Who You Gonna Call In D.C.?

Posted October 28, 2009 at 4:46pm

OK, admit it. You hear about a guy who hunts ghosts, and you start humming the “Ghostbusters— theme and picturing the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man terrorizing Manhattan. The 1984 movie, in which Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis played recently unemployed academics who start a second career taking on the supernatural, poked fun at paranormal professions. But for one D.C.-area investigator, the job is no laughing matter.

John Warfield braves situations others might find a bit creepy, especially at this time of year. Since 2006, he’s been running the D.C. Metro Area Ghost Watchers. At the time, Warfield had just retired from the Navy and he was looking for a “team to get involved in,— particularly a team in the paranormal realm. He contacted Al Tyas, founder of DCMAG, and Tyas handed the business over to him. It turned out that Tyas was retiring and trusted Warfield because of his leadership background.

Warfield’s interest in paranormal activity began during his childhood in Lansdowne, Md. Typical mysterious events — the family cat seemingly batting at nothing, sounds of breaking glass when nothing had crashed, hammering noises coming from the basement when no one was there — convinced Warfield that his home was haunted. He wasn’t able to do anything about his own family’s spooks and specters, but he is making up for that now.

Warfield funds DCMAG’s work out of his own pocket, using his salary from his part-time job as an occupational therapist to cover equipment and investigation costs. Investigations are done at no charge to clients — but not all of them make the cut.

Weeding Out the Crazies

During a preliminary phone call, Warfield susses out the serious cases from the kooks and makes a decision on whether to work with them.

“You can get some crazy people, so the first thing you do is make sure they’re legitimate clients,— Warfield said.

Much of the early stages of the process are based on Warfield’s intuition. If potential callers get past Warfield’s first reaction, he will do a walk-through of the residence or building with the alleged activity.

Warfield said he wouldn’t “describe himself as a medium,— but that there are ways of telling if there is a supernatural presence. If he feels a heavy atmosphere in the room, for example, there is more likely to be something to investigate. But that isn’t always the final factor in deciding whether to take an assignment.

“If it’s an aggressive case, it’s going to go into hiding on us,— he said. In those instances, he makes a judgment on the sincerity and impression he gets from the client.

The ghosts aren’t always so shy, however. Warfield said he has had his hair pulled during an investigation and recalled hearing someone whispering in his ear and feeling a breath on his face. The whisper was unintelligible at the time, but when he went back and listened to a recording of the session, he said it “pretty much sounded like, ‘Get out of here.’—

How It Works

So what exactly goes into a paranormal investigation? That, too, depends on the case and what the client is asking. One might think that anyone who had a ghost hanging around the house would want to be rid of it, but Warfield said sometimes people just want confirmation that something is there.

If the residents do want the ghost to be gone, however, Warfield has a few ways of approaching it. But he makes no guarantees that he’ll be successful.

“We talk to it, ask for a name, why is it there, why has it been in the house,— he said. Once in a while, the spirit will speak loudly enough for everyone in the room to hear, Warfield said. But in case it doesn’t, the team uses electronic voice phenomena, a process of recording the session and then playing it back through a special system that can amplify sound and remove background noise, to catch anything they missed. They also photograph the area and check the images for orbs, although Warfield admits that orbs aren’t actually good evidence of the supernatural.

To the untrained eye, orbs can be confused with dust particles or faulty lighting. Warfield explained that orbs are brighter than other irregularities in photos because they create their own energy and light source. This still doesn’t mean the shiny light in your photos is a ghost, though. These light sources can be developed in laboratories, so “technically no orb is paranormal,— according to Warfield.

People Problems

Uncooperative ghosts aren’t always the biggest problem during a hunt. Sometimes it’s the living that get in the way. And in a house in which the wife is a true believer and the husband a skeptic, the situation can get a little tense.

In one instance, a husband refused to stay in the house for the investigation. His wife had called DCMAG to complain about two spirits — a woman named Jody and a man who was consistently appearing to their 12-year-old daughter. She may have been sold on the problem, but he was not.

“I truly believe the wife put her foot down and said, ‘I’m tired of having activity in my house,’— Warfield said. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but as we got there, the husband walked out the door and took his son camping.—

He said the team did make some progress in the house, even hearing someone whispering the name Jody. But the husband’s ire was enough to stop the investigation there. Warfield has since made it a policy to talk with skeptical family members during walk-throughs to make sure they are comfortable having the DCMAG team come into the house.

Peak Season

Not surprisingly, business tends to boom around Halloween, although DCMAG gets fewer prank calls than one might expect. Warfield said that back when Tyas was running the organization, they did have some calls that ended up being a child’s birthday party or a group of firemen who dressed up in sheets and mocked the investigators when they arrived at the firehouse. That’s partially why Warfield began doing walk-throughs — to avoid those situations —and he said he hasn’t had problems since taking over.

The DCMAG team consists of five volunteer investigators. Training includes an online test through the nonprofit group Paranexus, an association of “dedicated and progressive ufologists, parapsychologists, and enthusiasts focused on researching and understanding the human condition through the scientific study of aerial, psychical, and anomalous phenomena, its reality, its reach, and its impact on humanity,— according to its Web site. Once an investigator passes that test, he or she participates in a public assignment at a business or historical building before being able to take private clients.

DCMAG recently expanded its services to include movie consulting. Eric Espejo, vice president of the 19th & Wilson production company and the writer, director and producer of its new film, “Ghosts Don’t Exist,— reached out to DCMAG after seeing an article about the group in Northern Virginia Magazine. Espejo’s film was profiled in the same issue, and he decided to contact Warfield to help with the movie’s authenticity. The cast and crew tagged along on a ghost hunt, and Warfield loaned them some of the equipment used in the film.

“John is very informed of what he does,— Espejo said. “He gave us a lot of information and behind-the-scenes access. It was great working with him.—

DCMAG performs 15 to 20 investigations a year, Warfield said. And even though Halloween tends to be their busiest period, Warfield and the rest of the DCMAG team will likely have more downtime soon.

By mid-November, “people stop thinking about haunted houses and start thinking about Thanksgiving time,— he said.