Warning: The following story contains several references to ghosts. The Free Press was unable to confirm the presence of these ghosts, mainly because, um, they said, "No comment," or otherwise refused to speak to the Free Press.
At dusk, about 40 people sat in chairs, waiting to go on a ghost hunt at Historic Ft. Wayne, an old Detroit military base. The investigators were armed with cameras, digital recorders and flashlights, just like the ghost hunters on television.
Instead of touring a staged haunted house during the Halloween season, where actors dress up like monsters, these people paid $40 each, hoping to see a real ghost.
"It's just a good time," said Patty Gabler, 32, of Novi. "You hang out with friends and learn a little bit of history and creep yourself out a little."
The paranormal, it seems, is white hot. There are at least seven reality TV shows related to ghosts and haunted places, and Michigan claims more than 100 paranormal groups, according to Wayne Miracle and Chris Forsythe, cofounders of Metro Paranormal Investigations.
"We have definitely seen a rise in the paranormal," said Lynn Schofield Clark, an associate professor in media studies at the University of Denver, where she has studied the subject as a pop culture phenomenon for 10 years.
Uncertain times -- from 9/11 to the economy -- are at the root of it, she said. "I think there is a sense that we have less control over things than we thought we did. I think it is the wish or the desire of people to have explanations that are not explicable by science or religion."
Listening for ghosts at Historic Ft. Wayne really can scare a person silly
So I was sitting in the dark, in a cold, creepy room at Historic Ft. Wayne, listening to people try to talk to a ghost. Seriously, they pay me to do this.
"Hi," Stephanie Kirtley said into the darkness. She was 18, and this was her first official ghost hunt. As luck would have it, it was my first ghost hunt, too. "We were just wondering if there are any ghosts in here. If so, what are your names?"
She used a BlackBerry as a tape recorder, hoping to capture electronic voice phenomena, or EVP -- a fancy term that Official Ghost Hunters use for, well, ghost voices or sounds caught on an electronic device. Researchers then listen to the recordings for otherworldly answers to their questions.
Wait a second. You didn't know that a BlackBerry could record ghost talk? Trust me, you can get apps for just about anything these days.
"If you worked here," Stephanie continued to ask any ghosts within shouting range, "what did you do?"
She took a long pause, just like they do on TV. Paranormal research is hot on television. There are at least seven shows on different cable channels, including one on Cartoon Network, which boggles the mind.
"Would you come sit by us?" Stephanie, a Clinton Township resident, asked in total darkness.
Stephanie's mother, Tracy Kirtley, took a picture with a flash, hoping to record a ghost sitting by her daughter.
Now, let me make something clear: I'm all about sitting in the dark and getting spooked out, trying to talk to ghosts, especially around Halloween, and I'll acknowledge that I have a busload of skepticism, but for the love of God, if a ghost sits down next to Stephanie and poses for a picture, a few feet from me, I want to let my editor know right now that I quit.
"Could you tell us what you did here?"
Somebody started laughing. "That would be my mother laughing," Stephanie told any ghosts who were listening.
OK, ghost hunting can be fun and serious at the same time.
I have to admit, the whole time I was at the old military base in Detroit, all I could hear was the theme song to "Ghostbusters."
Who you gonna call?
This ghost hunt was organized by Metro Paranormal Investigations, a group that looks into possible hauntings and unexplainable phenomena at homes, businesses and historic sites. Sadly, they don't wear Ghostbusters suits or carry proton packs, but this much cannot be argued: They have tapped into something that many find fascinating. On a Saturday night in late September, about 40 people paid $40 each to investigate Historic Ft. Wayne for about eight hours. They'll do it again Halloween night.
"A lot of the proceeds will go right back to helping keep the doors open for this fort," said organizer Wayne Miracle, a cofounder of the ghost-hunting group. In its 125 years as an Army base, Ft. Wayne served as an infantry training station and housed prisoners of war from Italy and Russia during both world wars.
Tom Berlucchi stood in the corner, watching with a sense of skepticism, not to mention a surge of excitement that money was flowing back into the fort. Berlucchi has spent thousands of hours there as the chairman and founder of the Historic Ft.Wayne Coalition. "I don't personally believe in ghosts or spirits," said Berlucchi, 48, of Troy. "But there are things I can't explain."
He has heard doors slam in the barracks building. "These are old buildings. Are they settling?" he asked. "I don't know. I know contractors who worked here, and they are frightened to go back into the rooms."
Other people have heard voices and strange sounds. And some claim that they have seen ghosts.
Enough people have had enough spooky experiences that he allowed paranormal investigators onto the site to check it out.
The researchers say they encounter strange things just about every time they investigate. They let me listen to recordings of spooky voices and showed me a picture that appears to be a ghost. Is it real? Who knows? But it's fun to think it might be real.
Mysterious and spooky
Ghost hunters, by nature, seem to have a wonderful sense of humor. But ghost hunting can also get you so spooked that your heart starts racing.
Consider the scene: You are standing in a dark, cold tunnel and you are told that a soldier died right here and lots of people claim they have heard his footsteps. "It sounds like a soldier marching his beat," said Chris Forsythe, 35, of Macomb Township, who cofounded Metro Paranormal Investigations.
Later, Forsythe took me into a room where a soldier was hanged, and I have to admit I got a little freaked out, standing in the dark, trying to talk to his spirit. It felt like I had climbed inside a horror movie.
Forsythe said that he doesn't think ghosts are mean. That's all Hollywood.
Then again, as Free Press photographer Kim Mitchell said: "I was raised that you never mess with spirits."
So I went on a ghost hunt and I didn't see any ghosts, and I didn't hear any ghosts and I didn't see any evidence of a ghost, other than one that was on somebody's T-shirt. But it was an absolute blast. And a few times, I was actually scared, because if you let go of the skepticism, your mind can race and your emotions take over.
So are ghosts real? I don't know. I hope so. Even if I never saw one.
Come to think of it, I've gone deer hunting and spent hours in the woods and didn't see any deer, either. So there's that.
Contact JEFF SEIDEL: 313-223-4558 or email@example.com