Russ Noratel is the first to say that his paranormal investigators aren't anything like the Ghostbusters of movie fame.
The Elkridge resident and author of "Ghosts of Ellicott City" wants to make clear that there are no such things as proton packs or ghost-containment units as dreamed up in the popular 1984 film with the musical tagline, "Who you gonna call?"
But he also readily acknowledges that there are a lot of skeptics who enjoy poking fun at his Baltimore Society for Paranormal Research, especially around Halloween, when college kids are prone to playing pranks by phoning in false reports of sightings.
Noratel will discuss paranormal research techniques and his new conversational-style book, in which he chats about hauntings with residents and the owners and employees of businesses along Ellicott City's historic Main Street, in a program at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Miller branch of the Howard County Public Library. The free event is sponsored by the Howard County Historical Society and is open to the public.
The book's "terrifying tales" will answer such questions as "Does the ghost of a madman wander the streets of Ellicott City?" and "What is the name of the young lady who hung herself at The Judge's Bench?" according to the back cover of the 164-page paperback.
Noratel, who joined the BSPR in 2008 and now serves as its president, said the 14-year-old group seeks to "bring respectability" to ghost hunting and similar investigations.
"We have a certain process for conducting an investigation," said Noratel, 33, who is a state employee by day. "We don't expect Joe the Ghost to just show up and say hi."
Yet the Arbutus native, whose wife, Beth, is a senior investigator with the society, also believes in heeding one's gut reaction and in the powers of personal observation.
Despite a scientific focus on measuring changes in electromagnetic fields, recording temperature irregularities and making audiovisual recordings, an investigator believes "the most important piece of equipment is you," he said. "Have you ever walked into a place and gotten a weird feeling?"
Noratel has. While visiting the Hall of Presidents in Gettysburg, Pa., he felt a distinct tap on his shoulder, though the nearest person was six feet away.
"I thought someone was messing with me at first," he recalled. "I got a cold feeling and a shiver down my back. The hair stood up on the back of my neck."
That's not to say he believes a ghost was necessarily responsible, he's quick to add. In fact, he's not sold on the popular notion that ghosts appear to people because the spirits have unfinished business.
"My personal belief doesn't allow me to think souls are trapped here on Earth," he said. "To me, you either go up or go down [after you die]; the souls of the departed don't get stuck somewhere in the middle."
In 90 percent of cases, there's an explanation for what people have witnessed, he said, and "we find people want to find that out."
He estimates his group gets called into action about once a month and notes that the number of people who believe in ghosts or who have reported a ghostlike encounter is increasing.
Karen Griffith, manager of the Howard County Historical Society Museum, which is housed in a former Presbyterian church in Ellicott City that dates to 1893, has been receptive to paranormal investigations in her facility during the six years she's worked there. She said five groups have conducted research there over the years. In fact, investigators from Warrenton, Va., are coming to the Court Avenue museum this weekend.
The BSPR, which has a roster of five investigators and two in training, has struck up a partnership with Griffith in which they conduct investigations in the historic building as part of their training program and ask trainees to donate $5 to the museum.
Griffith said she's not necessarily a believer in ghosts but finds it hard to discount their existence entirely since she's "had some things happen that are a little bit unexplainable."
She has heard footsteps on the second floor of the museum when no one was up there, for instance, and once felt someone playing with her hair. She was present during an investigation at the museum when a genealogy notebook suddenly fell off a stand, which was captured on film.
Since the museum displays objects that were owned by people long ago, she speculates that there could be residual energy left in those personal belongings.
"I'm not saying there are spirits, and I'm not saying there aren't. I accept whatever is out there," she said. "If it's some sort of energy form, then I don't believe it's harmful."
Founded in 1998 by Vince Wilson, who has since moved to West Virginia, the BSPR organizes its investigations into three types, Noratel said. The most common is a "residual haunting." An "intelligent haunting" involves a ghost that interacts with people. A poltergeist, the rarest of all, usually centers around a woman, who often has telekinetic powers she can't control.
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Wilson, the author of "Baltimore's Guide to Haunted Places" and other books, maintains ties to the BSPR as a consultant and continues to conduct paranormal research, investigation and training. He was certified as a parapsychologist last year by the American Institute of Parapsychology in Florida, he said.
Calling Ellicott City "one of the most haunted cities in the country," he described Noratel's book as "fantastic" and a worthwhile read.
Noratel doesn't recommend people try to investigate the haunting of their own homes or businesses because they can't be objective, he said. Besides, trained investigators have the equipment and experience "to find out as much truth as we can" and conduct investigations for free.
"If we come across a spectacular case, we can build a study off it and add it to our files," he said, explaining the decision not to charge for services. All private cases are confidential, he added.
In further explaining the group's approach to paranormal research, Noratel dispelled a prevalent misconception that investigations take place in spooky, unlit rooms.
"Very rarely do we investigate in the dark," he said. "We like the lights on so we can see what's going on."