3AM, Banshee, Part 2

3AM, Banshee, Part 2

Oct 25

[In September 2008, Jeff Stolarcyk participated in a professional paranormal investigation. He survived, and this is his unvarnished account of the incident. A version of this essay appears in Grok #3 – Nameless Horror.]

There are at least two major groups of ‘ghost hunters’ in Northeastern Pennsylvania; Joe’s group is the one I’m most familiar with. As I helped the crew – team leader Joe and his investigatorsTony and Jeff – set up their equipment, I took the opportunity to talk shop with them, camcorder in hand.  They run down what each of the cameras, recorders and meters does, what bells and whistles each has, and how each piece of gear is used in documenting or disproving a haunting.  All of the equipment they use comes out of their own pockets, and they don’t charge clients for investigations or canvas for donations.  Even after an hour with them, it’s clear that they’re not doing this to make money, get famous, or sign a TV deal.  During one of our conversations, Joe even admits that he suffers a lot of teasing from his coworkers.  “But later, I’ll be alone with them in the break room, and those same people will be asking me for advice or asking about something they saw or heard,” he says with a smirk.

The group is amicable and frank, joking with me about the super-serious youths on A&E’s collegiate reality series Paranormal State. “We are now entering Dead Time,” Jeff jokes in allusion to the show. They talk about conducting an investigation with TAPS, the ghost hunters on SyFy’s aptly named Ghost Hunters; Joe doesn’t divulge any details out of respect for the other team, but he does remark that there are concessions made for the television audience. Over Cokes in the barroom (none of us are imbibing alcohol), we talk about their recent investigations at Fort Mifflin near Philadelphia and at Andy Gavin’s, another Irish pub in Scranton. Earlier in the week, Joe emailed me a collection of EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena – phantom voices on digital recordings) from Gavin’s, the most striking of which is a husky, Irish-brogued voice that seems to be counting, though it’s far from crystal clear sound. The voice is warm and jocular, and according to anecdotal evidence from the Gavin’s owner, the speaker is a former employee – an unlikely proposition, considering the man in question is dead.

Joe became involved with paranormal research after a personal experience that he couldn’t explain. Like me, though, Tony and Jeff are simply lifelong horror buffs out to satisfy their curiosity about the paranormal.  The team is passionate about its work, but it’s also rational, and Joe reminds me several times that their primary goal is to debunk as much of a reported haunting as possible. Far from being crackpots or wild goose chasers, the investigators are methodical and skeptical. Maybe more importantly, they are each normal guys with day jobs and families doing this to learn something about the nature of the world.

That doesn’t mean they haven’t had personal experiences, though. On a recent investigation at Fort Mifflin, near Philadelphia, Tony was accosted by an unfriendly entity. ‘Entity’ is the term they use for ‘ghost’. “We’re not certain what they are,” Tony tells me as we check camera batteries and set up equipment. “They could be ghosts, or elementals, or maybe even something demonic. We don’t know.” But Tony, like the others on the team, and like the home and business owners that invite the group to investigate claims of supernatural activity, believes that something is out there.

We have recording equipment on each of the Banshee’s floors – the main dining area on the ground floor, the private party room on the second floor where many report seeing an apparition of a small girl, the attic which is mostly used for storage, and the basement – where the majority of experiences befall the Banshee’s employees. “Whatever is upstairs here is not malicious,” the waitress who pushed for the paranormal investigation tells us, “but the thing in the basement is.” She tells us that she’s been shoved by the basement entity and has a distinct feeling of being watched whenever she’s in the room. It was a feeling I had minutes earlier when I was shadowing Tony and Jeff. I held my tongue.

In addition to the little girl in the white dress, there is also a man in a black suit and hat. He’s been spotted on the stairwells to the second floor and basement, and according to one story, a young boy was found wandering in the basement, claiming “the man in the black hat” beckoned him to follow. In the boy’s version of events, the man in the black hat was carrying a rope. What nobody knows about these apparitions is how they are related to each other, to the presence in the basement, or to the history of the structure they haunt.

The building where the Banshee stands now was not always a pub. Prior to its current life, the building was a department store, and its identity before that is something of a mystery to me. The waitresses claim that, during an epidemic at the turn of the century – TB, flu, yellow fever, depending on who you talk to – the basement of the Banshee was used to store corpses from a nearby hospital. At the time of the investigation, no evidence had been uncovered that this ever actually happened, but the story has managed to become a potent part of the pub’s lore among the employees.

Once all the patrons had cleared out for the night, the investigation team and I got started. I went to the second floor with Joe and Tony. Jeff took the basement by himself.

When Joe told me we were going to try to use a Ouija board, I was almost ecstatic. Almost. Pop culture has set us against the things since, well, forever. I also knew from the Witchboard movies that sometimes what comes through the board is worse than a ghost, but I also told myself to keep an open mind.

The Ouija isn’t a standard part of a ghost hunter’s arsenal; Joe’s brought it along to see what will happen. He attempted the same experiment at a prior investigation and got surprisingly active results. Aside from a few tics, bumps and jumps, the board’s planchette stays silent and immobile after nearly an hour of questioning. If the Banshee is haunted, its spirits did not want to communicate with us.

In the quiet dark, we asked questions without expecting answers and trained our cameras on the blackness, searching for electronic proof. Earlier in the night, one of the team remarked that ghost hunting was incredibly boring except for the short bursts in which interesting things happened, and it was so true that the act of waiting became painful.

That’s when Jeff, clearly spooked, asked for extra help in the basement.

Trailing behind Tony, we dropped our hands off of the planchette, snatched up our flashlights and hustled from the 2nd floor through the barroom and down into the basement. I half expected something to grab me as I rushed out of the stairwell; nothing did. Jeff was safe, though he had been rattled pretty badly by the sound of a breaking bottle.  Using our lights to scan the room, we couldn’t find any trace of the broken bottle until we found two employees still hanging around, one of whom had dropped a bottle while taking out the night’s trash.  Our first scare of the night had been debunked.

That brings up back to three AM in the basement.  After our first sweep of the basement, we found an inexplicable EMF hot spot in the middle of the basement’s front room.  We also discovered that all of the cameras and recorders set up in that room were now either dead or nearly out of power, despite everything being fully charged before we started only a few hours ago.  My own handheld recorder was behaving erratically, but still had full power.  We started questioning and monitoring the responses we’d get on the meters.  I’m not going to say we were communicating with something, but I will say the timing of the spikes and beeps on the meter were definitely intriguing.

After a cursory walk through the rest of the building, the entire team gathered in the basement to try another EVP session.  It’s three AM, and the temperature in the basement is dropping rapidly. It’s gone from 65 degrees down to 52 over a period of thirty minutes. To my right, Joe asks, “Are you a male entity?” No answer.

“Make the device go off twice for yes,” he instructs we-don’t-know-who, motioning to the meter placed on the floor two meters away from any of the four of us. Within thirty seconds, one beep sounds in the silence, followed after a pause by another. Two lights.

“Are there other entities in this room with you?” we had already asked it. Beep Beep. Two lights.

“Is there an evil entity in this room?” Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep; no delay at all. All the lights are bright and steady.

Using this schema, we confirmed that the male entity’s name began with the letter Q, and that he had a daughter who was here with him.  In the best of circumstances, thorough research can corroborate these details, but the consistent problem of  this investigation has been a lack of reliable history to refer to. Perhaps with a few hours of library time we might be able to nail down a more accurate history of the premises or look deeper into what could be a clue or erratic behavior caused by an unshielded line.

My initial instinct about the investigation is to say that whatever has happened in The Banshee to the waitresses is most likely the result of them scaring each other with ghost stories.  But what happened in the basement isn’t easily explainable.  Was it all a fluke?  Possibly.  We didn’t see any apparitions, didn’t hear any voices, and didn’t experience any poltergeist activity; the Ouija planchette did not move on its own.  Though none of the events that earmark a movie haunting manifested themselves, there’s still research to be done on the hours of film, audio and photographs that were taken during the investigation to be combed through and they could likely contain spectral images or EVP, and analyzing that data takes longer than a commercial break.  As always, reality is never as glamorous as reality TV, but it can be just as rewarding.  Accordingly, the trio of investigators confess to a certain boyish glee whenever they can find a piece of evidence they can’t explain away, bringing them one step closer to finding out what really is out there.

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