Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Color me skeptical

"Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or ignorance." - Bertrand Russell

Before I get going--nobody took a stab at my question yesterday. That made me sad. Maybe math is indeed a dead language.

Okay, so for today: I'm pretty skeptical. Not to the point of what might annoy Mr. Russell in today's quote, mind you, but I do tend to play hard-to-convince. Take religion, for example. Yes, I'm perfectly willing to believe in a higher power. I don't see how anybody who's ever studied human anatomy & physiology could NOT believe in a guiding hand making decisions regarding what goes where, frankly. But tell me that higher power has long brown hair, wears white robes, hates sexual activity except as it pertains to propagation of the species, prefers the screech of an electronic Wurlitzer repeating the same three chords of a hymn through all 97 verses to the rockin' sound of Petra or Stryper, or is going to be perfectly happy to send several billion Hindus, Buddhists, et al to eternal screaming damnation just 'cause they believed He went by a different name and wore different clothes, and I'm gonna give you one of *those* looks.

Similarly (I say quickly to steer away from a philosophical religious discussion), I believe in ghosts. Who wouldn't? I know some people believe that when we die our bodies, our spirits, our everything just cease to exist, and others believe that every part of us that's not our bodies sprint away toward a celestial bright light to enter the loving embrace of the aforementioned Higher Power in his white robes and long brown hair, rockin' the e-Wurlitzer, but I have a hard time conceding that either one of those groups have the requisite knowledge to support either belief.

I'm...well, I'm skeptical.

Besides, I've had my own strange experiences. I grew up in a house that had been built within a year or two after the Civil War, right on top of one of the lines of breastworks the Confederates used in their defense of Corinth. I felt things. I heard things. There were 17 stairs in that house, and most nights I heard something ascend each of them in turn. I got really, really good at counting to 17 at an early age, by the way.

Thus, when somebody says "ghosts exist," I nod and give them a thumbs-up. When somebody says, "I talked to a ghost yesterday and his name was Sam, and he likes moonlit walks on a winter night," though, I give him one of *those* looks.

You know where this is leading, don't you? At least, you do if you saw my Tweets this weekend.

Some of the more interesting events at SheVaCon (which is saying a lot--there was a great deal at SheVaCon that was interesting) were the paranormal activity sessions. During the day, the three paranormal investigation groups in attendance gave talks about where they had been, what they had seen, and the investigations they'd done. Lectures, if you must call them that, sometimes supported by actual pictures and EVPs. Fascinating stuff, that.

Now, my lovely bride is addicted to Ghost Hunters et al--those wildly popular TV shows that have groups such as TAPS going into historical sites and investigating claims of hauntings. I've watched them with her, but my skepticism has always somewhat destroyed my enjoyment of the shows.

It was tremendously interesting, then, to listen to groups who are less well-known and a skosh less well-financed talk to us about their experiences. Very interesting, in fact. Whether you're a true believer or not, I'd highly recommend the experience.

I walked away from several lectures with some knowledge in the factual realities of the efforts. For example, I learned that these ghost-hunting groups have to pay to spend the night at these sites, and frequently that expense is higher per person than it costs to spend the night at a posh hotel. That was a shock; I'd sort of assumed that they'd be allowed on vacant sites for free, if they weren't actually being paid to do the work they do. I'm not sure why, but that little bit of knowledge stuck in my head as, if nothing else, a significant reason to take their results more seriously. I mean, it'd be different if they were being paid to go in and find ghosts, right?

In any event, there were several other items I learned, mostly of a technical variety. There are things, high-tech things, that they use sometimes that aren't used a lot on the TV shows. But many of them also place more stock in the visceral sensations--they just, often as not, spend a while sitting, observing and feeling. They don't show that stuff on TV because--well, because who wants to watch a bunch of guys (and sometimes girls) sitting quietly in the dark?

Turns out there are several really intense sites close by that the groups had been to, including St. Albans Sanitarium and the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. (You can't really say that last without a shudder, can you? I couldn't.) I guess that wherever there were crazy people kept in quantities, you can now find significant paranormal activity. Or, as some disbelievers might suggest, on those sites you can still find crazy people in quantities, only now they're paying to be there. Just depends on your point of view, I guess.

So. The lectures done, we signed up for an actual experience. Yay! I mean, it's one thing to watch ghost hunters on TV, tromping into the Dark&Scary seeking paranormal activity (also known as ghosts that might have the capability to eat you); it's another thing entirely to follow them into the Dark&Scary to seek such activity alongside them. Here, ghostie ghostie ghostie....

The hotel we were in, the Roanoke Hotel and Convention Center, is pretty old and has been through at least three fires that we know of, apparently. Some of them even caused people-death. Perfect place to find phantasmic paranormality, right?

Not so much, it turned out. Many types of conventions may slow down and even stop in the evening hours, but a sci fi and fantasy conference does not. Thus, once we were able to finally get the emergency lights in the room turned down, we were still able to hear substantial ruckus in the halls. Have you ever watched the shows where you see people in night vision asking questions out loud? That was mostly what happened, but without the night vision. "Is there anyone here with us?" Silence, punctuated by outside ruckus. "Can you tell us your name?" More silence, more ruckus. "Can you touch the green light at the front?" Silence, and nothing on the EVP meter that was represented by the green light in front. "Do you want us to leave?" Silence; I bet others were thinking the same as I was--I sure wanted the kids in the hall to leave.

Hell, if I'd been a ghost there, I'd've wanted the kids in the hall to leave. Those folks, many of whom were dressed up as zombies and post-apocalyptic or Star Wars warriors, would've scared me enough to ignore the normal-looking folks in the dark conference room with the funky gadgets. Honestly, that event didn't prove that ghosts don't exists. At best, it proved that ghosts can't be called at will to perform in a noisy environment. Maybe I'm a ghost, by that proof.

Later, once we finally got the guitar guy out of the larger room, we moved to the auditorium in which they'd experienced more activity the night before. We also gained some people, including Perfume Lady who caused all of us with allergies to entertain the ghost-recording devices with loud sneezes. Plus there was Cold Guy who kept announcing to the group that "I feel cold air to my right." Maybe there was a cold spot there; maybe not. There was, however, a HVAC vent there.

None of this did much good for my skepticism. Till, that is, they brought out....

Yes, I'm hearing a cymbal crescendo in my head. Really.

They brought out--The Ghost Box. This is a device that is designed to scan a certain AM or FM radio band looking for signals from local phantasms who wish to use such signals to speak with the living. The theory, as I understood it, is that ghosts who can't make a sound in reality can affect the radio energy surrounding them in order to make their voices heard. And vocally-challenged ghosts everywhere applaud the invention, I suppose. So do ghost hunters, who can now listen for the clicks the device emits as it scans to vanish, followed inevitably by the e-voice of a paranormal apparition.

Anyway, and all funning aside--make their voices heard, they did. Suddenly the night became talkative in the form of some ghost-guy named Dave. And Jill. Well, a ghost-girl named Jill, I guess, but in the eerie radio-voice it all sounded the same.

Apparently the investigators already knew about Dave; they'd done the same thing the night before and had gotten Dave to be pretty talkative. In fact, one of the investigators had gotten Dave quite ticked off at him, to the point where Dave had shown he was possessed of (*giggle*--sorry, couldn't help it) a more or less healthy repertoire of curse-words and insults.

That night we weren't as lucky; Dave seemed a bit tired and uninterested in engaging us in meaningful conversation. He knew of one of the fires, apparently, but never told us which one. Jill may or may not have been his daughter; he had either three or five of them. And so on it went.

Dave was difficult to understand, especially so because he apparently enjoyed flipping the Ghost Box over to an actual AM station. Which, I add, must've been quite the challenge since I hadn't been able to get a signal on my cell phone in that room all day.

After an hour of this, they turned the lights back on to allow everyone, including presumably Dave and Jill, an opportunity for a pee break. Since it was now 1:00 am, and we had friends expecting us to arrive sometime before dawn at their farmhouse (see the post yesterday), we decided it was time to leave.

I left with a humorously snarky story to tell, of course, but I also left with a lot more appreciation for what the ghost hunters are and do. It's not hard to believe in ghosts, really, no matter how you believe they come into being. It's a little harder to believe that they're at all interested in interacting with the still-living, in the way that we desire for them to, and at the time that we desire for them to, and using the channels we require them to use. That said, there was clearly a great deal of true conviction in that room that evening. The guys doing the investigation are sincere in their efforts and professional in their knowledge and approach, and the claims they make regarding evidence they have accumulated I have no problem at this point believing are real. Is it possible to explain away the Ghost Box entertainment for the evening in a scientific manner? Well, AM signals do penetrate farther into structures than cell signals do, and when you're frequency hopping you never know what you'll get, so--sure it is, and so I'm not completely convinced that I witnessed any true paranormal activity. I did, however, have a great deal of fun, and I learned quite a bit at the same time.

Honestly, all that said, I'm not convinced that I didn't hear a ghost, either.

There's a lot we don't know about what is or isn't out there. My hat is off to those who try to make sense of any part of it.
Links of interest:  
SheVaCon:  www.shevacon.org
Blackwater Paranormal: http://www.blackwaterparanormal.com/
Eastern States Paranormal: http://easternstatesparanormal.com/
Southwest Virginia Ghost Hunters: http://southwestvirginiaghosthunters.tumblr.com/
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum: http://trans-alleghenylunaticasylum.com/
St. Albans Sanitorium: http://stalbans-virginia.com/


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