Who ya gonna call? Local Ghost Hunters look for things that go bump in the night

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Viewed the normal way, Lathrop House is the hometown Mount Vernon, the residence of San Mateo County’s first assessor-clerk-recorder, Benjamin Lathrop. Stately and ornate, this Steamboat Gothic-style mansion today commands a can’t-miss-it location in downtown Redwood City following a May move to a spot behind the county history museum. Once exhibits are created and furniture gets moved back in, Lathrop House will put out the welcome mat again for visitors.

But viewed the paranormal way? Could it be that there’s more than meets the eye to this house with many gables, this landmark that has been uprooted from its final resting place and relocated three times? If those walls could talk, would they be telling ghost stories?

To those who have done paranormal “investigations” at Lathrop House, the idea that it’s animated by departed spirits is not at all farfetched.

“There’s a lot of places that are haunted that stay very quiet for decades,” says Jim Martin of Redwood City, who has been doing after-dark investigations at Lathrop House for several years. Then someone decides to renovate, he continues, and “all of a sudden, things start happening because somebody has come in and upset what they still consider their home, their place. … I’d really be interested in getting back into Lathrop pretty soon now that they’ve moved it because that’s going to be a really interesting investigation to find out what effect this has had on that location.”

Julie Eckert of San Mateo, who has had psychic abilities and experiences all her life, visits Lathrop House one or two times a month and got recordings of spirit voices from under the house during the recent move. “My favorite place seems to be Lathrop House,” she says. “I don’t know why. … But I feel attached to the spirits there. I feel that they’re attached to me.”

The two friends are among a small community of people who are involved in paranormal exploration, often independent of others and with differing goals. Martin, 57, who has been involved in various businesses over the years, got into the field after watching the “Ghost Adventures” program on the Travel Channel about eight years ago and became increasingly fascinated. Through a “meet-up” up group in San Jose, he was able to participate in his first investigation.

He began to buy his own cameras and recording, lighting, and other ghost-documenting equipment and learned the computer skills to do editing.  Martin “bit the bullet” and bought broadcast-level cameras and ended up launching his own livestreaming network, the Spirit Realm Network (www.thespiritrealm.net), which is “basically anything paranormal, metaphysical or esoteric, being that big umbrella. … I’m really just a reporter. I just want to be there with my camera and my microphone and hear what has to be said. What’s going on? What do these entities want us to know? Why are they still hanging around?” The network, which is free to viewers but has advertisers and sponsors, has live programming every night. Followers are from around the world, especially from the Midwest and Canada.

Eckert, 59, a flight attendant, was brought up Catholic and “my entire life I was raised to believe this (the paranormal) exists.” Unlike Martin, when spirits are present, she gets strong indications — where energy is in the room or a feeling of air caught in her throat. “Everything starts to open up and amplify for me” right before a planned investigation, Eckert says.

It was Martin who first approached Helen Cocco, the president of the Redwood City Heritage Association, which operates Lathrop House as a museum; about being allowed to do investigations. Cocco, 88, was hesitant at first and told him it needed to be limited in size and kept private. “I didn’t want anybody off the street,” she says. Cocco charges $250 for a group or $50 per person, which goes to support operations.  She plans to continue to welcome legitimate, knowledgeable investigators after the museum reopens.

The groups, usually five or six people, arrive at 5 p.m. or 6 p.m.  and stay until about 10 p.m. Cocco makes coffee and dessert and sits in the kitchen with a friend and “chitchats.” Meanwhile, the investigators go through the house to see if they feel “energy.” They use their equipment and recorders to pick up messages from the beyond. Often not much happens. If the investigators get a response, they ask the entity questions such as its name and whether it lives in the house or is just visiting.

There are two kinds of hauntings, in the ghost-hunting world: residual and intelligent. Residual energy is a “playback of past events,” according to Melissa Martin Ellis’s “The Everything Ghost Hunting Book,” such as apparitions that appear repeatedly. Intelligent hauntings, on the other hand, are ghosts who “have not crossed over,” linger for various reasons and may interact.

Intelligent hauntings are obviously more engaging. Both Martin and Eckert say the most common replies they pick up from the other world are “get out” and a profane “f— you.”

One theory, Martin explains, is that “They see the house and they see us as ghosts … like we’re invading their space just as they come in and invade our space. A lot of times, they don’t know they’ve passed on. They’re clinging to this place and it’s like, ‘Why are these people in my house?’”

There’s nothing as convincing as recorded “proof,” but to the uninitiated, the wispy images on video are nothing like encountering an actual Caspar. Similarly, listening to a recording of an “electronic voice phenomenon,” or EVP, can be like straining for ocean sounds by putting a seashell to one’s ear.

“They’re never going to come up to you and appear like we appear,” says Martin, who has a video of a “little creature” he photographed at Lathrop House. “ …. They don’t look like real people. They look like energy in the form of a mist.” Investigators have repeatedly seen “shadow play” on the Lathrop House stairway and heard footsteps, Eckert says.

Cocco, who is a Catholic, hasn’t heard voices or seen spirits during the investigations, but one night she was sitting with a group of about a dozen investigators when “all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the table where I was sitting beside moved. It made like a half-turn. … It definitely moved, absolutely.”

Nevertheless, she remains a skeptic. “While I am not a total believer, I had some second thoughts,” she says. “I’m in the middle of the road. I’m not a total believer — but I’ve seen this happen.”

Both Martin and Eckert say they’ve seen paranormal manifestations that were startling, as well as some that were more unsettling.

“I’ve been grabbed on my arm where I felt fingers digging in with two other people standing right near me,” says Eckert. “And that freaked me out. It was one of my first experiences and I almost quit investigating after that. … Then I realized it was probably just a grumpy spirit that just was trying to freak me out knowing he could.”

Years ago, while cleaning up after-hours at a café at the Half Moon Bay Airport, Martin says he saw a ramekin spiral two feet in the air and land about 10 feet away. “It didn’t scare the crap out of me for some reason.”  Later, though, he did an investigation at an old inn in the Midwest which had been built on sacred Indian land. All of a sudden, a girl next to him cried out as three little plumes appeared on her arm, swelling up like a tribal brand. “That was the worst I’ve ever seen,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of scratches, most on people’s backs.”

That is one reason why investigations should be done in pairs, Martin says. Visiting rundown, abandoned locations alone is inherently riskier, but “some of this can actually turn demonic,” he adds. “And people get sort of possessed. It’s not the safest thing for a single person.”

So are investigators playing with fire?

Martin, who attends a Christian church in Redwood City, says that’s a common question and one he has wrestled with. He believes he has not been attacked because he is protected by his faith, and communicating with spirits reinforces his belief that they must be speaking from a kind of purgatory. “It’s more reaffirmed my belief,” he says. “It hasn’t taken me away from anything. If anything, it has added to it.”

People nowadays generally aren’t skeptical about supernatural phenomenon the way they once were, according to Martin and Eckert.  “It’s just a matter of I guess whether you’ve had an experience or not,” she says. “I think the people who haven’t had one say it’s not true.” Clearly not in that category, she finds investigations “the most fascinating thing in the world, to be able to have someone talk to you who you can’t see. To me, it’s one of the most exciting things out there that proves to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that that does exist and that these people do exist. And I’m just curious to see what evidence you can get (on her recordings.)”

Perhaps surprisingly, Redwood City’s Civil War-era Union Cemetery isn’t the happy haunting ground one might assume it would be. “Reports of haunted cemeteries are much less common than those of specter-plagued houses,” according to author Ellis.

Ellen Crawford, president of the Historic Union Cemetery Association, has ushered a half dozen investigation groups through the cemetery on Woodside Road over the years. Nobody she has observed has seemed to find much. One group brought a box that “just sort of spewed out words,” one of which was allegedly “teacher.”  Crawford took them to the grave of James Van Court, a music teacher and photographer. “They felt something warm on the ground,” she says.  She didn’t.

Nonetheless, Crawford doesn’t disparage their efforts, figuring that if the spirits at Union Cemetery are conscious and communicating, “They are happy to have us here … I have a warm, fuzzy feeling for these people.”

Union Cemetery volunteers plan a Halloween-themed tour of the cemetery, tentatively scheduled for 10 a.m. Oct. 26. “We don’t do spooky stuff,” Crawford says. “We do gruesome stuff,” which means a blood-and-guts recounting of some of the gorier Union Cemetery deaths that made the pages of early-day Redwood City newspapers. For information, go to historicunioncemetery.com.

This story was originally published in the October print edition of Climate Magazine.