Wondering what happens to us after we die is one of the most-pondered mysteries of the human condition.
Are we instantly snuffed out when we pass away? Or can a spirit remain earthbound in some ghostly form, hanging around in the place where the person it was once attached to lived?
For some people, these questions lead them not only to books or religion but to paranormal investigations — better known as ghost hunting.
They get together in teams to check out reportedly haunted spaces or houses, and to investigate strange noises, cold breezes, floating orbs and apparitions in people’s homes.
They search for explanations for these weird happenings, and seek a personal connection to the great beyond.
“We believe that spirits walk the face of this Earth with us,” says Melissa Keller of Marietta, who runs a paranormal investigation team called Jott-Nyx Paranormal with her husband, Jerry.
What for many has been a weekend hobby has become a cultural phenomenon through an abundance of ghost-hunting shows on cable television.
But Lancaster County paranormal investigators are quick to explain that real ghost hunting is not what you see on television.
Television ghost-hunting shows were the genesis of Jott-Nyx Paranormal, which includes the Kellers’ nephew, Andrew Haldeman of Elizabethtown.
In 2008, Melissa Keller was regularly watching paranormal investigation shows on TV with a friend.
“And we thought, ‘How cool would this be?’ We live in an area where there is a lot of history,” she says.
“So, one night, we thought we’d get a group of people together and go out to the woods behind Chiques Creek and just go ghost-hunting for fun, until we realized we came across things we can’t explain,” Keller adds. “And we thought, ‘This isn’t just fun anymore. This is pretty interesting.’ ”
Jott-Nyx, incidentally, is a combination of an abbreviation — “just one of those things” — and Nyx, the name of the Greek goddess of the night, Melissa Keller explains.
The team of family and friends goes out on weekends to explore houses and historic sites that are said to be haunted.
The Kellers recently took over the operation of the paranormal investigation program at the historic Haldeman Mansion in Bainbridge. Public and private ghost hunts in the reportedly haunted house, which was the home of 19th-century naturalist Samuel Haldeman, raise money for the home’s ongoing restoration.
“The real world is totally different from TV,” Jerry Keller says.
Television ghost hunters film for several days, show only the scenes with the most dramatic sightings of unusual phenomena and often respond overdramatically, Melissa Keller says.
“You don’t see something every single time that we’re doing this,” Melissa Keller says. “We could be here in this mansion all night tonight and not see a single thing.”
“We want to see something,” says nephew Andrew Haldeman. “We want to get touched. We want to hear something.”
“Jerry was always our skeptic,” Melissa Keller says. “He was always the one trying to ... find reasons behind everything. And 98 percent of the time,” you can find a natural explanation for what you see.
The other 2% of the time, “you just can’t,” she adds.
“That’s our job,” Jerry Keller says. “We try to figure out what caused” a cold spot or strange light or shadowy figure to appear.
In the mansion, Haldeman says, members of their team have seen a being that’s a “white shadow, followed by a black figure that’s 7 feet tall,” its head peeking around corners at those in the house.
For other ghost hunters, like Rick Fisher of Columbia, their interest in the paranormal stemmed from a personal experience.
Fisher’s experience happened at age 7 while staying overnight at his grandparents’ home in the village of Eden.
“I got up one night and I saw a man standing out in the hallway,” Fisher says. “I thought it was my grandfather, and I said to my grandmother the next day, ‘What was Pap doing in the hallway?’ ” His grandmother told him he was seeing things.
“I saw it again” on another night, Fisher says. “It appeared to be a solid figure. I was scared, and I pulled the blankets over my head.”
Those sightings put Fisher on the path to a lifetime of supernatural investigations.
He used his money from selling newspapers to buy books on the supernatural. He eventually became a paranormal investigator and wrote the book “Ghosts of the River Towns.” He presents ghost tours in Columbia.
“I was afraid of that house,” Fisher says of his grandparents’ place. “It always stayed with me. Forty-some years later, at a Christmas party, my sister said, ‘Rick, how did you get involved in all this stuff?' I said, ‘When we stayed out at Nanny’s, I saw a man in the hallway.’ ”
His sister admitted she had seen the same thing, and had also been scared of the house.
His aunt finally told them she believed they’d seen their deceased great-grandfather. “I often saw him at the top of the stairs,” she told Fisher.
Retired Elizabethtown psychology professor John Teske says turning to paranormal investigations can prevent people from coming up with scientific, natural explanations for strange happenings in their homes.
“We have a rage to interpret and make sense of events,” Teske says.
“But there are spiritual issues about redemption, about forgiveness, about people being together... many of which are blocked (by) the worry about ghosts and apparitions and all that stuff,” Teske says.
“The natural world — science, psychology — helps us understand a lot of these things and doesn’t necessarily undercut the spiritual side of them,” he adds. “But the paranormal belief system tends to (put up) a barrier” to that understanding.
“A lot of what we do is projection,” Teske says.
It’s like the “phantom limb” pain in a missing arm, Teske says.
“The representative of your arm is still in your brain,” he says. Similarly, when the person you’ve lived with for decades has died, he says, the “representations” of them don’t go away; you think you see your loved one everywhere, and you expect to see them.
“Often when people get serious about the paranormal,” he says, it relates to “close loved ones. It can serve an important function, but if you get too into it, you’re forgetting that part of all that stuff is what you’re doing.”
It’s a projection “of the parts of you that were the other person,” such as the talents that you may have developed through them, he says.
The Rev. Brian Wayne, pastor at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Lancaster, says the Catholic Church accepts the idea that there are different kinds of spirits that can make themselves known in someone’s home.
“We have experiences of the supernatural, things that have happened,” Wayne says, “but that’s within our belief system.”
Wayne says he has been asked to come to people’s homes because they feel a presence that makes them feel “my house is haunted or possessed, and it’s scary, and it’s trying to put fear into me. ... We would see that as a demonic manifestation” that’s trying to spread “fear, doubt and discouragement.”
Demonic presences come in where they’re invited, Wayne says. “October is a popular month for that. ... People tend to be more invitational to demonic spirits” because of preparations for Halloween.
Other spirits, which might be perceived through “a knock on a wall, or when a picture moves, but it’s not scary,” could represent “a soul in purgatory, no longer bodily in this world” but which has not ascended to heaven. They need our prayers, he says.
Connections with life after death take other forms, as well.
William Stillman is a Hershey-area psychic and author who works as a consultant to the Pennsylvania Paranormal Association.
But he also does psychic readings for individuals and at group events.
“What I am doing is I am allowing myself the spiritual permission to be used as a channel on behalf of all that is right and true and good and kind,” Stillman says.
“As unbelievable as it sounds, I’m working with a team of soul energies called spirit guides,” Stillman says. “It’s a Native American concept, along the lines of a belief in a guardian angel —sort of a glorified version of a conscience.
“Working with them is very much like playing a game of charades," Stillman says. “It’s not the same as having a conversation as we are now. Because they’re originating from the heavenly realm ... they’re coming across in ways that are cryptic and iconic and symbolic.
“They are sending me mental pictures, movies, words, phrases, names, initials of names,” he says. “They are the gatekeepers for the soul energies of people’s loved ones who have passed on.”
His work involves his deep relationship with God, he says. In preparing for his readings, Stillman says, he recites the Lord’s Prayer and then goes to an antiques mall, filled with with things owned by generations of people.
Stillman says he writes down the impressions he receives on a note pad, and often finds the things he has written resonate with people in the audience at his next public reading.
What it’s about
Those who seek the paranormal here in Lancaster County continue their work, no matter how much it differs from its representation on cable television.
But Fisher says he doesn’t do as many paranormal investigations in homes as he used to.
“Because of all the reality shows that are on TV, people hear a noise” and figure they’ll call a ghost hunter, he says.
While he’s approaching a home as a serious investigator, Fisher says, he often finds a “carnival atmosphere” when he arrives. “They’ve invited their cousins over. They want to be able to tell people they had a ghost hunter at their house.
“That’s not what it’s about,” he adds.
“There’s different kinds of hauntings wherever you go,” Melissa Keller says. In the Haldeman Mansion, “it’s kind of like residual haunts. And that is, (the spirits) have lived here for so long, they get up and do the same routine, even in their death, and we just happen to catch what they’re doing.
“They don’t know they’re dead,” she says. “They haven’t crossed over.”