If you believe in ghosts, you will find them. You'll hear them in leaky pipes, see them through dusty camera lenses, and feel them breathing down your goose-pimpled neck. They feed on your fear, growing more powerful as your paranoia intensifies.
My first paranormal investigation took place at Wolcott Mills in Faribault, Minnesota, on a bitter October night. I was a novice reporter — a 22-year-old English major who landed a job with my school paper — and I longed for a story outside of the University. I contacted local paranormal groups, set up two investigations, and, of course, slated the story for Halloween.
The hunt began at a Faribault A&W, where I quelled my fears with chili cheese fries and listened to Jerry Ayres, the leader of the Supernatural Investigators of Minnesota, recount the site's history.
Wolcott Mills burned to the ground on November 3, 1895, after which the land was purchased by the Faribault State Hospital and used as a training ground for patients deemed competent enough to learn agricultural skills. The abandoned site is now home to a handful of crumbling buildings and a cemetery where patients and their children are buried.
After filling our stomachs, we got in our separate cars and drove another 15 minutes outside of town. Ayres pulled into an empty lot facing a patch of woods. A five-minute walk through the trees brought us to the abandoned State Hospital buildings.
Ayres split us into two groups. My group started in the building nearest the path, where we found little more than bottles of urine and a dog food bowl, and crude outlines of genitalia spraypainted on the walls. When our groups reconvened, Ayres pulled out a small black handheld recorder and began questioning the paranormal entities.
"Is anyone here?" he asked. "Would you like to make contact with us? We're not here to hurt you."
I felt the temperature drop. My physical state was rapidly deteriorating. I was shaking, then sniffling, then tearing up, then sobbing, and I didn't know why.
"Emily, when I say 'now,' say the first word that pops into your head," Ayres instructed me. "Now."
My brain cleared and the emotions faded. I couldn't remember why I was crying.
A reporter from the Southern Minnesota Scene was also present during the investigation. He later wrote, "Call me jealous, or call me a skeptic, but I'm not personally convinced we're witnessing a paranormal interaction. I'm more apt to believe that this young woman is having an empathetic reaction to her surroundings."
It's been one year since I sobbed next to piss jugs and graffitied penises at Wolcott Mills, and I'm not entirely convinced my experience was paranormal either. With a newfound sense of skepticism, I set off on three more investigations, culminating in a return trip to Faribault.
Private Residence: Mankato, Minnesota
I'm turning a borrowed St. Francis of Assisi pendant over in my hands in the backseat of paranormal investigator Jenny Melton's car on our way to Wakefield, Minnesota. Braden Jeunesse, the quiet but commanding leader of Twin Cities Paranormal Society, is in the passenger seat and we are on our way to conduct an investigation at a private residence, the owners of which wish to remain anonymous.
Jeunesse is recounting his birthday bar-hopping antics from the night before, occasionally turning around to answer my questions. During the day, he works at a corporate banking office based in the Twin Cities. For most paranormal investigators, ghost hunting is a weekend hobby. Once or twice a month, Jeunesse conducts paranormal investigations at businesses and private residences, free of charge.
Each investigation starts with a preliminary interview. In this case, Jeunesse and Melton drove 80 miles to Mankato to speak to the family and tour their home. Now they're driving back for the second time to conduct the actual investigation. In the coming weeks, they'll return once more, first to consult with the local historical society and then to deliver the final report to the family. All of the gas money comes out of their own pockets.
In order for a new member to join TCPS, another member first has to leave. The organization has a long waitlist, and worthy applicants are subjected to lengthy interview processes and training periods, during which they're taught how to set up video equipment, use K-2 meters to measure electromagnetic waves, and interpret EVPs, or electronic voice phenomena.
Melton is the most recent addition to the group. As a child, she lived in an active house outside of Washington, D.C.
"I couldn't watch TV in my room because every single time, it would automatically go up full blast... I would hear scratches on my window. Rocking chairs would move. We had an organ in the room next to me and I would wake up in the middle of the night and that would be playing," she says. "As I got older and a couple friends passed away, both of them came to me. My fear just kind of turned into fascination."
I want to believe her. I'm desperate for evidence against the sterility of the scientific age. But going into a paranormal investigation convinced that spiritual entities exist increases your likelihood of finding proof — or, if you're a rationalist, of misinterpreting neutral environmental feedback. Part of me knows this. The other part doesn't give a shit.
The Mankato family's one-story rambler is veiled by a thin layer of fog when we approach. Eerie weather conditions aside, it's a fairly average American home. A well-loved basketball hoop takes up one corner of the driveway, a retired RV is banked in the other. The father of the five-member family answers the door dressed like a Little League coach with a red t-shirt tucked into swishy sweatpants. He quickly leads us to his wife — a snappy Leave It to Beaver type with strong maternal vibes — so he can return to the living room for the Vikings game.
As Jeunesse and Melton plant infrared cameras around the house, I join the family on their tan, remote-controlled reclining couches and inquire about their history with paranormal activity.
"About two years ago, we started putting things together," the mother explains. "The kids and I have always watched shows like The Haunting, the different ghost hunting shows out there, and then we just started putting things together. Like why did that light just come on? Why are the doors getting shut? What's that knocking? Things like that. It would touch the bottom of [my husband's] feet, walk up [my daughter]. [My son] sometimes sees shadows."
Two things to look for when talking to people with claims of paranormal activity are symptoms of schizophrenia and a love for ghost-hunting reality shows. The former is self-explanatory. The latter often means someone is either looking too far into things or for a chance to get on TV.
Everyone in the family has ghost stories to tell, and though my gut tells me they've fabricated everything, it's hard to believe that all of them — kids included — could be in on such a consistent and elaborate lie.
The stories are endless. The most striking are those of the paranormal "attacks" inflicted on the 15-year-old son.
"My son has been physically attacked three times with scratches," the mother explains. "The first time it happened, my son and daughter and I were all sleeping in my daughter's room. She and I were in the bed and my son was on the floor on an air mattress. We all got snuggled in, then all of a sudden my son goes, 'Ow.' He has this really great hunting flashlight, so I snapped it on and it lights up the whole room and my daughter goes, 'Oh my gosh, he's got scratches.'"
She says she instructed her son to leave the room. He ran to the living room and his mother and sister followed. While the family had their backs turned, the boy was supposedly attacked again, and this time the spirit punctured his skin.
The third attack was a separate incident. While the 15-year-old boy was lying in bed, the covers were purportedly pulled off. He put his arm up, and the spirit scratched him three times.
"It was pretty bed," his mother said. "He's got a scar from it."
I ask to see a picture. The father walks over with his iPhone and shows me a photo of the third attack, looking away to catch a few seconds of the Vikings game.
Each scratch is composed of three separate marks. They appear to be razor blade cuts.
When Jeunesse and Melton finish setting up the cameras, we head to the basement, where the family says the ghosts play with their punching bag, swinging it in circles at random. The ceiling is covered with flattened Mountain Dew boxes, a father-son project. They take a moment to complain about the stray Pepsi box a friend added to the mix.
We turn off the lights. Jeunesse explains that the first 10 minutes are spent in complete silence, to acquaint ourselves with the environment. If we whisper, cough, or have a rumbling stomach, we must announce it into the voice recorder so it isn't mistaken for an EVP when they transcribe their recordings.
The K-2 meters are turned on. The flashlights are set loosely unscrewed, so spirits can "play" with them. During the silent period, the flashlight blinks on and off. I'll later research the tactic and learn that the flashlight trick usually results from the heating and cooling cycles within the light.
When the 10 minutes are up, the questions begin. The temperature drops by a few degrees and the K-2 meter occasionally blinks. A faint knocking is heard upstairs. The flashlight flickers randomly, which is interpreted as yes and no answers to the investigators' questions.
We go through the same process in the living room, the master bedroom, and the daughter's room.
Our last stop is the 15-year-old boy's room. Admittedly, I get bad vibes, partially because his stories are the most outrageous but mostly because I'm concerned about his potential self-harming tendencies. Five minutes into the silent period, I fall asleep.
Farrar Elementary School: Farrar, Iowa
Farrar, Iowa is home to a school house, a cemetery, and a dwindling population of 30 people, most of whom live on farms along sprawling cornfields. There is nothing to do in Farrar, save for milking cows, harvesting corn, and getting the shit scared out of you by the ghost of a spiteful janitor in the old school house's boiler room.
Farrar Elementary is an isolated, three-story structure marked only by a blue sign at the head of a gravel driveway. A small cemetery sits parallel to the school, but other than that, it's just cornfield and a patch of trees.
Nancy and Jim Oliver purchased Farrar Elementary in 2006, unaware of what was in store for them. One night, Nancy became unsteady on the stairwell leading to the gymnasium. A hand reached out and grabbed her shoulder to support her. Thinking it was her husband, she claims to have turned around to thank him, only to find the ghost of a small boy standing in the upper part of the staircase. In 2007, a psychic visited the school and reportedly confirmed that Farrar Elementary was haunted.
The Olivers saw a business opportunity in their haunted house and began charging between $210 and $260 for up to six guests per night. Since then, the school has been visited by dozens of paranormal groups and other interested parties, including My Ghost Story, Fox News, and Corey Taylor of Slipknot.
The owners had originally planned to revamp the decaying school, but one look at Farrar Elementary suggests they halted their efforts as soon as they realized they could capitalize on the building's fear factor. The walls of the school are blanketed in black mold and, in the principal's office, we found a bloody napkin in a desk drawer. For ghost hunters who can't stay awake for all-night investigations, the Olivers offer a mildewy break room with two tattered couches, a chair, and an unsettling charcoal drawing of a shadowy figure in a stairwell.
During our three-and-a-half-hour drive to Farrar, City Pages' art director Emily Utne and I recount our own ghost stories, swallow truck stop caffeine pills, and speculate about what the night might hold for us, unintentionally creating a scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre by blasting classic rock in her boyfriend's hippie van through miles of desolate cornfield.
When we arrive, the group gathers in the first classroom visible from the main staircase. We're joined by six members of Midwestern Outer Realm Followers, a paranormal group that was founded by Eric J. Moen, a frazzled man with wispy brown hair, a tucked-in button down, and a set of chunky headphones around his neck.
Moen's personal preference is historically haunted places, he tells us. "We don't like home investigations because it's our word against theirs," he says. "We're not professionals. We're not psychiatrists. We can't diagnose. Ninety-five percent of the time, there's a mental illness or wiring problem or drug problem."
Though most groups conduct investigations for free, Moen says competition still exists — for the best investigations, for members, for attention, and for reputation.
"There's flowery crap about paranormal unity and all this stuff, but let's be real about this: We all want the best investigations."
Moen collects our money and instructs another member to pass out the waivers the Olivers require each guest to sign, protecting them from legal action should any accidents occur in the school.
We split into two groups and turn the lights off "for effect." Utne and I accompany Moen upstairs.
My palms are sweating. I panic whenever my cohorts move more than five feet away from me. Whether or not ghosts are present, the schoolhouse is terrifying, made even more so by the children's toys strewn throughout the building. Since some claim the building is haunted by child spirits, the owners position toys next to "X's" duct-taped to the floor, with the idea that investigators will be able to tell if any of them are moved during the hunt.
The unsteady auditorium floor moans with each step. The carpet is covered in round, ambiguous stains and a teddy bear sits in the center of the stage. I choose a spot on the ground with my back to the stage to prevent anything lurking in the darkness from creeping up behind me. During the 10-minute silent period, I realize how easy it is to mistake grumbling stomachs and passing headlights for paranormal activity. The longer I sit, the less I fear the dark.
Nothing happens. Our group switches places with the one downstairs, and Utne and I follow Moen to the basement.
During our second 10 minutes of silence in the basement gymnasium — by far the most unsettling room in the building — we hear what sounds like a bucket of water being poured on the ground in the boiler room.
A chorus of "what the hell"s arises from our group. I envision the janitor laughing at us from the doorway to the boiler room.
Moen and Utne set off to investigate the cause of the sound. Part of me doesn't want to join them, but being alone in Farrar Elementary is not something I'm willing to consider, so I reluctantly follow. Moen checks the boiler room and Utne and I walk along the perimeter of the gym. The sound of running water is heard once again.
"It's coming from the pipes," Utne says. "Someone upstairs must have flushed a toilet."
Moen curses to himself. He, too, was hoping the sound would be without a known cause. He, too, wants to make the trip worthwhile, to go home with a story that shakes up nonbelievers.
The upstairs group shepherds Moen, Utne, and me to the auditorium. They're excited. They claim the green light of the K-2 meter is moving up and down, left and right, without human interference. I stand with the other members in the back of the room, while Utne stands a few feet away from the meter. Neither of us sees anything.
Moen points his camera with the infrared light duct-taped on top toward the K-2 meter.
"I see it now and it is moving. Through the lens, it is moving. It is moving to the left and it's moving down now," he says.
"Are you sure it's not your hands shaking?" Utne asks.
"I am. It's moving. It's moving ever so frickin' slightly slowly."
From the back of the room, I'm still not sure what I'm supposed to be looking at. All I see is a stationary green light propped on a wooden board in the middle of a moldy auditorium.
It's 2:30 a.m., and Utne and I are riding out the last stretch of our caffeine pills. Moen decides it's time to bring out the ghost box, a small radio that rapidly scans AM and FM radio stations. Ghost hunters believe paranormal entities can use the ghost box to communicate, which skeptics dismiss as pareidolia (the tendency to find patterns in vague and random stimuli) on the investigators' parts.
Moen and his MORF cohorts take turns asking questions, barely pausing to listen for answers in between. "I've had enough of this," Moen says after a fruitless 10 minutes. He brings the ghost box to the gymnasium, skips the silent period, and resumes his questioning.
The ghost box spits out the word "Thoth," the name of the Egyptian god of the night.
We hear it again. Utne and I are legitimately startled; we had talked about Thoth on our way to the school. But had we not mentioned Thoth at all that night, would we be hearing his name? Or are our brains trying to make sense of nonsensical radio waves?
Like Moen, we find ourselves actively searching for evidence, yearning for proof. Though investigators pride themselves on debunking bogus paranormal activity, most are, unsuprisingly, reluctant to find natural causes for neutral occurrences.
Beyond the dancing light, a flushing toilet, and a potential sign from an Egyptian god, the night is largely uneventful, a fact Moen himself is the first to admit.
The return to Wolcott Mills: Faribault, Minnesota
I return to Faribault's Wolcott Mills on October 25, a year after my initial visit. The Supernatural Investigators of Minnesota bail at the last minute, leaving my group to find directions in the comments section of a YouTube video and make the trip alone.
I'll admit I'm nervous. Paranormal investigators provide the illusion of safety from illusory beings. They have bright lights and electronics — devices said to detect the presence of supernatural entities. On my return trip, comfort comes in the form of a dim headlamp and a handful of friends.
As we pass under the bridge that leads away from Faribault and into the woods, I slam on the brakes, narrowly avoiding a dumpster that had been thrown off the bridge and into the street. My stomach sinks to my feet.
"Maybe it's a warning," Utne suggests.
We drive an additional two miles outside of town, until farmhouses transition into rows of leafless trees. We park in the empty lot and walk down the wooded path in pairs, with the exception of my friend Dan, who exhibits his non-belief by leading the pack.
We come to the first building, which stands like an unmarked mausoleum amid the trees. The graffiti has changed since my last visit and the once intact door has collapsed into a wooden heap on the floor, but otherwise, it's the same.
We don't conduct a typical investigation. We keep our headlamps on, ask a few questions, and open our minds and bodies to the presence of supernatural entities. Nothing happens. Mostly, we goof off, poking fun at the graffiti, which ranges from "THE POLICE ROCK" to "LET THE SIN BEGIN."
The laughter ceases. A pack of coyotes screams in tandem, presumably demolishing newfound prey. My fear of spirits dissipates. I am more afraid of skunks and wolves than the child ghost that I claimed to make contact with on my initial visit.
As we make our return trek through the woods, a group member points out a pair of headlights in the parking lot. We hasten our step, paranoid at the possibility of cops and car thieves, only to find a young couple drinking in a car.
"You guys been out in the woods?" the man asks. "You see anything?"
"Nah, but we heard a pack of coyotes."
"A bunch of us come out here to party on the weekends," he says. "There's a lot of stories about this place."
"We once went out in the woods to party in those buildings," he begins. "When we got back to the car, my windshield was covered in little kids' handprints."
My stomach drops. I turn on my heel and head over to my car. I frantically search the windows, and indeed find a collection of smudges — the exact shape, pattern, and placement of my own footprints on the inside of the windshield. It's evidence of my own presence, nothing more.