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In real life, ghost hunting is an uncertain science -- and 'boring'

In real life, ghost hunting is an uncertain science -- and 'boring'
Ghost hunter Rob Garcia points out places where he says paranormal activity was recorded at the Alexander Majors house in Kansas City, Mo. (Kevin Baxter / Los Angeles Times)

Rob Garcia ain't afraid of no ghosts. Which is a good thing since he thinks he just encountered some on the second floor of a 19th century farmhouse.

"You feel that?" Garcia says to his partner, Beth Brownback, who nods back her answer.

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Garcia and Brownback aren't ghost-busters. They think of themselves as investigators of the paranormal, hobbyists who take a serious and scientific approach to a study in which the only sure thing is uncertainty.

"We don't know what we're dealing with," Garcia explains. "I think they're ghosts. But can I tell you 100% that's a ghost? No."

However, he can tell you he felt something strange climbing a narrow wooden staircase during a visit to the antebellum farmhouse that once belonged to Alexander Majors, a founder of the Pony Express.

We try to find rational explanations for anything that happens. Until it becomes unexplainable.


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The atmosphere isn't exactly one that is normally associated with the spirit world. It's a sunny May morning, not a chilly winter night. And the sounds of a folk singer entertaining the crowd at a craft festival in the yard can be heard through the house's 160-year-old oak and pine walls.

Yet Brownback got a bewitching feeling too.

"It's static," she says. "The hair on your arms stands up."

For Garcia, the telltale sign was an odor — musty and rotten. Then a dizziness.

"It's different for everybody," he says. "I get a sense of when there's paranormal energy. I don't know why. Your body just kind of reacts to it."

The Kansas City area has become a hotbed of paranormal activity, Garcia says. When he cofounded ELITE Paranormal in 2007, he estimates, there were just three other groups in the area doing the same work. Now there are more than 30.

Much of that growth, he says, has been fueled by cable television shows such as "Ghost Hunters," "The Dead Files" and "Paranormal Witness." And though Garcia, who contributed to one episode of "My Ghost Story," credits the shows with bringing ghost-hunting out of the shadows, he also blames them for oversimplifying the complicated and often-tedious work of paranormal investigation.

"People join our group and they say, 'Oh my gosh. Well, nothing happened. This is boring,'" he says. "They expect to see people coming out of the walls."

Another misconception is that the spirit world is inherently evil. But Garcia says you're far more likely to meet Casper the Friendly Ghost than Poltergeist.

"I've never encountered a demon in all my years of doing this," he says. "I hope not to."

Garcia, 48, who works weekdays as an IT specialist for a medical company, came to ghost-hunting 11 years ago through his interest in history, especially the many horrific Civil War battles that convulsed the Kansas-Missouri border.

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In the last dozen years he has invested more than $10,000 in high-speed cameras and sensitive electronic recorders. Investigations generally consist of setting up the equipment and leaving, then reviewing hours of mind-numbing videotape or listening for "electronic voice phenomena," what ghost busters call EVP.

The aim is to catch words or phrases, but often the equipment picks up sounds so faint and indecipherable it's impossible to tell what or who made them.

"Going through all the evidence is pretty boring," he says. "But when you find that stuff, that's what makes it exciting."

Sometimes they don't have to wait to review the tapes. The pair were investigating the shuttered Waverly Hills Sanatorium outside Louisville, Ky., when Garcia asked of no one in particular: "Is there somebody here with us?"

He said that the voice of a young girl answered, "Oh, hello."

"She was right there!" says Brownback, who remembers being shaken by the incident.

"You do freak out. You get startled," says Brownback, 50, a first-grade teacher who has investigated paranormal activities in six states over the last 10 years. "And then you've got to stop and say, 'OK, what was that?'"

Both she and Garcia claim to have spoken to spirits.

"Oh, yeah," Garcia says nonchalantly before recounting a visit to the Sigma Nu house in Lawrence, Kan., a mansion occupied more than a century ago by a former governor and his wife, Stella.

Fraternity members said they had seen a woman dressed in white walking the hallways, and when Garcia came to investigate, he says, he talked to Stella through a cellphone-sized "spirit box," an EVP recorder so common it can be ordered on Amazon.

"I was getting full-on responses from her," he said. "I was asking her, 'Stella, are you stuck?' She's like, 'I can leave.' That's pretty astounding."

And unprovable.

"We try to find rational explanations for anything that happens," Garcia said. "Until it becomes unexplainable."

Back in the foyer at the Majors house, down the staircase from where he and Brownback believe they encountered a spirit, Garcia relates another story: A maintenance worker, who had no clue the house was haunted, walked in and saw a soldier in a blue Union uniform standing at the fireplace.

Startled, the soldier disappeared into the next room, which had no exit. When the maintenance man followed, the soldier was gone.

"There are a lot of spirits here," Garcia says of the Majors house.

Why they are there he can't say for sure. For all the high-tech gear and TV exposure, paranormal investigation remains more mystery than science.

During a visit to the John Wornall house, another Civil War-era home a few miles from the Majors house, Garcia brought along a motion-activated doll he bought at Wal-Mart for $3. A few minutes after being left unattended in an upstairs bedroom, the doll inexplicably began to giggle.

Something or someone, Garcia concluded, must have been in the room with it.

"The wind," he says, "wouldn't activate it."

On this Sunday morning, the Wornall house is closed to visitors — but not to spirits, Garcia says.

Peering through a window, he points out the landing on a staircase where a Confederate soldier has been seen smoking a pipe. On another occasion, a guide from the local historical society reached precariously over a railing to turn off a light when something grabbed her wrist and pulled her back.

Other visitors to the house have said they have seen the spirits of two young girls who died there of childhood diseases. Asked for evidence, Garcia simply shakes his head.

"We've photographed that place a thousand times," he says, adding that ghost hunting demands "a certain degree of faith."

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