In 7th grade, it was my entirely serious and somber intention to become a parapsychologist—a scientific investigator of paranormal phenomena.
I was heavily influenced by a series of Time/Life books, "Mysteries of the Unknown," that was relentlessly advertised on television. Children of the 1980s may remember this. For the low, low price of $19.99 per month, Time/Life would send you a book every four weeks, each explicating some facet of paranormal phenomena—Psychic Powers, Ancient Wisdom and Secret Sects, Phantom Encounters. Because I was a bookish kid and my mom was a soft sell, I read them all.
I never did pursue parapsychology, but ghost-busting has always been a dream deferred. As it happens, the Triangle is a great place for a frustrated parapsychologist. There are dozens of paranormal investigation outfits in North Carolina, and Durham's Rhine Research Center—formerly affiliated with Duke University—is one of the last parapsychology institutes still publishing research on the subject.
In an effort to sample the life I missed, I met up with Steve Barrell, lead investigator for Haunted North Carolina, a Durham-based nonprofit that has a reputation for conducting legitimate investigations, as opposed to the showbiz nonsense that haunts basic cable. To get in the spirit of things (sorry, these puns just keep happening), we met at the Stagville State Historic Site, an old plantation with a history of reported hauntings.
A retired musician, Barrell looks like an even more intense Liam Neeson, if that's possible. He's been conducting investigations with Haunted NC for about eight years, and says he's participated in roughly 175 investigations. He leads a team of several regulars, and often brings along consultants including scientists, psychologists and even declared skeptics.
"My research is data-driven," Barrell says. "I look at the data, ask myself what it tells us, and go from there. I didn't join this with any agenda." Barrell's specialty is electronic voice phenomena, or EVP, in which investigators use recording devices to capture spirit voices. Barrell has hundreds of EVP examples, including one recorded at Stagville recently—a lone voice whispering the name "Thomas."
Ghost hunting isn't as exciting as it sounds. Most of Barrell's time is spent carefully listening to hour after hour of digital recordings, which is where he's found the most compelling evidence of hauntings.
"I have no normal explanations for EVP," he says, walking though the dusty interior of one of Stagville's slave barracks, the site of several previous investigations. "I'm careful about who is around, controlling the amount of noise and documenting anything that might be mistaken for EVP. When I hear something like this, I can be quite sure it is paranormal."
After our meet-up at Stagville, Barrell sent me an audio file of what he says is one of his most compelling EVP recordings. At the site of a reported haunting, where a medium claimed to hear a male voice singing, his recorder clearly captured the sound of a man saying the word "falsetto" and singing a few notes. It's not particularly spooky, but if you take Barrell at his word, it is inexplicable.
As a science, parapsychology has become decidedly unfashionable in recent decades. Guys like Barrell can get caught in the middle, trying to do legitimate inquiries with scheming frauds on one side and rabid debunkers on the other. But Barrell says he stopped worrying about what other people think a long time ago: "Paranormal things do happen."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Frequency specters"