Matthew Goetz wasn't surprised when he saw a photograph capturing a mysterious light at the Cobblestone Road Saloon.
After all, Goetz, owner of the 148-year-old tavern in West Chicago, claims to have witnessed shadowy figures there a dozen times.
"Maybe I'm nuts," he said, "but I've seen some things I can't explain."
About one-third of Americans believe in ghosts and haunted houses, according to a 2005 Gallup poll. Such findings underscore the spiritual attraction to probing the unknown, said Jeff Belanger, who maintains the popular Web site Ghostvillage.com.
"When you go actively searching for a ghost, you're trying to wrap yourself around a very big question: Is there life after death?" he said. "People want that experience. They want that magic. And they might not be getting that in their churches, synagogues and mosques."
Enter Alex Felix, paranormal investigator. Felix, 35, of Glendale Heights, leads a team of about 30 ghost-busters who chase reports of the supernatural around the western suburbs of Chicago.
His preliminary investigation of the tavern found nothing, but patience is a virtue in his field.
"Sometimes you might get really lucky and catch a full-body apparition," he said. "That's the Holy Grail."
Ghost hunters credit a growing number of television programs on the supernatural for sparking greater interest in their pursuit.
The X-Files has been replaced by the popular Ghost Hunters on the Sci Fi Channel, and at least 10 other programs about the paranormal aired last season.
At the same time, an army of skeptics questions how to explain the unexplainable.
Ghost hunters are giving credence to a "pseudoscience" that is "dividing the country between the scientifically literate and illiterate," said Joe Nickell, a senior research fellow at the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal in Amherst, N.Y. He has spent the past 33 years discrediting claims of the supernatural.
"These people have to come to terms with the fact that when someone dies, brain activity ceases," Nickell said. "Science has never confirmed a single ghost. This is a fool's errand."
Felix acknowledges the skepticism.
"Because it's not an exact science, it's left open to criticism from nonbelievers," he said. "But that's the nature of the beast."
His team at West Chicago Paranormal, which includes a nurse, an advertising executive, a police officer and a Steak 'n Shake waitress, also describe themselves as a support group - the only people who don't think they're crazy. They receive one or two requests a month for their free services, and they also scour Internet message boards for opportunities to verify anomalies in theaters, bars, homes and cemeteries.
Felix, a former police officer, has opened a ghost-hunting school in Naperville complete with an instructional workbook and DVD.
To weed out those looking for cheap thrills, participants are required to pass an interview and a written test, with basic questions such as: What is Rule No. 1 of ghost hunting?
"No whispering during an investigation," said Kevin Frantz, a videographer who runs the school with Felix. "Someone could say, 'Hey, after this, let's go to Taco Bell,' then play back the tape and say, 'I think that ghost said something about hell."
Felix said the vetting process is crucial to finding those who are serious versus those "just in it for the 'Wow' factor."
"We want to put out the best trained ghost hunters in the Midwest," Felix said.
Many ghost hunters have no training at all. To become a paranormal investigator, "all you have to do is wake up tomorrow and say you are one," Belanger said.
There are more than 400 groups investigating paranormal activity across the country, he said. Some have only two members while others have more than 200, and new groups are appearing online almost every day.
Felix says all of his investigations use a series of controls. Electromagnetic frequency readings are taken with the power on and off to pinpoint variables such as appliances. A psychic is dispatched to the location and the findings are recorded separately. All time-stamped equipment is synchronized.
The trunk of Felix's 1991 Buick Riviera is filled with ghost-hunting gear, including "The Ghost Meter," which detects less than 5 milligauss - believed to be the frequency of ghosts' communication - and an earpiece from a spy kit he bought at Toys 'R' Us.
What is Rule No. 2 of ghost hunting?
"Always bring extra batteries," he said. "Ghosts drain them."
When the supernatural creeps too close, some people turn to the church for help, said Rev. Jeffrey Grob, an associate vicar for canonical services for the Archdiocese of Chicago.
"People will call and say they feel a presence, or a picture fell off the wall, or the water won't stop dripping," he said.
Years ago, Grob said, newly wedded couples would routinely ask for their possessions to be blessed.
"Now people call after watching one of those paranormal programs on TV," he said. Nonetheless, "we see the right of exorcism as an entry for them to reconnect to their local church and re-evaluate where they are in their own spiritual journey."
On a recent summer evening, Felix and Sarra Rohr, 34, a waitress in West Chicago, set out to investigate a former cemetery on which Channing Elementary School in Elgin was partly built. They stopped at the grave of William Hackman, a former factory worker at Elgin National Watch Co. who died in the mid-19th century. His headstone is the only one remaining.
"William, are you with us here tonight?" Felix said, holding a voice recorder above the grave. "If so, make yourself known."
The only sound was the chirp of crickets. Fireflies twinkled, but no orbs - balls of light found in photographs that some say are signs of the paranormal - were captured on film. Camera experts theorize that the translucent circles are a common sign of poor maintenance.
Rohr urged patience.
"We could do a 14-hour investigation and get nothing," she said. "We could go back five times and get nothing. But that one time, when we do get something, it's all worth it."
Felix's group has been around for six years. Its best indication of the paranormal occurred at Channing this year when it captured on video a grainy, unidentifiable cloud flashing across the screen.
Felix said he hopes to conduct further investigations at the school and at the Cobblestone Road Saloon, where Goetz has come to accept the shadowy figures lurking around his bar.
"Live and let live," Goetz said. "Or, I guess, let be dead."
Gerry Smith writes for the Chicago Tribune.