Metropolis: Wednesday, October 26, 2005
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Not at all spooky: Central Market, the site of the regular meetings of the Society for the Paranormal Investigation.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Spirited Away

Ghost hunters — scientific and psychic — comb Cowtown.

By PABLO LASTRA

The sink is gurgling in Clyde’s room.

That’s the Bonnie and Clyde Room actually, No. 305 at the Stockyards Hotel. On a balmy September night, the sound brings Terri Robinson’s historical monologue to a halt. Her little group goes over to stare down at the fixture. After all, this is the room that some people say retains more of Clyde Barrow’s visit in 1932 than just the newspaper clippings and Bonnie’s poem on the wall, and the revolver he dropped outside. (Clyde left without checking out properly, lawmen hot on his trail.)

Hotel housekeepers say guests have complained that a ghostly presence gets in bed with them at night. One group reported that the water in the sink mysteriously started flowing, and they saw a young woman in turn-of-the-century garb in the mirror.

Is the spirit of the infamous outlaw coming back through the porcelain, looking for another chilly cuddle? Joel-Anthony Gray has brought along his ghost-hunting instruments — an electromagnetic field meter, a Gauss-meter and a night-shot camera — for just this eventuality.

But, no, Gray says after a moment. “The pipes are probably backed up.”

Ah, well — another potentially thrilling paranormal sighting, explained by the plumbing. That’s usually what happens, says Gray, who packs a certain amount of skepticism along with his various meters: The ghost turns out to be nothing more than normal phenomena that mutate into the paranormal through the power of suggestion.

Still, the gurgle was part of the fun on Robinson’s ghost tour of the Stockyards, apparently one of the most ghost-ridden parts of Fort Worth. And beyond such tours are the semi-professional groups like Gray’s Society for Paranormal Investigation that examine potentially haunted locations with expensive equipment and meticulous scrutiny of archeologists. As it turns out, Fort Worth has plenty of such places. The ghostly sites — and the hunters — are out there.

On another night, the ghost hunters meet at the unspooky Central Market. About 25 people have gathered — not counting Les, who may or may not be present.

The folks get together once a month to exchange notes on equipment, locations, and so forth. But the biggest item on the agenda this night concerns recently departed colleague Roger “Les” Ramsdell, who hosted Paranormal Edge, a show that ran on Clarke Hutchinson’s internet radio station, Landz Edge.

Melody Phillips, a relative newcomer, interrupts a speaker to announce that she feels Les’ presence. “Les is here,” she says. “I asked the pendulum and got the right answer.”

The conversation stops for a moment, then resumes. It’s just the latest example of a major split in the ghost-hunting scene between the scientific and the psychic camps. The former uses empirical measurements to try to determine ghostly activity. The latter relies on more esoteric techniques. The skeptics allege that psychics almost always find paranormal activity, whereas the science-based hunters almost never find anything conclusive.

Hutchinson and Ramsdell had been working on a tv program that would “show the reality of ghost hunting” — as opposed to the slick, marketable, and dependably dramatic shows already out there. Hutchinson is hoping to carry on with the idea. “I’d like to produce at least five episodes of the shows locally, with area locations and ghost hunters,” he said.

Veteran ghost hunters say a recent explosion of the scene has been fed by and feeds the deluge of ghost shows already on the air. Long after Ghostbusters, Hollywood has taken notice of outfits like SPI, producing a stream of tv shows about hauntings, from the Travel Channel’s America’s Most Haunted Places, to the Sci-Fi Channel’s Ghost Hunters.

The shows are a topic of hot debate. Gray said that most give a wildly skewed view of ghost hunting. There was, for example, the Port Townsend hotel that he investigated. Producers for the Discovery Channel later embellished the tale. “They use dramatic camera angles and spooky music. It’s embarrassing to watch, and it can be insulting,” he said. “I think most of the time it’s staged.” That haunting, Gray found out, was made up by the hotel’s bartender. Coincidentally, the “haunted” room was also the hotel’s most expensive.

Hutchinson said his show will be different. “Our goal is to not make it very artificial, not a lot of fighting, drama, or that stuff,” he said. “It will be real.”

Still, the latest episode of Ghost Hunters was a popular topic at the Central Market meeting, the criticism mixed with a hint of jealousy. The G.H. team has the latest equipment, not to mention plenty of time to investigate. In reality, Gray said, ghost hunting is not a professional calling but an expensive and time-consuming hobby at best.

Gray, 36, started SPI in 2002, when he moved back to his hometown of Dallas after spending two years in Seattle, where he first delved into paranormal investigation. His ambition was to bring together the science and the “spiritual context,” of hauntings as opposed to relying on more mystical techniques like séances or ouija boards, which he likens to “putting out an APB” to the spirit world. “I’m the biggest skeptic,” Gray said. “I tend to dismiss a lot of things like photographs or audio tapes.”

An SPI investigation begins with interviews of those who report the haunting, to determine if the phenomena might be the result of psychological hang-ups. Then research specialist John Hemmert pores over old newspaper articles and building plans to see if there’s a historical basis for the haunting. From there, the field team — Gray and up to three colleagues — takes over, trying to document the haunting through video, audio, and various technical measurements.

A recent investigation involved a man whose daughter experienced phenomena at home after playing with a ouija board. Gray and his assistant director interviewed the young woman. “We found that she had issues with her parents’ divorce years earlier,” Gray said. “Her father would tell her a bedtime story about a woman who waited for her lover at a bridge and drowned herself when he didn’t show up.”

Gray theorized that a hallway acted like the bridge in the story and that the source of the haunting was water from a well underneath. “It was an artificial ghost she had created with her dad’s help, rooted in her fear of the distance between her old life and her new life and keeping her family together,” he said.

But all ghost hunters live for the jackpot: being in the presence of a spirit or a ghost and documenting it. It’s an experience that rarely happens. In fact, Gray, and Hemmert speak most often of the times when they missed by seconds a ghost their friends had seen.

Locals chatter on the internet about haunted locations, with various groups documenting the sites they have investigated. Gray said Fort Worth is richer in paranormal activity than Dallas. “Fort Worth is better about preserving its history, and people are more open to the paranormal,” he said.

The Stockyards, befitting its rich history, has had various ghost spottings, most of them covered in Terri Robinson’s tour. There’s the Swift meatpacking plant, where explorers have reported sightings of a girl and a man, as well as toilets that flush themselves. The big now-empty building at the east end of Exchange is private property and off-limits to investigators. Cattlemen’s Steakhouse displays a picture of a purported ghost taken in the Christmas season “one or two years ago.” Rumor has it Riscky’s is haunted as well, but the owners don’t want any attention called to that fact.

And of course there’s the Stockyards Hotel, where at least three rooms, including Clyde’s, are said to be haunted. Robinson, who’s been giving the popular tour for two years, doesn’t guarantee any ghost sightings. “I don’t try to give people false experiences,” she said. The tour includes an audio tape that Robinson plays of an investigation she conducted there. “It’s very hard to hear,” Robinson said. “but there’s like a faint whisper at one point, and a baby crying, and I swear I didn’t hear that until I played the tape later.”

But the local holy grail for hauntings is the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells, now closed to the public. Several spirits are said to reside in it — including, possibly, Les. “Les always said he’d go to the Baker to see all the things he wanted to see,” said Hutchinson. l


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