116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Most ghosts don’t have bad intentions, according to ghost hunter Matt O’Brien — they just don’t understand what’s going on.
“Out of all my time as an investigator, I’ve dealt with four cases with ghosts there to do harm,” said O’Brien, president of Iowa City Ghost Hunters.
Often, the spirit of a person who has passed doesn’t realize they’ve died, he said, so they wander back to the place they were last happy. When homes are renovated and shaped to a new owners liking, paranormal investigators believe that the spirits left in the house simply don’t understand what’s happening.
“It tends to mess with spirits a little bit,” he said.
The organization, a volunteer group of about 20 members, provides free paranormal investigation services in the Corridor to anyone who needs them. That usually starts with a call from a resident, who then fills out a thorough, four-page questionnaire about their home and what they’ve seen.
Investigators need to know what they’ve seen, heard and felt, in addition to the age of the home, recent renovations, past deaths in the home, hot or cold spots, strange odors observed and whether a Ouija board has been used there — all proxies to the likelihood of paranormal activity that they take into account.
Most activity tends to be in older homes, O’Brien said. If there is ghost activity in a newer home built after about 1970, it’s typically due to the land the home is on, a death in the home or use of a Ouija board. The experienced investigator, who has helped start seven different paranormal teams in the country since he started ghost hunting in 2007, advises against playing the game.
“I don’t feel they’re safe enough to use,” he said. “Every time we get a case that says they’ve used one, the paranormal activity there is outrageous.”
How to hunt ghosts
After evaluating a request to ensure a case is not a prank or someone testing paranormal investigators, the team makes contact with the client through a home visit. Often, a psychic medium is sent in the initial stages to be of assistance if a spirit simply needs help crossing over to the other side.
The organization gets anywhere from 30 to 80 clients in a typical year. Though they tend to get a few more requests around October, those cases are often not legitimate, O’Brien said.
After some observations, the team makes an investigation plan. Using their first impressions, they often know where to stage their equipment to optimize results on investigation night.
Sometimes, their stakeouts end up being “dead investigations,” with nothing to be recorded or seen. There are no guarantees with paranormal activity.
Their biggest piece of equipment used in ghost hunts, which can last an entire night, is an infrared camera system set up through the house to allow monitoring in the dark. By each camera is an audio recorder that is capable of picking up the frequencies O’Brien says ghosts speak in, which are outside human hearing range.
All members also use electromagnetic field (EMF) meters that look for unusual spikes in activity that can’t be attributed to anything else. Sometimes, high EMF activity is part of a “funhouse effect,” that makes people feel like they’re experiencing things that aren’t there. The high EMF activity causing that effect can sometimes be attributed to radon in the home, according to ghost hunters.
Paranormal investigators also set up a ghost box, which is what they call a standard radio without an antenna that sweeps station frequencies without locking onto any specific frequency.
“It just provides white noise as it scans through. Any words we hear through it is a spirit talking,” O’Brien said. “It would have to jump about 10 different frequencies to be able to say one word.”
While equipment is set up, the team will turn out all lights and simply sit to observe and note their findings. While investigators can spend many hours over the course of weeks analyzing their investigation recordings from a night, they can often tell whether there’s a spirit at a location in real time.
The team finds paranormal activity in about half their cases, O’Brien said.
After making a determination as a team, a full report of the findings is sent to a client. If necessary, the team will take steps to help the spirits move out of the home with ministers, priests and psychic mediums.
What they’ve seen
Investigators have seen a variety of activity they can’t attribute to anything else.
One Iowa City Ghost Hunters client witnessed a black mask fly across the room and in front of her laptop’s camera during a video call.
O’Brien once cleaned hand prints behind a furnace in a basement, only to see them reappear an hour later. Moments later, he said a spirit picked up a 16-foot ladder and threw it across the room, barely missing him.
Often, clients note hearing strange but consistent sounds and feeling the touch of something they can’t see.
“Everything they claimed to have happen, we’ve experienced as team members,” O’Brien said of legitimate cases.
Peter Durin, president of the Eastern Iowa Ghost Hunters Association, also has seen many things during the tours he takes groups on.
“We’ve seen orbs, we’ve seen a glass move off a shelf,” he said. “I had coins set up in a cross. I came back and they were all tossed, all spread out.”
Those taking tours have experienced being scratched, hearing whispers or loud bangs and feeling chills, Durin said.
As president of the Eastern Iowa Ghost Hunters Association, Durin takes groups on paranormal tours in his black, spooky themed bus, the Paranormal Express.
Before a tour, he’ll explain where they’re going, the history of the building, and what spirits are known to reside there from past tours.
“My motto is, I can’t guarantee anything will happen, but I will tell you that every time, something does happen,” he said.
The experience often converts nonbelievers, he said, who often have difficulty suspending their disbelief.
On tours of buildings known to have paranormal activity, the groups use similar equipment to hear the silent whispers of ghosts and have discussions where they can ask spirits polar questions.
“You can actually have discussions with ghosts,” Durin said.
Sites the company frequents include the Villisca Axe Murder House, Edinburgh Manor in Monticello and the 13 steps of Pleasant Ridge Cemetery in Palo. In some sites, Durin knows the spirits by name.
Why they do it
Durin got into ghost hunting through his experience as a traveling salesperson going through many small towns with old buildings abound with paranormal activity.
If it’s old and abandoned, the chance of activity is high, he said.
O’Brien got into ghost hunting while researching how to help a friend who was experiencing paranormal activity in 2007. Now, he said the thrill of helping someone is what fuels his passion.
“When we get a call that there’s a child scared to sleep at night, as a parent, that aggravates me,” said O’Brien, an Iowa City teacher. “That’s the only thing I need, to know we helped somebody.”
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