Loyd Auerbach sees dead people.
No, wait. That’s not quite right. Loyd Auerbach has been pinched by dead people. He has been patted on the back by them. He has smelled their cigar smoke. He has taken their photos, recorded their movements with electronic devices, asked them questions, and gotten answers. At one point, he says, a dead person walked right through him, a sensation that he describes as “tingly, in a good way.” But he has not, as of yet, actually seen any of them, and frankly this seems to leave him a little chagrined, even though Loyd Auerbach is certainly not one of those people who has to see in order to believe.
Auerbach is one of the few people in the world with an advanced degree in parapsychology, and one of an even more select few who run ghost-hunting operations from their dens. In formal terms, Auerbach’s den is known as the Office of Paranormal Investigations, from which he oversees a team of about six Bay Area ghost hunters, many of them affiliates of the extremely unusual and short-lived parapsychology master’s program at John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, where Auerbach used to teach.
The program’s untimely demise, however, has done little to slow Auerbach down. In his several decades as a paranormal researcher, he has turned the study of all things ghostly into a thriving business, and his media savvy has made him into something of a talking head for the undead. He has written four books about the supernatural and markets his own line of seminars, videotapes, and ghost-story cassettes. He frequently serves as a consultant for sci-fi TV shows and news programs wanting the downlow on the unexplained. Electronics retailers looking to push certain models of electromagnetic meters used on ghost-hunting expeditions like to drop his name. And since Auerbach also enjoys performing sleight of hand at parties and hosting séances — something of a sideline to the ghost-hunting business, which itself is a sideline to his part-time day job as a consultant for LexisNexis — he has also recently adopted the stage name “Professor Paranormal,” which has a more impressive ring to it than “Loyd” does.
Today, as Auerbach prepares to lead a ghost- hunting team through the USS Hornet, he believes he stands a fairly good chance of seeing something spooky. According to local legend, the World War II naval carrier now docked at Alameda Island is haunted by the spirits of dozens of prankish sailors. “It’s unusual to have this many at all, but we’re dealing with, essentially, a city,” Auerbach says. Part of the Hornet‘s draw for the departed is said to be that it was the site of good memories and youthful camaraderie. The ship’s old-boy charm attracts the living, too. “The ghosts are hanging out, just like the docents, guys who used to be in the Navy,” he says.
Auerbach’s ghost-hunting method is based upon correlating as many forms of documenta- tion as possible, including cameras, machines, and people’s sensory perceptions. Accordingly, each member of the team assembled for today’s excursion has a particular strength. Neva Turnock, one of Auerbach’s seminar students, is along to lend her abilities as a psychic. Pam Heath, an investigator who has been working with the Office of Paranormal Investigations for seven years and has degrees in medicine and psychology, claims to be psychically sensitive, but also has brought along a small black box called a TriField meter. It measures the electromagnetic fields in both natural and man-made objects, and ghost hunters use it to look for unaccounted-for energy sources. Auerbach is carrying a black duffel bag filled with his own selection of equipment including a variety of electromagnetic meters, a small videocamera, a Polaroid camera (known among ghost hunters as more reliable than digital or 35 mm film), and a fluorescent light for detecting static electricity.
Ghost-hunting lore is rife with electronics that malfunction and tapes that are wiped blank in the presence of supernatural phenomena, so the tour gets off to a promising start when a reporter’s tape recorder stops working once it gets within a few feet of the Hornet. But the only dead things affecting the machine turn out to be its batteries, which are replaced. The group makes its way into the bowels of the ship, heading for the medical bay, where Auerbach says he has previously witnessed paranormal stunts, including unexplained dancing lights showing up on video and a ghost performing on demand. On that occasion, Auerbach says he asked the ghost to move a hand over to the TriField meter. The needle jumped. Then Auerbach asked him to move it away. The needle went back to zero. It went on like that for quite some time.
But today, there are no disembodied wise guys, and the needles on the two meters Auerbach has set up around the room stay resolutely at zero, even when members of the ghost-hunting party try a little wheedling out loud. “If they don’t want to cooperate, they don’t want to cooperate,” he says as everyone finally gives up their cajoling efforts. Luckily, according to Heath and Turnock there are plenty of ghosts in evidence elsewhere on the ship today, although most of them turn out to be markedly shy. In the chapel, both women sense a kindly, older presence, who nevertheless wishes we’d leave. The Polaroid pictures Auerbach shoots of a petty officer’s bunk, where Turnock says she is getting a very strong impression of a sad and angry young man, show nothing unusual. In the pilot’s mess, where Turnock says she senses a genial, class-clown type, it’s impossible to get any readings because the low-hung fluorescent lights are putting off such strong signals that they overload all the TriField meters. And when the group reaches the sailors’ sleeping quarters, Turnock is immediately overcome with nausea. “I think I’m going to throw up,” she says, clapping a hand over her mouth and heading for the nearest bathroom.
Both Auerbach and Heath agree that they’ve felt this happen before, and interpret it as a signal that human visitors are not welcomed by whichever spirit is in residence that day. “There was a spot that several of us could not even walk into right off the hangar bay,” Auerbach says. “We got waves of nausea just walking in there.”
The ghosts hanging around in the ladies’ room, however, turn out to be much more receptive to the female ghost hunters. “They may be dead, but they haven’t forgotten,” offers Heath, who says she has frequently encountered ghosts in the women’s bathroom, formerly the ship’s engine room. “They tend to be polite, though. They don’t enter the stalls, but they do love to watch women put on makeup in the mirrors.”
Turnock, who is standing with her hands palms up in front of her, gazing fixedly at the wall ahead of her, says she sees a very young man. Heath moves her TriField meter in front of Turnock’s hands. The needle jumps up from the zero position almost to the five mark, a fairly high reading. Then Heath waves the meter behind Turnock’s back, and the signal disappears. “It was off the scale a minute ago,” Heath mutters. This is a good sign — it means whatever is affecting the meter isn’t evenly distributed throughout the environment. But a check for possible signal sources reveals that Turnock is standing awfully close to a wall-mounted fuse box, which could be causing the high reading.
The rest of the team suggest that she try to get the ghost to move away from the fuse box for another reading. “I’m asking him to walk with me,” Turnock murmurs, heading towards the row of sinks on the other side of the room.
“You have any lipstick with you?” Heath suggests. Turnock obliges by leaning in over the sink and brushing a wand of pale-peach gloss over her lips. Both women say they still feel the young man’s presence, but now the meter is picking up nothing.
“He was hoping for a brighter color of red,” Heath says wryly as the group decamps from the bathroom. She sounds a bit wistful on the ghost’s behalf. “They used to love pantyhose,” she adds.
Auerbach has a way of explaining why ghosts like those on the Hornet are spending the afterlife essentially slouching around with their buddies, or why even in death they display a predilection for nylons or red lipstick. “Ghosts are people, too,” he’ll say, shrugging. Then he’ll lift one eyebrow. “But they’re dead.”
For the record, Loyd Auerbach does not have a proton pack. He does not wear a jumpsuit or live in a firehouse. He does not drive a hearse or a converted ambulance. These are inquiries he has had to deflect ever since the movie Ghostbusters was released in 1984, firmly cementing parapsychology in the imagination of the moviegoing public as a profession that centers around the reckless deployment of laser-shooting nuclear devices, exploding marshmallow fluff, and Bill Murray.
In fact, Loyd Auerbach lives in a modest tract home in Pleasant Hill, tends to wear black turtlenecks and professorly blazers, and drives a Saturn. The prosaic nature of the Saturn is somewhat alleviated by the rear passenger-side window, which features a dinner-plate-sized decal of the Office of Paranormal Investigations logo: a girl with a starburst radiating from her forehead, leaning over an open book inscribed with the infinity symbol as well as a psi, the Greek letter used to indicate the paranormal. Auerbach gleefully admits that he more or less based this image on the opening credits of The Sixth Sense television series from the early ’70s.
As it turns out, quite a bit of Auerbach’s formative experience was derived from television, although a look through the tightly crammed bookshelves in his office shows that he borrows from high science and low culture in about equal quantities. Among other topics, he has an abiding passion for folklore, psychology, mentalism, physics, cult films, anthropology, comic books, mythology, magic, and spoon- bending. And in person, the balding, bespectacled, and bearded Auerbach somehow combines the cautious explications of an academic, the geeky enthusiasm of a fan who truly wants to believe, and the slightly abashed demeanor of someone who knows that most of the world is going to dismiss him as either a huckster or a crystal-waving New Ager. His interest in the supernatural, and his approach to ferreting it out, comes across as an unapologetic mix of sci, fi, and psi.
If anything is to be blamed for this crossover, he supposes, it might be the library filing system. As a kid, Auerbach headed to the library to look up the creatures he saw on his favorite TV shows. “Dark Shadows actually made me want to read books on vampires and werewolves. Because of the Dewey Decimal system in the library, they’re right next to the books on parapsychology,” he says. “It’s an unfortunate thing for parapsychologists, but that’s the truth.” His new interest stuck. By high school, he was running a parapsychology club and administering ESP tests to his friends.
But television also pushed him toward more orthodox forms of science. His father was a producer for NBC television who worked on the coverage of the Mercury and Gemini space shots, and Auerbach dreamed of joining the space program. But two circumstances thwarted his ambitions. As a teenager, he learned that he had to wear glasses. And once he got to Northwestern University where he planned to major in astrophysics, he turned out to be not so good at advanced mathematics. So a career as an astronaut or an astronomer were both out.
Majoring in parapsychology, of course, was not an academic option in the late ’70s, and those working in the field advised him to major in a related physical or social science, then head for grad school where an open-minded professor might be willing to sponsor his research. Because of Auerbach’s interest in folklore, he decided make the switch to cultural anthropology. Upon walking into the office of the new academic adviser Northwestern had given him, Auerbach noticed a shelf full of parapsychology journals. “The university had clearly assigned me the right person,” he says.
Auerbach managed to pull off a college career of writing papers on divination and witchcraft, and then in another remarkable stroke of luck, just as he was ready to graduate, JFK University in Orinda announced that it was introducing a master’s program in parapsychology. Auerbach moved out to California, although going to the school was something of a shock. At that point, the fledgling university was housed in a building that served as a kindergarten during the day, and he had to work as a bartender to pay his tuition. It didn’t seem like the beginning of an auspicious career, but his entertainment-business family never ridiculed his choice. “The only thing my mother ever said was ‘You’ve got to make a living,'” he remembers.
If getting a degree in parapsychology was difficult, getting a job was even harder. Once he’d graduated from JFK and discovered there was no work in his chosen field, Auerbach moved back to New York, where he returned to bartending and taught adult ed and community college classes.
But public interest in the supernatural was about to get ratcheted up. American culture has long been fascinated with things that go bump in the night, but in the late ’70s and early ’80s, movies like Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror were becoming huge blockbusters. In 1982, on an off-chance, Auerbach stopped by the American Society for Psychical Research in New York City, the oldest parapsychological organization in the United States, and mentioned that he had a few ideas about how to do public outreach to get people interested in the science of the supernatural. Much to his surprise, he was offered a part-time job. Suddenly, ghosts were such big news that they needed a media liaison.
Auerbach soon found himself fending off journalists begging to be taken to something like the Amityville house, which in the movie oozed green slime and caused people to levitate. “The first thing I’d ask is ‘Do you know how badly funded parapsychology is? Do you know how little respect we get from the other sciences?'” Auerbach recalls in a dry tone. “If we could take you to a house where stuff is flying around all the time, do you think that would be happening?” he would ask.
“I see your point,” the reporters would say.
Within a year and a half, Auerbach moved back to California to take a virtually identical position doing public relations work for JFK’s parapsychology program, eventually becoming an adjunct professor at the university. And again, another blockbuster movie shaped his career. This time it was Ghostbusters. Shortly after the movie’s release, an Oakland Tribune reporter contacted the university, looking for the scoop on real-life paranormal investigators. Because Auerbach was the only person in the department on campus that day (everyone else had gone out of town to a conference he couldn’t afford to attend), he took the call. He was prominently featured in the story, which hit the Associated Press wire. “All of the sudden I get hundreds of phone calls from radio stations, newspapers, all these people from all over,” Auerbach remembers. He became an instant celebrity of the call-in radio show variety, and the interest generated by the movie provided a platform for discussing parapsychology. “The media took a whole different look. They stopped asking ‘Take us to the Amityville house,'” Auerbach says. “They were asking, ‘What’s it really like? What do you guys really do?'”
As it turned out, a sizable percentage of what they really did was go out to the sites of recent local phenomena to talk to people. Instead of being focused on gadgets, as the ghost hunters were in the movies, Auerbach compared his early methodology to that of an investigative journalist, who would interview as many witnesses as possible, seeking corroboration. And by this point, because he had spoken with so many people, Auerbach had amassed a considerable collection of really good ghost stories. In addition to the various tales about the posse of ghosts on the USS Hornet, there was the Blue Lady at the Moss Beach Distillery in Half Moon Bay, who would appear in the bathroom mirror and spank the staff with kitchen implements. There was the ghost of a former bartender at the Banta Inn in Tracy, who enjoyed floating wineglasses and stacking the coins in the cash register. There was the boy in Fremont around whom bursts of water would erupt from the ceiling, and the family in Petaluma who kept seeing a figure dressed as a black knight roaming the house, and the haunted apartment in Oakland in which a young man would appear nightly and lean over the bed, intending to kiss his sleeping girlfriend. There was the case he had investigated in New York which he dubbed his “sexorcist” story, in which a couple was awoken each night at 3 a.m. by the sounds of the house’s previous occupants having loud sex. And that was just the tip of the paranormal iceberg.
In fact, Auerbach realized that he had so many stories that he could hit the speaker circuit, but everyone advised him that he needed a book first. He wrote a proposal, Warner bid on it, and then in the superheated post-Ghostbusters climate gave him only three months to write it. In a moment of what may have been restraint but was more likely fear of copyright infringement, the publishing company turned down Auerbach’s original title, I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghost, and instead gave the manuscript the more sedate title ESP, Hauntings, and Poltergeists: A Parapsychologist’s Handbook. Newsweek later dubbed it the “sacred text” on ghosts.
In just a few years, Auerbach had gone from desperately wishing to join a nonexistent academic field to literally writing the book on parapsychology.
In 1985, not long after the release of Ghostbusters, Auerbach worked a case that cemented his belief in the existence of ghosts. While at JFK University, he got a phone call from a Livermore woman named Pat who said she had a ghost in her house, the spirit of an elderly woman named Lois who had been the home’s previous owner. That wasn’t the problem.
Pat’s concern was that her twelve-year-old son, Chris, seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time talking to the ghost. Lois was putting in daily appearances, watching television with Chris or chatting with him about his life. Pat worried that Chris’ chats with Lois might not be normal preadolescent behavior. Auerbach agreed with her that the boy should see a therapist, just in case, but was also eager to come see the house.
Since Auerbach hadn’t yet amassed much ghost-detecting technology, he headed out to investigate with no more than a videocamera, a tape recorder, his then-wife Joanna, and one of his students, Kip. On the way up in the car, the three chatted about everyday topics: Auerbach about the new Chrysler Laser he intended to buy, his wife about how she was considering quitting her job, and the student about the fact that he’d once been a professional dancer.
At the house, with the tape rolling, Chris acted as a translator of sorts, sitting next to an apparently empty chair in which he said Lois was seated. The boy was able to relate detailed stories the ghost hunters later verified, including anecdotes about the family that had owned the house and the history of some of the home’s original furnishings. He also provided what Auerbach considered to be a surprisingly sophisticated explanation of what an apparition is, one that a child was unlikely to fabricate. According to Chris, Lois said she existed as a “ball of energy” capable of projecting an image of herself into others’ minds. This, she said through Chris, was why she was able to change her appearance at will, sometimes projecting herself as a girl, as a young woman, or as an elderly lady.
The ghost hunters, fully intrigued, asked Lois to explain why her energy had remained behind after her body’s death. Through Chris, she said that during her life, she’d been a well-known socialite, hosting parties at the family home. She’d never married and was one of the last surviving members of her family, so her primary earthly attachment was to a place, rather than to people. Although she believed in heaven and hell, she had rarely gone to church. As she lay dying at the hospital, Lois said, she didn’t know in which direction her soul was bound. She saw no white light ahead of her. Instead, Lois said that in her final moments she’d simply been overcome with a desire to go home. “Why take a chance?” she had thought. And next thing she knew, there she was. Since Lois liked the family who moved in so much, she’d decided she’d just stick around.
Now it was time for Lois to ask the ghost hunters some questions. Lois was a television-watching ghost, and had frequently seen ads for Ghostbusters on TV, so both she and Chris were anxious on one point: Were the investigators there to “blast” her with proton packs like in the movie?
No, Auerbach explained, the proton packs were pure fiction.
In that case, Lois had something more to ask. “Loyd, she wants to know if you’ve decided on a color for that Laser car you want,” Chris translated. “Joanna, have you really thought about the kind of job you want after you quit the one you have? Kip, how long were you a professional dancer?”
The ghost hunters were floored. How did Lois know what they had been talking about in the car on the way over? Was she telepathic? Was Chris?
“You’re probably not going to like this,” Auerbach says the twelve-year-old warned. “But Lois wanted to make sure you weren’t bringing blasters to get rid of her, so she hitched a ride here with you.”
By the late ’80s, Auerbach had built up a compelling collection of ghost investigations. He had a book. He had more manuscripts on the way. But he no longer had a university with a parapsychology program.
In 1986, JFK University began to phase out the program, citing low enrollment. (At such a tiny school, tuition was crucial to any program’s survival.) By 1989 it was completely gone. But Auerbach believes that low enrollment was just an excuse, and that the university was facing pressure to cut its more unusual programs in order to shore up its reputation as a business and law school. “Essentially, people thought JFK was a flaky university,” he says. “This wacky parapsychology stuff must be keeping people away.”
Auerbach’s career took a new turn. He was frequently getting phone calls at home, sometimes waking him up in the middle of the night, from people complaining about ghostly activity. So in 1989 he and some of his fellow researchers and former students established the Office of Paranormal Investigations. They hired a 24-hour answering service and trained the receptionists how to ask the right questions of prospective clients. They made plans to rent an office somewhere outside of Auerbach’s den, although that still has yet to materialize. They began to accrue some of their more elaborate ghost-hunting equipment — a noncontact temperature gauge that could be used to measure cold spots on walls and the floor, an air ion counter to measure the charge in the air, and a motion detector. While taping investigations for TV specials, they would sometimes get the camera crew to rent a thermal videocamera for them at a whopping $3,000 a week, so they could look for fluctuations in temperature. They developed a video seminar series about ghost hunting, along with a test that viewers could take in order to become part of their network. And they began to charge for their detection services, something Auerbach says he was reluctant to do, but agreed to because it reassured clients that they were being taken seriously. Even today, the fee is nominal: $150, no matter how many visits the case takes. The office takes cases on a sliding scale, so many clients pay nothing at all. (Most of Auerbach’s paranormal-derived income comes from lecturing at colleges, writing, consulting for television, and teaching classes.)
And in fact, a good case is hard to find. Auerbach estimates that only about a quarter of the reports received by the Office of Paranormal Investigations have the hallmark of anything truly supernatural, and only about half of those are investigable. Ghosts don’t leave behind fingerprints, so the phenomena have to be current and ongoing; the investigators can’t do much with a onetime sighting. “It’s very likely that nothing’s going to happen again, and if nothing happens again we’re dealing with a cold crime scene,” Auerbach says.
But even though not every case was a slam-dunk, the investigations were attracting media attention. Auerbach took a Hard Copy news team to the Banta Inn, escorted David Letterman through a haunted house, and made dozens of appearances on shows like Oprah and Larry King Live. He served as a consultant for specials broadcast by the BBC, A&E, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and, of course, the Sci-Fi Channel. And in 1993, Auerbach took a shot at getting his own show, filming a pilot for a series to be called Haunted America in which members of the Office of Paranormal Investigations would rove the country, cracking cases.
His love affair with the supernatural, which had started with television, had finally come full circle.
The pilot for Haunted America was shot during a July heat wave in Archer, Florida, at the home of some Civil War enthusiasts who had deliberately wanted to buy a haunted house. According to the family, their home had been haunted since the late 1800s by at least three ghosts: a mother and a father who roamed the house looking for their daughter, who had died as a child.
Auerbach’s crew was accompanied by a Japanese psychic, Aiko Gibo, who had occasionally worked with the Office of Paranormal Investigations. To make sure Gibo had no preconceived notions about what she was supposed to find, Auerbach says she was told nothing about the house’s history. As she walked through the house, she would be trailed by a thermograph camera, which registers heat patterns — cool areas in blue, hot areas in pink.
The night wore on as Gibo roamed the house and the researchers patiently waited for her to pick up something. Well past two in the morning, the researchers heard her yell, and came running. The psychic was standing still, her arms held in front of her. She claimed that a little girl was tugging on her right thumb — an accurate description of one of the ghosts she was supposed to be seeking. And indeed, on the thermal camera’s image, her hands were glowing a much brighter pink than the rest of her body, and her right thumb in particular was an extremely deep magenta. A close-up showed a small pulsing pink blur hovering not far below her hand, far from any apparent energy source. According to Auerbach, these readings were unlikely to be technical errors, although he says that if Gibo truly believed that her thumb was being tugged, it could have increased the blood flow to her hands, which would have raised their temperature. However, he says that other metering devices, including a geomagnetometer, a TriField meter, a microwave detector, and a Geiger counter, were also simultaneously giving high readings.
The next night, Gibo spoke again with the little girl’s ghost. This time, Auerbach’s group observed that as she did so, the temperature in the room dropped 25 degrees in the course of twenty minutes, despite the sweltering heat outside.
In a separate test, the ghost-hunting team instructed Gibo to ask the little girl to lead her to her grave. The psychic immediately walked to the right place in a nearby cemetery.
Not too shabby for a first effort. But although the pilot was pitched to several networks, none picked it up. Not even Fox. “We’re not doing any more paranormal series right now,” the ghost hunters were told.
What are ghosts? Why do they stick around? And how can you make them go away?
The people who take Loyd Auerbach’s ghost-hunting seminars tend to ask questions like these, as they sit crammed into his living room on Saturdays. They pay 95 bucks a pop to attend these monthly classes, which include peeks at behind-the-scenes videos of ghost hunts and experiments performed by the American Society for Psychical Research. Some of them have brought along their own spirit photographs from cemetery stakeouts. Some of them are working psychics. One of them is finessing a manuscript about ghost hunting and has her own business cards with a logo of a camera-toting ghost. One of them is wearing a sweatshirt advertising Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. All of them usually go away satisfied. Auerbach is a pretty entertaining teacher.
For example, he uses this simple test to illustrate why ghosts tend to appear fully clothed, instead of naked, as logic would suggest. (Clothing, presumably, has no soul.) Close your eyes for a few seconds, and picture yourself. In your mental image, were you wearing clothes? The majority of people would answer yes. Now try this: In your mental image, what were you wearing on your feet? Chances are, you can’t remember.
According to Auerbach, a ghost is a consciousness that somehow has survived bodily death and is able to communicate mind-to-mind with living people. A person seeing an apparition (or touching one, or smelling one) is not seeing anything that is actually there; they’re essentially perceiving a projection of the way the ghost remembered themselves looking in life. In general, that means fully clothed. Likewise, with the exception of shoe fetishists, people rarely picture themselves all the way down to their feet, which is why so many reported apparitions seem to be cut off at the knees.
For all of the media portrayals of ghosts as superintelligent beings armed with terrifying powers, Auerbach’s own conception of ghosts credits them with surprisingly limited abilities. “People don’t get any smarter when they’re dead,” he says. For that matter, they don’t get any more evil or powerful, either; Auerbach says he hasn’t heard of a single case in which a person was hurt by a ghost, although certainly people have injured themselves by passing out in fright or attempting to run away. Nor, he says, are ghosts in touch with the divine or with the spirits of other people; nor do they have answers to the meaning of life, he contends, since ghosts who are sticking around here haven’t moved on to whatever happens next. In some cases, he says, ghosts don’t even know they’re dead. “When somebody finds out they have a terminal illness, one of the first stages they go through is denial,” he shrugs. “Death is pretty terminal.”
Belief in ghosts is a constant throughout the world, although various cultures have differently interpreted what they are and how they should be treated. However, Auerbach says they do tend to display one commonality: The vast majority of ghost sightings are onetime appearances within 48 hours of the person’s death, in which the apparition usually says goodbye, reassures loved ones that they are okay or, in some fastidious cases, imparts information about where the insurance papers are kept.
Auerbach believes that becoming a ghost is not the norm, nor a pure function of will. If all it took to remain behind was a desire to do so, he suspects the earth would be teeming with apparitions, all mooching about their old stamping grounds. Parapsychologists such as Auerbach believe there is an environmental X-factor waiting to be discovered, perhaps something involving the magnetic energy of the site, that allows unusual things to happen. In fact, they suspect that environment plays a determining role in two other kinds of paranormal phenomena: hauntings and poltergeists. While a ghost is a conscious entity that can interact with its environment, Auerbach defines a haunting as an impression of an event that has been made on a place and replays like a videotape: a clock that always chimes at midnight, a figure repeatedly climbing the stairs, or the sounds of that New York couple having loud sex at three in the morning. Although a haunting is not sentient, it can be a recording of strongly emotional events. A poltergeist, on the other hand, is caused by a living agent, Auerbach says, usually someone in the house who is suppressing strong feelings and unconsciously causing the paranormal activity. In the case of the Fremont boy in whose presence water would spring from the ceiling, for example, the boy was upset about having to compete in swim meets, but hadn’t explained his feelings to his parents.
In poltergeist cases, Auerbach says, once the person realizes they are responsible and confronts their hidden feelings, the phenomena usually stop. (In the young boy’s case, once the swimming lessons dried up, so did the leaking ceiling, Auerbach claims.) With hauntings, he sometimes advises “recording over” the impression with a new and positive experience. (He suggested that the New York couple move their bed into the haunted room and have their own loud sex.) If that doesn’t work, he has another quick fix: He zaps the room with a bulk tape eraser, the sort that you can pick up at Radio Shack. Altering the magnetic fields in the room, he says, seems to be effective.
As for ghosts, says the parapsychologist, some will leave if asked politely. Sometimes people call in a religious authority to do the job. Sometimes they can be annoyed away, much as you might drive off an unwanted flesh-and-blood houseguest. Auerbach claims he got rid of an Oakland family’s ghost by reading knock-knock jokes at it. He has advised clients to purge ghosts with rap or country music. In the case of a rather dejected ghost that the employees of a Concord interior design firm named “Dacron Bob” because he used to hover over the rolls of fabric, Auerbach remembers that “everybody felt so sorry for him that he moved on, as far as we know, because he couldn’t stand the pity.”
But knock-knock jokes aside, investigating whatever is haunting people often means dealing with their fears, their losses, or their reactions to the idea of death. Auerbach admits it’s often hard to tell if ghost sightings are the cause or the effect of emotional turbulence, if seeing ghosts is sometimes the mind’s way of expressing grief, reacting to trauma, or signaling a need for help. And this makes the role of the ghost hunter a little more serious than it may seem at first glance. As Tony Cornell, a parapsychologist whose work Auerbach greatly admires, once put it, “Is it exorcising a spirit or exorcising the mind of the people involved?”
Auerbach says his primary role is to chronicle people’s subjective experiences and offer a way to make sense of them. “We’re really out there to figure out what is happening in cases, to help the family understand what is happening, to educate them about the phenomena, to help them deal with any emotional reactions that they’re having because of the experiences they’re having, which includes sending them to a psychologist,” he says. He believes in calling in whatever health or counseling aid the client might need. But he points out that the Office of Paranormal Investigations holds out two promises that Western medicine can’t necessarily make: They won’t immediately assume you’re crazy. And they make house calls.
In 1987, Auerbach received a phone call from a priest who had been asked to bless the home of a family in Hayward. They were upset about how dishes in their kitchen kept spontaneously flying out of the drying rack and dropping to the floor. Ghostly shadows also appeared at a bedroom window every night at 11 p.m., and the family members were so frightened that they’d taken to sleeping all in one bedroom.
The family was a troubled one. They were illegal immigrants from Mexico who had not found work in two years. Their landlord, who lived nearby with his family, had let them have the apartment rent-free until they found jobs. Unbeknownst to the immigrant family, the landlord’s father had committed suicide in the apartment.
Three students from JFK University were sent out to investigate. The “ghostly shadow” they quickly explained away as nothing more than the shadow of a neighbor’s car’s headlights shining through a prickly pear hedge as he pulled into the driveway when he returned from work at eleven o’clock each evening. The flying dishes they suspected might be the result of poltergeist activity, either an expression of anxiety from family members upset about their economic condition, or the suppressed resentment of the landlord’s family, which had lost out on two years’ worth of rent.
However, when they tried to diplomatically explain the poltergeist theory, the family seemed unwilling to accept the idea and insisted on a “ghostbusting” ceremony. Auerbach’s students cooked up a plan. One of the students who was also a sound engineer went into the studio and whipped up a tape of strange noises: modulated “whooo” sounds and throbbing bass. Once the tape was ready, the students sent the couple next door for the evening, rigged up the house with colorful lights, and played the tape at top volume. The students calmly sat in the house playing cards as the lights flashed and the sound blared. Finally, they switched off the equipment, invited the family back into their home, and announced that the ghost was gone.
For the record, says Auerbach, the objects stopped flying around the house and the family felt better. Was there really a ghost there, which was so irritated by the light-and-sound show they’d concocted that it just went away? Was there truly poltergeist activity that would have diminished once the immigrant family found work? Or was the whole thing an elaborate placebo? Either way, says Auerbach, it worked.
Auerbach is pulling a silk scarf out of his mouth, which is hardly dignified behavior for a professor. As “Professor Paranormal,” he has just concluded a night of performing what he dubs “psychic entertainment” at a dot-com holiday party, at which several extremely sloshed young ladies had more or less failed to appreciate his card tricks. This was a shame, because in addition to studying the undead, Auerbach is a student of the art of showmanship.
When not doing research, Auerbach hosts something he calls “Professor Paranormal’s Psychic Mind Theater,” playing parties and hosting séances at spots such as the Moss Beach Distillery. Does his dabbling in the show-business side of things detract from his believability as a researcher? “It hurts my credibility only with the true believers, because they have a hard time having fun with it,” he maintains. “It becomes a matter of faith for them, and anything that challenges their faith is not a matter of fun.” Skeptics, he says, seem to appreciate the fact that he knows when the deck is marked.
He draws the line, though, at show business that seems designed to hoodwink the public into believing they’ve had supernatural experiences when they haven’t: for example, television psychics who offer fraudulent readings. And he worries that people are getting suckered by media coverage of ghost-related gadgets, most of which are not proven to be very useful. “Every time I’ve done TV shows, it’s ‘Bring equipment, we want to see stuff with flashing lights.’ They almost don’t care what it does,” Auerbach says. “They’re completely ignoring experience and going for the glitz.”
Auerbach knows that he’s drawing a thin line, that a lot of people will find his claims to scholarliness as dubious as he finds, say, 900-number psychics. Parapsychology essentially deals in human experiences, and its focus on the unquantifiable, the subjective and, quite frankly, things that sound very hokey, has given the field an extraordinarily bad rap. But Auerbach maintains that when you’re studying people — living or dead — you can’t expect them to respond with the predictability of a math equation or a chemistry experiment. “The physical laws of the universe don’t apply to human behavior,” he says. “If somebody says parapsychology is not a science, then okay, fine, psychology is not a science either, and neither is anthropology and neither is sociology.”
There are some things about consciousness that we just don’t know yet, but are worth studying, he says. And in fact, a similar lack of hard evidence hasn’t held back other sciences that have endeavored to understand the human mind. “We don’t know a lot of things,” Auerbach says. “We don’t know how the brain works. We don’t know how memory works. We don’t know how aspirin works.” And as he points out, modern society is prepared to believe in many things that can’t be seen, touched, or proven to exist via the scientific method. Love, for example. Or God.
That said, Auerbach is pretty tough on his own discipline. Ghost hunting often turns out to be an investigation of the normal, and Auerbach actually spends a good deal of his time debunking the claims of the overeager. He has little patience for people who crouch in cemeteries hoping to spot something (“If you were a ghost, would you hang around in a graveyard?” he asks) and even less for people who mistake lens flare for “spirit orbs.” “If you have Photoshop, any idiot can pretty much do it by accident,” he says.
And accidents happen all the time. People catch cigarette smoke in a photograph and think they’ve seen a ghost. They see floating rays of light that turn out to be reflections from passing cars. The mysterious noises they hear in the night turn out to be squirrels or mice, the sound of trucks going by on the street, the house shifting because of wind or cold weather, or the hum of fluorescent lights.
In the face of massive disbelief, Auerbach says, you have to be your own worst critic, you have to learn to laugh at yourself, and you have to learn when the game is rigged. After all, you can’t know when something’s for real unless you already know all the tricks in the book.
In 1993, Auerbach was called by a Martinez family who had a whole litany of paranormal complaints. They said their rented house was making them sick — that they’d get headaches and dizziness inside their home, but were fine when they left. They said they saw strange shadowy figures out of the corners of their eyes, that certain rooms made them feel funny, and that every now and then a fireball would just erupt in midair. There was a noxious odor that would suddenly appear and seemed to travel throughout the house. They chalked it all up to demonic activity.
The investigators went to work. Among their discoveries: The house was built beneath some high-tension wires that were producing an inaudible low-frequency buzz that was the likely source of the headaches. In addition, says Auerbach, the wires may have been producing vibrations at nineteen hertz, a frequency that has been shown to vibrate the interior of the eye, producing visual errors. Also, the house was built just over the hill from a landfill that was leaking methane gas, which was creating the rotten smell. The group concluded that static electricity produced by the power lines was probably sparking the fireballs. And finally, the team measured the angles of the house’s doorways and windows and found that they were not all set at ninety degrees. They concluded that the structure had slipped slightly off its foundation, possibly during an earthquake or because of bad construction, and that the lopsidedness of the rooms made their occupants feel off-balance, in the same way that the optical illusions built into attractions such as Santa Cruz’ Mystery Spot do.
Paranormal activity: Zilch. However, the ghost hunters did manage to solve their clients’ house problem. One member of the team gave the family a list of zoning laws the building violated, which ultimately helped them get out of their lease.
The very name “Professor Paranormal” suggests an unlikely conjunction; academic meets sideshow barker. It’s a light approach to a dark subject, and indeed, parapsychology as a whole seems bound up in opposites: science and faith, death and immortality, technology and human decay. Perhaps because of this, Auerbach refuses to publicly wrestle with the bigger philosophical questions suggested by the ghost-hunting business. Is there a God? Is there really “another side,” and if so, what is it like? “I’m in no hurry to find out” is all he will say.
Auerbach does, however, have some fairly concrete plans for what he will do when he dies, should all the relevant X-factors work in his favor and allow him to come back as a ghost. One, he will drop in on his fellow parapsychologists and volunteer as a test subject for their lab experiments. Two, he will spend some time hanging out in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion being, as he puts it, “the spook they can’t account for.” And three, he will find the skeptics who disbelieved him when he was alive and endlessly hum the theme song from Casper the Friendly Ghost into their ears.
It wouldn’t be a bad way to spend eternity — provided no one invents a proton pack.
Loyd Auerbach can be contacted through his Web site, www.mindreader.com