Paranormal investigation teams probe spooky reports
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Imagine seeing an apparition of a woman floating above your bed.
Or being awakened each morning by the sounds of a cat purring -- and you don't own a pet.
Fathom living in a house where you hear footsteps or whispers, see items fly off shelves and catch shadow figures in your peripheral vision.
Think these things are just oh -oh -oh -oooh Halloween tales?
Think again. They're actual local reports of year-round spirit sightings.
Towns in and around the South Hills claim a fair amount of ghostly goings-on at this time of year and all the time, according to leaders of four Pittsburgh area paranormal investigation teams.
The teams are The Center for Paranormal Study and Investigation [CPSI], in Bridgeville; Greater Pittsburgh Paranormal Society [GPPS], of Green Tree; Peace of Mind Paranormal Society [POMPS], in Finleyville, Washington County and Pittsburgh Paranormal Society [PPS], in Dormont.
"I think the South Hills has lots of unexplainable activity because of its history -- the steel mills, construction deaths, battles fought around the area, older homes, things like that," said Tonya Boff, 34, founder of GPPS.
"The entire Pittsburgh area is so very much haunted," said Shawn Kelly, 46, founder of PPS. "To me, the most haunted place in Pennsylvania besides Gettysburg is the Mon Valley--Bunola, Elizabeth Borough, Monongahela and other [Monongahela River] towns.''
The investigative teams aim to debunk or substantiate claims of activity thought to be paranormal--that beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation. They hunt answers, not ghosts. Most claims are debunked and found to have natural causes. But, a noteworthy number yield evidence of possible paranormal or unexplainable activity, the leaders said.
For GPPS, only 3 percent to 5 percent of cases appear to have some type of paranormal activity; CPSI and PPS reported 20 percent, and POMPS, 30 percent.
Members of CPSI, GPPS and POMPS said they consider themselves open-minded skeptics. They approach cases scientifically with an arsenal of audio, visual and other equipment to capture evidence.
PPS uses equipment too, but relies heavily on psychic skills which Mr. Kelly claims he has.
"I'm a sensitive. I do see things. I hear things. I enjoy talking and listening to spirits. I believe that God gave me this gift to help people," Mr. Kelly said.
The teams take investigation requests from the tri-state and beyond; about 75 cases per year. There is no charge for the service.
Tom Harter, 30, started CPSI in 2004. Mrs. Boff started GPPS in 2006. This group is part of the TAPS family, a network of groups authorized by The Atlantic Paranormal Society to handle cases throughout the nation and abroad. Members of the parent TAPS group are stars of the Sci-Fi channel TV show, "Ghost Hunters."
PPS was co-founded by Mr. Kelly and Don Wagner, 43, in 2006. Mr. Wagner, who disagreed with PPS's spiritual approach and method of handling of evidence, went on to start POMPS, in 2007.
Getting evidence isn't easy.
"Ghosts don't act on cue," said Shawn McIntyre, of Reserve, GPPS investigations director. "Just because we don't get evidence doesn't mean there's not paranormal activity.''
In April, GPPS presented Homestead police department with audio and video evidence that their station was haunted. Audio included a scream picked up in the basement, and in the attic, doors slamming and a voice that appeared to say "Hey Sam."
Video clips showed a video camera cord, taped to the basement ceiling, fly loose and sway back and forth, plus a shadow in an area once used to collect traffic ticket fines.
During a North Hills case, POMPS claims to have captured audio evidence of a suspected ghost cat. The client said something would shake her mattress each morning, jump on her chest and purr loudly in her face, waking her up. Her pet cat died long ago. The team heard the purring while sitting in her kitchen.
"We were hearing it and recording it. It was unbelievable. We were looking at each other like, 'This can't be happening.' We could not find anything causing it," Mr. Wagner said.
PPS investigator Doreen Hill recalled a bizarre Monroeville case. She said while backing out of his driveway, a client received a call on his cell phone. Caller ID showed his home number, yet his wife already left for work. Later, he found a disturbing voice mail message.
"He saved it for us and played it back," Ms. Hill said. "Very distinctly you hear this garble noise like static, then all of a sudden you hear this deep voice say 'Kill the nurse.'" His wife was a nurse at UPMC.
Investigation requests double at Halloween for some teams. And they're viewed skeptically.
"A lot of people are looking for a giggle, for something exciting to do because it's Halloween," Mr. Wagner said. "Last year, we had a case where people were claiming all this paranormal activity and when we got there, there was a party and everyone in the house was drunk. So yea, they were seeing all kinds of stuff."
GPPS gets "slammed" with e-mails at Halloween, Mrs. Boff said. The majority are serious inquiries, but odd ones slip through. Inquires such as the man who wrote that he met the Blair Witch in a dream and wanted GPPS to hook up equipment to his head to pull her out.
Hauntings can be "intelligent," where a spirit tries to interact with people and manipulate the environment, or "residual," where activity happens over and over like video on continual loop, Mr. Harter explained. They can be triggered by home remodeling, new tenants, family fights--"anything that's changing what a spirit might be used to," he said.
In Elizabeth Township: A priest reported seeing apparitions of a nun in a rectory office, and hearing voices in a living area formerly occupied by confessionals. He also saw moving objects. POMPS heard footsteps and captured images, but none strong enough to confirm claims.
West Mifflin: A man claimed he often saw the apparition of an old woman float above his bed when he'd wake up at night. POMPS caught video evidence of a barrel lock on the bedroom door opening by itself.
Allentown: CPSI clients reported seeing apparitions and moving objects, being touched, hearing voices, and seeing an orb float through a room. Their child reported seeing spirits, too. CPSI caught audio evidence of footsteps, voices and door latches opening and closing.
Homestead: A cafeteria worker at a Propel school claimed the building was haunted. PPS captured audio evidence of a spirit answering questions by knocking.
Forward: Crew members at Forward Township Volunteer Fire Company claim to occasionally hear the voice of a young child over the station's two-way radio speaker. Another spirit is believed to walk around opening doors. POMPS is investigating.
Jefferson Hills: Owners of the Valley Hotel claim things go missing from behind the bar and in drawers, then reappear weeks later. Guests have heard voices and footsteps overnight. And a man who routinely collected recycled cans from the basement quit after hearing voices of a man and women arguing. PPS caught video evidence of a mirror wobbling on the wall, then falling to the floor.
The scientific teams don't claim to get rid of spirits, but PPS does. Mr. Kelly said, if requested, he will try to "send spirits into the light" and do so "with special assistance."
"Calling paranormal investigators is not taboo anymore, but it's still a hush thing," Mrs. Boff said.
Most claims turn out to have natural causes: Banging in the house can be loose siding in the wind. Apparitions can be hallucinations from medication issues -- or effects of a long-term carbon monoxide leak. A feeling of being watched can stem from high electromagnetic fields linked to faulty wiring, Mr. Wagner said. Noises can come from bad pipes, furnaces, small animals in the walls, the house settling and more.
Orbs that show up on photos and video can be shutter speed issues with bugs, moths, raindrops, dust and the like. Mr. McIntyre said unless an orb is seen with the naked eye, or caught by two cameras at the same time, they're not real.
Scent-related claims are often debunked, but a pungent vanilla smell raises a flag. Mr. McIntyre said vanilla oil was used by funeral homes in the 1800s and prior to cover the smell of bodies during wakes and funerals. "The scent doesn't go away easily," he said.
Years ago, though never investigated, Dormont Public Library may have been visited by the spirit of a library clerk who died in the late 1980s. She loved her job dearly, said Mardi Centinaro, former library director for 20 years.
"A few things happened shortly after she passed that made you feel like she was saying, 'I'm still here to help you out,'" she said.
Once, a staff member was having trouble finding a book for a patron, when the sought-after book fell off of a shelf. "I witnessed it literally move from the shelf to the floor," said Ms. Centinaro.
"Nobody has determined whether or not there is actually proof of paranormal activity out there. That's kind of what we're trying to do. Just like before they started to find fossils there was no proof of dinosaurs. It's trying to find evidence that will hold up with the academic science community," Mr. McIntyre said.
The Center for Paranormal Study and Investigation can be reached at www.cpsi-paranormal.org or 412-759-4867.
Greater Pittsburgh Paranormal Society www.pittsburghparanormal.com.
Peace of Mind Paranormal Society www.peaceofmindparanormalsociety.com or 412-508-4761.
Pittsburgh Paranormal Society (PPS), www.pittsburghparanormalsociety.com.
First Published November 2, 2008 12:00 am