Atwater Ghost Research team member Barbara (who prefers not to disclose her last name) was sleeping one night long ago, when her dead grandmother came to her in a dream. This was no ordinary dream, however.
"I had the feeling she wanted me to come to heaven with her," Barbara said, "but I kept saying no -- I wanted to get married and have babies and wasn't ready."
Becoming gradually more fed up with the dream argument, Barbara woke up, still feeling the frustration of her refusal. "When I jumped out of bed, I realized there were firemen outside," she said -- and her entire garage was burning, spreading quickly toward the room where she had been sleeping minutes before. "Without that experience, I may have been a fire statistic."
Barbara cited this personal experience -- she considers her grandmother to be an angel who returned to earth to save her -- as the initial spark to her curiosity to learn about life after death. "I know what I felt and saw," she said, "and I know it got me out of bed and saved my life."
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Why are we here? Where do people go when they die? What is that noise I hear every night out the back window? These are heavy questions -- so heavy in fact that they form the basis of many religions the world over. They have also troubled and inspired many who believe they have had contact with those who have died.
The Atwater Ghost Research team started two years ago to try to figure some of this out. Despite their relatively long history, they began doing actual investigations this past March. Barbara mainly focuses on history for the team -- which seems appropriate, given her background as a member of the Turlock Historical Society, and a former docent at the Calaveras Museum.
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Team leader Micki Tyler explained the way most investigations run: "I hear a story, and then we go out and investigate it," she said, mentioning that she also spends countless hours online every week, looking into the histories of interesting places. Among others, the team has explored the Santa Clara City Cemetery, the Winton Cemetery, and various other areas in Merced, Modesto, and the Central Valley in general.
"We usually walk around and get a feel for it first," Tyler continued, "then we split off." When things seem strange, the team uses digital recorders and video, in addition to still photos, to see what they can find. Of primary interest is the presence of electronic voice phenomenon -- which would indicate a voice picked up on a recorder that cannot be explained by anything or anyone -- known to be in the area. On a cemetery walk hosted by the Historical Society in Modesto, Tyler says she felt something pulling on her back as she walked -- and this remains the only place the team has ever encountered EVP.
That being said, the team tries its best to be skeptical about any findings.
"Mostly we don't find much," Tyler said, and Barbara added that it's often hard to pick anything up because of wind and external noises. The team is also wary of photos, citing dust particles as a major impediment when they look for ghostly traces. Overall, Tyler said, "at cemeteries it's usually pretty quiet. People are at peace."
But that doesn't mean that the team will stop looking. "There are lots of places around that are supposed to be haunted," Barbara said, naming the original Salvation Army building and the Collins Community Hospital storage room -- which used to be a morgue -- as potential sites. Sometimes, though, it's hard to convince other people that their services are needed.
"Often people don't want us to look around," Tyler said, and fear of knowing the unknown often prevents people from enlisting the team's services.
While the team stressed that they are not involved in witchcraft, seances and the like, they still take precautions. Barbara, for example, never enters a cemetery without wearing a cross. She wears one on her hand in order to have it close at all times. Tyler lives by the team's motto: "Be safe. Be brave. Don't tread on the dead." Their Web site stresses the need for safety at all times -- both from spirits themselves and from more earthly dangers, like broken staircases and rattlesnakes. The team mainly relies on what they can see, hear, touch or smell -- and rules out anything that can be explained away by circumstances.
The circumstances themselves dictate much of what the team does. Team member Amy Trost said that many of the cemetery investigations take place at night, not because ghosts come out then, but because "there are fewer people in cemeteries at night visiting their loved ones."
Dark conditions, however, can lead to scary events. On the team's scariest investigation, in a house in Ceres, team member Meghan Gasaway remembered hearing "a noise that sounded like something hitting an RV. We couldn't reproduce it." Tyler agreed: "it sounded like something was being thrown. It could have been anything -- it was unexplained." The event is recorded on video, and appears on one of the team's many videos, available both on their website and on YouTube.
Certainly, any place has the potential for lurking spirits. Team member Kathleen Gonzalez, who considers herself agnostic but said she has had much success at reading Tarot cards, said that places like hospitals, jails, old courtrooms, and older houses "absorb things." The preponderance of ghost stories backs her up. In terms of the relative stillness of cemeteries, Gonzalez explained that not every dead person has a reason to make him or herself heard. "It's people who have unfinished business," she said, "something really traumatic happened to them and they're caught in that loop until they're released."
Most of the team members consider themselves to be Christian, and they don't claim to know what happens to people after death. For the most part, they seem to see the issue of ghosts as separate from the issue of religion -- or at least of human comprehension.
Tyler said that the importance of their work comes in a variety of forms. "Some of the importance is history, a lot is curiosity." And some, she said comes from the strangeness of personal experience -- especially at times that make one wonder, "what is that? Can I recreate it?"
And if you can't identify or recreate it, it might be time to call in the professionals.
The team tries to go out at least once per month on investigations, even if some of them are repeats. "We're learning as we go along," Tyler said. They are willing and eager to investigate houses for people who are interested. Because they are young and learning, they do not charge for investigations. More information about the group can be found at http://atwaterghost
research.webs.com. They can be contacted at atwaterghostresearch