By Matt Palmquist Wednesday, Jun 19 2002
Despite the dark-and-stormy setting, I know that this is the real world, that I'm not going to become one of those unsuspecting idiots whose curiosity about a run-down farmhouse leads to doom at the start of an X-Files episode. Still, I double-check the batteries in my flashlight before easing out of the car into the evening mist, where I join Scott Mosbaugh and Tina McGarty on a road snaking through the compound. As McGarty loops the strap of a camcorder around her neck, Mosbaugh readies a digital camera and sizes up the abandoned three-story building in front of us, the name "Julia" mysteriously spray-painted in pink across the plywood door.
Then, in four matter-of-fact words far more chilling than the offshore breeze buffeting the weeds, Mosbaugh explains why he thinks this will be a likely place to find ghosts.
"This was the sanitarium."
Mark Boccuzzi is sitting at a table in the rear corner of a largely unoccupied San Rafael coffee shop. Flipping a few black curls out of his eyes, the boyish-looking 39-year-old, dressed in his standard gray sweater and bluejeans, lowers his voice and flashes a wry grin. "You notice we're secluded at the far end of this place?" he says. "It needs a fair amount of explaining, what we do. When people ask, 'What did you do today?' and I say, 'I went looking for ghosts,' it's always, 'Oh, you're a Ghostbuster, you got a proton pack?' I hate that. I mean, I love those movies, but that's generally people's perception of what we do, and from my perspective, that's not what we do at all."
Last July, Mosbaugh, McGarty, and Boccuzzi formed Bay Area Paranormal Investigations, the San Francisco area's first line of defense against "anomalous events that fall outside the realm of conventional scientific research," as the group's Web site puts it. Seeking to research, investigate, and, in a perfect spirit world, document cases of the paranormal, BAPI explores local cemeteries and other allegedly haunted sites, such as the Presidio, San Jose's infamous Winchester Mystery House, and the USS Hornet (a decommissioned aircraft carrier, moored in Alameda, that's widely rumored to host the spectral forms of its dead sailors).
The investigators also pursue cases brought to them by ordinary Bay Area residents with extraordinary stories to tell -- such as the woman who called after hearing the chattering of unseen children running through her home. BAPI arrived on the scene, conducted its usual interviews, research, and surveillance, and soon discovered the cause of the phantom tittering: squirrels under the floorboards. Then there was the woman who saw a mysterious glowing ball in a photograph of her dog. After turning off the lights and snapping a few flash photos -- a standard preliminary test for the presence of spirits, she was told -- she sent BAPI a picture of a strange glow against her darkened living room. Boccuzzi scanned the picture, zoomed in on the unusual radiance, and quickly pinpointed its source: an infrared motion sensor, unnoticed against a far corner. The orb over her dog, Boccuzzi concluded, was probably a dust particle kicked up from the carpet and caught in the light.
"Since I've been actively, systematically investigating paranormal phenomena, I haven't come across anything I haven't been able to explain," says Boccuzzi. "But I do believe that people are experiencing strange things all the time, and I would be really excited if I could get some kind of tangible proof, even if it was just for me."
In a refreshing rebuke to legions of for-profit palm readers and psychics, BAPI doesn't charge for its services, asking only for the right to publish (while respecting client confidentiality) research gathered during its investigations. "The majority of the psychics who are on Psychic Friends Network or in these little shops up and down the road -- excuse me, but they're crackpots," McGarty says. "We would never charge the person, because we're there to help them. What if it's an explainable thing? You're still going to charge them $500 for coming to their house and finding out it's water pipes? No, we don't believe in that."
They do believe in ghosts, however, or at least in the presence of unexplained energy that has not yet passed on to the spirit world. And although the group's members -- who have day jobs and insist on calling themselves amateurs -- get a satisfying kick out of finding mundane solutions to paranormal puzzles, their real goal is to find something they can't explain. Each has had bizarre run-ins with what he or she suspects were paranormal entities, each has invested quite a bit of time and money in pursuing the hobby, and each desperately hopes the next night in a graveyard turns his or her hair white. The evidence, however, suggests it won't: Psychologists and scientists easily dismiss the most tantalizing ghost stories; not one American university still offers a degree in parapsychology; and even "professional" ghost hunters reject the majority of mist-and-orb photographs as tricks of the light or camera malfunctions.
But no amount of debunking will stop the group's members from lugging their video cameras, electromagnetic field scanners, and tape recorders from cemetery to haunted house to abandoned mine, hoping their diligence rewards them with the Holy Grail of ghost research: an irrefutable piece of data that can stand up to even the most skeptical scrutiny. They do it, they say, because of an unyielding fascination with the greatest unknown of all: What happens when we die?
Although none of the members professes any religious beliefs, the group is actually founded on a leap of faith -- the conviction, even the presumption, that some kind of life force continues beyond the body's demise. And BAPI's veneer of skepticism, while less easily penetrated than that of most ghost-hunting groups, still crumbles next to its quasi-religious belief that someday, somewhere, its members will find the floating phantom to silence all critics. On its deepest levels, in fact, the troupe functions as a sort of faith-based support group, where ghost stories are shared and heard without derision (or close questioning), and an open mind is defined as one that's closed to a single immutable, unspeakable truth: Everyone dies, and there's no evidence to suggest that our energy carries on.