Many paranormal investigators will tell you there's no such thing as a professional ghost hunter. Universities don't award degrees in the subject, and nearly all the technology is borrowed from elsewhere — electricians, photographers, sound engineers, spiritualists.
Accordingly, paranormal investigators learn by doing and by reaching out to others. They ask around, they go to a small conference or two, they get some equipment, and next they're participating in investigations and are active ghost hunters.
No group we've experienced in San Francisco or the Bay Area makes this easier than the San Francisco Ghost Society. While some paranormal groups bar members of other organizations from their activities — and sometimes prohibit their own members from having such contact outside the group — the S.F. Ghost Society welcomes everyone to its public events.
"We've always been open to all," says Tommy Netzband, founder and president. "Some of the greatest things I've learned have been from other groups." This fits with the society's aim to educate and bring more people into the world of paranormal investigation. "We cater to the beginner," he says, "to the person who maybe wants to be a ghost hunter but hasn't found a group."
Nowhere is this clearer than at the Ghost Society's conferences, which happen once or twice a year at haunted locations in San Francisco. The most recent was at the San Remo Hotel in North Beach. For about $200, people got a room, a really good meal, several lectures on ghost-hunting methods, and several hours of investigation. "We make very little money on these," Netzband says. "But it's not been about the money for us; it's always been about the education."
During the investigation, Ghost Society members led small teams to various locations. Netzband says he likes working with smaller groups. "This gives you a more personal understanding of the paranormal," he says, "where you can experience it and see what it's like."
Netzband and the 10 or so other Ghost Society members do extensive historical research and conduct preliminary investigations on such sites, so they always have a good idea of what might turn up. (Among the spirits thought to inhabit the San Remo are a woman who is believed to have run a brothel there, as well as the victims of a double murder that occurred at a wedding.) It also gives them evidence they can present at lectures before the investigations start.
Methods of collecting evidence of paranormal activity include still and video cameras, which may pick up apparitions or so-called spirit "orbs"; digital recorders, which may pick up electronic voice phenomena (EVP); electromagnetic frequency meters, which are said to be easily activated by willing spirits; and digital thermometers, which can show dramatic fluctuations in temperature that are thought to occur when ghosts are present.
Netzband's relationship-building extends beyond other groups and ghost hunters. It takes him months and sometimes years to forge bonds with owners of places he wants to investigate on a large scale. He frequently visits locations, doing smaller investigations when allowed, showing the owners that he's not out to make a public spectacle and keep people away. He says this method worked at the San Remo: "Once they knew we were serious, it opened a lot of doors for us," he says.
In addition to the San Remo, the Ghost Society has had an overnight event at the Queen Anne Hotel and recently conducted a daytime investigation at Fort Point. It plans more single-day events as well as free educational lectures this year at San Francisco branch libraries.
Netzband says these treks often lay the groundwork for more famous investigation groups who have TV shows, and he says he's certain this will happen with the San Remo. "It's a great honor to know we were the first," he says.
The Ghost Society itself has been on television; about two years ago four members spent the night on Alcatraz conducting research for the History Channel show Mystery Quest. Netzband says they collected great EVP evidence, which a former CIA audio analyst said could not have been made by humans. Although the analyst wouldn't go so far as to say spirits had uttered the words, Netzband has heard from numerous people whose minds have been changed after being on investigations.
"Everyone's a skeptic until they experience it," he says. "I've met many people who've said, 'I never believed in ghosts until ... "