tampabay.com

Girls of ghost hunting

By CRISTINA SILVA, Times Staff Writer
Published September 2, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG

On a steamy August night, four women dressed in purple shirts with the words "paranormal investigator" on their sleeves stood in a circle in a hotel hallway and debated whether the faint smell of perfume in the air indicated the presence of a ghost. It was hard to tell. Ghost hunting isn't exactly a science. The rumors about ghosts at the Heritage Inn, an old-fashioned boutique hotel at 234 Third Ave. N downtown, have been around for years.

In that time, staffers have complained about odd noises. Guests have reported seeing an apparition of a little girl. Once, a couple were so spooked they checked out at 3 a.m.

Popular science would suggest there are no ghosts at the Heritage Inn, or in fact, anywhere. Ghosts do not exist.

Still, for whatever reason, the hotel staff said yes when they got a call from S.P.I.R.I.T.S. - a group of local ghostbusters - asking whether they could investigate reports of a haunting.

They had no way of knowing the investigation would challenge their beliefs on life and death.

* * *

The ghost hunt began in a hotel restaurant that was closed for renovations. Quiet and empty, it was the perfect locale.

Debra Shapiro set out her laptop on a table and turned on its audio recording device. She crossed her fingers for signs of EVPs, or electronic voice phenomena. EVPs are inaudible to the human ear but can allegedly be captured with the aid of technology.

Standing nearby, Brandy Stark used an infrared thermometer to gauge any changes in the atmosphere. Haunted places allegedly produce thermal anomalies such as cold spots, and Stark soon gleefully announced that the temperature had dropped about 7 degrees.

She set out an electromagnetic field meter on a table.

"If there is anyone here, can you please make the meter spike?" she asked.

The meter spiked. Stark smiled.

Ghost hunters believe paranormal entities emit an electromagnetic field. To Stark, this first spike was practically a greeting, a sort of "How do you do?" in paranormal lingo.

"Can you tell us if you are a male? If you are a male, can you make this meter spike?" she said.

The meter spiked. A hallway light flickered.

"Can you make the lights flash again, please," Stark asked.

The lights flashed.

"You have had the lighting checked out, right?" Stark asked.

Lynda Rucker, manager of the Heritage Inn, initially along for a few good chuckles, nodded incredulously.

"Can you make the lights flash one more time, please?" Stark asked.

The meter did not move.

"Oh, please, it was so much fun," Shapiro pleaded.

Nothing.

Later, a maintenance man walked by and asked about the investigation.

"You would never believe us," Rucker said.

* * *

Ghost hunting is tedious business. It involves a lot of waiting, a lot of reviewing of audio recordings and photographs, a lot of defending your hobby to wisecracking friends and coworkers.

The 15 members of the S.P.I.R.I.T.S. all have different stories of how they got into investigating hauntings.

Mostly, they are a studious group. They have respectable, white-collar jobs. They are strict about not allowing outsiders to attend their investigations, and they encourage members to assume that all potential paranormal activity has some nonparanormal explanation.

An apparent apparition caught in a photo could just be a fleck of light. A light flickering could be faulty wiring.

Except, sometimes, there are no logical explanations. Then, even squeaky floors are potential clues.

* * *

In the hallway, the perfume debate continued. The women took turns smelling each other's wrists and hair. No one was wearing lavender perfume, but the scent lingered softly in the air.

Stark attempted to settle it once and for all.

"If you are here," she began, "can you make that lavender smell come back again?"

A faint whiff of perfume floated by, but the group still could not collectively agree on the evidence.

In the end, they decided the origin of the scent was too ambiguous.

They couldn't reach a consensus on whether it was real or not.

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.