2010-08-18 / Top News

paranormal activity

GHOST HUNTING IN SOUTHWEST FLORIDA
BY BILL CORNWELL bcornwell@floridaweekly.com

A camera is set in a corner, just above a bed monitoring paranormal activity in Lehigh Acres. FLORIDA WEEKLY ILLUSTRATION/ PHOTS BY VANDY MAJOR A camera is set in a corner, just above a bed monitoring paranormal activity in Lehigh Acres. FLORIDA WEEKLY ILLUSTRATION/ PHOTS BY VANDY MAJOR It is a dark and muggy night.

Not stormy, just muggy. In place of jagged streaks of lightning, crashing cymbals of thunder, blinding sheets of rain and squealing bats, we have molasses thick tropical air, a gauzy moon and squadrons of divebombing mosquitoes. Somewhere in the distance, a dog — not a wolf or a jackal, mind you, but a small, yappy dog — creates a disturbance. This is not how Hollywood would set the scene for a ghost story. But this is not Hollywood; this is a remote patch in Lehigh Acres, and we must make do with what we have.

The home — one-story, twobedrooms — is a quintessential tract dwelling. The House on Haunted Hill it most assuredly is not. It is accessed by a forlorn stretch of sparsely traveled, hard- packed road that is bereft of illumination. The place is thought to be haunted — or at the very least the site of frequent visitations by unexplained entities. That is what people who believe in such things think. The structure is three years old and occupied by a young man named Kris and his fiancé.

Top: Team members scan monitors for signs of activity from the beyond. COURTESY PHOTOS Top: Team members scan monitors for signs of activity from the beyond. COURTESY PHOTOS There have been no gruesome murders, no strange deaths and no acts of non-lethal violence in the home. Why disturbed and restless spirits seek out this spot in the hinterlands of Lee County to boogie is a mystery. If a horde of spooks has indeed found its way here, one thing seems certain: They must have access to MapQuest and GPS tracking devices because, goodness knows, this place is hard to find, even if you are starting from a location as nearby and prosaic as Fort Myers. Getting here from the Great Beyond must take some real doing.

The 12-person crew from the North Fort Myers-based Florida Paranormal Research has set up shop in the garage. They are here on this Saturday night to investigate the reports of paranormal activity. The investigation will be broadcast live on a web-based weekly television show called “Saturday Night Paranormal,” which attracts a limited but global audience.

Left: Ian Hicken, at one of the monitors in the garage, prepares for the show to go live in five minutes. Left: Ian Hicken, at one of the monitors in the garage, prepares for the show to go live in five minutes. Ian Hickin, FPR’s founder and director, is a pleasant man who, by his own admission, is “obsessed” with exploring the unexplained mysteries of the hereafter. A Fort Myers native and a former firefighter, Mr. Hickin devotes his energies to studying what he calls “the other side.”

“We don’t know what we’ll find here tonight,” Mr. Hickin explains amid a flurry of activity by his “investigators” and “researchers.”

Lead investigator Gary Walters is in charge of the entire invesitigation COURTESY PHOTO Lead investigator Gary Walters is in charge of the entire invesitigation COURTESY PHOTO “We’re not in the business of ridding places of ghosts or spirits,” he explains. “We use scientific methods to detect if spirits are present, and then we attempt to make contact with them. If a homeowner wants to get rid of the ghosts or whatever, we are not involved in that. We can refer them to someone, however.” FPR does not charge homeowners for its investigative services.

FPR has turned the garage of the home in Lehigh Acres into its “command center.” A number of laptop computers and other gizmos are set up on tables. A small video camera has been installed to facilitate the webcast.

Inside the house, various instrumentation and lighting have been temporarily installed. These devices, according to Mr. Hickin, detect subtle changes in energy and also have the potential to capture ghostly images, should something make an appearance. One of the devices — called the “puck” — establishes conversation with spirits, under the proper circumstances, it is said.

Mr. Hickin concedes that all of this can appear screwy to skeptics who believe that ghost hunters and busters are little more than scam artists.

“Oh, yeah, I know there are a lot of people who think this is crazy, and that we are crazy,” he says. “But there are a lot of people — educated people, people who clearly are not crazy — who believe in what we do and do it themselves. I know what we are doing is sound, and I know from personal experience that there is ‘something’ out there. We just don’t know exactly what it is or how to contact it on a consistent basis. That is our mission.”

The 41-year-old Mr. Hickin became fascinated with the paranormal when, he says, his dead grandmother made contact with him when he was a teenager. After years working as a firefighter with the Bayshore Fire and Rescue Service District, Mr. Hickin, a graduate of North Fort Myers High School, founded the nonprofit FPR in 2005. He says his unpaid staff of investigators and researchers numbers about 17.

“I’m not making money out of this,” says Mr. Hickin, who steers a taxi several nights a week to make ends meet. “I drive a crappy car, and I don’t own much of anything. This isn’t about money; it’s about knowledge.”

FPR bills itself as an outfit that “develops new technology, methodology and scientific research techniques in an effort to make fundamental breakthroughs in detection of, and communication with, intelligent spiritual and/or extra-dimensional beings.”

The educational level ranges from people with high school diplomas to those with double masters degrees, he says of his group. “This is not an organization for people who like to fool around with Ouija boards.”

Rusty Myers, who says he spent more than 30 years in research and development with companies like IBM and Hewlett Packard, is FPR’s lead technician, and the man who oversees the setting-up of equipment at sites of inquiry. He says FPR employs a high-level “consumer-grade” computer system to detect spirits and conduct its broadcasts. Mr. Myers is forever tinkering with the equipment in hopes of finding the “technical Holy Grail” of the ghost-finding world.

“Besides,” he says, “I’ve always loved a good ghost story.”

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Kris, whose Lehigh Acres home is the subject of the investigation, does not wish that his last name or the exact location of his home find their way into print. Standing in his front yard on this humid night, he says there have been strange changes in temperature in the home, and that he has had the strong sense of an unseen presence. Kris, who is 24 years old, says he placed a digital voice recorder in an empty room and returned hours later to find that there was a something on it. It was faint, but he enhanced it through his computer and then it became clear.

“It was the voice of a young woman who says, ‘Help me,’” Kris says. “And no one had been in that room while the recorder was there.”

Kris politely demures when a visiting writer asks to hear the enhanced recording. “My laptop is down.”

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Southwest Florida has long been a center of paranormal inquiry. Thomas Edison was drawn to the supernatural, although there is dispute among scholars about how seriously he took the subject. Mr. Edison was said to have told an interviewer that he hoped to “furnish psychic investigators with an apparatus which will give them a scientific aspect to their work.”

Specifically, some believe Mr. Edison at least toyed with building a device that somehow would breach the wall separating the living from the dead. There is no evidence that he actually undertook such a project, and some biographers contend Mr. Edison (who many times denied belief in man’s “soul”) was merely spoofing. There are others, though, who think that the great inventor was serious. John Logie Baird, who was instrumental in the development of television and a contemporary of Mr. Edison, claimed to have made contact with the famed inventor following Mr. Edison’s death in 1931.

The seminal figure in Southwest Florida’s ghostly history was the late George W. Meek, a Fort Myers inventor whose devices revolutionized the air-conditioning industry and earned him millions of dollars. Local ghost hunters and ghost busters still adopt a reverential tone when discussing Mr. Meek, who died in 1999 in North Carolina, where he had moved in the 1980s.

Mr. Meek spent years traveling the world, meeting with mystics, healers, physicians, psychologists and other researchers. He wrote widely (his books bore attention-grabbing titles like “After We Die, What Then?” and “Enjoy Your Own Funeral”) and invested a small fortune and a vast amount of time on various gadgets. His most famous device was the “Spiricom” machine, which was said to facilitate contact with spirits. He insisted that he communicated with his wife, Jeannette, following her death in 1990.

Mr. Hickin’s group and another Lee County-based organization, Southwest Florida Paranormal Investigations, are merely the latest incarnations of the longstanding fascination with the unexplained.

Virginia Walters is FPR’s resident “spiritualist,” and as such is more in tune with the psychic side of the work.

“I’m intuitive, a medium,” says Mrs. Walters, who is 35 years old and works as a transportation coordinator when not dabbling in the supernatural. “Very few of the cases we actively investigate are hoaxes. But not all of them actually involve spirits.”

When a house appears to be haunted but really isn’t, the strange occurrences often are caused by negative energy generated by residents, she says.

“People don’t realize that what you send out comes back,” she says. “Job stress, problems in a marriage, anger and turmoil — all of these things cause a negative energy that can create conditions that make it appear as if spirits are present.”

Gary Walters, Mrs. Walters’s 46-year-old husband, is a former Marine and FPR’s lead investigator. He understands why some people are skeptical of the work they do.

“I was skeptical at first, too,” he says. “The only reason I got involved in this was because (his wife) was involved. I didn’t believe at first. But the more involved I got, well, I’m not saying that I’m totally without skepticism, but I’ve got an open mind now. Something definitely is out there. I just don’t know what, and I hope to find out through this work.”

Before each broadcast and investigation, Mr. Walters gathers the team and reads the Prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel, which, in part, seeks “protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil…” and “…all the evil spirits, who roam throughout the world seeking the ruin of souls.”

Ten p.m. Showtime. Live from Lehigh Acres.

“Hello, everyone, and welcome to a special edition of Saturday Night Paranormal!” begins Mr. Hickin in a mellifluous voice that would do any disc jockey or game show host proud. “We’ve got the whole gang here!”

Viewers follow the investigation on multiple screens accessible from their home computers. Fans also are encouraged to send messages throughout the broadcast, which will continue until the wee hours, and they do so abundantly.

When it is over and the equipment is taken down around dawn, Mr. Hickin and his crew are exhausted. He will sleep away most of Sunday.

Contacted Monday, he explains that it will take weeks for the data to be analyzed. Until then, no firm conclusions can be drawn about what is going on at the house in Lehigh Acres. Nothing dramatic occurred, such as a visitation, but he believes the inquiry was fruitful.

“It did seem to be an active night,” he says. “The investigators heard things with their own ears. Rusty (Myers, the lead technician) heard a growl. I think it was an active house.”

For Mr. Hickin, the Lehigh Acres investigation is just another piece in a puzzle that he’s devoted his life to solving.

Never mind that skeptics doubt there is any puzzle to solve. Mr. Hickin remains enthused. Besides, who can say with certainty that Thomas Edison and George Meek are not merely biding time, just waiting for the right moment to make surprise guest appearances on “Saturday Night Paranormal”? 

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