Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Web Xtra: Pursuit of a Poltergeist

In case our September/October feature on Robert the Doll isn’t spooky enough, we’re revisiting John Thomason’s shadowing of three local ghost-hunting organizations as they explored sites of historical or active hauntings. This feature originally ran in 2012, and will be available online through October.

It’s almost sundown, and Vickie Burnett is attempting to communicate with a ghost.

“Hi, my name’s Vickie; I’m quite sure you know who I am,” she says. “You know I’ve been coming here for a while, trying to see if there’s anything I can do to help you. I’ve gotten EVPs (electronic voice phenomena) from you telling me, ‘Help me.’ But you never let me do it.”

Burnett, 45, is speaking into several recorders and short-range walkie-talkies, which she has placed in the bedroom of a single-story house in a sleepy suburban neighborhood in Port St. Lucie. It’s a bedroom that Burnett and her team, the Lake Worth-based P.O.I.N.T. Paranormal, have investigated countless times before. Burnett refers to it as “The Devil’s Den.”

For years, the owner of the home, Liz, and her roommate Linda, have experienced supernatural phenomena in the house, and this room is one of the haunted hotbeds. Ariel, Liz’s great-niece, has been visited by a spirit she calls “The Monster”; she’s not the first child to see it. When the young girl describes the spirit to Liz, she raises her hands like claws and grits her teeth. Ariel won’t walk down the hallway at night unless the light is on.

In all, Liz and Linda have chronicled hundreds of inexplicable events, from the unusual (chairs and decor moved from one side of the room to another) to the hair-raising (the presence of, what appears to be, a 19th-century man standing over them at night). To obtain a second opinion after P.O.I.N.T.’s first investigation, the homeowners contacted another Palm Beach County paranormal outfit. The members of that group were allegedly spooked off the job after receiving EVPs such as “Where’s Vickie?” and “Kill them all.”

“The last thing you think about when you move into a home is that it’s haunted,” Liz says. “One of my big things is to be able to comfort other people who have gone through the same experience, because this is not fun. Moving has crossed my mind, but I’ve put a lot of hard work and effort into this house, and I’m not going to let this thing win.”

“Depending on your level of bravery, you can be afraid in your own home,” Burnett says. “I liken it to a person who is a victim of domestic violence. The difference is, if you’re a victim of domestic violence, you know who your enemy is. If you’re the victim of a haunt, you just know something’s there; that something might hurt you, but you don’t know who it is. Or even the nature of what it is.”

In the living room of the house, one of Burnett’s colleagues, Ann Smith, is staring at the black-and-white, infrared flicker of four live video feeds from different areas of the home, which beam through a Dell monitor hooked up to a clunky mainframe computer that Burnett calls “Bertha.” The kitchen table appears to have the most activity this evening; at 8:18, a shadowy mass blips across the screen, and at 8:26, what may have been an orb flashes on the monitor. The home’s other residents—two Peekapoos and two Chihuahuas—start to get restless.

Back in the bedroom, having not received an overt message from the spirit, Burnett’s tone grows harsher and more scolding, reflecting her day job as a Palm Beach County schoolteacher: “You want me to leave you alone? You better say it, and you better say it big. Because you know that I don’t give up.”

Burnett always has been sensitive to spirits, and her grant-aunt supposedly had the ability to communicate with them. Inspired after watching a daylong “Ghost Hunters” marathon on TV, she formed P.O.I.N.T. in 2007. Later, she would host a paranormal radio show on WBZT 1230-AM.

Her story is not uncommon: The booming popularity of countless paranormal television shows has catapulted ghost-hunting from the shadows to the mainstream. Today, there are more than a thousand investigative teams across the country, with at least 23 teams operating out of South Florida. Like most of them, Burnett does not charge a dime for her services. She won’t even accept fast-food carryout from a client without reimbursing them.

“A lot of teams will charge for gas and tolls if they travel,” she says. “I have a problem with that. Since this field doesn’t have anything concrete to show you—I can’t put a ghost in a box and show it to you—I feel that it’s taking advantage of people.

“A lot of teams just want to get the evidence and post it on their website so they can have their little 15 minutes of attention. A lot of teams also have aspirations of being on television. But what you have to realize is that you’re in this to help people. If you think it’s fun and games, it’s not.”

Alas, on this night, the spirit fell silent, with Burnett receiving no EVPs through her multiple recorders.

But, in Palm Beach County, the spirits never seem to rest for long.


Haunted Playhouse

Paranormal Crossroads Investigations (PCI) is on the case, touring Lake Worth Playhouse, a location rife with haunted history. It’s the site of the former Oakley Theatre, a hurricane-devastated playhouse founded by brothers Lucien and Clarence Oakley, who died within a year of each other during the Great Depression. Both are said to frequent their old workplace from beyond the grave, along with a number of other spirits who congregate in the theater’s bowels.

Since 2007, the famed Florida Ghost Team has been hosting public tours of the Playhouse at about $65 a pop, with the funds benefiting the playhouse. Florida Ghost Team founder Shaun Jones retired in 2011, and she took the name with her. Today, Kris Richardson, a 43-year-old business owner from Plantation, runs the organization, which she renamed PCI. With more than 20 active members, PCI is arguably the largest investigative team in South Florida, with divisions in Arkansas and Peru.

PCI is so named because its members consider themselves at the crossroads of the supernatural and the scientific. Like most responsible paranormal teams, they rule out all rational possibilities before jumping to ghostly conclusions.

“We go in looking for real-world answers,” says AJ Garcia, 47, a burly police detective who serves as PCI’s Latin Division manager. “You may have a complaint: [Someone hears] scratching on the walls at night. Well, you have a nest of raccoons in your attic, for instance. Or, I hear, ‘Every time I come in this room and stand right here, I get this cold chill.’ Yeah, because the air conditioner vent is above you. Duh.”

But when clients do have a supernatural presence in their home, it is not PCI’s job to banish it. Instead, they hope to bring peace to the client, helping whatever entity is in the home coexist with its human dwellers. When asked if most of the spirits haunting clients’ homes are harmful, it touches a nerve in Garcia.

“We’re a Hollywood culture in this country,” he says. “In the last 25 years, there were only three movies that involved a ghost that wasn’t trying to kill someone. That is the very essence of the problem. Our main job is to explain to the client what they’re dealing with and how to deal with it, and to show them there is no need to be afraid.” As Chip Coffey, a famous psychic/medium, told a sellout crowd in Hollywood earlier this year, “Dead people are everywhere. Unless something really freaky is happening, don’t worry about it.”

The night’s investigation began at 10 p.m., with fewer than 20 participants taking turns searching for spirits in the green room, the cinema, the main stage and the prop room. Sequestered in shadowy, cocoonlike spots for the next four hours, the groups received instruction from the PCI staff and were handed ghost-hunting necessities like EMF meters, cameras and digital recorders, which are used to track electromagnetic fields, suspicious images and EVPs, respectively.

“Visual phenomena is very rare here, so don’t expect to see Napoleon jump out in front of you with his funny French hat; that’s not going to happen,” says PCI assistant director Chuck Aurin, who was with the team for two years before he experienced any activity firsthand. “But there are some phenomena that may happen, that could happen, that have happened in the past.”

On this night, nothing happened. Even voice phenomena were absent, and the experience was nothing if not long.

If you watch ghost-hunting shows on TV, you might have the misconception that paranormal investigations are a thrill-a-minute enterprise, where spirits respond to every beck and call, and mysterious sounds greet the intrepid investigators upon entry. But that’s the magic of editing.

Most investigations are more like this: a group of people gathered in stifling spaces, making unanswered requests to an unseen entity, and staring penetratingly at the green light of an EMF reader that rarely, if ever, lights up. The labor usually continues at home, where you sift through hours of digital recordings, hanging on every stray cough or yawn in hope that it’s a sign from the other side.

It’s painstaking process that often does not pay dividends.

Until, that is, the other side decides to speak up.


Ghosts on Tour

John Marc Carr is camped on a creaky front porch outside the Philemon Nathaniel Bryan House in Old Fort Lauderdale Village. The house was built for Bryan, a grove owner, in 1905. Nineteen years later, his wife Lucy slipped on a pea pod while shucking peas on this very porch, dying five days later from a broken pelvis. Since then, she’s continued to haunt the place, and apparently, some friends followed.

Carr, an animated paranormal researcher, is working with an Ovilus PX, a handheld electronic device that converts electromagnetic waves into words. It’s become a must-have item for spiritual communication, having been mentioned or used on five paranormal TV shows.

“Lucy, are you here?” Carr asks, clutching the Ovilus. “Can you talk to us, please? Use this device with the red dot on it. You can talk through this.”

At first, the words that spill from the device seem both random and relevant: Hide … Order … Spirits … Electric … Attic … Milk. After scolding the spirit for “rambling,” Carr adjusts the device to make communication more “difficult” and continues his questioning: “What is my name?”

The response: Enemy.

Later, those on the porch will compare goose bump stories about this moment. Carr is undeterred. “No, no, no. I’m not your enemy. I may be on your porch, but I’m not your enemy.”

Soon enough, the device changes its tune: Friend … Yourself … Endless … Spirits.

“Can one spirit step forward and give us your name?” Carr asked.

Mary … Hyde.

Skeptics in the room are convinced they have witnessed paranormal activity. Carr is accustomed to these sort of conversions. He founded Southeast Florida Ghost Research in 1998, and he still performs free investigations for clients. In 2008, he published the book Haunted Fort Lauderdale, and he’s made his reputation as the founder and guide of the Fort Lauderdale Ghost Tour, a year-round walking tour that takes visitors to nine locations across 10 city blocks along the New River.

Carr’s tour has welcomed more than 34,000 guests since its 2004 inception, and the CBS affiliate in Miami christened it the “Best Ghost Tour in South Florida.” Among the revelations: Frank Stranahan, according to Carr, continues to re-commit his suicide in perpetuity near the famed property—the Stranahan House and Museum—that draws thousands of visitors each year in Fort Lauderdale.

Carr’s own ghost story began as a child on Long Island, where he lived in a haunted house for seven years. “My father decided to make the Cape Cod-style house into a two-story Colonial,” he recalls. “And when we did that, we disturbed something that was happening in the house.” Carr and his brother would hear inexplicable footsteps and doors slamming shut, and they’d see doorknobs turn of their own volition. Their family eventually called a Catholic priest to bless the house with holy water.

The experience planted the seed in Carr that has grown into a career. Southeast Florida Ghost Research meets monthly in a Wilton Manors library, and currently it only has a handful of members. Many others have come and gone, perhaps expecting fireworks and receiving only the faint, garbled, questionable spurts of communication, collected over hours or days of time, that has become the ghost hunter’s lot in life.

“Some people join the group, and they find it boring,” he says. “And I can understand that. Sometimes I’m out there, and I don’t think I have anything whatsoever, and then I pack up and I go home. Then when I review the evidence, that’s when we start getting things.

“But some people are impatient. They want to see flaming heads running through the hallways. It doesn’t work like that.”


A Ghostly Glossary

Want to be a paranormal investigator? Here are a few terms you absolutely must know.

Cold spot: An area of extreme cold in any given space, which may mean the presence of a spirit passing through.

Earthbound: Term for a spirit that, for whatever reason, has not crossed over to the “other side,” and remains shackled in the world of the living.

EMF meter: Reads the amount of electromagnetic frequency pulsing through a given place. Paranormal investigators believe ghosts change the electrical current of the atmosphere, thus causing movement on the meter.

EVP: Stands for “electronic voice phenomena”—brief, electronically generated words or phrases that appear on digital recordings, which some think represent spirits communicating with the living.

Full body apparition: A spirit that has manifested itself in a humanoid form, sometimes as a shadow and other times as a flesh-and-blood person. This is the Holy Grail of ghost hunters.

Orb: A flash of light that appears on photographic images and may indicate the spirit of a deceased person. Because there are many natural reasons for visual phenomena to appear on an image, this is one of the more dubious forms of evidence.

Provoking: Using provocative or harsh language to incite a response from an entity. Example: “We know what you can do; what are you waiting for? Show yourself!”


Local Haunts

Check out these other Palm Beach County locales, which have a history of paranormal activity.

  • Boca Raton Inlet: A young woman is said to have been buried near the marina; apparitions, localized changes in temperature and orbs have been reported.
  • The Blue Anchor Pub (804 E. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach): The Travel Channel named this historic landmark “Florida’s Most Haunted Pub” in 2004. At the original Blue Anchor, a notorious Chancery Lane watering hole in London, a woman named Bertha Sharkey was stabbed to death by her jealous husband. Bertha is said to have traveled 4,000 miles to haunt the reconstructed Blue Anchor in Delray Beach. Owner Lee Harrison has cited footsteps on the ceiling, the shattering of half-inch-thick glass on the anniversary of Bertha’s demise, and candles extinguishing themselves and re-igniting moments later.
  • The Riddle House at South Florida Fairgrounds (9067 Southern Blvd., West Palm Beach): Investigators from the Travel Channel’s “Ghost Adventures” investigated this historic building in the Fairgrounds’ Yesteryear Village in 2008, and they walked away rattled and spooked. The building is reportedly haunted by the nasty spirit of a worker who hung himself at the turn of the century. Objects have moved by themselves, employees have claimed that their hair was pulled, and full-body apparitions in period clothing have been spotted.
  • Holiday Inn Express (480 W. Boynton Beach Blvd., Boynton Beach): Guests have spotted numerous apparitions roaming the hallways, and employees have confirmed that the hotel is a supernatural hot spot. The most common explanation: The hotel was built on an old Native American burial ground.
  • Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum (500 Captain Armours Way, Jupiter): Visitors have reported feeling hands pressed against their shoulders, along with cold spots and unexplained noises.
  • Our Lady Queen of Peace Cemetery (10941 Southern Blvd., Royal Palm Beach): Strange shapes and orbs have been spotted on foggy nights in this Catholic cemetery, though Administrator Thomas J. Jordan has not heard, firsthand, of any paranormal occurrences. “But I do find it comforting to consider that some of our loved ones are continuing to watch over us and pray for us as we carry out our ministry,” he says.

Note: Reference material included information from

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