Whispers from the Spirit World

Cleveland's resident ghost expert on how to tell if your house is haunted . . . real ghosts versus Hollywood . . . and cooking tips from beyond the grave.

When you're seven years old, your biggest worries are getting your field trip form signed and deciding what juice box flavor you'll have for lunch. That is, unless you're Mary Ann Winkowski, and you spend first grade wondering why you're the only one in the class who can see spirits walking around during recess. Known now as The Ghost Whisperer, Winkowski has become the face of Halloween for Cleveland. We caught up with her on the material plane, in a phone conversation.

What are the signs of a house being haunted?

If you have a spirit in the house, and you have children under the age of 10 or 12, they're going to have a lot of ear, nose, throat and upper respiratory problems. They are not going to want to stay in their beds in the middle of the night. If you're an adult, the symptoms could be unexplained headaches, sinus problems, and lower intestinal problems. Earthbound spirits do not eat or sleep; they need human energy to keep going. So whatever house they're in, the adults are going to be extremely tired. They can also move things around — paperwork, money, one earring. You might see something, but nobody really ever sees spirits straight-on. That's what I see, but most people don't. I see them just as they were in real life: hair color, how tall they are, what they have on, everything.

Do things get stranger around Halloween?

Absolutely, positively not. I'm like the Halloween Queen, let me tell you. From September to January I get between 15 to 30 calls a day, and the rest of the year it's maybe 10 to 12 a day. People think about it more this time of year, but it's always happening.

How does the real thing compare to the show you inspired, "Ghost Whisperer"?

All the stories except one had a real-life basis. But they exaggerate it. Each week, maybe four sentences of the show are true. I got a script every week, and explained what ghosts can't do — a ghost can't walk through you, you can't walk through a ghost, a ghost doesn't shove your hair down a garbage disposal. Even after I told them this, they did it anyway. They said it wasn't a ghost documentary every night, it was entertainment.

How do you feel about other ghost shows, like TLC's "Long Island Medium"?

I don't watch them. I watched "Long Island Medium" for all of four minutes, and all I can tell you is, maybe it works because she's on the East Coast. But if I were to walk up to somebody in downtown Cleveland and tell them they have a ghost attached to them, they'd call the cops. I'm not a psychic medium. We see totally different things.

So once they go into the light, you don't see the spirits anymore?

Right. Forty-eight to 72 hours after they die, that light is gone, and if they don't go into it, they're stuck. These are the spirits that cause problems. The ones that I see walk into it, they're where they want to be.

Is it true that you can see the spirit of a dead person at their funeral?

They're standing at the foot of the casket, so they can hear what people are saying. Everyone attends their own funeral, even if they're cremated. Nine times out of 10, when a priest holds a prayer service at a cemetery, that's when the dead person walks into the light. But if they don't go, it disappears. There are all kinds of reasons people choose not to cross over. Say a mother dies, she sticks around to watch her kids. Some have unfinished business; say someone was murdered, they aren't going to cross over until they tell somebody who killed them. That's one reason I work so closely with law enforcement agencies. A younger person may stand there not going into the light because he won't accept that he's dead. But when you cross over, you stay the same age. This kid wraps his car around a tree in 1960 at 17 years old, he's still 17 today.

How does Cleveland rank for being haunted?

Different sections of it are haunted, not all. If you live in Lakewood, there is a 95 percent chance your house is haunted. Hinckley is another one, along with Mayfield Village and Mayfield Heights. Twinsburg is really getting up there. You can almost tell now, especially if it's an area with a lot of rental property that people are in and out of all the time. They seem to bring in higher rates, because they're stressed out with a lot of energy that the spirits want.

How did you come up with your book Beyond Delicious: The Ghost Whisperer's Cookbook?

That one started out years ago. When I was going to people's homes to remove the earthbound spirits, sometimes the spirits would tell me that their family is making something wrong. The book is 100 recipes with 100 stories of how I got each one. Sometimes it was a grandma; one said that someone was making terrible nut rolls, and she wanted her to have a good one. A ghost at a nursing home gave me a recipe for cranberry cordial. The recipes are pretty simple. I know a lot of people who have ghost cooking parties now, like a potluck ghost supper this time of year.

During The Sixth Sense, did you know Bruce Willis was dead the whole time?

No, I didn't, it was pretty close to the end before I realized he was a ghost. I was pretty surprised. Whoever they had as their consultant was really good. Like I said, there were definitely things in it that were wrong — ghosts don't puke under beds or look injured. But it would have been dull if they didn't put that in there. I thought it was interesting how only the kid could see all the dead people, and nobody else could. Unfortunately, they made the temperature change only cold, which almost all those shows and movies do. But the temperature change could be a warm spot, too.

Can spirits see each other?

They can, but they don't sit around and play poker. If they're in the same room at the same time, it affects their energy level, so they try to stay on different levels. I did this one house that had husband and wife ghosts, and she stayed upstairs and he stayed on the first floor. Of course, she killed him, so they weren't exactly hanging out together.

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