Attracted to the Unexplainable

By Matthew R. Humphrey ’17

There’s a growing fascination around things that go bump in the night. Whether a believer or skeptic, it’s hard to escape the onslaught of TV programs and tourist attractions centered on ghosts, spirits, and paranormal activity.

This developing phenomenon intrigued Dr. Matthew Ramsey, associate professor of human communication studies, after a host of shows appeared in the mid- to late- 2000s, such as Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, Paranormal State, Psychic Kids: Children of the Paranormal, and others. “It felt like each week a new ghost hunting show was being introduced. As a result, I decided to design a quasi-experimental research project to attempt to gain insight into the increased interest in the paranormal.”

Ramsey’s study, “The Perceived Paranormal and Source Credibility: The Effects of Narrative Suggestions on Paranormal Belief ” had two goals. “One, I wanted to see if I could manipulate people’s belief in the paranormal via narratives. Two, I wanted to see if source credibility—how credible a person appears to be—would affect people’s belief in the paranormal.”

He found that people were willing to believe in unverifiable and potentially fallacious stories if a source’s testimony seemed credible and the story truthful. Ramsey has since completed a more “methodologically robust” replication and extension of this study that he’s editing and preparing for publication.

Even the skeptics can see benefits to the paranormal trend. Dan Rebert ’89m is the videoconferencing specialist at Ship. He lives in Gettysburg, a hub for all things paranormal, or “spook central,” to quote Ghostbusters. Rebert’s theory on the crop of latest ghost stories: “It’s all made up. I grew up in this area, and we never heard any of this until recently.”

Fake or not, Rebert doesn’t see it as a bad thing. “I don’t believe in any of it, but it’s definitely a positive thing. It’s brought a lot of tourism and money into Gettysburg, and I’m all for that.”

On the Hunt  

Unexplainable events attract plenty of curious people. Amanda Cruickshanks ’19, an art major, has always been interested in the paranormal. “While growing up I always heard stories my pappy would tell. Ghost stories, Big Foot, and everything. Back in the 1960s and 1970s he would
go hunting and take horses up into the mountains in Montana. He’d hear these crazy noises and experience all kinds of unexplainable things. It just intrigued me. He’s the kind of guy that wouldn’t lie about something like that. Then later, I got into all of the TV shows.”

During winter break of her freshman year, Cruickshanks’ interest in the paranormal led her and some friends to a ghost hunt in Gettysburg. Instead of paying too much for the “big, clichéd ghost hunts,” the group discovered the Keystone Paranormal Investigation Association (KPIA) and contacted founder Ashley Brennan. “We wanted to use equipment and go out to places that people don’t normally go to. ... We thought the tour was going to be eight or ten people, but it ended up being just my two friends and me.”

Brennan, who has appeared on The Travel Channel’s Most Haunted series, showed Cruickshanks and her friends how to use the ghost hunting equipment. “I was never really skeptical, because I always believed in the paranormal, but I still wanted that one solid evidence-based experience to solidify my belief. That first hunt helped to convince me.”

Cruickshanks became so intrigued by her first hunt that she kept in contact with Brennan and is now an investigator/team member with KPIA. Brennan started KPIA to help those who encounter paranormal activity, and she offers services such as investigations, personal cleansings, and house cleansings.

“I’ve experienced so many incredible things since becoming a member of KPIA,” Cruickshanks said. “Ashley explained to me how people who are more open to everything are so much more receptive to spirits reacting to you and interacting with you.”

One of Cruickshanks’ most memorable experiences with KPIA took place in Pottsville. A few years ago, a woman called KPIA to investigate her home shortly after her husband committed suicide. The husband had flown into a violent rage the night of his suicide and was described by the woman as being “possessed.” Ongoing paranormal incidents at the woman’s house led to continuing investigations. 

“When we arrived at the house, the first thing I noticed was that all of the doors and entryways were salted. I knew it was something serious, because I’d never seen anything like that before,” she said.

“We had all of our equipment set up: tripods, cameras, laser sensors... We also had our home base set up with all of our laptop computers and monitors showing all of the rooms. We made sure all of the doors were locked and that there was no one else in the building but us.”

The final nail in her coffin of doubt occurred not long after that. “We hadn’t started investigating, trying to ask questions, or anything like that. All of a sudden out of nowhere it was so clear, so loud, and so heavy. It sounded like a 300-pound man wearing heavy boots stomping through the living room right behind us. The space between the back of our chairs and the wall was probably just enough so that you could back out and walk away.”

When it comes to encountering ghosts and the paranormal, Cruickshanks said, “It’s really a weird feeling because all at the same time you’re terrified, you’re excited, and you’re intrigued. In my case at least,it made me want to learn more and more. And I do every timeI go on a hunt.”

Seeing is Believing

Whether you believe in the paranormal or not, there are practical applications for the techniques used in ghost hunting.

Dr. Jeremy Olson ’97m is an assistant professor of criminal justice administration at Mansfield University. He was intrigued by the paranormal as an undergraduate student in a physics class, particularly when the topic of string theory came up. “I became interested in the idea that there may be things out there that we simply can’t see because we don’t have the equipment. Fast forward several years, and that turned into my interest in paranormal activity and paranormal investigation.”

While teaching a class on serial killers at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Olson began working with the university’s archivist Bill Black. Black and his family are members of Ghost Researchers in Pennsylvania (GRIP).

“We got to talking about how we might incorporate ghost hunting into the context of a criminal justice investigation. They invited me along to see how these investigations work with an experienced group,” Olson said.

He tagged along for a ghost hunt and was stunned at what he saw. “The very first investigation I went on, I’m listening to them asking questions, I’m looking at the teamwork, I’m looking at the planning process, the equipment they’re using, the analysis they’re doing... I’m thinking, ‘Holy crap! This goes right along with a criminal justice investigation as far as the skill set.’ It’s the same sort of analysis, critical thinking, questioning, and trying to get the big picture of what’s going on.”

After working with Black and GRIP several times, Olson made ghost hunting a mandatory part of the course The Dark Side of Crime to teach introductory profiling. “The students absolutely loved it. The investigations were on a Saturday night outside of normal class time, so students had to put things aside to take part. By the end of the class when they had to present their findings, they could connect this to ideas of profiling in criminal justice.”

Olson felt the class was on to something, so they completed as many investigations as they could. The class eventually presented in Gettysburg for the Pennsylvania College English Association showing the collaboration between two universities by using ghost hunting in a profiling class. “I’ve also presented at a few national criminal justice conferences on the subject. Classes eventually got to the point where over half the students aren’t even criminal justice majors.”

An Eerie Education

Ghost stories can certainly enhance history in an educational setting, according to John Walsh ’01, an English language arts teacher in the North Schuylkill School District. When he began volunteering for the Schuylkill County Historical Society almost three years ago, he proposed the idea of educating students through interactive presentations on local history. He’s covered the Molly Maguires and breaker boys, the Pottsville Maroons’ stolen 1925 NFL Championship, ethnic foods of the county, and Schuylkill County legends, lore, and ghost stories.

“The ghost stories have been the most popular by far. I would say I have done that program about fifteen times over the last year-and-a-half.”

These presentations are so popular that Walsh received requests to do them over the summer and to take them on the road to other area schools. “Normally, students begin by participating in a scavenger hunt throughout our museum. This hands-on experience seems to pique their interests.”

After the scavenger hunts, students go to the society’s community room where a campfire-like setting is created. The students take a seat around the “fire” to build an eerie mood. “Students need to know the background of the story to fully understand why there is a legend or ghost story connected to it. I then select six or seven stories to tell. It’s a fun way to teach history and for the students to learn.”

Word spread, and members of the community requested that these programs become publicly available. “I proposed the idea of developing a haunted history walk through the downtown section of Pottsville. The society’s executive director and president liked the idea, and we began to collaborate and research stories,” Walsh said. “The cool part is, all of the stories told are historically based. It’s a collection of murders, curses, hexes, hangings, ghosts, and even one story in which a son made the grisly decision to mummify his mother.

“I’m just happy the stories are based on historical accounts. I don’t think I could make up stories this macabre even if I tried.”

Walsh is particularly thrilled with the idea of the haunted history walk because it will help with revitalization efforts in Pottsville and will benefit the historical society. “The more people we bring into the city for tourism and activities, the better,” he said. “The historical society is a nonprofit, so every single penny helps support the society and enables us to offer more programs and activities for the public.”

For those curiosity seekers itching to explore, Olson offers some advice. “I’ve been on something like thirty to fifty ghost hunts and have been going on Big Foot hunts for thirty years. I can maybe count on one hand the number of times we ran into something we couldn’t explain. Going on a ghost hunt isn’t like on TV where you get five different bits of definitive proof every single investigation. ...Most of the time when you’re on an investigation you’re sitting at a table, sitting in a room, talking with a whole lot of nothing happening.”

“If you want to do this because you want it to be like on TV, it’s going to be nothing like that. But, if you want to spend time trying to figure out how to explain some very difficult things, then you’re in for a lot of fun.” 

Matthew R. Humphrey ’17 is an intern for SU Magazine.