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Understanding the unexplainable: A deeper look at the paranormal profession

Memory Belem photo illustration

Memory Belem, co-founder of Raven Paranormal, poses for a portrait March 7 at the Times-News photo studio in Twin Falls. Belem's connection to the paranormal began when she was 7 years old. She would often wake to the sight of shadowed figures standing all around her.

In a dark corner of an upstairs bathroom, Jake Hess adjusted the knob of his radio and searched for a station with the right amount of white noise.

“What do you want?” Hess asked of the darkness, unsure if it would answer. The radio clicked and crackled with static. Somewhere from the other side, a voice responded.

“You know what I want.”

Throughout history, a fascination with the unknown has piqued the curiosity of millions. Stories of spirits trapped in this world proliferate across the globe. The tales may differ, but the core beliefs typically remain the same. Written accounts date back to as early as A.D. 61 and cultural celebrations pre-date that. The past paints a clear picture of the certainty of ghosts, but the present questions their existence. Could there be any truth to the tales of old?

Popularly implausible

A 2013 Huffington Post poll shows that about 45 percent of Americans believe in ghosts, a reflection of pop culture’s obsession with the unknown. Season 17 of “Ghost Adventures” — Travel Channel’s paranormal investigation show — premiered in October, for example, with more than 800,000 viewers, according to TV By The Numbers and showbuzzdaily.com.

The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) receives between 600 and 1,000 new case requests each day. Last year, the web page had more than 60 million visitors, making it the most popular paranormal site in the world.

The society started with Jason Hawes and a few friends in 1990 and gained attention in the paranormal field for not charging for their services and ruling out environmental issues first.

Dakota Frandsen at work

Paranormal Investigator Dakota Frandsen goes over some of his findings on his laptop Feb. 13 at the Twin Falls Public Library,

Today it is the leading paranormal organization in the country. It consists of groups in 14 foreign countries and 72 groups in the U.S., including one in Idaho.

“It’s a huge network of people working together to further the field,” Hawes said.

Each group must meet a list of requirements to gain membership. Some of these prerequisites include providing services free of charge, passing a criminal background check and submitting past case referrals.

“They’re all held to a higher standard,” he said.

While interest in the subject is widespread, an over-abundance of skepticism continues to shackle spirits to the realm of fantasy.

Hess, co-founder of Jerome-based Raven Paranormal, said many people he talks to admit they’ve had a personal paranormal experience, but if questioned further, they often become embarrassed and change the subject.

“Their eyes get really big and they begin to back away slowly,” he said. “People don’t feel comfortable talking about this.”

Hawes, lead investigator on the former show Ghost Hunters, said hauntings are a widely accepted part of the culture in England and Ireland. Spirits are an expected occurrence in extremely old, historically significant buildings. The United States, on the other hand, is another story entirely.

“For whatever reason, over here it has become a very taboo subject,” he said.

Ghost Hunters aired from 2004 to 2016. While the show got a lot of attention, creators of the show had merely intended to shed light on a subject not openly discussed.

“TAPS existed for 15 years prior to the TV show, and it will exist for years after the show,” Hawes said. “In the 13 years that Ghost Hunters ran, we took a subject that people were embarrassed to talk about and opened the door.”

A haunted history

From Egypt to Rome and China to Ireland, tales of spirits returning from the dead stretch across the globe. Many civilizations with no way of communicating with each other describe ghosts in the same manner. Why do some cultures share such similar beliefs?

“These are people from all over the world, all different walks of life, who have had completely different experiences,” Hess said. “How is it possible they all see the same things for thousands of years?”

Spirit Photography

Double exposure, the act of overlaying one photo on top of another, is the original spirit photography trick. Photographer William Mumler is credited with creating the first spirit photograph with this technique in the early 1860s. He was later accused of fraud and put on trial, where P.T. Barnum testified against him.

The oldest written account of ghosts comes from a letter written by Roman Magistrate Pliny the Younger between 61 and 113. Complete collections of Pliny’s letters have been published in several anthologies, but a particular letter of interest comes from Book 7, letter 27.

In the letter, addressed to Roman Senator Licinius Sura, Pliny recounts the story of Philosopher Athenodorus as he visits a haunted home in Athens.

“A phantom appeared in the form of an old man, extremely meager and squalid, with a long beard and bristling hair; rattling the gyves on his feet and hands,” Pliny writes.

The philosopher followed the apparition into the backyard where it dissipated into the earth. The next day, after digging a hole in the spot where the spirit disappeared, searchers discovered bones bound in chains, which the city paid to lay to rest. From that point on the house was no longer haunted.

In the 1860s, a spiritualist movement took off in England and France, according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica. High-born and low-born alike held séances to contact spirits — again, confirming the fascination with the dead.

During this time, amateur American photographer William Mumler created what is said to be the first photograph of a spirit. The image depicts Mumler sitting in a chair with what appears to be a translucent woman standing next to him. The image garnered a lot of interest — along with a great deal of skepticism — but the art of spirit photography brought the paranormal to the forefront of public interest.

And, for the first time in history, people began to investigate the paranormal from a scientific standpoint.

Mumler was later accused of fraud and tried in court, however, at which time Barnum & Bailey Circus Founder P.T. Barnum testified against him. Barnum produced a fake photograph of himself with the deceased Abraham Lincoln, trying to prove Mumler a fraud. Mumler was eventually acquitted of the charges, but his profession as a spirit photographer was over.

Soon, organizations such as the Ghost Club, founded in 1862, and the Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1882, emerged. Their primary focus was to investigate claims of the unknown with a scientific approach.

Both organizations have been credited throughout the years for debunking numerous mediums, psychics and spirit photographers. The Society for Psychical Research still exists to this day, headquartered in London.

In search of answers

To combat the critics, paranormal investigators have turned to science to corroborate their claims. After consulting with three separate paranormal investigation groups in the Magic Valley, the consensus is unanimous. To prove the existence of ghosts, an investigator must first disprove everything else.

Hawes said that 80 percent of all claims can be disproven. The remaining percentage doesn’t prove the existence ghosts. It just means whatever is happening can’t be explained.

“The paranormal includes everything that is beyond what we understand,” he said. An example of this is how electromagnetic fields used to be considered paranormal because they weren’t understood by science.

“We look for all the answers, not just the ones we want to see,” said Rob Miller, owner and founder of Idaho Paranormal Truth Seekers.

Miller’s team, based out of Shoshone, comprises each investigative group with skeptics and believers to ensure no person’s bias will affect the outcome.

Dakota Frandsen, Specialist of the Strange

Dakota Frandsen, Specialist of the Strange, poses for a portrait March 7 in Twin Falls. Frandsen conducted his first paranormal investigation at 14. Since then he has published nine books on the subject and averages three cases a month.

“I want to find the facts and only the facts,” he said. “I don’t want to feed into something that isn’t there.”

An avid fan of paranormal television shows, Miller understands the frustration of only seeing one angle. He said he founded the Idaho Paranormal Truth Seekers because the television shows felt fake, as if the action was always happening off-screen.

“Everything I do is covered, 360 degrees,” Miller said. “Everyone in the room is covered.”

By doing this, Miller says he takes the “what if” out of the equation because everything is on camera. Miller said approximately 50 percent of his cases involve something he cannot explain.

“We’re trying to eliminate any human contamination to the recordings and videos,” he said. Contamination can be as simple as someone walking around and accidentally manipulating the audio to people literally installing speakers in their walls in hopes of getting their fifteen minutes of fame.

Many spooky bumps in the night actually have natural or rational causes. Because of this, a thorough inspection of the premises is standard practice, one that Hess uses.

Raven Paranormal begins every investigation with an inspection: If an old heating unit is the culprit of strange noises, Hess wants to know about it ahead of time.

“If you tell yourself that a place is haunted, you’re going to go in expecting to see something crazy that you can’t explain,” Hess said. That sort of mentality can cause amateurs to falsely claim the normal as paranormal. As a preventative measure, all normal explanations are ruled out ahead of time.

“Being a paranormal investigator, a big part of that is taking a skeptical, scientific approach,” Hess said. Hess and co-founder Memory Belem, started investigating the paranormal three years ago. Everything they do is documented, both on camera and in written notes. Every location is researched and evaluated.

Digging deeper

Once environmental issues have been ruled out, the next step is to assess the mental health of the client. Delusions are a common thread among many forms of mental illness, and justifying them with unnecessary attention can cause more harm than good.

Twin Falls’ Dakota Frandsen, self-proclaimed Specialist of the Strange, utilizes police contacts and background searches to check for possible drug use, domestic violence and abuse.

“The first thing I try to do is eliminate all possibilities before trying to claim that the dead are among us,” Frandsen said.

“Out of every 100 houses, maybe five have something legitimate,” he said.

Hawes takes this approach a step further. With the permission of the client, cameras are installed in the home days before the actual investigation. This allows him to observe the family for signs of mental illness or drug abuse. In the rare case, it also helps him weed out clients seeking attention by trying to fake a paranormal encounter.

Raven Paranormal group

From left, Shane McKay, Jake Hess, Memory Belem and Brandi McKay, all co-founders of Raven Paranormal, listen to audio recordings from prior investigations Feb. 19 at Hess' home in Jerome.

TAPS investigations can last weeks or months, depending on the situation. Each family goes through an interview process and a preliminary inspection. Members of the family are cross-examined individually to check for consistencies in their stories. To keep the team unbiased, a location is not researched until after the investigation.

“I’m trying to go in without being contaminated by something I’ve read,” Hawes said. If they researched ahead of time and discovered a boy named Tim died in a fire, the investigation would automatically focus on that, he explained. The burden of knowledge can cause the mind to start connecting or interpreting information to falsely bolster a preconceived story.

Alternatively, if they record audio that sounds like Tim talking about the fire, and later find a true story that backs up their claim, the evidence has more validity. Hawes believes this method allows his team to uphold a level of legitimacy sometimes lacking in other groups.

“There are a lot of investigators out there who aren’t going to dig deeper and that really hurts the field,” Hawes said.

By going the extra mile in the hunt for the unknown, investigators are able to take a scientific approach to a topic many would consider fiction. Only through a combination of skepticism, careful documentation and diligent research can credible evidence be collected.

Ghost gear

Motionless in the dark, the cameras silently roll. This is the typical atmosphere of a paranormal investigation.

“You’re going to sit,” Miller said. “You’re not going to be walking around making a bunch of noise.”

Some of the television shows lead viewers to believe an investigation involves running through an abandoned building, dodging flying objects as spirits chase you. That scenario is more in line with a Scooby Doo cartoon than a real ghost hunt.

To avoid discrediting their recordings, investigators need to stay as quiet as possible. This usually results in them sitting in the same spot for hours on end. The only noise is an occasional question from the dark.

“When you catch stuff on camera, be it stills or video, you look for intelligent responses,” Hess said. In order for something to respond, investigators must first pose a question.

Questions can range from simple statements such as, “Are you here?” and “What is your name?” to more complex inquiries. Some investigators will ask spirits to send them a sign either by showing themselves or moving a particular object in the room.

Raven Paranormal

Jake Hess, right, shows some photographic evidence to Shane McKay on Feb. 19 at Hess' home in Jerome. Hess and McKay co-founded Raven Paranormal with Memory Belem and Brandi McKay.

The general rule is to keep it simple. Communication from the other side, if possible, is a difficult task to accomplish. When responses are limited to only a few words, it’s important to ensure that they count.

To capture those responses, investigators need the right equipment for the job. Ghost hunting gear differs from group to group. Opinions on what works varies as much as the gear itself. Electromagnetic field readers and electronic voice phenomena recorders are just some of the gadgets. Others include Ouija boards to contact the dead and spirit boxes, portals that amplify nearly inaudible electronic voices.

“There is nothing to verify whether or not this equipment can actually do the job,” Frandsen said.

At best, investigations are a stab in the dark at what might work. Ghost hunters have claimed results with the full spectrum of gear, but without being able to consistently reproduce those findings, it is difficult to credit any equipment as the proper gear to use.

Because of this, professionals recommend starting with the basics.

“Some groups will say the best thing you can have is just a pen and a piece of paper,” Frandsen said. Diligent note taking will help document and categorize your findings, but it doesn’t aid in proving the existence of spirits. For that, more gear is required.

Cameras and audio recorders are unanimously recognized across all groups. At the very least, they’re able to document what the investigators are doing to prove the evidence hasn’t been fabricated.

TAPS utilizes thermal imaging cameras, motion detectors, electromagnetic field gauges and ion chargers, to name a few items on their extensive equipment list. When nothing is guaranteed to work, sometimes it’s better to try it all.

“It’s not like there’s equipment that’s specifically designed for this field,” Hawes said. “You have to take equipment and adjust it for your needs.”

Hawes even designs and manufactures some of his own gear. One piece of equipment currently in the works will send out signals on numerous frequencies. The intention is for this device to help investigators identify the frequencies on which paranormal communication typically occurs.

Surprisingly, most of the gear that Hawes uses is not intended to catch ghosts. Electromagnetic field readers — the first piece of equipment that people associate with ghost hunters — have no credible evidence to support that they detect spirits.

What they do detect, however, are electromagnetic fields. As Hawes explains, some people are especially sensitive to high magnetic fields. That sensitivity can cause skin irritations, blurred vision and even hallucinations in extreme cases.

The World Health Organization refers to this as Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS), although the evidence remains inconclusive.

Electromagnetic field gauges can be useful on an investigation, just not in the way that many people imagine.

“We’re using those not to find a ghost, but to find what’s affecting the homeowners in the first place,” Hawes said. Much of the gear that Hawes uses focuses on ruling out environmental variables, not capturing spirits.

With a wide array of gear and no concrete reasons to believe it works, amateurs often feel overwhelmed.

Fortunately, professionals can offer some help. They don’t always agree on the equipment, but many do agree on what they believe to be scams.

Hawes, Frandsen, Hess and Miller all agree that “ghost apps” on your smartphone are a waste of time and money. Similarly, ghost boxes — devices used to communicate with the dead — have been widely discredited in the field.

The main reason is that these gadgets involve pre-recorded messages and continuous scanning of radio frequencies. You’re guaranteed to get a response, just not from the dead.

“A lot of it can end up like a paranormal placebo,” Frandsen said. “If you think it’s going to work, then it will work.”

Spiritual scams have occurred for hundreds of years. If there is money to be made, people will distort beliefs to sell their products. The only way to protect yourself is to look at how the item works with a rational mindset.

“The most important tool anyone can use when going into this is common sense,” Hawes said.

Drawn to the dead

So what is it that attracts so many people to this idea of the unknown? Is it intrigue, personal encounters, or perhaps just a sense of adventure?

“People have always had a natural curiosity,” Frandsen said. “Belief in spirits and higher beings has existed for thousands of years.”

Hawes believes the public fascination is a reflection of our own mortality. Whether or not something exists after death is one of the biggest fears people face.

Raven Paranormal

Jake Hess sits next to his homemade Ouija board as he listens to the radio for electronic voice phenomenon Feb. 19 at his home in Jerome.

“Believing there’s something after this is a much more pleasant thought,” he said.

As far as those who investigate the unknown, a personal link to the paranormal is a common launching point for ghost hunters.

Hess, at 12 years old, saw the apparition of his deceased brother, who died before Hess was born.

“For whatever crazy reason, in that moment I knew who it was,” he said.

His partner, Belem, says she has been haunted by spirits since she was 7 years old. She has often woken up in the night surrounded by shadowed figures.

“For a long time I thought maybe I was crazy,” she said. It wasn’t until she met like-minded individuals and began researching that she discovered she wasn’t the only one with these experiences.

Frandsen encountered his first residual haunting when he was 9 years old. A residual haunting is the supernatural equivalent of a song stuck on repeat. Spirits move through the motions of whatever event they’re trapped in, oblivious to everything else around them.

Three years later, a near-death experience solidified Frandsen’s belief in the paranormal. Before being resuscitated, a little girl visited him who called him daddy. He has searched for answers ever since.

Hawes’ history with the unknown began in the late ‘80s. Prior to that, he never considered himself a fan of spirits or ghosts.

“I was just someone who never really thought about the paranormal,” he said. After his encounter, everything changed. “I wanted to dig deeper.”

Individual experiences push investigators to pursue the unknown, but the reasons they continue in the profession are far more diverse.

Miller, skeptical of the television shows, is determined to prove them wrong. It’s not that he doesn’t believe in ghosts; he just doesn’t believe in the validity of what the television shows present. Miller wants to prove the paranormal on his own terms.

“That’s why I call it truth seekers, because I’m after the truth,” he said.

Hawes hopes to advance the paranormal industry and help others understand. With the size and scope of TAPS, that dream is well on its way.

“We’re a unified front,” he said. “Everyone is working together to try and assist each other and push the field forward.”

For Hess, the thrill of the chase is what calls to him. From the technical side to exploration, he enjoys every aspect of the hunt.

“I love science. The only thing I like more than science are the things that science can’t explain, and that’s what really drives me,” he said.

As an avid enthusiast of history, the paranormal profession allows Hess to explore older buildings and areas inaccessible to the general public. He explained that each individual person has their own story. By looking into the past and researching the paranormal, Hess immerses himself in the history around him.

“We get to experience a little bit of someone who was here before us,” he said.

Even on nights when no contact is made, Hess said he enjoys the time with his friends. Every investigation brings with it an opportunity for camaraderie and laughter, even if it is at the ghost hunters’ own expense.

“There is no one in the world who’s more aware than we are of how dumb we look walking around in the dark talking to no one,” he said.

From past to present, an uncertain future

Still viewed by many as guys in jumpsuits with proton packs fictionalized in the 1984 film “Ghostbusters,” the field of paranormal investigators has faced an uphill battle.

Positive steps are being made toward legitimizing the field, but much more still needs to happen for science to accept the spiritual.

Hess isn’t sure if he’ll ever be able to provide proof, but that doesn’t stop him from trying.

“I don’t honestly think anyone ever will (provide proof),” he said. “It’s just one of those things you can’t hand hard copy to someone and say there you go, definitive proof.”

Frandsen, on the other hand, believes it is just a matter of time.

“The reason ghosts haven’t been proven yet is because we haven’t found the right way to prove it,” he said. Since ghost hunting gear is not guaranteed to do the job and arguments ensue over what qualifies as a ghost, proving one’s existence can be a troublesome predicament.

“Some people will never believe unless they witness it with their own eyes,” Hawes said. “I firmly believe I’ve caught proof, but people need to draw their own conclusions with each piece of evidence.”

Spirit Photography

A long exposure is one of the traditional methods for creating a spirit photograph. A moving subject will appear translucent in the frame, giving the appearance of an apparition. One of the most famous long-exposure spirit photographs was taken by Sybell Corbet in 1891. The picture depicts what many believed to be the ghost of Lord Combermere, but with an hour-long exposure it is much more likely a servant accidentally moved through the frame.

A major criticism surrounding the industry is the lack of a concrete definition of a ghost. Hess believes orbs of light qualify, whereas Hawes does not. Some say ghosts can walk through walls while others take the poltergeist approach and argue they can move objects.

Are they humanoid? Translucent? Emotional? From residual to intelligent-type haunts, possibilities vary as much as opinions on the subject.

Despite disbelief and dissenting viewpoints, Hawes is hopeful for the future of the industry. Proving their existence is the ultimate goal, but it isn’t the reason most investigators get out of bed every morning. That boils down to a much more human response.

“We’re here to help people,” Miller said.

Whether it’s to rid your house of spirits or just validate that you’re not insane, ghost hunters’ driving goal is to assist the client. That’s why they don’t charge for their services.

“We get contacted by everyone from senators and millionaires to people barely scraping by in trailers,” Hawes said. “You have to be there for everyone in need.”

And as long as there’s a need, someone will be there. The only question you have to ask is, ‘Who you gonna call?’

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