Ghost hunters chase spirits through Charm City
Published: October 24, 2012
I’ve never interviewed a ghost before. But medium Beverly Litsinger swears she’s in conversation with a 200-year-old woman in the space above Bertha’s and is ready to pass along my questions, so now’s my chance.
Litsinger, a short, round woman who tends to close her eyes and raise her hands as she talks, says that she is a “sensitive” and has seen ghosts since she was a child. At first, she says, it was rather infrequent, but as she grew older, her sightings became more common—to the point of occasionally being a hassle.
“My husband occasionally sees them because of me, but he hates it,” she says.
When she meets with me and a CP photographer at Bertha’s as part of our ongoing interviews with paranormal investigators, she is lugging a bag loaded down with photo albums full of hundreds of blurry pictures of orbs and apparitions.
“They can materialize as either,” she says. “And they become vortexes when they want to travel really fast.”
After a half an hour or so of looking at pictures, we get the bartender to let us wander around upstairs. At first, it seems like it’s going to be a bust, as Litsinger isn’t sensing any spirits. Then she says, “I just caught some movement.”
She introduces herself to the ghost and asks us to do the same. She assures the ghost that we are not here to hurt it. “We’re happy that you decided to join us. It looks like they’re going to have a nice meal up here,” she says, as if talking to a child or a very elderly person. “Are you going to come join the meal you think? [pauses] She says she’s going to watch it.”
“Do you see her?” I ask.
“She’s not letting me see her; she’s just letting me know she’s here.”
But a moment later, in a teasing, sing-song manner she says: “You have dark hair. Ah ha ha! I just got a glimpse of you. I got a glimpse of you.”
After another moment or two of small talk, Litsinger says, “She stopped talking. I think I bored her.” To me, it seems like Litsinger is the bored one, but I am not going to let the chance to interview a ghost get away.
“Can you tell when she lived?” I ask.
Litsinger cannot tell, but she asks the ghost.
“Come on,” she says, after a moment of silence, facing an empty corner of the room. “Try to give me the year of your birth.” Silence. “That was a long time ago. [turning to me] 1811.”
“Does she know what year it is now?” I ask.
“She hasn’t been interested in the years,” Litsinger responds after asking the ghost, then she turns back into the void. “Why not? [turning to me] They go so fast. [turning back] They go fast for you too? That surprises me. I thought they would go slow for them.”
Litsinger turns her back on the ghost and starts talking about the faces she has seen on the ceiling here.
“Can you ask her what she does with her time?” I press on.
“She watches a lot of people,” Litsinger says. “Is that interesting?” she asks. “Sometimes,” she responds and then returns to her photographs, which, to be honest, aren’t very convincing. Many of the blob-like orbs seem to have ghost eyes drawn on them—the big white ovals with dark pupils that you see in cartoons.
“Would she be stuck here?” I ask. “If she wanted to go on, could she become a vortex and go quickly?” I ask.
Litsinger sighs with exasperation. “Do you ever leave this building? [she pauses] She’s never left the building. Do you ever want to leave the building? [pauses] She didn’t know she could. Well you can, anytime you want . . . ”
“Does she know she’s—”
“I wanna show you a picture of Poe,” Litsinger says, pulling out yet another blurry photograph. “This is Edgar Allan Poe at his grave site. Can you see him?”
I answer her with a nod about as vague as the picture.
“I was talking to him,” she says.
“What did he tell you?” I ask.
“That all of these people are dumbasses about how he died. It should have been very obvious that he was mugged very badly and hurt very badly. They took all his money and he’d just gotten paid by a patron who wanted him to write a story. Paid him $1,500, plus he had his own money. And he always wore very, very refined clothes. I mean he dressed, like, to the nines. He had wonderful hats, wonderful shoes. And the person who robbed him put him in the clothes they were wearing, which was rags. And the clothes had holes in them and the shoes had holes in them and the straw hat had holes in it, and if it hadn’t been for the person who found him, who knew who he was, they would have buried him as a nut. But his friend said ‘This is Edgar Allan Poe and how in the world did he get in these horrible clothes?’”
I wonder why a mugger would take the time to dress a man he has just killed. I ask if Poe is angry about the way his death went down.
“Yes. He says you got to be an idiot not to know.”
“So he knows he’s dead?”
“Yes,” Litsinger responds.
“Does she?” I ask, lowering my voice and nodding towards the corner where the ghost presumably sits, waiting for us to finish talking about her more famous fellow.
“Do you know that you have died?” Litsinger asks. “Yeah, she knows. Why haven’t you passed on to go with your family?” Silence. “She didn’t know how. I can tell you how. You have to feel the love for your family in your heart and think about it and this bright white light will come to you, and when it comes to you, you’ll walk into it. You’ll see a tunnel which is kind of scary, but when you get to the end of it, you’ll find your family members waiting for you.”
“Is she going to do it?” I ask
“Do you think you’re going to do it?” she asks, then pauses, before turning to me.
“She’s thinking about it.”
almost all of the ghost hunters talk about the bright light. Among the people involved in the nearly 50 groups devoted to paranormal research in or near Baltimore, Litsinger is unique in that she regularly carries on conversations like this with ghosts and tells them how to leave this world; she even helped her father cross over in the same way. “It makes dying easier. But it doesn’t make me any more clear about my life,” she says, laughing.
Most of the ghost hunters or paranormal investigators rely on a variety of devices to find evidence of the paranormal or supernatural. This is the kind of stuff you see on the Ghost Hunters TV show: Electromagnetic field meters (EMFs), digital thermometers, DC TriField meters, AC meters, cameras, and digital voice recorders.
Litsinger uses this stuff too, but she didn’t bring it with her to Bertha’s. And while I had a quite pleasant conversation with the ghost, as a reporter, I can’t really take Litsinger’s word for it. I need to see something that amounts to evidence. Litsinger’s photos just don’t cut it. (Russ Nortel, the head of the Baltimore Society for Paranormal Research, says: “All the pictures of orbs are just because cameras have gotten smaller [and flashes are closer to lenses]. I could take one right now and show you a couple orbs.”)
In order to explore the real world of ghost hunters—if not ghosts—I need to go on an investigation and see what happens. At first, no one I talk to will allow me to observe a private investigation because the researchers believe a reporter’s presence would betray the trust of the residents of the “haunted” houses.
“We just don’t do that,” says Vince Wilson, who founded the Baltimore Society for Paranormal Research and has written several books. Russ Noratel agrees. “I’d take you to a public place,” he says, but he needs more time than I have to arrange a meeting.
I end up calling Margaret Ehrlich of Inspired Ghost Tracking. At first she will only agree to meet at a public place. When I make the trek to Federal Hill, however, it turns out that our interview is part of a rather standard ghost tour where she and a colleague guide paying customers around the neighborhood. The photographer and I are two minutes late and they have already left, so we are forced to run, chasing them down the street.
When we catch up, the two customers on the tour are carrying EMF meters, but we are told that the activity—flashing lights on the meters—is the result of cell phones and electric lines. We listen to stories about historic murders and they’re interesting, but damnit, they are not why we are here.
I’m convinced that we won’t see anything interesting as long as we hang around in haunted bars and look at historic murder locations.
Just as the photographer and I are about to split to find some more readily available spirits in a nearby bar, Ehrlich tells us that she has an investigation in a suburb of Baltimore the next day. She agrees to ask the family if we can come, as long as we don’t reveal their identities or the location of their home.
A family moved into a two-story house on a cul-de-sac in a suburb south of the city about three weeks ago. Immediately, the 19-year-old daughter—let’s call her Sarah—was so terrified by a shadowy figure that appeared in her room on her first night there that she has not slept upstairs since. As strange things kept happening, they began to keep track of these occurrences and wrote them on a dry-erase board hanging on the wall as you enter the kitchen. The board reads:
“Steps upstairs/voices saying Sarah/I miss you/ I love you.
Different voice says come upstairs.
Banging in the bath tub, door squeaking.
Vents moving, walking up and down steps
Un-understandable whispers, door handles jiggling
Dog looking at something, scared, winces
Banging on kitchen counter while I’m making food
Banging in basement.
Spoon moved on counter.”
On the refrigerator door was the Serenity Prayer.
Sarah said that she reached into a cabinet and when she brought her arm out, there were red lines going down it, like scratches in the shape of an arrow. Except she wasn’t physically scratched by any object. A little while later, she had friends over and they watched the marks disappear.
The family ultimately grew so distressed that they found Inspired Ghost Tracking. The process began with a series of interviews, during which, Ehrlich says, “we ask all kinds of personal questions. Do you drink? Do you do drugs? Do you have a history of mental illness. And when we go there for an initial investigation, we’ll open up the medicine cabinets.”
During this process, Margaret Ehrlich and Krissy Ford, an investigator, became quite interested when they discovered what was going on, and they believed Sarah was a sensitive, like Beverly Litsinger.
When we arrive at the house, we park behind a car with the Inspired Ghost Tracking decal on the side. The team—most of whom are wearing gray shirts with the same emblem across the back and their names on the breast—is in the backyard. The shirts and decal on the car make them seem a little more Ghostbusters than Ghost Hunters. There are six on the team, in total. Erhlich, Ford, and Mike Ricksecker, a serious-looking young man with all black clothes and a lot of equipment, make up the team of scientific investigators. (Another man, Anthony Holmes, arrives a little later.) These are the people who will take the readings, run the tape recorders, and snap the photographs looking for evidence. They also know all of the details going into this house.
But Troy Cline and Rob Gutro have been told nothing. They are mediums who will try to understand and assume the burden of the place by feeling its pain. It is not an easy or pleasant job and it requires work. Tom Williams, a medium in training—“medium rare,” someone jokes—is also along watching.
The two mediums work together, triangulating with one another. “We get messages in different ways and we get sensations in different ways,” says Gutro, who is also a meteorologist and tries to understand the paranormal phenomena as part of the natural continuum of energy without demystifying them. “I tend to get headaches whenever there’s some kinds of energy or entity, either intelligent or residual. Intelligent means it can talk to you; residual means it can’t,” he explains.
“You can feel sensations,” Cline says. “Sometimes it’s in your chest. Sometimes its in your head. For me, it’s more a sense of discernment. Being with other people—especially with Rob—once we start comparing notes, it’s pretty uncanny what happens. We use our different strengths to start piecing the story together.”
At the moment, as they walk around outside the house, Gutro feels a stabbing pain in his side and develops a headache, and Cline feels anxiety in his chest and a pulling, tingling sensation in his arms. “I feel like some kind of violent event happened here,” Gutro says.
“I have to go with you on that,” Cline says. “I feel like there were at least two people involved. I feel a female screaming.”
“Mediums sometimes feel the pain of people who have passed, and they share it with us to let us know they’re still here,” Gutro says.
These feelings increase as they move inside and walk throughout the house. “It’s definitely in this corner,” Gutro says. “I really still feel a stabbing pain in my stomach. And in my arms, it feels like it is cutting off the circulation.”
“It’s the right arm,” Cline adds.
As the mediums move upstairs, where their symptoms grow worse, they become convinced that a man killed a woman in the house. The rest of the team moves through the house, checking their EMF meters and thermometers or setting up recorders to catch EVPs.
EVPs are one of the hallmarks of this kind of research. Most investigators believe that electronic audio-recording equipment can pick up sounds that we do not hear. Ehrlich has a collection of dozens, if not hundreds of these and shared some with CP. In one snippet (go to citypaper.com to hear it), she asks a man if his grandmother ever lived in the house, and just after the man says that she never did, a voice says, “Prick!”
We also record the investigation, in hopes of uncovering a verifiable EVP, but the bustle of the investigators is all we pick up.
Upstairs, Gutro and Cline are both beset by vertigo. Though the feelings are unpleasant, it is clear that the other investigators wish they too had the paranormal sensitivity of the mediums.
As I’m talking to Ford downstairs, she also begins to experience vertigo and stumbles for a moment. “I need to sit down,” she says and staggers over to a chair. “There are strange feelings and intuition everyone gets. I wouldn’t say I’m a medium, but I would absolutely love to say I was.” She says that when she was first at the house investigating, she fell into a wall. “I thought, God, I’m so clumsy.” But when she got home, she found herself thinking, “Sonofabitch, I was pushed into the wall.”
Ford, a thin woman with long, dark, Sigourney Weaver hair, got interested in ghosts when she was a senior in high school and a group of her friends from school murdered another friend with baseball bats at a shooting range. “They buried his body and came back a couple days later and dug him up and cut him up and buried him in different places. When we found out where it was, me and my friends went out there and that was the first EVP I got.”
The ghost said, “It was them.” She felt like the ghost stuck with her and began to feel she was in danger. Eventually, she learned that she could tell him to go away, and when she did, she never saw him again. She began doing more formal investigations after that but quit for seven years until she met Ehrlich and thought “I’m meant to do this, and I missed it so much.”
Ford conducted the most extensive pre-interviews of the suburban family, and the scenario the mediums come up with fits rather well with the descriptions she was given: a dark “shadow figure,” the focus on pain in the arms, and the presence of more than one spirit.
It is time for the mediums to go home, where Gutro will write up a detailed report for Ehrlich. She will put it with the rest of her evidence and present it to the family. If they are convinced there is a malevolent spirit in the house, Ehrlich and her team will offer to guide it into the other world. No one is ready to make such a conclusion right now, but the entire team leaves feeling that something supernatural is happening in this suburban home.
We are unable to verify that the mediums didn’t see the note posted on the wall or that they weren’t given any information by the rest of the team. Nor can we find any record of domestic violence or murder at the home’s address. Still, at the very worst, the group is subject to confirmation bias—the phenomenon of finding what you are looking for. They are sincere in their desire to help, though. They don’t charge money and, just today, they spent nearly four hours at this house.
I am no closer to scientific evidence of the existence of ghosts than I was back with Litsinger at Bertha’s, but I realize that, at it’s most basic, ghost hunting is not really about the dead or the undead. It is about the living—yet another way we seek to understand the world and our place in it. “It is about the mystery,” Ehrlich says.
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