The Business Of Ghost Hunting In Coastal Virginia
“I’ve been spoken to and touched even before we started setting up,” the paranormal investigator says.
Scott Spangler is the co-founder of the Newport News-based 7Cities Paranormal, an eight-member team of ghost hunters that includes a couple of psychics or, as he calls them, sensitives. “We investigate mostly private residences,” he says. “People call us who need help.”
You may not always see or hear them (they tend to come out at night), but across the region, from Williamsburg to Chesapeake, there are more than two dozen active ghost hunting crews like 7Cities—with names like the ODU Ghost Hunters, Mission Apparition and the Paranormal Anomaly Society of Tidewater—aiming K2 meters and collecting EMF data inside of a spooked space near you.
7Cities also investigates hometown historic sites, like Lee Hall Mansion and the Boxwood Inn, which often charge paranormal teams to set up their gear. “It helps with their upkeep,” he says. The group’s scariest recent encounters have been at Fort Eustis, he says. “Military housing. One of our sensitives was scratched, and we watched a light come on, the switch flipped up and everything.”
What this writer knows about ghost hunts has been learned from TV programs that feature people creeping along dark hallways, armed with gizmos that collect the leavings of demonic entities and ectoplasmic orbs. Yes, being an insomniac, I’ve watched numerous televised paranormal investigations—time taken from my life I’ll never get back—and have become something of an expert on, among other things, EMF radiation, ghost boxes, K2 meters and the difference between an intelligent and residual haunt.
Ghost Hunters made its debut on the SyFy Network 10 years ago, the big bang of today’s spirit searching boom, hosted by a pair of Rhode Island plumbers (Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson), who flush out spirits on the side. GH was followed by the more in-your-face Ghost Adventures, on the Travel Channel, presided over by a three-man crew led by Zak Bagans, a spiky-haired spirit agitator who likes to call out ghosts while taking his shirt off and shouting things like, “Use my energy to manifest!”
While different in tone, these two shows have caramelized the format of what people today know as a paranormal investigation—ghost hunting team goes to haunted place with equipment, evidence is reviewed, etc.—and their influence has launched numerous specter-seeking TV imitators, a long list that includes Haunted Collector, Ghost Lab and Haunted Highway.
Along the way, it’s become a game you can play at home. There are nearly 5,000 independent paranormal groups across the U.S., in all 50 states, according to a database at ParanormalSocieities.com, and the same kind of neato ghost hunting equipment that Jason Hawes and Zak Bagans use on TV is now available for home use—an Ovilus “Ghost Box” (which scans radio frequencies for spirit voices) retails for $269.95, a sensory REM Pod (which detects a ghost’s presence) is $179.00, and, in case your specter is sneaky and shows up BEHIND the lens, you need a 360° Camera Rig for $1,229.95.
To most, ghost hunting is an expensive hobby. “I’ve always had experiences. I grew up in a haunted house,” says Phil Payette of Tidewater Paranormal, a Virginia Beach-based team founded in 2011. “We don’t make any money at all, nothing for profit. It’s all in our own free time,” he says. Team member Jeannie Velez adds that there are seven volunteers. “Each one brings something to the table.” While her gift is “intuition,” another may work with electronics or analyze data.
Tidewater Paranormal averages 12–15 ghost hunts a year, in residential as well as historic locations. “We try to debunk,” Velez says. “We check out the creaking door first before we say a place is haunted.” Stuff does happen, though. On a recent case, the TP team recorded a disembodied voice saying “uncle,” and loud footsteps followed an investigator on a staircase.
Clients learn about the team through its website and Facebook page. How about people pulling hoaxes? “Yes, unfortunately that’s happened several times,” Velez sighs. One wiseacre claimed famous scenes from horror movies were happening in his house. But what bugs them the most are the paranormal misconceptions. “You don’t need to have the lights off, it doesn’t have to be dark,” Payette says. “Spirits are around 24/7, day and night.”
Up Close and … Paranormal
Gather around the campfire, kids. Let me tell you about how, on one humid Wednesday night, this author grappled with the undead—or something—on a ghost hunt.
“It’s boring,” says Craig Chacon. He’s with Paranormal Sciences and Investigations (PSI), a Virginia Beach-based ghost investigation crew that started off as a hobby group five years ago. Now a licensed business, the three man, one woman PSI has invited me along on one of its lockdowns in Virginia Beach.
Coastal Virginia Magazine’s creative director David Uhrin is along for the hunt. His job is to take photos for the magazine and independently document spectral findings. My job is to avoid vengeful wraiths from inhabiting my soul.
[Originally, Uhrin and I are to meet PSI in Norfolk at another location but, hours before the meet up, Chacon and his wife, Krystina LeNear, the founder of the team, informs us that the owner cancelled out. An alternate site is given—this cozy brown townhouse off of Shore Drive.]
Upon arrival, Uhrin and I try and “read” the reportedly haunted abode (that’s what Zak would do). Furnished with a vintage arcade machine, a plush-funky ’70s sofa and a corner display with Buddha figurine and Jesus painting, this place looks more “thrift store chic” than House Of The Dead. “We’ve been given a golden ticket here to do what we want,” Chacon explains, adding that a couple and their two children live in the house and are away for the night. They wish to be anonymous.
The stocky, well-tattooed Chacon sits behind a table munching a pretzel burger, staring into multiple computer screens. Different camera feeds from rooms inside the house are presented, Brady Bunch-style, on one of them. I see PSI investigators with a Geiger counter in an upstairs bedroom. They feed walky-talky data to Chacon at nerve central, although the place is so small that they could just talk loudly.
I ask about the details of tonight’s ghostly claims. “The clients see an old man,” Chacon reveals. “Right here in the hallway. The son and the mother have seen him. The 17-year-old son actually shot a gun at him. There’s a gunshot mark right there.”
I check. Sure enough, there’s a half dollar-sized chunk taken out of the floor.
The son’s upstairs radio is said to turn on and off on its own too.
I selected PSI to ghost hunt with because 1.) It claims to be “science-based,” and my editor will like that. 2.) It touts being one of the only bonded and insured paranormal groups in Virginia, and that sounds impressive. 3.) Its website showed photos of a visually attractive, multi-ethnic, made-for-TV ghost crew led by an attractive woman with piercing blue eyes, all wearing matching logo gear and looking as SyFy Channel-ready as any paranormal team I’ve seen. (On reflection, I was not being very “science-based” in my approach to selecting a ghost hunting crew.)
“We don’t charge for our services,” Chacon explains as Uhrin starts clicking photos. “Clients do have to pay an initial insurance cost that covers them up to $10,000. That’s mandatory from our bonding company.” To raise money for gear and upkeep, PSI holds raffles of ghost-hunting equipment at sci-fi and comic conventions. They will be at Chesapeake’s Monsterfest on Oct. 4, for example.
PSI’s tools run from EMF readers to hydrometers to mold-testing kits to an experimental software program called Paranormal Detector (“developed by a friend, we’re checking it out”) that records radio waves via sensors placed throughout the house. Chacon says that much of the work is taking measurements, running tests, doing them over and over, recording results. “A vast majority of the stuff we investigate has some kind of rational explanation. In 97 percent of the cases, in fact.”
The Norfolk home that cancelled at the last minute is one of those rare exceptions. On an earlier lockdown there, Chacon says he saw the client levitate while sleeping, and then watched the bed sheets peel eerily off of her. “I still don’t know what’s going on there,” the investigator, an admitted skeptic, says.
When his wife, Krystina LeNear, joins us midway through the proceedings, she confirms that story. The luminous LeNear is the striking public face of PSI, with regular internet radio appearances and YouTube postings. She’s a certified Reiki Master, an astrologer, a “student of metaphysics” (according to the website) and a 3rd-Degree black belt. While husband, Chacon, disavows occult-ish things, Lenear is upfront about her beliefs. “I believe 100 percent,” she says. “That’s why we make a great couple.”
LeNear offers to give Uhrin and me a “smudge of frankincense and sagebrush” in order to block any spirits from going home with us. “As long as you know that that isn’t a PSI service,” she says. “It’s a Kryssie service.”
Time goes by and the team continues testing. Yes, this is indeed boring. The lights remain on, and I hope I’m hiding well my disappointment that I’m in a haunted condo. I expected spooky labyrinths, darkened corridors, the whole infra-red vision bit.
“You want to eliminate every factor and then try to see if there’s an explanation for something that still doesn’t make sense,” James Roddy, PSI’s bald-plated lead investigator, tells me. “Most of the time it’s nothing.”
Levar Ross, the crew’s tech guy, and another admitted skeptic, tells me about unusual electromagnetic field readings he once picked up (high EMF can cause hallucinations). “To most investigators, it means ghosts. But the location had an old phone; it actually said ‘Made in Korea,’ that’s how old it was,” he laughs. “The neodymium and hematite in it was throwing off our equipment.” The client, he says, genuinely believed that her dead grandmother was talking to her, but it was really EMF.
There’s also Black Mold—Stachybotrys Chartarum to the science-based—which can cause sensory misperception, nausea, even death. “What appears to be paranormal can almost always be explained by other means,” Ross tells me. “I keep an open mind. If the paranormal does exist, I want to be the guy that tells you how.”
I ask Roddy, the veteran of prior ghost teams, if he’s also a skeptic. “No, I’m the guy who believes in everything,” he says, smiling.
Meanwhile, Uhrin has been snapping photos alone in the upstairs bedroom. Suddenly, we hear a blast of white noise.
“Is the radio supposed to come on by itself?” Uhrin yells. “The radio just came on.”
Everyone freezes. “That’s one of the claims.” Roddy says.
After checking out the upstairs room, and asking Uhrin to reenact his movements, they review the video feed to see if he touched the radio. He didn’t. “But he sure jumped when it came on,” Chacon says.
I ask about the alarm function. It was turned off, I’m told. “It should be relatively easy to check this out, find out the model and the manufacturer,” Roddy says of the incident. “See if there could be a surge or something else … ”
The noisy static blares through the small house, and the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up. We just had a ghost show moment.
Science or Scheming?
Now, kids, this fishing for spirits stuff didn’t start with Ghost Hunters. Great men throughout history have searched for earth signs of the great beyond—no less than the father of psychology, William James, was an early pioneer in spectral research.
“The first documented ghost hunt is thought to be in 100 AD, recorded by Pliny the Younger,” writes Deonna Kelli Sayed in her book So You Want to Hunt Ghosts?, one of several manuals on investigating. Sayed says that the 19th- century movement known as spiritualism first brought the idea of afterlife communication into popular view. Harry Price, an eccentric magician and investigator, coined the term, “ghost hunter” more than 80 years ago.
Before the investigation, I called on Scott O. Lilienfeld, professor of psychology at Emory University and a longtime contributor to Skeptical Inquirer magazine. “We like to be scared, but by the same token these TV ghost shows afford hope,” the professor said of our collective fascination with the other side. “If there are ghosts then that implies that there is a part of us that lives on afterward. The belief in ghosts is actually comforting and reassuring. We’re scared of them but on another, deeper level, we really want them to be true.”
Michael Shermer, founder of Skeptic and a Scientific American contributor, says of the gadgetry used in paranormal investigations, “they give it that air of science, technology. Since we live in the age of science, we can’t make simple assertions based on faith anymore. Some beliefs are more accurate than others so there’s a compelling wish to actually have evidence. Scientific arguments give them that.”
The rest of Wednesday’s investigation is uneventful (later, I’m informed by Krystina that the upstairs radio turned on again after Uhrin and I departed into the late night). I left thinking that, if this was a ghost show, video editors could make a meal out of a radio coming alive and spitting out static like that.
The next day, researching the haunted condo, I get a real “reveal.” I find that there are three businesses operating out of that address, including … (wait for it) … Paranormal Sciences and Investigation.
“Yes, that was our house,” Chacon admits a few days later. “But the anonymous clients would be the previous owners of the house.”
I also watch several YouTube videos of PSI members lobbying for spots on a nationally-televised paranormal show—they do make the perfect-looking ghost team, after all. So it begs the question: Did we attend a real investigation one humid Wednesday night, or were we unwitting supporting players in an on-location TV pilot?
“All of it was real,” Chacon maintains of the claims about an old ghost and a haunted radio. “We came into this house through a previous client of ours. Actually, we asked to keep the radio.”
Was there any reason why they couldn’t tell us the truth?
“I purposefully didn’t tell you so you wouldn’t disqualify what was occurring or not occurring in the home. We didn’t want you to think we set something up, or were tampering with anything. Originally we had two investigations set up for you but one wasn’t willing to have a reporter in the house, and then the Norfolk home had a family emergency and had to cancel out.” He says that PSI uses the home as a place for training, and for ridealongs.
Believe that or not, I think any reputable scientist, being science-based, would conclude that this inquiry into the undead has been contaminated, our ghost show moment debunked. “Wow! You mean I soiled myself for nothing,” Uhrin says when I tell him.
I apologize to him, and also to the kids. This isn’t how a campfire tale should end. But this story can serve as an important lesson for all of us, at Halloween or any other time: The hunt for ghosts almost always leads to a dead end, and can reveal a lot more about the living than it can the afterlife. Take it from me: I just spent four hours chasing air in a condo off of Shore Drive, and that’s time from my life I’ll never get back. I could’ve been at home watching a ghost show .