The following article was first published at the Nexus Newsfeed website on the 18th of June 2017. It is a shining example of the kind of longform journalism that I really enjoy working on, and neatly straddles the divide between social commentary and outright sarcasm. It is designed as a response to the ever present media scaremongering that seems to dog the field of paranormal investigation, as well as offering some common sense insights for those who seek to explore the world of the weird after dark.
Fear the Reaper
The Real World Dangers of Modern Paranormal Investigation
By Gavin Fox
To the outside observer, ghost hunting can appear to be a dangerous pastime. While the majority of discussions in this regard seem to revolve around the possibility of something nasty following you home, it is actually the more mundane aspects of working in derelict and abandoned properties that can be the biggest problem for paranormal researchers. That, and the fact that the law is rarely on our side. While many variations exist, there does seem to be a general consensus regarding the three most basic rules involved in conducting a safe investigation. That such a thread can be found within the constitution of even the smallest group is unsurprising, as the price for ignoring the following common sense concepts can be deadly.
Rule one, ask permission of the landowner and do not under any circumstances trespass on private property. No matter how haunted a building is supposed to be, is that pretty little orb photograph worth doing jail time for? As anyone with a background in urban exploring knows, it can quickly reach the point that more time is spent dodging security guards than snapping photos. Big companies make their bread and butter from keeping people out after hours, and judges always have time to sentence the unlucky few who are caught.
Two, get know the building before you turn off the lights, especially if it is derelict. Even with the press that Zak Bagans generated by wearing a respirator mask in later seasons of Ghost Adventures, most people still ignore the dangers that can be present in the fabric of older buildings. Asbestos for example, or respiratory disease causing moulds just minding their own business in the dark, waiting to ruin your life. For the really poorly prepared though, there is nothing like falling through a gaping hole in the floor and landing on a pile of rusty pipes in the basement to solve that afterlife question once and for all.
And three, while you should never investigate alone, you should also choose your companions well. So your friend Bob has a car with enough trunk space to get you and your equipment to the haunted location, but also spends most of his time more drunk than a secondary school teacher on the first day of term? John has the connections to get you and your group inside that spooky old hospital, but has a nasty habit of going crazy with his knife collection when he is up on cocaine? Jess is an excellent medium, but also has suicidal tendencies and an irrational fear of the dark? Any of these sound like the best people to be hanging around a remote castle with at three in the morning?
The consequences that arise from ignoring the first rule are all to apparent to anyone who reads the news. Numerous states in America are now actioning a zero tolerance policy towards what they see as acts of vandalism against their heritage, and the police in the United Kingdom have always taken a dim view of trespassing on private property.
Take the numerous people arrested in and around the derelict Lima Tuberculosis Hospital, Ohio, for example. All are facing a 30 day suspended jail sentence, with an additional $250 dollar fine and court costs to boot. Allegedly haunted by the patients who died there, the location now serves as extra storage for the Lima-Allen County Landfill. There have been numerous accusations levelled by disgruntled ghost hunters at Ben Hefner, the owner of the building, arguing that he has cut a deal with the county to keep the money from fines rolling in. With no plans in place to develop the site in the foreseeable future it is likely that many more investigators will be drawn to the building and it’s grounds to face ambush by local deputies and a night in the cells.
Trespassing can be potentially deadly too. Rachel Barezinsky is one such legend tripper who nearly faced death when her friends decided to take a look around a creepy old house near their Ohio highschool in 2006. She was barely out of the car when the owner of the property, 40 year old Allen S. Davis, began firing on them from an upstairs window. In Davis’ own words “I didn’t know what their weaponry was, what their intentions were. In a situation like that, you assume the worst-case scenario if you’re going to protect your family from a possible home invasion and murder.”
One .22 calibre hollow point round hit Rachel in the head, fragmenting in the right parietal region of the brain, transversing the right temporal lobe and the rear of the right frontal lobe. It then crossed the midline, and finally embedded itself in her left frontal lobe. It remains there to this day. A second lodged itself in her right shoulder and has also proven impossible to remove. She has undergone many surgeries and had a couple of close calls, but is said to be well on the road to a ninety percent recovery. Rachel beat the odds, and her family knows it, believing it to be some form of religious miracle.
Davis had been the victim of numerous teenage pranks before the shooting and claimed that he had acted only to defend his property. He was so incensed by the charges brought against him that he was quoted from his cell by local journalists as stating that “It’s really something how home-owners defend themselves and the way the laws are written, we’re the ones brought up on charges while the perpetrators get little or nothing.” Unsurprisingly, Davis would later be sentenced to a sixteen year jail term for his crime.
The risks involved when not bothering to take notice of the second rule, locational awareness, can be illustrated by the following tale revolving around the tragic death of 29 year old Leah Kubik. The incident in question occurred at the 130 plus year old Connaught medical research building owned by the University of Toronto. First dates have a tendency to be messy affairs in general, but few result in a seven storey fall to the cold, hard pavement below. This one did, however, costing the life of a prominent and well loved Canadian computer hacker and leaving her family and friends wondering what really happened. Indeed, her mother hotly disputed the fact that Leah was even ghost hunting at all.
But the police at the time treated the whole situation as one sparked by a morbid curiosity for things unseen, placing the resulting accident firmly in ghost hunting territory by association. Kubik and her unnamed date broke into the ivy clad building through an open window in 2009 to have a look around the site of a previous murder. This earlier crime involved a professor at the university who was found stabbed back in January 2001. Climbing the stairs to the roof the couple began to cross it, but the wire that they were holding on to snapped and the rest, as they say, is local folklore in the making. She supposedly died in his arms, and it soon became yet another death by misadventure chalked up to chasing spooks by torch light.
Then there is the accident in the abandoned winery on Clovis Avenue, California, in late 2013 that saw one of a group of several self confessed ghost hunters travel thirty feet from a rickety old walkway to the ground floor the quickest way possible. Thankfully, while a short stay in hospital resulted from the accident, the unnamed woman was not seriously hurt. Officer Curt Fleming, who was called to the location of the accident said the following when interviewed by local press: “It’s a spooky old building but I’m not sure what they were doing. Up to no good, goofing around that’s for sure.”
No further information on the case is available, so its safe to assume that the group were not charged with trespassing on private property, though the idea was certainly raised by police at the time. Based purely upon the above examples you would think that exploring outside would safer. No need to worry about crumbling walkways or long drops off of short buildings, and no lawsuits for being there after hours either. Unfortunately bad planning can cause even open air investigations to end in tragedy.
Such was the case with amateur ghost hunter Christopher Kaiser back in 2010. Kaiser and a dozen or so companions were waiting for the apparition of the Fast Mail, a train involved in one of the USA’s earliest rail disasters. Mounting the bridge near Buffalo Shoals Road in North Carolina back in 1881 the Fast Mail slipped from the tracks into the creek below, killing twenty people and injuring many more. As if to echo this previous tragedy, the small group of thrill seekers would face a similar fate when a very real train came to meet them in the small hours of the night.
This modern locomotive rounded the bend without sounding its horn. Many of them had moved on to the trestle itself by this point, and were taken completely by surprise without anywhere to go. By some miracle all but Kaiser made it off the bridge alive, most sporting minor injuries from their hurried escape along 150 foot of track. Sadly, it later came to light that he had only been struck by the train because he had slowed down to push his girlfriend to safety. Kaiser had realised that she was falling behind the rest of the startled ghost hunters and made a snap decision to put her safety above his own.
Of course, professional debunkers had a field day with this one, and as such it was featured in Skeptical Enquirer magazine and a slew of mainstream newspapers around the world. The story soon passed beyond simple journalism to become a short lived rallying cry for those who saw ghost hunting as something akin in danger level to wrestling a full grown Bengal tiger while wearing a bodysuit made of sirloin steak. Oddly, a second paranormal researcher would be killed by a train in early 2016 whilst looking for a legendary Kentucky Goatman on the Pope Lick Trestle, so it is obvious that the media campaign had little effect.
Ghost hunters have also been known to find dead bodies. Such was the case for the small group illegally exploring the abandoned Kuhn hospital in Vicksburg Mississippi. Following a trail of blood from inside the building they soon stumbled upon the corpse of sixty-nine year old homicide victim Sharon Wilson, who had been reported missing earlier that day. One suspect would later be charged for the crime and, in a bizarre twist, would be shot dead by his own hostages after escaping from prison. While such events are thankfully rare they do indeed happen, and it is safe to assume that this was not the sort of interaction with the dead that the group originally had in mind.
Worse, at least one woman was sexually assaulted during 2015 in the UK while following up a lead on her own in a supposedly haunted location. Her attacker, Desire Nahimana, was working at the Guildhall in Birmingham city centre as a security guard when he enticed the young woman up to the empty forth floor with stories of a suspected poltergeist. Once they were alone, he attempted to force himself upon her. Desire was jailed for six months, and the victim has since been unable to return to work due to the trauma caused by the whole sorry mess.
That last case neatly bridges the gap between the second rule and the third. This, as previously mentioned, revolves around knowing your companions, and being able to trust them in an otherwise extraordinary situation. Ghost hunters do snap, be it due to underlying mental instability or a growing unease as their lives become increasingly filled with the politics of the weird. In that they are no different to the participants in any other mentally taxing hobby, though there are usually many more people waiting to point their fingers and shake their heads when the ectoplasm hits the fan.
Take, for example, the strange tale of Steven Laursen Junior of Rhinelander, Wisconsin. A self inflicted stab wound would go on to ruin the investigation that he was taking part in at the Villisca Axe Murder House, Iowa, back in late 2014. Details of the events still remain sketchy at best, especially as he has refused to comment further since his recovery. What we do know, however, is that Laursen took up a solitary vigil within the Northwest bedroom of the property before thrusting a knife into his own chest in a manner that has left the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department baffled.
A frantic yell for help brought his companions, some of whom had paid anything up to $428 for the privilege of spending the night inside what is generally considered to be one of the most paranormally active locations in the USA, to his aid. None of those subsequently questioned know why he did it, though some speculated spectral foul play of course.
The timing of this bizarre self mutilation coincided perfectly with that of the original murders in the house, a vicious crime from way back in 1912 that was never solved. Mental instability can not be ruled out, however. Nor can the power of being caught up in the moment and egged on by the tales tied to a particular location. This is especially true of one as notorious as the Axe Murder House has recently become through the power of television spook shows and YouTube videos of varying historical accuracy.
Or the case of the seven men who faced lengthy jail terms for arson of the Historic LeBeau Mansion near New Orleans in 2013. Drunk, high and with their efforts to summon the shades of whatever was supposed to haunt the sadly derelict pre-Civil War edifice failing miserably, the mood of the group turned toxic. It was then that their ringleader, Dusten Davenport, turned their attention to burning the building to the ground wholesale. Sadly, in this they succeeded. No one was hurt in the ensuing blaze that could be seen for miles around and had little chance of being brought under control by local emergency services.
This was a miracle in itself as the LeBeau had long been a regular hang out for troubled teens and the local homeless community, any one of which could have been hiding inside as the flames took hold. And these were not stupid kids either. Those involved in the arson ranged in age from seventeen year old Jerry Hamblen, to the aforementioned Dusten who was thirty-one at the time of arrest, and as such should have known better. Just how involved the other six people were in the events at the LeBeau is debatable, but they have all paid the price for the near $50,000 worth of damage done that night.
While Dusten and his circle of friends may not have been what we would consider an organised paranormal investigation group, they perhaps better represent the real grass roots of ghost hunting than shows like Ghost Adventures will ever do. Most of us started as bored teenagers looking for a thrill after sunset. While we would never burn a building to the ground due to lack of results, many of us are guilty of trespassing, hunting alone and not doing a daylight walk around of the location before diving right in.
Who knows just how many of our fellow ghost hunters have been added to the missing persons list of their local town or city because they ventured out at night, all alone and ill prepared to trespass within the very grounds of the building that now houses their still undiscovered body? Even if they are found, the exact details of the freak accident or foul play that befell them will likely never be known to the public, their friends or family, or even the wider paranormal community. Closure will not be forthcoming, and those they leave behind will question just what possessed them to do such a stupid thing in the first place.
Yes, paranormal investigation can indeed be a dangerous hobby, but one that is made all the safer by the application of some basic common sense. Unfortunately, if the numerous news reports mentioned within this article are anything to go by, common sense is harder to find than a free floating full torso vaporous apparition at the New York public library.