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Seeking the paranormal

| Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2005

Halloween night, 2001.

The crumbling structures of Dixmont State Hospital -- one of the state's first insane asylums -- loom before onlookers. A warren of forgotten tunnels cuts underneath the campus. The scraggly surrounding forest is littered with gravestones, and seems to be winning back dominion over the asylum's blighted grounds in Kilbuck.

Yes, this sounds like a good spot for a ghost story.

"When I first went to Dixmont, I had heard all of these extremely scary stories, and was really scared about going into a place supposedly crawling with spirits," says Paul Hughes, 28, a web designer who lives in Sewickley.

Paul and Sarah Hughes' ghost story began in the dusty corridors of Dixmont that night. The couple later started the Pittsburgh Ghost Hunters Association, dedicated to tracking supernatural anomalies in the area. Not really in the Bill Murray "Ghostbusters" sense -- more like an ethereal "C.S.I.," looking for clues with the measurable data at hand.

About 51 percent of Americans believe in ghosts, according to a 2003 Harris Poll, so there should be plenty of sites to examine.

"The place was intense," says Paul of his first trip to Dixmont. "I was jumpy, and had a couple incidences mediums call 'psychic attacks.' I felt like I was being choked in one bathroom, I felt a hand slap my face, and all of these spirits walking around."

But when he returned later with the Ghost Hunters Association, they found nothing. In more than 20 visits since, there has been nothing. Maybe the spirits heard that it was going to become a Wal-Mart.

"Paul, after that night, saw that there were two sides to 'paranormal research' or 'ghost hunting,'" says Sarah, 28. "There's the kind that's more about entertainment. There are those who don't take it to that level, but are just going 'to get scared.' Paul found that the other side was more like scientific research."

They started by investigating some of the urban legends that have percolated through Pittsburgh over the years. Blue Mist Road in North Park. The "underwater town," Livermore, near Monroeville. Damian's Grave, in Moon.

"Just about all of the haunted urban legends in and around Pittsburgh that we have investigated have ended up being completely made up," Paul says, "with absolutely no hard evidence to support their claims."

More interesting things have been found in private houses. Ghost Hunters Association teams have conducted dozens of investigations at the behest of local property owners, who generally find them through their Web site,

The tools of the ghost hunter are electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors, infrared (IR) thermometers, digital cameras, tape recorders, and digital video cameras.

"The big thing is you go into a place and you feel a cold spot," Sarah says. "Well, if you have an infrared thermometer, sometimes it's actually physically colder there."

For EMF detectors, she says, "the theory is that spirits vibrate at a certain frequency. We all have energy coursing through our bodies. The perfect example is on "ER" when somebody dies, and they use the paddles to spark their heart. Where does that energy go when somebody dies• It's got to go somewhere. The EMF detectors will sort of point us in the right direction."

Sarah claims she's psychic, and can often 'feel' the presence of spirits.

"We decided that we really wanted to concentrate on the scientific side of it," Sarah says. "Paul has been adamant about not associating the word 'psychic' with PGHA. You can't empirically test psychics."

So now the group operates with two separate teams: one with a scientific and one a psychic approach that split up during investigations and compare notes later.

Sarah's favorite ghost story comes from a psychic investigation, she says. It was at a private residence in Pittsburgh dubbed "8th House," to protect the owners' privacy.

"I was standing in the kitchen, and felt like I was being watched," Sarah says. "The image that came to my head was Roy Orbison. Big glasses, big hair, ugh. ... I had my hair up in a ponytail, and it felt like little individual hairs were being pulled.

"In the end, we sat down with the owners. I said to them, 'I felt like I was being watched. And the image I had was of Roy Orbison.' And the guy's jaw just dropped. There was a peeping Tom (there) in the '70s who looked exactly like that. And I had pegged him to a T."

Skeptics still tend to win most, if not all, of the arguments about the existence of ghosts, of course.

"Skepticism is great. We encourage it," Paul says. "On our Web site we don't claim to have a closed-door policy to skeptics, we just kindly ask that the skeptics be open-minded.

"When people tag along with us ... they are often amazed at how critical and skeptical we can be, and we have seen a bunch of stuff while doing this. When we rule out all rational explanations, we can then -- and only then -- start to look to the paranormal as being the cause of some evidence or haunting."

Ghost files

From the files of the Pittsburgh Ghost Hunters Association:

Dixmont State Hospital, Kilbuck.

Verdict: Not haunted.

"Having been to Dixmont over two dozen times since Oct. 31, 2001, and conducted dozens of experiments and collected just as much data, we firmly conclude that any activity in the past at Dixmont was once residual in nature, but is no longer associated with the place. We firmly feel and state that Dixmont is not haunted."

Damian's grave, Moon.

Verdict: Not haunted/inactive location.

"Regardless of the wild tales told about this place, we got to the bottom of this location and have proven once and for all that there is nothing supernatural about Damian's grave. In fact, we strongly urge people to leave this location alone because of the tremendous stress it has caused the caretakers of the cemetery and the family members of Mr. Damian."

Torrance Hospital structure, Blairsville.

Verdict: Inactive location.

"We found that this location was freaky to be at, but our investigative data lacked any real significant "evidence" of a continued haunting ... . The place just seems to play on people's fears and emotions, which turns shadows into ghosts."

Blue Mist Road, North Hills.

Verdict: Slightly active location.

"We did find out that many of the urban legends are false or have rational explanations to them. However, there does seem to be some activity that happens at night at this location. We will be conducting more investigations in the future to help determine what is going on there." Blue Mist Road is private property and people must have permission to be there at night.

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