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Ghost hunters

California University professor teams up with spirited local group to investigate ghostly images, encounters with paranormal 'presences

Sunday, December 05, 1999

By Dave Zuchowski

Rene Horath feels she has more than a ghost of a chance to uncover some of the secrets of the spirit world. She says she saw her first ghost when she was 15. The experience must have made a lasting impression because the professor of applied engineering and technology at California University of Pennsylvania has been researching the subject for the past 25 years.

Horath said her first encounter with a ghost occurred in her bedroom in Peru, Neb., one week after the death of her high school sweetheart in a car wreck.

"I was extremely upset and couldn't sleep or eat," she says. "Then one night, I saw Larry sitting on the edge of my bed. I knew I was awake at the time because I got up and walked around. After Larry told me he was all right, I quickly recovered and life got back to normal once again."

The experience seemed to pique Horath's interest in ghost phenomena. Soon, she began reading nonfictional accounts of ghost researchers and corresponding with authorities in the field.

After moving to California, Pa., in 1989, she continued her researches by visiting sites purported to be ghost haunts, but only in distant places such as Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska and eastern Pennsylvania. Worried about how the local community and university colleagues would react to her unusual avocation, she decided to keep her work under wraps for a while.

Horath opened up last year at the end of a meeting of the California Historical Society when she asked the members if they knew of any local ghost stories. To her surprise, at least 10 people either approached her or phoned her later at home.

In April, local interest spawned the Mon Valley Ghost Research Society, a small group of active members -- California residents Horath, Edgar Harris and his daughter, Linda Davis, and David Ross of Washington.

"My interest in ghost phenomenon lies less with the physic and spiritualist elements than with the more technical aspects of the subject," says Horath, who's affiliated with several national and international ghost hunter societies.

To aid her researches, Horath has accumulated a reserve of expensive, high-tech equipment including, infrared video cameras, digital cameras, 35-milimeter cameras, motion detectors, and temperature probes.

"I believe there's a lot of electrical energy linked to ghost sightings along with an accompanying magnetic field," she says.

"With some of my instruments, I can actually measure the corresponding rise or drop of magnetic influences possibly associated with the spirit world."

Edgar Harris, president of the California Historical Society, says he got hooked on ghost research when he visited Highland Cemetery in California late one evening to see how members were doing in their investigations. (Horath prefers to work after dark because that's when her infrared equipment is most effective.)

When he arrived, the video camera was running and some still shots were taken of Harris with a digital camera. When he saw the images, Harris says, there were "orbs," different sized spheres of spirit energy, all around him.

"I have a lot of friends buried in the cemetery, and I guess they wanted to say hello as best they could,"he says.

Sometimes the orbs respond to the voices of the researchers "by swooping in and buzzing around," he says. It's a phenomenon the researchers believe occurred the evening of Harris' visit.

So far, the work of the local ghost hunters has taken them to at least a dozen sites in California, Monessen, Donora, Rostraver, Brownsville and Malden. Besides capturing on camera the images of orbs, whose size can vary from as small as a couple of inches to several yards across, the ghost hunters also have come across mists, apparitions, glitters or sparkles, and auditory and olfactory presences.

"We now actually have a waiting list of people who'd like us to come to their home and do our researches," Horath says.

While there have been rare instances of injuries to people attributed to ghostly presences, the Mon Valley researchers have yet to experience a malevolent spirit. Ironically, the vast majority of people reporting ghost sightings don't seem to want the researchers to get rid of their resident spirits.

"They usually seem quite comfortable with the ghostlike presences," Harris says. "If they're relatives, they don't want them disturbed."

Linda Davis, who lives in her grandmother's house, has had a series of ghostly experiences starting with apparitions and sounds such as footsteps on the staircase and stones being thrown against the windows, and ending with the inexplicable smell of baking bread.

"Grandmother always liked to bake bread," says Davis, who didn't venture an opinion on whether the events were related.

Sometimes the researchers say they can feel the presence of "cold spots" in rooms they investigate. Using an infrared thermal scanner, they've been able to measure the temperature gradations. While they consider the verification of a 15-degree variance significant, they say they've recorded measurements that differ by as much as 80 degrees in the same room.

"Sometimes the cold spots are stationary, sometimes they move," says Horath, who usually uncovers an orb when she takes a photo in the vicinity of a cold spot.

At her home in California, Horath has boxes of photos and video clips she's taken during her researches. Many clearly show the orb phenomenon and other presences such as mists and apparitions. Her extensive inventory even includes mysterious sounds recorded on audiotape.

Last year, Horath took some of her findings to the headquarters of the American Ghost Hunters Association in Alton, Ill. News of her discoveries eventually reached the West Coast via the ghost hunters' grapevine where ABC News representatives got wind of the Mon Valley chapter's researches and decided to have a look.

As a result, some of the researchers' footage is scheduled to air on prime time the first week in February in an ABC telecast tentatively titled "The World's Scariest Ghosts Caught on Tape."

Horath says the focus of the show has since shifted to reflect a more serious research-based program rather than one based purely on sensationalism.

While all the members of the local chapter say they believe in ghosts, they take a skeptical attitude to purported sightings.

"When we encounter something new, we try to find a natural explanation first," Horath says.

"We don't accept things at face value and try to investigate a site more than once so we can compare our findings.

"In some cases, the presences increase, in other cases, they decrease. One thing is certain, though. The more we investigate, the more we learn."

To learn more about the local chapter of ghost hunters, phone Horath at 724-938-7096.

Dave Zuchowski is a free-lance writer.

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