There are assumptions to be made prior to attending something billed as a "Paranormal House Party," assumptions to be made about the crowd, about what could be passed off as "evidence" supporting the existence of ghosts and what might be found lurking in the dark recesses of the Stanley Hotel's early 20th Century grandeur. But Feel the Energy, a seemingly impossible cultural mash-up combining a paranormal conference, ghost hunt and dance party proved those assumptions wrong.
While ghost stories have a tradition that stretches back centuries, the paranormal event industry is of a much more recent vintage. What had been a sub-niche of the travel market for most of human history experienced explosive growth in the wake of successful reality series like Ghost Hunters, which launched in 2004 and later inspired a bumper crop of similar shows like Ghost Lab, Ghost Adventures and Paranormal State, to name just a few.
Given a few years to flourish, that ever-expanding audience has spawned its own sub-culture, including tours, events, personalities, publications, merchandising and iPhone apps.
All of this growth means that the average attendee of a destination-weekend that includes a paranormal conference, late-night ghost hunt and dance party is not some androgynous character in heavy make-up who spent most of high school avoiding gym class, or any other off-beat stereotype one might jadedly drum up while trying to imagine the possibilities for peculiarity. These events -- like the one at the Stanley on March 9 and 10 -- have become a curious cross-section of America itself.
Young, old, rich, poor, curious and certain - there are hipsters, married couples, soccer moms, disaffected tweens and curious retirees who've all come searching for answers. There's a retired couple armed with an arsenal of tools for measuring electro-magnetic frequency fluctuations, temperature changes and other variables used to track paranormal presence. There's a lady with the sandpaper voice of a lifelong chain smoker whose husband's death was foretold by celebrity medium Rosemary The Celtic Lady more than a decade earlier when they ran into one another at a local bar. There's a young guy in a fitted Coogi cap who is never without a can of Bud Light and says that he's looking for "an experience" to help him confirm his beliefs.
There is some debate amongst the old guard of paranormal researchers whether or not the TV shows harm the perception of the inexact science that is the backbone of the field, but no one can dispute that it's brought a new generation into the fold.
In just a few years, it's grown into a major attraction for historic properties like the Stanley, which is perhaps best known as Stephen King's muse for the Overlook Hotel in his book The Shining. According to the hotel's resident ghost hunter and Feel the Energy organizer Callea Sherrill, the Stanley has seen its paranormal business increase dramatically over the past few years. There are daily tours through the halls of the hotel that gives spook-seekers an opportunity to hear about the various hotel visitors who've never completely checked out.
The unspoken rule seems to be that no one is out to make converts of anyone else. Everyone has a story -- a childhood home that did more than creak at night, or an unexplainable run-in with something that defies logic -- but no one is here to turn skeptics into believers. They search instead for thrills or corroboration or companionship.
The concert hall at the Stanley is a grand, classical space with blond hardwood floors, exquisite ornamental molding and relief-cut Corinthian columns. Over the years it's held string concertos, piano recitals, a small casino and a bowling alley, but right now it's bathed in magenta ground lighting and the sounds of Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It" drift out when the doors are pulled open by a pair of FTE attendees.
DJ Inferno, a veteran resident of the Las Vegas club scene, is feeling out the eclectic crowd to see what will get them on the dancefloor -- It's Ke$ha and Pitbull, then the Black Eyed Peas, followed by Salt-N-Pepa and Run DMC. A girl who is the spitting image of Velma from Scooby Doo is busting a serious move, and encourages a crowd to follow suit. Toward the back of the room, another crowd mills about within safe reach of the bar discussing the history of the property, swapping notes about ghost hunting gear or commenting on the Booth Brothers' newest feature film, Children of the Grave 2, which premiered earlier in the evening. Everyone is in good spirits.
Although he's on stage fueling FTE's Friday night party, DJ Inferno is better known to most of the crowd as Billy Tolley of the Travel Channel's Ghost Adventures TV series. He's had a successful career as a club DJ in Las Vegas since the early 2000s and then adapted his interest in digital audio software like Ableton to aid in the search for electronic voice phenomena (spectral voices inaudible to the naked ear captured via digital audio recordings in haunted spaces.)
On Saturday, Tolley would take DJ Inferno's place, presenting some of his most compelling EVP captures -- including the sounds of spirits seeming to answer questions he asked aloud during an overnight stay in Nevada's infamously haunted Washoe Club. In another clip, he'd seemed to capture a fragment of an old cowboy song and boot steps down a hallway. The building where he recorded that oddity had been empty for years and the hallways were carpeted; it was perhaps two seconds of audio amidst seven hours of silence. There were no other sounds to contextualize the outburst -- no doors opening or closing, just a spontaneous bar from a long forgotten song and six or eight footsteps.
Later that night, Tolley would be one of four featured FTE guests to lead groups on live ghost hunts in some of the property's spookiest spots. He was once again stationed in the concert hall, this time wielding something known as a ghost box -- a device that scans AM and FM frequencies at quarter-second intervals, creating an ever-fluctuating band of static through which spirits are able to communicate audibly -- and an iPhone app known as the ITC that spits out strings of nonsense syllables until words are channeled from spirits in the immediate area. It's an imperfect-but-seemingly-functional channel of communication between those who populate the physical realm and those who do not.
At one point, the spirit of a former maintenance man named Paul, who died in 2005, was locked in a feisty exchange with Tolley. Paul called the ghost hunter "asshole" for changing the translating device's output voice from male to female and then mocking him for sounding like a girl. According to FTE-organizer Callea Sherrill, who was also in the room at the time, the foul-mouthed maintenance man has called her "bitch," among other epithets, during past communications. Why the guy is spending his after-life on the job verbally abusing people was never directly addressed.
In the after-life, Paul has a roommate, too. Lucy was a young woman who froze to death on the streets of Estes Park in the mid-1970s. After a successful stint squatting in the then-boarded up building, she was discovered and compelled to leave her makeshift home.
During the ghost hunt late Saturday, Lucy was credited with suddenly shutting the door to the dressing room in the basement, where we'd been seated. Upon closer inspection afterward, it didn't seem possible for the door to have closed on its own. It sat flush against the padded carpet floor and required a definite effort to pull shut (which we looked at on the way out). Nor were there gusts or drafts in the basement capable of blowing it shut.
Earlier in the day, Lucy had made her presence known during a séance conducted in the concert hall by spiritualist/medium Michelle Sellers. Sellers had picked five random women from a handful of volunteers among the late-afternoon crowd and put them on-stage. The crowd was then able to ask questions of the spirits in the room; the answers would be channeled through the women on stage. The group on-stage included three middle-aged women, a chipper young blond co-ed and a pre-teen wearing a Bronco's t-shirt. They all came forward from different parts of the room and all of them had been visible at earlier events.
If they were planted there to dupe the rest of us, they were done so with the utmost attention to detail. (I'm inclined to believe they had no foreknowledge of the event, particularly the youngest girl who was later told by Sellers that she was a "psychic block" who'd endangered the success of the whole procedure).
I asked whether any one had ever died in the building, and one of the women said "no." Sherril, who was in the room, confirmed that the statement was historically accurate. A woman in the front row then asked whether a homeless woman had died here in the '70s. The middle-aged woman seated stage left immediately responded, "I'm hearing she had a home." Sherrill confirmed the truth of that as well. It turns out that Lucy doesn't like to be referred to as "homeless," because she viewed the concert hall as her home. She died on the streets after being kicked out, but her spirit still lives there and seems to enjoy DJ Inferno's mixes.
The concert hall is either a pre-eminent success in aesthetically under-stated haunted house rides, full of hidden mechanisms and secret radio transistors designed to fool our fear-heightened senses, or it's home to some truly unique paranormal personalities who are able to communicate with the real world via a mix of adapted and emergent technologies.
DJ Inferno isn't the only one with a background in music; it's a thread that unites several of the weekend's special guests.
Veteran ghost hunter Keith Age, a sturdily built man with a cowboy hat pulled low over his shaved-bald dome, is known as "The Legendary Rock N Roll Ghost Hunter," according to his bio. He'd actually been in a touring band back in his younger days, and the experience lead him in a roundabout way to his first taste of the paranormal. He was playing in the band when he met a girl he liked, but was frustrated that she would never invite him over. "I thought it was because of her parents, but it was because of a ghost," he joked with the audience Friday night.
Once he finally earned an invitation to her house, he brazenly taunted the ghost, not believing that it was real. As he was leaving, he paused by the door to await a good-bye kiss from his lady friend but was instead shoved out the door by an invisible force. He landed several feet away, registered the awesomeness of what just happened and began what is now a thirty-year career as a paranormal investigator.
Regardless of what happened to Age's former bandmates, he's become a star in the paranormal scene. When he stands up in front of the crowd someone yells out "you sexy beast." He doesn't miss a beat.
Age was the ghost hunter who helped the Booth Brothers transition from slasher flicks to paranormal research-based programming, and he is among the producers of their newest feature, Children of the Grave 2, which premiered during FTE's opening night. CotG2 is a condensed version of several years' worth of research at a handful of highly haunted locations, including the Lemp Mansion in St. Louis.
Blending historical information, their own documentation and some sensationalizing audio and visual effects, the movie has "the passion of an epic, but the truth of reality," according to one of the Booth Brothers.
The Booths are lauded as "the Grimm Brothers of our age," during their introduction at the festival. Their credits include features like Death Tunnel, The Haunted Boy and both installments in the Children of the Grave series. There's also a reality series they do called Spooked, which is on the Chiller Network (a recently acquired addition to the SyFy network's portfolio). Despite their credits on the big and small screens alike, the two are also musicians at heart.
The twins -- Christopher and Philip -- could pass for Bret Michaels's stunt doubles. One wears a bandana that tames the remnants of his hair metal past, and the other rocks a cowboy hat detailed with metalwork around the band. Their faces are marked by stripes of wrinkles earned by surviving a spell of hard and fast living. Both speak with British accents that are strikingly reminiscent of characters from This is Spinal Tap. They could be mediums channeling the spirit of Nigel Tufnel.
"We're musicians, so we're sensitive," Christopher Booth remarks during the Q & A that follows the film screening, although he doesn't elaborate on the duo's musical past. It's that trademark sensitivity of the natural born creative that allows their films to succeed where others have failed.
"The greatest ghost hunting tool is right here," says Philip Booth, tapping on his chest, explaining that the success of their work is found thanks to their compassion for the overwhelming sadness felt by many spirits they encounter.
In some cases, however, those spirits can cause more sadness than they feel.
"There's a lot of reality behind the reality," says Chris Dedman during his Saturday afternoon presentation. Dedman is well known for his involvement in the "I Am Six" case, a demonic possession he worked in Illinois that was featured in an episode of Paranormal State. The details of the case read like the screenplay to The Exorcist -- words appearing burnt in flesh, wall-climbing, etc.
It was a career-making case that nearly ruined his life when a spirit began following him around and harassing his family, including his young son. Dedman's talk served as a warning to amateurs in the crowd -- what seems like a fun hobby could turn deadly serious under bad circumstances. They were, after all, tampering with the spirit world and so were subject to the possibility of crossing paths with dangerous demonic spirits.
During Saturday night's ghost hunt, Dedman was stationed in the Stanley's administrative offices with a ghost box and a flashlight. During the first group's stop in the building, they made contact with a four-year-old girl who would play with the group by turning the flashlight on and off when asked. They'd also caught an EVP of her giggling and saying Chris's name.
When the second group entered, the atmosphere had changed. The ghost box picked up a distinctly male voice this time. When asked if the spirit worked there, the ghost box crackled, "I did." There were audible footsteps heard coming from upstairs even though the building was empty at midnight, except for the group in the conference room. One of the assistants commented that it the sounds might have been residual energy. The ghost box crackled again, "fuck you," it said, seemingly implying that the spirit took offense to the statement.
Dedman asked whether our questions were bothering the spirits, and the ghost box blurted "What do you think?"
At that point, Dedman cut off trying to communicate with the spirits and closed the session. "We respect you," he told the room as he shut off his equipment.
With a few minutes left before the group was supposed to head to the next location, Dedman explained the earlier incident with the flashlight and the little girl, as he pointed to the spot where a trepidatious guest had sat during the first session, the flashlight lit up on its own to highlight where the guy had been sitting.
The spirit world seems to function similarly to the way it was explained in the movie Ghost. There's a scene in a subway station where Steven Wright explains to Patrick Swayze that he can interact with the physical world only if he focuses his energy. Swayze's character manages to kick a soda can after some practice. Likewise, the spirits at the Stanley have to find a way to manifest themselves -- whether they want to speak words through the ghost box or turn on a flashlight. Some are better than others at communicating.
"Spirit doesn't lose its sense of humor," renowned medium Rosemary the Celtic Lady tells the crowd during her headlining slot Saturday night, prior to the ghost hunt. The Glasgow native (who will be returning to Estes Park to establish a retreat this year) drew the largest crowd of the weekend. She has books and has made numerous TV appearances. She also mentioned that she might have her own network show in the works.
She comments that a lot of energy has been stirred up by the preceding events, and as a result she feels that something is trying to prevent her from taking the stage. Before the show, she is locked in a bathroom trying to collect herself for the performance. She's felt sick and short of breath and almost had to cancel in order to go to the hospital.
Draped in a plaid cape and matching skirt, she looks the part of a Scottish mystic. She calls out a name that comes to her and asks whether anyone has a person by that name "in spirit" tonight. People in the crowd raise their hands, she offers up a few more identifying tidbits of info -- how long they've been gone, what they died from, etc. -- and then delivers messages from relatives who've since passed on. It's an emotional process. People who receive messages from deceased relatives often burst into tears in shock.
Although she's the headliner on Saturday, her presence is the least convincing to me. The people who receive communications are almost all unfamiliar faces. One woman who received a communication was there working -- she'd been checking wristbands at the door and handling sales of Rosemary's new book. Another guy was the male companion of one of the assistants who was tasked with handing off a microphone to people who were receiving communications. I don't know the intricacies of how the spirit world works, but this seems to be working a little too well.
Rosemary fetches $200 per hour per person for private consultations; she's published two books and has two more in the works. This is too big a business to not produce results on demand.
If there are qualms with the effects reality TV has had on the field of paranormal research, the most damaging might be the change in perception. Ghost hunting is sexy on television. Long nights are edited down to a few brief moments of possible contact with the spirit world. Rarely, if ever, does a group return empty-handed. The new class of post-reality-TV ghost hunters might have expectations that are unrealistic.
Does that in turn place undue pressure on event organizers to fake results in order to satisfy customers? Was an intern stashed upstairs in the administration building waiting for a signal to begin stomping around, simulating the angry footsteps of spirits and titillating those on the search for ghosts? Is there a way to fake the responses uttered by the ghost box or other pieces of ghost hunting technology? The answer would seem to be yes, but that hardly serves as proof that the results were faked.
Are the tools in the ghost hunter's tool box getting more effective at finding ways to bridge the two worlds? Or are they simply providing the bells and whistles necessary for real world explorations to match the fast-paced thrills of reality television? The answer isn't really clear. No one here claims that the practices are an exact science, but sometimes the results feel compellingly real.
Whether I saw and heard things beyond the boundaries of rational explanation or was pulled into an impeccably executed deception doesn't really matter because it was a great time either way.
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