How to go ghost-hunting on a budget

In which the 'How to do Everything' guys dig into the economics of ghost-busting, wherever that leads them.

October 31, 2011

By Mike Danforth, Ian Chillag and LaCreshia Birts

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Let's face it. Ghost-busting can be a budget-buster. For instance, if you want to get a recording of a ghost, any old recorder won’t do. The Olympus EVP recorder (that’s Electronic Voice Phenomena recorder) costs 80 bucks at ghoststop.com. Add another $250 for an EMF meter (Electro-Magnetic Field meter, natch) to pick up the fields ghosts generate, and tracking down ghosts is a lot of money--especially considering we might be more inclined toward believing in the paranormal when we have less money to spend.

“Based on income, [poorer] people are more likely to believe in the paranormal,” says Joseph Baker, a sociology professor at East Tennessee State University, who studies belief in the supernatural.

“We know this is true with ghosts, and we also know that in terms of higher levels of engagement—say, consulting a horoscope—lower income actually leads people to be more likely to do those things.”

Now, people with lots of money still believe in the paranormal. Baker says they just specialize. Rich people typically believe in one fringe-y thing—so if you're wealthy you’re more likely to be “that UFO guy” or “the chupacabra lady.”

Whereas, if you’re less well-off, according to Baker, “You’re much more likely to, as we say, ‘sample the supernatural buffet.’”

So, you’re broke, and you think you’ve got a ghost. How do you hunt it down?

There’s actually a book on just this subject. It’s called Poor Man’s Paranormal.  We talked with the author, Joshua Warren.

“One of the simplest tools is a compass,” Warren says. “If it doesn’t point North, it’s being affected by some kind of magnetic interference, especially if it starts to spin in circles or do something else weird. So if you find that as you walk through your house, it deviates from North at certain places, you may have confirmation that this is your hot spot.”

So, it could mean you have a ghost.

It could also mean you have a magnet.

Warren has other tricks as well.  “We know that when ghosts appear, there seems to be evidence of an electrostatic charge in the air,” he says, “and you can detect that simply enough by carrying around a fluorescent bulb in your hand, when it’s dark at night.”

If it lights up, you may have a ghost.

We decided to try it at one of Chicago’s most haunted locations:  Hooters.

Our waitress, Erin, confirmed the rumors that the restaurant chain’s Near North Side location is haunted.

“It’s just little whisperings,” she says. “You’ll think that someone’s around, but you know that you’re down there and nobody else is around. You’ll be down there and you’ll think that there’s somebody down there and you’ll just talk a little. I really didn’t even know our Hooters was haunted. I found out from a customer. I was like, ‘Oh okay—my manager didn’t tell me that, but thank you.’”

To make sure we got the whole story, we brought an expert with us to Hooters: Ghost investigator—and tour guide for Chicago Unbelievable—Adam Selzer.

“In 1875, there was a group of grave robbers that used this space as kind of a hub,” Adam told us once we were seated. “So they’d dig up the bodies, put them in a barrel labeled poultry, and send them off.”

(And, we had just ordered chicken. Yeesh.)

Incidentally, working with Adam may be the most affordable of all the ghost-detection strategies we checked out. If your home—or breast-themed restaurant—is haunted, Adam, like many ghost hunters, doesn’t charge to investigate.

“Charging for things like that is considered tacky,” Adam said. “It’s like the people on TV saying, ‘Have you been injured in an accident? Call this number.’ In the paranormal researcher world, people who charge for investigations are generally considered scams. The most I can get out of it financially is I’ll have another story to tell on my tours.”

According to Adam, the cadaver dump wasn’t exactly in the restaurant.

It was closer to the alley behind the Hooters.

So the three of us went out back with our tools to check things out.

When we took out our fluorescent lightbulb, Adam said that even without an EVP recorder, we may have been overdoing it, equipment-wise.

“You can go ghost hunting with anything,” he said. “You could bring your electric toothbrush. If it turns on, you could say it’s a ghost.”

Ian’s compass started pointing North, so we asked Adam if that might be a sign something was happening.

As usual, his response didn’t exactly send shivers down our spines.

“I’m not a psychic,” he said. “But, no, I don’t feel anything.”

Then, he had a question for us: “You want me to lie?”

He doesn’t usually put this question to his clients, but he says it does cross his mind. “One thing I’ve learned is you make a lot more money if you tell people what they want to hear.”

He has to play it straight, though: “Everybody on the tour has a smart phone now,” he says. “They can fact-check me on these things!”

 ***

For this week’s Windy Indicator, we went to visit Lost Eras, a costume shop that has haunted the Rogers Park neighborhood for decades—and where Halloween provides a bright spot in a dark and scary economy.

“This shop has been in my family for about forty years,” says owner Charlotte Walters.  Lost Eras also sells antiques and rents costumes and props to local theater productions.

The theater trade—and the rep that comes with it—brings in Halloween customers too. “When people want really legitimate clothing, and costumes,” says Walters, “like if they want to look like Lestat from Interview with a Vampire, or they want Scarlett O’Hara—they come here to rent the same costumes the theaters rent.”

For most of the year, rentals to theaters are the shop’s bread and butter.  But a lot of theaters have had a tough few years, and there’s been less bread.

So Halloween becomes especially important, and Walters says that part of her business has been holding steady, with customers coming in to pick out costumes as early as September first.   “The job pressures and economic pressures have been so hard on people, they can’t wait to party on Halloween,” she says with a laugh.

And Walters has been giving her customers some incentives to keep renting their getups from Lost Eras.  “We’ve extended the period of time they can have the costume,” she says.  “Instead of charging for one or two days, we’ll let ‘em take it for four or five days, so they can at least wear the costume for at least two parties. Or three parties.”

Walters herself plans to hit as many as five parties—dressed as a gothic witch.