Ghost writer

Katherine Ramsland talks about her hair-raising experiences tape-recording the voices of the dead and photographing ectoplasm.

Published November 1, 2001 12:09AM (EST)

Friedrich Jurgenson was one of the first people to use EVP, or electronic voice phenomenon, to record the voices of "ghosts." When Jurgenson passed away, he was sure to let his fellow ghost hunters know what he was learning on the other side. The Jurgenson-like voice that experimenters caught on tape said, "All your scientific, medical or biological speculations miss the mark."

What exactly Jurgenson was talking about, whether that was really Jurgenson talking and whether EVP really records the voices of dead people is anyone's guess. But Katherine Ramsland, author of "Piercing the Darkness: Undercover with Vampires in America Today" and "Prism of the Night," a biography of Anne Rice, believes that Jurgenson might know something that we of the living world do not. Ramsland has met with ghost hunters, psychics and "mediums" during her enthusiastic quest to stare down a specter, traveling from New Orleans to Gettysburg in search of popular spirit hangouts. She's also set out on her own, using her own equipment and her own judgment, to tell the difference between cloudy breath on a cold day and ectoplasm, or to detect whether what appears to be a lens flare in a photograph is actually an orb -- the real thing.

Salon spoke to Ramsland by telephone at her home in Bethlehem, Pa., about her latest book, "Ghost: Investigating the Other Side."

What is a ghost hunter and what do they do?

A ghost hunter is someone who goes out to a reputedly haunted site to see if they can get photographs or see something or have an experience like feel coldness all around or have something push them. Or they try to get EVP -- electronic voice phenomenon. That is where you get voices on tape that you can't hear.

So a person standing in a particular spot can't hear the voices but on the tape the voices come through?

That's right.

And how is that explained?

They claim that tape recorders can pick up things that our ears can't. Engineers have actually explained this -- EVP has quite a long history. It goes back to the first tape recorders, when people inadvertently got these voices and couldn't figure what they were. A few people recognized the voices of dead people who they knew and realized something was going on. There's been quite a lot of research on this, mostly in Europe and Russia. It's not necessarily that the voices answer questions, although I have had that experience, but often they just make a comment about what you're wearing or how you look. They may say, "Help." They may say, "Get out."

You had a ghost answer a question?

There's been a number of times where it seems to be an answer to a question. For example, I went into a cemetery in Lancaster, Pa., at night when no one was around, and asked if anyone wanted to communicate. I got two responses. One sounded like a young male voice that said, "Yes." The other one sounded much older and said, "Why are you doing this to us?"

But you didn't hear this standing there?


You got it on tape though?

Yes. Clearly.

And so you believe ...

I believe that there's something! Sometimes I thought that the ghost hunters had some pretty big gaps in logic; they would get pictures of these balls of light that they call orbs and if they were different colors, they'd say, "That's the ghost's moods." And I would think, "Well, how do they know that?" I knew there was something odd happening, I was getting the results, but I couldn't bring myself to go the whole way and interpret it the way they did.

So you were working independently? I would think these ghost hunters might manipulate you and the situation.

Yes, I had my own agenda. I wanted to find out: How do they do this, what's happening and what can we really say about it. Some of them had an agenda about whether we exist after death or they wanted to find someone who was dead. I didn't have the need to communicate with a specific person.

Mediums were another thing -- I always had a bit of trouble with them. They would always see stuff and hear stuff that no one else could. How do you verify that? At least I was getting pictures and voices on tape. That's verifiable. But for someone to say, "Oh, you have seven murder victims around you and they're all talking to you" ... well, great. I would think, can they talk louder because I can't hear them.

So do they believe that all of us have ghosts? Or only certain people come back?

If any of us do, all of us do. But do all of them hang out here? I don't think so. My sense of it from what some of the communications have been on the tape recorders is that some get trapped. It's like an energy field. There are impressions and residual energy left in an energy field or in a memory field. A lot of physicists are looking at whether memories aren't stored in our brain. Maybe they're outside and we access them. That's interesting for ghost theory.

Then there's the idea that there are portals where ghosts can come in and out of various dimensions. I have seen these things move around with an infrared video camera. They're fast. They're really fast. They appear to be traveling and not pinned to any given site, like the site of their murder. They don't necessarily have to stay anywhere. So, do some of them cross over and come back to watch over loved ones? Maybe, it's possible.

Assuming they exist, why do you think that they congregate in certain places?

Like Gettysburg, you mean? Here's the thing. Are they really congregating there or is it that there are so many people going there with these very strong emotional agendas? Are they projecting stuff out there? You can get 150 ghost hunters in one spot who all want to see or feel a ghost.

Certainly, people who don't have an agenda are seeing things out there. Because of all the emotional energy that went into those battles -- they were just horrendously awful -- it could be that there's a lot of residual emotional energy that traps some of the psychic energy. If you see a reenactment of a murder of somebody, oftentimes not everybody in that scenario died in that place. So how does anyone see that? I think it's some kind of energy or memory field that traps that image. It's not the soul of the person.

You don't think these are the souls of people?

No, because let's say you have three people. An axe murderer murders one of them while the other watches. People have said they've seen ghosts reenact that scenario. But only one of them died there, so how is it we're seeing the images of all three? Is it projected out of the one who died? Or is there some other kind of energy explanation that is about trapping the images, not about trapping the souls. I'm not sure. I'm still looking into this.

What was your impression of Gettysburg?

Oh, I was just there this weekend. I go quite often. I'm working with this guy, Mark Nesbitt, who runs the ghost tours and we've done some experiments together. We went out to the Triangular Field which is reportedly one of the most haunted in Gettysburg. Because he's a historian, he had all of the names of the men who died there. We went out with a tape recorder and he read off the names. To one of the names, we got, "Yes sir!" And there was nobody out there.

What did the voice sound like?

It sounds like a man.

It just sounds ... normal?

Sometimes they sound staticky, like they're having a hard time communicating. But you can tell male from female, oftentimes, and I've been able to tell whether they're young or old. The quality isn't as good as what you and I are doing -- talking on the phone -- but definitely you can tell that there's personality. You can hear inflections. I've had some communications on my recorder that are really hard to understand, but you can certainly hear that language is being used. They seem to have this quick window of opportunity to say something, but when they do, they say very provocative things. The one I liked the most said, "We keep busy."

What was the most convincing experience you had?

I went to this place in New Hope, Pa., at this inn called The Logan. I had read Raymond Moody's book "Life After Life" and he gives recommendations when ghost hunting -- one of the things was to be high potassium, low calcium, don't ask me why, and to have good energy, a feeling of having fun. So for a full week I prepared myself and loaded up on potassium and all that. The amazing thing was that a huge snowstorm blew in so nobody else was coming. A man had just left the room I was staying in because he claimed a ghost was trying to strangle him. He wet the bed and ran out at 3 o'clock in the morning. This is the room I'm going to stay in.

Who was this ghost that strangled this man?

A young woman who had died in the canal. Her parents are depicted in a life-size painting that stood at the top of the stairway. A number of people said that they could smell the woman's lilac perfume and a man's tobacco smoke and they took pictures of the painting and odd things happened. And in the basement of this place, bodies had been piled up during George Washington's time, awaiting the spring because the ground was frozen. One other factor was that this was the night of a lunar eclipse. So I'm loaded up on potassium, I've got the big snowstorm, like out of Peter Straub's "Ghost Story," I've got this lunar eclipse at midnight -- how much better could it be? -- and an empty, haunted bed and breakfast!

During the evening, I got some videotape of the wine cellar. They had some orbs down there, you could see them coming out of the walls. Then, as I'm walking up these tall stairs toward the painting at the top, I just start clicking my camera. It was a digital camera, so when I was done, I flipped through them. My God, I got the best picture I could have imagined! The painting had had a foot-long rip in it and out of that rip came these white, round shapes, one after another, into a pure white flume. It was just astonishing. I have to attribute it to the potassium.

But you didn't see that with your own eyes?


So how do they explain that?

That's what they call a vortex, a number or orbs altogether.

But how do they explain that film catches something that your eye can't see?

They say that there's a greater sensitivity to something in the atmosphere. Remember, perception isn't like a video camera; we guide our perceptions through our philosophies and how we think about things. It's the whole thing about Indians seeing more grains of sand and Eskimos seeing more types of snowflakes -- it's because they have a different philosophy. If we are training our side vision, maybe we can see more with that than we can see forward. Cameras can pick up something in the atmosphere that we can't. I know it! In the middle of the day, I have these big white orbs on film. It's not in any other pictures. It's not on the lens. It's not a water drop. It's not dust because that would be a monster piece of dust. It's not lens flare because it's a perfectly round white thing.

Did you have photography experts look at it?

Yes, I sent the pictures to camera companies and photographers. The photographers disappointed me because most of what they had to say was not logical. It was like they had to explain it away but they weren't thinking it through. They said it had to be lens flare or that I was taking a picture of the moon. The camera companies in the end said they couldn't explain it. Something's out there worth exploring.

Are the ghosts mean? Are they causing trouble?

Some. Most do not. Most are cohabiting with people peacefully. They might bump things, but mostly they don't intend any harm. But if we think that the psychology of death is similar to the psychology of life, then we have to deal with psychopaths and serial killers. There are some angry spirits out there who might knock you, but I don't know. I've talked to people who've gotten smacked or pushed down steps. At Gettysburg, one guy came out of the fields really sore and couldn't figure out why. The next day in the shower he saw that he had bruises in the shape of the hand like someone grabbed him really hard. Did they want help? Were they angry? I don't know. I've never heard of someone being killed.

What about things like poltergeist?

Poltergeist isn't spirits. Poltergeist is the energy of prepubescent kids. So when people tell me that they have hauntings and things like that, the first thing I ask is, "Do you have children?" If they do and they're 10 or 11 or 12, then I say that they don't have a ghost. That's true.


Energy fields are amazing. Just because we don't see them, we don't put much stock in them. There seems to be something about that kind of repressed sexual energy that is being generated by children who are becoming young adults. They have all kinds of erotic energy. What happens is it gets acted out in other ways -- things get knocked over.

And it's just their energy?

Yes, if it's the poltergeist kind of activity, that seems to be what it is.

What are the other signs of ghosts? You mentioned cold spots.

Ghost hunters will scan the air for temperature drop and when there is, and I've seen this, they'll start taking pictures. They will often get the orbs and vortexes and ectoplasm ...

I was surprised when I saw that in your book. I thought ectoplasm only existed in "Ghostbusters."

Long before "Ghostbusters" ectoplasm had its own history. It's kind of a foggy, misty substance that you can see on film. The problem with it is that if you take a picture in cold weather and it gets your breath on film, then that will look like ectoplasm.

So it's not on walls and floors.

People have seen it in cemeteries. I am not one of those people. I did have an experience in St. Augustine, Fla. I had the electromagnetic field meter in my hand and suddenly it went into this range that the ghost hunters say is paranormal activity. I told everybody to start taking pictures and all around me was this foggy ectoplasm. That to me starts to verify things. It's not to say that it's the spirit of the dead, but it's something.

We also had cameras set up at Gettysburg in a house that supposedly is haunted. We got two orbs that looked like they were chasing each other and a voice that said, "Catch me." A psychic later told us, not knowing what we found, that there were children in the house. Maybe they were having fun.

Do you get scared?

The other night at Gettysburg I was sitting alone in this house that someone told me was haunted. And all of a sudden there was this boom in the middle of the room and I thought, "Oh my God! It's here!" It was the furnace. Obviously, I'm still afraid.

How did you become interested in this?

I acquired a so-called haunted ring when I went undercover into the vampire subculture. I met this guy who claimed that he helped another person kill people as vampires. The other guy had committed suicide, come back as a ghost and inhabited the ring. In a "Jack and the beanstalk" move, I took the ring because I wanted a ghost.

The ghost was inhabiting the ring?

That's what he said. But subsequent to that, I took it to a blind psychic and he said that it isn't that the ghost is in the ring, it's that the ring can be used like a phone to call him. Now I have this so-called phone to the spirits. I tried to find other people who claimed to do psychometry -- which means you can touch an object and tell something about the person who owned it. What I didn't expect to do but ended up doing a lot of was going out with ghost hunters.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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