On a surface level, I just went on a ghost hunt. However, if I really think of what I was doing on the levels of symbolism and cognition, it was really closer to an act of war. Since this is a story about ghosts, according to the Most Holy Book of Cultural Cliché, I’m supposed to either tell you about how the ghost hunters are a bunch of superstitious charlatans or passionately defend the paranormal possibilities of the universe. I’m supposed to dig in, man my hyper-rational machine guns and deny the emotional and subjective truth of the experience or I’m supposed to lob grenades into the temple of the scientific method because, you know, those things are somehow mutually exclusive. I’m going to try to transcend that narrative and hope I don’t get mowed down in the crossfire.
My ghost hunting story started in the late afternoon of a yellowish, weirdly smoggy day. I parked my motorcycle at the Pub N Sub, just west of the University of Nevada, Reno, right at dusk. I shook out the numbness in my hands and feet as I walked to meet the Boogie Men of Nevada. Kelly Latham, 58, Joe Stout, 59, and Peter Wardlaw, 38. They sat drinking beer outside the restaurant and welcomed me over. Wardlaw, who has been hunting ghosts since the mid-’90s, asked if I thought myself ready for the “hardcore stuff.” I said I was.
The sun disappeared behind the mountains and I could see only splotchy islands of landscape under the yellow streetlights. We started talking about ghost sightings, and I could almost feel the observable world shrinking. Wardlaw brought out his laptop and showed me some of the highlights from previous hunts: a floating black cross in the desert, clear as day and almost dripping with menace; something that looks like cotton ball ferret wrapping around Latham’s jacket, a face straight out of hell hovering over an old grave. Then they played me an audio recording of an angry, growling voice repeating, “go away, go away, GO AWAY!” I could feel my stomach tightening while my eyes adjusted to the glow of the computer screen, as my imagination filled in more and more sensory blank spots.
The last of the fried chicken disappeared down Latham’s throat and we picked up for the old graveyard on Nevada Street, right behind the fraternity houses on University Terrace. Brown, sickly light trickled in from the casinos below and accentuated the dry, dead ground surrounding the derelict, granite headstones. The men and women here interred, all their hopes, dreams and fears, it seemed, had seen obliteration at the hands of our utter indifference. If hell is void, nothingness, the annihilation of human meaning, we had sent these people into the deepest circles of the inferno.
Latham and Stout headed for the far reaches of the graveyard to set up voice recorders. Wardlaw stayed behind and laid out a Ouija board in case the spirits wanted to contact us via supernatural text message. I walked alone to the northwest corner of the graveyard and became intensely aware of sounds: crickets, dead plants beneath my feet, frogs, my own heartbeat.
Finally, I joined Latham at the very imposing Blethen grave. A dark granite pillar stood in the middle, while around it, a badly weathered and heavily cracked concrete pad fought to hold off the weeds. A gnarled, low tree hung over it and cast weak shadows in the distant, artificial light. I felt like I had worms tunneling through my skin every time I approached it.
Stout’s very bright flash went off in the distance, and soon Wardlaw and Latham joined in the photography. I asked why, and they explained that ghosts manifest on cameras much better than they appear to the naked eye. “We take pictures of each other,” Stout said. “The apparitions tend to show up near us.”
I joined in with my digital camera and noticed something peculiar. The more open the area I walked through, the better the lighting, the more relaxed the vibe. The more I talked with the ghost hunters and the closer I got to the graves—particularly the Blethen grave—the heavier I felt. It was like the difference between holding in vomit and just getting it over with.
After about two hours, we retreated from the graveyard and headed back to the Pub N Sub. Two sound recorders, both near the Blethen grave, picked up an extraordinarily deep and angry, labored human voice. Hearing this dead man’s malicious voice rising up from the depths, more than anything else, did evil to my digestion. I had to consciously release the tension in my diaphragm and remind myself to breathe normally. The three ghost-hunting pros discussed it and decided the spirit said, “Go away!” We also got a picture, from Joe’s camera, of a cotton creature floating in the air above and behind me. So what does it mean?
I have absolutely no doubt that ghosts are real to the people who see them, hear them and experience them. However, suggestion is a powerful force. From the moment I arrived at Pub N Sub, there were dozens of factors suggesting creepiness and fear to me. The darkness altered my perceptions. The quiet invited me to notice the tiny noises—mice scurrying, leaves falling, dirt crunching—I normally ignore. And that doesn’t even get into the tales Latham, Stout and Wardlaw told me about demons, ghosts and hellish apparitions. If ever I was primed to find something supernatural, it was that night.
The graveyard itself heightened my suggestible state. It’s morally icky to imagine oneself traipsing over unseen, forgotten graves. It’s sad to think of all those people who have not only died, but been forgotten, in that derelict place. It’s natural to sympathize with those dead folks’ resentment at how we’ve forgotten them now. Most of all, it’s nearly impossible to avoid thinking of one’s own mortality in a home for the dead. If we do go on after death—and who doesn’t want that?—does it not make sense we’d reach back into the physical world?
I could feel these suggestions pulling on my fear, but I also felt their opposites. It was amazing how quickly things like the sounds of traffic, the sight of passing car lights, and looking out over the city alleviated my fears. It seems odd the ghosts or demons would immediately stop twisting my guts because I heard a car drive by. It seems unlikely they’d care if I watched the Circus Circus Casino turn pink.
Further, most people, including myself, don’t want to ruin somebody else’s day. Latham, Stout and Wardlaw are nice people, and I wanted them to like me. I wanted to share their experiences. Saying something like, “I think it’s all in your head” is a social-graces equivalent to calling a bride a heifer. If a reporter who is supposed to remain objective and distant felt this social pressure, imagine what close friends must feel.
Lastly, human beings have a hard time accepting chaos. It’s not hard to argue that this urge to impose order on the world, to make sense of our surroundings and find patterns in our environments is the entire point of having a brain. The cotton ghost that followed me and the growly, angry voice are good, if incomplete, examples of the human tendency to create order, whether or not there is any to begin with. My ghost, and in fact all of the cotton-like ghosts they showed me, came from Joe’s camera with an extremely bright flash. I know, from testing it, that this camera and flash combination will bleach a black camera strap white and render it suspiciously similar to the spirit that followed me.
And that voice saying, “Go away,” we picked up on those two sound recorders? I made a point not to share what I thought the voice was saying and, before the pros decided, I had thought it said “I’m awake.” Perhaps the voice wasn’t actually as clear or well enunciated as it seemed later, after we’d had the chance to create order from possibly random growling sounds. I was pretty sure about my conclusion, and the pros were pretty sure about their conclusion, and being sure might not mean as much as we assumed.
Pardon the metaphysics but, at base, we don’t know shit. Anything we believe, we believe out of faith. Those who accept Christ, or the cycle of reincarnation, or the redemption of Allah, do so because of faith outside the purview of objective truth. Those who accept the primacy of science do so out of a faith in the objective accuracy of our observations, or, even more basically, our senses. You cannot scientifically prove the validity of science. The same applies to philosophy—you cannot reasonably prove the primacy of reason. In fact, the best reasons for accepting science or philosophy basically come down to “it seems to work.”
I mention this because the ghosts and apparitions seem to me a lot like old religious beliefs that didn’t quite make the cut in Judeo-Christian theology. More than that, ghosts, demons and spirits seem to me like ways to explain human death—that great curtain of the afterlife we can neither pierce with reason nor part with science. The paranormal functions a lot like religion that way, as a way of dealing with the fact we simply don’t know.
So, blood-stained soldiers in the war between rationalism and faith, perhaps a little humility is in order.