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Loyd Auerbach sees dead people.
No, wait. That's not quite right. Loyd Auerbach has been pinched by dead
people. He has been patted on the back by them. He has smelled their cigar
smoke. He has taken their photos, recorded their movements with electronic
devices, asked them questions, and gotten answers. At one point, he says,
a dead person walked right through him, a sensation that he describes
as "tingly, in a good way." But he has not, as of yet, actually seen any
of them, and frankly this seems to leave him a little chagrined, even
though Loyd Auerbach is certainly not one of those people who has to see
in order to believe.
Auerbach is one of the few people in the world with an advanced degree
in parapsychology, and one of an even more select few who run ghost-hunting
operations from their dens. In formal terms, Auerbach's den is known as
the Office of Paranormal Investigations, from which he oversees a team
of about six Bay Area ghost hunters, many of them affiliates of the extremely
unusual and short-lived parapsychology master's program at John F. Kennedy
University in Orinda, where Auerbach used to teach.
The program's untimely demise, however, has done little to slow Auerbach
down. In his several decades as a paranormal researcher, he has turned
the study of all things ghostly into a thriving business, and his media
savvy has made him into something of a talking head for the undead. He
has written four books about the supernatural and markets his own line
of seminars, videotapes, and ghost-story cassettes. He frequently serves
as a consultant for sci-fi TV shows and news programs wanting the downlow
on the unexplained. Electronics retailers looking to push certain models
of electromagnetic meters used on ghost-hunting expeditions like to drop
his name. And since Auerbach also enjoys performing sleight of hand at
parties and hosting séances -- something of a sideline to the ghost-hunting
business, which itself is a sideline to his part-time day job as a consultant
for LexisNexis -- he has also recently adopted the stage name "Professor
Paranormal," which has a more impressive ring to it than "Loyd"
Today, as Auerbach prepares to lead a ghost- hunting team through the
USS Hornet, he believes he stands a fairly good chance of seeing something
spooky. According to local legend, the World War II naval carrier now
docked at Alameda Island is haunted by the spirits of dozens of prankish
sailors. "It's unusual to have this many at all, but we're dealing
with, essentially, a city," Auerbach says. Part of the Hornet's draw
for the departed is said to be that it was the site of good memories and
youthful camaraderie. The ship's old-boy charm attracts the living, too.
"The ghosts are hanging out, just like the docents, guys who used
to be in the Navy," he says.
Auerbach's ghost-hunting method is based upon correlating as many forms
of documenta- tion as possible, including cameras, machines, and people's
sensory perceptions. Accordingly, each member of the team assembled for
today's excursion has a particular strength. Neva Turnock, one of Auerbach's
seminar students, is along to lend her abilities as a psychic. Pam Heath,
an investigator who has been working with the Office of Paranormal Investigations
for seven years and has degrees in medicine and psychology, claims to
be psychically sensitive, but also has brought along a small black box
called a TriField meter. It measures the electromagnetic fields in both
natural and man-made objects, and ghost hunters use it to look for unaccounted-for
energy sources. Auerbach is carrying a black duffel bag filled with his
own selection of equipment including a variety of electromagnetic meters,
a small videocamera, a Polaroid camera (known among ghost hunters as more
reliable than digital or 35 mm film), and a fluorescent light for detecting
Ghost-hunting lore is rife with electronics that malfunction and tapes
that are wiped blank in the presence of supernatural phenomena, so the
tour gets off to a promising start when a reporter's tape recorder stops
working once it gets within a few feet of the Hornet. But the only dead
things affecting the machine turn out to be its batteries, which are replaced.
The group makes its way into the bowels of the ship, heading for the medical
bay, where Auerbach says he has previously witnessed paranormal stunts,
including unexplained dancing lights showing up on video and a ghost performing
on demand. On that occasion, Auerbach says he asked the ghost to move
a hand over to the TriField meter. The needle jumped. Then Auerbach asked
him to move it away. The needle went back to zero. It went on like that
for quite some time.
But today, there are no disembodied wise guys, and the needles on the
two meters Auerbach has set up around the room stay resolutely at zero,
even when members of the ghost-hunting party try a little wheedling out
loud. "If they don't want to cooperate, they don't want to cooperate,"
he says as everyone finally gives up their cajoling efforts. Luckily,
according to Heath and Turnock there are plenty of ghosts in evidence
elsewhere on the ship today, although most of them turn out to be markedly
shy. In the chapel, both women sense a kindly, older presence, who nevertheless
wishes we'd leave. The Polaroid pictures Auerbach shoots of a petty officer's
bunk, where Turnock says she is getting a very strong impression of a
sad and angry young man, show nothing unusual. In the pilot's mess, where
Turnock says she senses a genial, class-clown type, it's impossible to
get any readings because the low-hung fluorescent lights are putting off
such strong signals that they overload all the TriField meters. And when
the group reaches the sailors' sleeping quarters, Turnock is immediately
overcome with nausea. "I think I'm going to throw up," she says,
clapping a hand over her mouth and heading for the nearest bathroom.
Both Auerbach and Heath agree that they've felt this happen before, and
interpret it as a signal that human visitors are not welcomed by whichever
spirit is in residence that day. "There was a spot that several of
us could not even walk into right off the hangar bay," Auerbach says.
"We got waves of nausea just walking in there."
The ghosts hanging around in the ladies' room, however, turn out to be
much more receptive to the female ghost hunters. "They may be dead,
but they haven't forgotten," offers Heath, who says she has
frequently encountered ghosts in the women's bathroom, formerly the ship's
engine room. "They tend to be polite, though. They don't enter the
stalls, but they do love to watch women put on makeup in the mirrors."
Turnock, who is standing with her hands palms up in front of her, gazing
fixedly at the wall ahead of her, says she sees a very young man. Heath
moves her TriField meter in front of Turnock's hands. The needle jumps
up from the zero position almost to the five mark, a fairly high reading.
Then Heath waves the meter behind Turnock's back, and the signal disappears.
"It was off the scale a minute ago," Heath mutters. This is
a good sign -- it means whatever is affecting the meter isn't evenly distributed
throughout the environment. But a check for possible signal sources reveals
that Turnock is standing awfully close to a wall-mounted fuse box, which
could be causing the high reading.
The rest of the team suggest that she try to get the ghost to move away
from the fuse box for another reading. "I'm asking him to walk with
me," Turnock murmurs, heading towards the row of sinks on the other
side of the room.
"You have any lipstick with you?" Heath suggests. Turnock obliges
by leaning in over the sink and brushing a wand of pale-peach gloss over
her lips. Both women say they still feel the young man's presence, but
now the meter is picking up nothing.
"He was hoping for a brighter color of red," Heath says wryly
as the group decamps from the bathroom. She sounds a bit wistful on the
ghost's behalf. "They used to love pantyhose," she adds.
Auerbach has a way of explaining why ghosts like those on the Hornet are
spending the afterlife essentially slouching around with their buddies,
or why even in death they display a predilection for nylons or red lipstick.
"Ghosts are people, too," he'll say, shrugging. Then he'll lift
one eyebrow. "But they're dead."
For the record, Loyd Auerbach
does not have a proton pack. He does not wear a jumpsuit or live in a
firehouse. He does not drive a hearse or a converted ambulance. These
are inquiries he has had to deflect ever since the movie Ghostbusters
was released in 1984, firmly cementing parapsychology in the imagination
of the moviegoing public as a profession that centers around the reckless
deployment of laser-shooting nuclear devices, exploding marshmallow fluff,
and Bill Murray.
In fact, Loyd Auerbach lives in a modest tract home in Pleasant Hill,
tends to wear black turtlenecks and professorly blazers, and drives a
Saturn. The prosaic nature of the Saturn is somewhat alleviated by the
rear passenger-side window, which features a dinner-plate-sized decal
of the Office of Paranormal Investigations logo: a girl with a starburst
radiating from her forehead, leaning over an open book inscribed with
the infinity symbol as well as a psi, the Greek letter used to indicate
the paranormal. Auerbach gleefully admits that he more or less based this
image on the opening credits of The Sixth Sense television series
from the early '70s.
As it turns out, quite a bit of Auerbach's formative experience was derived
from television, although a look through the tightly crammed bookshelves
in his office shows that he borrows from high science and low culture
in about equal quantities. Among other topics, he has an abiding passion
for folklore, psychology, mentalism, physics, cult films, anthropology,
comic books, mythology, magic, and spoon- bending. And in person, the
balding, bespectacled, and bearded Auerbach somehow combines the cautious
explications of an academic, the geeky enthusiasm of a fan who truly wants
to believe, and the slightly abashed demeanor of someone who knows that
most of the world is going to dismiss him as either a huckster or a crystal-waving
New Ager. His interest in the supernatural, and his approach to ferreting
it out, comes across as an unapologetic mix of sci, fi, and psi.
If anything is to be blamed for this crossover, he supposes, it might
be the library filing system. As a kid, Auerbach headed to the library
to look up the creatures he saw on his favorite TV shows. "Dark Shadows
actually made me want to read books on vampires and werewolves. Because
of the Dewey Decimal system in the library, they're right next to the
books on parapsychology," he says. "It's an unfortunate thing
for parapsychologists, but that's the truth." His new interest stuck.
By high school, he was running a parapsychology club and administering
ESP tests to his friends.
But television also pushed him toward more orthodox forms of science.
His father was a producer for NBC television who worked on the coverage
of the Mercury and Gemini space shots, and Auerbach dreamed of joining
the space program. But two circumstances thwarted his ambitions. As a
teenager, he learned that he had to wear glasses. And once he got to Northwestern
University where he planned to major in astrophysics, he turned out to
be not so good at advanced mathematics. So a career as an astronaut or
an astronomer were both out.
Majoring in parapsychology, of course, was not an academic option in the
late '70s, and those working in the field advised him to major in a related
physical or social science, then head for grad school where an open-minded
professor might be willing to sponsor his research. Because of Auerbach's
interest in folklore, he decided make the switch to cultural anthropology.
Upon walking into the office of the new academic adviser Northwestern
had given him, Auerbach noticed a shelf full of parapsychology journals.
"The university had clearly assigned me the right person," he
Auerbach managed to pull off a college career of writing papers on divination
and witchcraft, and then in another remarkable stroke of luck, just as
he was ready to graduate, JFK University in Orinda announced that it was
introducing a master's program in parapsychology. Auerbach moved out to
California, although going to the school was something of a shock. At
that point, the fledgling university was housed in a building that served
as a kindergarten during the day, and he had to work as a bartender to
pay his tuition. It didn't seem like the beginning of an auspicious career,
but his entertainment-business family never ridiculed his choice. "The
only thing my mother ever said was 'You've got to make a living,'"
If getting a degree in parapsychology was difficult, getting a job was
even harder. Once he'd graduated from JFK and discovered there was no
work in his chosen field, Auerbach moved back to New York, where he returned
to bartending and taught adult ed and community college classes.
But public interest in the supernatural was about to get ratcheted up.
American culture has long been fascinated with things that go bump in
the night, but in the late '70s and early '80s, movies like Poltergeist
and The Amityville Horror were becoming huge blockbusters. In 1982,
on an off-chance, Auerbach stopped by the American Society for Psychical
Research in New York City, the oldest parapsychological organization in
the United States, and mentioned that he had a few ideas about how to
do public outreach to get people interested in the science of the supernatural.
Much to his surprise, he was offered a part-time job. Suddenly, ghosts
were such big news that they needed a media liaison.
Auerbach soon found himself fending off journalists begging to be taken
to something like the Amityville house, which in the movie oozed green
slime and caused people to levitate. "The first thing I'd ask is
'Do you know how badly funded parapsychology is? Do you know how little
respect we get from the other sciences?'" Auerbach recalls in a dry
tone. "If we could take you to a house where stuff is flying around
all the time, do you think that would be happening?" he would ask.
"I see your point," the reporters would say.
Within a year and a half, Auerbach moved back to California to take a
virtually identical position doing public relations work for JFK's parapsychology
program, eventually becoming an adjunct professor at the university. And
again, another blockbuster movie shaped his career. This time it was Ghostbusters.
Shortly after the movie's release, an Oakland Tribune reporter
contacted the university, looking for the scoop on real-life paranormal
investigators. Because Auerbach was the only person in the department
on campus that day (everyone else had gone out of town to a conference
he couldn't afford to attend), he took the call. He was prominently featured
in the story, which hit the Associated Press wire. "All of the sudden
I get hundreds of phone calls from radio stations, newspapers, all these
people from all over," Auerbach remembers. He became an instant celebrity
of the call-in radio show variety, and the interest generated by the movie
provided a platform for discussing parapsychology. "The media took
a whole different look. They stopped asking 'Take us to the Amityville
house,'" Auerbach says. "They were asking, 'What's it really
like? What do you guys really do?'"
As it turned out, a sizable percentage of what they really did was go
out to the sites of recent local phenomena to talk to people. Instead
of being focused on gadgets, as the ghost hunters were in the movies,
Auerbach compared his early methodology to that of an investigative journalist,
who would interview as many witnesses as possible, seeking corroboration.
And by this point, because he had spoken with so many people, Auerbach
had amassed a considerable collection of really good ghost stories. In
addition to the various tales about the posse of ghosts on the USS Hornet,
there was the Blue Lady at the Moss Beach Distillery in Half Moon Bay,
who would appear in the bathroom mirror and spank the staff with kitchen
implements. There was the ghost of a former bartender at the Banta Inn
in Tracy, who enjoyed floating wineglasses and stacking the coins in the
cash register. There was the boy in Fremont around whom bursts of water
would erupt from the ceiling, and the family in Petaluma who kept seeing
a figure dressed as a black knight roaming the house, and the haunted
apartment in Oakland in which a young man would appear nightly and lean
over the bed, intending to kiss his sleeping girlfriend. There was the
case he had investigated in New York which he dubbed his "sexorcist"
story, in which a couple was awoken each night at 3 a.m. by the sounds
of the house's previous occupants having loud sex. And that was just the
tip of the paranormal iceberg.
In fact, Auerbach realized that he had so many stories that he could hit
the speaker circuit, but everyone advised him that he needed a book first.
He wrote a proposal, Warner bid on it, and then in the superheated post-Ghostbusters
climate gave him only three months to write it. In a moment of what may
have been restraint but was more likely fear of copyright infringement,
the publishing company turned down Auerbach's original title, I Ain't
Afraid of No Ghost, and instead gave the manuscript the more sedate
title ESP, Hauntings, and Poltergeists: A Parapsychologist's Handbook.
Newsweek later dubbed it the "sacred text" on ghosts.
In just a few years, Auerbach had gone from desperately wishing to join
a nonexistent academic field to literally writing the book on parapsychology.
In 1985, not long after
the release of Ghostbusters, Auerbach worked a case that cemented his
belief in the existence of ghosts. While at JFK University, he got a phone
call from a Livermore woman named Pat who said she had a ghost in her
house, the spirit of an elderly woman named Lois who had been the home's
previous owner. That wasn't the problem.
Pat's concern was that her twelve-year-old son, Chris, seemed to be spending
an inordinate amount of time talking to the ghost. Lois was putting in
daily appearances, watching television with Chris or chatting with him
about his life. Pat worried that Chris' chats with Lois might not be normal
preadolescent behavior. Auerbach agreed with her that the boy should see
a therapist, just in case, but was also eager to come see the house.
Since Auerbach hadn't yet amassed much ghost-detecting technology, he
headed out to investigate with no more than a videocamera, a tape recorder,
his then-wife Joanna, and one of his students, Kip. On the way up in the
car, the three chatted about everyday topics: Auerbach about the new Chrysler
Laser he intended to buy, his wife about how she was considering quitting
her job, and the student about the fact that he'd once been a professional
At the house, with the tape rolling, Chris acted as a translator of sorts,
sitting next to an apparently empty chair in which he said Lois was seated.
The boy was able to relate detailed stories the ghost hunters later verified,
including anecdotes about the family that had owned the house and the
history of some of the home's original furnishings. He also provided what
Auerbach considered to be a surprisingly sophisticated explanation of
what an apparition is, one that a child was unlikely to fabricate. According
to Chris, Lois said she existed as a "ball of energy" capable
of projecting an image of herself into others' minds. This, she said through
Chris, was why she was able to change her appearance at will, sometimes
projecting herself as a girl, as a young woman, or as an elderly lady.
The ghost hunters, fully intrigued, asked Lois to explain why her energy
had remained behind after her body's death. Through Chris, she said that
during her life, she'd been a well-known socialite, hosting parties at
the family home. She'd never married and was one of the last surviving
members of her family, so her primary earthly attachment was to a place,
rather than to people. Although she believed in heaven and hell, she had
rarely gone to church. As she lay dying at the hospital, Lois said, she
didn't know in which direction her soul was bound. She saw no white light
ahead of her. Instead, Lois said that in her final moments she'd simply
been overcome with a desire to go home. "Why take a chance?"
she had thought. And next thing she knew, there she was. Since Lois liked
the family who moved in so much, she'd decided she'd just stick around.
Now it was time for Lois to ask the ghost hunters some questions. Lois
was a television-watching ghost, and had frequently seen ads for Ghostbusters
on TV, so both she and Chris were anxious on one point: Were the investigators
there to "blast" her with proton packs like in the movie?
No, Auerbach explained, the proton packs were pure fiction.
In that case, Lois had something more to ask. "Loyd, she wants to
know if you've decided on a color for that Laser car you want," Chris
translated. "Joanna, have you really thought about the kind of job
you want after you quit the one you have? Kip, how long were you a professional
The ghost hunters were floored. How did Lois know what they had been talking
about in the car on the way over? Was she telepathic? Was Chris?
"You're probably not going to like this," Auerbach says the
twelve-year-old warned. "But Lois wanted to make sure you weren't
bringing blasters to get rid of her, so she hitched a ride here with you."
By the late '80s, Auerbach
had built up a compelling collection of ghost investigations. He had a
book. He had more manuscripts on the way. But he no longer had a university
with a parapsychology program.
In 1986, JFK University began to phase out the program, citing low enrollment.
(At such a tiny school, tuition was crucial to any program's survival.)
By 1989 it was completely gone. But Auerbach believes that low enrollment
was just an excuse, and that the university was facing pressure to cut
its more unusual programs in order to shore up its reputation as a business
and law school. "Essentially, people thought JFK was a flaky university,"
he says. "This wacky parapsychology stuff must be keeping people
Auerbach's career took a new turn. He was frequently getting phone calls
at home, sometimes waking him up in the middle of the night, from people
complaining about ghostly activity. So in 1989 he and some of his fellow
researchers and former students established the Office of Paranormal Investigations.
They hired a 24-hour answering service and trained the receptionists how
to ask the right questions of prospective clients. They made plans to
rent an office somewhere outside of Auerbach's den, although that still
has yet to materialize. They began to accrue some of their more elaborate
ghost-hunting equipment -- a noncontact temperature gauge that could be
used to measure cold spots on walls and the floor, an air ion counter
to measure the charge in the air, and a motion detector. While taping
investigations for TV specials, they would sometimes get the camera crew
to rent a thermal videocamera for them at a whopping $3,000 a week, so
they could look for fluctuations in temperature. They developed a video
seminar series about ghost hunting, along with a test that viewers could
take in order to become part of their network. And they began to charge
for their detection services, something Auerbach says he was reluctant
to do, but agreed to because it reassured clients that they were being
taken seriously. Even today, the fee is nominal: $150, no matter how many
visits the case takes. The office takes cases on a sliding scale, so many
clients pay nothing at all. (Most of Auerbach's paranormal-derived income
comes from lecturing at colleges, writing, consulting for television,
and teaching classes.)
And in fact, a good case is hard to find. Auerbach estimates that only
about a quarter of the reports received by the Office of Paranormal Investigations
have the hallmark of anything truly supernatural, and only about half
of those are investigable. Ghosts don't leave behind fingerprints, so
the phenomena have to be current and ongoing; the investigators can't
do much with a onetime sighting. "It's very likely that nothing's
going to happen again, and if nothing happens again we're dealing with
a cold crime scene," Auerbach says.
But even though not every case was a slam-dunk, the investigations were
attracting media attention. Auerbach took a Hard Copy news team
to the Banta Inn, escorted David Letterman through a haunted house, and
made dozens of appearances on shows like Oprah and Larry King
Live. He served as a consultant for specials broadcast by the BBC,
A&E, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and, of course, the
Sci-Fi Channel. And in 1993, Auerbach took a shot at getting his own show,
filming a pilot for a series to be called Haunted America in which
members of the Office of Paranormal Investigations would rove the country,
His love affair with the supernatural, which had started with television,
had finally come full circle.
The pilot for Haunted America
was shot during a July heat wave in Archer, Florida, at the home of some
Civil War enthusiasts who had deliberately wanted to buy a haunted house.
According to the family, their home had been haunted since the late 1800s
by at least three ghosts: a mother and a father who roamed the house looking
for their daughter, who had died as a child.
Auerbach's crew was accompanied by a Japanese psychic, Aiko Gibo, who
had occasionally worked with the Office of Paranormal Investigations.
To make sure Gibo had no preconceived notions about what she was supposed
to find, Auerbach says she was told nothing about the house's history.
As she walked through the house, she would be trailed by a thermograph
camera, which registers heat patterns -- cool areas in blue, hot areas
The night wore on as Gibo roamed the house and the researchers patiently
waited for her to pick up something. Well past two in the morning, the
researchers heard her yell, and came running. The psychic was standing
still, her arms held in front of her. She claimed that a little girl was
tugging on her right thumb -- an accurate description of one of the ghosts
she was supposed to be seeking. And indeed, on the thermal camera's image,
her hands were glowing a much brighter pink than the rest of her body,
and her right thumb in particular was an extremely deep magenta. A close-up
showed a small pulsing pink blur hovering not far below her hand, far
from any apparent energy source.
According to Auerbach, these readings were unlikely to be technical errors,
although he says that if Gibo truly believed that her thumb was being
tugged, it could have increased the blood flow to her hands, which would
have raised their temperature. However, he says that other metering devices,
including a geomagnetometer, a TriField meter, a microwave detector, and
a Geiger counter, were also simultaneously giving high readings.
The next night, Gibo spoke again with the little girl's ghost. This time,
Auerbach's group observed that as she did so, the temperature in the room
dropped 25 degrees in the course of twenty minutes, despite the sweltering
In a separate test, the ghost-hunting team instructed Gibo to ask the
little girl to lead her to her grave. The psychic immediately walked to
the right place in a nearby cemetery.
Not too shabby for a first effort. But although the pilot was pitched
to several networks, none picked it up. Not even Fox. "We're not
doing any more paranormal series right now," the ghost hunters were
What are ghosts? Why do they
stick around? And how can you make them go away?
The people who take Loyd Auerbach's ghost-hunting seminars tend to ask
questions like these, as they sit crammed into his living room on Saturdays.
They pay 95 bucks a pop to attend these monthly classes, which include
peeks at behind-the-scenes videos of ghost hunts and experiments performed
by the American Society for Psychical Research. Some of them have brought
along their own spirit photographs from cemetery stakeouts. Some of them
are working psychics. One of them is finessing a manuscript about ghost
hunting and has her own business cards with a logo of a camera-toting
ghost. One of them is wearing a sweatshirt advertising Disneyland's Haunted
Mansion. All of them usually go away satisfied. Auerbach is a pretty entertaining
For example, he uses this simple test to illustrate why ghosts tend to
appear fully clothed, instead of naked, as logic would suggest. (Clothing,
presumably, has no soul.) Close your eyes for a few seconds, and picture
yourself. In your mental image, were you wearing clothes? The majority
of people would answer yes. Now try this: In your mental image, what were
you wearing on your feet? Chances are, you can't remember.
According to Auerbach, a ghost is a consciousness that somehow has survived
bodily death and is able to communicate mind-to-mind with living people.
A person seeing an apparition (or touching one, or smelling one) is not
seeing anything that is actually there; they're essentially perceiving
a projection of the way the ghost remembered themselves looking in life.
In general, that means fully clothed. Likewise, with the exception of
shoe fetishists, people rarely picture themselves all the way down to
their feet, which is why so many reported apparitions seem to be cut off
at the knees.
For all of the media portrayals of ghosts as superintelligent beings armed
with terrifying powers, Auerbach's own conception of ghosts credits them
with surprisingly limited abilities. "People don't get any smarter
when they're dead," he says. For that matter, they don't get any
more evil or powerful, either; Auerbach says he hasn't heard of a single
case in which a person was hurt by a ghost, although certainly people
have injured themselves by passing out in fright or attempting to run
away. Nor, he says, are ghosts in touch with the divine or with the spirits
of other people; nor do they have answers to the meaning of life, he contends,
since ghosts who are sticking around here haven't moved on to whatever
happens next. In some cases, he says, ghosts don't even know they're dead.
"When somebody finds out they have a terminal illness, one of the
first stages they go through is denial," he shrugs. "Death is
Belief in ghosts is a constant throughout the world, although various
cultures have differently interpreted what they are and how they should
be treated. However, Auerbach says they do tend to display one commonality:
The vast majority of ghost sightings are onetime appearances within 48
hours of the person's death, in which the apparition usually says goodbye,
reassures loved ones that they are okay or, in some fastidious cases,
imparts information about where the insurance papers are kept.
Auerbach believes that becoming a ghost is not the norm, nor a pure function
of will. If all it took to remain behind was a desire to do so, he suspects
the earth would be teeming with apparitions, all mooching about their
old stamping grounds. Parapsychologists such as Auerbach believe there
is an environmental X-factor waiting to be discovered, perhaps something
involving the magnetic energy of the site, that allows unusual things
to happen. In fact, they suspect that environment plays a determining
role in two other kinds of paranormal phenomena: hauntings and poltergeists.
While a ghost is a conscious entity that can interact with its environment,
Auerbach defines a haunting as an impression of an event that has been
made on a place and replays like a videotape: a clock that always chimes
at midnight, a figure repeatedly climbing the stairs, or the sounds of
that New York couple having loud sex at three in the morning. Although
a haunting is not sentient, it can be a recording of strongly emotional
events. A poltergeist, on the other hand, is caused by a living agent,
Auerbach says, usually someone in the house who is suppressing strong
feelings and unconsciously causing the paranormal activity. In the case
of the Fremont boy in whose presence water would spring from the ceiling,
for example, the boy was upset about having to compete in swim meets,
but hadn't explained his feelings to his parents.
In poltergeist cases, Auerbach says, once the person realizes they are
responsible and confronts their hidden feelings, the phenomena usually
stop. (In the young boy's case, once the swimming lessons dried up, so
did the leaking ceiling, Auerbach claims.) With hauntings, he sometimes
advises "recording over" the impression with a new and positive
experience. (He suggested that the New York couple move their bed into
the haunted room and have their own loud sex.) If that doesn't work, he
has another quick fix: He zaps the room with a bulk tape eraser, the sort
that you can pick up at Radio Shack. Altering the magnetic fields in the
room, he says, seems to be effective.
As for ghosts, says the parapsychologist, some will leave if asked politely.
Sometimes people call in a religious authority to do the job. Sometimes
they can be annoyed away, much as you might drive off an unwanted flesh-and-blood
Auerbach claims he got rid of an Oakland family's ghost by reading knock-knock
jokes at it. He has advised clients to purge ghosts with rap or country
music. In the case of a rather dejected ghost that the employees of a
Concord interior design firm named "Dacron Bob" because he used
to hover over the rolls of fabric, Auerbach remembers that "everybody
felt so sorry for him that he moved on, as far as we know, because he
couldn't stand the pity."
But knock-knock jokes aside, investigating whatever is haunting people
often means dealing with their fears, their losses, or their reactions
to the idea of death. Auerbach admits it's often hard to tell if ghost
sightings are the cause or the effect of emotional turbulence, if seeing
ghosts is sometimes the mind's way of expressing grief, reacting to trauma,
or signaling a need for help. And this makes the role of the ghost hunter
a little more serious than it may seem at first glance. As Tony Cornell,
a parapsychologist whose work Auerbach greatly admires, once put it, "Is
it exorcising a spirit or exorcising the mind of the people involved?"
Auerbach says his primary role is to chronicle people's subjective experiences
and offer a way to make sense of them. "We're really out there to
figure out what is happening in cases, to help the family understand what
is happening, to educate them about the phenomena, to help them deal with
any emotional reactions that they're having because of the experiences
they're having, which includes sending them to a psychologist," he
says. He believes in calling in whatever health or counseling aid the
client might need. But he points out that the Office of Paranormal Investigations
holds out two promises that Western medicine can't necessarily make: They
won't immediately assume you're crazy. And they make house calls.
In 1987, Auerbach received
a phone call from a priest who had been asked to bless the home of a family
in Hayward. They were upset about how dishes in their kitchen kept spontaneously
flying out of the drying rack and dropping to the floor. Ghostly shadows
also appeared at a bedroom window every night at 11 p.m., and the family
members were so frightened that they'd taken to sleeping all in one bedroom.
The family was a troubled one. They were illegal immigrants from Mexico
who had not found work in two years. Their landlord, who lived nearby
with his family, had let them have the apartment rent-free until they
found jobs. Unbeknownst to the immigrant family, the landlord's father
had committed suicide in the apartment.
Three students from JFK University were sent out to investigate. The "ghostly
shadow" they quickly explained away as nothing more than the shadow
of a neighbor's car's headlights shining through a prickly pear hedge
as he pulled into the driveway when he returned from work at eleven o'clock
each evening. The flying dishes they suspected might be the result of
poltergeist activity, either an expression of anxiety from family members
upset about their economic condition, or the suppressed resentment of
the landlord's family, which had lost out on two years' worth of rent.
However, when they tried to diplomatically explain the poltergeist theory,
the family seemed unwilling to accept the idea and insisted on a "ghostbusting"
ceremony. Auerbach's students cooked up a plan. One of the students who
was also a sound engineer went into the studio and whipped up a tape of
strange noises: modulated "whooo" sounds and throbbing bass.
Once the tape was ready, the students sent the couple next door for the
evening, rigged up the house with colorful lights, and played the tape
at top volume. The students calmly sat in the house playing cards as the
lights flashed and the sound blared. Finally, they switched off the equipment,
invited the family back into their home, and announced that the ghost
For the record, says Auerbach, the objects stopped flying around the house
and the family felt better. Was there really a ghost there, which was
so irritated by the light-and-sound show they'd concocted that it just
went away? Was there truly poltergeist activity that would have diminished
once the immigrant family found work? Or was the whole thing an elaborate
placebo? Either way, says Auerbach, it worked.
Auerbach is pulling a silk
scarf out of his mouth, which is hardly dignified behavior for a professor.
As "Professor Paranormal," he has just concluded a night of
performing what he dubs "psychic entertainment" at a dot-com
holiday party, at which several extremely sloshed young ladies had more
or less failed to appreciate his card tricks. This was a shame, because
in addition to studying the undead, Auerbach is a student of the art of
When not doing research, Auerbach hosts something he calls "Professor
Paranormal's Psychic Mind Theater," playing parties and hosting séances
at spots such as the Moss Beach Distillery. Does his dabbling in the show-business
side of things detract from his believability as a researcher? "It
hurts my credibility only with the true believers, because they have a
hard time having fun with it," he maintains. "It becomes a matter
of faith for them, and anything that challenges their faith is not a matter
of fun." Skeptics, he says, seem to appreciate the fact that he knows
when the deck is marked.
He draws the line, though, at show business that seems designed to hoodwink
the public into believing they've had supernatural experiences when they
haven't: for example, television psychics who offer fraudulent readings.
And he worries that people are getting suckered by media coverage of ghost-related
gadgets, most of which are not proven to be very useful. "Every time
I've done TV shows, it's 'Bring equipment, we want to see stuff with flashing
lights.' They almost don't care what it does," Auerbach says. "They're
completely ignoring experience and going for the glitz."
Auerbach knows that he's drawing a thin line, that a lot of people will
find his claims to scholarliness as dubious as he finds, say, 900-number
psychics. Parapsychology essentially deals in human experiences, and its
focus on the unquantifiable, the subjective and, quite frankly, things
that sound very hokey, has given the field an extraordinarily bad rap.
But Auerbach maintains that when you're studying people -- living or dead
-- you can't expect them to respond with the predictability of a math
equation or a chemistry experiment. "The physical laws of the universe
don't apply to human behavior," he says. "If somebody says parapsychology
is not a science, then okay, fine, psychology is not a science either,
and neither is anthropology and neither is sociology."
There are some things about consciousness that we just don't know yet,
but are worth studying, he says. And in fact, a similar lack of hard evidence
hasn't held back other sciences that have endeavored to understand the
human mind. "We don't know a lot of things," Auerbach says.
"We don't know how the brain works. We don't know how memory works.
We don't know how aspirin works." And as he points out, modern society
is prepared to believe in many things that can't be seen, touched, or
proven to exist via the scientific method. Love, for example. Or God.
That said, Auerbach is pretty tough on his own discipline. Ghost hunting
often turns out to be an investigation of the normal, and Auerbach actually
spends a good deal of his time debunking the claims of the overeager.
He has little patience for people who crouch in cemeteries hoping to spot
something ("If you were a ghost, would you hang around in a graveyard?"
he asks) and even less for people who mistake lens flare for "spirit
orbs." "If you have Photoshop, any idiot can pretty much do
it by accident," he says.
And accidents happen all the time. People catch cigarette smoke in a photograph
and think they've seen a ghost. They see floating rays of light that turn
out to be reflections from passing cars. The mysterious noises they hear
in the night turn out to be squirrels or mice, the sound of trucks going
by on the street, the house shifting because of wind or cold weather,
or the hum of fluorescent lights.
In the face of massive disbelief, Auerbach says, you have to be your own
worst critic, you have to learn to laugh at yourself, and you have to
learn when the game is rigged. After all, you can't know when something's
for real unless you already know all the tricks in the book.
In 1993, Auerbach was called
by a Martinez family who had a whole litany of paranormal complaints.
They said their rented house was making them sick -- that they'd get headaches
and dizziness inside their home, but were fine when they left. They said
they saw strange shadowy figures out of the corners of their eyes, that
certain rooms made them feel funny, and that every now and then a fireball
would just erupt in midair. There was a noxious odor that would suddenly
appear and seemed to travel throughout the house. They chalked it all
up to demonic activity.
The investigators went to work. Among their discoveries: The house was
built beneath some high-tension wires that were producing an inaudible
low-frequency buzz that was the likely source of the headaches. In addition,
says Auerbach, the wires may have been producing vibrations at nineteen
hertz, a frequency that has been shown to vibrate the interior of the
eye, producing visual errors. Also, the house was built just over the
hill from a landfill that was leaking methane gas, which was creating
the rotten smell. The group concluded that static electricity produced
by the power lines was probably sparking the fireballs. And finally, the
team measured the angles of the house's doorways and windows and found
that they were not all set at ninety degrees. They concluded that the
structure had slipped slightly off its foundation, possibly during an
earthquake or because of bad construction, and that the lopsidedness of
the rooms made their occupants feel off-balance, in the same way that
the optical illusions built into attractions such as Santa Cruz' Mystery
Paranormal activity: Zilch. However, the ghost hunters did manage to solve
their clients' house problem. One member of the team gave the family a
list of zoning laws the building violated, which ultimately helped them
get out of their lease.
The very name "Professor
Paranormal" suggests an unlikely conjunction; academic meets sideshow
barker. It's a light approach to a dark subject, and indeed, parapsychology
as a whole seems bound up in opposites: science and faith, death and immortality,
technology and human decay. Perhaps because of this, Auerbach refuses
to publicly wrestle with the bigger philosophical questions suggested
by the ghost-hunting business. Is there a God? Is there really "another
side," and if so, what is it like? "I'm in no hurry to find
out" is all he will say.
Auerbach does, however, have some fairly concrete plans for what he will
do when he dies, should all the relevant X-factors work in his favor and
allow him to come back as a ghost. One, he will drop in on his fellow
parapsychologists and volunteer as a test subject for their lab experiments.
Two, he will spend some time hanging out in Disneyland's Haunted Mansion
being, as he puts it, "the spook they can't account for." And
three, he will find the skeptics who disbelieved him when he was alive
and endlessly hum the theme song from Casper the Friendly Ghost into their
It wouldn't be a bad way to spend eternity -- provided no one invents
a proton pack.