Dr. Gauss, the EMF detector, is on the case. LUIS URENA

Part 3 of our Halloween series

Our first two spooky columns invited readers to send in tips for “haunted” places to investigate. Tips flowed in, including an old barn, a sinister tunnel, among others. This week’s entry details the results of the first investigation: an alleged “haunted house” from the 1950s.

The night was quiet, just an occasional gust of wind stirring the trees. The street was empty, save for a neighborhood cat, its eyes two yellow dots peering from the underbelly of a parked truck.

A calm October evening… perfect for a ghostly investigation.

My partner Luis shut off his car, and I stepped out, surveying the street— we had driven through the evening hours to the location of a 70-year-old house in Brantford, rumoured to be haunted.

The owner had notified us of strange knocking and footsteps, unexplained chilled spaces in the house, and sudden appearances of shadows and dark shapes. The family dog had also suddenly refused to willingly cross the threshold of the house.

In our combined toolkit was an assortment of the most basic of ghost-hunting tools: a DSLR camera with flash, our phones (acting as recording devices and flashlights), a notebook to write down our findings, and an electromagnetic field (EMF) detector.

“Ready?” Luis asked.

“Yep.” I took the EMF detector from my pocket, and together we walked towards the house.

*

Unexplained footsteps, knocking, and disembodied noises. Sudden changes in temperature. A general sense of heaviness or foreboding. Objects that move of their own volition. These are only a few of the many symptoms of a house that is allegedly haunted or inhabited by disembodied spirits known as “ghosts.”

There are many reasons for such hauntings, from folklore to popular culture: ghosts lingering are believed to have had a connection to the location while they were alive, and/or suffered some sort of trauma or death that has since bound them permanently to the place. Echoes of energy, imprints of memory, lost to time.

The concept is undeniably fascinating to many— just look at the number of supernatural movies, shows, and books that have been produced over the centuries.

Interpretations range from extreme (films such as The Omen or The Haunting of Hill House or Amityville Horror feature ghosts and possessions both murderous and horrifying) to comedic (Casper the Friendly Ghost and Ghostbusters offered both heartwarming and humorous takes on the genre).

“Ghost Tours” of historical sites or alleged haunted locations are also popular, to capitalize on the curiosity of supernatural enthusiasts, or the odd tourist more willing to suspend their disbelief during the Halloween season.

Is there a way to prove the existence of a ghost, or haunting? Many would argue that anything real can be, with enough tests, eventually proven by science. The word science, taken from the Latin scientia for “knowledge,” is defined as an enterprise that is built on the foundation of testable explanations and predictions, that when organized and formalized into peer-edited record, forms the basis of acceptable (even if many still find it debatable) knowledge.

The earliest records of people conducting tests with the intention to prove or explain certain hypotheses can be traced back to as early as 3000 to 1200 BCE. The people who lived in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia were just as curious as we are about the makings of the world and mysteries of the universe.

As a so-called modern society, we have accomplished incredible scientific and technological advancements. Unlike the Mesopotamians, we have clear answers and explanations for thunder and lightning, the changing of the moon and tides, and other previously unexplained phenomena.

We have so many answers now, for so many things—but not for everything.

*

The alleged haunted house was one of many old houses on this quiet Brantford street. At a first glance, the house was quaint: a 1400-square-foot compact structure built some 70 years ago, nestled in a fairytale-esque explosion of overgrown vines and flower bushes.

An enormous tree spread its rustling canopy over a large portion of the property, lending noise and shifting shadows across the path as we made our way to the front door. We knocked.

“Hellooo!”

The owner smiled as he opened the door. We were greeted by a blast of noise from the TV, and the street, previously dark, was bathed with light from his front hall.

Once we got the initial greetings out of the way, we sat down in the living room, and the owner proceeded to relate a brief history of the house. He was its third owner, and the house had undergone multiple renovations since the ‘50s. The previous owners had no information to offer about the original owners or builder of the house. While most of it had been refreshed with new coats of trim and paint, numerous original elements remained— mainly the existence of three claustrophobic and ominous crawlspaces.

He reiterated what he had previously reported to us, that almost every morning between the hours of 7 and 8:30 AM, he would hear an insistent and rhythmic knocking, similar to running footsteps, in the direction of the crawlspace that ran behind his room and the guest bedroom.

“I even have a recording,” he said, pulling up a video on his phone and cranking up the volume.

Luis and I leaned forward, torn between skepticism and eagerness. The first few seconds of the video were silent. Then, unmistakably, came the sounds of…something.

Creak-thump-thump-thump-thump-THUMP.

The rattling was eerily similar to the creaking footsteps made by the monsters lurking in horror movies which would frighten me and my friends as teens (and admittedly, as adults).

Here’s part of the audio from the homeowner’s video:

 

“I’ll only hear it coming from the direction of that particular crawlspace,” said the owner, gesturing towards the stairs. “I’ve checked all the crawlspaces for animal droppings or openings. I even went inside myself and stomped around to see if I would make a similar noise. No droppings, no openings, nothing. And I couldn’t make much noise in there. But basically three times a week, I hear something shuffling around.”

According to the owner, one of the first signs of a possible supernatural presence was the changed behaviour of the family dog. Normally a happy-go-lucky creature, she suddenly developed a fear of certain areas of the house and would refuse to willingly cross the threshold of either the front or back door. Once inside the house, she would show nervousness around certain areas without any explanation. This behaviour began at the same time as the manifestation of the sounds.

We decided to test the reaction of the dog, and sure enough, while she was happy to prance around outside the house, she suddenly reared up when we approached the front door. She struggled against her leash, standing up on her hind legs and trying to pull away. In fact, she protested so much that we had to pick her up and carry her through the front door.

Once inside, she happily jumped on the owner, then Luis, then me, before going still again and staring at the stairs. Then she whined and went under a table to lie down.

“Poor girl,” said the owner, giving the dog a pat. “Well. Shall we look at the crawlspace?”

“Yeah, no. I’m good here, thanks.” LUIS URENA

The appeal of any unsolved or unsolvable mystery lies in the root of possibility — that seductive “what if.” In Haunted, James Herbert writes that “to be haunted is to glimpse a truth that might best be hidden.” The existence of ghosts opens the door for the possibilities of an afterlife. A haunting creates an opening for our departed loved ones to visit us.

There is equal comfort in the belief that ghost do not exist. If there is nothing to be found, then perhaps there is nothing to be worried about. As T.S. Eliot writes in The Family Reunion: “We ask only to be reassured about the noises in the cellar and the window that should not have been open.”

There is currently no scientifically acceptable way to prove the presence of a ghost. Paranormal investigative tools, such as EMF devices, Ouija boards, and other devices give reactions yes, but not quantifiable results.

The EMF device I had brought with me to the alleged haunted house is one that is commonly used in paranormal and supernatural investigations. EMF is the term for various types of energy that exist around us — energy can come in the form of sunlight, or electricity, or the radioactive waves emanating from radios, microwaves, and X-rays.

The specific EMF device in my hand, a nondescript black box with a side-button and 0-10 meter, was meant to measure electricity and magnetism, particularly fluctuations in such fields. Common theories from paranormal investigators suggest that ghosts are able to manipulate electromagnetic fields. The idea was that if the EMF device was in close proximity to ghosts, the meter would suddenly spike.

We approached the stairs with our respective ghost-hunting tools: me with the EMF device, Luis with his camera, the owner with his beer.

I pressed the button, and the device began to hum quietly, the needle hovering between one and two. As we moved up the stairs, the humming became progressively louder, increasing to a shrill whine as we came up to the small door of the crawlspace. The needle jumped to seven and eight, occasionally jumping suddenly to nine.

The dog, who was still cowering under the table downstairs, began whining.

The door to the crawlspace was small. One had to crouch down to fit through. The inside was straight out of a Hollywood horror movie: unfinished siding, nails and staples in the walls, tattered insulation and stained loose flooring.

“I’ll go in,” said the owner, turning on his phone’s flashlight. He took the EMF device and without hesitation, knelt and disappeared into the darkness of the crawlspace.

The EMF device continued to hum, though surprisingly, the needle went down to four and five as the owner crept up and down the narrow hallway. While my partner took photos of the space, we examined the floorboards and knocked and stomped on them, trying to recreate the noise from the video with no success.

Eventually, the dog came upstairs and lay on the bed.

The owner played the video again with the thumping noise, and we confirmed that we were unable to recreate the noise. The EMF device stopped humming, and we all gathered in the bedroom, just as stymied and confused as the dog.

I opened my notebook and pored over my scribblings.

“Weird that the device is not reacting anymore.”

All of a sudden, my hat fell off my head, and we all jumped.

“Maybe that was the ghost,” said a chuckling Luis.

The EMF device suddenly squealed, and the needle went wild, spasming at nine and ten.

“Whoa!” the owner yelled.

The squeal intensified, and the needle quivered even faster, shaking as it strained to go beyond ten.

“It’s off the charts!” I exclaimed.

The room suddenly felt cold. The dog started to shiver and flatten its ears.

We all looked at each other, then at the EMF device, tension building. Was it time for fight or flight? What were we supposed to do now? Try to say something to the ghost? Offer it a beer? Call a priest while playing Tubular Bells?

“Wait, hold on,” said Luis. He took the EMF device and started walking around the room, asking me to record the spots where the dial went down and where it went up. He went back into the crawlspace while we waited with bated breath.

“Ah,” the room echoed with his laughter as he emerged. “I’ve solved the mystery. The EMF meter is reacting to the wires, and the radio in here. As well as my camera.”

He turned on the device and waved his hand near the radio in the corner, then the ceiling light, then the camera at his hip. The device squealed every time it came near each device.

We erupted into relieved laughter.

“Thank ****!” exclaimed the owner, clutching his chest. “I was worried I wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight. I was almost going to ask for a ride to my mom and dad’s house.”

The street was still dark and quiet as the owner escorted us out of his house, after many thank-yous, thank-goodnesses, and goodbye handshakes. His relief was palpable.

Luis and I paused at the edge of the street to take the battery out of the EMF detector, which suddenly started spiking again.

“Don’t want to hear that thing buzzing the whole way home,” I said, tossing the device and the separated battery back into my coat pocket. “Well, what did you think? Not a bad way to spend date night.”

“Not bad at all,” said Luis with a smile.

As we walked to the car, we noticed that the same cat from before had come out again. It watched us silently from the bushes, a little smudge of tabby grey with those two shining eyes. My last sight of the cat as we pulled out of the street and began our drive home was the flash of its tail as it suddenly streaked down the dimly lit sidewalk, its nocturnal adventure beginning where ours had ended.

Since this haunted series began, I’ve received many tips and stories of this or that old house. Stories of unexplained footsteps, sightings, and disembodied noises. Everyone has a ghost story, or has heard one from someone else.

The poet Emily Dickinson wrote: “One need not be a chamber to be haunted. One need not be a house. The brain has corridors surpassing material place.”

Perhaps that is the crux of it. Our minds want something to exist, so we manifest it. Built from our memories, and the stories others have told us, spirits, demons and hauntings are as real as we make them.

For example, what of the room? Why did it suddenly became so cold? And why did the dog suddenly become nervous again? Was the EMF detector only spiking because of the other devices in the room, or was there also something else on its radar? 

Even if ghosts are ultimately not real, the emotions that fuel them are, and a source of eternal fascination to us. The debate over their existence is fed by equal parts of belief and disbelief.

As a writer, it is my job, and my joy, to enable the suspension of that disbelief — and what better way to spend a cold October’s night than to explore the liminal space between the real and not real?

Next week, I’ll explore another haunted site. In the meantime, keep those tips coming! Send your ghost stories and haunted locations to helen.[email protected]