Everyone likes a good ghost story this time of year, but not many of us have actually lived one. Then there is Randy Myers, who not only claims to regularly see spirits but believes he has recorded and photographed them.
As often as once a week, the McKeesport native and other members of East Hills Paranormal are on the hunt for things that go bump in the night. Sometimes, the Pitcairn-based group heads to sites made famous by urban legend, such as Dead Man's Hollow in Elizabeth Township, the scene of at least four deaths in the past 135 years, or the "lost" town of Livermore, Westmoreland County, which was evacuated, razed and flooded in the 1950s to make way for a dam on the Conemaugh River. All that remains, other than its spooky cemetery high on a hill, are broken foundations and stories of a ghost house that vanishes and reappears.
"Whatever piques our interest that day," Mr. Myers says.
After a recent ghost-hunting trip to Quaker Cemetery in Perryopolis, while members in matching black baseball caps munched burgers at a Uniontown McDonald's, they learned that an abandoned house just beyond the restaurant's parking lot was rumored to be a hotbed of supernatural activity. Night-shift employees had heard unexplained voices on the drive-through intercom, and when a medium visited, she reported seven evil spirits, says Josh Shelton, who has been with the group since 2009 and is the unofficial field organizer.
Damaged by fire and left to rot in a jungle of knee-high weeds and poison ivy, the two-story clapboard Colonial certainly screams "haunted house," especially at dusk, when the group convened in its side yard with a reporter and photographer. Besides evil spirits, the house is a rumored hideout for drunks, crack addicts and bums, says Mr. Shelton. That explains why, in addition to flashlights, batteries and walkie-talkies, Mr. Myers and fellow ghosthunter Fred Broerman came armed with paintball guns.
"We want to make sure we enter safely," says Mr. Broerman, a former security guard who has been seeing ghosts since he was a kid.
The most commonly reported paranormal experiences are the sounds of voices and that eerie, unsettling feeling of being watched. So the group brings tape recorders and digital cameras that sometimes capture a ball of light known as an "orb," shadowy figures and unexplained blurs. Among the questions thrown out in the darkness in hopes of a ghostly answer are: What's your name? How old are you? How did you die? How can we help you? ... When is the apocalypse?
A hunt is not limited to what they can see or hear. Finding evidence of ghosts requires more specialized equipment, too, including night-vision goggles and heat guns to detect changes in temperature (it will suddenly get colder when a ghost is nearby). East Hills Paranormal also uses EMF meters, which measure fluctuations in electromagnetic fields. If the meters trip near plugs and fixtures, you know you've got a live one, technically speaking, especially if it happens in a house like this one, which hasn't been connected to Allegheny Power for years. All of the gathered information will be taken home and carefully analyzed over the next week.
After an anxious five minutes to determine that the Uniontown house is indeed empty, as least of other people, members with flashlights and strap-on headlamps head up the broken staircase one spongy, damp step at a time. The smell of mold, urine and musty plaster permeates the air, and there's so much debris on the floor, the group has to tiptoe around the room. Then whosh! A bat flies out of the rafters, setting everyone atwitter.
The group seems even more unnerved by an inverted pentagram scrawled on a bedroom wall, along with references to Anton LaVey, an occultist who founded the Church of Satan in 1966.
"Obviously, someone worships the devil here," says Mr. Broerman, noting that such activity can bring out demons (evil) rather than spirits (lost souls).
For the next 45 minutes, they wander from room to room, taking pictures, hollering questions, feeling for cold spots and shining their lights into closets and corners. The last time Chad Opfer was in the house, he says he saw an apparition in a doorway -- a full body with a "red glare." He's really, really hoping for a replay.
"Can you make yourself appear again?" he calls out at one point. "Use my energy!
"Just don't make me sick," he adds, noting how spirits sometimes can give you headaches or flu-like symptoms.
They also sometimes follow you home, which is why Mr. Shelton always offers a cleansing prayer before the group leaves a property. Later, they play and replay the tapes to see if they've managed to catch any electronic voice phenomenon, or ghost voices that you can't hear until you play back a recording, Mr. Myers says.
They find no voices on the Uniontown tapes, but the group takes back to Pitcairn several photos of ghostly orbs, proof positive, they say, of life after death.
Mr. Broerman realizes many people are skeptical about what they do. "They're afraid to think there's something out there," he says.
"Either they believe or they don't believe," agrees Mr. Shelton. "We can't force anyone to change their minds."
The group has a page on Facebook: www.facebook.com/groups/easthillsparanormal/
"Come out with us," Mr. Broerman offers. "It's fun, and a lot of people are interested in it."
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay. First Published October 31, 2012 4:00 AM