The bowels of Bradley's Lock and Key Shop qualify as spooky, even in broad daylight with business being conducted out front.
Not chills-and-goosebumps spooky. More like Scooby-Doo spooky.
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Literally thousands of keys hang from racks on brick walls built 150 years ago in one room. Another is littered with random items from random decades, like gas-and-wick hand lanterns, large safes with doors ajar, the remains of a coin-operated heart-rate monitor, a rusty kerosene heater, even a white life preserver ring.
But what really has the words "Zoinks!" and "Jinkies!" on the tip of every tongue is what can't be seen. And as Ryan Dunn and David, Brandon and Sara Dahlin throw out question after question, the creepiness factor grows.
"What is your name?"
"How old are you?"
"How did you die?
"Do you like what Mr. Bradley has done with the place?"
Dunn and the Dahlins space the queries about 10 seconds apart. They glue their eyes to the readouts on handheld electronics equipment: voice recorders, video cameras, electromagnetic field detectors and devices that measure temperature, humidity and barometric pressure.
"Something is definitely off here," Dunn says. "It's subtle, but it's there."
Dunn leads the group of what he calls "paranormal investigators." Such nomenclature sounds more professional than their trade name, 3-D Ghost Hunters, and is more accurate - they long to contact the spirits of America's most haunted city, not eradicate them.
"We don't carry plasma-ray guns or ghost traps like Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd in 'Ghostbusters,"' David Dahlin says. "We're out for contact. You want something cleansed, call a priest."
Seeking the truth
Dunn founded the 3-D Ghost Hunters a year ago April. New to Savannah and drawn here by its paranormal reputation, he and his wife, Kimberly, explored the local haunts in their leisure time.
They found the tours and stories fascinating but were disturbed by the lack of authenticity.
"We took a tour that included the abandoned Elks Lodge at 12 W. Oglethorpe," Ryan said. "Everything they said was historically inaccurate. They talked about the spirit of a guy who died there of yellow fever. The problem was the house wasn't even built until 25 years after they said the guy died, by which time yellow fever had been eradicated.
"And that wasn't the only inaccuracy we found."
The myths only heightened Dunn's interest. But rather than waste time with a tour guide's version of Savannah's haunted history, he decided to chronicle it himself - building by building, cemetery by cemetery.
He and Brandon Dahlin performed their first investigation from the old dueling grounds bordering Colonial Park Cemetery. Armed with two tape recorders and an EMF reader, they sat on a bench one night and asked question after question.
They detected several EVPs, or electronic voice phenomena. They heard the whispering voices of a little girl and adult male and caught it on tape.
"All those responses, that's what made me a believer," said Brandon, a rising high school senior and Kimberly Dunn's brother.
Ryan and Brandon soon recruited the entire Dahlin clan into the group. David, Kimberly's father-in-law, is an industrial engineer and was taken with the scientific approach. The nine investigations the 3-D Ghost Hunters have undertaken since the Colonial Park spookfest always begin with an intensive interview of the supposed haunted house's residents or owners and a historical review of the property's background.
Once on location, the paranormal investigators take their scientific readings to establish a baseline and document all activity from their visit.
"What sets us apart is all the evidence we collect isn't chalked up to paranormal activity until we've exhausted all other explanations," David said. "The results aren't as sexy as you hear on the tours or see in the TV specials, but they're more credible."
Thrill of the hunt
Rocky and Jane Reed were unaware of the haunted history of the Victorian home at 402 E. Gaston St. prior to purchasing it in 1999.
Built in 1888 for the man who managed the Savannah Theatre and operated the Planter's Inn, the house now known as the Amethyst Inn evolved for more than a century. It went from private residence to a school for girls to a duplex to an apartment house and finally to a bed-and-breakfast.
The home's spirits didn't announce their presence until after the Reeds completed the renovation.
"Every time we'd go on vacation, we'd come back and something would be torn up," Jane Reed said. "Then we had a guest who claimed to be sensitive to spirits complain about some strange experiences. Then things really started to happen."
The doorbell would ring without the button being pushed. The Reed children claimed to see the apparition of a male soldier in the main stairway. A guest became trapped in a room, and after two hours of trying to jimmy the door, Rocky went to take the door off the hinges only for it to pop open.
The 3-D Ghost Hunters were skeptical. The doorbell is often a false lead - most buttons nowadays are connected to the chimes by radio waves and even the hard-wired ones are sensitive to electrical surges. Small children often have imaginary friends. And the sticking door could have been a prank.
The Ghost Hunters failed to verify any of those phenomena in their three-hour investigation, but they did encounter 25 EVPs, including voices, taps and knocks. They determined the existence of three different spirits in the house.
"It just kind of confirms what we already believed," Jane Reed said. "It makes you feel better to see some evidence."
The Amethyst Inn results and those of their other investigations encourage the 3-D Ghost Hunters.
Trying to contact ghosts can be frustrating, as they disprove more supposed paranormal activity than they verify. And they often don't catch the EVPs until they go back and analyze their recordings.
They long to encounter more intense phenomena: moving objects, apparitions. The stuff talked about on ghost tours.
The experience tends to be subtle. At Bradley's, their video cameras keep powering down for no reason. The auto settings are disengaged, and the batteries are full. One of their tape recorders registers sounds they can't hear, lost in the ambient noise from the business area in the front.
No, it's not exactly the rattling keys or flickering lanterns that would send Shaggy and the gang running for The Mystery Machine.
"Still kind of spooky, huh?" Dunn says.
Better than a ghost tour, for sure.
Adam Van Brimmer's column runs each Monday and his Daddy Warbucks blog appears on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at savannahnow.com. Reach him at 912-652-0362 or firstname.lastname@example.org.