of answer. The KII EMF meter shot to red wherever we put it in the room. The investigators also said they heard words coming through over the spirit box, though I had a tough time hearing anything specific.
“The session in the captain’s room was definitely the most captivating or definitive for me,” Koncher says. “We had so many pieces of equipment confirming at the same time. It felt like there was definitely a presence in there.”
Still, it wasn’t enough to make me a believer. Do I have definitive explanations for some of what we saw and heard? No. But that doesn’t mean that quirky equipment, an old building, or the group’s desire to see or hear something isn’t just as good of an explanation as ghosts.
The thing that felt the most real to me about the investigation was the way it prompted all of us—skeptics and believers—to tell stories. I heard about some of the XX Paranormal team’s early encounters with spirits, as well as some of their most intense. (Apparently, Cripple Creek, Colorado, is ghost central.) But even beyond that, the team’s attempts to talk to the museum’s ghosts required all of us to consider what life may have been like for them. Would the captain be more friendly to men or women? Were the kids in the upstairs bathroom hiding from us because they were scared? Was the ghost in the basement struggling to communicate with us because it had some sort of disability?
In the early stages of my efforts to figure out why some people so strongly believe in ghosts, I had also reached out to Phil Goodstein, a local historian who wrote a book titled The Ghosts of Denver: Capitol Hill and regularly gives walking tours of spooky haunts around the city. He mentioned a similar idea. “If you come on one of my tours, especially a cemetery stroll, the focus is on life,” Goodstein wrote in an email. “We explore the people who are buried, what they contributed, their achievements, and the ways they have been remembered.” In other words, it’s about the power of people’s stories.
Even though we’ve reached different conclusions about the existence of ghosts, I can appreciate how the XX Paranormal team’s endeavors allow them to consider the stories of people who came before us and what might happen after we are gone. That desire for connection and understanding seems to undergird all ghost stories. This includes seemingly trivial ones, like my former roommate asking every landlord during apartment tours whether it had any ghosts, in what was essentially an attempt to understand more about the previous inhabitants. It also animates much more significant questions, such as whether it is possible to have a conversation with a loved one who has died, even one last time.
“It’s kind of, you know, a social hour,” Koncher says about paranormal investigations. “It’s communicating with someone you can’t see, basically. We also don’t know what happens to us after we die, so trying to find those answers is, I think, always interesting.”
I second that. Whether it’s arguing about the topic with friends at a wedding or having an in-depth conversation about it during a paranormal investigation, those questions are certainly worth considering. Plus, who knows, maybe I just haven’t met the right ghost.
(Read more: An All-Girl Paranormal Society Take Us Ghost-Busting)