Ghost hunting isn't quite like the movies show it

October 9, 2014
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Chris Durish of Steeltown Paranormal stands in the Harmony Museum wine cellar with an electromagnetic frequency detector, used for ghost hunting. Alyssa Choiniere/Observer-Reporter
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A stream is below the wine cellar at the Harmony Museum, which sometimes rises into the storage area. Alyssa Choiniere/Observer-Reporter

This is the second part of a five-part series, “Ghost Stories,” published every Friday in October.

Energy cannot be destroyed, even by death, says one explanation of the paranormal.

“Your body has electromagnetic energy in it right now,” said paranormal investigator Chris Durish. “And we just believe that when you pass away that energy is released, and we believe it maintains a lot of the characteristics it had when that person was alive.”

He said this includes self awareness and the ability to communicate and feel emotions.

That energy reaches an all-time high when a person dies a violent death, he said. A young man at war, seeing fellow soldiers falling next to him on the battlefield, will experience a surge of adrenaline and fear, causing his energy to spike. If a bullet suddenly hits him, that heightened energy remains behind, Durish said.

The concept of lingering energy is the premise behind ghost hunting.

Durish leads a team of investigators based in Butler, Steeltown Paranormal. His team investigates several locations in Washington and Greene counties, including Rices Landing, the George Washington Hotel in Washington, the Smock Heritage Museum in Smock and Tim's Secret Treasures in Charleroi.

A primary tool for investigations is an electromagnetic frequency detector. It is generally used by electricians to detect faulty wiring. The paranormal team does a base reading before investigating a location. A spike beyond that reading could mean a ghost is present, he said.

Some common signs of a possible haunting are cold spots and electronic equipment shutting off, he said. Durish said he believes this happens when a ghost is drawing energy from something, trying to communicate or act.

He said one of the strangest things he experienced on an investigation was at a home where a 15-year-old girl was thought to be the main target of paranormal activity. He said the investigators heard a strange sizzling sound. They discovered that the source was a battery pack for their equipment that leaked a large pool of acid.

But Durish and his team work to maintain a sense of skepitism, regardless of what they experience.

“No matter what I see, no matter how cool it is, there's something in the back of my mind that says it's not something,” he said.

Durish said he is irritated by people who call themselves professional investigators and give people information he thinks is impossible for them to know. He said they will never tell a person definitively that a ghost is a particular person, like a grandmother who died.

“Very rarely are we going to go into a place and say 'Are you Edith?' and she'll say 'Yes, it's me!'” he said, finishing in his best ghostly grandmother voice.

He said what they will try to tell people is whether they believe there is a haunting, how long the presence has been there and what its purpose is.

Team member Jo Annette Cynkar said this process often becomes a counseling role.

“I think it's more of a comforting thing, empowering people,” she said.

But Durish said most things that seem paranormal have another explanation.

“We try to disprove everything. That's kind of our premise, our theory. But deep down inside, you want it to be something,” he said.

He said out of 70 or 80 investigations, only about 10 of them are thought to be real hauntings.

“Most things aren't paranormal,” he said. “It might seem paranormal, but is it a ghost? Probably not.”

He contrasted his investigation style with TV investigations.

“Nobody's going to watch a real investigation. Watch it and they'll be bored,” he said. “So they have to react and say 'Oh my God! What was that?'”

He said to conduct a conclusive investigation, his team would need to investigate a single location for at least six months, which would become burdensome.

But there are many locations to which the team returns multiple times. One of these is the Harmony Museum in Butler County, where Cynkar works.

She said the Harmonists, Lutheran separatists from Germany, settled the town in 1805 and sold it to Mennonites 10 years later.

Below the museum is a wine cellar that is thought to be haunted. The Harmonists spent much of their time making wine.

“They were very religious, so they sold most of it. The rest they kept for 'medicinal purposes,'” she said with a laugh.

Watch Durish discuss and demonstrate his equipment at the Harmony Museum.

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