Ghost Hunters

The dead come back to life -- sort of -- in the Cuyahoga Valley.

Killing Joke, with Amen Agora Theatre Thursday, October 30
Ken Summers, paranormal investigator. - Walter  Novak
Ken Summers, paranormal investigator.
The train station at Indigo Lake is a fake. It has a gabled roof and an old-timey, black-lettered sign, true. But it has only two walls and was actually built in 1999 as a rest stop for the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.

It does make a fine place for Ken Summers and his group of ghost hunters to take a smoke break. Most of the nine people gathered here are new members of Moonspenders, the ghost-hunting group Summers founded four years ago. The paranormal investigators, as Summers prefers to call them, huddle out of the wind behind a wall. They fiddle with flashlights, chain-smoke, and swap stories about the not-entirely-dead.

"I definitely had the feeling that someone was watching us up there," says Jeri Holland, who has just returned from the south end of the lake. "It didn't feel mean. It just felt like it was curious, checking us out."

"Oh, yeah -- and when we were up there, I smelled lasagna," says Alex Meade. He and his wife, Teresa Hausch, joined Moonspenders two weeks ago. "The smell was really strong."

Summers stands a head taller than anyone else in the group, but he's not the type to lord it over anyone. It's just that he grew up nearby, knows the Cuyahoga Valley National Park like his own front yard, and started ghost hunting before some people here tonight learned to drive.

"I believe the Erie Indians lived here and had an encampment on top of the hill," 24-year-old Summers says. "The last time we were here, Alex heard a war breaking out up there. He heard gunshots and a woman screaming."

The group is silent for a moment.

"That's funny you say that," says Vanessa Scaffidi, who's on her first official hunt. "There are lots of places in this valley where I go, and I just feel there was a battle there."

These are the unguarded words of young ghost hunters, the stories they tell when no one else is listening. They are impressions, feelings, intuitions. If the hunters offered them as proof of ghosts' existence, the outside world would deride them as freaks and liars.

"Some people say that when a group of people see an apparition, that they're suffering mass hysteria," Summers says.

"Uh, yeah, OK," Hausch says. "Whatever."

So the investigators keep these feelings to themselves and save the really good stuff for their websites. The good stuff is hard to get. Hunts rarely start before 10 p.m. and rarely end before 2. Tape recorders roll during the entire investigation, and researchers usually burn through the batteries of at least one camcorder. Every few minutes, somebody holds up a camera and takes an overexposed photo of white tree limbs or a raccoon blinded by the flash. It takes a lot of energy for ghosts to become visible, explains Summers. But ghosts are a kind of electromagnetic disturbance, he believes, so it's easier for them to appear by whispering into a tape player or flashing like an orb of light on a videotape. It's these bits of tape that form the Holy Grail of the ghost-hunting world.

"A lot of people claim to have abilities to sense the paranormal, but few actually have them," Summers says. "I try to be skeptical about things, because your mind can play tricks on you and start going on assumptions."

Which means driving out through one-stop-sign Summit County towns such as Brandywine and Peninsula on a Saturday night and walking into the dark, dark woods to stand there as nothing, absolutely nothing, happens, except for the twisting of trees in the wind and the occasional deer, nibbling on a blade of grass, and the guy next to you whispering that he totally smells lasagna. This is actually the sexy, fun part of ghost hunting.

The real drudgery comes later, at home. That's where the dedicated hunter sits listening for quiet voices to emerge from the cassette-tape hum, watching hour after hour of shaky, black-and-white video for shadows that move by themselves.

"Ghost hunting can get a bit boring sometimes," Summers says. "It can get so mundane, so disappointing. If you go out there every week and expect to see something every time, you're fooling yourself."

Maybe so. But everyone at Indigo Lake seems to agree that there are more ghosts here this Saturday night than Fossil watches in the Warehouse District.

"Are you getting the same feeling I'm getting?" Summers says. "Out of the corner of my eyes, I see something on the other side of the lake. It's looking at us. It can't take its eyes off us."

"I see an Indian woman sitting over there," says Scaffidi, pointing to a wooden bench 10 feet away. "She's just sitting there, looking at us. I think she's sad."

Summers raises his camera to chest level and snaps a photo into the darkness.

Before he got into ghosts, Ken Summers gave organized religion a try. He went with a friend to a pagan event. Another friend took him to a few Wiccan ceremonies. His former boyfriend used to take him to church every Sunday -- Summers sang in the choir. None of it stuck. He can't even remember the church's name. "Maybe it was Lutheran. I don't know."

But Summers remembers every paranormal experience he's ever had, in minute detail. It helps that he writes them all down. He keeps two black-and-white composition books, where he draws maps of haunted houses and cemeteries, down to the rose bushes and tree stumps. There is precision here, order -- for Summers, that makes belief in ghosts superior to religious mumbo jumbo.

"I think religion is a very unknown thing, so I don't want to dabble in it," he says. "Ghost hunting is more tangible than religion. It's something that you can actually say, 'I understand this, because I've seen this, I've felt this, I've heard this,' whereas religion is pretty much an enigma."

The way he sees it, Summers is just responding to the realities of our scientific age. Noah's ark was lost at sea. All the burning bushes have been extinguished. For faith to survive in the hearts of skeptics like Ken Summers, there must be proof.

And unlike in a religion, where you can pray your whole life away and never receive any confirmation that you're right, with ghost hunting Summers' faith is rewarded by the scientific process itself. Do an investigation. Take some notes. Shoot some video. If your mind is patient and your heart is open, Summers says, eventually you will see something that proves the existence of life after death. At the bottom of every e-mail he sends is a quote from British poet Ralph Hodgson: "Some things have to be believed to be seen."

"If you're a curious, intelligent person in any way, then you have to at least see the possibility," Summers says.

The investigators are getting cold and impatient -- it's time to walk some more. Holland's group will walk down the railroad tracks; Summers' group will go up the hill.

"I feel an Indian woman walking behind us," Scaffidi says to Summers.

"You feel it too?" Hausch says. "I was just about to say that. I wanted to wait and see if anybody else was feeling it."

The asphalt path slopes gently uphill.

"I don't feel afraid," Scaffidi says. "I just feel a lot of sadness here."

They reach the hilltop in minutes.

"I see a battlefield here," Hausch says. "People were slaughtered here."

"The Indians lived over here," Scaffidi says, waving her right arm. "And they were attacked from this side," waving her left. "The Indians definitely lost this battle."

Before them lies a scrubby, sloping field, made visible by the orange city lights of Akron bouncing off the clouds. The hunters continue down the path.

"My arm just got cold, like somebody put an ice-cold hand on my arm," Summers says. "I'm not really liking this. I don't think we should go any further."

"I don't feel anything," says Scaffidi.

"I don't either," Hausch says

They keep walking. At the base of a small rise, they stop.

"I feel like I'm walking into a wall of thick, thick . . ." Summers says.

"I feel like we're being ambushed," says Hausch.

"I do too," says Scaffidi.

They stand on the path for a moment, listening. Nothing happens. They turn and walk back down the hill. A bird squawks.

"What was that?" Hausch says.

"I think it was a crow," says Scaffidi.

Back at the train station, everyone lights up and shares what they saw.

"I kept feeling someone walking behind us," Scaffidi says.

"I saw dead bodies lying on the ground from the battle," Hausch says.

"I kept feeling things about 10 minutes before you guys did, almost like a premonition," Summers says. "I guess I was a little more in tune than you guys were."

Scaffidi looks around her and smiles. "I've felt spirits and ghosts all over this valley," she says. "My husband thinks I'm crazy for coming out here and meeting a bunch of total strangers in a parking lot. I'm just glad I finally found a group of people who go out looking for ghosts and take it seriously."

Jeri Holland is recording the evening with her camcorder set on night vision. She swings it around the group, then over to the lake.

"Do you see that?" she says in a gasp. "Hey guys, wait! Do you see it? It's an orb in the sky, over there above the ridge. See it?"

There on the milky gray screen, a circle of light pulses on and off as it moves to the east. People gather around.

"Yeah! Look at that!" says Meade. "It's an orb!"

There's a pause. Someone in back says, "It's, um, a plane."

Holland lowers the camcorder and looks across the lake, just in time to see the plane's flashing red light disappear behind the trees.

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