John Moore was eight years old the first time he saw a ghost.
Born into an East Coast family of undertakers, he spent more time in a funeral home than the average child — or any child, for that matter.
One day, as his dad was cleaning up after a long shift of showcasing coffins, Moore did what most bored kids tend to do and wandered off. As Moore made his way into the basement, he was met with an unexpected surprise: an older gentleman was standing there.
The man smiled and waved so Moore struck up a conversation, thinking maybe it was somebody who had gotten lost. Overhearing the chatter, his dad checked in and asked who Moore had been talking to. He explained that a man was downstairs.
When his father went to show the lost guest to the exit, “there was nobody there,” Moore told Global News in an interview.
“A few years later, we were sitting, looking at old photos with my grandmother. And one of the pictures she pulled out was the gentleman I saw,” Moore said.
“I told her, ‘That’s the guy I saw in the basement!’ That’s when she told me, ‘That was my great-grandfather.’”
From that moment on, Moore was hooked on finding ghosts. He went on his first ghost hunt as a teenager, tucking a tape recorder and a flashlight into his kit and scouring the local cemetery for spirits.
As he grew over the years, so did the tools in his kit. Moore now has a full arsenal of ghost-hunting gadgets, from environmental sensors to a laser audio system he said is “based on KGB technology from the ’60s.”
Today, Moore and his team, Ottawa Paranormal Research and Investigations (OPRI), help others search for the root causes of supposed otherworldly events that plague their homes and businesses — a practice known as “ghost hunting.”
Moore says he’s seen lots of things that he can’t explain — and Global News can’t verify — but he’s also done some tangible good deeds for living, breathing people in need.
The lure of the paranormal
Unexplained experiences can stick in our minds long after the fact. Most of us only recall these experiences for some late-night storytelling around the campfire, but for others, these encounters can trigger a never-ending quest for answers.
This is a very human reaction, according to Chris French, the head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London.
“One of the main motivating factors behind many paranormal beliefs — and particularly things that relate to life after death, which obviously includes ghosts — is the fact that for most of us, the idea of our own mortality is not something that we find particularly pleasant,” French said.
“I think we’re very strongly motivated to believe in life after death. And although ghosts are generally seen as being a negative manifestation of some form of life after death, they still fit within that general area of evidence for survival post-mortem.”
French explained that our standards for evidence are sometimes lower when it comes to belief in ghosts, because the idea is tied up in our own mortality.
Couple that with the pre-existing assumption that the abandoned hospital or old jail you’re about to walk into is known to be haunted, and you’ve got a tried-and-true recipe for a ghost sighting.
“We’re very strongly motivated to believe in life after death.”
When people enter a so-called haunted location, they’re entering into the mindset that they might experience something unusual or paranormal. This effectively primes them to interpret things happening around them as falling into those categories, according to Benjamin Radford, a lifelong skeptic who has written, co-authored or contributed to over 20 books aimed at debunking or demystifying the paranormal.
“If you’re at a location, any location, especially outside your own home for hours and hours and overnight, sooner or later, you’re going to hear something, you’re going to see something odd,” Radford said. “If you interpret that as a ghost, then you’re going to run with it.”
Radford has conducted science-based ghost hunts of his own in an effort to definitively prove whether ghosts do — or don’t — exist. He said that while he’s had some experiences he can’t explain, it doesn’t mean the next assumption should be that it’s a ghost.
“I’ve done investigations. Even me, at 3 a.m., when it’s cold and dark, I get the chills. But the difference is that I try and look for alternative explanations,” Radford said. “So instead of just saying, ‘Oh, that weird sound must be a ghost,’ or ‘That strange light must be something supernatural,’ I try and rule out the natural explanations first, and in almost all cases that I’ve encountered, I’m able to do that.”
For example, most glowing orbs captured on camera are simply tricks of the light when dust happens to blow past the lens, Radford said.
Radford has also examined electronic voice phenomena (EVP), which are commonly used as evidence in ghost-hunting investigations. EVPs typically involve recording hours of audio and then cranking up the sound to listen for strange noises. Radford said EVPs are not good evidence, because anyone can find a strange noise if they listen long enough.
“It’s easy for a layperson to just record, record, record and then comb through it. And eventually, they’ll find some sound or murmur or something they think is odd,” Radford said. “But just because they think it’s odd doesn’t mean it’s a ghost.”
Radford said he completely supports ghost hunters, but he wants to see them bring good, solid science into the mix.
“My goal is not to discourage people from investigating ghosts, because I do that. It’s cool. It’s fun. I’m just saying, if you’re going to do it, do it right. Bring good science to it, bring critical thinking to it, and try and actually prove that this is going on,” Radford said.
“Otherwise, you’re just hanging out with your buddies in the dark, which is fine. But that’s not a ghost investigation.”
Ghost hunting in action
If you flip through TV channels late at night, you might catch a ragtag crew of ghost hunters exploring decaying buildings in the dark. There is no dearth of these ghost-hunter TV shows, which often end with a hair-gel-heavy host pointing to a few audio pops and video specks as “proof” of a ghostly presence.
In the “real world,” Moore said, ghost hunts look very different. His OPRI team is made up of about 10 volunteers with a wide range of skills, including a few with nursing experience and another who worked at the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Moore’s crew investigates calls about paranormal concerns, though most of these calls end with fairly normal explanations. His team tries to eliminate every possible natural cause they can think of — and that’s often enough. He says they’ve used their tools to detect faulty and potentially dangerous wiring in people’s homes. They’ve also helped callers with mental health issues and medication mix-ups.
“One woman we actually ran into, she believed she was possessed by the devil,” Moore said. “It took a while, (but) we actually got her to go see a doctor.”
It turned out the woman had an aneurysm that had impacted her frontal lobe, according to Moore, and contacting the ghost-hunting team may have saved her life.
In other cases, what some people interpret as paranormal activity is actually a side effect of two medications that are mistakenly prescribed together when they shouldn’t be — something the nurses on Moore’s team can easily determine.
OPRI also gets calls from people grappling with extreme grief after losing a loved one, and Moore’s team helps those people out, too. These non-paranormal findings are how most of these ghost hunts end, Moore said.
But there are times when normal explanations fall short, Moore said.
That’s when things get “crazy.”
Moore said he’s dealt with a wide range of ghostly encounters, from mischievous “dead” relatives to “nastier” spirits.
“We’ve been to a couple of places — I can’t go too much into detail with them — but they did involve bringing out a Catholic priest to bless the house and perform a rite of exorcism,” he said.
“We’ve seen things where people speak in tongues. We actually saw one woman levitate a few inches off the floor…. We saw around her neck, like, almost like marks, like a hand or a rope, holding her up at the time. So we’ve encountered some rather frightening, creepy things.”
Global News cannot verify any of these supernatural claims. Nevertheless, Moore insists they happened.
Contacting the ‘dead’
You don’t need a fancy toolkit to search for ghosts. Some say the only thing you need is your mind.
Mentalist Jaymes White says he’s a “skeptic” about the paranormal, but he’s also run seances since 2015, using Victorian-era techniques to allow guests to “contact” the unknown. His seances regularly sell out and, according to his website, “people have been known to run out of the locations screaming and crying.”
White says the seances have given him a front-row seat to the power that the paranormal can have in cases of extreme grief.
During one seance, White says a young woman felt the “presence” of her recently deceased father. A short time later, a male attendee wrote the name “Mr. Cuddles” during a free-writing exercise.
“She starts just bawling her eyes out,” White said of the young woman. “And she said the last thing her dad gave her was a bear named Mr. Cuddles.”
White says it was a “one-in-a-million” case that he cannot explain. And, watching the experience in the room, he said, “It’s pretty beautiful.”
Wanting to believe
While ghost hunts, seances and explorations of the unknown can be a powerful source of comfort for those who are grieving, French warned that it’s not without its risks.
“Say we have a newly married couple and one of them, unfortunately, lost their life in an accident. I’m not sure how healthy it would be to be told that person was still around, keeping an eye on them,” he said. “To what extent is that going to prevent the person from grieving, which is a natural process, and then moving on and getting on with their lives?”
White also noted that some opportunists have a tendency to exploit vulnerable people.
“One thing I’m always worried about is, say someone lost their father and they want to contact their father. And then this sketchy person goes, ‘Your father has a curse on him and you can’t go to heaven or anything unless you pay $500 a session,’” White said.
He said there are “so many stories” like this.
For Moore, this is why it’s important for him to provide his ghost-hunting services for free.
“I find it despicable. I mean, how can we charge for what we do when we’re trying to help people figure out something that scientifically has not been proven to actually even exist?” he asked. “They’re allowing you into their home and they shouldn’t be paying you for that.”
Searching for spirits
On a summer night in July, I joined White for a ghost hunt at the Arcand Homestead, an old farming property on the outskirts of Ottawa.
The abandoned barn was built in the 1800s and had the low ceilings, tiny doorframes and cobwebs to prove it.
Our group first encountered something strange on the upper level. Attendee Jane Dickson felt a tingle all around her head and spine. We investigated the direction she said she felt the sensation coming from, but found nothing. We left the upper level with slightly faster heartbeats, but otherwise unscathed.
Fear started to set in as we weaved our way through the abandoned barn stalls. Dark corners, rusty tools and a few too many small doorways dotted this part of the barn.
It was here that White asked Dickson to tap into the feeling of the room, since she’d felt something strange earlier.
White handed Dickson a pen and paper and asked her to write down the first thoughts that came into her mind.
Dickson said she suddenly tensed up, her arms tingling with goosebumps. She said she was experiencing the same sensation as before — and it felt like something wasn’t right.
That’s when we heard it.
A massive clang rang through the barn behind us. Less than three minutes earlier, there hadn’t been anything there that seemed capable of causing the loud crashing noise. No animals, no delicately placed pots and pans waiting to fall.
We ran over to the area to see if there was a clear explanation for the sound. There wasn’t.
As the 40-minute hunt drew to a close, we gathered at the barn’s front entrance to say our goodbyes. It was the best-lit area, full of comfortingly familiar items such as a bike, old wrapping paper and even a Christmas tree.
But as we headed for the door, we heard one last sound.
It came from the corner of the otherwise comforting room. It sounded like a metal jingle, like jewelry, keys or even a bell. We went to the corner and began bashing and nudging and toying with items, trying to recreate the sound. We couldn’t.
At that point, we said our polite goodbyes and moved swiftly to our cars. While we didn’t know what caused these strange and scary sounds throughout our time in the barn, we decided we weren’t particularly interested in sticking around to find out.
Sitting in my safe, cozy apartment afterwards, I couldn’t help but wonder what had caused the events we experienced.
Did we assume it was paranormal because we already knew the barn was supposed to be haunted? Did our so-called “experiences” escalate in tandem with our nerves? If we had better lighting and more time to look, would we have found a rational explanation for the noises we heard?
Or did we really hear a ghost?
Like so many before us, we had no firm answers after leaving the barn. We had a fun, thrilling night and a good story to tell around the next campfire. And maybe the answers didn’t actually matter.
Either way, I slept with the light on that night.
Zed Files is a Global News exclusive series exploring unusual, unexplained and legendary stories in Canada.
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