Auburn team chases ghosts, spirits

It's after hours at the White River Valley Museum and a ghost hunt is in progress.

It’s after hours at the White River Valley Museum and a ghost hunt is in progress.

For years, rumors of a resident ghost, perhaps a spirit attached to one of many artifacts lining the shelves in the museum’s storerooms, have persisted.

Hilary Pittenger, a curator at the museum for six years, said she believes she’s seen the ghost.

“My first experience was before I’d heard anything about her,” Pittenger says. “I was in the back room just doing some cleaning. I saw something walk past that was white and had a textile feel to it, like it was fabric.”

When Pittenger informed coworkers of her experience, they told her of similar encounters.

“Every time after that it’s just been walking into a room and getting that feeling that you’ve walked in on someone that wasn’t expecting you,” Pittenger says. “There was nothing scary, just a vague irritation or surprise.”

Without the distractions of patrons, David Vacknitz and Stephen Johnston of the Auburn Paranormal Activities Research Team roam the museum’s displays and storerooms, collecting evidence they hope will prove that a spirit from the other side inhabits the museum.

Johnston, 26, holds a video camera with a digital voice recorder mounted on it, looking for proof of electronic voice phenomenon (EVP). Johnston explains that sometimes the recordings capture voices, or other noises that are possibly spirits trying to communicate with the living.

Meanwhile, Vacknitz works his way through the museum’s main display rooms, measuring electromagnetic fields for anomalies.

“We always break out the EMF detector first,” he says.

In addition to measuring the electrical energy that might be put out by a spirit or ghost, Vacknitz explains, high levels of electromagnetic energy, such as that given off by old electrical wiring, often can have an effect on human perception.

“The human body has reactions to high EMFs and people susceptible to high levels,” Vacknitz says. “They can cause headaches or nausea or even hallucinations.”

For Vacknitz and Johnston, it’s all part of their normal investigation process, which they’ve been doing since APART formed in 2005.

Vacknitz, 37, has long been interested in the paranormal.

“As a kid I watched all the shows about ghosts or hauntings,” Vacknitz says. “I’ve seen all the movies and all that type of stuff. I’ve had occurrences where I’ve had things talk to me, or I’ve felt things or seen things.”

His experience with the paranormal pales next to Johnston’s, however.

“We don’t use the term sensitive, everybody is sensitive to a point,” Vacknitz explains. “But Stephen is autistic, so he has a tendency to be a lot more open without meaning to be.”

The sensitivity has earned him the nickname “Scooby Doo” with the group.

“That’s because every once in awhile something will spook me and I’ll run in place for five seconds and then bolt,” Johnston says. “I have been scared, sometimes at nothing, and sometimes for reasons. I’ve been choked and scratched. I’ve had physical things happen to me. I don’t know what it is, but they like me.”

Unlike many organizations that thrive on the adrenaline rush involved in investigating spooky places, Vacknitz and Johnston contend that APART is different, seeking to help people deal with the unexplained.

“We just want to help people,” Vacknitz says. “It can be draining and tiring, but who else is out there to try and help people with these things? I figure if I can help one or two people, that’s good, that’s what I set out to do. We don’t want to be one of those groups that go in, investigate and give them tapes and say this is what we’ve found, goodbye. You’re not helping anyone then, so what’s the point to doing it?”

That’s why APART is at the museum.

Team at work

The investigation begins like all APART investigations.

“We go to where the incident is, get their story and take a walkthrough,” Vacknitz says. “Just get a feel for how things are laid out and see if we can find anything that might be causing what they’re experiencing.

“We always to try to rule things out before we make a determination.”

After interviewing Pittenger and museum director Patricia Cosgrove, who hasn’t had any experiences with the presence but is eager to find out what’s behind them, the APART crew gets to work.

Pointing out a life-size cardboard cutout of a woman in period dress, part of the museum’s displays, Cosgrove tells APART, “sometimes we find that moved around.”

In the storeroom, Vacknitz claims to feel something brush by him, despite being alone in the area. He also claims to smell flowery perfume or cologne.

For Johnston, it’s footsteps without feet around to make them.

The investigation goes on with Johnston breaking out his iPhone and setting up the video camera on a tripod. He begins to ask direct questions, trying to coax the spirit into communicating.

“We use anything and everything that will get us some proof,” Vacknitz explains.

On the phone, a program called Ghost Radar looks for anomalies in the EMF, using the many sensors on the phone to search for peaks and assigning an algorithm to them that produces a word.

“Sometimes we get really interesting results, sometimes it’s gibberish,” Johnston says.

Tonight the phone spits out several words – football, tea, David, pattern, cave, Thomas – seemingly gibberish.

An hour into the investigation, APART is wrapping up when they come across the cardboard cutout again. A quick glance at the wall behind the figure reveals a poster advertising a football game. In the window of the replica storefront by the cutout, boxes of tea fill a display.

Although Vacknitz says they typically spend much more time investigating, he and Johnston are satisfied with the night’s work. Now the real work begins for the duo, analyzing the data they’ve recorded. Regardless of how the investigation turns out, Vacknitz is satisfied with the handful of instances he and Johnston experienced.

As to whether the museum definitely houses a spirit, the jury is still out.

Johnston says the recordings captured nothing out of the ordinary, no EVP or voices from the other side.

There are the Ghost Radar words and personal experiences, however.

“While (Vacknitz) and I believe there is something there, we cannot say for sure it’s a woman or man, or maybe even residual energy attached to an object,” Johnston says.

He adds that APART hopes to take a little more time to investigate the museum further.

“I’m not here to make anyone believe anything,” Vacknitz says. “If you believe, great, if not, fine. Unless you’ve experienced something yourself, I can’t sit here and show you a picture and say, ‘it’s right here’ and make you believe. There are lots of people who think it’s BS, and I can’t change their minds. But there are also people who’ve come out with us for a time and started to believe. It really depends on what they’re open to.”