On the night of Oct. 8, more than 20 people climbed the front steps of the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History (where the smell of cigar smoke has been reported wafting up from the basement when no one was in the building). They continued up the central staircase inside (where there have been reports of a woman in white), past a small screening room on the second floor (where a male voice has been heard), and into a large classroom. If everything about the classroom itself was normal — rows of tables, a podium, a projector and screen — the topic of the night’s class was not. It was, in fact, paranormal.
The students were all gathered at the MacArthur Museum in downtown Little Rock for a Ghost Hunting 101 class, a once-a-year offering through Pulaski Technical College. Of the 23 students, 16 were women. Most were over 40, though there was a quartet of 20-somethings and two preteen girls. When asked, most people indicated that they were there out of a general curiosity.
Some attendees, like Peggy Hill, had already had paranormal experiences. Hill, who described herself as “a very deep believer,” has had dreams in which her loved ones visited her, and more recently was taking a picture of a grandchild when “this thing” appeared in the mirrored wall in the background of the photo. “Nobody can explain to me what it is,” she said. “That really got me interested in spirits.” She was there to learn more about the equipment. “I wanted to learn how to communicate, like through my iPad.”
The class description made a lot of promises. Yes, students would learn about the equipment and methods used during an investigation. But there would also be evidence of spirits and proof of their attempts to communicate with us. And most enticing: “You will then put your skills to work while participating in an investigation at MacArthur Museum, one of the most HAUNTED buildings in Arkansas!” And leading the class would be Rhonda Burton, co-founder of Arkansas Ghost Catchers and, as she was introduced to the class, “the most highly respected paranormal investigator in the area.”
Two weeks before the class, I met up with Rhonda Burton at the fifth annual Arkansas Paranormal Expo, also held at the MacArthur Museum. Burton is the expo’s founder and director, responsible for the lineup of psychics, ghost hunters, Bigfoot experts and UFO chasers. We found a quiet room in which to talk, away from the noise and energy of the crowd.
Burton’s sojourn in the paranormal realm started in earnest more than a decade ago, when she saw the show “Ghost Hunters” on the Syfy Channel, though she says that she and her family have always been interested in anything to do with ghosts or UFOs. After watching an episode, Burton dug an old Sony camera out of her closet. She went to her husband’s dentistry office, which is in an old medical building (“Somebody is bound to have died in there”), and proceeded to get the “poo” scared out of her. She was by herself (“You’re never supposed to go by yourself”) and all of a sudden there was a huge bang and a white blur streaked in front of the camera. “I screamed bloody murder and ran out of the office and said I’d never go back. But I worked there, so …”
By day, Burton is the office manager for her husband’s dental practice. She describes her husband as supportive, though not a paranormal believer. “Some people have their doors open. Some people have their doors cracked. Others have their doors shut. My husband is one who has his door shut.”
Burton later reviewed the tape from her after-hours visit to the office and found that the loud bang was a refrigerator’s compressor kicking on. And the white blur? “I freeze-framed it to watch it go by, and it was a moth,” she said. “You could see the wings.” Nevertheless, she was hooked.
As the classroom filled up, I found a seat at the front table and pulled out my camera and recorder, but it would be nearly two hours before I needed them. The classroom portion of the night proceeded in typical fashion, with a lecture and Powerpoint. First, the rules of ghost hunting (no alcohol, no drugs, no provoking of spirits), then recommendations on ghost meters and audio software and digital cameras. “Everything we do is about research,” Burton said several times during her talk, stressing the need for scientific rigor.
After half an hour, distractions set in. Dust motes swam through the projector’s light. A moth’s shadow drifted across the screen. At one point, the bathroom door downstairs closed, a sound that would normally go unnoticed, but this night caused half the heads in the room to turn and exchange raised eyebrows.
I perked up when Burton began explaining electronic voice phenomena, or EVPs. EVPs are snippets of audio, isolated background sound, in which there seem to be voices that were not audible at the time of recording. Burton played several EVPs she has captured, first priming the class for what they were supposed to hear. When she said the voice in one clip said “Goodbye,” I strained to hear it. Even so, while most of the audio files were inconclusive noise to me, several of them contained what sounded like words, in human-like voices.
Burton demonstrated for the class how she collects EVPs using her laptop and an external microphone. She asked for silence, began recording, and then announced who she was and what she was doing. “Any spirits that would like to talk to us?” A long silence. “Thank you.” She stopped recording and immediately played it back. Burton usually amplifies the sound and removes some of the background noise using digital audio software. If she hears anything — “like if there’s a ‘Help me’ ” — she will respond to what she hears, recording again, then stopping again to listen, in a sort of stop-and-start conversation. Burton went through four years of training with the American Association of Electronic Voice Phenomena to learn how to do this well.
Burton said her EVPs usually come in two- or three-word bursts. “It might be ‘I love you.’ It might be ‘hello,’ ” she said. “My daughter came through, and she just said, ‘Hi, mom.’ ” Sometimes they come through in a voice or from a time period that would make you more comfortable, she explained, and then told me a story about her daughter, who died eight years ago. “I was making her a Christmas ornament the year after she died, and I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to make her angel wings or a halo with her initials in it.” Burton decided on angel wings, and that night, when she was recording a session, her daughter came through in a child’s voice and said, “Mommy, I’m an angel.” “Clear as a bell,” Burton said.
The night of the ghost-hunting class, the room was too noisy for recording EVPs using the laptop and mic, so Burton switched to another technique. She turned on an FM sweep, or Spirit Box as it’s called, a handheld device that simply scans through radio stations without ever stopping. The result is a constant ticking of white noise broken by the occasional word or snippet of music when the sweep crosses an active station. “The scientific community doesn’t believe in it because they say it’s random broadcasts,” Burton said. But she has heard the words, “Hi, Rhonda.” “That,” she said, “is not a random broadcast.”
Burton played for the class an FM-sweep recording from the Dreamland Ballroom, the partially restored 1930s jazz venue on the top floor of what is now the Arkansas Flag and Banner building in downtown Little Rock. “I’ve never recorded anything like this. It’s a horn,” she prompted. There was the ticking of white noise between stations and, for a split second, a clarinet — two or three notes — before more white noise. “There could have been a ghost up there playing a horn for me,” Burton said. “But it could have been residual, too, just something in the past that came through.”
Burton demonstrated the technique for the class, holding the FM sweep to her left ear and saying, “Hello? This is Rhonda. I’m recording.” White noise, white noise, blip of talking, white noise, blip of music, on and on up the dial. Playing it back, she deciphered a “Hey, Robbie” and “Excuse me.” And in response to her question, “If you hear me, can you tell me your name?” Burton heard the name “Robert.”
Suddenly, a woman sitting at the side table, one of Burton’s fellow Ghost Catchers, got up and rushed out of the room. In an email to the class a few days later, which included several audio files from the FM sweep session, Burton said that it was her sister, Robbye, who had suddenly left the room, and then explained why:
“If you remember the first thing I heard was my sister’s name, Robbye, and then we heard her deceased son’s name [Robert] being said by a spirit. During that short two-minute session, everything being said was for Robbye and about Robert. It was an amazing session and one my sister wasn’t prepared for. So we are in a haunted location, in a ghost hunting class and my deceased nephew came through to his mom for the first time.”
With the classroom portion done, we were released into the dark museum to explore for ourselves. With so many people clomping around, collecting EVPs was out of the question. Most people wandered around pointing their digital cameras into black rooms and taking flash photos, hoping to capture orbs. I headed for the tower.
When I had been here two weeks earlier at the expo, Rhonda had taken me to the uppermost floor of the tower, up a narrow curving staircase into what she told me was the most haunted part of the museum. “This is where Sarge hangs out,” she said, referring to the male ghost. An air conditioning unit squealed and squawked. White paint peeled from the high ceiling, and a single light hung from the center. The museum uses the room for storage. Dummy torsos, fake poinsettias, posters and enlarged photos from a Civil War exhibit five years ago. “Those eyes are creepy looking,” Burton said, pointing to a mid-1800s photographic portrait. This was the only time I heard her using a word like “creepy.” I explained that the long exposures required in the early days of photography meant that if a person blinked, it resulted in foggy-looking eyes.
The night of the class, I again climbed up the narrow tower steps to the top floor. Everything looked the same, only more shadowy. I ran into Nick, Micah, Lily and Corey, the four 20-somethings from the class. They were all ghost hunting for the first time, on a lark, really. I asked them what they thought about what they’d learned.
“I tend to not really believe it,” Lily said. Nick added, “I’m definitely considered a skeptic.” In fact, when I asked them whether the class had swayed them in any way, Nick told me it had actually pushed him farther away from believing. The methodology seemed to rankle them as well. “I don’t really believe in the FM,” Corey said. “Whenever she said she heard the trumpet, I was thinking … .”
“It’s a radio!” Micah said.
I wandered the museum a while longer, taking photos of my own and stopping to look at other people’s. As I made my way back toward the front door to leave, I ran into Chris and Katherine Gentry, who are siblings. By way of greeting, we asked each other, “Did you get any orbs?” None of us had.
The Gentrys are young, urban, well-educated — she’s a real estate agent a few years out of college; he’s a few years younger. The sort of people you might expect to attend a ghost-hunting class as an ironic exercise. And yet: “I 100 percent believe in ghosts,” Chris told me. Katherine was a little less sure. “If something really concrete happened to me then I would absolutely say, yes, 100 percent,” she said. “I’m more like 90 percent right now.” And coming to this class, where other people discussed the paranormal with equal sincerity, helped the Gentrys to “not feel like [they were] crazy.”
They grew up listening to their grandmother tell stories of the paranormal, and they watch ghost-hunting shows. But they have also fit their belief into their larger religious framework. “We’re both Catholic, and so we believe in saints and miracles and all that kind of stuff,” Katherine said. She is willing to include ghosts with that stuff. Chris, too. “I kind of view ghosts as like a purgatory-type scenario,” he said. Not a far leap, really, in a religion where one-third of the godhead is referred to as a ghost or spirit.
And then there’s the fact that, as Chris said, “The theory of ghosts has been around since people could cognitively think.” And he’s right. Ghosts are a mainstay of our stories. But far from being proof, Chris wondered, “Were people making those stories up because they were fearful of death and just wanted that afterlife or to talk to their relatives?”
There’s no easy answer. Even the attempts at scientific validation, the Gentrys both said, are helpful only as a sort of “reaffirmation.” Personal experience would trump it all. “I’m still kind of waiting for that confirmation,” Katherine said, “but I do believe.”
It is easy to dismiss this belief in ghosts and the search for proof. But the heart of it all, the bitter pill we never seem to get down, is that none of us — not the doctor, nor the priest, the philosopher, the paranormalist — not one of us knows a damned cent more than anyone else about what happens when we die. Sure, there are groups who swear they are privy to the ways of the afterlife, and others who are just as certain that the very word “afterlife” is an oxymoron. But we cannot know, not in the evidence-based, Enlightenment way we are comfortable with. Because it’s not about knowing; it’s about believing, and we’re not very good at talking about belief.
I left the Gentrys, and on my way out of the building I passed the front desk, where the clerk sat patiently, waiting for everyone to leave. I asked him what he thought about it all. “I’ve never seen or heard anything that doesn’t sound like old building noises to me,” he said. No voices, no woman in white, no cigar smoke. But then he admitted, “Maybe I’m not sensitive.”
I thanked him and headed out into the night. Behind me, the door slowly swung shut.