Saturday, July 16, 2011

Defying skeptics, Las Vegas teams trudge forward to investigate paranormal activity

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LAS VEGAS — "You're just disgusting," yells the man pacing back and forth between the darkened bedroom and bathroom. "I hate you, you coward."
He's not speaking to anyone in the room, but to everything, the walls.
"Show yourself."
The man, a 20-year-old named Michael, has seen "it" countless times over the past five years. A 6-foot-tall "shadow man," he and his family call the intruder.
The figure walks down the stairs and stands there, staring down a hallway at Michael sitting in the living room.
"It's not out of the corner of my eye anymore," Michael said earlier that night. "He sees me and stands there for three to four seconds, then goes back upstairs."
His mom has seen it in her bedroom more than anywhere else. But she doesn't want the word getting out that she sees ghosts. That's a stigma she doesn't want wrapped around her family.
She allowed a reporter in her house, but only on the condition that the family's last name not be used. It's a condition requested by all the folks who have been haunted in this story and for the same reason.
Four full-spectrum cameras -- seeing through the dark of night -- catch Michael's every move. Their cords snake across the carpet, down the stairs, along a hallway, and into the kitchen, feeding into a flat-screen monitor on the table. There, paranormal investigator Kelly Elkins sits, watching the live footage with a couple other members of his team.
"Does this stuff work? We don't know," he says, referring to all the ghosthunters' tools, such as electromagnetic-force detectors called K-II meters.
Approximately two dozen paranormal investigation teams are operating across the valley. And most of the ghosthunters have normal careers -- nurses, police officers, aircraft mechanics, truck drivers, chefs and more. They keep their day jobs because they must. And they don't charge a dime to investigate. If they did, clients would become suspicious. It's more of a passion, a hobby.
These teams consistently receive calls from local home and business owners who have claimed to exhaust all normal explanations. They now look to the paranormal.
A sudden increase in electromagnetic levels is supposed to suggest a spirit trying to communicate. Investigators tell spirits to make the meter peak twice to answer yes and once for no. A device also throws a grid of green laser dots onto the walls. The idea is that any disruption of the dots would suggest something is there.
"We're looking for something, consistent feedback, a pattern," says Elkins, a thick-figured man with long hair and a chest tattoo poking through the collar of his shirt. "We're still in the infancy of our understanding. This is a pseudoscience."
THE PARANORMAL FOOD CHAIN
But amateur investigators aren't doing anything close to science, asserted professor Gary Schwartz of the University of Arizona in Tucson. Schwartz is one of the few "parapsychologists" working at a U.S. public university. The fringe sub-discipline of psychology attempts to scientifically prove the paranormal through controlled experiments.
Schwartz knows of only one other public school, the University of Virginia, with a lab doing similar research.
But even Schwartz, a former Yale University psychology professor with a doctorate from Harvard University, isn't accepted by his peers. Mainstream scientists look down on Schwartz in the same way that Schwartz disregards weekend hunters, claiming their experiments are flawed and the results willed.
Wallie Luna, founder of Las Vegas Paranormal Authority, said the best weekend hunters aren't quick to buy into ghost stories. They start out assuming the explanation is natural.
"We are very skeptical, yet we are believers," said Luna, whose team conducts an intensive interview on every potential client.
Sometimes, people mix medications. Others watch too many ghost-adventure shows, he said. The simplest explanation is often the truth. Even in the rare case when a call seems promising and an investigation ensues, Luna's team finds supporting evidence only 20 percent of the time.
"It's rare, very rare," he said, and the evidence is never a ghost caught on tape but the so-called crumbs left behind.
THERE'S NEVER PROOF
"The worst thing a client can hear is ..." Elkins said, pausing, "... 'Nothing's here.'?"
It's a surprising reaction that investigator Brian Purdy has also noticed.
"They want to be told it's paranormal. That's why we're there," said the founder of Elite Vegas Paranormal Society. "There's never proof. That being said, I have stuff on film and tape that there's no explanation for."
"And they're afraid it's going to escalate," Purdy said. "Somehow, their dream home, their sanctuary, is going to become a nightmare."
That was the case for Las Vegas resident Hugh. His 18-year-old son, a straight-A student entering the Air Force, was being bullied but wouldn't tell Hugh for almost a month.
"He was horribly embarrassed," Hugh said. "He was waking up at 2 in the morning to footsteps in the room and breathing on his neck."
His son originally thought it might just be a convincing dream, but it kept happening. And then his bed began shaking when he was wide awake. He got up and turned on the lights.
That's when Hugh called the four-man team of Ghost Town Operations. They came over and claimed they used the electromagnetic-force meter to communicate with the spirit, asking him questions. They told him to spike the meter twice for yes and once for no.
"We found out that he didn't like the boys or Hugh at all," team member John Cushman said.
After a night in the house, Cushman told Hugh that the spirit was the father of his fiancée, which surprised Hugh. He never told the team about her father, who died before the couple had met and was described as protective. Hugh and his sons had recently moved into the fiancée's house.
"I tried to explain to him (the ghost) that Hugh loves his daughter," Cushman said.
Hugh hasn't had any problems since then. Clients aren't the only ones with vulnerable reputations.
"My friend looked straight in my eyes and said, 'You believe in that,'?" investigator Luna said. "I thought you were smarter than that. That hit me in the heart."
STRUGGLING AGAINST STATUS-QUO SCIENCE
Ray Hyman, emeritus psychology professor at the University of Oregon, is parapsychology's most noted critic. He doesn't believe in ghosts, but said that's not the issue.
"This flies in the face of reality," he said, claiming Schwartz' findings are flawed. "There's no evidence for it. The brain creates these experiences, these ghosts."
Schwartz is seeing what he wants to see, Hyman said. But even doubting scientists realize they aren't all-knowing.
"If they are able to prove it, they'll be the Isaac Newtons of the new world," Hyman said.
That incentive keeps these fringe scientists going.
"We used to think the Earth was flat. We were wrong," Schwartz said. "Our perception is very limited."
And so, Elkins sits in front of his monitor, watching a split screen of four live video feeds. He remains there into the darkest hours of morning, looking for something. But he doesn't know what. Something not normal.
Even Elkins doesn't know whether he believes in ghosts.

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