I'm still trying to come up with a rational explanation for the thing that touched my shoulder in the building called "3 House" at the Old Idaho State Penitentiary. The place is certainly spooky enough during the day, so perhaps at night the mind plays tricks. But, no, something touched my shoulder: a gentle hand on my upper arm with just enough pressure as if to say, "OK, it's time to go now." I assure you, I was quite sober. No stimulants, depressants or hallucinogenics had passed my lips in the previous 24 hours other than caffeine. Needless to say, I exited the building rather quickly.
The last time Boise Weekly went on a ghost hunt, we visited Mountain Cove High School, where soldiers returning from World War I would convalesce after being exposed to mustard gas. For years after, the ghosts of some of those young men would allegedly haunt the now remodeled classrooms and administrative offices, routinely turning off lights and turning the dial on the school secretary's radio. While our previous investigation yielded no results, the most current one, with the help of ghost-hunting hobbyists Bruce and Nancy Priddy, we encountered a little more unexplained phenomena, including the "touching."
A few years ago, Bruce and Nancy Priddy bought a camper trailer and, looking for something to do, decided to go to a paranormal convention in Virginia City, Nevada--allegedly one of the most haunted cities in the West. There, they went on ghost walks, tours, learned of equipment and techniques and, well, got hooked. They educated themselves on photographic phenomena called "orbs" and managed to catch a few on film (see "A Ghostly Glossary" on page 16). They got excited and creeped out, but had fun nevertheless. Since then, the Priddy's have arranged their trips around hunting for ghosts. At Givens Hot Springs, they witnessed a swing move by itself, at 11:30 at night, without wind and while the other seats were still. They have a photo, taken at night, of a window in one of the historic buildings in Julia Davis Park that shows someone looking out when the photo is made into a negative even though nothing can really be seen when the photo is positive.
Both Bruce and Nancy are skeptics, which they say is something you have to be in order to take ghost hunting even semi-seriously. "Some people get heavily into the spiritual side of this," says Nancy, "but we don't." They just do it for kicks.
"Science says that energy is neither created nor destroyed," Bruce adds philosophically. "We are biological batteries. Where does the electricity go when you die?"
Bruce and Nancy meet me at the office and we go through our equipment. They have a digital video/still camera, an Olympus digital camera, two voice-activated voice recorders, a directional EMF sensor and an infrared thermometer. They say they always load their equipment with fresh batteries and bring along extras, as sometimes spirits like to feed off the energy and drain them. This has happened to the Priddy's before, the only evidence in an otherwise evidence-free expedition. I have a high-megapixel digital camera, a digital recorder and a digital high-8 video/still camera with night vision. We are loaded for bear, or in this case, ghosts.
In a 1999 Gallup poll, thirty three percent of the people questioned said they believed in ghosts. However, at one time a majority of people in the civilized world believed the world was flat, the universe revolved around the Earth and that the moon was made of cheese. Some still do. A majority of Americans believe a man walked the earth that healed people and was born from a virgin. It isn't outlandish to accept that there are things in this world difficult to prove through science. For those who believe in ghosts, these stories and experiences can be scary and exciting. For those who are skeptical, as most of the ghost investigators interviewed for this story--including myself--ghosts are fun to talk about, and occasionally get creeped out by. For those who don't believe at all, it's just a good story to scare the kids with.
Television shows such as Ghost Hunters on the SciFi Channel and movies like White Noise--which has some great bonus features on the DVD about Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP)--have popularized the science of ghost investigating. But these investigators say if you're going to do it, it's important to go do it right.
Marie Cuff, owner and operator of Idaho Spirit Seekers and its accompanying Web site (www.idahospiritseekers.com), started out as a hobbyist but has become very active with ghost investigations in the last year. In existence for about four years, the group acted as a hobby group of those interested in ghosts. "They were pretty inactive," Marie said. Then, about a year ago, she contacted the founder and asked if she could be the president and asked to buy the name.
"The founder wouldn't sell it," she said. "They donated it free of charge." Since then, she has developed a team of investigators that have been very busy since last December. "We have very few free weekends," she added.
With about 18 active investigators in the area and a network of contacts in Oregon and Montana, Idaho Spirit Seekers mainly assists people in private residences but do some investigations in public spaces. A few weeks ago, they were accompanied by a local television station out at the Old Pen and Marie says that while looking into one cell, it felt as if someone reached through the bars and played with her hair.
"About 80 to 90 percent of cases can be debunked, but it often takes more than one investigation to determine if a haunting is real or not," she said. Oftentimes, she says it's just helpful to educate people about ghosts, hauntings, impressions and poltergeists. With all of their investigations, they respect the privacy of the individuals they are doing investigations for, but do post investigation reports on some of the stranger incidents on their site.
The Spirit Seekers are set up very similarly to the group in the show Ghost Hunters. A lead investigator sets up and manages the team. They coordinate the investigation so that everyone isn't trying to photograph at the same time or stepping on each other's toes. A tech support guy helps set up the equipment and recording devices quickly and correctly. Marie says they have "sensitives," people who can sense changes in the environment, but they are still looking for a psychic to join the team. All team members, she says, are volunteers and come from a variety of backgrounds, including law enforcement, engineering and law.
One local investigation involved a woman who was really scared, which is the case in most of the people that contact the Spirit Seekers. A woman felt a male presence in the home and had witnessed what looked like an invisible man sitting down on the couch, leaving an impression. Marie said that during their investigation, the trash can top started swinging back and forth and she witnessed a coffee cup apport and disport around the sink. Asked if she was ever scared during investigations she said no. "But it's like driving a car for the first time," she reflected. "You are scared to death. Then it gets easier."
We weren't scared to go to the Old Idaho Penitentiary, just cautious and expecting to be creeped out a little. We had reserved a couple of hours after dark at the Old Idaho Penitentiary. We had two hours, so Bruce, Nancy and I made our plan. We wanted to see the women's ward first, where we would leave a tape player running. Next we'd circle around to solitary confinement, "Siberia," and leave another recorder. That's where I would leave mine as well, hoping to capture some EVPs. Then we'd make our way over to the maximum security wing where they housed those on death row and executed them in the gallows room. From there, we'd explore one of the oldest cell blocks, "2 House" where it is believed that a man cheated the executioner by jumping off the third floor cells while being led to the gallows. He broke his neck in the fall. Bruce and Nancy had high hopes for this tour.
"A lot of emotions, anger and despair happened at this place," said Bruce. "When the sit down is completed, I'd be surprised if we don't come up with something."
We met Joanne Moss, our Old Pen escort for the next two hours at about 8 o'clock. We could still see a tinge of light on the western horizon, but it was fading fast. Joanne herself had a strange experience at the prison she related to us. One night, while sitting at the front desk just through the entrance, waiting for a party to finish out in the yard, she heard creaks and pops sounding like footsteps on the floor above her. This didn't alarm her, as the old building pops and creaks all the time. She then heard these creaks start descending the stairwell, the only way up to those offices. Although she didn't think anyone was in the offices above her, she thought someone was descending to the stairs. When no one came out she went up to find not a soul up there--at least not a living one.
After discovering in the women's ward that a suspicious shadow was caused by the range finder light on my camera and leaving a recorder, we made our way over to solitary confinement. "Siberia" as it is known colloquially, is the one place where a grounds worker--who would never admit so on the record--won't go into unless he has to. Strange smells have been reported in one particular cell, without explanation. As we went in one side, and after almost entering one of the dark cells, Nancy started breathing heavily and backtracked quickly. She said that she felt something come out of the cell at her and put pressure on her chest, a feeling she hadn't experienced before. We cautiously took a few pictures, asked a few questions on tape, left the recorder and moved on.
In the maximum security building, some in our group thought that they saw something walk down the hall and enter a cell. I was there too, monitoring the camera and looking up occasionally, but did not witness the same thing. Interestingly enough, in the death row room, one camera did not function, but resumed working once we left the room. One particular photo taken from the viewing room into the gallows room has a strange shadow. Joanne Moss says that shadow is exactly where the hangman would stand and pull the gallows handle to lower the men being executed.
The Old Penitentiary is creepy enough during the day. At night, it's flat-out, extra-pair of underwear scary. After making our way through the buildings, we decided to check out "3 House." We went up to the second floor, snapped a few pictures and looked in some cells. Then on the first floor, as I was using the super-night scope on the digital camera I heard our group begin to leave. But I thought one of them was still next to me. A gentle hand on my shoulder pushed me as if to signal "let's go" and after looking to my right I saw that no one was there. I reached out to feel if I may have accidentally bumped into a wall or something hanging. Nope. Nothing there. I looked to my left and saw that everyone was heading out the building, quite some distance away. That's when I decided I'd make a hasty retrea,t too.
Over the weekend we analyzed the data. A great deal of the time spent on a paranormal investigation involves data analysis. The EVP recording devices picked up very little, other than the sounds of low flying airplanes, but a few unexplained creaks and pops appeared on the audio recordings. There was one recorder in solitary confinement that had loud tappings of metal on metal that the other recording device in the area did not pick up. We are still analyzing the photos, but besides my shadow picture in the gallows room, the Priddy's had a few photos with alleged orbs.
I'm still creeped out by being touched. The hairs on my neck rise when I think about it now, many days later. But did that make me believe in ghosts? I'm not sure. I think I'll have to keep investigating.