I want to believe in ghosts. In fact, I'm pretty sure I do. But I've never had one of those hair-standing-on-end, sudden-cold-spot, shadow-from-the-corner-of-my-eye experiences that seem to be the hallmark of the true paranormal encounter.
It's not for lack of trying. I've gone on several ghost hunts as a reporter, the most recent being last week at Joliet's Rialto Square Theatre. And while I saw plenty in my most recent outing, I'm still not sure if I quite believe what I saw. I have no reason to doubt, yet I remain a ghost "agnostic."
But let me tell you my tale and you can judge for yourself...
We're told to come to the Rialto's rear entrance on Scott Street in downtown Joliet. It's 6 p.m., raining, and the sky's already completely dark. The All Seeing Paranormal group could not have chosen a more ideal evening had they tried.
Inside, the 12 women and one man have already arrived and are filling the theater's first two rows. Most of the women know each other, and see the tour as a fun thing to do as a group.
Jim "Specter" Prewitt, a "sensitive" who founded the All Seeing group with partner Colleen Carroll two years ago, is a big bear of a guy. He works for the Evergreen Park Police Department and teaches self-defense, but ghost-hunting's his passion, he says.
He starts the evening by asking about what types of paranormal shows the tour members like and if they believe in ghosts. They all do, with the exception of one holdout -- the lone man on the tour. He's a skeptic, and Jim's delighted. He wants doubters because they help sort what's real from what's not.
"That's one of the big things about paranormal investigations," Jim says. "If you hear something, you've got to debunk it. ... If you've gone through everything and you can't debunk it, you're left with the truth."
We're divided into two groups. One half joins Colleen to head up to the "star's" dressing room and the rest of us follow Jim to the first-floor coatroom.
The theater's eerily dark, but retains its mirror-and-marble grandeur despite the low lighting.
As we take our seats on chairs set up along the coatroom counter, Jim tells us this is a favorite spot for "Colin," a young boy whose age may be between 5 and 8. Jim's seen him on a few occasions, but mostly he can just sense his presence, he says. He's friendly, happy and a "prankster," Jim says.
Jim sets out his tools on the counter: a device that can instantly tell you the temperature of wherever its infrared light is directed and two "energy" meters, one specifically designed for ghost hunters and the other a simple stud finder.
Once we're settled, the lights go out and the only illumination is from the low light in the rotunda. Jim asks, "Colin, are you here? Flash the light three times for yes and two for no."
Colin responds within a second, and Jim starts telling us about their previous encounters, which Colin confirms via the light meter.
After awhile, Jim turns to me and asks whether I'd like to ask some questions. You bet I would!
But it's hard to interview someone with yes or no questions, and I'm reduced to asking things like, Do you like the Rialto? (Yes) and Did you live in Joliet when you were alive? (Yes).
Ever the reporter, I want to get down to the nitty-gritty and manage in the process to cast a pall over everything. First I ask, How did you die? Was it a violent death? After a pause, I get a "yes." Then I ask if he was murdered. Silence.
Who knew ghosts could be so sensitive? Eventually, Jim steps in and asks Colin whether the manner of death is what Jim thinks it is? The light flashes three times. "Don't worry, buddy," he says. "I won't tell anyone. Your secret's safe with me."
Thankfully, Jim makes a joke and the mood picks up. But the ghost light is dark, and Jim asks, "Hey, Colin, where did you go?" There's silence for a moment, and then the sensor-activated urinal in the neighboring men's restroom flushes.
Oh, that little jokester! We all get a good laugh, and then the light goes red again just as Lori Carmine, the Rialto's technical director, walks in. She's never seen Colin, but she's definitely "experienced" him.
They converse like old friends. "Was that you who pulled my skirt the other day?" Blink, blink, blink. "Did you like having the television crew here (to film the Ghost Hunters show in July)?" Blink, blink, blink.
Alas, time flies and it's time to trade places with the other group and move to the dressing room.
This is perhaps the most surreal part of the evening. We clamber up the stairs and crowd into the tiny space only to realize there's a woman sitting bent over in a chair with her hands set on her knees, palms-upward.
Colleen, who's been leading this session, says they're conversing with a ghost and she's speaking via the woman, who's a sensitive and has done this before. Colleen's delighted that they've had something of a breakthrough -- the ghost has revealed her name for the first time: Vivian.
What they knew of Vivian prior to this night is she was vaudeville actress who experienced her greatest success on the Rialto stage in 1932.
We're encouraged to ask Vivian questions, and I can't wait. I want to know why she's at the Rialto. In a halting voice, Vivian says via the sensitive that she loved the theater and the audiences were always very good to her here. Was she from Joliet? "Oh, no, my dear." But when Colleen asks her where she did grow up, there's no answer.
Another tour member wants to know what she was wearing during her favorite Rialto performance. The answer comes in pieces: A hat, a large hat, and a lavender-colored dress with a scoop neck.
Naturally, I have to bring things back to the negative by asking if she died in the theater or in Joliet. There's no response, and the ghost meter light blinks out.
Apparently, Vivian has decided to move and suddenly three people sitting along one wall announce that they're overwhelmed by the smell of lavender and they're feeling extremely nauseous. All of them move to another part of the room, and one is so shook up that she leaves completely.
Try as I might, however, I don't catch any scent of lavender or perfume, but there's no dismissing the reaction of the three women. However, the spell is broken, and Vivian is gone.
The sensitive, who I later learn is Lori's sister, Carrie Lee, rouses from her position and looks like the wind's been knocked out of her. She acknowledges that it's a draining experience to serve as an apparition's middleman and half the time she doesn't remember what she's said.
It's time for the two groups to join back together and we meet on the theater's second level, in the space directly behind the balcony entrances.
Colleen and Jim have placed their ghost meters and stud finders on the floor and ask for all of the ghosts to join them in the space. The overhead lights are once again turned off, and Jim urges those who are present to activate the meters. First one goes red, and then the other.
They ask the ghosts to lower the temperature in the room, and while the gauges indicate the numbers are going down, it doesn't feel much different to me. Then they ask the ghosts to create a breeze so we know they're there. Some tour members report feeling it, but I sense nothing. I think to myself: The power of suggestion?
Jim asks Colin if he is there, and the red light blinks three times. I think Jim is sensing I might be a bit of a skeptic, so he asks Colin to give me a sign. Pull on my sleeve, sit on my lap, cast a breeze in my direction. I feel nothing.
I'm disappointed, and I can't help but be a tiny bit irritated that Colin can trigger a bathroom urinal but can't manage poke me in the arm.
Part of the problem may be that it's pretty noisy in this space. The women can't stop talking to each other, and even though the guides urge us to be quiet so that we might hear footsteps or catch of a glimpse of movement, perhaps from the "White Bride" who inhabits the area, the periods of silence are short lived.
Eventually, it seems the ghosts have either grown bored or are tired of being ignored. We troop downstairs to the main theater for the final hot spot investigation of the evening.
This time, we are instructed to spread out throughout the theater and told to direct our attention to the far right corner of the room. Colleen gives me one of the light meters. It goes off when I shake it -- movement causes energy -- but try as I might, I can't get it to activate simply by putting my hand next to it or touching it.
The theater lights go off, and it's pitch black. Jim asks that if there are any ghosts in the room, would they please move the curtain in the theater's back window. Jim is sitting close to the stage, farther away than any of us, but he says he sees movement. I'm much closer, but see nothing. He sees it again, and says it opened much wider the second time, but I remain blind to it.
To be honest, I'm not sure anyone witnessed anything because I can't imagine this group being bashful about saying, "I saw it, too."
But I'm also a bit distracted. My ghost meter, which is sitting on the seat arm of the row in front of me has gone on and it's a steady red. I put my arm out, expecting I might feel cold air or get goosebumps. Nothing. After at least a minute or two, the light blinks out.
Colleen notices, and says out loud, if there's a ghost in the room, they should light my meter. The light goes on, but quickly blinks out.
Then the evening's over. The lights come on, and we move to the front of the theater to ask questions. Jim's concerned about one of the women who had to leave the dressing room earlier; he tells her he knows she was told something, and that she should listen to what she heard. He also assures her that if she feels shaky and agitated, that's normal.
The woman, however, doesn't want to talk about it so he let's it go.
He wants to know if the participants believed they had a paranormal experience, and most of them say yes. He turns to Bob and asks if he's a believer now. Bob's noncommittal, but says he's more inclined to believe than not.
As I walk to my car, I start mulling over in my mind what I witnessed. There's little doubt those lights did respond to my questions, and I could see Jim's hands and feet, so I don't think he was activating them. Talking to Vivian was fun, and her responses via Carrie seemed legitimate.
But I've also seen more than my share of ghost shows, and it seems that often there is so little payoff for the time and equipment they've devoted to the investigation. Noise picked up on recorders are interpreted as words but sound like gibberish to me. A globule floating across a black room is captured in a photograph. Was that really a ghost? Beats me. They feel cold spots and say the hair on the back of their neck is standing, but I can't see either of those things.
And if the Rialto is so chockful of responsive ghosts who obey commands, wouldn't ghost hunters be pounding on the door to be let in?
Maybe my many reporter years have made me cynical. Maybe I'm just too firm a believer in the old journalism adage of show me, don't tell me.
But I do know this, I'm too attracted the idea of the paranormal to let it go. So, it's on to the next ghost hunt for me.
Want to take a ghost tour at the Rialto? Tickets for the five-hour tours, which typically take place from 6 to 11 p.m., are $35. For more information, call 815-726-7171, Ext. 210.