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Ghost Hunting: Interview with Bay Area Ghost Hunters

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From the Sherman. The boat has a history of a fire in the kitchen. Is this the memory of that fire caught on camera?

Laura Johnson is an organizer and team leader for Bay Area Ghost Hunters, and has extremely heightened senses. In this post, the first in a series of two, we talk about ghost investigations – experiences, tips and techniques.

PYN: Tell us about the Bay Area Ghost Hunters.

Laura Johnson: The group is organized through Meetup.com. Anyone can be a member, and then you watch for events that interest you. But the problem is we have over a thousand members, and the most I can allow on an investigation is 15 people. So you can imagine when I post something it sells out almost instantly. Often I’ll try to run an investigation at the same place over a series of weekends, so more people can participate. For example, in Burlingame, there’s an old US army transport called the General Frank M. Coxe. I had an investigation there nine weekends in a row, trying to get in as many people who wanted to do the investigation.

Tell us about that investigation.

The ship was a US Army transport, built in 1921, and decommissioned in 1947. She served all through WWII, transporting over 6 million passengers during her military service, ferrying military personnel between island bases, including soldiers injured and sent to hospitals. It was also part of an attempted escape from Alcatraz. Then it was sold as scrap and purchased by the Golden Gate Scenic Steamship Line, which now operates as the Red and White Fleet, where she worked for the ferry line. The current owner purchased it in 1955 and fixed it up as a restaurant, docking it in Stockton. It was called the Showboat and was a big hangout for movie stars. It was there until 1960 and then moved to Jack London Square, where it remained until it moved to Burlingame in 1970. It was a nightclub at one point in the 70s, and that’s when there was a murder on board, when two of the investors got into a shootout. In the 80s, it was a Thai restaurant. Then it was abandoned for 16 years until 2006, when someone claiming to be the owner got a permit to open the restaurant. It opened in 2009, and was called The Sherman. It was open for one year. When Mr. Sherman died and his wife tried to take ownership of the ship, she found out he never owned it. They contacted the owner in LA, who lives on it now. It’s an awesome place to investigate.

What did you find?

The first four weekends in a row there was something not good in the bottom of the ship. I don’t believe it was a person – it was an entity. It growled at us, and it wasn’t an animal growing. It was very loud; we didn’t need a recording to hear it. We actually left the area and came down a little later. But every week it seemed to get a little less “dark.”

There was one room I never had access to, and I figured out how to get the door unlocked with a shrimp spoon. When I opened that door for the first time, it was such a weird sensation, like all the air got sucked out of the room, but then the ship was completely silent. It was the most eerie thing. We’d been out there investigating for hours and we could always hear the water splashing against the side of the ship, but the whole ship became dead silent for about an hour. You couldn’t hear birds, water, anything. In my personal opinion, I think this other entity was holding the other spirits in this room and when I opened the door, they escaped.

Because after that day, when we went back, it never seemed to feel dark or heavy and then the spirits began communicating with us all the time. They’d play with our flashlights or roll a ball. We got a lot of EVPs. Someone was with us who channels spirits and she talked to us through them or they talked to us through her. That was amazing. But I never felt that dark heaviness again after that, though it was still kind of creepy downstairs.

When we first began the investigation, the few EVPs we got said, “help me,” or “help us.” Doors opening and slamming. Lights going on. But in the last weeks, we talked to a little girl named Sally and got her to turn on and off the flashlight to answer our questions. She rolled the ball and we’d stop it, and then she’d roll it again. I couldn’t figure out why a little girl was on an army transport. We talked to a man from Africa, and someone from Britain. They said there was a portal on the ship so they could just come through, visit and leave.

Most of us have seen the TV show Ghost Hunters. How different is what you do from what you see on Ghost Hunters?

It’s not really much different, other than they get paid. But shows like Ghost Hunters and Ghost Hunters International give us a good name.

I just got back from the ghost town, Bodie – have you investigated there?

No, but I’m trying to arrange it. But the permitting process for ghost investigations can be hard. I try to do stuff fairly local. Saturday night I did the McConaghy house in Hayward.  It was owned by one family only and was built in 1886. Back in the 1800s, people more typically died in their homes, so there was a record of several people dying in the home of old age, though one of the middle sons, Archie McConaghy, was 25 years old when he died. They ran a farm, and he had a horse-drawn wagon with farming equipment in the back. Something spooked the horses and he fell off and the equipment fell on him. They were able to get him back to the house, where he died of internal injuries. It’s said he haunts the house, and I know he does because I’ve seen him.

You’ve seen him – tell us about that.

When I went on June 1st, we were up in the attic, supposedly where he has been known to haunt. As I took flash pictures, the light lit up in the top of the stairs and I saw a man staring back at me. There was nothing on the picture. When the second light flashed, he was gone. When I went downstairs later on, I saw a man’s picture on the wall and asked who he was. They told me he was Archie, the man I’d seen.

When I saw him on the stairs, he looked like a solid person, not a shadow. He was wearing a dark suit. Had sandy blond hair. He was just standing there staring right back.

Do people bring equipment on a ghost hunt?

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Orb with colored edges from a ghost hunt at Preston Castle

You can bring your own, or bring none and just come for the experience. Some people want to come to one or two investigations before spending money on equipment, because equipment isn’t cheap. But the top two items to have on a ghost investigation are a flashlight and digital recorder. Digital recorders are going to be your number one piece of equipment. What’s the point of asking questions if you can’t hear the answers? We’ve seen things – stuff go by, shadows, but the majority of our evidence is EVPs. I’m skeptical of orbs – most are dust, moisture, or bugs. [Tweet this!] But when they’re big and there’s color around them, I take a second look.

As soon as we begin an investigation, I give my spiel about tagging. Whenever you make a sound during an investigation, you have to tag it. You run into something or your stomach gurgles, you need to say what happened out loud, so later when you’re listening, and you hear a sound, you know it was human. Some people are good about tagging and some people don’t realize you can hear EVERYTHING with the equipment.

I also tell people not to whisper. Talk in a low but a normal voice. Because when you’re listening on a recording, you can’t tell if it’s someone in your group speaking or a ghost. Phones have to be OFF or on airplane mode because they mess with equipment. Car key beepers also set off our equipment. Aside from that, I allow any equipment except for live streaming equipment and Ouija boards. And the last thing I say during my spiel is: “be patient with the people in your group.” When you get to your room, give people a moment to get settled and get their equipment set up, because you will be investigating with others. For safety reasons, you should never investigate on your own.

Why are you anti-ouija board?

I won’t use them because my personal experience and belief is that the only spirits they ever seem to conjure or contact are negative. When we were kids, we found a Ouija board in my grandmother’s bedroom, hidden in a back closet. My cousins and brother and I started to mess with it and had some weird stuff happen. We got in so much trouble for it, we never saw it again. The majority of people who use them don’t know what they’re doing. A lot of venues won’t allow them either.

In our next blog, we’ll talk to Laura about her experiences with extremely heightened senses.

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