It was a dark and stormy night when the St. Louis Ghost Hunters first investigated the haunted house in Lake St. Louis. From the outside it seemed an ordinary dwelling on a quiet cul-de-sac, a small three-bedroom built into the side of a hill. But for nearly six years, a nasty spirit had been tormenting the owner, Nicole Weisman.
"The noises had always been there," Weisman recalls. "I put them off as nothing. But then I started getting feelings of ickiness. I got really bad nightmares all the time. I slept with a knife. I just felt scared. I'd sit in one room and see things out of the corner of my eye. I had an armoire in the bedroom, and in the bathroom mirror I'd see the door open on its own. I never got touched, but something would sit at the foot of my bed."
One day, Lindsey Piech, a coworker at Kennelwood Pet Resort in St. Peters, mentioned that she had started up a ghost-hunting group.
"I told her, 'As soon as I move out of my house, you can look at it,'" Weisman continues. "I thought they'd just practice with their equipment. Lindsey asked me a whole bunch of questions, and the last one was, 'Do you think your house is haunted?' I was quiet. I didn't want to say yes. Lindsey said, 'I know by the pause.' She knows me pretty well."
On that rainy January night, Piech and her colleagues Eric Bequette, Jen Leggett and Adam Gummersheimer, invited a psychic named Vicki Main to help with the investigation. The Ghost Hunters usually don't work with psychics, but they'd met Main during an appearance on RiverfrontRadio, a local online radio station, and were curious to see how she might handle a haunting.
The Ghost Hunters make audio and video recordings of all their probes — they believe electronic equipment can pick up things that the naked eye and ear cannot — and the first visit to the Lake St. Louis house was no exception.
Main had previously determined that the spirit was named Thomas and that he abhorred music, particularly Weisman's guitar playing. When he was alive, sometime in the 1800s, he lived in a farmhouse on the same plot of land.
First, the psychic and the investigators checked out the master bedroom. Main held up her dowsing rods, two L-shaped metal wands with metal casings around the hand grips so they could spin independently. An infrared video camera recorded what happened next.
On the video, Piech commands: "Make yourself known." The rods start to spin so violently they nearly strike Main in the face.
"We're going to ask you questions," Bequette tells the spirit. "The right rod means 'yes,' and the left wand means 'no.' Do you like Nicole?"
The left wand turns decisively away from Main.
"Did you like the people who lived here before?"
"Did you do bad things to children?" (Later, Bequette won't remember how he thought to ask that question. "It came into my head like it was already there.")
"Are you sorry?"
A speck of light darts across the video screen, and the camera pans to an infrared thermometer, which shows an abrupt drop in temperature.
"It was all more credible because of the other activity," Piech says afterward. "We all felt the swirling energy and the cold and had weird physical ailments."
"I got a headache behind my eye," says Leggett. "I was standing outside the bedroom, and suddenly it was like migraine strength."
"There was a weird pressure in the house," Piech goes on. "It was like someone was pushing on my shoulders. I felt it through my whole body."
"It was like something sitting on my lap," Bequette adds. "There was this bizarre coldness on me that lasted about five minutes."
"It molested me!" Leggett complains. "Every picture Eric took of me, there was something on my boobs."
The Ghost Hunters spent several weeks reviewing their audio and video footage, looking for light abnormalities and EVPs, or electronic voice phenomena. "We find most of our evidence while reviewing," Bequette explains.
By mid-March the team had discovered nearly a dozen questionable pieces of audio, in addition to the video of the interrogation and the streak of light. That's an unusual amount of activity for one night.
"We're very skeptical," Bequette explains. "We're there to find out what's happening in the room, regardless of if it's paranormal. We want to give our clients peace of mind. But you could also argue, if we put twenty hours into an investigation and didn't find anything, where's our fun?"
"[Weisman's house] was one of the most awesome nights we ever had," Piech says.
"Stuff was actually happening," Bequette agrees.
The house, they decided, definitely warranted another visit. They invited Weisman to join them and play her guitar to rile Thomas up.
Weisman was game but refused to look at the evidence the Ghost Hunters had assembled. "I have a vivid enough imagination," she says. "I don't want the nightmares to come back. I want to feel normal."
She also has some qualms about inadvertently committing real estate fraud. "Do I tell the new owners?" she asks. "Should I disclose this? Would they think I was crazy?"
Depending on which poll you consult, between one-third and one-half of all Americans believe in ghosts.
For the St. Louis Ghost Hunters, a "ghost" is less often the soul of a dead person wandering the earth than the manifestation of that person's energy. Certain actions get repeated so often, they become "imprinted" on a room.
"The energy has stayed in the house," Bequette explains. "It's nothing to worry about. It's like a recording of Grandpa sitting in his chair. I've been in places where I could smell a cigar."
Most energy, though, is rarely strong enough to transform itself into a visible figure. Instead, it forms balls of light called "orbs" (or what Leggett insists on calling "light abnormalities") or sucks energy from other sources in the room, which causes a cold spot.
Sometimes it's just a lingering emotion. "At Nicole's house, I felt so sad," Leggett remembers. "It was overwhelming. I started crying. Whatever was there took over. I couldn't control myself."
But the Ghost Hunters consider what they call "personal experiences" less valuable than empirical scientific evidence of paranormal activity. Hence their dependence on electronic recordings and tools like the infrared thermometer and the electromagnetic field, or EMF, detector called the Ghost Meter. It measures the energy that comes off electrical wiring and can be purchased on the Internet. "You can't go back to the client and say, 'Well, my gut says...'" explains Leggett.
Most latter-day ghost hunters, including the St. Louis group, use the methods popularized by the television show Ghost Hunters, which airs on the Syfy channel. (It has spawned two spinoffs, Ghost Hunters International and Ghost Hunters Academy, as well as an imitator on A&E called Paranormal State.) The program features the members of the Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS), led by Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, two plumbers from Rhode Island. (They've since retired from Roto-Rooter to pursue paranormal investigation full-time.)
The TAPS team travels throughout the country measuring temperature and EMF levels in famous haunted spots such as Alcatraz; the Lizzie Borden house in Fall River, Massachusetts; and the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, supposedly the inspiration for Stephen King's The Shining. They haven't been to the Lemp Mansion yet, though it's long been rumored that they're planning a visit.
Unlike the TV group, the St. Louis team prefers to explore private residences. They consider their primary loyalty to people whose lives are affected by paranormal activity. As Piech says, "This isn't a game; this is serious. Nicole didn't want to see the evidence because this is her real life." Also, they don't have enough equipment to stake out larger locations.
Bequette, Leggett and Piech have been working together for a little more than a year. All are in their early thirties and have regular day jobs. Bequette is married and has two children. They'd all had a long-standing interest in the supernatural but found that other groups in the area didn't take ghost-hunting as seriously as they did.
"I was with one group that did an investigation of Zombie Road [in Wildwood]," Piech remembers. "We were walking up and down the road in the dark all night, but afterward I didn't hear from them."
Gummersheimer, a nineteen-year-old college student, joined the group a few months later, after he wrote an article about them for his high school paper.
For the past six months the St. Louis Ghost Hunters have been booked solid. They stake out locations every other Saturday night and spend the downtime in between going over the evidence they've collected. "Reviewing evidence is a cure for insomnia," Leggett jokes. "But in sixteen hours, if we catch five minutes of great stuff, it's all worth it."
Of course, not all the activity is paranormal. "Debunking can be just as exciting," Bequette claims. "Once the light from the camera was causing a shadow from a plastic bag. It took us ten minutes to figure that out."
For onsite debunking, the most useful tool is the EMF detector.
"[High EMF] makes you feel like someone's watching or touching you," Bequette explains. "At one site, a pipe in the basement was used to ground all the electricity in the house. The EMF was 160-something. Normal is .5. Of course if you're sleeping in a bed above that, you're going to see things."
Once the EMF scanners detected a hidden cache of sex toys.
The Ghost Hunters don't claim to be exorcists. "Sometimes," says Piech, "getting rid of a ghost is as simple as telling it to leave." But they also refer their clients to psychics, and Leggett has made contact with a Catholic priest. (The Church requires each archdiocese to keep a trained exorcist on staff.)
They also work for free. "Ghost Hunters set the bar," Piech explains. "They don't charge. Every field has a code of ethics. If we don't find something, do our clients pay less?"
Not all the clients have been impressed with the group's work. Ray Derousse's house in Affton was the site of one of the first investigations.
"I've been friends with Eric for years," Derousse says. "I had disturbances. He knew about them, and I let them try my house, just to see. But I'm kind of a skeptic."
The "disturbances" in Derousse's house included doors that opened, lights that switched on and off by themselves and strange thumping noises in empty rooms. Once, while looking into a mirror, he saw an apparition float from the dining room into the kitchen. "It really did throw me off," he admits. "The lights weren't on, and I could see the figure move across.
"A buddy and his wife and their little girl lived in the spare bedroom a few years ago," Derousse continues. "One night they saw the little girl's toy chest floating in the air. I don't know what to make of that. They didn't stay much longer."
Over the course of three visits, the Ghost Hunters reported only personal experiences, nothing they could document. "I let them in my house and went out drinking," Derousse reports. "I got hammered. I didn't want to be around. I came home at 1 a.m. They were getting all sorts of readings on their gizmos, but as soon as I walked in the door, it all stopped. Maybe I'm the boss of the ghosts: They obey me.
"Here's my question," he goes on. "We have video equipment. It's been around forever. Wouldn't we have caught something by now? Is God going to let people wander around in the afterlife haunting people? What kind of God is that? Eric says they're troubled souls. I say, 'Why can't God help them?' People interested in this phenomenon aren't thinking logically. A large part of the population gets off on things that give them chills."
Bequette shrugs off the criticism. "In the past, I've gotten calls from Ray saying, 'Oh my God, there was someone in my house last night.' He refuses to believe something's going on."
On the last Saturday night of March, the Ghost Hunters trek out to Lake St. Louis armed with two padded briefcases and a large plastic tub full of equipment, several camp chairs and enough junk food to get them through the night. Nicole Weisman comes too, carrying her guitar.
Since the last visit, Weisman has moved all the furniture to her new apartment. She hasn't noticed any disturbances there, but just in case, she did a thorough energy cleansing, burning sage around all the windows and scattering the burned ashes on the front porch.
It's a clear evening, but the team keeps checking weather reports for rain; the spirits seem more active when there's water nearby. On a rainy afternoon a few weeks ago, Weisman and her husband visited the house to do some last-minute cleaning. As Weisman vacuumed the closet in the master bedroom, she heard a loud thud, as though someone had slammed a fist into the wall. She's refused to go back since.
It takes nearly two hours for the Ghost Hunters to set up their equipment. They've brought four infrared video cameras, which they've mounted in the master bedroom, the basement and the front hall and connected to a DVR and a laptop.
On the kitchen counter, they spread out the rest of their tools: eight digital audio recorders, eight EMF testers, two infrared thermometers, four flashlights covered in red cellophane, two digital cameras, a portable video camera and a plastic sewing box filled with hundreds of AA batteries. (Supernatural entities are a real drain on battery power.)
While the team positions their cameras, audio recorders and EMF scanners, Weisman perches on a folding chair, tunes up her guitar and starts to sing: Jewel's "Who Will Save Your Soul" and a new acoustic arrangement she'd just worked up of the Jackson Five's "I Want You Back." She's an accomplished guitar player with a pleasant alto voice. It's unclear what aspects of her performance Thomas the ghost objects to.
Piech peers at the laptop screen set up on the kitchen counter. "Look at that!" she says, pointing at the quadrant of the screen that shows the basement. "It looks like there's a disco ball down there."
Bequette runs a hand through his spiky black hair. "There should be an explanation for that." The general consensus among the team members is that it's probably dust. But Bequette's more concerned about the upstairs bedroom and bathroom. "While I was in the bathroom, I felt something."
Finally, just after 8 p.m., the Ghost Hunters turn off the furnace and the lights and head down to the basement. Weisman stands between Leggett and Piech and clutches her guitar.
"Did you like that music, Thomas?" Piech taunts. "We brought your friend Nicole back tonight. She missed you. If you don't do something, she's gonna play."
Normally, the team likes to let the ghosts talk first, but since they've met Thomas before, they feel comfortable calling for him. But Thomas stays quiet.
Weisman starts strumming her guitar, simple songs with three chords that she can hit in the dark. Leggett and Piech prowl the room with thermometers in search of the draft that might be blowing dust around and creating the disco-light effect. Almost immediately they feel something cold.
"It's not the door," Leggett says. "I was just by the door."
Piech hurries over and waves her hand around. The air, she confirms, definitely feels colder. "Come feel this!" she calls to Weisman. Weisman approaches cautiously. Gummersheimer records it all on video, and Bequette snaps photos with the digital camera.
"There's some sparkly shit in the flash," he reports.
"Sweet!" Leggett crows. "It's Twilight!"
Bequette continues to peer at the digital camera's tiny screen. "There's something on your shoulder," he informs Weisman.
"Is it my capo?" she asks, showing him the neck of her guitar.
"No," he says. "It was something more." He tilts the camera so she can see, and indeed, there seems to be a bright spot floating in the air above her right shoulder, though no one is sure whether it's an orb, a dust mote or an insect.
"Right now, my knees are just freaking out," Weisman confesses. She leans against the wall for support.
Just as suddenly as it appeared, the cold spot vanishes. The team waits impatiently for something else to happen, passing time by shouting insults at Thomas. "Come on, you sick pedophile!" Leggett yells. Perhaps understandably, Thomas does not respond.
"Maybe he's upstairs," Gummersheimer finally suggests.
The expedition moves to the master bedroom. "Do you need energy?" Bequette calls to Thomas. "Use some of mine. Move stuff around. Make noise."
Leggett ventures inside the closet, where Weisman heard the loud thump. "Touch me," she orders. "Pull my hair." Nothing happens.
"Take pictures of the bathroom door," Piech tells Bequette. "I'm feeling some activity."
But it only turns out to be a draft from the window.
"Debunked!" Leggett announces cheerfully.
"I'm not feeling so good," Weisman says, clutching her stomach. "I feel heavy." She decides it's time to go home.
The Ghost Hunters escort her to the front door and then take a look at the footage from Gummersheimer's video camera.
"There's this light around Nicole," Piech says. Bequette holds up his digital camera for comparison. He, too, picked up some white circles around Weisman's head and a possible orb in a picture of Piech. ("It almost looks like there's a face in that!") He won't be able to tell for sure, though, until he looks at the photos on a computer screen.
At 9:30 p.m. the group takes a break and compares physical symptoms.
"When I walked into the bedroom, I got dizzy," says Leggett.
"When I asked it to take my energy, I felt lightheaded," Bequette reports.
"Maybe Nicole's stomach pains were psychosomatic," Leggett suggests. "She was very tense." Leggett also has stomach pains but attributes hers to a toxic combination of chocolate, raspberry licorice and cherry Coke.
The monitor still shows the disco lights spinning downstairs in the basement. Bequette frowns. "Dust doesn't shoot up into the air like that."
Wonders Gummersheimer: "Maybe all the activity before had to do with something in the house."
"Did we tell it to leave last time?" Bequette asks.
"We felt something earlier," Piech argues.
"Maybe it was something else? I didn't want to say this while Nicole was here," Bequette continues, "but I had a thought that Thomas might be buried beneath the house."
"Do you think he was murdered?" Leggett asks.
"Nah, I think he died old and lonely and miserable," Bequette replies. "There's a creepy feeling in the bedroom and basement. I wouldn't want to live in this house."
The frequency of noises, orbs and cold spots dramatically diminishes after Weisman's departure. The Ghost Hunters hang on for a few more hours. They visit the master bedroom again and spend some more time in the basement, even though the disco lights down there have stopped spinning. At one point, they hear a loud thump, but determine it was either a car door slamming outside or a camera falling over.
Shortly after midnight, Piech asks, "Are you guys ready to call it a night?" Leggett yawns in agreement.
By the following Friday, they've had a chance to review all the audio and most of the video. Gummersheimer, who watched the DVR footage, has concluded that most of the flying bits of light actually were dust, though in a shot where the investigators are feeling the cold spot, it looks like something is flying across the screen.
Bequette, Leggett and Piech found a few questionable things on the audio. A recorder in the basement utility room picked up some loud thuds from a time when the team was upstairs in the master bedroom, sitting quietly. The same recorder also may have picked up a few EVPs.
"The first one I can't quite make out," Bequette says. "But Jen thought it said, 'Hi.' The other one, it sounds like someone's saying, 'This is our house.' Jen heard something similar, but Lindsey can't make it out. The last one, Lindsey's talking in a hillbilly voice, but you can hear something underneath it like 'crazy people.' They're not the best we've gotten, but they're still pretty clear."
They've reconsidered the thump they'd previously attributed to a car door. Now they're not so sure the noise came from the street. On the recorder, it sounded loud enough to have come from inside the house.
"It's weird," Bequette reflects. "When we left, I didn't think we had anything. Lindsey wants to go back and try one last time. The two nights we were there were so different; it's hard to know which was typical. I believe there's something there, but only because of the first time."
Such is life for a ghost hunter: one night you hear a noise, the next night, everything's quiet. Besides, even if you did find a ghost, how would you know?
Muses Bequette: "I'm skeptical, even of myself."