Graveyard shift: Paranormal investigators hunt area ghosts

At midnight in a cemetery in the middle of Nowhere, S.C., the woods are pockmarked with tombstones. It’s so dark I can see galaxies whirling overhead. I trip over graves. A vision of mummified hands reaching out of the ground overwhelms me. Perhaps they shouldn’t have sent the only reporter with a zombie evacuation plan, although, to be honest, the plan involves mostly running and shrieking.

Yet my guide is calm.

“We’re here to debunk this,” declares Ginger Yarbrough, organizer of Georgia Ghost Hunters. “We rule out all the man-made and natural explanations first before we try to say there’s spirits.”

Ginger and seven other members have brought me to a 200-year-old Huguenot graveyard an hour from Augusta, down a one-lane dirt path through a thick forest where trees bend like frightful fingers reaching for prey.

This group doesn’t look for the paranormal. They look for the normal. If lights in a home flicker, they blame the tree branch or a power line. They check for vermin, leaky pipes, gaps in insulation and other earthly explanations for unearthly sensations.

In the graveyard, the ghost hunters set up candles to provide a little light plus video cameras and voice recorders to document the hunt. They calibrate EMF meters to detect the presence of electromagnetic fields, infrared thermometers to spot temperature differentials and tri-field meters to detect magnetic fields, electrical fields and microwave emissions. When man-made and natural causes have been eliminated, Ginger says, it is generally believed that ghosts generate these fields and temperature changes.

“The most common energy form that a ghost uses is simple heat,” Ginger says. “A ghost will absorb heat to help it manifest, which is why people feel cold when a ghost passes them.”

These are true believers. Ginger is completing a certification from the Stratford Career Institute in parapsychology and astrology. She and her mother have seen enough unusual phenomena in their lives to scare legions of schoolchildren. They’ve been hunting ghosts for three years, in public and for private homeowners.

“But we keep all private investigations discrete — their name is kept under lock and key, so to speak. We are completely non-profit and do not charge fees for our service as we are trying to collect all the data we can,” she says.

They hunt to find legitimate hauntings, in small part to convert the unfaithful. She’s looking for the real deal, because she believes she’s experienced it. “I want the evidence to put it up on the table and say, ‘Look. You cannot disprove this.’”

Leon Wilkes, a group member who is in the military, tells a story about a house in Iraq that spooked his entire troop of hardened soldiers. Almost everyone in the group has a story about a supernatural experience. I’m just not so sure. I’d like to believe it’s possible to communicate with the souls of departed loved ones — hi, Grandma! — but I’ve never encountered anything of the kind.

“The paranormal is a touchy subject and most people are afraid to do anything about it because they think they may be humiliated,” Ginger said later.

That doesn’t stop me from nearly wetting myself when the EMF meter in my hand goes off. Everyone in the group turns to stare at me as I freeze. I put the sensor out again and it lights up. I prepare to activate my zombie evacuation plan.

“Is there anyone here who would like to communicate with us?” Ginger asks the forest while I fight the urge to run and shriek. After a disappointing silence and several tests, we determine I had moved the sensor too rapidly, which gave a false positive.

“That’s why it’s important to look at it from a scientific perspective,” Ginger says. “You have to debunk it first.”

Leon, in a fearless — and, I think, foolish — stab at making this trip worthwhile, begins to taunt the spirits of the dead who lay in these woods.

“I think you’re too chicken to come out,” he calls. “I don’t believe you even exist.”

He walks out of the walled burial ground, continuing his tirade, and Ginger and Lisa Barret stay where he began. Ginger thinks she heard a noise nearby, like change rattling in a pocket. Inexplicably, a vine slaps Lisa in the face, and Ginger’s camera picks up red and white streaks in the forest, something she calls a vortex, a strand of light. She thinks it’s a portal through which ghosts travel, though other ghost hunters say it could be individual spirits moving or an “orb.”

My camera captures a picture of what the group says is a flaming orb, the best they’ve ever seen. It’s a round spot in the darkness, visible only on my digital camera. Some people say it’s energy. Some say it’s a small ghost.

Just then, Leon calls that a shadowy figure peeked at him from among the trees.

“He wants to come out and play, now,” Leon says. I really hope not.

Immune to my protests, the group enthusiastically agrees to go down to the nearby lake. As we descend the hill, the temperature plunges from a chilly 52 to near freezing. I’m shivering in a T-shirt and sweater, more immediately frightened of chiggers and poison ivy than spectral beings, and I see unmistakable beaver activity. We crunch down the hillside toward it, every footstep a beacon for beavers and bears and who knows what all else. Are there bear zombies? Oh, god. I bet there are.

It’s, rather appropriately, a dead lake — a lake that held water in the past but is now merely an overgrown basin, choked with weeds, scrub and fallen trees. Leon continues to harangue those who previously rested in peace as he and Ginger start across the edge of the basin. I see lights twinkling just above the grass near the middle. Right. I’ll just wait here.

Time creeps as I watch my breath rise as a mist in front of me. It’s something Ginger pointed out that they try to avoid when photographing phenomena. Even the clothes of someone who has just smoked a cigarette may contaminate visual evidence.

Then someone in the lake yelps.

“That [expletive] just growled at me,” Leon calls as the trio tromps back through the overgrowth. Leon is shivering violently in his autumn jacket.

“Feel him!” Ginger says. “He’s ice cold!”

He is. While Ginger, clad only in a T-shirt and jeans, is still warm to the touch, Leon feels frozen. They claim to have heard a growl just before the temperature around Leon dropped aggressively.

I look out over the rustling grasses. The lights I had seen are gone. Running and shrieking are high on my priority list right now.

Although none of the equipment registered abnormal readings, the members are convinced of a spiritual presence, in this case, an “intelligent haunting.”

It’s one of the different types of ghosts and hauntings that the Georgia Ghost Hunters categorize.

“No one knows for sure why they are here with us,” Ginger said. “And there is no reason to be afraid of them because usually they have the same emotions and personalities they had when they were alive. They are around us all the time.”

In that case, I have to revise my zombie evacuation plan.

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