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.
Jon Rogers joined in early spring, and Dave Spinks joined this past summer. Johnson refers to them as the resident skeptics in the group. Both come from military and law enforcement backgrounds.
Rogers, 29, served two years in the Navy, then spent another two years as sheriff's deputy in Norfolk, Va. Spinks, 43, was a military police officer for nine years with the Air Force, then worked as a correctional officer and federal officer for nine years before retiring to West Virginia, where he was born.
"I had a grandfather from West Virginia," said Spinks, who grew up in New Mexico. "He was a World War II vet and smoked like a freight train -- we used to visit him in the summer."
When Spinks was 15, he had a dream that his grandfather was standing over him.
"I kind of did a double take in the dream," he said. "It was pretty weird to see him there."
In the morning, Spinks said his uncle called to tell him his grandfather had died the night before.
"He'd come to see me to say goodbye."
Rogers had seen some strange things before joining the group, too.
"I had a friend whose apartment had some poltergeist activity," he said. "Doors would slam. Things would fly from shelves."
Rogers and Spinks said their law enforcement backgrounds have led to some interesting investigations.
When the group explored the prison in Moundsville, the spirits, they said, knew about them, knew they'd been police officers.
"And we tried to provoke them," Rogers said.
The pair sat in a seclusion cell taunting ghosts until finally a cell door somewhere slammed, and one of their recording devices picked up a voice that said, "They're down here."
A good sized group
Johnson said reality TV, movies and books the past couple of years have been a boom for paranormal groups, particularly in West Virginia. Some of the groups, he said, are good and seem to be approaching the field seriously and soberly. Others are just fly-by-night clubs that are more social than scientific.
"I've seen some groups come and go," he said. "You hear about them or there's a website that springs up, and then they're just gone in three months or six months."
WVPI isn't a big group, but Johnson believes there are enough people to go out and investigate without the excursion turning into an invading force.
They try to go out at least once a month, but sometimes life and work schedules get in the way.
"We get out as often as we can," he said. "We try for 20 to 30 investigations per year."
Ghost hunting gear
There's a lot of gear that comes with paranormal investigating. Some of it sounds elaborate, like the EMF detector, which aside from detecting the presence of ghosts is usually used to measure electromagnetic radiation around power sources such as power lines.
Johnson said the group also has four night vision cameras, three digital cameras and five voice recorders.
"I've spent more money than what I have on equipment," Johnson said.
They also have some low-tech gear, such as normal, everyday flashlights. These are used as a way to help the spirits "talk" to the investigators. Johnson and his team load them with batteries, then loosely connect the body and the head of the light.
Spirits, he explained, can sometimes be coaxed into using the weak connection to turn the light on and off as a way to answer simple yes or no questions.
"We have a few other toys," Johnson said.
But no "Ghostbuster" proton packs, like in the movies.
"I wish," he laughed.
Reach Bill Lynch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5195.