Ghostly images, spirited debate

Special to the Sun

Jacqueline Galke has heard the story before. A young student who died ofpneumonia at Patapsco Female Institute before her parents could reach herwanders the grounds of the former 19th-century school.

Nervous teens hang out there in hopes of a sighting. Ghost hunters stop bysnapping random photographs.

"We realize people think that it's a haunted site," said Galke, executivedirector of the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in Ellicott City. "Dowe care? No. It's been considered a haunted site at least for the last 25years."

If the pursuit of ghosts seems a frivolous curiosity to Galke, others takeit more seriously - ghost hunters who believe in what they see and ghostdebunkers who worry about pseudoscience.

Timothy Kerins and Ken Rathburn, two computer network controllers havetaken about 100 photographs over five visits to the institute in June and Julyand say they've come up with possible evidence of ghostly presence floatingaround the grassy fields of the stabilized ruins.

Shot with Kerins' digital camera, the images reveal what the pair call"orbs," or circular, floating illuminated objects and globs of white streaksthat they see as resembling a woman in white Victorian dress.

"We saw lights coming up," said Kerins, 36, a Timonium resident. "I didn'tknow if it was from lens flare [reflection of source light in a straight line]or a light back in the trees. Then we saw they were showing up next to objectsor in photos we took of each other. In some pictures, they were appearingwhere there was no light."

Although the images are of different sizes, he said, they are translucentand have texture.

On their next visit, the pair said they were stunned by the image of awhite luminary taken by Rathburn while he extended the camera in front of him."You're not going to believe this picture," Rathburn said.

If Rathburn and Kerins are entranced, professional ghostbuster Joe Nickellbelieves speculation about ghostly orbs and luminaries is a product of wishfulthinking.

"It has all the earmarks of superstition, ignorance and pseudo-science,"said Nickell, senior research fellow at the Committee for the ScientificInvestigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) based in Amherst, N.Y., andscience writer for its publication, Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

"Science has never authenticated a single ghost," he said. "Most of whichis claimed as supernatural and paranormal is negative evidence. They say, `Wedon't know what this is. It's unexplained phenomena.' To claim you don't knowwhat something is and then claim it's paranormal or supernatural is lapse inlogic.

"It's arguing from ignorance. If you heard a funny noise in a house, youcan't claim that's a ghost because you don't know what it was. And if youdon't know, you don't know. Period. I've been in more haunted homes thanCasper. These phenomena don't happen when I'm around."

Nor, said Nickell, can anyone determine which are authentic ghost photosbecause there are no genuine ghost photo standards with which to compare them.

He attributed ghost photos of transparent people to double exposure,reflections or hoaxes, while photos of "nonpeople-looking ghosts" such asorbs, streaks, mists, strands or bursts of light are "glitches" in thephotography process. Those, he said, are more commonly caused by a flash andanything that gets in between the camera lens and scene, which can create aglitch.

Orbs, he said, are particles of dust or droplets of moisture close to thelens, foggy breath on a cold night bouncing the off the flash, a puff ofcigarette smoke, a flying insect, strands of hanging hair, one's fingertip,foliage, jewelry or a camera wrist strap.

Galke sides with Nickell.

"The ghosts of the PFI are all fiction," she said. "I've never seen a ghostand I'm really disappointed. I've been affiliated with PFI for about sixyears. I don't know anyone else here who's seen a ghost."

Despite her skepticism, Galke has arranged for 15 members of the MarylandGhost & Spirit Association, to spend the night Nov. 16 at PFI after Kerins andRathburn consulted with the group's founder, Beverly Litsinger. "I want tohelp them to dispel the myth and fallacies," Galke said. "I think it's animportant thing to do so it's not such a mystery."

Litsinger, whose association has 400 members, plans to bring alongghost-hunting equipment including a video camera, night scopes, thermalscanners and electromagnetic detection.

"Ghosts have a lot of electromagnetic energy," said Litsinger, 49, aRandallstown consultant to nonprofit organizations.

Ghost skeptic Nickell said thermal scanners and electromagnetic detectorsare not designed to catch ghosts and should not be used to try.

Litsinger claims that people have seen full-body apparitions of thestudent, whom she said, hated PFI and wanted her parents to get her out. "Someghosts are trapped because of unfulfilled lives," she said. "She's an unhappysoul. Someone has to tell her she has the ability to leave. She's probably notaware she's dead."

PFI isn't Ellicott City's only haunted site, according to Litsinger."Howard County is covered with ghosts," she said.

She points to the Mount Ida Mansion, down the hill from PFI, whereLitsinger says its last resident, Ida Tyson, can be heard rattling the largeset of key rings she had carried. Folks also claim, she said, that they canhear doors slamming in the old firehouse on Main Street or furniture beingmoved around upstairs in the former Moose Lodge nearby.

In fact, the Howard County Tourism Council leads tours of the historicdistrict based on the book The Hauntings of Ellicott Mills, written by thecouncil's executive director Melissa Arnold.

Other reports, she said, are from former employees of the old courthouse inEllicott City who claimed they heard the jingling of bells at the front door,even though no one was there and the door was locked. Then there are the orbsthat showed up on photographs taken in total darkness of a former opera housein the upper floors of the Forget-Me-Not Factory.

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