It was nighttime and we had been quietly sitting around a table in the large boardroom of the Saint Cloud Chamber of Commerce for ten minutes, acclimating to ambient sounds. I bounced twice in my leather captain’s chair, testing it. Phil cut the lights and said, “You’ll hear a thump-thump. That will be the AC turning off.” In darkness, it becomes apparent how the slightest bodily adjustment can make a wooden floor whimper. The four ceiling fans petered out. A laser grid latticed on a projector screen at the front of the room. I heard the sound of zippers as people around me pulled out their own electromagnetic field meters and ghost boxes. Some people had brought their own ghost-hunting toys.
The GhostStop logo features a blue-eyed Casper with a whipped-cream cowlick. It was created by Shawn Porter, who named the ghost after his late grandfather. Porter was a graphic designer before the economy flatlined and Florida businesses pared spending on graphics. Because it was the end of March when I first turned to GhostStop’s website, there were yellow flowers blossoming behind the normal logo, and the ghost, whose name is Gus, wore bunny ears. A couple of weeks earlier he would have been wearing a green cockle hat, and he wore a red bowtie the month before that. For Halloween, Gus wears his birthday suit. His tail smokes like an extinguished candle, but his smile is nice, and it is important to appear nice when you’re in the business of buying, selling, and trading ghost-hunting equipment.
Porter opened GhostStop’s brick-and-mortar shop in Orlando in 2006, and in June of last year, he relocated to Saint Cloud, about twenty miles south. Some three hundred people turned out for the grand reopening, including Paul Bradford and Scott Tepperman, stars of the third season of Syfy’s reality television series Ghost Hunters International. People ate hot dogs and Porter hired a horse and carriage service for free joyrides around the historic downtown.
In some ways, GhostStop is a small business like any other. The employees extend Black Friday sales. They prefer not to ship orders through the United States Postal Service—which is “going bankrupt for a reason,” the shop tweeted. And they do taxes, which is why my first interview with Porter had to wait until after April 15. We sat down in the boardroom of his black-and-red decorated store complemented with zombie garden gnomes, portraits of Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, and a large golden statue of a frog seated thoughtfully in lotus position.
“Look,” Porter said, “we’re kind of an avant-garde business. This isn’t like another thrift store coming into town.” Before he and his wife moved from Orlando to Saint Cloud, they had wondered how the small, traditional community would receive their business. Back in Orlando, the city’s loud amusements made ghost investigations difficult. But come dusk in Saint Cloud, Porter knew he could hunker down in one of the early twentieth-century buildings in the town center and hear nary a sound, optimal conditions for ghost hunting (which mostly amounts to observing ceilings or video screens of ceilings in old structures). Happily, locals were far more receptive than he expected. “As a matter of fact,” Porter said, “I think they were, in most cases, welcoming to something different.” Now GhostStop provides civilian excursions. Walking Ghost Tours cost fifteen bucks, and forty-dollar Tag-Along Investigations are offered once a month.
Practically all of GhostStop’s business is online, though Porter likes to have a place where people can come by and handle the equipment, ponder options in the flesh. Aside from a competitor in Mount Holly, New Jersey (the GhostHunter Store), GhostStop is the sole physical retailer of ghost-hunting equipment in the country. They supply the major ghost-investigative shows Ghost Adventures and Ghost Hunters, and they used to supply the latter’s spin-off, Ghost Hunters International. Syfy canceled GHI last year, but the network has programmed two new ghost-hunting shows and has a third one on the way.
There are seven people on the GhostStop team. Besides Porter and his wife, Jennifer, who handles customer care, there’s Paul Bradford, who serves as GhostStop’s “technical architect” (he builds the ghost-hunting gear he and Porter dream up); Stefanie and Phil Costello, operations/shipping and ghost tour manager, respectively; Tim Brown, also on ghost tours; and Graham Ober, a technical counselor. Open-minded skeptics, they all investigate with gusto.
Porter’s own theory of ghosts is not what one might expect from someone in his position. He has never experienced what he describes as an “Uncle Bob,” a personalized spirit that somehow survived the death process and is now communicative. Rather, Porter believes in “energy”—that which is neither created nor destroyed. He went to Catholic school, and for the longest time, he says, “I didn’t believe there was anything. You die. The lights turn off. I think as I get older I don’t want to believe the lights just turn off. That’s horrifying! From there, for me anyway, I think you go seeking alternative options.”
Ghost hunting is a human interest story any way you slice it. There are good-timer ghost hunters, who hunt for fun or their own edification—and then there are paranormal investigators like the GhostStop crew, who answer to scientific methodology, demand strictures, and work to “document, document, document,” said Porter. Most people who come to GhostStop just want to hold on to a person who has died. “Those are the sad ones,” Porter told me. “Those phone calls are tough to take.” They had one the week before I visited the shop. As Porter described it, the caller “wanted some kind of equipment to keep the communication alive.”
Porter will never say Maybe they’re not here to a customer. “Who am I to say?” he said. But it can be difficult to distinguish false hope from an honest-to-goodness paranormal clue. Consider orbs. The average camera’s usual manual describes orbs as “backscatter,” “near-camera reflection,” or “white circular spots,” and advises that they are caused by particles like dust or pollen floating close to the lens. But some paranormalists think they’re ghosts.
“Purists, like us”—that means serious paranormal investigators—“will bash orbs left and right,” Porter said. He used to, too, until one day when his mother was taking pictures of the family, and “in every photo was a piece of dust or something. A piece of dust, or a moisture droplet. But it was over somebody’s shoulder in every shot. Normally? If anyone else brought that to me? I’d throw it out in a heartbeat. I’d say, It’s a piece of dust; I’m sorry. But this was personal. My mother wanted to believe this was Gus, my grandfather. She wanted so badly to believe that I just went with it. And believe me: I started out telling her: Mom. It could be dust. It could be that. Then I realized how much it meant to her. Why do I need to sit there and tell her no?”
Not long ago, there was a woman in the shop who thought her camera had captured ghosts. “She had a camera full of dust. Graham took it and said, Nope. Dust, dust, dust. Dust. But I think he left the last picture as a possibility, probably because he saw that it was upsetting her. Like, She really wants to hold onto this.” The woman wanted a second opinion. “So she gave it to Paul, and he went through it . . . She gets to the last one, she says, Tell me good news. And he goes, It’s a ghost. And she’s like, Okay, thanks. They want it so badly.”
In this business, it’s easy to take advantage of such people. And with the advent of Photoshop, “ghosts” are easy to fake—which is one reason that Porter insists it’s not right to charge for an investigation. Truly, his job involves a lot of awkward communing with the living. There are times he has to say, “You need to speak with somebody.” A doctor.
Porter’s advice: If you want to go ghost hunting, get yourself an electromagnetic field (EMF) meter and a voice recorder and build your equipment from there. At GhostStop, the bestselling items are pretty much whatever’s on TV that week. “If Ghost Hunters is using a Mel that week, everybody wants a Mel,” he said. The Mel looks like a blocky white cellphone with a pink screen. Porter thinks it’s the best piece of equipment on the market. “Gary just knows what he’s doing.”
Gary Galka, an electrical engineer, named the Mel Meter after his daughter Melissa, who died nine years ago in a car crash. Galka saw a need for products specific to the paranormal field. “When he started making the Mel Meters,” Porter said, “there was no such thing as ‘ghost-hunting equipment.’”
One day before I met Porter for the first time, I met his wife Jennifer and a doll named Raggedy Ann. I had seen the doll on GhostStop’s website, and when I asked Jennifer about it, she fetched Ann from the store’s inventory. The Raggedy Ann EMF Trigger Doll is not your average toy. Jennifer reached under the blue frock and pulled down Ann’s bloomers; at the small of her back she had been retrofitted with an EMF meter with an on/off toggle and a single nine-volt battery. A lime-green light in the red bow on her apron front indicated “on,” and the doll’s beady black eyes caught the eerie glow, causing them to gleam. Other lights positioned on her person can signal electromagnetic fields of various strengths. Given her vintage constitution, Raggedy Ann is a perfect trigger object for “spirits of old.” And according to GhostStop’s website, if you are trying to communicate with a child spirit, Ann will be “especially helpful.” I asked Jen if Ann is ghost bait. “Basically, yes,” she answered.
In the Porters’ métier, weird becomes weirder, and that becomes the norm. In 2008, a lady called up who had faeries in her backyard. GhostStop, then based in Orlando, hadn’t been in business long, and at the time it was the weirdest question they had received. “We weren’t sure if she meant drag queens. We did not know,” Porter said, “but we got to talking to her, and basically she thought she had Tinker Bell flying around.” The woman wanted equipment to catch them on camera. Porter giggled. “Probably lightning bugs.”
Our tag-along investigation of the Chamber of Commerce began a few nights later at the GhostStop building. The staff members were outfitted in t-shirts of Porter’s making. Windowed in a gothic crest, Gus crossed his arms and smiled wide: “E GHOSTUS HUNTEM.” Porter and Phil primed everyone as to the chamber’s activity—shadows, rattles, and whistles in combination with footsteps—and overviewed the building, which was original but for the roof Hurricane Charley ripped off in 2004. Built in 1910 as a bank, the building was the scene of at least one heist and, if local lore is to be believed, a double homicide.
There were a dozen civilian investigators along for the trip, and we were divided into two groups, guided by Phil and Tim, and instructed to have rule-abiding fun: No food or drink. No whispering, because it contaminates the reels of electronic voice phenomena (EVP). Never go alone. Stay on the designated floor.
“If you notice something, say your name, say the time and what you saw. Tag it.”
“When taking pictures, call ‘Flash!’”
“Enjoy yourselves,” Phil said. “This is y’all’s investigation.”
We were given small flashlights embossed with the GhostStop logo and told to keep them on us at all times.
It was shortly after 8 p.m. when we took the five-minute walk from GhostStop to the Chamber of Commerce, and the Alamo-like façades of St. Cloud’s downtown were set against a royal blue sky. Walking over, I was struck by the living’s topics of conversation—one investigator’s intention to quit cigarettes, another’s impending divorce. “But you know what?” that woman cooed. “Life goes on.”
Twenty minutes later, Phil was speaking out loud to ghosts. “Hello again,” he said. “I’m sure you’re probably getting tired of us here, but we are not getting tired of you here.” Phil talks to ghosts a little like most people talk to children: not condescendingly, but with a tone that intimates a different level of comprehension. “I’m Phil, this is Shawn—we have a few other people here. We’ll let them introduce themselves.”
We announced our names to whomever was listening, and Phil said, “So why don’t you introduce yourself? We want to know, do you work here?”
Morgan, one of the tag-alongs, thought she heard throat clearing, then felt her ponytail stick on something. “Not like a definite pull, but something I noticed,” she said.
“Thank you very much,” Porter said to the surrounding air, his voice sincere. “Can you do it again?”
The door opened. Light beamed on the floor. GhostStop crew member Stefanie walked in the room looking for Porter and was all but booed when it became apparent she was not supernatural. At the same time, Morgan was watching her EMF meter; she said it bumped up for the first time.
“It’s been flat?” Phil asked.
“It’s been flat.”
“That’s a good sign. Very, very good sign.” Phil asked the spirit if it could make the meter go off again. “Just a quick blip?”
In the command center next door, Stefanie was watching the quadrants of a monitor, a DVR feed from the video cameras stationed up- and downstairs. A surprising amount of dust zoomed around in the air, at times colliding with the lens like the first huffs of a blizzard.
Onscreen, we could hear a tag-along named Patrick in the boardroom. He was addressing the ghost. “I want to ask, what do you think about this new type of president we have?”
A middle-aged man came in on tiptoe and stared at the screen—he was seeing something that wasn’t behaving like dust. Stefanie glanced over and said, “I know there was a mosquito hanging around downstairs.” In the hallway, near the stairwell, a woman grabbed her boyfriend’s hand. “Feel my pulse,” she said. Smiling, he touched her neck. Downstairs, I admired the HD quality of a new night-vision video camera, and upon hearing one long, distressed moan, dutifully tagged the audio. “That was my stomach.”
At the end of the night, Phil’s group sat around a table in the chamber’s one-room museum downstairs. Our group was sweaty, a touch jaded, and increasingly gabby. The subject turned to provocation. There are those investigators who make use of name-calling, expletives, and other bad manners to enrage ghosts. Graham admitted that you can “get results” that way. “I don’t like provoking,” he said, “but some do.”
The three-man team on Ghost Adventures has positioned themselves as “the angry ghost show,” but a tag-along named Petra balked at this strategy. She likened that behavior to yelling at somebody’s grandparents. The consensus seemed to be that it is not cool to walk into a room and rail against someone you don’t know.
It was midnight when everyone crowded back into GhostStop. Phil told us we were a good crew and the flashlights were ours to keep. He added, “We’re ready to send you out into the ghost-hunting world now.”
Some tag-alongs were nursing a hobby—but most of us? I think we appreciated the idea of a ghost. What is a ghost but a smear in the air? A memory, willful and invincible, determined to keep living its life.