- Griffin Swartzell
- Chris Brewer and James Manda, a.k.a. Future Ghost, have been investigating in Colorado and across the country since 2006.
The 19th-century spiritualism Eaton mentions arose, in part, from a culture in religious crisis. Advances in scientific understanding challenged the existence of God, and spiritualist practices (like séances and the use of Ouija boards) validated the existence of God by “proving” the existence of an afterlife.
While many used this trend to capitalize on grief, scamming the bereaved into paying outrageous amounts in order to receive messages from their dearly departed, still a great number of practitioners believed that they were guiding their clients through the grieving process with help from the other side. And, more importantly, their clients believed it.
According to a 2009 survey by Pew Research Center, 29 percent of Americans claim to have felt in touch with someone who has died, and 9 percent claim to have been in the presence of a ghost. Another Pew survey, conducted in 2014, found that since 2007, the number of Americans who described themselves as religiously unaffiliated jumped from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent. Moreover, the importance of religion in people’s lives declined, with 82 percent of Americans in 2007 claiming religion to be somewhat or very important, compared to 77 percent in 2014. While not entirely parallel to the religious crisis of the 1800s, it is true that fewer people now turn to the church for their answers.
But human nature still craves answers, whether they come from organized religious practices or from somewhere else. It’s not always enough to claim there is an afterlife, or even to believe in one. Many individuals require those “authentic spiritual experiences” to which Eaton refers; they want proof.
Crusha, founder of the Colorado Alliance of Paranormal Investigators and Mediums, refers to the field of paranormal investigation, the multi-faceted subculture of those who spend their free time doing what amounts to an incredible amount of work — too much to be considered a hobby — though it comes with no monetary reward and plenty of derision from skeptics whose perceptions are influenced by TV.
Programs like Ghost Adventures are meant to entertain, to evoke an addictive sense of fear. When four grown men gasp aloud at an inexplicable voice calling down the halls of an abandoned hospital, audiences gasp too. They love it. There’s mystery, a sense of intrigue and a sense of the ridiculous. But there’s also expectation. They collect a wealth of “evidence” at each location, because the evidence keeps up their ratings. They add a spooky soundtrack and warp witnesses’ words to amp up the tension. Plus, they always claim to contact a “dark entity,” a “malevolent spirit,” an angry murder victim or, in many cases, a demon.
In the world of real-life paranormal investigation, Crusha says, dark entities are rare, and usually paranormal activity in someone’s home is fairly benevolent. What people may interpret to be an angry spirit is often, in Crusha’s words: “Grandma or grandpa trying to say they don’t like the color of the walls, or something.”
But even though Crusha has rarely come into contact with something he considers to be truly dark, he advises against attempting to contact the dead. That’s why he and his team exist. “That’s the challenge with us,” he says. “We have to come in and ... potentially open up the communication lines, and we’re put in danger so that we can protect other people. It takes a lot of bravery to do this, and people don’t understand that part.”
Crusha considers investigating and ultimately cleansing a location of alleged paranormal activity to be a public service, the natural extension of his time in the military. “The focus of what I do is to further help people,” he says. “I feel like this is how I was drawn to the field.”
Having served overseas for 23 of his 26 years in the Air Force, Crusha didn’t know for a great portion of his life that pursuing paranormal investigation was an option. When he left the military and began to recognize his psychic sensitivity, he says he “asked God where I was going to go from here.” The answer: a lot of supposedly haunted places.
- Griffin Swartzell
- Shaun Crusha considers his faith in God to be a protective force in the field.
The rest of his collection is as massive as it is diverse: motion sensors; K-II devices, which measure EMF intensity through differently colored lights; Mel Meters, which sense changes in temperature, EMF and proximity; Environmental Detection Instruments (EDI), which measure and record EMF, temperature, motion, air pressure and humidity; static electricity sensors; Tascam digital recorders; cameras modified to capture infrared and/or ultraviolet light; and hand-held devices made by Crusha himself that can carry multiple tools.
And that’s just what Crusha uses regularly. He also has a fair stock of the trendier paranormal equipment, though he does not fully believe in their ability to gather solid evidence. Spirit boxes rapidly scan through AM and FM radio frequencies, encouraging spirits to use the stations to speak — a bit like Bumble Bee from Transformers. Another relatively new device, the Ovulus IV, supposedly allows spirits to manipulate environmental factors such as temperature and EMF in order to choose words from a dictionary database.
While Crusha uses these tools on occasion, he says he would never consider evidence collected on them to be definitive. Spirit boxes, he says, can tap into any location, not just the one he’s investigating. And he hasn’t yet found adequate enough evidence of the Ovulus’ validity to put his whole faith in it.
Crusha obviously has a passion for the gadgets, but his favored tool is his own belief and his own sensitivity. He says: “I think it’s better to work through what I would say are my guides or my angels.” As a self-identified medium, he can allegedly walk into a location and sense the whereabouts of any inhabiting spirits. Sometimes, they even give him messages.
“You’d think I’m a dark person or whatever,” he says with a smile, “but I’m the opposite. ... I see providing a message from a loved one or allowing people to understand what’s in their home as [healing] because they know that they’re safe, they know they can go back to worrying about, oh, paying the bills.”
The Colorado Alliance of Paranormal Investigators and Mediums provides a free service (barring extreme travel costs resulting from out-of-state calls), responding to claims that a location — be it a home or business — may be haunted, and they operate all over Colorado.
No matter the claim made by potential clients, Crusha and his team treat it with full seriousness, though they endeavor to provide non-paranormal explanations before jumping to conclusions. “I have a metaphysical background doing this,” Crusha says, “but I also have a scientific side. As a team leader, you [have to say] here’s dust orbs, carpet fibers, the house creaking, the house settling when it’s coming to the change of the season. That happens.”
In many cases, they can debunk (the industry term for finding a practical explanation) their findings, but not always. And in the case of any unexplained captures, they want to provide the client whatever evidence they can. Crusha recognizes that psychic impressions, spiritual messages and physical sensations are not enough to convince most people.
EVPs, or electronic voice phenomenon, are the most common form of paranormal evidence. Using a regular digital voice recorder (like the one I use to record our interview, Crusha points out), investigators will record an “EVP session,” during which they attempt to communicate with a spirit. Then, when they play back the recording, they listen for patterns in the white noise, sometimes capturing what sound like voices.
Other evidence can come in the form of photos. Crusha himself doesn’t typically trust photos of “orbs,” common phenomena captured on camera that usually wind up being dust particles caught in the light. He says that much of the time photographic evidence can be attributed to pareidolia.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines pareidolia as “the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.” For instance, the photographed fogs and mists wherein folks often see faces or figures could be someone’s breath rising in front of the camera, or a smudge on the lens, but the human brain immediately attempts to translate the image into something it understands.
The same could be said of EVPs. Michael Ness, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Lafayette College, claims that EVPs are an example of auditory pareidolia. He writes: “Assuming some of these voice-like sounds can’t be attributed to shoddy data collection practices, their actual sources likely run the spectrum from ambient environmental noises to electrical interference to audio processing artifacts. If the listener is intently expecting to hear a person, virtually any sound can meet that expectation.”
Ness asserts that in an attempt to isolate these sounds, through volume or tonal control, investigators may (even unintentionally) alter the recording itself, making random ambient noise more viable as an EVP.
Whatever the case, EVPs and photographs make up the majority of evidence offered to skeptics in order to prove the existence of the paranormal. And serious investigators tend to do their best to mitigate any interference.
The rule is to “tag,” or to verbally point out, any sounds made by investigators or any explainable ambient noise that occurs while recording. And when it comes to photos, investigators usually adhere to a rule of three: Take three photos in the same place, from the same angle, to see if they can capture the same image twice.
Local investigation duo Future Ghost, James Manda and Chris Brewer, have incredible luck capturing what appear to be spirits on camera. [Disclosure: Brewer and Manda are friends of mine].
As children of the ’80s, the couple grew up with films such as Poltergeist, which sparked early interest in the paranormal. But Brewer comes from another background that influences the practice and focus of Future Ghost.
“This is in my DNA,” he says, referring to his Oglala Sioux heritage. “I was exposed to the concept of the spirit world very early. And obviously you respect [spirits] because they were living people at one time, and they’re our ancestors as well. There’s a lot to learn from them.”
He finds it interesting that the very phenomena that many consider supernatural are a part of everyday life for many members of his family. He says: “Native Americans believe that there’s a spirit of wind, water, all the elements. So in a way you can say that everything is haunted. Everything is full of spirit. That’s the intention that we came from.”
- Griffin Swartzell
- The Alliance uses locally manufactured Ghost Lights™ with their night vision equipment.
“We’re not a team that’s all about debunking, because it seems like nowadays people are more about what they don’t believe in than what they do,” Brewer says.
Future Ghost uses some standard equipment, such as FLIR cameras (which photograph differences in temperature), EMF meters and digital recorders, but Brewer says: “We’re more about your primary tool, the best tool you can use, which is your own intuition.”
Manda, too, values the experience over the evidence. He says: “I would much rather be touched than get a good photo.”
However, they have captured some intriguing images, most notably in the City Auditorium, Fargo’s Pizza, and Widefield Park, which was the site of a deadly plane crash in 1991, as well as the first place Future Ghost ever set out to capture evidence of the paranormal.
Though “evidence,” Brewer says, isn’t the term they use. “It’s a boring judicial term,” he says. “It also makes it sound like you’re trying to prove something to somebody.” Unlike Crusha, who takes on clients who desire that proof, Future Ghost typically investigates for their own enjoyment or understanding.
Local equipment manufacturer, Rich Horn, founder of Colorado Para-tech, also dislikes the term “evidence,” though his reason differs from those of other investigators. As far as he’s concerned, what many call “evidence” isn’t enough to prove the existence of the paranormal at all.
“I don’t believe that there’s sufficient evidence to prove there are ghosts,” he says. “I don’t believe there’s sufficient evidence to prove that there’s not.” In fact, Horn says that he doesn’t necessarily believe in anything when it comes to the paranormal. All he knows is that sometimes he sees or hears things that he can’t explain, but that doesn’t mean these things are unexplainable.
Horn, one of few skeptics in the field, has been interested in the paranormal since the ’70s, but didn’t begin investigating actively until the late aughts. When he entered the field in earnest, he found that the biggest problem facing investigators — who operate almost solely in the dark — was a lack of illumination for night vision cameras. Any photos or videos taken in night vision were often blurry or hazy, which led people to see unexplained shadows and gather “evidence” that he felt could be easily debunked. So, he set out to learn about cameras and lighting, and began making infrared and ultraviolet lights for his own use.
Now, Colorado Para-tech supplies not just paranormal investigators, but anyone who uses infrared cameras. Currently, Horn’s Ghost Lights™ are in use in Europe, where scientists are studying bats; in Africa and Mexico, used to identify and apprehend poachers; and in criminal investigations in Pueblo and Dallas.
By using infrared lights to illuminate a dark room, Horn says he’s seen details that otherwise would have been lost in a blurry haze, which is why some investigators don’t care for Ghost Lights™. People tend to see fewer unexplainable phenomena when they use them. “My perspective,” Horn says, “is I would rather see exactly what’s there than see half of what’s there and then guess what the other half is.” Because often that “other half” gets attributed to something paranormal, when it could be practically explained.
“So many people approach [investigation] with a belief system,” Horn says. “They seek to validate their own discoveries. They want proof that what they think and believe is correct, and so they will jump to conclusions to prove that.”
- Griffin Swartzell
- Dawn Agna scans for EMF in the children’s room while leading her first investigation.
He says: “One of the reasons I stay in this [field], and one of the greatest things that can come from this, is a proof that we’re not gone when we die. ... That would bring comfort to a lot of people.”
But he remains skeptical of such phenomena as orbs and mists, and even skeptical of the concept of mediums or psychics, though he admits there’s a possibility they exist. Some experiences in his own life have led him to think — not to believe, he clarifies — but to think that psychic sensitivity may be valid. But there’s no proof of it yet.
“Me, personally?” he says, “I prefer the hardcore data.”
A great deal of time and training goes into the complicated process of data collection. All that equipment Crusha owns (which includes many of Horn’s Ghost Lights™) only makes up part of what the Alliance has at its disposal. When investigating a big location, the setup alone can take hours.
Dawn Agna, a member of the Alliance, led her first investigation one evening in late September, guided by Crusha and supported by investigators from the Alliance, along with Future Ghost — 11 investigators total. The location: the Bargain Book Warehouse on Cucharras Street (interestingly enough, on the southeast corner of the potential future site of Mountain Metro’s new transit station).
It doesn’t look like your standard haunted building, but over the years employees have made claims. Among them: disembodied voices, especially near the big double doors of the main warehouse; apparitions in the glass door that separates the children’s room from another section of the bookstore; and, according to Anga and some sensitives on the team, an oppressive energy that seems to emanate from the admittedly unsettling basement, where a boarded up door leads allegedly to the underground tunnels that once led to bars and brothels across downtown Colorado Springs.
In order to verify these claims themselves, the Alliance sets up a central command, where multiple static night vision cameras feed into one computer screen with an investigator constantly observing. They stock equipment stations in a few different high-activity areas — a camera and Rem-Pod (which lights up and beeps with EMF fluctuation) by the warehouse’s double doors; multiple recorders, EMF meters and motion sensors in the children’s room; and laser grids, through which a spirit may walk and disturb the light pattern, pointing to places where the sensitive members of the team feel a presence during their initial sweep, such as the back of the warehouse where both Brewer and Crusha claim to feel a male energy.
- Griffin Swartzell
- The Bargain Book Warehouse basement feels “heavy,” according to a sensitive member of the team.
Investigators Nicole Perrine, Rhonda Fliss, and Bargain Book Warehouse employee Andrew Surendranath begin in the back of the warehouse, scanning the area with EMF meters and holding out their digital recorders. Though the room remains mostly silent, sometimes a voice will call out something like: “Rhonda coughed,” “those are Nicole’s footsteps,” or “dogs barking outside,” stringent tagging so that a gurgling stomach, for instance, does not get mistaken for a ghostly growl in the process of audio review.
They begin an EVP session, setting the recorder on an old, empty bookshelf near the back of the warehouse. “What is your name?” Fliss asks.
“How many of you are there?”
“Do you live here?”
“Do you want us to go?”
The crew won’t know if anyone answered their questions until they review the recording later, but they can seek more immediate answers. After some time and a few long stretches of silence, they move to another part of the warehouse, sit on an old couch and a few stacked up boards, and Fliss takes out a pair of dowsing rods.
Dowsing rods — two long, thin sticks, usually made of metal — are used in spiritual practice or, more practically, to find water. When Fliss steadies her elbows on her knees and holds them out, they move, waving back and forth before they settle. Fliss waits for the rods to set themselves parallel to each other, then asks any spirits in attendance to cross the rods for a “yes” answer, and spread wide for a “no.”
Surendranath talks to the ghosts like old friends. “Drew here!” he announces joyfully, before asking if the spirit recognizes him, and though the rods begin by pointing toward Perrine, they eventually find their way to him.
In another room, Chelle Fratzel and Tim Bear — who have driven down from Denver for the night — join equipment tech Matt Coleman in an attempt to communicate with the spirit of the child said to haunt the bookstore. Recording continuously, Bear follows Fratzel around with a full-spectrum camera, modified to capture visible, infrared and ultraviolet light. Fratzel holds only a digital recorder, but as an empath (someone sensitive to emotional impressions) she doesn’t need much equipment.
Coleman holds out his EMF meter to Fratzel, clearly perturbed. He says he typically doesn’t feel impressions himself, but he, too, senses some kind of energy. Eventually, it passes, the EMF meter spikes briefly, and Fratzel moves somewhat reluctantly over the room’s threshold. She doesn’t seem to feel the presence after that.
After some time, Fratzel and Coleman migrate to a table, where a teddy bear has been set up as a “trigger object,” something meant to draw out the child’s spirit. Here, they ask a few questions, ask for some movement or confirmation, and then they wait.
Coleman says that waiting is a big part of what they do, as investigations can last anywhere between two and 12 hours. Though this part may not yield instant gratification, the ensuing review of data (hours of audio and video, plus hundreds of photos) is like a treasure hunt.
- Griffin Swartzell
- The Bargain Book Warehouse basement feels “heavy,” according to a sensitive member of the team.
The team also gathered a few EVPs, whispering voices saying what Crusha believes to be: “Tony,” “hope,” “jacket” and “pray for me,” among other indistinguishable and unexplained sounds. While they have many more hours of audio to review, Crusha says having even this much evidence right off the bat is unusual and exciting. Not to mention, employees have reported increased activity since the investigation, which prompted the team to perform a spiritual cleansing in early October. As one member of the team continuously recited the Lord’s Prayer, others burned sage and palo santo, and Crusha played a Tibetan singing bowl, all actions meant to either purge or calm the spirits at the warehouse.
These experiences and recordings represent those sparks that keep people engaged and keep them investigating. “Ghost hunting” may not be as tense or glamorous as the TV shows make it out to be, but these investigators find the rewards worth the toil.
“A lot of what we do is very boring,” Crusha admits. “We sit there and sit there and sit there a lot of the time, and to have something finally happen, I’m like... well, now you know why we do this.”
There’s a thrill in the discovery, in the static of an EVP or the insistent beep of a Rem-Pod. There’s even a thrill in the waiting, because at any moment something could choose to make contact.
Whether tapping into residual, recorded energy of past occurrences, hearing direct messages from conscious entities, or simply experiencing spiritual paeredolia, these investigators ask the darkness for proof that there’s something else out there. “Move an object; turn on a light; make a noise. Talk to us. Show us you’re here. Give us a sign.”