Paracon a Paranormal Conference 2008 a review

The Northern Paranormal Conference was indeed paranormal. Held at the ‘haunted’ Brookdale Lodge, the event began with lunch in a ‘haunted’ room, followed by five short seminars, a late night séance and an investigation of the hotel premises.

The Conference

The conference was held by the Paranormal Research and Study Organisation (http://www.paranormal-research-and-study.org). There was an impressive turn out of some 100 guests, with a small skeptical contingent, including a psychology student from Liverpool with whom I was able to share notes and observations. After a normal lunch, the paranormal conference commenced with a talk by HPI organiser Michael Miller , and his assistant, Alicia. The pair presented their findings from several recent investigations of haunted houses and UFO sightings. This anecdotal evidence included reports of the sensation of being touched or “brushed”, the sight of flickering lights and “balls of light”, the sounds of footsteps, and voices calling out the investigator’s names and playfully mimicking their voices. Where’s the proof? A photo supposedly revealed an apparition of “ghostly fingers”. These were so ghostly as to be invisible, and the presenters apologised for the image “not showing up”.

There was more evidence, examples of Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVPs). These are recordings that allegedly capture voices of the dead (or alien languages). The skeptical explanation is that these are subjective interpretations of random sounds caused by radio or human interference (see: http://www.hauntedamericatours.com/EVP/EVP/). Some examples might reveal real human language, such as snippets of a broadcast or background conversation. Alicia’s EVP featuring a female voice calling “Cindy!” and another of “a baby crying” are likely examples of this. Other EVPs reveal word-like sounds, such as Alicia’s example of a ‘voice’ calling out the nonsensical name of “Idgy!” Other examples revealed garbled ‘language’ that was decoded for us by way of subtitles, directing our interpretation of the ‘message’.

The next speaker was Philip Wrenn of whom was also representing the Paranormal Research and Study Organisation. He was quite young an I’d never heard of him before today however I found his lecture quite interesting and complacent he explained how proven “scientific methods” can be used to study the paranormal. Philip then revealed some of the equipment or gadgets used during investigations or experiments. Some of them proved to be quite interesting. He then explained about the psychological side of the paranormal, unlike the other speakers he seemed alot more level headed and provided a more scientific basis for events.

Next was psychic Nancy Bradley (http://www.nancybradley.org) presented herself as “one of only 4 recognised psychics in California”, and “one of 34 recognised psychics in the entire United States”. We can only assume this means that she is “recognised” by the other 33, as she neglected to name the governing body. In a meaningless claim, Nancy further alleges that for the past 19 years she has been one of the “top ten” psychics in the world. I had never heard of her before. There was time for a quick plug for Nancy’s weekly workshops where she guarantees the immediate development of psychic powers, “Everyone is psychic when they go”.
Nancy is a bombastic, take-no-nonsense (but her own) kind of a woman. The lecture for Paranonsense 101 began with a semantic analysis of ghosts versus spirits. Ghosts are “imprints in time”, a sort of trapped “energy”. Like a broken record, ghosts are doomed to eternally repeat a significant event again and again. In contrast, spirits are no longer in this purgatorial-like limbo but have “passed”. Unlike the scripted behaviour of ghosts, spirits are more fluid, and can still communicate. Then Nancy dropped a paranormal bombshell, “Everybody lives in a haunted house”. Lurking ghosts and gawking spirits, “looky-loos”, as Nancy calls them, are “everywhere”. Everyone began looking furtively around the room as Nancy warned, “You are never alone”. I couldn’t help but notice that even the previous speaker Philip Wrenn was either looking embarrassed or amused at her.

Nancy lives in a place with “loads of good energy”, a former mortuary in El Dorado County, California. For the aspiring investigator, Nancy told her crowd to forget the traditional notion of a creepy, haunted old cemetery, “those are just full of rotting remains”. Instead, visit “new cemeteries where ectoplasm and gases are expelled” from the newly buried. Grieving loved ones visit, stirring up energy, and so, these are hot spots of psychic activity. Nancy explained that there is good spirit activity in moist climates, but none in “desert areas” (hang on, weren’t they “everywhere”?). The “only way to the psychic is through nature” (although apparently not in arid environments). As a final contradiction, Nancy stated that only new cemeteries have activity, but also claims that her ex-mortuary, her “Truth Centre”, offers “lots of energy”.

Next was Nancy’s trophy husband, Robert Reppert, owner and chief investigator of Gold Rush Ghost Investigations (www.goldrushghosts.com). Robert boasted that his group adopts the “scientific method” in their analysis of paranormal phenomena, and proceeded to display a $10 000 infra-red camera. This demonstrated a common misunderstanding. The use of scientific and technological instruments is not, in itself, the scientific method.

Robert’s scientific investigations include the techniques of interviewing eyewitnesses and collecting accounts. Of course, these constitute folklore, rather than fact. By his own admission, Robert’s biased objective is “to prove the paranormal.” In this quest, “hard evidence” consists of the aforementioned EVPs, photographs of orbs and recorded changes in room temperature. When no rational explanation is found, “we are left with the paranormal”. As I always say, the absence of an immediate explanation is not proof of the paranormal. Any lingering claim that this is the scientific method was dashed when Robert revealed his findings are later corroborated by Nancy. His psychic wife “fills the gaps” in the investigation by supplying specific (unprovable) details of names, dates, and places. How could she go wrong? According to Robert, Nancy is “accurate to a miniscule amount”.

The final speaker was Michael Cline of the Bay Area Psychic Investigators (www.bayareaparanormal.com) who presented “An Interactive Study on Remote Viewing”. Remote viewing is a form of extra sensory perception, the supposed ability to perceive places, people and objects from afar, in the past, present or future. Proponents claim to be able to see, hear, touch, taste and smell any target upon which they choose to focus. In a process known as Bilocation, the Remote Viewer claims to be in two places at once, literally. Bob Carroll refers to remote viewing as a form of “psychic dowsing” where “one uses psychic power alone to dowse the entire galaxy, if need be, for whatever one wants: oil, mountains on Jupiter, a lost child, a buried body, a hostage site thousands of miles away, inside the Pentagon or the Kremlin.”¹

The useful applications of this practice would be endless, but there was only a remote chance that remote viewing could be valid. However, the CIA and the US Army initiated Stargate, a ‘military intelligence’ project that dedicated two decades and a multi-million dollar budget to investigating this phenomenon. The project further aimed to add ‘scientific structure’ to the practice, and this was clearly achieved with a staff of up to 16 psychics, including witches, mediums and tarot card readers. The prestigious Stanford University was also in on the act with the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) that also tested various “Anomalous Mental Phenomena” (1973-1989). Overall, the SRI research provided a null result. Psychologist and CSICOP Fellow Ray Hyman was enlisted to evaluate the SRI project and eventually concluded that “the case for the existence of anomalous cognition is still shaky, at best.”²

Michael maintains that we all have “innate psychic ability”. As part of the seminar, we engaged in a highly uncontrolled experiment of remote viewing. We were provided with the name of the subject, psychic Dee Disparti (Could others in the room know her?), her general location, (Couldn’t we make assumptions based on this knowledge? Could we be certain that the subject was there?) and that she would either be “outside or inside” (a 50/50 chance of accuracy). We were instructed to “hone in” (also called “beaconing”) on this “beacon” and to describe or sketch any images that come to mind.

Before we began, Michael told us to give ourselves “permission to be psychic” and asked us to chant “I am going to allow myself to be psychic”. I gave the experiment an honest attempt, and began listing concepts that came to mind. I wrote down “San Antonio”, “River Walk”, “tea”, “wreath” and “cannon”. Then the location of the subject was announced. Ironically, I was correct! Was this proof of remote viewing? No. Am I psychic? No. I simply mapped my own travel experiences onto the information provided. Instead of “beaconing”, I recalled places that I had been to, such as the River Walk and the Alamo. Other audience members also seemed to play word association with the key words, guessing major cities and landmarks. Many were probably influenced by visual cues (such as tea cups). In an act of confirmation bias, it is easy to logically connect words with places and concepts, after the fact, to make them ‘fit’ the reading.

The Séance

After a long respite we assembled at 10.30 pm in the “Haunted Log Cabin” for a séance led by Nancy Bradley. Nancy hinted that the séance may produce ectoplasm, so I was on the look out for any tricks. However, this was not your average séance. Instead of holding hands around a table, we stood in a loose circle around the self-professed psychic celebrity. Some of the other speakers had left at this point, including the only one whom seemed to make any sense which was Philip Wrenn. Instead of calling out to the spirits, the spirits came to Nancy. A seasoned performance artist, Nancy leapt into character, strutting around her stage as cameras flashed in the dark. Names, dates, places and faces were barked out like orders. Nancy could ‘see’ two brothers named Russell and Jerry Clayton who had died in a car accident, a girl named Sarah who had drowned, Milly Ann, Amy, a man in a hat, “Lumbermen playing cards”, two spinster sisters, “a bunch of old guys”, “a guy with a black dog”, an anxious man with a leg injury, a man with cobwebs on his face and ants in his hair, a father and son who died in a shooting accident, a man who died of a bad cough, an old woman working, a man who liked jokes, a phantom deer, and a noose hanging from the ceiling. She could also smell smoke and sense “Hispanic energy”.

At one point, Nancy claimed to be in the presence of Daniel, a little boy who “is happy and well and with his granddad”. Obviously he was not so well. Nancy asked if this name meant anything to anyone, to no reply. After the séance, a couple approached her to confirm if the child was definitely named Daniel. Nancy dismissively repeated that she had “just seen some boy with his grandfather” and walked away, leaving the now crying couple convinced that this was their deceased son. During the séance, a woman left the room, crying hysterically. It was speculated that she could ‘feel’ the pain of the spirits in the room. I would argue that she was simply frightened, overwhelmed or affected by the constant, dizzying camera flashes.

After thirty minutes, Nancy announced, “that’s it, show’s over” and promptly left her stage. Of all the readings and séances I have witnessed, this psychic soliloquy was the most open to deception. There was no feedback, no confirmation and no opposition, just trust, acceptance and corroboration. This wasn’t a ‘reading’, it was a ‘telling’. Nancy bullied her followers into substantiating her act by otherwise questioning their abilities, “If you have any intuition at all you’ll sense this too”. Some of the ‘spirits’ that Nancy ‘saw’ were characters of local legend and a quick internet search could produce a convincing hot reading. In particular, ‘Sarah’s drowning’ is well known folklore. Some parts of the reading involved ordinary observations, such as the ‘smell of smoke’ in a room with a fireplace. Others were vague, unprovable descriptions. Finally, many of the spirits that Nancy ‘saw’ are individuals stereotypical to the region, e.g., lumberjacks and Hispanic workers.

At one point, Nancy claimed to be in the presence of Daniel, a little boy who “is happy and well and with his granddad”. Obviously he was not so well. Nancy asked if this name meant anything to anyone, to no reply. After the séance, a couple approached her to confirm if the child was definitely named Daniel. Nancy dismissively repeated that she had “just seen some boy with his grandfather” and walked away, leaving the now crying couple convinced that this was their deceased son. During the séance, a woman left the room, crying hysterically. It was speculated that she could ‘feel’ the pain of the spirits in the room. I would argue that she was simply frightened, overwhelmed or affected by the constant, dizzying camera flashes.

After thirty minutes, Nancy announced, “that’s it, show’s over” and promptly left her stage. Of all the readings and séances I have witnessed, this psychic soliloquy was the most open to deception. There was no feedback, no confirmation and no opposition, just trust, acceptance and corroboration. This wasn’t a ‘reading’, it was a ‘telling’. Nancy bullied her followers into substantiating her act by otherwise questioning their abilities, “If you have any intuition at all you’ll sense this too”. Some of the ‘spirits’ that Nancy ‘saw’ were characters of local legend and a quick internet search could produce a convincing hot reading. In particular, ‘Sarah’s drowning’ is well known folklore. Some parts of the reading involved ordinary observations, such as the ‘smell of smoke’ in a room with a fireplace. Others were vague, unprovable descriptions. Finally, many of the spirits that Nancy ‘saw’ are individuals stereotypical to the region, e.g., lumberjacks and Hispanic workers.

The Investigation

The investigation began at 12.30 am in the Brookroom dining room. With the landscaped creek flowing through the centre, surrounded by ferns, trees and skylights, all bordered by gables and steep terraces, the Brookroom looks like a house turned inside-out. Divided into groups, we shuffled around the dark dining room, fitfully lit by the frenzied flashes of the psychic paparazzi. Some even wore sunglasses. One investigator mis-observed that “the roof beams are moving”, but this was clearly an illusion caused by the camera flashes.

The investigators were armed with their recording equipment, poised to capture the reputed sounds of ghostly diners in the Brookroom. This room is also the scene of the hotel’s most infamous story. It is alleged that one Sarah Logan, the lodge owner’s niece, drowned in the creek during the 1940s. The eternal 9-year-old (or 6-year-old, according to some accounts) now frolics around the hotel, in a blue and white ‘Sunday dress’, and has been ‘seen’ running through the hotel lobby, playing in the Brookroom, and dancing to live bands in the Fireside Room. Some stories describe the little girl as vivid, yet motionless. Other accounts claim that ‘Sarah’ is interactive, approaching the hotel guests, asking if they will help her find her mother, before she simply vanishes. Apparently, Sarah’s mother also haunts the hotel, searching for her little girl, and leaving behind the strong scent of gardenias.

Torrential rain began and the waterfall became thunderous. In the dark and noisy room, both our visual and auditory senses were now adversely affected. However, a few investigators commented that the rain was “better for the investigation”. Or did the ominous weather just provide a more appropriate ambiance for a ghost hunt? Then, one of the investigators sensed a “portal” in the dining room. I could sense more than one…the common rooms in the hotel were riddled with severe roof leaks.

In 1945, the hotel underwent a drastic transition from decency to debauchery in a change of ownership from a Seventh-day Adventist to ‘The Mob’. Where prohibition once prevailed, alcohol, prostitution and crime now reigned. In accordance with standard Mob lore, there is reputedly a body (or bodies) buried under the floorboards in the Brookroom or the Fireside Room, and a ‘haunted meat locker’ where victims were noiselessly murdered. We moved on to the Fireside room. There was no sign of the dancing Sarah as the music had stopped. Or had it? Phantom “Big Band or Jazz music” is allegedly heard during the night. No one heard anything, but one investigator reported a “sadness” and a “nauseous feeling”, hypothesising that there may be a body buried beneath us. The chequered dance floor had more secrets still. The Fireside Room boasts its very own ‘vortex’. Forewarned, I was told that standing on the vortex can ‘cause’ dizziness. I stood on the offending spot and didn’t notice anything unusual, not even any sort of optical illusion. I was then pushed out of the way by a serious group who began dowsing the vortex with divining rods and pendants.

Next was the Mermaid Room, a curious room with a ramshackle bar. As we entered, one of the investigators claimed to see a “phantom man” standing at the bar with a drink in hand. The room takes its name from an underwater window view of the deep end of the hotel swimming pool. As we tried to look through the unlit window, an investigator claimed to hear a disturbing noise, “like someone thrashing about in water”. It is reputed that the pool room is haunted by the ghost of a 13-year-old who drowned in 1972 (or the 1920s). Another report claims that a hotel guest went swimming in the pool, ducked her head underwater and saw a fully clothed young girl staring back at her from the base of the pool.

The investigators referred to the Mermaid Room as a “meat market”, where prostitutes would cavort in the pool, and gang members would choose their women from the window display. It is reputed that the sounds of music and laughter can be heard here at night. As we listened for these sounds, one investigator claimed that she could hear “moans and groans” emanating from one of the adjoining rooms that “must have been used as a brothel”. An ‘EVP’ was collected in this room, a very mundane, conversationally relevant, clear, mortal, modern American English female voice uttering, “We’re in here”.

As we were retiring for the morning at 2.30 am, a hotel employee approached me, exaggeratedly sniffing the air and asking, “Mmm! Can you smell gardenias?” I replied that I couldn’t, but I was wearing perfume which might be the source of the scent. He was clearly alluding to the ‘ghost’ of Sarah’s mother. With a willing audience, he proceeded to give us a good ghost time. He informed us that “satanic rituals” had taken place in a room above the kitchen and that “something happens here every day”. As if on cue, a buzzing sound emanated from one of the heaters. “Did you hear that? One of the heaters just switched itself on!” Clearly, it was a timer or a prank.

Did the investigation reveal any evidence? No. As John, a more skeptical member of the group put it, “I visited the famous haunted Brookdale Lodge and all I got was this crappy orb pic”. Of the thousands of photos taken that night, ‘orbs’ were the only ‘evidence’ produced. It fascinated me to see the investigators dismiss some orbs as ‘just dust or rain’, yet convince themselves that others were ‘ghosts’. Crackly or ordinary EVPs were also considered to be proof, but if a ‘ghost’ can mischievously switch on heaters, why can’t it materialise, or at least provide an intelligible EVP?

Feelings of ‘heaviness’, ‘sadness’, ‘nauseousness’ and ‘happiness’ were also taken as ‘trustworthy pieces of evidence’. Of course, these cannot attest to anything other than state of mind. In addition, anecdotal evidence and visions were interpreted as ‘proof’. In an unwitting ‘hot reading’, the investigators were aware of the myths associated with the hotel. The reports made during the investigation were variations on a theme. Moreover, the lack of detail, the inconsistencies and discrepancies bear all of the hallmarks of urban legends. Why the Brookdale Lodge? This is a unique structure associated with celebrities and intrigue, with the backdrop of mountains and the beach…the perfect formula for folklore.

There was a last opportunity for a ghost sighting. I was allocated Room 46, the ‘haunted room’. However, no one could relay any phenomena that have reputedly taken place there. I eventually found the following anecdote online:

Room 46 of the motel wing is reported to be very haunted. A woman who worked at the lodge in exchange for lodging has reported that at night objects and shapes would fly across the room. Ghostly ballroom dancers would swirl around leering at her as they floated by. Ghosts would materialize around her bed, their faces sometimes vague and sometimes very very clear. One of the ghosts was a little boy, perhaps 12 or 13 years old, another was a man with his eye hanging loose on his cheek, and still another was a man with a knife wound across his face. Not all of her experiences in room 46 were visual. She also reports that once she felt somebody sit on the edge of her bed and stroke her arm.³

As I was leaving, a conference member noticed that I had stayed in the feared Room 46. “What did you experience?” he asked, to which I responded, “Sleep. What should I have experienced?” He shrugged his shoulders and said forlornly, “Don’t worry then”. I felt as though I had disappointed this stranger, by not telling him what he had expected to hear. I could have easily regurgitated an old anecdote or invented a new one, to feed his confirmation bias. Anyone can add to the pseudo-history of the Brookdale Lodge.

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About peterschow

"the Schow must go on"
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