I recently invited a group of ghost hunters to my grandmother’s house because, as kids, my brother and I would wake up there feeling like someone was watching us. It’s not hard to find a ghost-hunting society — there are tens for every state. I picked through Cape Cod Paranormal, Essex County Ghost Project, Boston Paranormal Investigators, Cranberry Coast Paranormal, and finally landed on the Investigators of the Unknown, out of Fall River. When I called to ask when they were available, Jeremiah, the team leader, said he and his crew could meet me before dark. No charge.
My grandmother’s house is a 1740s country house, tall and whitewashed, at the end of a long dirt driveway and in the middle of acres of farmland streaked with tumbledown stonewalls. Everyone has a ghost story about it. There’s the one my mom tells, about when she was a girl and woke to a man in a stovepipe hat and black greatcoat standing in the corner of her bedroom. My uncle saw that same man standing in the living room. One of my aunts, home from college back in the 1970s, alone in the house and studying in her bedroom, heard a crash downstairs. She ran to the first-floor bathroom, thinking her friends were playing tricks on her, to see the mirror cabinet thrown open and pill bottles rolling on the bathroom floor. She said she walked out the front door and drove back to Boston without her books. I remember a houseguest asking my mom who the man standing in the bathroom window was, the one who looked like Abe Lincoln. Another houseguest saw an old woman sitting in the rocking chair in the bedroom where my brother and I slept. The stories go on and on.
I waited for Jeremiah at the end of the driveway in the cold evening. The stars settled in. The street light above the mailbox flickered on. The Investigators were 10, 20, 30 minutes late. Just as I turned my ignition on, ready to put on the heat and call it quits, I saw a red hatchback creeping down the winding road. The driver rolled down her window when they pulled up to my truck. “This is really out there,” she said. The two in back were smoking. Everyone wore black.
“Sorry we’re late,” I heard Jeremiah say from the passenger’s side. Four of the team had come.
I told them not to worry, and pulled a U-turn. “Follow me,” I said.
I’d kept the kitchen light on, but the rest of my grandmother’s house was dark, every window on the second floor black. Jeremiah and I shook hands in the driveway.
He was far younger than I expected — mid-twenties — but he said he’d been an investigator since he was a teenager. He wore a crucifix necklace, had bruised, sunken eyes, and never looked at me when he spoke. He used to work in a graveyard, he said, filling graves and landscaping.
“I can tell there’s a lot of history out here,” he said, turning to the dark meadows. “Investigating is about preserving history. We don’t want to take away anything. We want to support what history’s been told. This is your grandmother’s house?”
I told him that my grandmother had passed away a decade ago from complications with Alzheimer’s, but the house was still in the family. I didn’t tell him that I had been at boarding school in her last years, that I only saw her only in severe intervals of decline, that I remember her as forgetful but still hosting summer cocktail parties, and then, a year or two later, as not recognizing me. She had brilliant spells of lucidity late in her life, like the time the two of us were walking to the beach and she picked a yellow flower from the side of the path, handed it to me, and said, “Evening primrose!” I’ve heard this can happen with Alzheimer’s sufferers — play a song from their deep past and they can sing along perfectly, word for word. I imagine the primrose had some place deep in my grandmother’s history, that its full name was stored way down in her mind, protected from Alzheimer’s by the bolts of her youth. Maybe, as a girl, it had been her favorite flower. “It grows well in sandy soil,” she said. That was one of the last conversations we had.
I didn’t tell Jeremiah that the one communication I hoped to make would be with her, that her illness had robbed most of us of saying a proper goodbye, and I wondered if I could send a message. I hoped a part of her had stuck around.
Instead, I said that everyone had seen a figure from the 1800s. “Stovepipe hat. Big beard. Lincoln-like.”
With Jeremiah were his wife Paula, his second cousin Jen, and the newest team member, Michelle, who had an energetic poof of blond hair and wore a black tracksuit. Jeremiah, Paula and Jen wore black IOTU (Investigators of the Unknown) t-shirts with "STAFF" printed shoulder to shoulder.
“I’m a hereditary witch,” Michelle said to me as she gathered recording equipment from the car. “My life literally revolves around the paranormal. I see ghosts all the time. I have six living in my house.” She also organizes a youth paranormal activities group for teenagers who want to learn how to find poltergeists, demons and ghosts.
I asked her what, exactly, she sees. Six of what?
“E equals M C squared,” she said, testing her camera, which flashed on the side of the house. “Ghosts are energy. We’re all energy. We have to go somewhere when we die. I’ll haunt someone when I’m gone. I’m going to haunt tons of people.”
Jen is soft-spoken and has a kind, motherly face. She said she used to see little girls running around her grandmother’s house. She’s heard scratching on walls, and felt somebody tugging her hair or whispering in her ear when nobody was really there.
“Most people that you meet in the paranormal field have had experiences,” Jeremiah said. “I’ve seen full-body apparitions, shadows. Heard voices. But science can rule out most hauntings. People who live near power lines or power plants experience a high electromagnetic field, which makes them sick, have hallucinations, or think that they’re being haunted. Or gas leaks. Those can cause hallucinations.”
Paula said, “I have shadows in my life, too. I have a little dog and he also sees the shadows. He barks at them.”
“Animals are known to be highly sensitive to the paranormal,” Jeremiah said. He asked if we could do a sweep of the area, find the hotspots to set up their equipment.
I took them inside, where Michelle snapped photos of the kitchen windows, the dining room, lamps, couches and hallways.
“Baseline photos,” she said, snapping a photo up the kitchen stairwell. “If we see apparitions or orbs in the photos we’ll have something to compare it to when we go dark.”
Jen and Jeremiah tested their equipment, swapping out old batteries. Jen held an infrared thermometer — a little black gun that shoots a laser. She said she looked for a drop in temperature, because spirits are cold. Jeremiah turned on a hand-held radio that coughed through AM stations every fraction of a second. Spirits talk through the box, he said. Along with her camera, Michelle had an EMF (electromagnetic field) meter — a walkie-talkie-sized black box with an arcing line of indicator lights that would flash green depending on the force of the electromagnetic field.
Power lines, appliances and home wiring all emit electromagnetic waves, measured in gausses, which equal one ten-thousandth of a tesla. A high EMF — if you live under power lines, for example — can cause stress, anxiety, headaches or, in extreme cases, cancer. You’d use an EMF meter to find high levels in your house, and make sure not to put a bed in that room.
“Is everyone religious?” I asked the team. “You’re all wearing crucifixes.”
“We study demonology,” Jeremiah said. “If somebody has a demonic presence in their home, we’ll go in and bless it with anointing oil and holy water.”
He reached into his pocket and took out what looked like two perfume bottles. “The anointing oil is virgin olive oil from the Blessed Land. Jerusalem. When the church gets it, they bless it and hand it out to people. This is for demons.”
“And you bless homes with it?” I asked.
“People usually first ask deacons to their house if it’s haunted. But the deacons will say they can’t help them. I think the church fears what they teach us not to fear: evil. So that’s when most people contact me.”
Then Jeremiah commanded all the lights be shut off, and we stood in complete darkness. I saw only the shapes of furniture or planes of walls caught in the blue flashes of Michelle’s camera. Paula had gone back to the car to fall asleep.
We moved into the living room, where my uncle had seen the ghost. Jeremiah cranked up his radio. Michelle waved the EMF meter. Jen pointed her laser thermometer around the room. Michelle snapped a few photos at the windows.
“Have you ever been scared during one of your investigations?” I whispered to Jeremiah.
“Scared? No. Startled? Yes. Like a door slamming shut.”
“Richard!” Michelle suddenly said, pointing to the radio. “I heard it say Richard!”
All I heard was the c-chuck-c-chuck-c-chuck of the radio cycling through stations.
“Did a Richard ever live in this house?” Michelle asked. I told her no.
In the downstairs bathroom, where my aunt had seen the pill bottles rolling on the floor, Michelle snapped a photo. We listened for a voice over the radio. We watched the EMF meter, hoping for a jump in the lights.
I asked if we could go upstairs, to where I’d felt something years ago.
Aside from our footfalls up the stairs to the bedrooms and the static from the radio, the house was dead, hollow quiet. The EMF meter stayed stubbornly on zero. The thermometer only registered a change when Jen swept the laser over the windows. Jeremiah kept asking the box, “What did you say?” as it plowed through white noise.
“This is where it was,” I told them, walking into the bedroom where my brother and I had slept.
Michelle put the EMF meter on the foot of the bed.
I was in the middle of telling them about the ghost of the old woman sitting in the rocking chair, when Michelle pointed to the bed.
“Good job!” she said. “You’re doing it!”
I turned to see the lights on the meter pulsing through the full green arc.
“Can you do that again?” Jeremiah asked.
All the lights went green, as if in response.
From the mid-1800s through the early 1900s, New Englanders loved ghost hunting. Jeremiah would have been called a medium. You’d invite a medium to your house, invite friends, and hold a séance. You can find pictures of a group of well-dressed adults holding hands around a table that is lifting into the air. Or of a medium oozing “ectoplasm” (wax or cotton) from his or her body. Or of a blurred figure shaking as she communicates with spirits. Or of an instrument lifting in the air. Double-exposures were a hit: phantom hands and phantom gentleman float in many photographs.
The mediums’ illusions depended on a dark room and on the participants believing they were holding down the medium’s hands and feet. Mediums wore hard-toed shoes without backs so they could remove their feet and knock or kick or lift the table. Mediums had "reaching rods" they used to tap on the ceiling or a wall. Some ventriloquized. One particular medium would slip his feet from his shoes, put his hands in the shoes and then raise the shoes higher and higher while saying, “I’m lifting! I’m lifting!” With a reaching rod he wrote on the ceiling to prove, when the candles were lit again, that he had been up there.
In the late 19th century, instead of activating EMF meters, ghosts made luminous appearances, were phantom hands or faces, and wrote cryptic messages on the walls. During one of the famous medium Eusapia Palladino’s séances, a ghost floated a watermelon from the far side of the room and laid it on the table in front of her. And like Jeremiah, mediums also used gadgets.
Robert Hare’s "Experimental Investigation of the Spirit Manifestation" (Partridge & Brittan, 1855) includes an engraving of the 1850s equivalent to Jeremiah’s EMF meter: something called Pease's Apparatus. The caption below the engraving reads, “The apparatus contrived for the purpose of determining whether the manifestations attributed to spirits could be made without mortal aid.”
The gadget looks like sewing machine Dr. Seuss invented to double as a Ouija board — a long line of wheels, pulleys, discs, dangling weights and metal wires connected by catgut strings and placed at varying heights on coffee tables. One disc pictures random letters and numbers. Another includes longer phrases: I’ll come again, Doubtful, A message, A mistake, I’ll spell it over, Good-bye, I must leave. The medium sits on one end of the machine, as if she’s about to sharpen a knife, puts her hands flat on the table and asks questions to the air. Hare writes of the apparatus, “It is surprising with what readiness a spirit, even when unused to the apparatus, will, by moving the lever, actuate the index, causing it to point to the letters, words, and figures distributed on the face of the disk.”
The Investigators of the Unknown’s EMF — compact and sleek, no pulleys or catgut — seems more advanced, but Pease's Apparatus could lend language to a ghost. Now we’re stuck with yes-or-no questions.
“Now you’re starting to get the hang of it,” Michelle said into the EMF meter, which had subdued after another energetic thrust of green lights.
“If your name is Richard, light that up once,” Jeremiah said.
“Do you like it when Michelle asks you questions?” he said. “Can you light that up once for yes?”
“How about if I sit next to you?” Michelle said, sitting on the bed where I’d spent so many nights as a kid. She sat and patted the empty space beside her. “Come right here. Sit next to me.”
The lights went green.
“There you go,” she said. “What’s your name?” she asked. She spoke calmly, soothingly.
“Do you like sitting next to Michelle?” Jeremiah cut in.
“I like sitting next to you, too,” Michelle said. “How about you tell me your name. We can have a little date right now.”
Jen shot the laser beam to the area around the EMF meter. No change in temperature.
Jeremiah turned up the volume of his radio. “Do you find Michelle cute?” he asked.
“Is your name Richard?” Michelle asked.
Nothing. Minutes of nothing.
“How long have you been in this house?” Michelle asked.
“Did you own this property?” Jeremiah asked.
“Do you find Michelle beautiful? Do you like her eyes? Do you find Jen beautiful?” Jeremiah asked.
“So then,” he said, shutting off his radio, “You’re a male, a ladies’ man. Michelle is looking for a husband, you know. Would you like to marry Michelle?”
“I’m high maintenance,” Michelle said. “But I need your name. I need to know who I’m on a date with.”
“If we say a few names,” Jen, quiet until then, said, “will you tell us which one it is?”
The three of them started: “Bob, Peter, Richard, Danny, Steve, Joseph, Manuel, Victor, Dick, Joshua, Matthew, Christopher, Andrew.”
“How about Willy?” Jeremiah asked.
The green lights arced luminescent, as if yawning or stretching, as if Willy was happy to hear his name after all these years. It might be a coincidence, I thought then, that my grandfather’s name was William. And that first owner of the house was William Slocum.
“Did you know a Willy?” Jeremiah asked me.
“Not really,” I said. William Slocum wouldn’t have been called Willy. And my grandfather, though I never met him, was always Bill.
“So I’ve got a name now,” Michelle said. “I’m on a date with Willy. Come sit closer to me, Willy.” She patted the empty space beside her, again.
“Would you like to have your way with Michelle?” Jeremiah said, suddenly.
I snorted. This, of all the questions you could ask the deceased — whether they’d like to sleep with the living.
“There must be a barn here,” Michelle said. “Bow-chicka-wow-wow,” she sang.
“Okay, now,” I said, defensively, as if one shouldn’t talk about the deceased like that. “Come on.”
And yet, in that, I had just submitted to believing, or suspending disbelief. That the EMF meter was actually picking up the spirit of Willy, who shouldn’t be asked to go to a barn with Michelle and who might actually be pulsing through the meter. I had seen the EMF meter dead, unlit, through the whole house, and now here it was, jumping to life almost directly after the questions were being asked. Faced with flashing green lights, I realized I was being asked one question whose answer was one of two things: either I believed, or didn’t. Maybe the bed was at the center of a power line intersection, which is why I had woken up decades ago, disturbed and anxious. But, well, what if it wasn’t?
Henry Sidgwick, avid séance goer and 19th-century English philosopher, head of the Society for Psychical Research, wrote in response to William Lecky’s 1865 "History of Rationalism": “[I] was determined to investigate the evidence of medieval miracles, as [Lecky] insists it is not an investigation of this evidence. The results, have, I confess, astonished myself. I keep silence at present even from good words, but I foresee that I shall have to entirely alter my whole view of the universe and admit the miraculous, as we call it, as a permanent element in common history and experience.”
He later wrote more directly, “Either one must believe in ghosts and modern miracles, or there can be no ground for giving credence to the Gospel story.”
Jeremiah said to the air, “We mean you no disrespect, Willy. No harm. We just want some answers for this family.”
“Do you remember showing yourself to someone in this room?” Jen asked. “Someone who used to sleep in this bed when he was a child?”
I waited, now hopeful for a pulse on the EMF meter.
Technology Alternatives Corporation of Miami supplies The Home Depot with their EMF meters. The company was founded and is run by MIT mechanical engineering graduate George Lechter. “The 800-year history of my family,” he said when I called him a few weeks after ghost hunting, “is that they were Jews in Russia, and then we went to America in the 1930s, but President Roosevelt was like, ‘Too many of them Jews here!’ and so my parents left when I was two.” His father was training to be a surgeon at Harvard when they moved to Colombia.
Lechter has a singsong Russian accent, full of Rs and heavy-tongued.
I called him to disprove what I had seen in my grandmother’s house. To have him quickly dismiss the EMF readings as power lines or appliances sending their regular signals.
He first explained the science behind the EMF meter in the dry terms of electronic fields that I wanted to hear.
“What about ghosts?” I asked, and waited for him to laugh. “What do you say to people who use them for paranormal searches?”
I expected him to re-explain that the meters only pick up real electromagnetic fields from power sources that actually emit them. I expected him to explain that what I had seen in my grandmother’s house was evidence of a microwave turning on in a neighbor’s house.
He was quiet, collecting his thoughts.
“It kind of goes like this,” he said. “Everything in the world is a signal, a transmission. Matter, antimatter, black matter, light. When you go out at night and you look at the stars, that light has traveled as long as 13 billion years. After the first billion years, it’s no longer a powerful energy — it’s just a little signal. But with the naked eye we see a billion stars. That’s proof that any electromagnetic emission travels to infinity, for billions of years. You’ve seen brain scans? Thoughts, too, are electronic emissions. If you have a thought, like, I love my wife, that thought is a transmission. It transmits out into space and travels, like light, to infinity. Every thought you have throughout your whole life is traveling to infinity. That, in my opinion, as an engineer, is what a ghost is.”
He told me he had to go make a sandwich, and left the phone for a minute.
“Thoughts interacting with other thoughts,” he said, when he was back on the line. “Like if you throw two stones in a pond, the ripples interact to create a third ripple, a third thought. Which, I think, is how ghosts have energy of their own. That’s how I had the idea for the ghost meter — to find where those ripples interact. I programmed the meter with algorithm software to pick up on weaker signals. It’s like a Geiger counter. I can send it to you for 30 bucks with free shipping.”
I told him that I hadn’t expected him to believe in ghosts.
“Personally, I don’t believe in ghosts as you think of them, because I’m an engineer. But I am aware of the fact that every thought is a signal that travels to infinity forever. And that’s plenty to say that we live in a soup of unending signals for every single animal and human who has ever lived. The thoughts of Jesus Christ are still with us, for example. I’m Jewish, so, from my perspective, Jesus was just another Jew. Moses, his thoughts are also running around. His thoughts are 5,000 years old! And the thoughts of dinosaurs that lived 70 million years ago, they are still running around. The 6 billion people on the world today represent only two percent of all people that have ever lived on Earth. The thoughts of the people who lived in your room are still there. When you’re alone in your room, you’re there with 50 other ghosts.” He paused. “On average.”
I said that if ghosts are thoughts and thoughts create electromagnetic signals, can a haunted house give you cancer? Like power lines?
“No,” he chirped. “Power lines can give you cancer because they emit the same 60-cycle signal. Droning. Repetitive. It makes the cells of the body vibrate along with that frequency. The frequency disturbs the calcium and potassium flow in an out of the cells. It never lets go. Paranormal energy does not behave like that. Paranormal energy is not repetitive and droning. It’s random, weak and old.”
But people see ghosts, I said. My family had all seen ghosts. I had just been in a room with three people who all had histories of ghosts touching them, talking to them, scaring their pets. What, I asked Lechter, do ghosts, or thoughts, really look like? What’s moving through the EMF meter?
“Everything, except for dark matter, looks like a little photon, as God made it. A piece of light, that converts itself into a magnetic field, that then converts itself into a photon. That’s what it looks like. The engine of light is a photon that becomes magnetic energy. Then magnetic energy becomes light again. And back and forth and back and forth. And the speed at which that process happens is 186,000 miles a second. The speed of light.”
“So if I have a thought,” I said, “that I need to have lunch soon, it sort of looks like light moving out of my head?”
“Absolutely!” he said. Ghosts were like rays of light shooting around the world. "God’s photons, moving to infinity."
I asked if it was rare for someone like him, in the sciences, to talk about God so much.
“The closer to physics and mathematics you are, the more you believe in God. The more ball-bearing engineers, who make elevators, do not. It’s the physics people, the people who have to figure out what happened in the first seconds, before the universe existed and after the universe was created, who say, ‘God did everything.’ My father’s cousin taught plasma physics for years at MIT, and in that department, God is a given. Ninety percent of what they talk about is, ‘Okay, if God created light, and God created gravity, how do they interact?’”
“What would your father’s cousin think, though, if he found out you made ghost meters?”
“I wouldn’t tell him. I’d be embarrassed,” he said. “But there is a scientific explanation to what a ghost is. Us Americans, we love to see the needle move. We love proof. We want to measure everything. The people who write about ghosts and religion, they have no idea about hardware. But I know about the hardware, about technology. And it proves that there’s something out there.”
Michelle, staring into at the empty space next to her, asked again if Willy thought she was pretty.
“Would you like to go home with Michelle?” Jeremiah asked.
“Are you from the 1700s?” Jen said, still shaking the laser beam over the EMF meter. “1800s? 1900s?”
“Do you miss having life?” Jen asked. I stared at the EMF meter.
Green. After minutes of dead light, the answering arc.
“Do you know that you’re dead?” Jen asked.
“Did you die in your sleep?” she asked.
“What about a heart attack?”
“Did you have a heart attack in this house?”
“Were you a farmer?” Jeremiah asked. “A sailor? If you had children, can you light those dots up for us?”
Nothing. The brief waves of energy passing through the room — whether rogue power line signals or a cell phone buzzing quietly in one of the team member’s pockets, all providing timely answers to Jen’s questions of its consciousness and death — seemed to have petered out.
“Well,” Jeremiah said after waiting minutes for the light go green again. “We'd better get going now. We mean you no harm. No disrespect. We just wanted some answers.”
I whispered to Jen, “Can we ask a larger question before we go?”
“Like what?” she said.
“How about, is there an afterlife?”
Jen raised her voice and spoke to the EMF meter. “Is there an afterlife? Is there a special place we go to when we die?”
“You can use up some of my energy,” Jen said.
“You can use mine, too,” Michelle said.
“Mine, too,” Jeremiah said.
“Mine, too,” I said.
Nothing, for minutes.
“Did you have a joyful life?” Jen asked.
The four of us were quiet. The lights sunk back down to nothing. I thought of my brother and me asleep there, two decades ago. My feet would have been where the EMF meter was now. In the bed, back then, I would have been consumed by the feeling of somebody watching me. In the early morning, my grandmother would come into the room and sit on the bed, right where Michelle was now. She’d wake my brother and me up by putting a hand on our foreheads, brushing our hair back with her fingers. “It’s a beautiful day,” she’d say. Only by her hand on my forehead, only by waking, would I realize that I had somehow fallen asleep. I exulted in the morning light coming through the window separating my bed and my brother's bed. “Breakfast,” she would say, but it might as well have been, You made it. I would be tired, because she woke us earlier than we were used to, and she made us runny eggs and toast with bitter marmalade that made my stomach hurt. But I was so happy to have survived another night that even bitter marmalade seemed like a gift, a finish line.
Now, in my late twenties, standing in a room with relative strangers holding gadgets from Radio Shack, I was bluntly unafraid of the room. I wondered which stage of life I preferred: young and terrorized by the invisible world I was positive existed at the foot of my bed, or older and trying to bury my skepticism with gadgets that might prove that world might exist. The room just looked like an empty room to me now: chair, bed, lamp, window with the night pressing on it.
“How would an investigation end?” I said.
The EMF stayed dead through the last silent minutes. Even with an EMF, the afterlife is a black hole that you can’t really access. We have only glimpses, half-answers sparking to "yes" or "no" questions we’re not sure of asking.
“We can end now,” Jeremiah said, turning off the meter.
I’ve always thought that ghosts are just echoes from the past. If time is bendable, maybe it’s foldable. If it’s foldable, maybe my younger self had sensed me and the Investigators watching the foot of the bed, watching for the green lights to sweep to an arc.
Weeks after the visit, Michelle sent me 126 photos she’d taken in the house. “Inconclusive,” she wrote of the orb-less photos.
Maybe it wasn’t Willy. Maybe it was my grandmother as light-like expressions wafting through the EMF meter as Lechter had described. Maybe it was her thoughts that hadn’t yet left the house. To get groceries that day. To go for a walk. A handful of magnetized particles changing from photon to magnetic energy and traveling 186,000 miles per second in the way the universe began, and that, even during her Alzheimer’s, had remained in the house, in the soup of thoughts since Moses, since the dinosaurs, rippling and mixing. Even her illness could not stopper what particles of light her mind had already emitted.