In the Connecticut suburb once called Totokett by the Mattabesic or Mattabesec or Mattabeset Indians and now called Branford — a town where Europeans and then Americans have lived for nearly 400 years, where the current average income is $61,000 and the historic buildings are in danger of being “cannibalized by fast and loose entrepreneurs,” according to the Branford Historical Society and whose Thimble Islands and more than 20 miles of shoreline I’ve never seen but whose condominiums I have — in this town, in an unassuming white house between a dry cleaner’s and a chiropractor, there may have been a ghost.
It is not there any more. Two days before Halloween, it was exorcised by Christine Kaczynski, a paranormal investigator and co-owner of an engineering company in East Haven, who has been exorcising ghosts and sometimes people for at least 30 years. She used to give psychic readings and perform healings, but that part of her life ended, she says serenely, when her psychic energy was turned to raising her two children. With the exception of night school classes on the paranormal, her services have always been free, unlike those of some investigators, for whom, she says disapprovingly, “it’s a business.” She describes herself as an energy manipulator and a repeller of negativity, and says she saw a demon in flames outside the window at Christmastime when she was three years old.
According to a May 2001 Gallup poll, 38% of the U.S. population believes in ghosts, a 13% increase since 1990. Even television has its hauntings: The Atlantic Paranormal Society (“We scare them back!”) has a cable show, “Ghost Hunters,” and Fox Family’s “World’s Scariest Places” visits haunted sites. Christine was featured in an episode on Connecticut’s New London Ledge Lighthouse but reports that the show is scripted and the lighthouse not especially scary. “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Ghosts and Hauntings” is available on Amazon.com, where it is listed above a guide for the Complete Idiot selling his or her home. A section on selling a haunted house is a plausible collaboration.
For a certain segment of the believing population, interest in ghosts is a matter of adventure, of seeing what ghosts can do. There are a few careerists, such as Ed and Lorraine Warren, who call themselves demonologists and travel around the country giving lectures. There are people like Christine who have spent years interacting with spirits and claim to be “sensitives,” or people who can see or feel or hear things that most of us cannot — “like a well-tuned radio.” Then there are the hobbyists — the weekend fellow travelers. The demarcations are, of course, fluid, and with the freewheeling egalitarianism of the Internet, anyone can start up a “paranormal society”: 49,500 Google hits serve as proof. On Meetup.com, a popular group-hosting Web site, there are “Ghost Tracking Groups” in 84 cities in the United States and the United Kingdom, with a total of 9,260 members. Until recently, Christine led an East Haven Meetup group, although she conducts her real, serious work — exorcisms such as the one in Branford — alone or with a few experienced investigators.
The East Haven group does what paranormal enthusiasts have done for more than a century: They take pictures. In 1848, reports of “spirit rappings” led to the explosion of the Spiritualist movement, and mediums traveled the country contacting the dead, often espousing abolitionist and suffragist views that caused just as much controversy as their seances. Spiritualism coincided with the birth of photography, and, of the so-called occult photographs that followed (everything from flashes of light to floating people), not all have been successfully explained as frauds. Today, most ghost trackers prefer digital cameras, and they set their sights lower than the elaborate Spiritualist daguerreotypes, seeking orbs — floating bubbles of spirit energy — and inexplicable shadows and streaks of light instead. They tramp around under the cover of night in cemeteries, old schoolhouses, former prisons and mental hospitals, as well as at sites of famous hauntings. In the past few months, Christine’s Meetup group, whose membership fluctuates between about 13 and 32 ghost trackers, has visited several local cemeteries in Salem, Massachusetts, and in Dudleytown, a disaster-plagued Connecticut settlement that is now mostly forest (a privately owned forest — trespassers risk a minimum fine of $75). Armed with flashlights and cameras, the ghost trackers hope to see or feel something — maybe catch it on film.
Christine says that the equipment is not particularly important to her — “it’s just for documentation” — but she owns:
-3 megapixel digital camera
-5 megapixel digital camera
-8 megapixel digital camera
-35 mm cameras (2)
-tape recorders, digital and regular (to pick up EVP, or Electronic Voice Phenomena, which people cannot hear unless the sounds are recorded and amplified)
-camcorders, digital and regular
-thermometers, ambient and stationary
-trifield meter (detects magnetic field changes and can cost upward of $200)
-gaussmeter (also for magnetic fields and can cost hundreds of dollars)
Most of the other members have less equipment, and they have varying degrees of experience and sensitivity. Some of them have seen spirits. Some are still waiting. Walter, a young round-faced graphic designer, wishes he could arrange a group investigation for a haunted house on his street. Barbara, a cheery, vigorous woman, began to sense ghosts after experiencing head trauma in a car crash a few years ago. Upon entering a mansion from the 1800s, she became nauseated and threw up. “It feels like something’s pushing you if you go into a house with many spirits,” she said. “Like you’re on a roller coaster.”
Liddy, a planner for a manufacturing company and a part-time student at Sussex County Community College, is tall and short-haired and moves with an expression of dreamy worry. About two years ago, she started wandering around cemeteries with a friend; once, in an old house where someone had been hanged, the two of them took a picture that showed a white button-up shirt, complete with breast pocket, floating in the air. This is Liddy’s only real paranormal experience so far. She asked to come on the Branford house investigation with Christine, saying she wanted to learn more: “I don’t want to just dabble.” At the same time, though, she isn’t sure whether she wants to see something else. “I’d rather not if I had my way. But if it happens, I’d think I’m prepared for it.” At any rate, she views Christine’s experiences and abilities wistfully. Once, when Christine said that most people can develop sensitivity, Liddy added, “She’s born with it, damn her!”
Christine’s most memorable feature is her hair: masses of haphazardly layered curls framing her small face and heavily made-up eyes. In her late forties and built along wider lines than most people, she wears long, smock-like shirts, and although photographs show her mouth turned down with a melancholy air, in real life she often erupts into loud, wheezing laughter that makes her hair bounce around her shoulders. She is warm, loud and vague. Her stories, regardless of content, are peppered with the phrases “but it was just so weird!” and “but it was just so funny!” For years, she counseled sick and dying people, once healing a boy with a tumor on his optic nerve and another time healing a girl with a broken foot who would have needed surgery. Also, she says, she led a cancer group. Yes, she worked with their doctors. No, it wasn’t anything formal. She never advertised. She doesn’t know how they found her — word of mouth, probably. She doesn’t remember any names. About old cases, she says, “I just try to forget because I can’t live them, and I don’t want to carry around the memory. You have to clear it out of your life to let it go.” She tells her clients not to dwell on the exorcised ghosts. It is unhealthy and opens the way for “negative energy.”
One patient she does remember is Alex, a young bipolar man who hanged himself. He liked her “because I would understand him the way he was. When he was manic I’d tell him to run up and down the stairs. ‘You’re bothering everybody else. Get some of that energy out.’”
“This is the strange part — he hung himself, right — I was pregnant with my daughter. I sat up in bed, and I said, ‘Oh my God, the cord is wrapped around the baby’s neck.’”
“He gave you a lot of stress, and I didn’t like that,” her husband Michael interrupted. “All that you wanted to do was talk about him all the time.”
Christine, unaware of Alex’s death, learned that the umbilical cord really was wrapped around the baby’s neck: three times. She remembered saying to her mother after the birth, “‘I know this baby — look at her eyes.’” Christine heard about Alex’s death when her daughter was five weeks old. Marcy “loved to wrap things around her neck,” Christine said gaily, wonderingly. “And it just reminded me of him. It was just the weirdest thing!”
When Christine was a child, every day on her way to school she talked to a crow who came to her call. “I was so in tune with energy and people and animals when I was younger,” she says. “If I asked it to come down, it came down, and I said, ‘Wait here, I have to go to school,’ … Sure enough it would be waiting for me at the bus stop when I got home.” One day the crow didn’t come, and Christine spent hours searching for it. “Finally my mother told me that they had the animal guy come because it was always pecking on the convertible top of my aunt’s car, and they came with a net and took it away.”
When her father died, she sensed his spirit go through her two days later. It was the most beautiful thing she’d ever felt.
Christine posted a notice on the Meetup message board about the Branford investigation. She wouldn’t be able to come to the Killingsworth Cemetery the night of Friday, October 28 because she had just gotten a call about “a very negative haunting.” The ghost was a young man who had shoved one of the house’s tenants. “In the beginning the owner did not believe in this type of phenomenon. A priest will be called in, and then I will go in. If any of you have experience in this field with very negative spirits or inhuman spirits (Demons), I could use the back up; I need you to watch my back. This spirit has threaten to kill those in the house. My normal investigators with 30+ experience are out of town and the case has to be addressed in the next week. Please contact me, Thanks, Christine.”
Despite the tone of her message, Christine mocks the sensationalism of the popular TV shows and “demonologists” like the Warrens. Of the New London Ledge Lighthouse, she says, “It’s nothing! The most mildest place you could go.” Most investigations, she explains, turn out to be anticlimactic. Only a few turn out to be like the East Haddam schoolhouse, where a ghost threw a plate at her. She describes that encounter with her usual nonchalance: “I could feel the evil that was there. I felt something walk between [me and the other investigator]. It was white, and from then I could tell where it was because I could use my digital as a guide. It changed shape completely and started to do this thing where it was spinning, so it was this round ball with a tail. I say ‘put the meter up there,’ and [the meter] starts screaming.”
How do you know what you’re dealing with, or whether there’s anything there at all? There is considerable skepticism even among believers. One night, Christine and Barbara pored over a photograph taken at a mental hospital and argued whether a fuzzy streak of light in a wall mirror was, as Barbara claimed, a little girl in a white dress. Christine thought it was just light, even when Barbara stood up and tried to use Christine’s spider web wall-hanging to demonstrate that the angle of the hospital mirror was such that it couldn’t possibly be reflecting light from around the corner. They didn’t come to an agreement. But they did tell me that once, while holding hands in a cemetery, they’d felt something move through them. No digital documentation, of course, but they believed it absolutely.
The world of paranormal investigation takes its brand of scientific investigation only so far. Photos can be scrutinized and reinterpreted endlessly, but, in the end, a gut feeling of a paranormal event is unshakably final — at least to the person who experiences it.
What does it take to exorcise a ghost? Faith. Christine, who was raised Greek Orthodox, says she doesn’t believe in organized religion. “I couldn’t get through the Bible if you paid me. So much doesn’t make sense, doesn’t add up. I believe there’s Hell. Do I believe there’s a God? Very strongly, very strongly.” Her rituals — prayers, a candle, holy water — are, she says, intuitive, not rigidly prescribed like church rituals. “[It’s] the power of faith … you can call it a state of stepping over to the other realm, where the spirits reside, and knowing the right things to say.” Atheists are more likely to attract negative entities, and, without belief in God, they have no protection. They are “empty inside.” She doesn’t allow atheists on investigations.
I am an atheist, but I went on an investigation. (No one ever asked me what my beliefs were, and I’m not sure what I would have said in response.) When I was little, my best friends and I were ghost trackers, of a sort. We wandered around our houses at night, knocking on the walls in search of secret passages, which were likely to lead us to ghostly encounters. But attempting to photograph ghosts would have never occurred to us, and not just because we were ten years old and not yet trusted with cameras. The supernatural world was completely separate from technology. We were not interested in what beeped and needed batteries but in the beyond.
My ten-year-old self probably would have found the mixture of cheeriness and high solemnity that characterizes paranormal enthusiasm a tad bizarre. One of the more popular Web sites couples a little cartoon Casper with dolorous Gregorian chants. An article called “Baiting the Paranormal,” written by an investigator named David Chastain, discusses the ethics of trying to “provoke” ghosts into appearing. “It’s highly unlikely we would ever call a spirit a coward or question a ghost mother’s devotion to her long-dead children. [But then] there are the ambitious ones. These investigators are unconcerned with the effect of provoking a spirit as long as they can document it.”
Christine isn’t one of those investigators. Her exorcisms are not about taking spectacular photographs. She’s no weekend magic-seeker either; communication with spirits has been a part of her life for as long as she can remember. But she doesn’t seem to have given much thought to her knowledge or her beliefs (and for a sensitive, belief and knowledge are the same thing). I asked whether she believes in the devil, and she tossed off, “Yeah, I’ll say there’s a leader of the bunch.” During the investigation, someone wanted to know where inhuman spirits come from. “I don’t know — I don’t care where it came from — get rid of it!” she hooted, waving her hand.
The house in Branford was small and white, with peeling paint and an unoccupied second floor that was littered with paint cans. The downstairs tenants were Karen, a Friendly’s waitress; her boyfriend Ed (not his real name), a mechanic; and Karen’s two children, who had been sent to their grandmother’s for the night without being told why. No priest came or was mentioned. Karen, a gray, sleepy-eyed woman in pajamas, described how a year ago she had seen a red blob appear on Ed as he slept in front of the TV. It had turned into a ball of light and shot up the stairs. (Ed never saw anything, and he watched the investigation unfold with an air of bemused acceptance.) Four months ago, Karen had seen the ghost, and it had pushed her.
“Did you feel threatened?” asked Christine.
“It was like I was in the way. I saw from the shoulders up: he wears a black trench coat and combat boots, and he has red hair … like in spikes.”
“Like a dyed color?”
“Like one of them punky kinds of colors?” Liddy added.
“Yeah! His face was pasty, and his skin drooped, like halfway down his face.” She pulled on the skin under her eyes to demonstrate. “I don’t think he saw me looking at him.”
Steve, the house’s owner, told us that the teenage son of the previous tenants had seen the ghost while in bed with his baby sister. “If I’m not imagining you, make her hit me,” the boy had said. Steve demonstrated how the sleeping girl’s arm had flung out. A second son, aged six, had told his mother a ghost wanted to kill him. (When Karen heard this, she said quietly, “I never heard that. I never heard that it threatened to kill anyone.”)
Liddy and Christine agreed that they had felt something when they first drove up to the house, but they felt nothing now. “It’s a big waiting game,” said Christine. “Sometimes we’ll literally wait all night.” After an hour or so of sitting in the kitchen with the votive candle, she and Liddy made a sweep of the ground floor with their cameras. I was in some of their pictures, with white, tennis ball-sized things floating around the back of my coat — orbs of spirit energy. “It’s the most efficient way for energy to travel, in a circle. It’s interested; it’s following the investigators,” Christine elaborated. (“In a circle?” I said. “Really?”)
Christine stood still for a while in the living room and then limped back to the kitchen to address Karen and Ed. She had performed her ritual without feeling any resistance from the ghosts, who now couldn’t enter the first floor ever again. “It can’t even come down here again … I did have something come close to me and feel like it was standing next to me, and we did get energy orbs — your floor is now clean.”
“Believe it, ’cause she’s good,” added Liddy.
The final cleaning — in the attic, the ghost’s home — went just as quietly. Christine stood with her eyes closed while she tossed holy water from a perfume bottle. Downstairs, Ed and Karen were curled together in front of the TV. “Is it gone?” Karen asked in a whisper when the two returned.
“I did a cleaning. I blessed your home, but I made it very intense and meaningful. Both of you are protected by the love of God.”
“And the kids?”
“Everyone who lives here. It’s a clean house.”
“How do you know? That it let go?”
“Are you afraid to trust it? Is that what it is?” Christine asked gently. “I know it was a little anticlimactic — when I did the East Haddam case, it was also anticlimactic. I just stood in one place, nothing earth-shaking; it’s a lot of internal stuff.”
What they needed was faith, Christine said. She paused and then added firmly, “Don’t fear anything. You believe in God? Then you have it all. You have that thing which is one of the most powerful things in the universe to have.”
Before we left, Liddy and Christine stood out on the driveway to smoke. It was about 12:30 a.m. Christine said she wasn’t surprised that there was nothing negative since the death threat was reported by a six-year-old. She and Karen talked about motherhood and how it suddenly hits you that you’re utterly responsible for this helpless being. After Karen went inside, Liddy and Christine stood out on the driveway to smoke in the frosty night air, and then we drove away from what was now, Christine said, a clean house.