Outside the two-family house at the bottom of Halstead Avenue, it’s dark. A high-pitched screeching sound echoes through the street, the product of a rail yard down the hill from the Clifton neighborhood. The wind gently blows, and the rustle of the trees blends with the sound of a distant wrought-iron gate squeaking on its hinges. And though there’s no one else with me on the street, I can’t help but feel that I’m not alone. Sensing a chill down my spine, uncharacteristic of what one normally feels on a warm spring night, I step inside.
Kevin Southard stands in the living room of a poorly-lit home, not his. The living room is devoid of any source of light; the only illumination is cast by track lighting in the adjacent kitchen. The residents sit on an old couch across a coffee table from him – two girls, one of whom is cuddled up with her boyfriend. They look at him expectantly as he prepares to speak to them. Behind Southard, two women and a man, all wearing black t-shirts, inspect digital voice recorders, cameras, and flashlights, replacing batteries where needed. “We’ll go dark in fifteen,” says Kevin. “And then we’ll figure out what’s going on in here.”
Kevin, 37, is the assistant director of Ghost Corp, a West Chester-based organization dedicated to the investigation of paranormal activity. He and his team have been summoned to the dwelling by a Xavier University student named Nicole, 22, who prefers her full name not be mentioned in a conversation involving the paranormal. Nicole’s roommate Alex had moved into the Clifton house back at the beginning of April, and had noticed an unshakeable sense of unease when she was alone. After Nicole joined her in the dwelling, everything seemed fine – for six weeks or so, at least. But that was before lights started turning on and off on their own, doors started slamming shut, and the girls started getting the feeling that they were being watched while they were in the shower. That’s when Nicole looked up Ghost Corp.
Ghost Corp members Jeff Cox, 31, and Mary Brubaker, 47, are Southard’s senior investigators on the case. They’ve already worked their way through the house, familiarizing themselves with the lay of the land and placing stationary infrared cameras in locations the residents have reported the most worrisome activity. Southard remained downstairs during the set-up, preparing the residents for what to expect throughout the evening. He tells me that preparing the client is a pretty standard speech: all electricity will be turned off until the house has been swept (electric appliances can give false-positives on electromagnetic field detectors), access must be granted to all areas of the property, including the basement and the back yard. Oh, and Ghost Corp will be in your home until at least 5 a.m. The girls happily agree.
Southard says that the group has no shortage of people who want their homes and places of business investigated. He and his group have only been in business since January of this year, and not a weekend has gone by, save one, where the team hasn’t gone out to search for evidence of ghostly activity. Southard and his wife, Shelliegh, took one Saturday off in late April to hold an organizational meeting to welcome curious new members looking to learn how to become ghost hunters in their own right, and discuss the group’s plans for the future.
And the plans are ambitious. Kevin says that he’s in contact with private investors who are mulling the decision to give the group a sizeable grant, estimated in the $300,000 range. He has creatively-inclined members, and he wants to get books published with the Ghost Corp logo. He plans to start a monthly newsletter chronicling paranormal investigations in Southwest Ohio, Northern Kentucky, and Southeast Indiana, and he already has plans in motion that would make Cincinnati the home of one of the country’s largest paranormal conventions. May 2008 is the target date, and the convention would include some of the country’s most renowned paranormal investigation teams (Southard mentions TAPS, the team regularly featured on the SciFi channel’s “Ghosthunters” series”), psychics, and authors. He says that half of all membership dues and contributions between now and the convention will go to the Make a Wish foundation, a cause in which the Southard family has a personal stake.
The reason for that is the same reason that Ghost Corp exists: Kevin and Shelliegh’s son, Austin. Now 12, Austin was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago. The family lived in a small apartment in a small town called Monroe, Indiana. While recovering from chemotherapy, the boy started telling his parents about hearing voices in his room. And at first, they dismissed his stories, attributing them to one of the many medications he was taking, but after a while, they began to notice a pattern. The things the voices said were always the same. After doing some research on the area, Kevin learned that a murder had been committed on the railroad tracks outside of the apartment complex, and Austin’s account of the voices were consistent with details of the murder. The Southards were believers.
The allure of the idea of life after death was too much for Ghost Corp member Mary Brubaker to ignore. Her husband passed away suddenly when she was 40, and suddenly Brubaker was alone. Instead of allowing herself to succumb to depression, Brubaker began to look into ways that she might keep the spirit of her husband alive in her life. Brubaker did some research, and eventually got in contact with a medium: someone who claims to be able to channel spirits. Brubaker held a séance to communicate with her husband. “It was amazing,” she says. “He was all over the room. I could feel his warmth.” Brubaker is interested in support groups for people who have lost loved ones to death. She’s pursuing membership with an organization called “Together Forever.”
But while the spirits in the lives of the Ghost Corp members don’t seem to mean any harm, the ghosts they investigate seem to have a more malicious streak. In some cases, Kevin says, the spirits have been catalysts in family disputes, mental illnesses, and in some extreme cases, have even caused physical harm. His group is out to prove that the people who experience these things aren’t nuts.
But the pursuit of spirits isn’t cheap. A new investigator needs to have the right equipment, paid for out-of-pocket. Kevin recommends that, at bare minimum, an investigator should purchase: a digital voice recorder ($30-$80, used to pick up ghostly voices not audible by the human ear); a digital camera ($120 and up, used to capture images of “orbs” and other visual phenomena often overlooked in the course of an investigation); a laser thermometer ($20-$30, for detecting “cold spots” that might indicate the presence of spirits); an electromagnetic field detector ($30-50, because spirits draw on existing energy to manifest); and a flashlight ($10 and up – most investigations are conducted in total darkness).
For their investigation in the Halstead Avenue home, Ghost Corp has included some extra goodies in the hopes of detecting spiritual activity: infrared cameras, stationary video cameras, and an “HQ” computer where all of the footage is routed. After the investigation is over, Kevin and Shelliegh will endure the tedious, painstaking task of listening to every audio recording, reviewing every camera exposure, and watching every second of footage from each camera, in the hopes of uncovering some evidence that will either validate or debunk the claims of the home’s residents.
“We don’t always get activity on the first visit,” Kevin tells me as he walks me out to my car. It’s 2:00 a.m., and the investigation hasn’t resulted in any noticeable paranormal activity, despite attempts to provoke whatever’s inside the home to show itself. “Sometimes, it takes two or three attempts before we have enough evidence to make a conclusion one way or the other,” he says.
He lights a cigarette and tries to recruit me to become a writer for the Ghost Corp newsletter. I politely decline, citing other projects. He smiles. “You don’t know what you’re missing, man,” he tells me. “You have no idea.”