Any radio can play the Grateful Dead, but it's another matter to transmit the voices of the merely deceased. That takes a bit of work on the radio with a wire cutter, maybe a pair of pliers, and - the skeptic might argue - a leap of faith.
Jenny Stewart of Mount Airy, founder and head of the Paranormal Research and Resource Society, said she's done it many times, hearing and recording the dead speak through a $25 Radio Shack AM-FM digital radio modified to turn it into a device known in her field as a "ghost box." Sometimes she and other witnesses claim to hear the dead saying people's names, or cursing, or forecasting events.
The predictions on one occasion were striking enough to get the attention of producers of "The Haunted," a new series offered by the Animal Planet network. The hour-long episode to appear tonight at 10, "The Ghost Box Prophecies," is based on an investigation that Stewart's small group conducted last year at a home in Waldorf.
Voices from the "ghost box" were said to have made predictions that night, which just happened to be Halloween. Later, Stewart said, things happened.
"That was the most intense 'ghost box' session I've ever held," said Stewart. "I've done hundreds of them."
She formed the PRRS only two years ago but has been seeking evidence of the supernatural for about 16 of her 40 years, having been taken with the idea when she was a little girl growing up in a religious southern Indiana household. As many children do, she wondered about heaven and hell and what happens when people die.
Stewart doesn't claim to know exactly what happens, and she recommends extreme skepticism about anyone who claims to be an "expert" on the supernatural or paranormal. What she claims she has found over the years is reason to believe that the dead do not necessarily rest in peace.
She and members of her group - now numbering five, including herself and three family members - claim to have observed their stirrings in any number of ways over the years: shadowy apparitions confronted during an investigation, faces in windows or balls of light visible only later in photographs, voices of ominous portent from a battery-operated radio.
The "ghost box" in one form or another emerged in paranormal research circles about two years ago, Stewart said. Her husband, David Erickson, who handles the technical side of the operation, said the minor change to the circuit board not only causes the radio to stay in "seeking" mode, never stopping at a station, but not to mute the noise between stations.
That means you hear the sound of a radio moving through stations, a continuous stream of clicks, static, broken fragments of sound and voices. From such stuff, the claim goes, the spirits - who are believed to consist of electromagnetic energies of some sort themselves - cobble together their other-worldly messages.
On the night of Halloween in 2008, Stewart and three members of her group gathered around the Radio Shack "ghost box" with Vicki Johnson and members of her family at her home in Waldorf. Strange things had been happening at the three-story Charles County house, and after hearing about PRRS through a friend of the family, she asked if the group would come down to check things out.
In three sessions of roughly 15-20 minutes in a second-floor bedroom, the kitchen on the first floor and in the basement, Stewart said a voice or voices spoke in response to Stewart's questions from a speaker attached to the radio. They predicted the death of a family dog, a problem with the home furnace and a shooting or break-in of some sort.
Over the course of the next six months, all three events occurred, Stewart said, including a shooting in which a young man Vicki Johnson knew was killed by people who broke into his house. The animal connection lies not only in the death of one family dog, but a sudden turn in the behavior of the other three, who amid all this became much more aggressive for no apparent reason.
George Plamondon, executive producer of "The Haunted" and president of the New York-based Picture Shack Entertainment production company, said he heard about the Mount Airy group through work his company has done on other paranormal shows for A&E.; When he heard about the Johnson family's experience with PRRS, he thought it would make a "fascinating, dramatic telling of a ghost story."
Animal Planet approved the show after seeing preliminary interviews Plamondon's company shot in Maryland, he said. The episode was filmed during the summer at three locations in Maryland.
The show puts Stewart's group on the paranormal map in a new way, just as they're preparing the paperwork to be declared a nonprofit. She's seeking new members, who must be at least 18 and have no history of psychological problems.
Columnist Jean Marbella is on assignment. Her column will return next week.