More than a hundred amateur ghost hunters spent a recent Friday night searching the campus of the University of Nebraska at Omaha for signs of paranormal life.
They used a tool called a ghost box — which resembles a small radio — to “communicate” with the other side. They employed another tool that measures electrical currents to search for hot spots they believe ghosts create.
The ghost hunters videotaped and recorded the hunt to see if the cameras picked up on things that human senses could not. Ghost hunters also look for electronic voice phenomena, more commonly known as EVP — electronic sounds that resemble speech. They believe EVP suggests paranormal activity.
Others, of course, say it's just background noise.
The hunt was the grand finale of UNO's second annual Paranormal Summit, put on by the student-run Paranormal Society and drawing ghost-hunting groups from Omaha and the surrounding area. UNO students and regular people interested in ghost hunting came, too.
The event included presentations of evidence from ghost hunts, discussions of good ghost-hunting spots and a panel discussion in which members of various groups compared notes and took questions from the audience.
But the ghost hunt was the most exciting — and spooky — part of the night.
In past hunts, “we've gotten EVP all over campus,” said Kelley Kennedy, a member of the Omaha ghost-hunting group Paranormal Research and Investigative Studies Midwest — PRISM for short.
PRISM led a tour at the Strauss Performing Arts Center, where for years students and faculty have heard music coming from empty practice rooms. (Kennedy, who studied music at UNO, said she has heard it herself.) The building was locked, so Kennedy and other PRISM members led a group of 20 amateur ghost hunters around the building.
The tool that measures electrical current found evidence only of an underground power line.
But the ghost box talked. Putting it in the simplest possible terms, the box is a modified AM-FM radio that continuously scans radio bands, picking up random sounds and words. Much of the time they sound like gibberish.
When the group reached the back of the building, Kennedy spoke to it.
“Why are you here?” she asked.
“Reason, memories,” the ghost box “responded.”
Kennedy said that was meaningful, though skeptics say ghost hunters could find meaning in whatever words it happened to say.
Kim Moy of Omaha was holding the box when it responded. She said she got chills.
She and her husband aren't experienced ghost hunters. But they attended the summit because they'd watched ghost-hunting shows on TV, and they had lost members of their family. They wanted to know that those loved ones were still out there.
“I think it's a comfort thing,” she said.
They also happened to win the summit's door prize — an overnight ghost hunting trip to the Squirrel Cage Jail, a favorite spot among the more experienced ghost hunters.
The jail is so popular it got its own session at the summit.
Carla Borgaila of the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County told summit attendees about some of the jail's more notable residents — a suspect in the still-unsolved 1912 ax murders of the Moore family in Villisca, Iowa; a widely known Council Bluffs madam; and one pregnant woman who gave birth to the jail's only infant inmate.
Borgaila said she has come to believe that at least some of those inmates, as well as other, less memorable ones, still live there.
Borgaila cheerfully talked about the spirit of a former warden who allegedly still patrols the catwalks of the 1885 building. A little girl searches for her mother, she said. Inmates rattle the bars of their cells, and their footsteps echo in empty corridors. An invisible cat yowls and aggravates Borgaila's allergies.
“Apparently, ghost dander is just as bad,” she said.
Sometimes, she said, the ghosts talk to her.
Some have told her to leave them alone, she said, though one asked for homemade cookies. The most menacing: “You're the one I want to terrorize.”
The audience, many clad in black T-shirts or hoodies sporting the names of area ghost-hunting groups, was enraptured, if not surprised. Many have spent the night in the Squirrel Cage Jail (Borgaila generally chaperones such excursions), searching for evidence of paranormal activity.
Kennedy gave a Powerpoint presentation of PRISM's findings during an overnight ghost-hunting trip to the jail. The evidence they accumulated included a grainy photograph of a man in old-fashioned clothing standing in a window, as well as audio recordings of heavy breathing, whispers, snippets of conversations, and one long, mournful yowl.
Eight groups presented their research during the summit. They also discussed tactics they employ to dissuade ghosts from following them home. (Many say a prayer at the end of a hunt or keep a rosary in their car.) They addressed the popularity of ghost hunting shows on television. (Consensus: They're unrealistic.)
To the uninitiated, it's a creepy business. Moy said she was somewhat nervous to spend the night at the jail.
But ghosts often get a bad rap. Many ghosts aren't sinister, Kennedy explained. They don't always haunt the places where they died. Oftentimes, she said, they revisit places they loved when they were alive, which would explain the music coming from the Strauss practice rooms.
And ghost hunters aren't necessarily morbid, she said. They're regular people with regular jobs who happen to believe in ghosts. In their spare time, they visit places like the Squirrel Cage Jail to search for evidence. Occasionally, someone will seek out their services — often a homeowner convinced his house is haunted.
Those clients are interested in the evidence, she said, but they're also often relieved just to talk to someone who believes them.
“A lot of people want to know that they're not crazy, honestly.”
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