“A dispiriting time” (Rock Island Arsenal ghost hunt)

When practical, I prefer to offer first-hand accounts in my posts. Explaining the history, methods, claims, and counterclaims of reflexology is fine, but it’s better if I can visit a practitioner myself and report the results. Poring over arguments and retorts from the anti-GMO crowd is OK, but not as good as attending a seminar where these ideas are highlighted. One of my favorite aspects of this blog has been my annual trip to the Quad Cities Psychic and Paranormal Fair. Alas, all aforementioned treks have been on hold the last 18 months as the pandemic took hold and has continued even with vaccines, masks, and distancing, since only about 60 percent of the country is on board with such mitigation measures. The pandemic has shown Americans to be incapable of handling a national emergency requiring mild inconvenience. But things have improved enough that I was able to get back in person and attend a putative ghost hunt at Rock Island Arsenal’s Quarters One. The mammoth structure is the second largest federal residence behind the White House and contains 51 rooms of potential poltergeists.

The cost was $25, which is the best bang for your disembodied spirits buck. Similar evenings run $150 or more in other locales. It was set for a three-hour block, beginning at dusk. These hunts are always held in the dark even though there is no reason to think spirits of the deceased are more active at night. The times are chosen to create more mood and drama, which is fine if it’s being presented as entertainment, such as with campfire stories. It’s another matter when promotors are suggesting that sinister spirits are real.

Also playing on stereotypes was the locale, a four-story, 19th Century mansion. Along with castles and asylums, huge antique homes are favored ghost-hunting spots. Ghosts always seem to bypass split-level ranch homes, subdivisions, and Dillard’s. On a related note, battlefields and mass terror scenes are conspicuously apparition-free. For all the photos and audio taken at the World Trade Center, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, Waco, and Oklahoma City, none have shown images or captured audio of a spirit detached from its deceased body. Were ghosts real and as tethered to their place of demise as advertised, such locations should be literal ghost towns.

The hostess began the evening with a loquacious recounting of the home’s history. There were a few factual croutons tossed onto the word salad but it was primarily a string of conditioning, expectation-building, and plying us with spooky, unverifiable anecdotes. This included the requisite reference to “energy,” so during the Q and A session, I inquired as to which type of it the spirits emit. The hostess looked as if she had finally succeeded in capturing a ghost. She was used to softball questions, not late-breaking curves. After some awkward silence, she spit out, “It depends on the ghost,” a kind of catch-all response that covers all the bases while still saying nothing.

Speaking of nothing, that’s what happened during this supposedly spooky sojourn. I don’t consider this a spoiler because that would entail giving away what happened and nothing did.

The tour started in the basement, where I whispered notes to myself into a handheld tape recorder. This caused one of my fellow attendees to shudder and exclaim, “I heard a man’s voice!” A couple of others were certain they had felt an apparition touch their hair or skin. This was probably a physiological manifestation of the mood and expectation that had been built at the presentation’s opening. In any event, this is something there is no way to test, prove, or disprove. There was one claim that a breeze of some sort was felt, which coming in the basement of a 19th Century home, falls well within the natural explanation purview.

The 30 minutes were mostly spent staring in the direction of three flashlights. They were the types that turn on and off by twisting the circular portion near the front. The hostess put the flashlight in the ‘off’ position, but as close to ‘on’ as she could. Addressing this jury-rigged ghost locator, she asked if any deceased persons were present, then subsequently asserted that any illumination was the result of such a presence. Her first eight queries were answered with silence, other than some teeth-chattering among the credulous and a sigh of boredom from myself. After the ninth summoning, the light came on. This is a normal and explicable occurrence for this type of flashlight positioned in such a way. Whenever it turned off, this was touted as the ghost saying it no longer wished to chat. For a control, the hostess could have tried this experiment while making no requests of the flashlight and seeing if it still came on and off at random intervals. Further, if this were really the work of the ghost, it could have turned the flashlight on from the fully-off position and it could have communicated in Morse code. Of course, control experiments and a skeptical questioning of the results were not what the evening was about.

There were two more rooms to visit, but I was working all weekend, it was getting late, and I had seen nothing, which ironically was more than enough. I scooted out, thanking my guides (I cannot bring myself to call them their preferred title, researchers) for putting on the event and told them I was leaving. They had requested this courtesy since previous attendees had absconded without telling them. In a spin that would make any marketer proud, this was explained as the guests being so panicked they had to split. But my early departure was due to an hour-long snoozer masquerading as a history lesson and the follow-up 30 minutes of ghost-hunting that netted three seconds of flashlight flickering.

While nothing interesting happened, the hostess was ready with an ad hoc explanation for this bust. She played back a portion of her recording and claimed to hear a voice, and told us that even when nothing seemed to happen, further ‘investigation’ may reveal that something very much did.

Along those lines, the hosts highlighted a variety of gadgets, gizmos, and doohickeys they employ in their searches, but none of the items were used for their intended purpose. None of them were manufactured for the purpose of capturing Casper and less-friendly apparitions. Promotional pamphlets at previous Quarters One hunts referenced “Weird EMF spikes” that “can be found in certain areas on the second floor.” Such spikes likely occur but there are reasons beyond ghosts that can explain them. As one example, the mansion rests on the banks of the Mississippi River, where ships and their electronic devices incessantly pass. Moreover, EMF sounds that resemble speech are often the result of misuse by the operator or flaws in the equipment.

Another claim is that, “Visitors experience hot and cold spots.” Again, likely true, but nothing mysterious. This is very common for huge homes that have seen their sesquicentennial.

The pamphlet further noted that, “Mists have been photographed.” Sure, but those can be explained with basic photography terminology. Shots taken in dark by amateurs will likely increase these flaws.

Additionally, even if no answer can be found for these or other phenomenon, it only means that the event remains unexplained. It doesn’t mean we can adopt a default explanation that the living dead are responsible.

Ghosts, or at least our image of them, have adapted with the times and technology. In earlier manifestations, they were said to resemble a floating white sheet, an idea born from the burial cloths which were lain on the dead. In the days of Dickens, Poe, and Irving, ghosts were humanoid apparitions that were somehow still wearing clothes. Later, ghosts became less concrete, such as how they were portrayed in The Amityville Horror. Today, a ghost is more likely to take the form of an orb, flash, or flare, which are portrayed as auras which transcend spiritual planes, but which are more likely the result of camera shortcomings, operator error, and lighting and environmental conditions.

Many ghost hunts, including this one, employ a K2 meter that purportedly serves as a conduit between the hunt’s host and the poltergeists they are chasing. However, the K2’s purpose is to locate sources of electromagnetic radiation, be they magnetic, electric, radio, or microwave. The meters also provide a reading of the strength and direction of the field being detected. It was designed to read a small part of the electromagnetic field from household devices and give a general measurement of strength. There is no reason to suspect that ghosts have the desire and ability to communicate via the low end of the electromagnetic spectrum. Nor, for that matter, is there any evidence that the departed continue on in any form. Ghost hunters are looking for evidence of something without having first ascertained that thing exists.

So when ghost hunters employ an infrared thermometer or motion detector to pinpoint a cold spot in a room, they might find such a location. But while there is no reason to think ghosts are responsible for temperature changes, those chasing them might be causing it since more persons in the room will raise the temperature. Changes are also caused by heating, air conditioning, insulation, studs, wiring, pipes, radiant heat, sunlight, and wind.

Usually touted as the spookiest fruit from hunts is ghostspeak on audio, such as the one the hostess claimed she heard while trying to recover from the unintended Comedy Half Hour. These mystic missives might seem unsettling, but that’s only because they are so garbled and distorted. They are drenched in static, vary in pitch, and produce an unpleasant sound that can come across as someone who is pained, scared, or angry. In the many thousands of hours of these recordings, we have yet to have a ghost articulately announce in plain language, “Here I am, the ghost of King John’s tailor.”

When one can make a phrase out of EVP, it is likely the result of apophenia, the mind’s tendency to perceive patterns in random stimulus. It is what causes people to see a Face on Mars or Jesus in their Post Toasties. Other factors in hearing spirit voices on recordings are expectation and desire, but the biggest influence is equipment shortfalls.

EVP are usually recorded by raising the noise floor, which is the electrical noise created by all electrical devices, in order to create white noise. When this noise is filtered, it can be made to produce noises which sound like speech. When you factor in other aspects of physics, such as cross modulation of radio stations or faulty ground loops in equipment, you have a lot of people thinking they are listening to ghosts when in fact it is nothing more than a controlled misuse of electronics. Sample rate conversion, vibration isolation, and noise alteration can all cause recordings to assume qualities separate from what they originally picked up.

Still, EVP remains popular among believers since bodily noise, rustling clothes, wind, creaks, whistles, stray radio signals, whispers, camera sounds, and magnetic interference can all be interpreted as ghostly. A more incredulous observer would be asking, “How does an immaterial being bump into something or make a noise while walking (or even walk, for that matter)?” Or, “How does an entity lacking vocal chords and a tongue manage to shriek and babble?”

Again, the problem is that ghosts are made the default explanation. Noises can never be the house settling, a board creaking, or the wind blowing. No explanations are offered as to how this equipment would reveal the existence of ghost. No criteria are given for what constitutes a capture, the alleged point of these hunts. If what I experienced qualifies as a capture, I retract my earlier statement about $25 being a good value.

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