building exterior

It’s grins over grim during a night of ghost hunting in Smith Hall

man talking to group

Author Anna Rose Warren, at left, listens to Geoff Lloyd explain how to read the electromagnetic-field sensors.

“If there’s anybody here, could you give us a sign of your presence?” says Geoff Lloyd, head researcher for Southern California Paranormal Detectives (SCPD). “Can you make a noise? I’m going to knock on this door and I’d like you to repeat the motion if you can.”

The basement of 100-year-old Smith Hall at Chapman University has always felt a little spooky to me, but at night the space takes on a Halloween-ish (rhymes with squeamish) potential for terror. As we sit in a circle, trying to coax a response from an unseen source of energy, the only light in the corridor comes from the red exit signs above us and the small green glow of an electromagnetic-field sensor before us.

Earlier, as I combed the perimeter of the space for paranormal activity, Lloyd passed a scrambling device in front of the sensor.

“EMF’s going crazy,” I said over my hummingbird heartbeat. He led me on for a few more minutes before revealing the scrambler.

“Just messing with you,” he said with a smile.

So far during this night of after-hours investigation, it seems that the tricks have more to do with fun and less to do with the supernatural.

It’s Tuesday, Oct. 22, and Lloyd is prowling the halls of Smith Hall along with three other team members from SCPD. They are here at the invitation of Christopher Bader, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at Chapman who is fascinated by those who explore at society’s fringe – from religious cults to UFO believers, Bigfoot hunters to ghost chasers.

“What a cool idea that there might be a spirit trapped in this building,” says Bader, author of the book
Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture
, from NYU Press. “I would love for ghosts to exist. I just don’t know that they do.”

I’m here as an intern in the Chapman Public Relations Department, joining Bader and a dozen or so students from his Sociology of Religion class. Our own group of curious participants includes Debbie Finster, who works in Smith Hall as senior director of development and external relations for the Argyros School of Business and Economics. Her stories of working alone on weekends in the locked building and still hearing footsteps on the stairs help fuel Smith Hall’s spirited allure. Others in the building have reported strange feelings, like there’s an unseen presence, as well as unexplained fluctuations in temperature.

people talking in classroom

Professor Christopher Bader, Ph.D., at left, talks with students while the SCPD crew sets up equipment in other rooms.

Team members from SCPD speculate that the spirit of a former student or faculty member might remain in the building because he or she had such a positive experience and doesn’t want to leave Chapman.  That thought provides some comfort, until the detectives start sharing stories of past investigations elsewhere in Southern California, including one that featured an appearance by a 9-foot-tall transparent werewolf. It’s hard not to wonder if this night will include such drama, especially as team members set up sensors, cameras, audio equipment and, in one classroom, a grid of blue light beams intended to detect apparitions.

“Dani, come here,” Lloyd says as he rounds a corner. Danielle Sandoval, his fellow SCPD investigator, moves across the floor and we hold our breath as they search along one wall. “Earlier a member of our group felt a cold spot right here,” Lloyd says.

She affirms his suspicions. “It is colder here.”

“Can you give us a sign to let us know you are with us?” Lloyd says to the unseen. The EMF meter stays an unenthusiastic shade of green, and Lloyd informs the group that this is often the most challenging part of ghost hunting – staying positive and persistent when spirits refuse to cooperate with technology.

“There’s a draft coming through the door. That could explain it, but then again you never know,” Lloyd concludes enigmatically.

We pack up and move upstairs, where the rest of the group is having a little more success. They’ve assessed, through flickers in the EMF meter’s light, that the ghost responds primarily to females and likes to play games. Finster seems to get along best with our unseen friend.

“There’s a lot of excitement in this building tonight, isn’t there? And usually you have it all to yourself,” she says. The light flickers orange – a yes?

At the end of the night, such vague responses are all we take away, but there is an adrenaline-inducing playfulness to the SCPD’s work. Even I think I hear the shuffling of feet once while alone in an upstairs classroom. My co-worker jokes, “Like footsteps, or more of a moon-walking ghost?” Lloyd is quick to try to dispel my uncertainty, telling me that just because the paranormal isn’t always plausible doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.

Humans have always been enamored with the mythic; with reaching out beyond our understanding and placing faith in the ungraspable; with creating patterns in the chaos. Tonight’s investigation seems rooted in our desire to believe. We may not gather any concrete proof, but I come to realize that’s not all that the SCPD is looking for. For the team, having a personal experience is as profound as tangible evidence, and Lloyd tells us, “That says there’s something here.”

The good-natured energy of the group is palpable, even as we leave the building, yawning, after 1 in the morning. The energies we are searching for, however, seem to have eluded our meters, slipping past us into the night.

Subscribers to the Orange County register can find more coverage of the ghost-hunting expedition online.

Anna Rose Warren

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