Research Team Spiritedly
Pursues The Paranormal
By Bob Groves - Staff Writer
Nothing quickens the dead like a good electrical storm. Lightning flashed and thunder crashed above the Sussex Woods in Vernon as a group of ghost hunters staked out an isolated house said to be haunted by restless spirits. The weather this rainy night was ideal.
"I was sort of laughing as we were coming up here. I was thinking, all we need is the background of rolling thunder and lightning," John Berkenbush said as he adjusted an electronic sensor that looked like a slide projector.
The sensor's red and blue lights blinked eerily in the pitch-black living room of the darkened house. Lightning flashed across the night sky. Charged particles filled the air.
Berkenbush, 56, and other members of the Vestigia Scientific Anomalies Investigative Team from Wayne are dead serious about trying to see dead people.
Tabloid television shows and scary movies about Blair Witches and Sixth Senses come and go, but Berkenbush and his crew have spent years trying to document real-life spooks, weird lights, UFOs, and other unexplained phenomena.
Over the past two years, they have made a dozen trips to this house on a wooded mountain ridge surrounded by farmland. Sandy Hanekamp insists her home has been overrun by ghosts since she moved five years ago from Arizona with a retired architect named Ed, who died in January.
Hanekamp, 56, says she and Ed were followed to New Jersey by the spirits of three Hopi Indian elders who acted as Ed's guardians. More recently, she says, she was visited by deceased neighbors -- a disturbed farmer and three consumptive sisters -- from the late 1800s.
A little boy who died in an auto accident in the 1950s bounces a ball in her bedroom, said Hanekamp, who lives in the house with 19 cats and three or four dogs.
"I at least hope to find out why these things are going on, and whether it's something drawn here because Ed was here," she said.
Ed himself has not put in an appearance, and things have quieted down since his death, she added.
The Vestigia team is still waiting to find proof.
"This new sensor is a recent development. It senses any change in electrostatic pressure; any ionization, I call it," said Berkenbush, a burly lab technician for a biomedical electronics firm in Fair Lawn.
"It measures the house's 'breathing.' You can actually see a slow pulse from the house moving" on the sensor's scope, as charged particles called ions rush in and out, he said.
This atmospheric mayhem, the theory goes, may cause people to hallucinate about seeing ghosts. Or, just maybe, the amok energy might actually conjure up an apparition -- a holographic imprint from the past, like an old home movie -- or even a spectral presence, Berkenbush said.
Vestigia is the Latin word for footprint, as in Bigfoot, the mythical man-beast of the forest. Vestigia investigators say they pursue the paranormal purely out of scientific curiosity.
"We're strictly researchers. People say we're ghost busters, but I say no, we're ghost hunters," Berkenbush said.
The five men and one woman of Vestigia all have day jobs.
"It's a hobby. My original interest was in Big Foot," said Bob Kusma, 50, a teacher in Sparta. "We're not ghost busters at all. We find out if there's anything natural that could cause this phenomena."
Kusma, Berkenbush, and other Vestigians got some national publicity in the late 1970s for solving the mystery of the so-called "Hookerman Spook Lights" haunting railroad tracks in Long Valley, near Schooley's Mountain in Morris County.
For years, the lights were said to be the ghosts of maimed trainmen walking the rail bed. Vestigia revealed the glow to be what is known as piezoelectricity, pent-up geologic energy released from highly pressurized quartz under the tracks.
"People's imagination can go wild. Most of the time, we can find a rational explanation. But it's a very interesting hobby," Kusma said.
The ghost hunters finance their own field trips, said Randy Liebeck.
"It's more fun than playing golf. You've got to spend your money on something," said Liebeck, who said he works "in federal law enforcement" in New Jersey, and left it at that.
"We do this out of personal fascination with the field. A few of us make money on the side writing and lecturing," he said.
"This is no ghost-busting service. We can't get rid of entities. I'm very skeptical of people who say they can get rid of them.
"We can't guarantee we'll find something. We operate on hypothesis. We have many more questions than answers.
"Our process is to help people with their experience and reduce the fear factor. We explain to them that thousands of people report the same things," Liebeck said.
Peter Jordan, 37, of West Orange is a psychologist and a parapsychologist who specializes in otherworldly occurrences. Jordan's primary job with the team is to interview and do psychological profiles of haunting victims to detect any signs of fraud.
A haunting is a set of symptoms of unexplained visual manifestations or sounds. "Although I have witnessed none of the anomalies here," Jordan said, referring to the Vernon house, "I have no reason not to believe the witnesses here.
"I suspect something is going on. But this case isn't very high on the scale. A lot of times, nothing happens."
But, as the song from the movie "Ghostbusters" goes, who you gonna call? Hanekamp wasn't afraid of departed souls. Still, things were getting out of hand, and her cats were on edge.
She called Vestigia a couple of years ago after lights in the house started switching on and off by themselves, she said. Some days, disembodied voices moaned throughout the building, or she heard steps on the stairway. Other times, Spanish songs and gardenia-scented after-shave wafted in from nowhere. Fleeting gray shadows flew from behind appliances in her basement laundry room.
A visiting psychic found "hot spots" in cool rooms, and currents of cold air in warm rooms, both indicating some kind of presence. Last fall, Vestigia and a television crew from New York witnessed but did not film a "black runner," a dark shape that darted across the room. Everybody swears it was not a cat.
"I'm up to here with all this going on," Hanekamp said.
This time, the Vestigia people arrived at the house in three cars at twilight, just before the rain broke. They unloaded piles of gear and hauled it inside.
The equipment included infrared cameras, audiotape and videotape recorders, two-way radios, motion detectors, temperature gauges, light meters, Geiger counters to read radiation levels, and static electricity sensors. Berkenbush also was trying out a small, mirrored "infinity box" said to levitate if it captures a phantasm.
They also brought four large pizzas and soda. It could be a long night just sitting around in the dark, taking instrument readings. Even with the lights off and the thunder rumbling, it was not a particularly creepy evening.
"I wasn't scared, but I've been spooked a few times" during previous investigations, admitted Garrett Husveth of Morristown. Husveth, 32, said he had been startled by heavy footfalls and slamming doors while taping sounds in purportedly haunted mansions in Port Monmouth, Basking Ridge, and Bernardsville.
"Tonight the storm can charge the atmosphere and aggravate anything that's here. It's the best time for an investigation," said Husveth, a systems engineer for a software company.
But, "there's not much going on at present. I've been on one other late-night investigation. That was here. It was pretty uneventful."
The ghost hunters admit they have little, if any, hard evidence to show for their hours of patience. Sometimes anomalies show up later when they review their tapes. Much of their work is a matter of faith, Liebeck said.
"We have a fascination with the unknown, with unsolved mysteries. That's the thrill of the hunt. If we are experiencing it, we know it's valid. We're not faking it," he said.
"Anything can be falsified. It's right to be skeptical. We have no illusions. Even if a ghost appeared in front of us and everyone saw it, and we released film to CBS, heaven knows it wouldn't be accepted by a large percentage of the audience," he said.
Maybe there were too many people milling around this night, or too much hubbub with all the equipment, or too many pets underfoot, or not enough psychokinetic energy in the field. Or maybe the spirits had simply moved on.
By 10:30, Liebeck officially called it a night.
"There's no indication of anything anomalous. There's a certain point when you have to call the patient dead or alive. We could sit here until 2 a.m.," he said.
"We did have a thunder-and-lightning storm, and nothing got stirred up," Berkenbush lamented.
"There's no bad investigation. If nothing happens, we always learn something," Kusma said.
Vestigia investigator Janet Kroenke sees this work as being part outreach to those who feel haunted.
"So many people have something like this happen, an anomalous event, and are laughed at and get no support," Kroenke said.
"I'd like to be the one who says, 'I'm here not to laugh at you.' No one deserves to be laughed at after they've had a bad experience," she said.
A lot of these cases, Jordan said, "normally wane, then suddenly fizzle, and go into dormancy. A lot of times, nothing happens. It's very time-consuming."
The team members began packing their equipment. They have been having more luck recently, Berkenbush said, documenting a case in Greenfield, Mass. There, Communion wafers have been appearing mysteriously -- out of thin air -- in a garage that a man converted into a chapel.
Liebeck was pragmatic. "I'm sorry we couldn't give you an electrifying display of ectoplasmic experience.
"We may sit at a location for hundreds of hours and nothing happens, and the next case, there's enough of a bone thrown to us to keep us going," Liebeck said.
"It's a matter of being in the right place at the right time. We intend to keep at it until we become ghosts ourselves."
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