As a professional ghost hunter and researcher, Rick Fisher isn't particularly interested in convincing skeptics that spirits exist.
Perhaps it is because he has seen or heard ghosts so many times: the dancing, translucent orbs that appear in photographs after his camera film is developed; the fog-like puffs of ectoplasm that behave similarly; the human voices that show up on an audiotape that recorded only silence.
But Fisher and the other Pennsylvania Ghost Hunters Society members, who traveled to Ellicott City yesterday to investigate supposedly haunted sites, think they know the truth.
"Skeptics will tell you it's water spots or dust on the camera. But why would we all have dust in the same spot?" said Fisher, founder and director of the 130-member group. "We know, and we find evidence. It's not a matter of convincing other people."
Armed with regular and digital cameras, tape recorders, thermal sensors and electromagnetic-field detectors, about 16 men and women spent yesterday rattling around in attics, wandering through cemeteries and studying historic ruins for signs of the paranormal. But please don't call them, well, you-know-what.
"We're not ghostbusters," said David Ketchersid, a Towson resident who is affiliated with the group. "[The ghosts] have a right to be here. More often than not, they're looking for acknowledgment."
Evidence of spirits
It was the group's second stop through Ellicott City, where the Howard County Tourism Council recently began a series of "ghost tours" highlighting places rumored to be haunted. Society members say their initial investigation found evidence of numerous spirits throughout town, and the photographs have been posted on the International Ghost Hunters Society Web site (http: //www.ghostweb.com).
Why Ellicott City?
"It's old," said Fisher, a Lancaster, Pa., resident who also works for a plastic-ware manufacturer. "We can see there's a lot of history."
The first stop was the Patapsco Female Institute, where stabilized ruins of the 19th-century girls' school stand at the top of a hill. While Fisher aimed his thermal scanner at the walls for cold spot readings, his colleagues took photographs, scribbled notes and looked through digital cameras for orbs, invisible to the naked eye. Legend has it that the school is occupied by the ghost of Annie, a student who died of pneumonia and is said to appear through the top-floor window.
In broad daylight, Fisher found an orb near the ceiling by looking through his digital camera. It was the first find of the day, and everyone gathered around the camera to catch a glimpse of the thin ball of light.
"It's undeniable. There is something out there, but what is it?" said member Chad Geist. "Everybody's a skeptic until they get out there and start taking the pictures. We've been making a lot of people believers just [by] coming along."
"It's really nice to have them confirm, I guess, what I've always believed," said Sandi Maurer, a receptionist who helps guide Ellicott City's ghost tours. "How do you refute camera work? How do you explain that?"
The group then caravaned to the Ellicott family cemetery, where John and Andrew Ellicott, the town's founders, are buried. The ghost hunters walked quietly among the weathered gravestones with their equipment, giving the spirits a moment to get used to them, Ketchersid explained.
"They don't have to make themselves known," said Ketchersid, who owns a company that hangs blinds and window treat ments. "That's their choice."
The ghost hunters are evenly divided between lifelong believers and those who say their doubts were doused by a personal experience with the supernatural.
Geist noted that his silver cross once slipped off its chain and into his hand, though the cross and the chain were intact. Ketchersid, a Civil War buff, saw apparitions appear and then disappear on the Gettysburg battlefield a year and a half ago. Jeane Riker's first encounter came 15 years ago when she picked up a wax jack-o-lantern in an attic.
"Every hair in my body stood up, and I got very cold," said Riker of Paradise, Pa.
"I think that's what brings us together," said Mary Ann Ackerman of Lititz, Pa. "I can't tell a lot of my relatives that I'm in this ghost club because they'd make a lot of snide remarks."
'Spirits' at play
At the Judge's Bench restaurant and bar on Main Street, the ghost hunters headed for the tiny attic where a young woman named Mary is said to have hanged herself after a failed romance. Those with digital cameras began to see the orbs in the corner and on the stairs.
"It could be a former patron who used to come to the bar," Fisher said. "They didn't have to die here. They might've just loved the bar."
Then strange things began to happen. Ackerman's tape recorder went dead -- twice. A video camera malfunctioned. Then, a digital camera's fresh batteries gave out.
"Sometimes, the spirits, they want to play," Maurer said.
Pub Date: 5/24/98