To catch a ghost: An evening with Southern Utah Paranormal

What’s news for horror writer Paul D. Dail?

Mostly, I’ve been really enjoying a regular gig writing op/ed, features, and even some straight news for The Independent, southern Utah News and Events.

They were kind enough to let me post my “A day in the mind of a horror writer…or…How my brain is different than yours?” which originally appeared here on my blog in a little longer form.

And the following is a feature article I did for them which was originally published at SUindependent.com.

So without further ado…

To catch a ghost: An evening with Southern Utah Paranormal

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People who know I write horror are often surprised at what a scaredy-cat I am. To be an effective horror writer, I think you have to believe in a lot of the things you write about, or at least be willing to concede the possibility of such things. So, even if it’s admittedly irrational on most levels, I get spooked a lot, especially living in the middle of nowhere.

When it comes to ghosts, I put them in the same group as aliens. Or God. I want to believe, but so far, I’m still waiting on solid evidence. I was hoping to change that when I signed up for the paranormal investigation sponsored by Southern Utah Paranormal at Frontier Homestead State Park, the site of a museum and several historic buildings from Cedar City’s founding in the mid-1800’s.

To see, or not to see? That was the question.

In the short story “Tourist Trap” by Richard Farren Barber, a man and a woman are taking a ghost tour in the ruins of a supposedly haunted castle. From the beginning of “Tourist Trap,” it is obvious the couple has visited many such attractions searching for ghosts, but only seen all of the tricks conjured up to put on a show for tourists.

homestead-1I didn’t believe this was going to be the case with Wednesday’s ghost hunt. Prior to signing up, I had the opportunity to interview the publicity manager/lead investigator for Southern Utah Paranormal, Todd Prince. In addition to coordinating projects and locations with retired police sergeant Kevin Olson, one of the founding members of the group, Prince is also the manager of Frontier Homestead, and according to him, the state park wasn’t in the habit of holding nightly ghost tours. It was also clear to me that Southern Utah Paranormal prided itself on their skepticism.

“We take everything with a grain of salt,” Prince said. “[After an investigation], we review our information individually and throw a lot of it out. We send whatever is left to the other group members for review. Maybe they identify their own voice in someone else’s recording. Or their own shadow. After we go through all of that, what we’re left with is what we present to the public as possibly being paranormal.”

As it turns out, Prince’s first ghost hunt was when he was approached by Joshua Stewart, another founding member, to do research at the museum.

“I told him, ‘Yes, if I can come along,’” Prince said. “I can’t say I’ve had any previous paranormal experiences that drew me to the [group].”

That wasn’t the case for the other members of my ghost hunting group on Wednesday.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I arrived at the park, the sun had just set. I wasn’t sure who else to expect at this public event. I hadn’t really thought about it until just before leaving, when my wife mentioned I would probably be in the company of other ghost hunters, not just people looking for a recreational experience, like a haunted house for a quarter of the cost.

However, some of them were likely there for that exact reason. I noticed several younger girls (although per Southern Utah Paranormal’s request, they should’ve been over 18), and I wondered how much it would take for a teenager not to go home disappointed. Even though I think hearing just the simplest knocking that seemed to originate from nothing I could explain would be a life-changing event, I had a feeling some of these teens would only have been satisfied if the dead actually rose from the cemetery just north of the park.

Before breaking up into groups of four or five, plus a Southern Utah Paranormal investigator, Prince handed out the “basic guidelines” for investigation behavior; rules such as “Talk in a normal voice,” considering the sessions were all recorded.

“We want to know it’s you talking,” Prince said, “and not a ghost [lowers his voice] whispering.”

Yeah, he said “ghost whispering.” Jennifer Love Hewitt, anyone?

He also asked that no one intentionally invite evil or negative spirits into the space, and to be respectful. This was something he had mentioned in our interview, when I brought up the show “Ghost Adventures,” where the main ghost hunter regularly taunts spirits to try to get a reaction.

“We don’t typically provoke unless we’re getting absolutely nothing,” Prince said. “People have to work in these places, and we don’t want to stir up anything negative … When we do provoke, it’s more like, ‘We don’t hear anything. We don’t believe you’re here unless you make a sound for us.’ It’s more getting them to respond.”

One of Prince’s final guidelines was a reminder to the group that they are skeptics, even though in our interview, he said Southern Utah Paranormal was a good balance of skeptics and believers.

Homestead-2I don’t think my group’s leaders were necessarily on the skeptical side of that scale. Trish Dedrick, our group’s main investigator, claims to have experienced several paranormal events, including at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colo., the hotel that inspired Stephen King’s “The Shining.” The only thing she questioned was why the spirits chose to stick around.

“I haven’t figured that out yet,” she said. “Why do some stay and why do some not stay?”

Another member of our group, Southern Utah Paranormal investigator-in-training Stephanie, offered up a response, “I know that some … feel like [they] have stuff to fix, but for others, it’s been 200 years. Move on.”

Stephanie claims to have actually seen spirits, but said she mostly senses their energy.

The other two women in my group also claimed personal paranormal experiences. For Lacey T., her unexplained phenomenon came when she was at a sleepover at her friend’s house seven years ago.

“I had a hard time sleeping,” she said, “and I heard a heavy breathing by the door, and it sounded evil.” She then reproduced the sound for the group. “It happened two times and then it stopped. I was too scared to look out the door.”

Since then, she has done her own investigations, including nighttime excursions to Parowan Gap and the cemetery next to the park to see if she could get anything. She hasn’t had any luck. “Nothing ever happened to me when I went to look for it,” she said.

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Brandi B. said she has experienced physical sensations, both in her current house that previously belonged to her father — where she has felt brushes on her arm — and in a previous house owned by her great-grandparents, and where both died.

“It’s not really a drafty house,” she said, “but when I look back on it, I would get cold chills in certain parts of the house.”

Temperature changes are believed by ghost hunters to be a sign that a spirit has manifested in the room. These cold spots may be as much as 10 degrees cooler than normal temperature.

This was Brandi B.’s first outing, even though friends have told her they thought she was quite sensitive to such things, so she was wondering if she would feel anything. She said she did sense an electric feeling in the Hunter House.

I only heard a tapping noise, which Stephanie said was probably just the occasional bouncing of an old phonograph needle when people walked in the room.

Substance, or a lack thereof. [WARNING: “Tourist Trap” spoilers]

In “Tourist Trap,” the man and woman discover the same fraud at Castle Geort as they had experienced in other instances, rigged wires and hidden speakers projecting sounds to give a thrill to the tourists.

I won’t replay the two hours spent in the various buildings in the park (although, apparently Trish will be poring over the recordings), but I can tell you that I didn’t experience anything. A creaking from the front door to an old cabin that may have been the wind. A temperature drop in the Hunter House possibly resulting from being in the entryway.

Although a little disappointed, I wasn’t necessarily surprised. We had only spent 15-20 minutes in any one location. Prince had informed me a typical investigation may run anywhere from eight hours to a couple of days.

“It may be boring as hell,” Prince said. “For the most part, it’s pretty quiet. When we go back and review and come across something, that’s when it’s exciting … When you see [programs such as ‘Ghost Adventures’], editors have to pick through hours of investigation and pick out the ‘gotcha’ stuff that captures your interest or raises the hair on your arms.”

So, does the fact that nothing happened invalidate anything, such as the existence of paranormal entities? Or the necessity of a group such as Southern Utah Paranormal? It doesn’t for me, and I don’t believe it does for anyone else in our little group.

“Tourist Trap” had a twist ending. After finding nothing of substance at Castle Goert — or perhaps more appropriately, finding only substance — the couple fades away. They were actually ghosts themselves, searching for others like them.

Perhaps that’s what this is really about. Trying to find connections, even with other members of the living. At one point, when asked about her time with Southern Utah Paranormal, Stephanie said, “It’s kind of nice because you find other people in the world that are like you.”

Homestead-3For many people, it’s a connection to their past. While Brandi B. might have been testing her radar, maybe she was also looking for confirmation that her loved ones are still around. For others, it may be a connection to our uncertain future, a confirmation of what happens when we shuffle off this mortal coil.

This seemed to be the case for Prince. A professed Buddhist, Prince said that paranormal activity goes along with the Buddhist belief in a state of being where the consciousness resides after death and before being born into another physical body.

“I have no doubt there is something beyond this life,” Prince said. “Some of the things I’ve experienced are incredible. There is no doubt what you’re hearing.”

This makes me question the group’s claim of “skepticism.” When everyone reconvened in the museum at the end of the evening, I saw the excitement in Olson when he recounted the activity his group experienced. I wondered how much evidence it takes to make one a believer. For me, it gets back to that knocking that seemed to originate from nothing I could explain. After that, I would just be looking for more evidence. I’m not sure you can be a skeptic and believer at the same time.

As for me? Even though nothing was proven tonight, I still want to believe. Just something in my gut. Not because I’m searching for God or comfort in the afterlife. Sure, that would be nice, but beyond that, it just makes sense.

In the pre-hunt orientation, Prince said, “Energies tend to attach to objects.” While he wasn’t outright talking about the Law of Conservation of Energy, that’s what struck me about his comment. Most people are familiar with the law stating energy cannot be created or destroyed in a closed system (like our universe), but only changed from one form into another or transferred from one object to another.

The science gets a little New Age-ish when you start talking about people being composed of energy, but even a physicist at askthemathematician.com said that like a battery with nothing to recharge it, the electrical energy characteristic of our nervous system converts to heat energy upon our deaths. Our energy changes form.

It gets kind of confusing, but it’s a law, right? Even though the existence of the paranormal hasn’t been proven — to me, at least — maybe that feeling in my gut allowing me jump from fact to conclusion is actually faith.

I guess that means a UFO hunt is next.

What do I want from you?

This begs the obvious question? Have you had any experiences yourself?

Even if not, would you consider yourself a believer? Skeptic?

On an unrelated note, if you want to see any of the other opinion columns I’ve written for The Independent, click here.

Finally, I know posts are sporadic as of late, but if you’ve enjoyed what you read here, please subscribe to receive posts via email or RSS feed (on the right hand column) so you won’t miss anything when I do get the opportunity to say something. NO SPAM, I promise.

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6 responses to “To catch a ghost: An evening with Southern Utah Paranormal

  1. So glad to see you back posting! Good to see you crossed ghost hunting off the old bucket list. As you saw, it’s mostly boring as can be. It’s the people around you that make it fun (or frustrating).

    I’ve gone UFO hunting in the 90s in the Hudson River Valley in NY. Thought a farmer was going to shoot us. LOL

    I have to go squatching next!

    • Thanks, Hunter. Appreciate you stopping by.

      Sasquatch hunting, eh? Oh yeah, I’d be up for that. The big question is, would you take a firearm? Would it matter? Would it just threaten the gentle giant? Ha ha. I know the “gentle giant” image doesn’t match your stories, but you know…Harry and the Hendersons, right? 🙂

      Thanks again for the comment.

  2. There have been times in my past where I swore to have seen or felt ghosts but looking back, how much of that was just lack of sleep and me hallucinating?
    I can’t say. For me, its not that I’m afraid of ghosts. I want them to be real. I want to believe that those who passed are still with me, keeping me company. Harry Houdini spent his life trying to find the genuine article, a medium who he couldn’t disprove with his knowledge of magic and illusion. He just wanted to communicate with his dead mom again.
    I did have a blast at the ghost hunting tours when I visited New Orleans. I was entertained by the ghost stories which also showcased a rich history and there is no doubt that the city had a certain energy to it that seemed supernatural

    • Lacey,

      Great comments. I didn’t have as much time to expound on some of my own experiences, but I have had a few where I’m living now, but I have wondered the exact same thing as far as questioning the circumstances.

      Fascinating about Houdini. I had no idea.

      This isn’t the end for me. I’m still in touch with the group and would definitely go out again, especially in a less “tourist” oriented situation. I’m sure the large groups don’t help if there is actually a spirit in the vicinity.

      Thanks for commenting. Been awhile. Hope all is going well with you.

  3. Such a good storie. Made me feel little goosebumps back there. I would love to read more stories from you. Stories like this make me remember about the days when i loved to explore the London underground like Aldgate, Bishopsgate or Whitechapel. Thank you for reminding me of that, those days were fun.

    p.s. To bad the article from the Independent is down, i was kind of hoping to read it.

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