HOOPER, Neb. — The bar is closed now. Nearly all the lights are off.
The only ones here, at least of whom I can see, are the three of us mortals. There's Dave Christensen, professional paranormal and long-lost relative. There's Robynn Tysver, crack political reporter and born skeptic. And there's me.
We are waiting. We are watching. We are wondering if the ghosts who supposedly roam this 100-year-old building will come out and show themselves.
“I hate to bother you,” says Dave, speaking to a spirit that apparently had flashed across the room. “But I'd really appreciate it if you could go by again.”
He then announces that he'd also really appreciate it if the ghosts could speak loudly, make a loud noise or — horrors — touch us to make us aware of their presence. I point to Robynn, offering up my human shield. They were fully free to show themselves to her.
On the record, I don't believe in ghosts. At least that's my official line at home, especially at bedtime for three little ones. There is no such thing as (fill in the blank). They are not under your bed, in your closet or waiting for you in the bathroom.
But I'll share a secret if you promise not to tell my kids: I believe in Stephen King. I believe in Freddy Krueger. I believe in Hannibal Lecter, Three-Fingered Willy and all the allegedly pretend villains who become all too real in our imaginations. They don't call it the power of suggestion for nothing.
Dave, a 58-year-old self-taught paranormal from nearby Nickerson, has offered me a chance to see proof. Or at least get spooked.
Appropriately enough, I met Dave for the first time at a funeral earlier this year. There he was, a man in a black cowboy hat and serious mien, sitting on my aunt's west Omaha patio telling me about our shared bloodline — he's the son of my father's cousin, making him my second cousin. Then he started telling me about his business, Paranormal Investigations, and how he will visit your home, your business or any public place to sniff out a poltergeist's presence.
He does this with a laptop, a couple cameras, a digital recorder and a device about the size of your iPhone, which is called an EMF (electromagnetic field) tester. If ghosts are close, the needle on the EMF is supposed to wiggle and jump.
Sometimes they'll touch him, he says. One picked him up and threw him back once. Generally, he says, their voices are too soft for us to hear. He says he picks up snippets of their conversation from his digital recordings. He posts these on his website.
Dave thinks he saw his first ghost when he was a child. He saw it dart across his room and then it kept residence in the family bathroom. The part of this story that creeped me out wasn't the ghost but the address. Dave lived down the same midtown street from where I currently live.
Dave worked for a Millard heating and air conditioning company, served in the U.S. Army and then got into paranormal work after the sudden death of his 33-year-old wife in 1995.
“I wanted some answers,” he said. “Is there going to be a tomorrow?”
Dave went to cemeteries, he read up on ghost-hunting, and after a while, he began to see and hear the voices of spirits practically wherever he went. He said he learned spirits are like people: nice, everyday Joes and grumpy sad-sacks. He said they don't like to be interrupted but do like to make connections.
One of the biggest answers he said he's gotten is the realization that we're not alone, even at death.
“One of your relatives will be with you,” he said.
One of Dave's favorite haunted haunts is the aptly named Iron Horse Food & Spirits in downtown Hooper, an hour's drive north of Omaha.
We met there for a late supper on a recent night, and owner Dale Maurer obligingly closed up early, about 10:30 p.m. Maurer bought this massive brick building about 20 years ago and fixed it up. He rents out space to a lawyer and a hairdresser and lives with his wife, Carmen, above the bar.
Maurer says he has heard unexplainable noises, like footsteps on the enclosed wooden stairs leading from the sidewalk to his apartment. He grabbed his gun, rushed out his apartment door and saw nothing.
Once, when he was sleeping, he heard “DALE!” jarring him awake. No one was there. Both of his dogs have acted nervous and pensive, like they sense a presence, though no one is visible. Dale thinks one ghost — that of the late bar owner Bill McManigal — is a friendly one.
When the bathroom door shuts by itself, Dale knows who is there.
“I'll say, 'OK, Bill, how you doin' today?' ”
When Dale closed up early for us, he offered this warning: “Good night! If I hear a big crash, I know what happened.”
The bar is empty. Outside, the moon is full. Inside, Robynn and I follow Dave down to the brick, labyrinthine basement. It's a kind of fear-inducing freak show of a place, with cobwebs, dark rooms and what might be a torture chamber. Or a furnace.
Dave says heartening things like: “He doesn't want you back there. He's watching you.”
And this, to an apparent presence: “I would like you guys to join us upstairs if you would, please.”
We survive the basement and go upstairs to the pool room to call on the spirits there.
We keep our eyes glued to Dave's opened laptop, which acts as a virtual mirror. A camera is recording us sitting here and showing that recording on the screen. Here I am hunched (hiding?) over a notebook as Robynn asks the spirits if they could please turn off a distant radio. We're telling ourselves it's a radio.
“The spirits here — most of them are friendly,” Dave says. “Some of them like me. Some of them don't.”
Something suddenly brushed up against my leg and I jump. It was only my purse.
Something suddenly flashes on the wall. It was only … I can't explain it.
We wait some more. We watch. We ask questions.
Then, it's time to go back to Omaha.
In the car, we roll past farm fields on a near-empty highway as dark clouds hide the moon. Robynn laughs about the venture. She's got an internal EMF baloney gauge that's handy in covering politicians.
No way, she says.
But I'm not so sure. Just because we didn't see something doesn't mean it isn't there.
I'm saying this for the record, in deference to you ghosts who might be reading. No need to come to my house and prove yourselves.
I believe in not tempting fate.
We mortals don't know everything. Otherworldly life could exist, say, on Mars.
Or, ostensibly, in my creepy furnace room.