A Sony voice recorder rested askew on an antique wooden table as Columbia residents Jali Wright and Monet Lamertina recalled their first collaborative encounter with paranormal phenomena.
In the decade since that first experience, the neighborhood psychics say they have captured proof in a series of recordings that spirits can and do communicate with the living. The recordings, titled "The 3rd Conversation-Proof from the 'Other-Side,'" document casual conversations over 16 months between Wright and Lamertina with an interrupting yet absent third party.
"Every time we get together, it starts with general conversation, sitting in a room and talking," Wright said. "Then, we get a third person. They would just enter the conversation. Whenever we're together, we always get something. ..."
Wright suddenly paused, pointed her right index finger in the air and said, "Shush." As Wright closed her eyes and tapped her forehead three times, Lamertina said her friend was channeling a new energy in the room. The two psychics, joined by a Howard County Times reporter and photographer, were no longer alone, Lamertina said, but in the company of a supernatural presence: a ghost named Michael.
Michael was the deceased husband of Mount Airy resident Mary Barvir, who said she sought Wright's services a year after her husband's sudden death in 2012.
"He says to start recording," Wright said, looking at her colleague and back to the reporter. "One of the things in working with spirits is sometimes they ask you to do something that makes no logical sense. They'll tell you to go left when you want to go right. They want you to trust them. It's the obedience of listening to the spirit."
Barvir said she began seeing signs of Michael's presence soon after he died, while feeling sad that he wouldn't see their son's wedding six months later. During a Saturday afternoon reading, however, Wright communicated with Michael, who reconnected with his wife.
"Jali said he knew that I had pinned our wedding rings to my son's lapel with a purple ribbon," Barvir said. "He specifically told her certain things she would never know in a million years. She wasn't there and I didn't talk about it. It was reaffirming because I always knew he loved me very much and we were very close."
The psychics and Barvir later listened to the recording of her reading, she said, and heard Michael say, "Mary," and, "I love you."
"It was clear as day," Barvir said. "I hadn't heard that voice in a while. It was definitely him, without a doubt."
Different people, different spirits
Just as there are good spirits, Lamertina said, there are also bad ones. The two psychics said they have come into contact with deceased loved ones wishing to check on their families, like Barvir, but also the spirits who don't wish to cross to "the other side."
"You get people who weren't so good during their lifetime who don't want to cross over because they're afraid of what they're going to be crossing over to," like murderers and abusers, Wright said. "Then, you have people who have crossed over by tragedy and are fairly stuck here because they haven't quite figured out what happened or they weren't ready."
Wright's psychic abilities date back to her childhood, she said, but she dove professionally into the paranormal realm in 2006 as a psychic photo reader. The self-employed psychic analyzed photos of individuals and read their faces to learn about their future encounters, including relationships, careers and family life.
In 2010, Wright said she performed a psychic reading for a new client, whose grandparents died within four weeks of each other. That client was Lamertina.
"I knew that they were still around. Deep down in my heart, I felt them. They were moving things in my house and doing things to signal to me that they were still around," Lamertina said. "Within the first five minutes of her doing the reading with me, [Wright] had pulled my grandfather through [to this side]."
Wright had described the clothes Lamertina's grandfather was buried in, Lamertina said, including an Eddie Bauer shirt and khaki pants; information Lamertina had never provided. The mother of three said she knew the communication was true when Wright mentioned a white whicker chair, a favorite of her grandfather's.
The two friends say they helped strengthen each other's psychic abilities over the years, Wright as a clairaudient – a psychic who hears voices and sounds – and Lamertina as a clairsentient – a psychic who feels current, past or future emotions of spirits. Together, they have worked with the Ghosts Hunters International and the Gettysburg Paranormal Association, while continuing home visits, psychic readings and house blessings for those who believe they're experiencing the supernatural.
Cathy Bruce, a Jacksonville, Fla., resident, said she met Wright through a friend after going through personal struggles in her life. Interested in finding out what it all meant, Bruce said she contacted Wright for an over-the-phone reading and, later, an in-person visit.
"When I met her, she did a reading for me and she just touched on so many things that I didn't tell her," Bruce said. "Just by talking to me, she was able to connect with me on another level and brought things up."
Bruce said Wright's passion to help her clients is true and not a scam.
"I found out so much more about myself and it was crazy," Bruce said. "You could be thinking of her or a situation that she has helped you with in the past and she'll call. She'll say, 'I know that you needed me to call. Let's talk about this now.' I was like, 'Whoa.' Everybody always is [skeptical], but she really blew my mind."
That skepticism is a tough challenge facing the industry, Wright said, as many people, including scientists, spend their time debunking or refuting any proof that others work hard to find.
"There are always going to be skeptics who don't believe in mediums, or that mediums can really hear those who have crossed over and talk to the dead," she said. "Being a medium myself, there is no way to fully describe how I hear things and how I convey things in a reading."
Joe Nickell, full-time senior research fellow for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and writer for Skeptical Inquirer science magazine, said he has spent more than 40 years researching the paranormal and has found no scientific proof to back up any claims.
A trained magician, detective and folklorist, the 71-year-old said his most recent work involved researching the former Rhode Island home of Roger and Carolyn Perron and their five daughters. Nickell said the family claimed to have been haunted by evil spirits in 1970, which was investigated by well-known paranormal investigators and authors Ed and Lorraine Warren.
Two films, "The Conjuring," and, "The Conjuring 2," have depicted two case files of the Warren investigators, including the Perron haunting in Harrisville, R.I.
"I was invited by the woman who lives there now and has lived in that house for 30 years since all these events were reported," Nickell said, referring to the former Perron family home. "She has not had any demons bother her. Surprise, surprise. The five girls and their mother, who were eventually nearly hysterical with some of this, were feeding each other's belief and maybe even pranking each other."
The question becomes, where's the proof? Some people, including Wright and Lamertina, have taken pictures that they claim show a ghostly orb, often described as a circular blurred image in a photo. However, Nickell said those orbs are dust particles in the air that bounce back the camera's flash.
Nickell said he has also encountered proof via EVP, known as electronic voice phenomena. After further review, the scientist said "the voices" are distorted sounds that others misinterpret as a ghost because of their sheer will to believe.
No such ghost-detecting equipment exists, he said.
"These are simply clubs of non-scientists who are using equipment that they do not know what the equipment is really responding to," Nickell said. "If they go to a haunted house and they get any kind of reaction — the psychic has a feeling, the dowsing rod twitches in their hand, the [electromagnetic field] meter needle goes off — they think they've found a ghost."
For example, he said, electromagnetic field meters often pick up faulty wiring, microwave broadcast towers or solar activity nearby. While many claim the equipment is detecting a "ghost energy," he said, further scientific study into the paranormal has found this energy to be nonexistent.
"If you had a ghost energy, which science can't find, it would dissipate after death," Nickell said. "And for a ghost to not have a brain, that is a brain that is dead and moldered into dust and brain activity to be shown to have long ago ceased, it's just a fool's errand to think that's a brainless ghost energy."
Pat Linse, cofounder of the Skeptics Society, agreed with Nickell, stating that psychics often practice cold reading, claiming to know more about their client than they actually do. The idea behind fortune-tellers and future predictions have dated back to ancient Greece, she said, in attempts to mislead.
"It's like a Relator can read you when you walk in and know if you're a looky-loo or you really can afford the house by how you look and how you act," she said. "If you have a weepy young woman come in, what would be your guess as to what her problem might be? You would normally say something like, 'You feel like you might be more into the relationship than he is.'"
Logistically, she added, the odds of a non-expert finding evidence of the paranormal are far outnumbered by the number of scientists who have searched and tested for the same evidence over the last 200 years.
"Back when psychic and chemistry were new, there was a society in Britain that tested the paranormal," Linse said. "Spirituality was like a new religion and people thought it was scientifically proved religion. Physics and chemistry have made great strides, but testing for the paranormal is still on square one."Disbelief aside, Wright and Lamertina say they consider themselves skeptics in their ongoing pursuits of paranormal phenomena. The two have ruled out environmental impacts, making sure they're in a quiet and remote location during countless recordings. Always in each other's company, the psychics said they remained skeptical until proven wrong.
"I still don't understand," Lamertina said. "Part of what we're trying to do is still figure it out. It's why we debunk so much. It's why we put ourselves out there. It's not because we're rush junkies. We want to know where everybody goes."
Back at the kitchen table, Wright said she was having trouble disputing the voice of a ghost calling itself "Michael." Listening to the earlier recording, a moment of silence between the psychics and reporter was interrupted.
"Hey," a raspy voice said at the one-minute, 13-second mark. "Just tape."