The Thrill of the Haunt

Business is dead for ghostbuster Mary Ann. And she wouldn't have it any other way.

Silkworm, with Cobra Verde and Chump Grog Shop, 1765 Coventry Road, Cleveland Heights 10 p.m., Sunday, September 10
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The dogs relentlessly sniffed and clawed at the fraying green carpet, and Anne Davies was at her wit's end. She had just moved into her modest West Park home, and her four cocker spaniels would not leave the spot in the long, narrow hallway alone.

"I put an aquarium over it, I put towels over it, I put weights over it, but it didn't deter the dogs," Davies says.

Then she learned that the last owner, 88-year-old George Gutek, had died in the house the previous summer. That didn't bother Davies until she noticed a peculiar smell. It was a chilly February night, and as the forced-air heat blasted through the vents, the overwhelming stench filled the corridor. Suspicious of the odor's origin, she zeroed in on the spot in the hallway that had put the dogs in a frenzy.

"I thought, there's something underneath that carpet," recalls Davies. "I began tearing up the carpet, and I couldn't believe what I found."

Underneath was a slimy liquid teeming with hundreds of dead maggots. The carpet padding was stained a rusty red and soaked with a waxy substance. Davies stared at the floor in horror.

"As I pulled the carpet up, you could see the outline of his body, and I said, 'Well, I now know what happened.'"

Shocked by her discovery, Davies knew she had two calls to make. "I first called the coroner's office, and then I called Mary Ann," she says.

"Everybody knows Mary Ann."

For those who don't, Mary Ann is Northeast Ohio's own ghostbusting guru. She claims to see and talk with earthbound spirits that, for reasons ranging from love to vengeance, haven't yet "crossed to the other side." Mary Ann -- like Cher or Madonna, she goes by just her first name -- is a favorite of local radio and television, especially in the weeks preceding Halloween. But all year long, her services are in demand. For $100 and up, she'll visit a home and rid it of unwanted spirits by guiding them toward the "white light" -- the pathway to the afterlife, as she puts it.

That's what she did with George Gutek. Cuyahoga County Coroner Elizabeth Balraj confirms that Gutek had died in the home's hallway and laid there for approximately two weeks before his decomposing body was found. When Davies invited Mary Ann over for a chat with Gutek's ghost, his spirit agreed to leave the premises -- though not before venting anger over his lonely death.

"That's why I contacted Mary Ann," says Davies. "I felt [George] couldn't be at peace. There was no way this guy left."

In addition to such routine "house cleanings," Mary Ann specializes in "funeral chats," during which she claims to communicate with the newly dead, often to learn information for surviving family members -- where the safety deposit box keys were hidden, for example. She also removes curses. She has chronicled many of her supernatural experiences in three self-published books: Mary Ann's Funeral Guide, Mary Ann's Ghost Chat 2000, and As Alive, So Dead, which is scheduled to hit bookstores this month.

Her client list ranges from scores of regular people like Davies to an Iranian prince and management at the Playhouse Square Foundation -- not necessarily the kind of folks who spend their days calling the Psychic Friends Network. But virtually all of Mary Ann's clientele have one thing in common: They swear that she has an uncanny ability to describe in detail personal accounts of their lives, homes, friends, and family. Actually, they have two things in common: Many are reluctant to admit that they have consulted with her.

"I think there's still a stigma attached to what I do," she says. "People are afraid of being judged or laughed at for using my services."

Mary Ann maintains that she does no research; the details are given to her by the spirits who haunt her clients.

"I'm not a psychic. If a spirit isn't there, I cannot give you any information," she says. "I just have a very strange job. There's days I have more questions than answers."

But her customers say they have received plenty of answers from Mary Ann. "There's no question in my mind this woman has the ability to communicate with people who have not crossed," asserts Jim Szakacs, director of marketing and communications at Playhouse Square, for whom Mary Ann recently performed an extra-earthly assessment. Szakacs and Promotions Manager Todd Stuart invited Mary Ann to assist in their research of the ghosts that reportedly haunt the Palace, Allen, Ohio, and State theaters downtown.

Szakacs admits he was skeptical at first. That was before Mary Ann named a number of deceased and living relatives on both sides of his family and provided detailed information about their personal relationships with one another, he says. "At first I thought, there's got to be a hook. She's gotta be doing research on people, or maybe we're giving too much information about our background. But Mary Ann provided information you can't look up."

In one instance, he says, she accurately described over the telephone the furniture in his daughter's room, where it was positioned, and what a person would see looking to the right or left of the mirror on the bureau. Mary Ann said a deceased distant relative frequently visited the room. Szakacs did some checking and learned that his daughter's bedroom furniture once belonged to that relative, whom Mary Ann accurately named. "I was taken aback," he says. "This woman either deserves to win a Tony, or she can genuinely communicate with those who haven't crossed."

Davies and Szakacs are among those who keep Mary Ann's Ghostline phone number (440-230-2970) -- she calls it her "weird line" -- handy for future services. At this time of year, her waiting list is such that even simple housecleaning requests can take up to three months for just a free preliminary telephone consultation. (The wait sometimes angers potential customers. Mary Ann recently filed a police report because a frustrated caller left a threatening message on her voicemail for not promptly returning his call.)

Of course, not everyone is burning up the phone lines to talk to her. Skeptics accuse her of researching clients before meeting them and say her funeral chats are nothing more than a sleazy way to exploit the grief-stricken. Paranormal investigator Joe Nickell of Skeptical Inquirer magazine says people like Mary Ann are often "fantasy-prone" individuals. The Catholic Church won't denounce or support her claims, but does warn that her line of work is fraught with con artists. The Better Business Bureau, on the other hand, has no record of complaints about her.

Mary Ann shrugs off criticism and says she doesn't have to prove herself to anyone. For most of her life, she says, she worked for free. "I never started charging until 1990. Gas went up, car insurance went up, and I had to start paying sitters. It was to cover expenses, basically." She says there are still occasions when she'll donate or trade her services.

Mary Ann's propensity for hanging out with the departed has taken her everywhere from a Native American reservation to some rough neighborhoods, where, she jokes, she's "more afraid of the living than of the dead."

Mary Ann was born March 10, 1948, the first of four daughters in a middle-class ethnic family. Her father, Jim, who died in 1970, was Bohemian, and her ailing mother, Mary Lou, who resides in North Royalton, is Italian. The close-knit Catholic family lived in Parma and spent their weekends visiting family, cooking traditional ethnic foods, and attending church. Her upbringing was much like that of any child of the era. Except the part about seeing dead people.

"I never thought it was unusual," she says, serving up tea at the dining room table in her small North Royalton condominium. "I don't know what it's like not to see them."

Unlike the frightened kid in The Sixth Sense, Mary Ann says she was never scared by what she saw as a child. That's because the earthbound spirits she claims to see don't stumble around with oozing head wounds and mangled bodies. Instead, they look in death as they looked in life. "Did you see how Bruce Willis looked in that movie?" she asks. "That's how I see them. The only difference is, if I squint real hard, I can see through them."

Mary Ann's first ghostly encounter came when she was just 26 months old. The year was 1950, and her Grandma Marie was babysitting while her mother was at the hospital giving birth to a second daughter.

Grandma Marie was from the old country. One hundred percent Italian and hailing from a small village just an hour outside Rome, she also had a supernatural gift, says Mary Ann. "Grandma had the ability that, if there was an earthbound spirit in her house, she could sense it somehow. When she would go to bed, she could talk to the spirit in her dreams."

Her grandmother often learned of the deaths of family members or close friends in Italy via visits from their spirits in her dreams. She would then inform friends and relatives in America of the death. "Sure enough, she would get a letter two weeks later that this person had died," says Sherry, Mary Ann's youngest sister. "She was always right."

While babysitting Mary Ann one day, Grandma Marie found her alone in a room, speaking in Italian to an imaginary friend. "I was just talking my heart out in this empty corner," Mary Ann says.

Grandma Marie played along, asking Mary Ann who her "friend" was. Mary Ann doesn't recall the name of the person, but says he was a man from her grandmother's village in Italy. When she told her grandmother the name, she says Grandma Marie realized it was not a fictitious playmate but a deceased family friend who had visited her in a dream the night before. It was then that she realized her granddaughter could do awake what she could do only in dreams. Thrilled, Grandma Marie began rattling off questions for Mary Ann to ask the man. "I was giving her answers to these things that a 26-month-old kid wouldn't know," says Mary Ann.

By the time she was four, Grandma Marie was dragging her to Italian funerals. There, Mary Ann would find herself standing in a somber parlor amid tearful mourners, asking a litany of questions of the dead. "The black heavy dresses, the black stockings and hats, and the overpowering smell of garlic and the wailing cries -- that scared me more than talking to the poor dead person," she says.

Mary Ann claims she never discussed what she could do with anyone but her grandmother -- until she started Catholic school at St. Francis de Sales in Parma. The ruler-wielding nuns, clad in full habits, ran a taut ship and had no tolerance for unruly children, let alone a kid who could see dead people. They made it clear her "visions" were not welcomed, and at one point threatened her with missing her First Communion.

In her early teens, Mary Ann rebelled, refusing to go to funerals. She learned to tune out her abilities, but eventually picked them up again. When she was 19, she married Ted, now a manager for a car dealership in Medina County. They had been married two years before Mary Ann told him she could see ghosts. "I was afraid he would think he had married a kook or a mentally ill person." But his response was, "You mean you can wiggle your nose and do things?" she says with a hearty laugh, referring to the 1960s television show Bewitched.

"I don't think, when she first told me, I got it," recalls Ted. Now, after 32 years of marriage, he's still amazed by what his wife can do. "She just knocks my socks off. Every time she does this, I sort of go, 'Wow!'"

But from the outside, they have led ordinary lives. In 1976, they moved to Wooster, where Mary Ann was a stay-at-home mom with their two daughters, Tara and Amber. To earn extra money, she ran a diaper service and a dog-grooming business from their home. Later, when the daughters were older, she and Ted became foster parents and would routinely take in neglected or abused infants.

"She had a great love for kids, and her and her husband Ted did a great job with the foster kids," recalls Tom Roelant, executive director of Wayne County Children Services.

Mary Ann's devotion as a foster parent led to her appointment by county commissioners to the Wayne County Children Services Board of Directors in 1993. Roelant says he didn't learn about Mary Ann's "paranormal activity" until after she became a board member.

"I really didn't know anything about it until I heard her on Trapper Jack," he says, referring to the popular radio show. "It never changed my opinion of her or her ability to serve on the board." During her one and a half years of service with Children Services, no concerns or complaints were ever raised against Mary Ann, says Roelant.

As children, Tara says neither she nor her sister knew of their mom's hidden talent. It was never discussed until Tara started having strange visions of her own by age 15. Though they scared her at first, the now 28-year-old media buyer for a national insurance company runs her own freelance ghostbusting business -- just like Mom.

It's 10 a.m. on a balmy August Monday. A flustered Mary Ann is caught in traffic in her white Chevy Bronco on her way to an appointment with Playhouse Square. Cars behind her are treated to a clear view of her vanity license plate that reads "SPIRIT." A small sticker on the rear door depicts a white ghost in a red circle with a bar drawn across its body -- the kitschy icon from the movie Ghostbusters.

When she finally arrives, she is greeted by Playhouse Square's Todd Stuart, who candidly explains their objective.

"When we opened the Allen Theatre a few years ago, we were talking to somebody who knew Mary Ann," says Stuart. "We thought, well, this would be interesting, because there's this understanding -- or people believe -- that old theaters have ghosts."

When Stuart asked Mary Ann to investigate the Allen for wandering ghosts, she found that the theater was indeed brimming with old spirits. Some were actors and actresses refusing to leave the stage; others were avid theatergoers -- especially avid in the afterlife, when tickets are free and the view is always great. The following year, Playhouse Square invited Mary Ann to host a ghost tour of the Hanna during the theater's annual open house. The ghost tour turned out to be one of the most popular soirees Playhouse Square hosted that year, says Stuart.

Mary Ann's latest project has been to chronicle all the theaters' wayward ghosts -- though, as Stuart admits, "We're not exactly sure what we're going to do with the information."

On this Monday morning, it's eerily quiet inside the Palace Theatre. The plush burgundy velvet seats are all empty -- at least to most human eyes. But, according to Mary Ann, there's an audience of ghostly characters. Some are hanging out in the balcony, one's sitting in an aisle seat, and a lone ghost boy is playing on a bank of lights above the upper left loge.

Out of the seven spirits present, only Tony, Raymond, Robert, and Patricia are willing to talk, says Mary Ann, withholding their last names to protect the privacy of their living relatives. Staring up at the light fixture above the loge, she tells Stuart about the boy. "His name is Tony. He's, uh, 14." She pauses for a moment, as if she's listening to something, and then adds, "Tony died in 1991. Anthony is his name. Raphael is his father, and Maria is his mother. Two brothers and a sister he has. He was born in Italy, and he came over here with the family."

Mary Ann turns her attention to Patricia, who she says is sitting on the aisle, about eight rows from the stage. Stuart whips out his camera and snaps a photo of an empty seat. Mary Ann says Patricia died of cancer and is very thin. She then begins to chuckle. "We're not dealing with a critic here, but she says the Paula Poundstone show is not very good."

"Oh my!" exclaims Stuart, who's furiously taking notes.

Raymond is an older man dressed in a dark suit and tie, and Mark is a handsome 41-year-old, says Mary Ann, who adds that the two spirits frequent Playhouse Square because they have family members who work there. Both, she says, give her messages they would like passed on to their loved ones.

After chatting with the spirits, Mary Ann gives them the option of staying or crossing over to the other side. She says they're all ready to cross and prepares their pathway. She becomes quiet and stares intently at a wall, where she claims to be creating a "white light" -- the door by which spirits pass through. The white light is visible only to the spirits and Mary Ann, and the entire, somewhat anticlimactic procedure takes only about a minute. "Okay, they're gone," she says.

In the days following the theater "cleaning," Stuart delicately followed up with the two Playhouse Square employees with whom the spirits had requested contact. According to Stuart, both employees were flabbergasted to hear from their departed relatives and said the messages they received were not merely general statements, but personal information that could have come only from their loved ones.

Not all supernatural entities are harmless, Mary Ann says, explaining that curses are among the most destructive energies a person can encounter. Pascal Mahvi, for one, believes in a curse's ability to wreak havoc.

In 1995, Mary Ann received a phone call from Mahvi, an Iranian prince who owns the posh, four-star Jalousie Plantation Resort & Spa on the Caribbean island St. Lucia.

Mahvi, who resides at a secluded nine-and-a-half-acre estate in the Cleveland area, told Mary Ann that bizarre things were happening at his resort. Toilets were exploding, light bulbs were disappearing by the thousands, guests were complaining of unexplained knocks at their doors, and numerous business contracts were stalling. The problems became so bad that Mahvi temporarily shut the place down.

Baffled by his bad luck, he began to consider rumors regarding negative energy around Jalousie. "I had heard through the grapevine that, when we were constructing the place, there was some voodoo drumming going on, and that the natives were putting a curse on the resort," he says, sitting in his private office nestled inside the estate's spacious horse barn.

At first Mahvi ignored the rumors, but he began to pay attention after the johns exploded. "I mean, I don't know of a single hotel in the world that's had 100 toilets blow up," he says.

So, at his wife's urging, he called Mary Ann. A year earlier, the Mahvis had hired Mary Ann to remove a spirit from their home, after their television started to mysteriously turn on and off by itself.

On that occasion -- before ever visiting their house -- Mary Ann accurately described over the telephone a leather-bound book from the 1950s, which Mahvi kept in his nightstand. She told him there was a spirit attached to the book and that it was causing problems in the house, he says. Stunned that she was able to describe the book, its approximate age, and where he kept it, Mahvi was convinced Mary Ann was for real.

So when the funny business started happening at his resort, he thought, why not?

"I'm not sure I believe in that stuff or not, but I thought I'd play it safe," he says.

Locals on St. Lucia had opposed the resort from the beginning. The Jalousie Plantation was built on what is perhaps the island's most sacred land -- the lush tropical valley nestled between the landmark volcanic peaks Petit Piton and Midi Piton. The property was almost certain to become a national park, until Mahvi's father, Abolfath Mahvi, an Iranian prince whose great-grandfather was a shah of Iran, purchased the 350 acres for $700,000 and had his son develop it into an elite playground for the rich and famous.

Mahvi had also learned that the resort was built next to an ancient native burial ground, which dated to 700 B.C. "That convinced me even more, besides the voodoo stuff going on, that I should do something about this," he says. "So I took Mary Ann down there."

Mary Ann and her husband flew to the resort, courtesy of Mahvi, in January 1997 and stayed for one week. They arrived during the week of the full moon, and almost immediately, Mary Ann says, she sensed an old curse on the property that dated back to the 1600s or 1700s. "But over the years, more and more negative energy was put on Pascal's project," she says. "The island people didn't like foreigners coming in and developing their land."

During her visit, Mary Ann says, she removed negative energy in every building she went into by redirecting it to the white light. She then placed quince seeds above the entrances to all the buildings -- a measure that she says wards off any future spirits or negative energies. Mahvi even flew Mary Ann in a helicopter over the rain forest and had her throw fists full of quince seeds over the property to safeguard it from any future otherworldly unpleasantness.

For Mahvi, the effort was well worth it. Since Mary Ann's visit, he says, all problems have ceased, and the resort has been wildly successful. In fact, it has become a haven for movie stars, royalty, and political figures throughout the world. Its VIP guest list has included the likes of Prince Charles, Princess Margaret, Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, Harrison Ford, and Kathleen Turner, says Mahvi. "Mary Ann did her thing, and within a week or so, our problems disappeared. We haven't had any more toilets blowing up, light bulbs disappearing, or knocks at the doors. None of that stuff ever recurred."

But others aren't as willing to embrace Mary Ann's work. "A lot of people just flat-out ask me if I'm a witch," says Mary Ann, who comes across much more like a chummy next-door neighbor than a sorceress. "I have a lot of friends who are witches, but I'm not. I'm a practicing Catholic."

The Cleveland Catholic Diocese is aware of Mary Ann, but says it has not received any complaints regarding her work. When asked for an opinion of her, representatives of the church are guarded in their comments, opting neither to dispute nor support her supernatural claims. "I would never discount it," says Father Ralph Wiatrowski, chancellor for the diocese, who knows of Mary Ann but has never met her. "We don't know that it would be impossible to happen. There's a realm of existence we don't have a clue about."

But there's also a realm of imagination, manipulation, and deceit, and the difficulty lies in determining what is genuine and what is fake. Wiatrowski acknowledges this and is quick to say people should use "healthy skepticism" when dealing with people who claim they have supernatural powers. "It's an area where people can be easily taken advantage of," he says.

The Catholic Church does acknowledge a person can be blessed with a genuine spiritual gift and, according to scripture, believes that gift should be shared with the rest of the community. But as far as determining whether the gift is genuine, Wiatrowski says he's never known the church to make such a judgment. "Is there a possibility here [in Mary Ann's case]? Yes," says Wiatrowski. "Can we tell if this is a genuine case? That's the difficult part."

It's not so difficult for Joe Nickell, a renowned skeptic and paranormal investigator based in Amherst, New York, who's written 16 investigative books and has been a guest on Art Bell's syndicated radio show and on both the History Channel and Discovery Channel. "I don't know [Mary Ann], and I can't comment on her sincerity or lack of sincerity," says Nickell, who's investigated paranormal claims for the past 30 years. "But I have not found a single person in any kind of objective, testable way who could communicate with an invisible entity."

Mary Ann has never undergone scientific testing to prove her authenticity, and she refuses to do so. "It's not my job to convince people I can do what I can do," she says calmly. "I don't care if you believe me or not."

Maybe so, but Nickell, who's a member of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, strongly believes that people like Mary Ann should have to prove themselves. "You can't prove there are no earthbound spirits," declares Nickell, who was recently featured on the Discovery Channel's Science Mysteries series, in which he debunked the mystery of the bleeding stigmata. "The burden of proof is always on the person making the claim."

According to Nickell's research, people who claim they can see or speak to spirits often fall into one of two categories. The first is what psychologists describe as "fantasy-prone" individuals who are highly imaginative and genuinely believe they have the ability to visualize an invisible entity. "For them, the spirits or other entities they communicate with are the adult version of a child's imaginary playmates," Nickell explains.

Con artists make up the second category. They know they can't see or communicate with the dead, but have mastered the art of convincing others they can. In doing so, they become astute observers of body language and carefully fish for private information. Before you know it, "You're telling them your problems, and later you may be confused as to who said what," says Nickell.

According to Nickell, curses have no objective reality and exist only in the eye of the beholder. "We all have bad luck and good luck, and if we focus on one or the other, that's what we're going to see," he says. He also denounces ghost photography, claiming there is no scientific evidence that anyone has ever photographed a ghost. He says most alleged ghost pictures are either fakes or photographic glitches. Phony photos can be easily created in a dark room or through the manipulation of a long exposure. "I've experimented with these things, and I've made many a fake ghost picture," he says.

According to Nickell, ghostly images can also appear by accident. If something falls in front of the lens, such as lint, hair, or the camera strap, the flash can easily bounce off of it and create a mysterious white image in the photo. "It can create all kinds of very interesting effects," he says.

Mary Ann acknowledges that flashes can cause ghostly images to appear on film, and she therefore cautions people not to use flashes when attempting to photograph spirits. Pulling from her pillbox purse a small album filled with dozens of photos, she shares several of the most mysterious images of purported spirits. She says most of the pictures were taken and sent to her by clients; she steadfastly refuses to take photographs herself, in case someone should later accuse her of trick photography.

"If they [police and a photographer] can't explain it, then it belongs in here," she says.

Flipping through the pictures, she comes across three of her favorites -- photos taken inside a Cleveland-area Catholic church. The parish priest had summoned Mary Ann after suspecting a restless spirit in the pews. Indeed there was, Mary Ann says with giddy excitement. The images are of an ephemeral white figure, seemingly clad in a long robe and holding a staff. "That particular series of pictures was reviewed by an out-of-state FBI unit, and it was determined there was no way somebody could've made that picture up," she says.

Theologians and professional debunkers may question her work, but few can argue the peace of mind Mary Ann's clients claim to have after meeting with her. "If she's a fake, she does wonderful things for people," declares Dora, who works in the mental health profession and refuses to give her last name for fear the association with Mary Ann would jeopardize her job.

Last summer, Dora hired Mary Ann to attend her father's funeral. After listening to her deliver messages to the family from the deceased, Dora says she was not only convinced of Mary Ann's authenticity, but felt that she was a part of her father's transition to the other side. "We were all amazed, because she said things that she had no way of knowing," including a message regarding a slight sibling rivalry and the name of an old friend with whom her father played in a local band 40 years ago. None of that was researchable or mentioned in her father's obituary, says Dora, who paid $120 for the funeral chat. "And I would've paid more," she adds. "It gave us the opportunity to say those last things you want to say before someone dies. It gave me great comfort."

Anne Davies, the anesthesia technician who found the remnants of George Gutek in her house, says Mary Ann not only freed her home of a restless spirit, but gave that spirit the attention it deserved. "I felt like Mary Ann had finished something that no one seemed to want to do," she says, alluding to how nobody in the neighborhood seemed to have cared enough to check on the elderly man's well-being. "How do you have an entire neighborhood and it goes unnoticed?" Davies asks.

With the help of Mary Ann, Davies and her dogs have returned to a peaceful existence in the home that had harbored ill will since the summer Gutek died alone in his hallway. Let the skeptics have their say, but Davies will have hers, too.

"Just because it's so farfetched in some people's minds, it doesn't mean that it doesn't exist," she counters. "How do you explain the unexplainable, and then explain why it goes away after Mary Ann was here?"

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