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GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- As dusk falls on the Triangular Field, where scores of Confederate and Union soldiers lay dead and dying on July 2, 1863, author Mark Nesbitt stands with a digital voice recorder and recites a series of questions.
We hear no response this Thursday evening. But when we turn the Panasonic RR-QR60 to playback, it appears that we had had a visitor.
"Thomas Lewis Ware," Nesbitt's voice says, "Are you here with us?"
What sounds like a gruff, short bark of "Yes" comes from the recorder.
One other question from Nesbitt seems to get an answer -- unintelligible, but definitely there.
I look around nervously to make sure no one's lurking nearby. Nesbitt, a former Gettysburg National Park Service ranger/historian who has written the Ghosts of Gettysburg books, smiles. This is very cool.
It's not the first time Nesbitt has recorded what believers say are the disembodied voices of long-dead soldiers called electronic voice phenomena, known as EVP. He and other ghost hunters claim their recordings are part of an evidentiary record of paranormal activity.
While skeptics wonder what sort of substances these folks have been smoking, ghost hunters say they're just average people discovering a realm that we of the 21st century have become too sophisticated to believe in.
Thousands haul digital voice recorders, camcorders, film and digital cameras, temperature and electromagnetic field detectors to haunted houses, cemeteries and battlefields to see, hear and occasionally speak to the dead.
Surf to ghost hunter Web sites and you'll find all sorts of paranormal phenomena: ghostly balls of light called orbs; red, white or blue clouds called ectoplasm; and sound files of voices from fields and cemeteries. On rare occasions, you'll find a photograph of an apparition as well.
Much of the evidence is highly interpretative. One ghost hunter's picture of hundreds of orbs is a cloud of dust to another. Some EVP sound like garbled static. And an ectoplasm with a face? Well, it might be exhaled breath.
"There are ghost hunters and ghost wanters, " says Chris Bravner, who recently took up the pursuit and joined the Pennsylvania Ghost Hunters Society.
The "wanters," he explains, see a ghost in everything.
Many ghost hunters say they're not out to prove that ghosts exist -- they're just having fun gathering evidence and showing people what they've photographed or recorded.
But it's all nonsense to Pat Linse, co-founder of the Skeptics Society, a national organization that rejects the paranormal and publishes a handbook for debunkers of myths called the Baloney Detection Kit. Linse, who at one time created photo-realistic illustrations, says the 1984 film Ghostbusters and its sequel reignited interest in ghost hunting.
She's particularly skeptical about using cameras to catch the spirits, noting that "Ghost photography started about the same time as photography."
Nor does she trust ghost hunters' claims from using other devices. She argues that they can be rigged to provide all kinds of feedback that can be misinterpreted as the supernatural.
Al Tyas, who runs D.C. Metro Area Ghost Watchers, believes that paranormal activity takes place but agrees with Linse that many ghost sightings have explanations in the natural world.
"A lot of times, it's not an entity at all," says Tyas, whose group will discreetly investigate a haunted home for free. "It could be anything from leaky pipes banging in wintertime to someone [taking] too much of their prescribed medication."
Rick Fisher, a Lancaster, Pa., resident and founder of the PGHS, says serious investigators actively try to rule out all ordinary explanations for what appears to be paranormal activity.
A pioneer in the use of digital cameras for ghost investigation, Fisher says he doesn't shoot in dusty conditions or when it's raining or snowing. He says he follows strict protocols for capturing data on cameras, camcorders and voice recorders.
Fisher, who lectures on paranormal activity and publishes a magazine on the supernatural, says he has nothing against psychics but works with them sparingly.
"A psychic can tell you that they're feeling something, but I can't verify that," he says.
So he, like many ghost hunters, relies on a variety of tools in addition to cameras and voice recorders such as:
Electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors ($35 to $150) to pick up ghostly energy.
Infrared temperature -- measuring devices ($70 to $150) to find cold spots in homes and other locations that might indicate the presence of ghosts.
Camcorders ($800 and up) that have the ability to shoot video at night. The ability to shoot infrared images is critical to some. Fisher discovered that by turning up the volume during playback of video, he could even find EVP.
Having the equipment is one thing; using it properly is another, ghost hunters warn -- one reason why newcomers should hook up with someone who has experience.
Emil Detoffol, who owns Less EMF Inc. in Ghent, N.Y., and sells most of his equipment to people concerned about electromagnetic fields in their houses, says a careless ghost hunter can pick up EMF readings from a variety of sources, ranging from refrigerators to cars passing by on the street.
"For example, if you're going to do ghost hunting in a home, you should turn off power at the main," says Detoffol, who doesn't hunt ghosts himself but fields constant inquiries from amateur paranormal investigators.
Infrared thermal detectors can even be fooled by pointing them at glass or the sky, he adds.
Tools detect -- what?
With those caveats in mind, I recently accompanied Rick Fisher and two companions to the Hans Graf cemetery about 14 miles northeast of York, Pa., where a German immigrant and his descendants are buried. There he demonstrated each piece of equipment.
His infrared thermal sensor measured a temperature of 18 degrees in one corner of the cemetery -- far below the ambient temperature of 48.
His EMF detector also went off -- on a side of the cemetery away from his parked car. There were no electrical lines near enough to affect the device.
An inexpensive motion detector I brought along chirped twice when all of us were standing well back from the graves.
Armed with an Olympus E-20N digital camera, I snapped about 260 photos that produced eight pictures of orbs -- spheres of light against the wooded background. All were shot after one of the ghost-detecting devices had alerted us to a presence.
Fisher deemed the orbs to be genuine. I then asked an Olympus representative to take a look.
John Knaur, the company's senior product manager for digital cameras, says he's seen such "orbs" before.
"They're particulate matter of some sort such as dust, or pollen or moisture -- all it needs is a little bit of reflective value," he says of some of the images. "I don't disbelieve in ghosts, but this is dust."
Knaur says other orbs look like enlarged reflections from sap on broken branches. He explained that pixels in digital camera sensors, exposed to intense light, can "bloom" and spill their contents to neighboring pixels.
Similar orbs, although not as bright, might appear on images shot with film cameras too, he adds.
Fisher doesn't buy the brushoff. Why, he asks, did we get dust particles only when the other measuring equipment seemed to indicate spirits? Moreover, he notes, both he and fellow ghost hunter Scott Ditmer recorded the orbs with their cameras from different angles.
In addition to still photographs, Fisher has taped orbs zipping and floating around rooms with a Sony camcorder -- a phenomenon with no immediate rational explanation. In fact, the Web has several videos shot by ghost hunters' camcorders displaying orbs in motion similar to the ones in the E-20N photographs.
Fisher didn't pick up any orbs with his camcorder on this night, given that it was pointed away from where the globes of light appear in the pictures. But in the first couple of minutes of camcorder taping, a woman's voice can be heard softly saying, "Cobal," which he believes may be a last name -- possibly of someone buried in the cemetery. It is a clear example of EVP.
While some ghost hunters have proffered protocols for all to follow -- such as not smoking during an investigation so no one mistakes cigarette smoke for ectoplasm -- no one is bound by the rules.
And a few debates still rage about what the protocol should be in some instances. For example, some hunters believe digital cameras fail completely as evidence-collection tools because there is no negative to be reviewed.
Author Katherine Ramsland, who wrote the book Ghost about her experiences hunting spirits, remains skeptical of some claims.
Orbs in photographs were not what she was expecting when she went looking for proof that ghosts exist.
"I still want to see a ghost or get knocked around by a ghost," says Ramsland, who teaches forensic psychology at DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa. "I want to see something that is real and supernatural. I've seen things that were ambiguous, but I want clarity."
For now, the most persuasive evidence may be EVPs, the sound recordings.
"EVP is the best ... they're real voices," Ramsland says of the purported ghost voices collected on tapes and digital recorders. But just whose voices or where they're coming from isn't clear.
Mark Nesbitt, who does a little bit of ghost hunting from time to time, likes EVP, too. He has collected several recordings at several places around the sprawling battlefield where 6,000 to 8,000 soldiers died. He has received responses before from Thomas Ware, who fought with the 15th Georgia Volunteer Infantry regiment and died in the Triangular Field.
"I'm still a skeptic, but you can't deny what you see and record on tape and film," says Nesbitt, who has written books on the Civil War and runs the Ghosts of Gettysburg Candlelight Walking Tour service.
"I've collected almost 500 ghost stories and still, some of this stuff gives me the willies."
Kevin Washington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Web sites for ghost hunters
Beverly Litsinger of Randallstown didn't like the leader of her first ghost hunting expedition, so she decided to do it herself and put up a Web site for her Maryland Ghost & Spirit Association (www.marylandghosts.com).
Litsinger now leads ghost tours and investigations. Her site lists Maryland hauntings by county (Baltimore County has 12 and the city has 28) as well as tips for ghost hunting.
Other ghost hunters (and anti-ghosters) are happy to share their knowledge on the Web. Here are a few:
Ghost Research Society: http://ghostresearch.org
D.C. Metro Area Ghost Watchers: www.dchauntings.com Pennsylvania Ghost Hunters Society: http://home.supernet.- com/~rfisher/pghs.html
Ghosts of Gettysburg books and tours: www.ghostsofgettysburg. com
The Atlantic Paranormal Society: http://the-atlantic- paranormal-society.com
International Ghost Hunters Society (which has standards and protocols for investigations): www.ghostweb.com
Rhine Research Center, a parapsychology institute in Durham, N.C.: www.rhine.org
Less EMF Inc. (for EMF detectors): www.lessemf.com