It's about 11 p.m. on a drizzly Friday evening as we pull into the drive leading to the old Salem Cemetery in Atoka, a tiny town a few miles north of Millington. We're in a large white Lincoln Town Car with a magnetized sign on one door that reads, "Memphis Paranormal Investigations -- Got Ghosts? Call Us." The trunk is loaded with equipment of all sorts -- digital cameras, night-vision goggles, electromagnetic-field (EMF) detectors, listening devices, and various other gadgets.
Using these tools and a little psychic intuition, three members of the Memphis Paranormal Investigations team plan to show me how to spot a ghost.
On October 28th, an episode of the Travel Channel's Weird Travels will feature MPI team members reenacting Memphis' most famous ghost stories. They were contacted by the Travel Channel after producers stumbled upon the group's Web site, MemphisParanormalInvestigations.com.
There's a sense of giddy anticipation as the team members unload their equipment. When I hear a rustling of leaves in the nearby woods, I jump.
"What was that? Did you guys hear that?" asks Ginger, a bubbly woman who spent the majority of the car ride giggling and cracking jokes. As the rest of us reply that we also heard it, a now-solemn Ginger points her digital camera in the direction the sound seemed to have come from. The camera flashes, and on the preview screen a tiny illuminated orb appears to hover in the air next to a distant tree. According to Ginger, we've caught our first ghost image of the night.
The Memphis Paranormal Investigations (MPI) team specializes in hunting ghosts. They attempt to capture photos of "orbs" (balls of light) or swirly, smoke-like ectos (short for ectoplasm). The 10-member team, led by Mike Einspanjer, performs house calls by appointment and investigates cemeteries, like Salem, as a hobby. They also use cemetery trips to initiate newbies like me.
After Ginger makes her first find, the four of us begin to slowly make our way through the dark graveyard. Other than a few streetlights near the edge of the cemetery, there's very little light, and while I'd normally feel a little creeped out walking through a century-and-a-half-old "yellow fever cemetery" at night with three complete strangers, I feel at ease for some reason. This may be due to the safety precautions Einspanjer suggested I take before leaving home.
In an e-mail, he asked me to bathe in salt water as a way of cleansing negative energy, and he said it was very important to meditate on releasing all negative thoughts and emotions. He also asked me to bring a bouquet of fresh flowers to leave as gifts for those long-dead folks who haven't received any tombstone ornamentation in years.
So, armed with flowers and a flashlight, I feel confident that I'm safe with these people. They're already shooting away, everyone pointing their cameras in different directions. When a particularly large or interesting orb shows up on someone's screen, everyone crowds around the camera for a viewing. I begin to wish I'd brought my own camera.
While we were only getting solitary orbs at first, Ginger and her husband Pat soon begin capturing dozens of orbs sparkling in the limbs of a tree near an area where, Einspanjer tells me, they used to bury slaves in mass graves. In some cases, two cameras pointing in the same direction document identical orbs -- same brightness, shape, color, and size.
Skeptics of ghost photography often make the argument that orbs are nothing more than dust particles. On digital cameras, they claim the orb is an out-of-focus dust particle reflected by the flash. With film cameras, some say the orbs are amplified bits of dust on the negative. And while dust does show up as a ball of light, Einspanjer says he can tell the difference once the photo is blown up.
"If you magnify a speck of dust, it looks like the surface of the moon. It'll look like it has tiny hairs on it. A speck of dust never shows up as a blue four-foot ball of light," says Einspanjer, the pale-faced, dark-haired founder of the group. "Orbs are balls of energy. Some are as bright as spotlights and some are different colors. Most of them have the same shape about them, but we've seen lots of apparitions too."
According to the MPI's Web site, an apparition is defined as a supernatural presence that may be seen but is more commonly detected by touch, sound, and smell. At one point, Einspanjer captures an image of what appears to be a small boy inside a large, bright orb, and while we never see any apparitions with the naked eye on this journey, we do discuss a shared feeling of not being alone in the cemetery.
"They have lots of ways of letting you know they're around," says Einspanjer. "When I go to cemeteries, I often get a song stuck in my head that may have been [the spirits'] favorite song or something they sang to their wives. You can also detect odors sometimes. At one cemetery we go to, there's a man we nicknamed Cucumber Man because when he comes past you, it smells like you've just cut up a plate of cucumbers."
Einspanjer says some ghosts also send off electromagnetic signals, and the team uses an EMF detector to search out the signal. At Salem, I am given the task of holding the detector, and throughout our cemetery trip, it never once produces any kind of signal. However, as we load up our equipment to leave, the green "safe" light briefly changes to a yellow "caution" light. This is near the area where we spotted our first orb.
MPI also makes use of night-vision camcorders, manual tape recorders, dowsing rods, antique music boxes, two-way radios, and an infrared temperature gun that detects cold spots (areas where the temperature drops as a ghost passes by).
The team also makes house calls free-of-charge, donating their time and using their own cash for out-of-pocket expenses. MPI believes they can tell curious homeowners if those strange noises are indeed ghosts. Most of the house calls -- Einspanjer says they do 60 or so a month -- come from people who have either heard of MPI through word-of-mouth or from people who have stumbled upon their Web site.
A few months after Greg Young moved into his near-century-old Midtown home, he says he noticed a strange presence. Naturally skeptical, he tried to brush off the feeling. And he dared not mention it to his wife and young son for fear of spooking them. When he heard odd noises, he attributed them to the house settling. But deep down, he says he just couldn't shake the feeling that he and his family were not alone.
That was 17 years ago. Young has since been through a divorce and has spent a good while living in the home alone. That's when he became very aware of the presence. He was prepared to live with it, not knowing for certain if his house was truly haunted, but something happened a few months ago that sent chills down his spine.
When a roommate moved in, he began keeping a set of keys on a nail in the back door to ensure no one got locked out of the house. One day he came home to find the keys lying on the floor and the nail missing. He assumed his roommate had removed it, so he picked up the keys and placed them on another hook. Later, he asked his roommate why she'd taken the nail out of the door. She said she hadn't touched it. He says this gave him a chill, but he just shook it off. Two days later, he grabbed for the keys in their new spot only to find they were hanging in their original place on a nail in the door.
"I thought, well, I guess she hung the keys back up, but when I asked her about it, she said she hadn't," says Young. "I told her I've had odd feelings since I first moved into the house, and she said she'd felt the same. She was picking up on the same things independent of me."
It wasn't until he spotted the MPI's "Got Ghosts?" sign on a car in front of him at a local fast-food drive-through that he decided to do anything about it.
"I called and spoke to [Einspanjer]. He said he'd drive by and take some pictures from outside the home. Usually, they can tell if there's any activity from outside. He said if they saw anything, they'd give me a call," says Young.
Generally, MPI performs what they call a "drive-by" before they check out the inside of a home. After nightfall, they'll drive past the house in question, taking photos in hopes of capturing an orb.
"Ghosts want to be seen and heard and acknowledged, so when there's people [like us] nearby who are receptive to them, they come out," says Einspanjer. "We can usually tell how many are inside because they're usually right above the roof."
The drive-by gives the team an idea of whether or not the house is worth checking out. If they think it is, they'll call to set up an indoor investigation within a week.
MPI gave Young a call. They'd photographed a large orb on his front porch, and they wanted to come inside and have a look. On the scheduled day, a crew of three, including Einspanjer, showed up armed with their ghost detection equipment. They performed a quick interview with Young and immediately got to work setting up. They put a camcorder in the attic and placed several tape recorders around the house. Then, they got to work shooting for orbs.
"We get the house all dark and quiet and we set up video cameras in certain areas that are believed to be hot spots [where ghosts have been seen before]," says Einspanjer. "We take anywhere from 800 to 2,000 pictures with the digital cameras."
The result: dozens of orbs photographed inside and outside Young's home. The team also detected a peculiar radioactive reading on the roommate's deceased dog's blanket. Einspanjer says he believes it was from the spirit of the dog.
Still feeling a little skeptical, Young and a friend decided to perform an investigation of their own. The results shocked Young.
"The MPI team e-mailed me some photos, and after we realized they were just walking around with a digital camera, we decided to take some photos of our own. We also told a friend about it, and she asked if she could drive by and take some," says Young. "We got dozens of orbs and so did she. It can't just be one photographer and one camera, because we had orbs in photos from at least five different cameras and four different photographers."
These days, Young says he still gets goose bumps when he wakes in the middle of the night and hears his pens rattling on the dresser. But he no longer wakes up suspecting burglars. He just accepts them as "his visitors," and he doesn't feel threatened any longer.
"I wasn't sure if I believed in ghosts before, but now I think I do," says Young.
In the 1980s classic Ghostbusters movies, four former-university-researchers-turned-parapsychologists used special equipment to suck the abhorrent apparitions out of the New York buildings where they were wreaking havoc. MPI takes a very different approach. They're not ghostbusters or exorcists, and they make no claims at being able to rid a home or building of a ghostly presence.
"No one can really get rid of them. You're creatures of free will while you're living and the same thing goes for when you're dead," says Einspanjer. "There are some people in town who say they can get rid of them, but the best way to piss off a ghost is to get some priest in there sprinkling holy water all over the place. That really irks them."
How does he know this? Einspanjer specializes in automatic writing, a method of communicating with ghosts in which a medium writes while in a trance. According to the Occultopedia.com Web site, the writer is usually unaware of what's being written, and the handwriting produced is usually larger than normal. Writing is sometimes produced backward or in "mirror script."
After ghosts are detected on a house call, Einspanjer will set up a time to come back to the home and communicate with the spirits. He says he can talk to ghosts, a trait he believes runs in his family. He'll sit down and, through automatic writing, he'll try to determine who the ghost is in relation to the homeowner or the home. If the current resident wishes to have the ghost leave, Einspanjer can try to talk to the spirit and tell it a new family is living there, but he makes no promises that he can convince the ghost to leave. He says sometimes he basically gets told to "fuck off."
"Most of these ghosts don't know they're dead. They're still living in their time in their house. What you see and what they see is different," he says. "There's a famous story about a Toys "R" Us in Sunnydale, California, where a ghost hunter could see a man in the middle of the store who appeared to be splashing in a creek. That area was his farm 100 years ago, and the man kept asking why all these damn children were around. He didn't even know he was haunting a toy store."
After Einspanjer communicates with a ghost, the house call is complete, but he says the team tries to stay in communication with their clients to ensure they're not having any problems living with the ghosts who choose not to leave.
"Not every house has something bad in it. A lot of people just kind of want to know whom they've got living with them," says Einspanjer. "But there's always going to be a few assholes in the bunch."
One of those "assholes" was the ghost that Einspanjer says haunted his childhood home in Midtown. Someone determined it was the spirit of the former owner, who hanged himself in the home. He would walk up and down the stairs at night, and Einspanjer believes he hated women because several female visitors were mysteriously pushed down the stairs. One lady was so spooked, he claims, she rushed out of the house and never came back for her belongings.
Born With It
Since Einspanjer had ghostly experiences early on, he learned to deal with the spirit world at an early age. He says automatic writing runs in his family, and he began practicing the technique by age 15. Oftentimes, as a kid, he would drive out to cemeteries and spend hours just sitting there because "they were peaceful places."
Ghost hunting began as a hobby. He and a friend would sit in cemeteries at night taking photos in hopes of capturing orbs. There was a Web site that listed Tennessee's most haunted places, and they set out to prove and disprove all the places listed for Memphis. As people began to get word of what they were doing, they'd be asked to check out people's homes and businesses.
As demand grew, so did the need for a team of experienced investigators. Last year, just before Halloween, Einspanjer and his friend began placing flyers around the University of Memphis, calling for those with an interest in the paranormal. The response was overwhelming. After screening the interested parties, he assembled a team of 10 people. He says there's currently a waiting list of people who wish to get on the team.
"We've had a few people join and get spooked and never come back," says Einspanjer. "There are some places we go that even spook me, so that's understandable. The group we have now, though, has incredible chemistry. We never walk into a place without asking permission first, and if we get the slightest sense that we're not wanted, we go somewhere else. We try to treat [spirits] with more respect than they were used to when they were living."
Einspanjer believes anyone can be a ghost hunter, and while some people may be born with a knack for dealing with the supernatural, anyone with an open mind can learn.
"It just takes practice. Most people are blocked or conditioned from childhood not to believe in anything," he says. "I always tell people, if you don't want to see ghosts, don't come with us."
On our trip to Salem, I had hoped to see ghosts. After all, it wouldn't make for a very good story if the ghost hunters produce no results. We do have numerous orb photos, which, Einspanjer informs me, means that MPI is having especially good results on this trip. He says there is nothing but positive vibes in the air and that means the ghosts must like me.
After about an hour, we're standing around comparing results of the orb shoot, and Pat is still happily shooting away. Suddenly, I feel a sensation on the back of my neck, sending a chill down my spine.
"What was that?" asks Pat, almost as soon as I notice the sensation.
"That," says Einspanjer, "was our cue to leave."
We begin to make our way to the car. Ginger and I lead the way with brisk steps. Einspanjer and Pat trail behind. Pat's still stopping to shoot pictures.
When we get into the car and head out, I'm informed that although we were asked to leave, it wasn't a bad sign, just the spirit world's way of saying they were tired of us being there. The Memphis Paranormal Investigations team say they always get this cue when they visit Salem Cemetery. This makes me feel a little less spooked, and as we chat on the ride home, they ask me if I'd be interested in going on some future hunts with them.
Without much thought, I say I'd love to. Maybe next time, I'll bring my camera. •