Paranormal researcher Cindy Heinen of Harvard won't say she believes in ghosts. What she will say, though, is that she's had plenty of weird experiences that she can't quite explain.
Heinen, the director-elect of the Society for Anomalous Studies, taught a class called "Investigating Ghosts and Hauntings" Saturday at McHenry County College. Heinen and fellow presenters Dennis and Judy Dobson, of Beloit, Wis., are part of a team that investigates -- free of charge -- strange happenings at the request of homeowners, without ever promising results.
"For all the thousands of hours we've spent on this, we only have a couple of occurrences to show for," Heinen said.
In an investigation, one must first work as hard as possible to debunk the notion that weird phenomena are caused by ghosts, the researchers said.
For example, strange murmurings heard by people living on the top floor of a building can be nothing more than human voices coming from the basement through an air duct; odd cigar smells emanating from an unoccupied room can simply be trapped in the wood and released into the air by the summer humidity.
But sometimes, debunking is much harder, if not impossible, they said.
A Wisconsin tavern owner once asked them to investigate video taken by his security camera, which shows a regular night at the bar except for a shot glass that flies off the shelf, seemingly on its own. No matter how many times they tried, the investigators couldn't find a way to replicate that trajectory, Heinen said.
The trio also presented their own evidence of what they said could be considered paranormal activity, such as a photo of mysterious scratches that appeared on Judy Dobson's back after she came home from an investigation, a recording they made in a basement of what sounds like an electronic ghost phenomena saying "Get out," and video taken at a house in Wisconsin that shows unexplained shadows moving across a door and the floor.
"We tried really hard to debunk that day, but there it is," Heinen said.
Also, there have been incidents the team witnessed that for some reason their recording equipment didn't capture, they said, like the time when a bright light emanated from Judy Dobson's face all the way to the ceiling.
Humorous moments abound, Heinen said, recalling when she thought she had an EVP only to realize it was just her own voice; or when an air freshener startled the bejeebers out of her during a seance session.
To get started in ghost-hunting, all you need is a video camera -- just leave it on and see what shows up the next day -- and a voice recorder that, when played back, might yield an EVP, Dennis Dobson said.
You can also get high-end gadgets like near-infrared cameras, electromagnetic and thermal sensors, and even gadgets that transform recorded changes in temperature and electromagnetic field into words "spoken" by ghosts, he said.
But the bottom line is, Heinen said, is "you have to be lucky enough to be in the right spot at right time with right equipment."
The paranormal researchers were candid about the fact that yes, their hobby can get spooky.
Judy Dobson, who says she has psychic abilities, said she once saw a ghost walk up to her, stop, and move past her. "Was I scared? Mm hmm (yes)," she said.
But the thing is, paranormal research is a real rush, she said.
"Do you like roller coasters? It's that 75-second rush, except in our case you stretch it out into two hours or six hours or 12 hours. It's something about the adrenaline in your body."