Brian O'Neill: Haunted Cranmer house: An eerie ring of truth?

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I'm sitting in the parlor of Bob Cranmer's century-old Brentwood home. It has oak floors and bookcases, a pleasantly warming fireplace and a history of ungodly evil.

Mr. Cranmer, an Allegheny County commissioner in the 1990s, has written a book detailing a long battle his family had with a demonic presence in their home of more than 25 years.

I haven't read "The Demon of Brownsville Road''; it won't be available until August. But Mr. Cranmer was open to every question I had.

I can't say definitively whether any of the following did or didn't happen. I wasn't there. Were I a reader coming to this story cold, I expect I wouldn't waver much from my general inclination that most allegedly paranormal or supernatural activity has some rational or psychological explanation.

But I've now talked with enough people who were in that home and saw -- or smelled -- things, that I'm not certain what I know anymore.

Adam Blai was working on his master's in adult clinical psychology at Penn State when he came to the Cranmer home about a decade ago as the staff advisor to the university's Paranormal Research Society. He was interested in how the brain could create false experiences.

Then he spent a couple of weekends on Brownsville Road. He and the students with him witnessed the same thing, he said: a shadow moving through the room; the distinct scent of roses arising and then disappearing; something that felt like long fingernails raking across his forehead and leaving a welt that quickly disappeared.

Without direct experience of the extraordinary, he said, it's natural and rational to conclude that it's not real. But Mr. Blai went on from Brentwood to see similar and more horrific phenomena elsewhere. He now trains Roman Catholic priests in exorcism and believes that the Cranmer home was almost certainly infested with "fallen angels'' -- Lucifer's followers.

Mr. Cranmer credits priests of the Pittsburgh diocese with rescuing his family. He and his wife, Lisa, bought the home in 1988 and would raise four children there. Early on, there were odd noises and incidents that seemed no more threatening than Casper the Friendly Ghost. Then, while digging in the yard, his shovel hit a buried metal box with rosary beads. He called the previous owner, who told him he'd be wise to put those beads back.

As time went on, Mr. Cranmer said, the entity played rougher. He'd wake up with scratches and bites. Crucifixes broke or bent. Two of his sons and his wife would seek psychological help.

A Catholic friend put him in touch with then-Bishop Donald Wuerl. The Rev. Michael Salvagna, a Passionist priest at St. Paul of the Cross Monastery on the South Side, would visit the Cranmer home dozens of times over the course of 2004 and 2005.

He, other priests and lay people were "a bit of a pickup team'' that learned as it battled, using weapons familiar to anyone who saw "The Exorcist'' or its knockoffs: prayer, holy water and the Mass. Father Salvagna experienced the same foul smells the Cranmers had and saw what looked like blood stains on the wall. He and the rest of the team always prayed to free the house of any lingering spirit, commanding it to leave in the name of Jesus Christ.

Kerry Fraas, county solicitor when Mr. Cranmer was commissioner, said he was at the house once, praying with his old friend and two priests, when the crucifix on the rosary he was holding in his open cupped hands separated from the beads.

Their allies at one point included an exorcist from New York, Father Salvagna said, and Mr. Cranmer was "a prayer warrior." Together, they won.

To believe this story one must first believe, as Father Salvagna said, that "there are forces in this world beyond the visible and the sensate.'' Speaking as one who has seen the devil as a metaphor for evil, not a being, part of me longs for harder proof. Another part gives thanks I never experienced anything like this.

I know this: The house was peaceful and warm Friday morning. When we interrupted Bob Cranmer Jr., 28, at a computer in the next room, he backed everything his father said about the home in which he grew up, and he added details of his own.

The elder Mr. Cranmer, who had left Catholicism, is back in the fold, big time. He'd been saying the rosary just before I arrived. He picked it up from the table and fingered the beads, which didn't look to be going anywhere.


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.

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