At the end of the investigation of the historic home, a scream was heard.
Walking through the Octagon House — one of the historic buildings at Heritage Square Museum in Los Angeles — Irvine resident Ashley Hansen fumbled through pitch-black rooms until she found the source of the noise: a woman she'd spoken to earlier in the night who was a skeptic when it came to all things paranormal.
Like something out of a horror film, the woman stood ramrod straight, plastered to the wall, not blinking, according to Hansen as she relayed the story. She asked the woman if she was OK.
"She's like, 'I like this house. I just want everyone to leave my house,' " recalled Hansen, who suggested that the woman seemed to be channeling a spirit.
No stranger to the paranormal — Hansen and her dad have been amateur ghost hunters for 10 years — even she was a little creeped out, she said.
Something even more chilling happened later that night: The woman did not remember the episode.
"She didn't remember anything," said Hansen. "She looked at me like I was psycho."
It's incidents like these that keep Hansen and other frequenters of Haunted Orange County coming back for more. Skeptics are drawn to the paranormal events too, if only to disprove them.
Skeptics and believers
Mario Bernal and his wife, Casaundra, of Riverside County went from skeptics to believers after attending a Haunted Orange County paranormal investigation at the Graber Olive House in Ontario in 2013.
"At that time I was pretty skeptical of the paranormal," said Mario Bernal. "My wife and I watched a lot of the shows on Travel Channel and Syfy … just for the entertainment value.… But we didn't really believe all the things that they would find."
Early in the evening of their first paranormal investigation, Bernal was still pretty skeptical — until his group moved into the upper loft of the old barn, where they sat in a circle for an electronic voice phenomenon, or EVP, recording session in which individuals could ask questions. They made sure to "tag" group noises like sneezing, coughing and stomach growling, for instance, so as not to mistake these for paranormal sounds when listening to the recordings.
"I asked, 'Did you follow us from the vat room?'" Bernal said. "Then my wife asked the question: 'Are you afraid of us?' "
After the session, the lead investigator played the recording for all to hear.
Regarding the question about whether they were followed, Bernal said, "About one second of silence goes by, and then you hear a male voice come through in a very breathy tone say, 'Yes.' … I got chills down my spine.… Where did that voice come from? We've been tagging all these noises."
Bernal said a similar response followed his wife's question.
"When we got home, we talked about it and just kind of said, 'We have a recorder. Let's listen to it and everything that we did record, '" he said. "Let's see. Maybe we caught what [the investigator] caught.… If it shows up on two recorders, maybe it is paranormal.' "
The result was more recorded voice responses, according to Bernal.
"Subsequent voices started coming through the recording," he said. "I didn't know how to feel about that. Again, we were doing everything we could to disprove as much as we could.… These were voices we hadn't heard at all at the time."
Not long after, the Bernals' views on the paranormal began to change. They continue their journey with regular investigations through Haunted Orange County and other groups, even ghost hunting out of state.
"Some really, really cool stuff has happened on these investigations," he said. "It turned me from a skeptic into a believer."
History plus hauntings
Ernie Alonzo, director and founder of Haunted Orange County, says that while coordinating paranormal investigations is certainly an exciting part of the business, it is only part of what Haunted Orange County is about. The company actually started out offering educational history tours in areas like Santa Ana and Orange — and continues to do so — with some spooky flair.
Even though the tours are called "Ghost Walks," Alonzo, who is also on the board of directors of the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society, said, "We pride ourselves on being historic tours.… [Guests] always walk away knowing a lot more history about the city."
But the ghosts will not be ignored.
Alonzo likes to keep tabs on local paranormal hotspots like his cousin's dental office in Santa Ana, where moving objects have been reported, including a coffee cup flying off a computer tower and hitting a wall three feet away while patients were in the office.
During an investigation in the basement of that building, built in 1924, Alonzo and his team set cameras in place and left.
"When we came back down, all of the cameras were off," he said. "They were plugged in but they were off."
The Dr. Willella Howe-Waffle House and Medical Museum in Santa Ana, where the Santa Ana Ghost Walk begins and ends, has been the site of several paranormal investigations. In 2013, Haunted Orange County hosted a crew from Travel Channel's "Ghost Adventures" for an investigation of the 126-year-old Victorian mansion.
"If people have questions about the afterlife and they need that confirmation, I think they could definitely get it at the Waffle House.… It's very haunted, but it's not bad," said Angela Starling-Cook of La Habra, who has participated in a couple of the Ghost Walks.
A self-described psychic medium, Starling-Cook said there is a lot of activity in the house that she senses and then confirms for herself with the help of a voice recorder.
"Every single time I've tried to communicate with spirit at that house, I've had EVPs," she said.
No disrespect to psychics intended — in fact, a psychic medium/lecturer is listed on the staff page of the company's website — but Alonzo said Haunted Orange County approaches investigations and other events with a foundation in research. He added that while some participants may have psychic abilities, the information gathered from an investigation is based on historical background and what the paranormal investigators' equipment reveals. (Guests are also welcome to bring their own equipment.)
"Sometimes it's interesting when we get something that [psychics] say that ties into something we found historically," said Alonzo. "But we will never [hear] something that a medium or someone pick up and take that as gospel truth."
According to Ben Hansen, who went from working in law enforcement to a career researching UFOs and investigating the paranormal, the Haunted Orange County investigations focus more on observation than trying to elicit paranormal activity.
Still, Hansen — no relation to Ashley — said he's seen his share of supernatural occurrences as an investigator with the group.
"I see just as much activity at these events as when I'm filming a TV show," said Hansen, who was lead host for three seasons on Syfy's "Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files."
He said he doesn't "presume to know" why hauntings occur.
"Some people are certain that it's because the spirits are trapped and can't move on to their next life," Hansen said. "That's where a lot of psychics and mediums come in and say that it's their job to help the spirits 'move on.' Personally, I think it's a little presumptuous of me or anyone else to say that their fate is dependent on us helping them.
"I'm actually quite brash in that sense because I frankly don't care why they're there. I just think it's interesting how our technology is starting to catch up where we might be able to evidence their existence."
He explained two predominant theories, "and they're not mutually exclusive," he said — residual hauntings and intelligent hauntings.
"Residual hauntings would be those that aren't currently happening in our timeline," Hansen said. "They could be voices or images that play over and over like a record from the past, and their energy is imprinted in the rocks, trees and buildings where they occurred. We tend to find this theory supported when someone reports seeing the same spirit walking a specific pathway, or they capture a conversation on a tape recorder as if they were just overhearing a person talking to someone else.
"An intelligent haunting is when there's evidence that the spirit is interacting with the investigator or observer. They may respond to specific questions with pertinent answers, or there's object manipulation or the observer is touched or scratched. That would obviously indicate a deliberate attempt at communication and supports the idea that the spirit is aware of our presence."
In addition to the year-round historical tours (East Los Angeles and Hollywood tours will be added later this year) and paranormal investigations, Haunted Orange County has expanded into related topics, including UFO phenomena. It recently hosted talks in Santa Ana and at Chapman University with Travis Walton, an Arizona logger who said he was abducted by a UFO in 1975, reappearing after a five-day search.
The Santa Ana event was held in the building where the reportedly haunted dental office is located.
Alonzo likes to go the extra mile when it comes to his events — whether a paranormal investigation or lecture. The Walton event was hosted in a darkened room, with celestial bodies projected onto walls. Projected onto a screen during the lecture was a map of the incident's location, artist renderings of what Walton remembered the aliens looking like and photos of the town where the sighting took place, including the phone booth he used to call for help upon his return and the gas station where the local sheriff met him.
In addition, Walton signed books and posters. He wrote "Fire in the Sky: The Walton Experience," and a movie, "Fire in the Sky," is based on the incident.
"We try to brand ourselves as the Nordstrom of paranormal event companies," Alonzo said.
Haunted Orange County also offers special events for corporate clients, themed workshops (including a five-week course on creating your own movie-quality Halloween mask) and community lectures, including a tie-in with Chapman University's sociology department.
The company also recently presented the first in a series of topics on the paranormal for The Earl Babbie Research Center, also at Chapman. Last year, it was selected to lead Stan Lee's Comikaze Expo Ghost Hunt event at Heritage Square Museum. Haunted Orange County also has plans for a haunted house attraction this Halloween season.
The group was to host a meet-and-greet in Santa Ana this month with Destination America channel's "Ghost Brothers" stars. In fact, thanks to Alonzo's connections with TV paranormal investigators, most of the paranormal investigation events are actually led by TV ghost hunters.
The Face Your Fears overnight experience — a more intense version of the paranormal investigations that gives individual guests the option of spending time in isolation in an allegedly haunted location — is led by actor Chad Lindberg, ("The Fast and the Furious," "Supernatural") and co-star of Destination America's reality show "Ghost Stalkers."
"It's a smaller group. We really personalize it," said Alonzo of Face Your Fears. "We cook them breakfast in the morning. We have appetizers and drinks in the evening."
And Charles Spratley, a historian who helped develop the company's tours, is working on a re-creation of a Victorian séance, Alonzo said. The "medium" will be dressed in period clothing, and the seance will be held in Victorian houses.
After full communication with "the beyond," guests will sit down for an academic lecture on the history of the séance and how tricks were performed from the best, including Helena Blavatsky and the Davenport Brothers, company literature says.