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For these ghost hunters, it's all in the ectoplasm

Tuesday, February 22, 2000

By Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

John DuMaurier pulls a flashlight out of his briefcase and points to the blue plastic lens. If a yellow fog-like trail shows up in the blue beam, a ghost has been here, he says.

"That indicates ectoplasm, the spiritual residue of a ghost," he says to the home's new tenant, Lisa Alexander, KDKA Radio's morning news anchor.

Turns out, the flashlight is something of a formality. Though he'd been in the 130-year-old house barely 15 minutes yesterday morning, he'd already gotten a "very positive feeling" about some sort of spirit. He's picturing a gray-haired, elderly woman.

"This place is incredibly rich with vibration," he says.

When Alexander and roommate Lisa Rutter exchange quizzical glances, DuMaurier quickly assures them.

"It's nothing negative," he says. "I have a hot feeling you're going to have a grandmother around taking care of you."

As one of Pittsburgh's best-known ghost hunters, it's DuMaurier's job to track the source of bumps in the night. On "serious" psychic investigations, DuMaurier will bring along an entire team, including Lisa Tack, president of the Pittsburgh Ghost Hunters Club, local college students and optometrist (and skeptic) Bob Manoli, whom DuMaurier affectionately refers to as his "doubting Thomas."

Yesterday, however, the only one along to help determine if Alexander's North Side home is really haunted was longtime friend and fellow psychic Jude Pohl of Scott. Alexander invited them in to hunt and to try to identify any ghosts in her Allegheny West home. They obliged with three, including the elderly woman.

In the second-floor living room, DuMaurier glances into the dark stairwell leading up to the third floor.

"I'm picturing a small child in the corner with brownish hair," he says.

Alexander's friend Gracilynn Cloud, who says she, too, is somewhat psychic, nods in agreement.

"He's about 5. His pants are too short," she says.

An exploration of the basement boiler room later turns up yet another entity, most likely that of a maid or cook.

"Did this used to be a kitchen?" DuMaurier asks John Wojtyna, landlord of the house built in 1863 by Thomas Nevin.

Indeed, most houses in the late 1880s had kitchens in the basement. Is this all a bunch of hooey? Not to Ghost Hunters.

"I've never been on a investigation where something incredible hasn't happened," says Pohl, 54, a theatrical producer who has gone on dozens of ghost hunts with DuMaurier over the past 15 years.

Sometimes, that "something" takes place after the visit. Pohl produces a photograph of a woman sitting at her kitchen table. The photographer, a relative, didn't see anything out of the ordinary when he snapped the picture. When the film was developed, however, the translucent outline of a man is clearly visible in the background. A double exposure perhaps? After all, only the "ghost" (the woman's recently departed husband, according to Pohl) is perfectly in focus. Everything else, most notably the wife, is slightly blurred. Yet Pohl insists the picture, taken with an old-fashioned Instamatic, hasn't been doctored.

"If you gave me a picture of a ghost, I wouldn't believe you either," he says with a shrug.

That doesn't stop him, however, from roaming from room to room with a cigarette lighter, which he lights and then runs up and down the walls and in the corners. If an entity if present, he explains, the flame will jump or even float.

"But I'm not the expert," he says with a laugh. "I'm just go along for the ride."

Not so with 53-year-old DuMaurier. Though an optician and stress therapist by trade, ghost hunting is something of a passion if not an out-and-out obsession for the talkative Monongahela native. He has written a book on the subject and at one time penned a weekly newspaper column on psychic phenomena. In the early '70s, he hosted a radio program devoted to the supernatural on WTRA-Latrobe. More recently, DuMaurier has become a frequent guest on Pittsburgh talk radio.

Born to parents of Eastern European descent, he grew up hearing stories of ghosts and vampires. But it wasn't until he was 20 and a student at University College in Dublin that DuMaurier had a personal experience with a spirit -- the ghost of Nullamore, a priest who had died at the residence in an accidental fall. That sighting piqued a lifelong interest in paranormal activity.

Pohl, on the other hand, attributes his penchant for ghost hunting to his lifelong psychic ability. For as long as he can remember, he has been able to sense when something is about to happen without knowing why. He says he'll decide, on the spur of the moment, to take a different route to work and miss an accident. Or he'll feel the unexplainable urge to cross the street, then run into a friend.

As spirited believers, DuMaurier and Pohl are in good company. According to a 1999 Gallup poll, a third of people surveyed believe in ghosts -- three times the number who admitted to it two decades ago. Witness the phenomenal success of films such as "The Sixth Sense" as well as TV shows like "The X -Files" and the recently launched "The Others."

Alexander approached Ghost Hunters after learning that the apartment's prior tenants had experienced strange goings-on: Children's shoes had been lined up in a row when no one was home; someone had whispered "Help me" in the wife's ear at night; videotapes had suddenly fallen off the shelf just as a cold breeze swept through.

"I thought it would be a kick to see who else might be living here," she says.

So why does the pair hear, see and occasionally feel what others do not?

"I think I'm a catalyst for this," DuMaurier says matter-of-factly.

Though the only equipment he brought to Alexander's apartment were a few flashlights, a Polaroid camera and a lighter, DuMaurier often brings along a tape recorder (to pick up sounds no one can hear), a magnetometer, which measures changes in magnetic pull, and thermal sensors. In addition, the metal crucifix he found along the side of road when he was 18 is always close to his heart.

"It can be dangerous out there," he says.

He is also careful not to learn too much about a particular house before he starts an investigation because stories, he maintains, are almost always embellished by the imagination.

DuMaurier, who goes on about 20 hunts a year, recounts the time he and Pohl visited an old house in Freeport where the owners would wake to find historical documents on the kitchen table. When they investigated, a shadowy figure materialized at the top of the stairs. And it wasn't happy -- it tried to push them down the stairs. DuMaurier eventually ended up exorcising the house, he says, but not before the couple had moved out and divorced.

"I guess you'd say we lost that one," he says.

Another time, they visited the old Scioscia mansion in Bellevue to try to verify the presence of the ghost of a child who had been murdered in the attic. They were snacking off a buffet when someone noticed a mist at the top of the stairs.

"It was so prominent, we thought someone had put up a fog maker," DuMaurier says.

After someone felt a cold draft in the room, Pohl ventured up the stairs and looked into a bedroom, only to have a face suddenly flash on like a light.

"I never came down a flight of stairs so fast in my life," he exclaims.

Most people who experience paranormal activity want the being out as quickly as possible, says DuMaurier. His solution: To create an environment that doesn't permit the spirit to live there. That could be something as simple as blessing the house, holding a seance or engaging in a full-blown exorcism.

Sometimes, the simple act of bringing in a ghost hunter is enough to purge a house of unwanted spirits, he says.

"We're exposing it and weakening it, and changing it."

After yesterday's hunt, in fact, Alexander may never hear from "her" ghost again. His hunch, however, is that the newscaster will have a lot of interesting experiences.

"You've got a number of people who've lived here who still come and go," DuMaurier says at the end of the hour-long investigation. And that's OK with Alexander.

"Whether this is real or not, it's nice to know what's making these things happen," she says. Otherwise, "it's the fear of the unknown, you know?"

That fear, and a lively imagination, is the only real thing about ghosts, says Richard Busch, a Pittsburgh hypnotherapist and member of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. He doesn't believe DuMaurier and Co. are finding anything but what they want to find.

"If your grandfather could come back from the dead, do you believe for even one second that he could contact a total stranger and not you?" he asks. "How preposterous! We don't need a middle man."

Busch has a simple explanation for why so many people are willing to believe in ghosts: It's exciting. And never underestimate the power of suggestion.

"People are quick to jump on the bandwagon," says Busch.

Skeptics don't bother DuMaurier. In fact, he says he rather enjoys them.

"They bring you back down to earth."

If you believe your house is haunted or have other paranormal activity to report, John DuMaurier may be interested in talking with you. You can e-mail him at

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