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At The Atlantic Paranormal Society (T.A.P.S. for short), we typically start our investigations with a question: Does this case merit our attention? The answer is usually dependent on a second question: Does the person who believes he or she has paranormal activity truly need our help? That's our primary goal to help.
If people think they've seen a ghost, heard an unexplained noise, or found things moved out of place and they're concerned about it, we'll pack up our vehicles, bring in our equipment to document the activity, and, if necessary, even bless the place. We do believe there are supernatural entities, both benign and destructive, but before we accept that a house or building is haunted we check out every possible angle.
I'm inclined to be especially sensitive to those clients who see paranormal phenomena and believe they're losing their minds, as I'll explain in a moment. But the decision to go on a job is not mine alone. It involves my partner, Grant Wilson, as well. Grant and I developed T.A.P.S. together, so we rely on each other's perspectives. He's like a brother to me and has been almost from the day we met.
At the time, I was twenty-two, a couple of years removed from my first paranormal experience. At the age of twenty, I had gotten involved with a lady who practiced Reiki, a Japanese technique for stress reduction, relaxation, and healing that depends on the manipulation of a person's life-force energy.
At first, I was skeptical about the idea of life-force energy. Then, after six months or so of exposure to the technique, I started seeing things. Usually it started with a mist, out of which emanated a dim light, and then out of the light came other things including see-through animals and full-body human apparitions.
I would point them out to whoever was with me, but no one else seemed to see them. They looked at me like I was crazy, and frankly, that was how I looked at myself. I felt like I was honestly and truly losing my mind.
It was scary as all get-out. I didn't know where to turn. Then a friend introduced me to a guy named John Zaffis, who was known as a paranormal researcher in Connecticut. Zaffis ran some tests and determined that I was becoming sensitive to paranormal phenomena.
That was a whole lot better than going crazy, but it was far from comforting. I was still seeing things I didn't want to see. And Zaffis, who lived three hours away, couldn't work with me as often as I would have liked. At his suggestion, I started the Rhode Island Paranormal Society, which came to be known as RIPS.
It wasn't a ghost-hunting organization like T.A.P.S., at least not at first. It was more of a support group. I was trying to connect with people who had gone through experiences similar to mine, hoping they could help me deal with my sensitivity and shut it off. I ended up meeting people all right, many more than I would have imagined.
But none of them knew how to help me.
Then, one day in the aquarium at Mystic, Connecticut, a woman in her fifties came up to me out of nowhere and asked in a tender, almost intimate way, "How are you doing?"
It was a strange question to ask someone she had never met. Before I could answer her, she continued. "Hon," she said, "you're seeing things, I know. But you can make it stop. Try green olives. I'll see you again soon." Then she walked away. I was too dumbfounded to stop her and ask her how she knew about my problem.
Stranger still, the green olive approach worked. I ate those suckers all day long, a bottle a day, and the visions I'd been having went away. I wasn't cured for life, because whenever I stopped eating olives the visions came back. But at least I had found a way to alleviate the symptoms.
In the meantime, my RIPS group had taken on a life of its own, blustering its way into graveyards and abandoned buildings with a couple of cameras, a tape recorder, and a whole lot of optimism. We caught a few EVPs now and then, but I can't say they were anything of merit.
EVPs, by the way, are electronic voice phenomena. When a ghost hunter enters a room, he always asks any paranormal entity for a sign of its presence. Even if an entity is there, listening, and inclined to answer, its response isn't always audible to the human ear. Sometimes it can only be picked up on a sound recording device and discovered later on, when you're going over your tapes or digital impressions.
EVPs have been part of the paranormal investigator's repertoire since their inadvertent discovery in the 1950s by a man recording birdsongs. To his surprise, he got human voices instead.
The other thing RIPS seemed to capture a lot was orb activity. An orb is a round, translucent, mobile packet of energy thought to signal supernatural activity in some way. However, people often mistake naturally occurring phenomena like dust, bugs, light reflections, and condensation for orbs. It wasn't at all uncommon for someone in RIPS to "prove" a haunting because he had caught some "orbs" with his camera, when in fact they'd been floating particles of dust and there hadn't been a ghost within fifty miles of the place.
RIPS also visited some homes, responding to residents who wanted to know if they were living with supernatural entities. I remember one Connecticut case in particular not because of any significant paranormal activity but because while I was there I ran into the woman I had met in the Mystic aquarium. Like us, she was checking out the house for signs of haunting.
It was a strange moment. But then, she had said we would meet again. I made sure to thank her for the olive idea.
About that same time, I got a call from a guy who had seen our rinky-dink RIPS website and said he could improve on it, make it nicer-looking and more functional. In fact, he was willing to redesign it for free. He just wanted to add it to his portfolio so he could get other work in the future.
It was a hard deal to beat. I met with him at a local place called Bess Eaton Doughnuts. I remember him bringing his good friend Chris. I also remember wondering if it wasreally the website he wanted to talk about, because theconversation kept drifting off in the direction of personal experiences with the paranormal.
It was outside the doughnut place, as we were talking alongside my Subaru, that the guy finally came clean. He had had an experience of his own a recurring one, from the time he was fifteen until he turned seventeen and went to college. An intense experience in the heavily wooded part of Rhode Island where he had been raised. And every once in a while, the experience still popped up.
The guy was Grant Wilson.
His friend Chris verified everything he said, mentioning tests he and Grant's other friends had put him through to determine if his experience had been real. I'd be more specific, but Grant doesn't like to say much about what happened. It's kind of a touchy subject with him.
Anyway, our conversation left the parking lot and continued in my living room. We sat there for hours discussing our philosophies about the paranormal, and we found a lot of common ground. This went on for days, then weeks. Finally I said, "Screw the rest of what's out there," referring to other ghost hunters and their methods. "Let's do it our way."
You see, most groups then like now were running around saying everything is haunted. They didn't worry about collecting evidence. They just walked into people's houses, got in touch with their feelings, and decided there were ghostly presences afoot. In fact, they never found a place that wasn't haunted.
Grant and I insisted on a more rational approach. Before we would ever say a place was home to a supernatural entity, we needed to have proof. It was a significant departure. And it was on that basis that we founded T.A.P.S. both of us, because the idea was as much Grant's as mine.
Grant said it best: "If you set out to prove a haunting, anything will seem like evidence. If you set out to disprove it, you'll end up with only those things you can't explain away."
Right from the beginning, we found people with similar philosophies. Our T.A.P.S. website (designed by Grant, of course) got two hundred hits a day, at a time when that was a pretty impressive number. And the total kept climbing. Two years later, we were up to two thousand hits a day.
Other groups looked for publicity, seeking out the media on Halloween and so on. We never did that. But we still wound up building a substantial network of like-minded ghost hunters, people who were inclined to approach the supernatural with a certain amount of discrimination.
And soon we weren't just getting calls from people in the New England area. People were reaching out to us from California and Michigan and Louisiana. Unfortunately, we didn't have the money to travel out there and help them, and we also didn't have reliable contacts in other parts of the country to whom we could refer them..
Grant and I decided that in order to extend our contact network, we first had to separate the people who saw things our way from those who didn't, and the best way to do that was by being controversial. So we put up an article on our website that essentially said orbs were trash.
Now, orbs were really popular in those days. Hearing they were insignificant was, for some people, a slap in the face. They railed back at us, telling us we were crazy, and the battle was on. The paranormal field was polarized almost overnight.
But we found the people we were looking for.
The first one was Al Tyas at D.C. Metro Area Ghost Watchers (affectionately known as D.C. MAG). Al saw things the way we did and became a big part of the T.A.P.S. extended family. We got support from other places as well, across the country and even overseas. People from Europe, Asia, and Australia were contacting us to thank us for taking a stand.
As our network continued to expand and our organization grew, Grant and I cut a deal. He would take care of the creative and technical facets of our organization, areas where he's the undisputed king. I would handle the management and business aspects. Among my responsibilities was making sure we brought the right people into our group on Rhode Island.
One was Brian Harnois. When he first showed up, he was like a big kid, full of that gee-whiz kind of passion, and he had already formed his own ghost-hunting group of three to four people. He believed in orbs, vampires, you name it, but he was also a clean-living guy who didn't mind rolling up his sleeves and doing the dirty work.
The more he got to know T.A.P.S., the more he liked what we were doing. Before long, he convinced his group to join us. As it turned out, Brian was the only one of them who ended up sticking with us.
Anyone who has seen Ghost Hunters is familiar with Brian's shortcomings. For one thing, he likes to spin yarns (also known as lies), and it drives us crazy. All he really wants to do is make people like him, but it backfires.
He used to be our case manager, a job we gave himbecause of his enthusiasm. As such, he was the one who fielded calls from people in distress. He brought to each case the organization you'd expect from a former member of the military police, but he also got on our nerves mine in particular.
Brian is easily excitable, thinks everyone needs immediate help, and never considers the distance we're going to have to travel before he commits us to an investigation. Also, he's perpetually wide-eyed about ghosts. Just the sight of what looks like an orb on a videotape can make him declare a place is haunted.
On the other hand, Brian's enthusiasm has a plus side: it drives his work ethic, and I can count on him to see to the equipment. Well... usually. There was the time he forgot the chairs for an all-nighter at a lighthouse, and at another site he somehow lost an expensive piece of technology.
But at heart, he's okay. I know he's dedicated to our mission. And we're a family, so we forgive each other's mistakes. Sometimes it's my job to remind everyone of that.
Carl Johnson joined T.A.P.S. around the same time as Brian. Carl is a suave, well-mannered, articulate retail salesman who also happens to be a demonologist. By the time he came to us, he had already racked up years of experience investigating the paranormal. He had a habit of bringing a briefcase with him everywhere he went, which wouldn't have been so weird if it hadn't been empty half the time.
We were pleased to have Carl on hand, and even more pleased when his twin brother, Keith, came aboard. Keith is a born-again Christian and much more religious than his brother. He's also a walking encyclopedia. We'll be driving to an investigation with him and pass a college campus, and suddenly he'll sing me the school song, or relate some obscure fact about the second cousin of the school's founder.
"How did you know that?" I'll ask. And he'll tell me it was a Jeopardy! question back in March of 1983. On the other hand, he's also prone to giving long explanations of things when short ones will do, and his voice is so soothing it can put you to sleep.
Then there's Steve Gonsalves, a police officer from western Massachusetts. The first time we spoke to him on the phone, he asked to join T.A.P.S. We liked what he had to say and how he said it. The problem was he lived two hours away. We advised him to start his own group instead.
For a while, we lost track of the guy. Then we heard about this New England paranormal group that was doing great work in Springfield, Massachusetts maybe even better work than we were. When we contacted them, thinking we could learn from each other, we found out their leader was Steve Gonsalves!
He's since become a part of our primary investigative team, but he still runs New England Paranormal as a member of the T.A.P.S. extended family. Steve's a real down-to-earth, dependable guy. As you'll see, we trust him one hundred percent even if he does have a few inconvenient phobias. Fortunately, one thing he's not afraid of is ghosts.
Donna LaCroix, another mainstay of our organization, came to us about four years ago. An environmental engineer, she had gone to high school with Grant and was looking for help with some paranormal experiences she'd had growing up. Grant talked her through her issues on the phone. Before he was done, she was asking to join the group.
It was a good thing. Donna turned out to be a whiz at case management. She came in and reorganized the whole process. She's also accompanied us on quite a few cases. She doesn't like to hold equipment, and it's a constant struggle to move her into the realm of the scientific, but she looks after us when we're on the road, making sure we eat right and that we go to bed when we should.
Donna has shown a clear sensitivity to the supernatural, so she gives us another perspective in an investigation. She's also a terrific interviewer, not only in terms of her ability to sympathize with the victim but also because she can smell a fabrication a mile away and we've run into our share of fabrications.
Of course, there's more to T.A.P.S. than the team I lead with my buddy Grant. We have another fifteen members in Rhode Island and probably the same amount conducting investigations for Steve Gonsalves in Massachusetts. They're the ones who work behind the scenes, taking care of the confidential cases we would never show on television.
The arrangement works for them because their jobs prohibit them from being publicly associated with a paranormal group. These people work for NASA, the CIA, and the FBI. They include a forensic scientist, a nuclear physicist, and even a Secret Service agent, but they're so dedicated to ghost hunting they don't mind doing it anonymously.
So T.A.P.S. has plenty of talent we can bring to bear, and plenty of experience. But the heart of the organization is still my partner Grant, whom I affectionately call G.W. He's the one who designed our investigative protocol. He's also the one who gets the lay of the land in each case, making sure before we set anything up that we know where cold drafts may enter, where noises may originate, and what obstacles may exist. After all, we have to operate in the dark, and expectation and excitement can make people careless.
Grant's always questioning what people think they see or hear. One thing he notices in the correspondence we get is how often people claim they've captured the faces of demons in their photos. This is often the result of "matrixing," or the tendency of the human brain to see familiar features in complex shapes or colors. (That also goes for hearing voices in ordinary sounds.)
Pictures that contain complex shapes and variations are the most likely candidates for the overactive imagination, Grant's discovered, as are "features" that look like those of cartoon characters. He has art training, so he can tell right away if something has the right proportions to be a face. He advises others to keep this in mind when trying to decide if a mysterious image in a photo is a human expression.
And of course, there's always the possibility that a photo has been faked. Digital photography has made deception easier and more prevalent, so we're extra careful about reportedly demonic or apparitional photographs.
Grant's driving passion is to make paranormal investigations more scientifically acceptable. Me? Even with the evidence in front of me, I'm pretty skeptical. So we balance each other out.
"What makes us click," Grant once observed of our partnership, "is that we're total opposites." He sees me as the doer the brawn of the team and the stick to his carrot. We're at different ends of the interpersonal relations spectrum. When I'm annoyed with someone, he can show up and mix in some understanding. And when he's soft with people, I don't hesitate to say so.
Grant and I are also partners in a different way. We work together as plumbers for Roto-Rooter, the largest provider of plumbing and drain cleaning services in North America. If you own a home, there's a good chance you've used Roto-Rooter at some time in your life.
I got into the business first, then brought Grant in as well. At first he was reluctant because he was trying to build a career for himself in computers. Now he's grateful that I got him into the right kind of hardware the kind that involves a wrench and a long copper pipe.
Come to think of it, that's two good turns he owes me for.