Unexplained flickering lights, ominous cold spots, things that go bump in the night – we know the clues.
Hollywood has taught us those familiar signs of a haunted house, everybody’s favorite Halloween abode.
But what if those spirits tend to stick around all year? That’s the kind of paranormal activity that interests Dave Bender.
“People email me: ‘My house is haunted,’ ” said Bender, co-founder of Capital City Paranormal, a volunteer group dedicated to investigating such unusual occurrences. “I write back, ‘Great! What do you want me to do about it?’ ”
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Bender and his colleagues are ghost hunters, dedicated to solving spirited mysteries. To skeptics, their pastime may sound crazy or at least out of this world. But the Sacramento area is fertile ground for such unexplained phenomenon, with about a dozen active groups devoted to the study of paranormal activity. Most likely due to its Gold Rush roots, this region has a rich (and documented) history of hauntings, including the historic Governor’s Mansion now under renovation. But spirit activity doesn’t need a house to haunt; its energy can inhabit any landscape.
“It’s not just the big old Victorian houses,” said Erin Kelly, Capital City’s investigation team leader. “It has nothing to do with the age of the house. Any building could be haunted. It’s not the structure; it’s the land where it was built.”
Spirits tend to gravitate to places they enjoyed, such as their homes, say the ghost hunters. Movie theaters, opera houses, parks and restaurants are popular with spirits, too. Locally, the Woodland Opera House, Old Sacramento and Sacramento’s McKinley Park are well-known haunts.
And it may not be just dead people doing the haunting. Ghostly cats, dogs, horses, even lions have showed up during local investigations.
Ann Bender, Dave’s wife, recounts the case of a 1970s house off Watt Avenue. Wild animal noises prompted a call by the home’s residents to the ghost hunters.
“During our investigation, I saw a lion jumping,” said Ann Bender, who is sensitive to spirit activity. “I was shocked! I thought I lost it.”
No, it wasn’t a flesh-and-blood man-eater, but maybe its spirit. Research found that the former landowners kept a menagerie of lions, tigers and bears in the backyard, Dave Bender said. “One lion apparently decided to stick around.”
According to a Huffington Post poll, 45 percent of Americans say they believe in ghosts or that spirits of dead people can come back in certain places and situations. A CBS poll showed 22 percent of those surveyed had seen a ghost or felt some paranormal activity.
Bender, who teaches “Ghost Hunting 101” via the Learning Exchange in Sacramento, approaches possible hauntings with an open mind. “I’m Native American,” he said. “Talking about ghosts and spirits is very normal for my family. My Uncle Dan was a medicine man in Montana.”
Long departed from this world, Uncle Dan also likes to sit in on Bender’s class, interrupting Power Point presentations and messing with computer programs.
“He’s here tonight,” Bender said as his laptop refused to work properly. “He’s a relentless prankster.”
Students in his class often are seeking explanations for their own encounters. Vicky Gonzales of Citrus Heights related her tale of a haunted outhouse she experienced as a child in Mexico.
“I didn’t know what it was,” Gonzales said of a shadowy presence. “There was this dark figure, taller than me, close to me in the outhouse. When I tried to touch it – whoosh! It was gone.”
A ghost hunter for 17 years, Bender originally founded the nonprofit group American Paranormal Investigations, but it was overwhelmed with requests from all over the world.
“It was too much,” said Ann Bender. “We were doing two investigations a week. We needed a break.”
After a short detour into other pastimes, the Benders felt pulled back to ghost hunting and formed Capital City Paranormal. Their all-volunteer team conducts its investigations without charge.
“When I first started out, I wanted everybody to believe it,” Dave Bender said. “But people will believe what they’re going to believe. We shifted our focus to just gathering evidence, and then letting people decide for themselves.”
As the calendar counts down to Halloween, October tends to be the busiest time for ghost hunters.
“The phone starts ringing off the hook,” said Robert Reppert of Diamond Springs-based Gold Rush Ghosts, the nation’s oldest group of ghost hunters. “We spend a lot of time disproving hauntings. But some people do want something there.”
Reppert has studied paranormal activity since 1982 in his hometown of Placerville.
“During the Gold Rush, 5 million people came here,” Reppert said. “That’s a lot of people in one small area. So many people lost their lives. ... It really charged the area with energy.”
Concentrating on local phenomena, Gold Rush Ghosts started its formal investigations in 1995. Reppert and his wife, celebrity psychic Nancy Bradley, have since appeared regularly on TV.
“We take a scientific approach,” Reppert said. “We want to be able to show people via scientific principles what they can see and what they can do about it. We don’t go in there trying to prove it. But if we do find something we can’t explain, we try to give them some ways of dealing with it and living with it.”
Equipment includes camcorders, cameras, audio recorders, thermometers, electromagnetic field readers, dowsing rods and other devices to detect what can’t necessarily be seen with the naked eye or clearly heard. That’s accompanied by intensive library research, looking for clues to a property’s history.
“You end up watching hundreds of hours of video, waiting for something to happen,” Dave Bender said. “On a typical investigation, we’ll set up five cameras in a house, each filming eight hours. That’s 40 hours of video that has to be watched, waiting to see if that rocking chair moves for one second.”
Besides making house calls, ghost hunters often get called to investigate businesses.
“A lot of businesses want to be haunted,” said Reppert, noting ghosts can bring in guests to historic hotels and restaurants. “It attracts customers.”
Reppert and Bradley live with spirits in their own home, too. Their current Placerville house was constructed in the 1960s on the site of several different buildings, including a Gold Rush-era toll booth and a combination doctor’s office/morgue.
“That probably would have creeped me out,” Reppert said of the morgue. “When we bought the place, it was all but condemned, so we totally rebuilt it.”
That doesn’t stop “Major the horse” from trotting through the living room.
“We hear hoof beats,” he said. “You can smell a horse, but you don’t see a horse. We also hear children running up and down the hallway, but there are no kids here. We have fun with it.”
Ghost hunters concentrate on the living before focusing on the dead that may be inhabiting a household. Through interviews with home residents, they rule out mental illness, drugs, alcohol or other factors before setting up video cameras.
“People are worried that you might think they’re crazy,” Dave Bender said. “Crazy people hear voices all the time. It’s when you hear voices occasionally that there might be something else going on.”
When ghost hunting, these experts first try to figure out what the phenomenon is or isn’t.
“Usually, (the residents) are scared,” Kelly said. “They don’t know what it is. They want to know.”
Alysse Rocha of Folsom is the “ghost debunker” on the Capital City team. “My job is to explain what it could be,” she said. “Feel a chill? There could be a cracked window or a problem with the air conditioning. Flickering lights? Check the wiring. Or lights could be coming from a neighbor’s driveway. I look at all the mechanical reasons that could be causing (the issue).”
A plethora of electrical devices can prompt problems, she noted. For example, an electromagnetic field can physically cause odd sensations.
“The stuff you see on TV? It’s nothing like that,” said Bender. “As paranormal investigators, our job is to help figure it out.”
According to the experts, once all other causes can be discounted, unexplained phenomenon can be divided into two basic kinds: Apparitions (including ghosts) and spirits.
“A woman in white walking down a hallway with a candle; that’s a classic apparition,” explained Reppert. “More than one person sees the exact same thing; that’s a ghost. But it’s like a video loop. The ghost doesn’t see you and doesn’t interact. It’s like you’re watching the same movie over and over.”
“An apparition is just doing its own thing,” Bender said. “It’s not aware of you. The most common are these residual hauntings. It’s an imprint tied to a location and it’s just constantly replaying the same stuff.”
Spirit activity bundles energy and tends to want some attention. Most activity is reported at night because there are fewer distractions for busy (breathing) people.
“These are intelligent hauntings,” Bender added. “‘I see you, you see me’; there’s a connection. It can be more intense and far more disturbing.”
The best way to deal with them? Talk to them, Reppert said.
“You can set boundaries,” he explained. “Say out loud that certain rooms are off limits. Or tell them you want to be left alone. They’ll usually listen.”
During a recent class, Bender played back audio examples culled from an investigation. A gravelly voice growls, then blurts out, “It’s me.”
“We all heard it when we were doing our investigation,” he said. “This spirit was just having fun.”
Most spirits are benign, say the ghost hunters.
“In all my years of paranormal investigations, I’ve never encountered an evil spirit,” Reppert said. “Those things you see in the movies, Hollywood made up.
“Most spirits are departed loved ones,” he added. “They just want to be with you, keep up with what’s going on.”
The Benders said one exception made their skin crawl. They were asked to investigate a modern Sacramento tract house rented by two young couples. The men were oblivious to any paranormal activity, but the women saw black clouds massing on a bedroom ceiling. They heard growls.
“I knew where it was coming from immediately – the attic,” Ann Bender said. “I went upstairs to look and I got too close. I got a very clear visual.”
Something lifted her off the ground and threw her against a wall, she said. “I then had an extreme craving for salt, like I could eat the whole salt shaker. That was a sure sign (of spiritual contact).”
“It wasn’t the house that was the problem, but the land underneath,” Dave Bender said. “In my 17 years of doing investigations, that was the only time I told the residents they had to move.”