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Real-Life Ghost Hunters Are No Scooby Doo

On Friday, America's favorite meddling kids and talking dog will be busting phantoms on movie screens.

But though Scooby Doo's specters inevitably turned out to be human, real-life ghost hunters have been plying their trade in haunted houses across the country and their supernatural investigations don't end with the doffing of rubber masks.

"We're not ghostbusters," said Dave Juliano, co-director of South Jersey Ghost Research. "We want to verify unexplained phenomena with both scientific and psychic methods."

Juliano, 34, leads teams of ghost researchers into spook-infested buildings from Delaware to New York. They use both modern gadgetry and the searchers' psychic skills to ferret out phantasms. But that's only part of their job they also assure people who have witnessed hauntings they're not crazy.

"The main mission of the group is to help people," co-director Anne Palagruto, 39, said. "It's kind of like a support group for people that have ghosts in their house."

Nine times out of 10, ghosts will disappear once they've been acknowledged, Juliano said. Apparently, most ghosts just seem to want a little attention.

Not that most of the prey are "ghosts" in the traditional sense, veteran ghost hunter Richard Senate said.

"I'm not saying they are spirits of the dead," the 53-year-old Ventura, Calif., resident said. "Some might well be produced by holes in time, some may be a linked telepathy, some may be emotional traces."

Or a "ghost sighting" could be nothing more than a creaky step. Senate, trained as an historian and archeologist, said he's found evidence of the supernatural in one-third of his 854 investigations.

Juliano said his team even begins each ghost search with an rigorous interview process to weed out mundane explanations.

"It could be a heater," he said. "Houses make noise."

After ruling out hoaxes and false alarms, ghost hunters try to capture evidence of hauntings with an arsenal of scientific gear, including electromagnetic-field detectors, no-contact thermometers, sensitive audiorecorders, infrared lighting and still cameras and videocameras.

"When you're doing this kind of flaky science, you have to be more stringent, not less, or we'll be properly branded as a pseudo-science," Senate said.

Ghost hunters also often travel in packs, and not just because more eyes are better.

"I get scared by myself," Senate said, laughing.

There were some scary moments one Sunday this month, when Juliano and Palagruto led a team to the 228-year-old Olde Columbus Inne in southern New Jersey.

According to folklore, the building, now a restaurant, has been haunted by several ghosts, including an orphan girl who used to work there in the 1800s, the mean-spirited woman who tormented her and a local Indian who occasionally appears, in spirit form, on his favorite barstool.

"There have always been stories about ghosts being here," owner Liz Poblete said. "I always thought it was someone just fooling around. I kind of wish I'd see one, but I haven't."

The group claimed some success, though. In once instance, the group's dowsing rods veered toward the ladies' upstairs bathroom, a frequent place for phantom sightings. In a downstairs dining room, one ghost hunter snapped a picture of what she called an "orb," a seemingly inexplicable white circle in a darkened room. 

But the most chilling scene took place in the basement, near what was a jail cell when the building was a police barracks. After a moment outside the cell, researcher Karen Martinelli came down with a sudden headache and had to be rushed upstairs.

"It felt like a man," Martinelli said. "I felt him crushing my head."

Meanwhile, another ghost hunter's dowsing rods were spinning wildly. And, a picture of the moment showed what the group said was a "mist," the photographic image of an apparition.

But psychic debunker James Randi was skeptical.

"What these people are doing is going in with very sensitive equipment and, if they find any anomalies, they think it's supernatural," he said. "Does it mean anything? Probably not."

Randi, a former magician, has become Public Enemy No. 1 for psychics, spoon benders and spirit seekers.

Orbs are caused by flaws in digital cameras, and other "pictures" of specters are photographic illusions, he said. Ghosts, he added, only exist in the minds of those searching for them.

"They're suggestible, they're naïve, they're uninformed as far as general science and technology," he said. "They want it to be true, and they need it to be true."

But ghost hunters like Senate weren't dissuaded.

"[Skeptics] believe the universe is known," he said. "There's a whole lot out there we don't have a clue about."