VIRGINIA CITY, NV - Are there such things as ghosts? Things unexplained that go bump in the night?
I'll admit I haven't spent much time in my life pondering those questions, even less in my 40-plus years reporting. I've assigned others to do the typical Halloween ghost story and usually got their best effort at capturing the creepy mood of this holiday in return. On the rare occasions when they came back with anything remotely concrete, I eyed it with suspicion.
Then, this year, the assignment fell to me. I said up front that I'm a confirmed skeptic, agnostic about all things paranormal. I'd never seen anything I couldn't explain, but I've always tried to be respectful of those who may have different experiences and beliefs.
So I approached this assignment with that attitude. I didn't want to do a cheesy, around-the-campfire ghost story. I wanted whatever emerged to be honest and real.
I went looking for people who believe in the paranormal, but back up their belief with a real investigative approach. It turns out there are three groups of paranormal investigators in northern Nevada. All are non-profit and, if I told you how busy they are with investigations and what they call "house cleansings," I think you'd be surprised.
The largest and oldest of these groups turned out to be Northern Nevada Ghost Hunters.
Set aside any assumptions you might have about a group like this. The members are normal people-next-door types. Ghost hunting is for them a serious hobby and I found them as ready to debunk possible evidence as accept it.
I'd originally planned to shoot our story in Bodie, the old ghost town turned California State Park a couple of hours south of Reno, but timing and logistics dictated staying closer to home.
Virginia City's old St. Mary's Hospital, now an arts center and retreat, was suggested. I'd long been aware of its reputation. Even in a town full of ghost stories, as Virginia City is, it stands apart.
To the people at the arts center, this attention concerning the paranormal is a distraction. They'd much rather talk about the arts, but it is part of their building's history and lore. They agreed to let us spend an evening there. So, late on a recent afternoon, my cameraperson Jennifer Carruthers and I met five members of the Ghost Hunters at the old hospital.
Jeadene, Jill, Colleen, Gail and George bring different skills to this task. Two of them claim psychic abilities, but their investigations rely primarily on the equipment they bring. Some is subjective, divining rods and pendulums, but they also bring equipment capable of recording hard evidence, night vision cameras, audio recorders, temperature gauges and electro-magnetic field (or EMF) meters.
One additional piece of gear is installed in an object... a teddy bear... picked for its friendly, non-threatening presence. It's a "proximity meter", which registers motion, EMF, temperature. Wave a hand in front of it and two lights in the bear's ears light up, Supposedly a spirit passing by gets the same result.
The investigation unfolds over the next few hours. Cameras and recorders are left in some rooms while we wander elsewhere. Their evidence will be examined later.
We go from room to room following the same routine. In each, Jeadene begins a recording by introducing everyone. Then we wait. Questions are asked to prompt a response. After a few minutes the recording is played back. Sometimes there seem to be whispered responses, whistles in the background.
While some in our group hear those sounds and even words, frankly I have a hard time discerning anything. Until... we gathered in the Father Meinecke Gallery, a room named for St. Mary's former priest. Again Jeadene begins a recording by introducing everyone. When she plays it back a few minutes later there's a loud cackling sound. Some thought it sounded like a little dog barking. To me it sounded like a sudden explosion of laughter. Whatever it was we didn't hear it in real-time, only on the recording.
Of all the rooms, though, it was a fourth floor attic space with bars on the windows that produced the most. It's called the "psych room."
When we first all crowded into the room with the teddy bear proximity meter, Jennifer felt a pressure on the back of her shoulder-held camera. It felt like the heavy battery attached to the back was falling off. It wasn't. The camera and recorder left there while we were elsewhere in the building yielded more sounds, whistles and what may have been children laughing. The lights on the proximity meter glowed, though no one was there. We were floors below.
But the most startling result came when we viewed a moment in that room after all had left but two team members with night vision cameras and me. We'd spent some time in the room with the investigators gently prodding an entity said to be named David for some response and we'd seen the lights of the proximity meter slowly glow stronger then fade.
It was pitch black and I was wondering out loud how I'd feel if I were stuck in this dreary space with a bunch of people asking me to perform. I'd be very tired of it by this point.
Suddenly the lights in the bear switched off. Then, just as suddenly, they switched on as bright as I'd seen. I felt a sudden chill, a reaction I supposed to the lights.
But viewing the night vision video a week later, I saw something else.
Right at that moment, the auto focus on the camera suddenly begins searching and something coming from the direction of the bear whisks by my head.
The video clip along with others are posted here. Judge for yourself.
All I know is I've now seen something I can't explain and I'm not sure how this life-long skeptic should feel about that.