CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's not officially on the calendar, but with air turning cool and crisp and Halloween on the way, the haunting season is upon us. Through October and sometimes into November, those little things that go bump in the night seem to suggest more than just the old house settling. The shadows gathering in the corner look deeper, darker and more menacing.
The season only begins to fade as the bags of candy go on clearance and Christmas tunes begin playing on radio. But for the Morgantown-based West Virginia Paranormal Investigations, it never ends. All year round, the group explores allegedly haunted sites around the state -- as long as their gas money holds out -- always in search of evidence that there's something out there.
Cousins Jonathan "J.J" Johnson and Rich Riley formed the group. The two grew up together in Preston County, both loving ghost stories and television shows about the paranormal, but neither knowing the other had the foggiest interest.
Johnson, who's a first-year law student at WVU, said the subject never really came up until a few years ago. They were sitting around, talking like they always had when the conversation turned to ghosts and ghost hunting. Ghost hunting reality shows were taking off on TV.
He remembered asking Riley, "You like this stuff?"
Riley, he said, sort of shrugged and said, "Yeah."
After some research and asking around, they set out to find ghosts, poltergeists and whatever loitering spirits might be out there. Johnson said there are plenty of places with a reputation for being haunted, and one of their first investigations led them to a 100-year-old farmhouse just outside of Morgantown.
"We've been out there five or six times, and something awesome always happens to us," he said.
They've seen and heard a lot, he said, from open doors that shouldn't be and inexplicable sounds to forms in the shadows. But the oddest was an encounter with the spirit of a little boy.
"He showed up on our EMF [electromagnetic field] detector," Johnson said.
Johnson and his cousin tried to interact with him. They put out toys for the ghost, then invited him to play with them.
A whispery voice called out, "But I don't want your toys."
The perils of the spirit world
WVPI will go anywhere. The group researches sites alleged to be haunted and also accept invitations to visit places believed to have spirits.
Johnson said they've explored all sorts of places in and around Morgantown. They've been to the former state penitentiary in Moundsville and the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, but they've also visited a lot of old houses and buildings.
"The locations can be the most dangerous things," Johnson said. "Spooky old houses aren't always structurally sound."
He added that while creepy feelings come with the job, he's never felt physically threatened by spirits -- just by their haunts.
They also get invited to explore locations occasionally, but not all rundown houses and buildings are infested with malevolent spirits. In fact, the group pointed out, the vast majority aren't. Hauntings are sort of rare, and they spend most of their time debunking the alleged haunts at the locations.
"About 90 percent of the time, it's something we can explain," Johnson said. "It's the angle of some kind of outside light or the way a particular place is built.
"It's a little disappointing."
The group grows
"For a long time it was just Rick and me," Johnson said. "But people started reaching out."
Membership has fluctuated during the years, but the group currently has seven official members. Not all of them go out for every investigation, but Johnson said everyone is serious about exploring the paranormal.
"We're not just going out to drink," he said, referring to other paranormal investigation groups he's heard of.
Nikki Hudson joined in August 2011. A paralegal, the 26-year-old said she grew up in a house she always thought was haunted.
"I was always interested in the paranormal," she added.
In 2009, Hudson's boyfriend was killed in a car accident. The trauma, she said, made her start to consider life after death more profoundly. Among the things Hudson did was to begin researching paranormal groups.
"I actually knew someone who'd investigated with them," she said. "But I could never catch up with them so I finally just found them online."
Hudson liked what she saw and joined the group.