GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- As dusk falls on the Triangular Field, where scores of Confederate and Union soldiers lay dead and dying on July 2, 1863, author Mark Nesbitt stands with a digital voice recorder and recites a series of questions.
We hear no response this Thursday evening. But when we turn the Panasonic
RR-QR60 to playback, it appears that we had had a visitor.
"Thomas Lewis Ware," Nesbitt's voice says, "Are you here with us?"
What sounds like a gruff, short bark of "Yes" comes from the recorder.
One other question from Nesbitt seems to get an answer -- unintelligible,
but definitely there.
I look around nervously to make sure no one's lurking nearby. Nesbitt, a
former Gettysburg National Park Service ranger/historian who has written the
Ghosts of Gettysburg books, smiles. This is very cool.
It's not the first time Nesbitt has recorded what believers say are the
disembodied voices of long-dead soldiers called electronic voice phenomena,
known as EVP. He and other ghost hunters claim their recordings are part of an
evidentiary record of paranormal activity.
While skeptics wonder what sort of substances these folks have been
smoking, ghost hunters say they're just average people discovering a realm
that we of the 21st century have become too sophisticated to believe in.
Thousands haul digital voice recorders, camcorders, film and digital
cameras, temperature and electromagnetic field detectors to haunted houses,
cemeteries and battlefields to see, hear and occasionally speak to the dead.
Surf to ghost hunter Web sites and you'll find all sorts of paranormal
phenomena: ghostly balls of light called orbs; red, white or blue clouds
called ectoplasm; and sound files of voices from fields and cemeteries. On
rare occasions, you'll find a photograph of an apparition as well.
Much of the evidence is highly interpretative. One ghost hunter's picture
of hundreds of orbs is a cloud of dust to another. Some EVP sound like garbled
static. And an ectoplasm with a face? Well, it might be exhaled breath.
"There are ghost hunters and ghost wanters, " says Chris Bravner, who
recently took up the pursuit and joined the Pennsylvania Ghost Hunters
The "wanters," he explains, see a ghost in everything.
Many ghost hunters say they're not out to prove that ghosts exist --
they're just having fun gathering evidence and showing people what they've
photographed or recorded.
But it's all nonsense to Pat Linse, co-founder of the Skeptics Society, a
national organization that rejects the paranormal and publishes a handbook for
debunkers of myths called the Baloney Detection Kit. Linse, who at one time
created photo-realistic illustrations, says the 1984 film Ghostbusters and its
sequel reignited interest in ghost hunting.
She's particularly skeptical about using cameras to catch the spirits,
noting that "Ghost photography started about the same time as photography."
Nor does she trust ghost hunters' claims from using other devices. She
argues that they can be rigged to provide all kinds of feedback that can be
misinterpreted as the supernatural.
Al Tyas, who runs D.C. Metro Area Ghost Watchers, believes that paranormal
activity takes place but agrees with Linse that many ghost sightings have
explanations in the natural world.