For these hunters, it's open season on ghosts

January 16, 2005
George Hutchens Special to the BCT

Peter Poblete can live with the ghosts. He says there's one in a corner of his bar at the Olde Columbus Inn in Mansfield. There's some kind of spirit down in his basement. And there's one upstairs that has an annoying habit of turning up the thermostat.

"They were here before I got here; they'll be here when I leave," said Poblete, the inn's manager and head chef.

For scores of Burlington County residents like Poblete, the bumps in the night are being investigated by South Jersey Ghost Research.

If the Turnersville-based nonprofit sounds like a Bill Murray-less version of "Ghostbusters," that's because it is.

Executive Director David Juliano, an investigator and believer in the supernatural himself, said his group fields two or three calls a day and provides free investigations.

Investigators are volunteers, but don't call them and expect a hearse to come racing to your door. They are booked solid through March.

"About 80 percent of the calls are people that are unnecessarily afraid." Juliano said. "They're looking for a basic confirmation that something might be going on."

What kinds of things? Footsteps when no one else is home. Doors that open or close on their own. The scent of cigarettes or perfume. If it's enough to spook someone, then it's probably worth the investigators' time to make a house call or two.

Once hoaxes and false alarms are ruled out, investigators use gadgets to gauge changes to electromagnetic fields, thermometers, supersensitive audio recorders and cameras that recognize strange infrared light.

Huh? Let chef Poblete explain.

"I saw a green slime in the video cameras, you see things called orbs," he said. "What I saw in the video was different. Instead of covering the whole screen, it was a little circle they thought was a spirit."

Not everyone's buying it. Ted Goetzel, a sociology professor at the Camden campus of Rutgers University, said the group's research may be reassuring, but it's not useful in a scholarly way.

"I'm surprised to see that it's going so well," said Goetzel, who specializes in human reactions to supernatural claims such as UFO abductions. "You look at the pictures and you see a smudge and then a rather farfetched interpretation."

He said the research is little more than a security blanket for the confused and scared.

"If you believe in it ... that's fine, it's not hurting anyone," he said. "But I think it's a psychological phenomenon that allows those people to be a part of a group of people with an activity for them."

The group traces its roots back to 1955 when Hildred Robinette founded Ghost Hunters of America in Burlington County. In 1998, two other ghost research groups merged, and it was renamed South Jersey Ghost Research.

Their mission is as simple as it is implausible: Get to the bottom of the unexplainable.

"We're supernatural guidance counselors," he said.

Most investigations are vetted for logical explanations like a creaky board or an electrical shortage that might cause a creepy occurrence. And yes, in their more than 50 years of existence, the ghost researchers have gotten crank calls.

"We make them fill out a questionnaire," Juliano said. "We get it down to the most serious calls."

Burlington County has seen its share of ghost calls. In addition to the Olde Columbus Inn, the Historic Burlington County Prison in Mount Holly made headlines in 2000 after an inmate named Joel Clough "who was in for murder in the 1830s" made an appearance.

Nichole Steward, a Bordentown resident and ghost investigator since September 2003, said most of the group's 25 volunteers are interested in the paranormal for a reason.

"I've lived in haunted houses for most of my life," she said. "When I saw the Web page, I called and joined."

Juliano said the group has grown over the last decade in particular because of the Internet linking groups in new ways. Television helps, too. A show called "Ghost Hunters" is on the SciFi cable network, and reporters from all over have interviewed Juliano over the years, which helps the nonprofit group stay alive.

Juliano, who is a United Parcel Service worker by day, said fund-raisers and donations generate enough to maintain equipment and to update the Web site.

Juliano said as long as the phone keeps ringing and people in the region keep coming down with the willies, there's no reason to back off and stop believing in ghosts.

"For most people, we give them something that makes them feel that they're not the only ones who feel something," Juliano said. "Everyone reacts in some way. Overall, if people feel slightly uneasy, the calls will come."
w York Times 10-26-03

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