When radio producer Kara McGuirk-Allison was 4 years old, she woke up one night “absolutely convinced there was a ghost in the room with me.”
As an adult, that memory rushed back when she read a Pew Research Center survey that found that 65 percent of Americans believe in the supernatural, 49 percent say they’ve had “a religious or mystical experience” and 29 percent have “felt in touch with a dead person.”
McGuirk-Allison realized she hadn’t finished considering ghosts, and using the tools of her trade as a NPR producer, she created a podcast, “The Ghost in My Room.” The project takes a “historical look at folklore, legends and ghost stories and the people who try to prove they’re real.” She teamed
up with Baltimore ghost hunters the Dead of Night Paranormal Society and invited me to join their trip to Gettysburg.
The likelihood of meeting a vengeful ectoplasmic Civil War soldier on the moonlit Gettysburg battlefields seemed remote to me; however, I brought my husband, Kevin, and son Max. McGuirk-Allison booked rooms at the Doubleday Inn, which perches atop a battlefield ridge infamous for Confederate officer Alfred Iverson’s disastrous charge on the first day of battle. Union troops, hiding behind earthworks, killed nearly everyone. The dead were buried in an adjacent field known as Iverson’s Pit, now reputed to be haunted. So is – and I should have guessed this — the inn that abuts it.
“Want the haunted room?” the inn manager asked upon learning we were joining the ghost hunters.
I did not.
We took the un-haunted Robert E. Lee room. An eerie, glassed-in shadowbox mural behind the bed, featuring three soldiers and a horse, caught our eyes first. I noticed just as my son said aloud, “The horse’s eyes follow you.” A little too quickly, I assured him (or myself), “We’re not in the haunted room!”
The battlefield-facing wall held shelves overstuffed with Civil War history books, which I examined as the sun sank and we prepared for dinner. People have an innate need to connect with the past, to resurrect the dead. Histories are ghost stories, too, I reminded myself. But I still wouldn’t look at the horse.
Over dinner at the Appalachian Brew House, Olen Prince, the group’s founder, told me that four of the Dead of Night Paranormal Society’s seven members were on this trip. In general, he said, they do more ghostbusting — helping people rid themselves and their homes of spiritual nuisances — than ghost hunting.
The two other members who joined this trip were crucial to this spiritual sweeping process, and they were a mother-daughter team. “My mother and I are on the psychic side of things,” the duo’s daughter, Linza Craig, 30, said.
Her mother, petite 60-year-old Kimberly Ellison, smiled a lot, actively listened and exuded empathy. She said spirit work can be draining at times, but it’s fulfilling. And she’s rarely, if ever, frightened by it.
“You have to be really big and bad to bully me,” she said with a smile. Despite her warmth, I’m inclined to believe Ellison. At dinner, she wore a black sweater that’s emblazoned with eight-inch white block letters that read: Bite me. Her shaved, bald head was half-covered with a geisha tattoo. Her nose was pierced. If we hadn’t been discussing her work with foster children as a social worker and psychologist, I may well have been intimidated.
She sees her work with the Dead of Night Paranormal Society as an extension of her day job. “When I decided it wasn’t a punishment or a curse, it’s a blessing, I began developing that skillset because I wanted to help others,” she said.
When clients call, Ellison said, they are “desperate and afraid. They don’t have resources,” and they may “live for years being tormented and afraid.”
The group doesn’t charge fees for their services. Craig explained: “Because my gifts were given to me by the creator, and I use them to do his work, I think charging would be disrespectful to him and the gift.” Craig said having a psychic mom who’s also a therapist means “when things go bump in the night,” her mom will ask, ‘How does this make you feel?’” It also means when there are mental health issues instead of paranormal ones, Ellison can make referrals.
Ellison said group members will ask about significant life events and suss out possible underlying family issues. Paranormal activity and mental health issues aren’t mutually exclusive, she said. “A lot of times you have both that may exacerbate one another.”
Prince estimated there are 80 to 100 paranormal investigation groups in the mid-Atlantic area, from Gettysburg to northern Virginia. Their team isn’t “looking for thrills. Instead of seeing cases as opportunities to collect evidence,” he said, the group is “going to help you through this.”
Prince formed this team in 2012 after he felt a connection with his recently deceased grandfather. When choosing members, Prince looked at their skillsets and attitude. “History is important to us. Respecting the dead is important to us.
You’ve got everybody out there who wants to be the next Zak Bagans of television’s “Ghost Adventures,” said Prince, but he’s happy to have recruited a team that works well together and is not “in it to get rich or for 15 minutes of fame.”
After dinner, team member Joe Fisher showed me their equipment — worth more than $5,000. The SP-7, also known as a ‘spirit box,’ rapidly scrolled through radio channels, creating, Fisher said, “white noise that spirits are able to communicate through.”
They also use a “plain, old audio recorder,” Fisher said. “Sometimes we’ll pick up things we didn’t hear but the recorder will catch. That’s always fun. Sometimes we’ll do a burst session. I’ll ask a question, wait five or 10 seconds, then ask another. We’ll review the audio on the spot.”
Prince showed me the recorder on his wrist and told me his wife, Heather, is their reviewer. “Say I record for an hour. She’s going to listen for three,” he said.
Fisher introduced me to the handheld EMF energy reader. “You can use this to talk to somebody, but just yes or no questions.”
I asked if he thought we’d get any recordings on this night. Fisher shrugged. “Spirits are just like you and me,” he said. “Sometimes we want to talk. Sometimes we don’t.”
Just before midnight, Craig and Ellison climbed the steep stairs to the low-ceilinged, third-floor allegedly haunted room (apparently, nobody else wanted to stay there either) to “open up,” or invite, the supernatural to our after-hours party. Ellison said she and her daughter first protect themselves, calling on their ancestors.
“Some people call them spirit guides. But they’re more like a gang. I think of them as pit bulls on the end of my leash,” Craig said. Ellison and Craig then “reach out” into the spiritual world. The women lie on the twin beds in the dark, speaking with one another softly.
“We’re not picking up anything,” Craig told us when Fisher, Prince and I entered the room a few minutes later.
I sat in the dormer window, looking over the Gettysburg battlefield and beyond to the Gettysburg College stadium. A light fog rolled in. I wasn’t scared, possibly because Craig and Ellison periodically broke the quiet to tell us they hadn’t picked up any spirits. The equipment also remained quiet. Rain pattered against the roof.
“Honestly, I can’t push myself out any further,” Craig told her mother. “I’m just getting residual energy, and it’s all down on the first floor.” So we packed up and went there next. On the first floor, Fisher furnished props from his days as a Civil War re-enactor: an antique belt buckle, musket and canteen.
Craig and Ellison felt something: not a spirit, they said, but an impression.
“It’s like a hive mentality. Not individual personalities. Just random fear and pain,” said Craig. She said she was certain the spirits walking through “didn’t even realize the house was here” because it didn’t exist in their time. “I’m feeling everything across the street, not in the house.”
I asked what she was feeling. “Grief,” she answered. In the living room, Fisher held the musket to his shoulder. “All our batteries are dead,” Prince announced.
“What happened to the Confederates here?” Craig conversationally asked Fisher. Fisher pointed toward the battlefield and said, “The Union over here … .” Bang. Everyone stopped talking for a beat then talked all at once. The bang “came from over there,” Fisher said. “I felt it above us,” Craig said. “The boom caught it over here,” Prince said. The lights on the EMF moved from green to orange.
“Is there a Confederate soldier here?” Ellison asked. “Are you trying to communicate with us?” As she spoke, the EMF lights blinked up and down the spectrum. “I understand this house is very disorienting,” Ellison continued. “If you slow down and just focus on that machine, you can probably light it up all the way for us. I would be very grateful. You have our respect. I am sorry for your loss and your pain and suffering. I know you were an honorable man.”
Fisher asked: “Are you from the Union?” No lights. “Are you from the Confederacy?” The EMF lights jumped. “Are you here with Lt. Gen. Iverson?” No lights.
Ellison said, “I feel very strongly that …” and then she cut off talking and asked Fisher: “Did they have boys who weren’t soldiers who helped them carry things?” “Drummer boys,” Prince and Fisher answered in unison. “They were 16,” said Fisher, and the EMF jumped to red.
Tears streamed down Craig’s face. She apologized as she wiped them away. “I’m getting a lot of feelings,” she gestured to the room around her. “Very sad.”
Ellison spoke, asking if the ghost helped the soldiers and carried water. The EMF spiked with each question. Craig quietly cried. Ellison said she understood how sad and confused he was.
“You can go home,” Ellison said. “Your work is done. You did a wonderful job. Your father is proud of you. Your mother is proud of you. The battle is over. You can go home.”
The EMF stopped. Craig exhaled and wiped away her streams of tears with both hands.
“You guys want to take a breather?” Prince asked. “Yes,” Craig and Ellison answered in unison. They went outside for a cigarette under the covered porch.
I said I could use some air, but I really wanted to avoid being alone in the room. I couldn’t figure out the conversation Ellison had with … the ghost? The EMF machine? The wall? Herself? The EMF hadn’t moved all night; then when the bang occurred, Ellison and Craig visibly sobered and the EMF jumped.
When someone asked a question, the EMF lights spiked up. Craig quietly sobbed while Ellison soothed. The lights responded to her voice. I saw it happen, but I wasn’t sure what it meant.
To believe or not
Walking into breakfast, Kevin told me he heard a sigh coming from someone in the room behind us. Or, since he fell asleep with ghosts on the brain, he dreamt it.
We asked the innkeeper who was staying in the room next to ours. That was the garage, he said, where he kept his collection of sports memorabilia.
“Who sighed then?” Max asked. “It was the horse,” Kevin told Max, winking at me. Max argued with him all the way home, but I remained neutral. You could argue, I told Max, or you could say you had fun and take a nap. Ghost hunting is a sport for insomniacs, I decided.
McGuirk-Allison harbors similar feelings. “Before starting this project, I was probably a 70 percent skeptic and a 30 percent believer. Now I would say it’s 50/50. I 100 percent believe there is residual energy left over from the past and there are people who can see and hear it. Do I believe in hauntings? Not quite there yet. Give me a few more tapings.”