It's almost Halloween and my porch is adorned with clouds of fake spiderwebs, glow-in-the-dark bats and grinning skeleton ghosts. This is probably as haunted as my house will ever look.
The over-the-top decorations are my way of turning shadows into caricatures, something fun and spooky for the neighborhood kids. But I look at the gauzy phantasms and hear the whispers still lingering from the ghost investigation of my house. My quiet, vintage, presumably unhaunted house.
I'm listening to an audio file captured during the investigation. A distant, unidentified male voice seems to say "he's dead," and I'm getting spine prickles listening to it.
I don't believe in ghosts, but like Fox Mulder on The X Files, I want to believe. I'd love to see indisputable evidence of paranormal hauntings that would convince me the spirits of the dead cross over into our waking world. If they did, I'd want to speak to Civil War soldiers, previous residents of my house and lost relatives who died when I was young.
My fascination with the supernatural dates back to when I was 7. I devoured a version of Dracula meant for young readers, scared myself silly and kept a basket of garlic cloves next to my bed at night.
As an adult, I've reveled in movies like The Orphanage and The Devil's Backbone and television shows like Supernatural and American Horror Story. I regale friends with tales of the supposedly haunted happenings at a local club housed in a 100-year-old log building in my hometown of Albuquerque. "They leave a shot of gin out for the ghost so she won't cause trouble," I say, sharing what little I know of the alleged shawl-wearing spirit.
But I still don't believe. So I got in touch with Ghost Investigations New Mexico (GINM), a group of Albuquerque ghost hunters, and asked them to check my small stucco house built in 1942.
GINM is one of over 4,000 US paranormal societies listed in an online directory, but these groups exploring unexplained phenomena aren't limited to modern times. London organization The Ghost Club traces its lineage back to 1862, boasting past members including Charles Dickens, diplomat and writer Sir Shane Leslie and actor Peter Cushing, and ghost stories have been with us throughout history. Just look to Homer's Odyssey for an early example from literature.
There are, of course, skeptics too, like debunking organization The Skeptics Society, which delves into the science of why people see ghosts, citing possible reasons ranging from psychoactive drugs to high levels of dopamine.
In The Demon-Haunted World, astronomer Carl Sagan wrote, "deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be."
Sagan calls for skeptics to temper their criticism with kindness. With that in mind, I welcome an investigation of my house.
Sitting in the dark
GINM founder Steve Kompier has been investigating the paranormal for over 20 years. He's a tall man with a friendly, almost professorial demeanor. He sometimes wears TAPS-emblazoned gear indicating his group's affiliation with The Atlantic Paranormal Society, the group that famously starred in popular show Ghost Hunters, which ran from 2004 until 2016 on Syfy.
I tell Steve Kompier up front I'm a skeptic, but he doesn't hold that against me. He asks what I would think if he and his cohorts found evidence of paranormal activity at my house. "I really don't know," I tell him, as memories of every spooky horror movie I've ever watched flood my mind.
I'm sitting in my living room with Kompier and his two team members -- his son Andy Kompier, a tall young man with a goatee, and David Evangelista, a quiet former combat medic sporting a University of Miami baseball cap. They don't charge for their services and conduct these paranormal investigations on their own time and at their own expense.
It's a Sunday night. Knowing the ghost hunters will be recording audio, I've already unplugged the obnoxiously noisy refrigerator and turned my cell phone off to avoid disturbances. String lights emanate a gentle blue glow through the front window.
A big black cat sits on my lap and I don't know what to expect. I'm hoping to feel a sudden cold breeze across the back of my neck, to see shadows dancing in the corner of my eye or to hear a child's echoing laugh, even though I don't have kids.
Evangelista holds a GoPro-knockoff SJCAM Sj4000 action camera, angling it to capture the living room and a bit of the hallway and kitchen. A device called a K2 meter lights up in response to electromagnetic fields (EMF) and a gadget called a REM pod acts as a proximity detector. You can buy these things from eBay, Amazon and retailers specializing in ghost-hunting gear.
As I learn, there are rules. You have to sit quietly. If you have to sneeze, your chair squeaks or a car passes by outside, you mark the source of the noise by making an audible announcement for the audio recording. My stomach picked a fine night to grumble loudly. I keep saying, "Sorry, that was me" every time it fusses. At least we won't mistake it for contact from beyond the grave.
Spirits can be shy
We start with quiet contemplation. My eyes rove across the turquoise blue walls of the living room. I start petting the cat, then stop when he purrs too loudly into the silence. The men just wait, calm, like they're lost in a moment of meditation. "If there are spirits, sometimes they get more comfortable with us being here longer. Some are shy," Steve Kompier says, breaking the stillness.
He patiently explains how the devices work for the benefit of any eavesdropping spirit.
"We can't see or hear you, so use these devices to communicate with us," Kompier says. He also suggests the spirit could knock on a wall or bang on a window. It fails to oblige.
What follows next is a one-way question session. Kompier asks for a name. "Is this your house?" he says. I had looked through the local history books and discovered my home was originally owned by an aviator named J.W. Wheeler, but I haven't been able to find anything more than that. I wonder if Mr. Wheeler liked this house so much he never really left. But there are no replies to Steve Kompier's queries.
Here's where things get interesting. Kompier has a typical aluminum flashlight with a head you twist to turn it on. He sets it to a hair trigger, just barely off. He moves it to the kitchen, the place I personally suspect would be most likely to harbor a ghostly presence, because everybody likes to hang out in the kitchen, right?
We alternate between chatting with one another, asking questions for any potential ghosts and sitting quietly. Then the flashlight turns on from afar with a sickly yellowish glow. "That's eerie," Andy Kompier says. "It's how dim the light is. It's haunting. It's really creepy." I agree.
Throughout the night, the flashlight turns off and on, but never in direct response to a request to activate it. It's seemingly random. Occasionally, the EMF-detecting gadget in the kitchen lights up, but then goes passive again. "Why are those two things happening?" the elder Kompier muses. "I don't know, but I find it interesting."
The life of a ghost investigator
Steve Kompier's passion for ghostly matters goes back to his childhood. The 1963 film The Haunting was his favorite movie growing up. "I've always been interested in scary movies and visiting cemeteries, not necessarily for the haunted aspects, but for the history," he says.
In the early '80s, a visit to the Queen Mary cruise ship, now docked and used as a historic hotel, set Kompier on the path to becoming a paranormal researcher. "I didn't know it was haunted at the time," he says, but he reports feeling oddly uncomfortable while visiting the Queen Mary's first-class indoor pool area.
Several years later, Kompier watched a television show about the ship and its alleged ghosts, which validated his gut feeling. He then set about learning the ropes by reading books from well-known paranormal-focused authors Loyd Auerbach and Harry Price.
There are some qualities any serious ghost hunter must possess: a curiosity about the unknown, a willingness to accept the possibility of the supernatural and the ability to sit for hours in silence while nothing happens.
This isn't the glamorous world of Hollywood ghost fiction where you're ducking flying plates and uttering ancient incantations to banish evil spirits back into dark realms. You stare at electronic gadgets just in case they flicker to indicate something might be happening. You hope for a glimmer, a ball of light, a noise, a response to a question lobbed into the room. But mostly you just sit there.
The evening ends with no revelations, no distant door slams, no apparitions. But that night I turn over in bed, restless. I'm reluctant to walk into the kitchen for a glass of water. I listen for footsteps in the hallway. I'm being silly, I tell myself. The next night, I'm back to my normal Dana Scully self as I await the conclusions from the investigation. It takes time for Kompier and his crew to pore over the hours of audio and video recordings.
The email arrives from Steve Kompier with a simple subject line reading "Results." He's attached two audio files. One is the voice saying "He's dead." The other sounds like an echoing "hello" response from a point in the evening when his son was saying "hello" to my cat. The audio came from a recorder in the kitchen.
Kompier cautions against jumping to conclusions. "Does this mean that your house is haunted? Nope. We have no idea who this is but it just shows that places with no reported activity can still have visitors from the other side," he writes me.
There is one more goodie coming my way. Kompier emails me a video from Evangelista's handheld camera. This email is titled "Video Anomaly." I watch it. A small gray blip hovers near a painting in my living room and then disappears. A brighter blip flashes above the doorway to the kitchen. What are these? Dust motes? Cat hairs? An old aviator trying to get in touch?
Steve Kompier and his crew conduct roughly a dozen investigations each year, and pride themselves on approaching each client's claim with questioning minds. But they still believe. "We don't need to prove the paranormal to ourselves," Kompier says. "We know it exists. We've seen too much."
He tells me about past investigations with voices speaking from the dark, as well as humanoid apparitions, cold spots and moving orbs of light. He stops short of declaring these encounters to be absolutely ghostly in origin, but his favorite phrase is "I can't explain it."
Andy Kompier is the resident audio expert. He listens to endless hours of sessions and seeks out unexplained sounds, particularly what's called a "class A" electronic voice phenomenon (EVP). Class A means the unknown voice is easily audible and doesn't need to be enhanced. The two audio files Steve Kompier sent me are considered class A.
"Everybody chases that full-body apparition. They want to see the holy grail of paranormal activity," the younger Kompier says. "If I get one EVP that is class A, it blows my socks off."
Plenty of famous ghost stories have haunted the human imagination, from the legendary Flying Dutchman ghost ship of the 1700s to unseen children running through the halls of Colorado's Stanley Hotel, which inspired Stephen King's The Shining.
Andy first became a believer when he was 11 years old and visited the famously haunted 1857 Whaley House in San Diego. The Greek Revival home is rumored to contain the ghosts of a man who was hanged at the site, as well as members of the Whaley family. Andy Kompier describes feeling sick to his stomach despite knowing nothing about the house's history or folklore.
Evangelista's backstory sounds like the start of a gothic novel. He tells of sneaking into an abandoned house as a child and witnessing the ghostly silhouette of a boy's face. "Scared the ever-living crap out of me," he says. He went back to leave a marble as a peace offering and believes it was accepted when he later found it in an entirely different room.
Think you have a ghost?
I pick up some tips from Steve Kompier on dealing with paranormal visitors. He doesn't believe in exorcisms and doesn't think you can banish a spirit from where it wants to be. He takes a much more conversational approach.
"Start talking to them like a roommate. Lay down rules," he says. If a spirit is freaking out your kids, tell it the childrens' rooms are off-limits, but that it can still hang out in the living room. "I typically expect spirits to not be malevolent," he says, which is comforting to know. Perhaps they just want to be noticed and acknowledged.
After experiencing the ghost investigation of my home, I remain unconvinced. I take Steve Kompier's advice to heart: "If something can be explained naturally, we have to go with that explanation." The audio is perhaps an artifact of sounds coming from another room or outside. The video is a piece of fuzz floating in the air. I can explain it all away.
That's the difference between me and Steve, Andy and David. They accept a world beyond our own and dedicate themselves to seeking out the signs of its existence. They believe in the veracity of those signs. I don't.
There's a long and proud lineage of ghost debunkers, but my personal favorite read on the matter comes from Harry Houdini in 1924. His book A Magician Among the Spirits takes on everything from floating tables to ectoplasm with explanations that cut to core of the old-school fraudsters who tried to convince the living of the presence of the dead at a time when spiritualism was trendy in the 1920s.
But Steve Kompier isn't trying to convince me of anything. He doesn't carry a ouija board or offer to hook me up with dead relatives. He's just doing his job, whether I believe in it or not.
During that night, we talked about spirits attaching themselves to objects, about parallel universes where two realities might accidentally leak across and into each other, about skeptics and about believers. I like the GINM investigators. They're smart and friendly. It's just that I see a veil and they see beyond it.
The ghost investigation connected me back to that child who hid under her blankets with a flashlight and Dracula and a bowl of garlic, imagining an unseen world beyond our own. I'm not that person anymore, but in some ways I wish I was. If I could believe in ghosts, my life might feel a little more magical.
First published July 24, 2018.
Updated, Oct. 30, 2018.
Logging Out: Welcome to the crossroads of online life and the afterlife.
'Alexa, be more human': Inside Amazon's effort to make its voice assistant smarter, chattier and more like you.