[Hi there. So while we're off dreaming up new places to go, we thought we'd take this week to share a few of our favorite field trips from the past. Today: Kara and the search for the paranormal. And we'd love to hear from you -- what's your favorite field trip?]
So we were in the women’s bathroom on a World War II naval carrier, looking for ghosts, and for a minute there it looked like we had one cornered.
The two psychics in the ghost-hunting group had said they’d sensed the presence of a young sailor near one side of the room. The reading on the TriField meter — a gadget that measures electromagnetic fields, which ghost-hunters use to spot unexplained energy sources — was high when they waved it in the direction of the ghostly sailor, and low when they pointed it away. And when I’d asked, from my spot near the sinks where I was furiously scribbling things into a notebook, the ghost hunters had said they weren’t too worried about the prospect of a spirit haunting, of all places, the bathroom. Back in the day, they explained, when the USS Hornet had been a giant fortress at sea, housing thousands of souls, this spot had been part of the ship’s engine room. If a few of those souls had returned to their old stamping grounds in the afterlife, why not visit here?
But there was a problem. The spirit appeared to be hanging around pretty close to a fuse box bolted to the wall. That could be what was making the needle spike on the meter.
To lure the ghost into the clear for a better reading, one of the psychics had suggested that the other put on some lipstick in front of the mirror and see if the spirit would follow her over to the sink. The former sailors, she said, liked to watch women put on make up. Actually, this is how she put it: “They may be dead, but they haven’t forgotten.”
Readers, I nearly died with glee and took up haunting the ladies’ room myself. Regardless of where you fall on the Mulder-to-Scully spectrum, this was some pure reporting fun.
I was along for the ghost-hunting trip because I was working on profile of Loyd Auerbach, the group’s friendly, bearded leader. He runs the Office of Paranormal Investigations here in the Bay Area, where he goes by the rather endearing nickname “Professor Paranormal.” Auerbach is an amazingly fun guy to hang around; he’s smart, funny and he’s not too tightly wound about whether or not you think ghost hunting is total bunk, even though it’s something he’s studied intently for his whole life — he’s got an advanced degree in parapsychology and his house is full of the latest in ghost-hunting gadgets. (At the time I was writing the story, he had a sideline in something called “Professor Paranormal’s Psychic Mind Theater” that involved sleight-of-hand tricks and hosting seances. Skeptics, he figured, can roll with a sense of humor; only the true believers get freaked out if you aren’t serious all of the time. He’s now got a new sideline in confectionery: It’s called Haunted by Chocolate.)
But the real magic, I thought as I followed him around, is that he had managed to make the study of the ephemeral into a full-time job, as sort of an ambassadorship from the spirit world to the living plane, or more specifically, to the media arm of the living plane. He’s had an incredible career of writing books, appearing on talk shows and science programs, and teaching classes in addition to running his small ghost-hunting crew. (When we published the story in the East Bay Express, my newspaper alma mater, in 2003, this was our headline: “Talking Head for the Undead.” It’s pretty much my masterwork of headlining, except for maybe my profile of an anti-rodeo activist which we called “Eric Mills and the Horse He Rode In On.”)
Auerbach let me sit in on his classes, hang out with his ghost-hunting group a bit, and read up on some of his favorite case files. Even though he is the head of a group that investigates things that go bump in the night, Auerbach is pretty tough on claims of paranormal activity, and a lot of what he talked about in his classes and books is how NOT to spot a ghost. Much of the bumping people are so worried about turns out to be courtesy of squirrels. He has some withering things to say about “spirit orbs” and lens flare. Etc.
But he also had some really fun stories about his various ghost-hunting adventures. There was the story of the “sexorcist,” or the phantom couple in New York who would wake up the inhabitants of their former apartment with loud sex noises every night at 3 am. There was the Blue Lady in Half Moon Bay who reportedly haunts a restaurant and spanks the staff with kitchen tools. And there was my favorite, Dacron Bob, the depressed ghost who is said to have spent his afterlife hanging around the rolls of fabric at a Concord design company. Not to mention, there are many stories of Auerbach’s somewhat unorthodox past ghost-busting methods. (Knock-knock jokes are involved. Also: rap music.)
Most of our conversations weren’t about ghost stories, though. They were about the bigger questions raised by a life of studying the paranormal. What is consciousness? Does it require a body, and does it end when you die? Is there really any reliable, scientific method-friendly way to study the mind or the human experience, regardless of whether your subjects are living or dead? As Auerbach told me, ”The physical laws of the universe don’t apply to human behavior. If somebody says parapsychology is not a science, then okay, fine, psychology is not a science either, and neither is anthropology and neither is sociology.”
And most of all, we talked about what ghosts — if they exist — might actually be. Are they figments that live purely in the viewer’s imagination, some kind of expression of grief in the mind of the recently bereaved? Are they fragments of the departed’s consciousness, a post-bodily projection that is managing to transmit itself from one mind to another? And more to to the point: Are they the kind of thing you can find in the ladies’ room of your local naval carrier?
So that is why Auerbauch and I were standing next to the sinks, trying to see if two of his colleagues could use a tube of peach-colored lip gloss to make contact with the other side. If the strange energy could be lured away from the wall, with its meter-confusing fusebox, and across the room with the promise of some post-life peeping, well, maybe we would be on to something.
There was a long silence as one of the psychics bent over the sink and applied the lip gloss. The other one waved the TriField meter behind her back.
The ghost, if there had ever been one, had evaporated.
The first psychic put the lip gloss away. The second one mused for a while, trying to figure out what had happened.
“He was hoping,” she eventually said, “for a brighter color of red.”