GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- As dusk falls on the Triangular Field, where scores ofConfederate and Union soldiers lay dead and dying on July 2, 1863, author MarkNesbitt stands with a digital voice recorder and recites a series ofquestions.
We hear no response this Thursday evening. But when we turn the PanasonicRR-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, aformer Gettysburg National Park Service ranger/historian who has written theGhosts of Gettysburg books, smiles. This is very cool.
It's not the first time Nesbitt has recorded what believers say are thedisembodied voices of long-dead soldiers called electronic voice phenomena,known as EVP. He and other ghost hunters claim their recordings are part of anevidentiary record of paranormal activity.
While skeptics wonder what sort of substances these folks have beensmoking, ghost hunters say they're just average people discovering a realmthat we of the 21st century have become too sophisticated to believe in.
Thousands haul digital voice recorders, camcorders, film and digitalcameras, 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 paranormalphenomena: ghostly balls of light called orbs; red, white or blue cloudscalled ectoplasm; and sound files of voices from fields and cemeteries. Onrare occasions, you'll find a photograph of an apparition as well.
Much of the evidence is highly interpretative. One ghost hunter's pictureof hundreds of orbs is a cloud of dust to another. Some EVP sound like garbledstatic. And an ectoplasm with a face? Well, it might be exhaled breath.
"There are ghost hunters and ghost wanters, " says Chris Bravner, whorecently took up the pursuit and joined the Pennsylvania Ghost HuntersSociety.
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'vephotographed or recorded.
But it's all nonsense to Pat Linse, co-founder of the Skeptics Society, anational organization that rejects the paranormal and publishes a handbook fordebunkers of myths called the Baloney Detection Kit. Linse, who at one timecreated photo-realistic illustrations, says the 1984 film Ghostbusters and itssequel 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. Sheargues that they can be rigged to provide all kinds of feedback that can bemisinterpreted as the supernatural.
Al Tyas, who runs D.C. Metro Area Ghost Watchers, believes that paranormalactivity takes place but agrees with Linse that many ghost sightings haveexplanations in the natural world.
"A lot of times, it's not an entity at all," says Tyas, whose group willdiscreetly investigate a haunted home for free. "It could be anything fromleaky pipes banging in wintertime to someone [taking] too much of theirprescribed medication."
Rick Fisher, a Lancaster, Pa., resident and founder of the PGHS, saysserious investigators actively try to rule out all ordinary explanations forwhat appears to be paranormal activity.
A pioneer in the use of digital cameras for ghost investigation, Fishersays he doesn't shoot in dusty conditions or when it's raining or snowing. Hesays he follows strict protocols for capturing data on cameras, camcorders andvoice recorders.
Fisher, who lectures on paranormal activity and publishes a magazine on thesupernatural, says he has nothing against psychics but works with themsparingly.
"A psychic can tell you that they're feeling something, but I can't verifythat," he says.
So he, like many ghost hunters, relies on a variety of tools in addition tocameras and voice recorders such as:
Electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors ($35 to $150) to pick up ghostlyenergy.
Infrared temperature -- measuring devices ($70 to $150) to find cold spotsin homes and other locations that might indicate the presence of ghosts.
Camcorders ($800 and up) that have the ability to shoot video at night. Theability to shoot infrared images is critical to some. Fisher discovered thatby turning up the volume during playback of video, he could even find EVP.
Having the equipment is one thing; using it properly is another, ghosthunters warn -- one reason why newcomers should hook up with someone who hasexperience.
Emil Detoffol, who owns Less EMF Inc. in Ghent, N.Y., and sells most of hisequipment to people concerned about electromagnetic fields in their houses,says a careless ghost hunter can pick up EMF readings from a variety ofsources, ranging from refrigerators to cars passing by on the street.
"For example, if you're going to do ghost hunting in a home, you shouldturn off power at the main," says Detoffol, who doesn't hunt ghosts himselfbut fields constant inquiries from amateur paranormal investigators.
Infrared thermal detectors can even be fooled by pointing them at glass orthe sky, he adds.
Tools detect -- what?
With those caveats in mind, I recently accompanied Rick Fisher and twocompanions to the Hans Graf cemetery about 14 miles northeast of York, Pa.,where a German immigrant and his descendants are buried. There he demonstratedeach piece of equipment.
His infrared thermal sensor measured a temperature of 18 degrees in onecorner of the cemetery -- far below the ambient temperature of 48.
His EMF detector also went off -- on a side of the cemetery away from hisparked car. There were no electrical lines near enough to affect the device.
An inexpensive motion detector I brought along chirped twice when all of uswere standing well back from the graves.
Armed with an Olympus E-20N digital camera, I snapped about 260 photos thatproduced eight pictures of orbs -- spheres of light against the woodedbackground. All were shot after one of the ghost-detecting devices had alertedus to a presence.
Fisher deemed the orbs to be genuine. I then asked an Olympusrepresentative to take a look.
John Knaur, the company's senior product manager for digital cameras, sayshe's seen such "orbs" before.
"They're particulate matter of some sort such as dust, or pollen ormoisture -- all it needs is a little bit of reflective value," he says of someof the images. "I don't disbelieve in ghosts, but this is dust."
Knaur says other orbs look like enlarged reflections from sap on brokenbranches. He explained that pixels in digital camera sensors, exposed tointense light, can "bloom" and spill their contents to neighboring pixels.
Similar orbs, although not as bright, might appear on images shot with filmcameras too, he adds.
Fisher doesn't buy the brushoff. Why, he asks, did we get dust particlesonly when the other measuring equipment seemed to indicate spirits? Moreover,he notes, both he and fellow ghost hunter Scott Ditmer recorded the orbs withtheir cameras from different angles.
In addition to still photographs, Fisher has taped orbs zipping andfloating around rooms with a Sony camcorder -- a phenomenon with no immediaterational explanation. In fact, the Web has several videos shot by ghosthunters' camcorders displaying orbs in motion similar to the ones in the E-20Nphotographs.
Fisher didn't pick up any orbs with his camcorder on this night, given thatit was pointed away from where the globes of light appear in the pictures. Butin the first couple of minutes of camcorder taping, a woman's voice can beheard softly saying, "Cobal," which he believes may be a last name -- possiblyof someone buried in the cemetery. It is a clear example of EVP.
While some ghost hunters have proffered protocols for all to follow -- suchas not smoking during an investigation so no one mistakes cigarette smoke forectoplasm -- no one is bound by the rules.
And a few debates still rage about what the protocol should be in someinstances. For example, some hunters believe digital cameras fail completelyas evidence-collection tools because there is no negative to be reviewed.
Author Katherine Ramsland, who wrote the book Ghost about her experienceshunting spirits, remains skeptical of some claims.
Orbs in photographs were not what she was expecting when she went lookingfor proof that ghosts exist.
"I still want to see a ghost or get knocked around by a ghost," saysRamsland, who teaches forensic psychology at DeSales University in CenterValley, Pa. "I want to see something that is real and supernatural. I've seenthings that were ambiguous, but I want clarity."
For now, the most persuasive evidence may be EVPs, the sound recordings.
"EVP is the best ... they're real voices," Ramsland says of the purportedghost voices collected on tapes and digital recorders. But just whose voicesor where they're coming from isn't clear.
Mark Nesbitt, who does a little bit of ghost hunting from time to time,likes EVP, too. He has collected several recordings at several places aroundthe sprawling battlefield where 6,000 to 8,000 soldiers died. He has receivedresponses before from Thomas Ware, who fought with the 15th Georgia VolunteerInfantry regiment and died in the Triangular Field.
"I'm still a skeptic, but you can't deny what you see and record on tapeand film," says Nesbitt, who has written books on the Civil War and runs theGhosts of Gettysburg Candlelight Walking Tour service.
"I've collected almost 500 ghost stories and still, some of this stuffgives me the willies."
Kevin Washington can be reached at email@example.com.
Web sites for ghost hunters
Beverly Litsinger of Randallstown didn't like the leader of her first ghosthunting expedition, so she decided to do it herself and put up a Web site forher Maryland Ghost & Spirit Association (www.marylandghosts.com).
Litsinger now leads ghost tours and investigations. Her site lists Marylandhauntings by county (Baltimore County has 12 and the city has 28) as well astips for ghost hunting.
Other ghost hunters (and anti-ghosters) are happy to share their knowledgeon the Web. Here are a few:
Ghost Research Society: http://ghostresearch.org
D.C. Metro Area Ghost Watchers: www.dchauntings.com Pennsylvania GhostHunters Society: http://home.supernet.- com/~rfisher/pghs.html
Ghosts of Gettysburg books and tours: www.ghostsofgettysburg. com
The Atlantic Paranormal Society: http://the-atlantic-paranormal-society.com
International Ghost Hunters Society (which has standards and protocols forinvestigations): www.ghostweb.com
Rhine Research Center, a parapsychology institute in Durham, N.C.:www.rhine.org
Less EMF Inc. (for EMF detectors): www.lessemf.com