By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
My personal stance on the paranormal is best summed up by the poster that hung on the office wall of Fox Mulder in The X-Files.
It’s a blurry photo of a purported UFO with the words “I want to believe.”
That’s what puts me in the empty Oregon State Fairgrounds at 9 p.m. on a Monday night with the RIP (Redneck Investigations Paranormal) Team. I don’t discount the existence of things we can’t see, but I’m waiting for hard evidence. The kind teams like RIP strive to present us with.
“I try to keep it old school, EMF (electromagnetic field) readers, infrared cameras, and motion detectors,” says Donnie Lee, the RIP team founder and leader.
Lee’s team includes his wife, Randi, Ryan Laack, a friend and McNary High School alum, Dave Silva, a retired Vietnam veteran, and Jen Barnett, the RIP medium or clairvoyant, who says she discovered her “gifts” at age 8. They’re accompanied by Jeff Trejo, a fairgrounds representative, giving them an all-access pass to the buildings.
“We get a few calls a year from teams wanting to come out and do investigations,” Trejo says. “We’re happy to help them out for the most part.”
The evening started out promising. Donnie, Ryan and Dave were standing out in the parking lot by the Americraft Building and saw someone walk down the hallway of the second floor office space. They assumed it was a janitor, but Trejo arrived and informed them that there shouldn’t be anyone in the building at this point in the night.
The trio sports a set of eager, childlike smiles at this news.
“You’ve got something in that building,” says Laack.
In preparation for the night, Trejo brought a handwritten list of deaths known to have occurred at or near the fairgrounds. It includes a shooting that occurred in Columbia Hall; a car crash that killed a driver on 17th Street as it passes by the grounds; some buildings that burned as the result of arson; the death of a logger cutting trees in the 200-year-old grove of Oregon white oaks on the property’s back-40; and a death by hanging inside stall 71 of the horse stables that are now only used for overflow when fairgrounds events reach capacity at newer ones. Some accounts say the hanging was a suicide, others say it was the result of autoerotic asphyxiation.
“We don’t have employees that were here back then, but the story gets passed around,” Jeff says.
Donnie’s trunk is laden with the tools of the trade, video cameras, a trail camera, pocket cameras, electromagnetic field detectors, electronic voice phenomena recorders with special filters to quiet ambient noise, small and large flashlights, and laser gridlight pens that will project a grid of dots onto a wall and cast shadows when things pass between it and other surfaces. There’s also a box of batteries – at least 50, maybe 100. Ghost hunting devices drain more than their share of alkaline. Nestled among them is a copy of the Bible.
After setting up an infrared camera and motion detector in the horse arena, the team splits off into three separate groups.
“About four weeks ago, we came to the auto races and we liked the look of the building,” Donnie says. “Earlier today we were checking out the horse arena and saw a shadow go across the floor and disappear, then we heard a horse snorting and and stomping on the ground. We asked Jeff about it and he says all the horses had left last night.”
Donnie heads to the racing track while Jen and Randi go for a walk around the horse arena. Ryan, Dave, Jeff and I make for the stables.
Ryan tells me how he got involved with the team on the short car ride.
“In early 2012, I got a strong desire to get into the investigation thing and I found Craigslist ad for a new team that was forming. I responded to the ad and Donnie was helping the new team get off the ground. That group sort of fizzled, but Donnie and I became good friends and I joined his group. For the first two months, we went out every night,” Ryan says.
He and Donnie and Randi have traveled as far as Virginia City, Nev., to do investigations. Ryan works at a cell phone company call center when he’s not on the hunt, but he pulls a swing shift meaning he can stay out late without missing as much sleep.
It takes us a few minutes after arriving at the stables to figure out precisely which building is home to the storied stall, No. 71, where the hanging took place. Jeff supplies us with the number, but Ryan and Donnie were out earlier and got a vibe from a different stable building altogether.
Once we settle outside stall 71, Ryan goes in to get some base readings a digital thermometer and EMF detector, which displays a series of lights going from green to yellow to orange to red depending on the intensity of the electromagnetic field. He also hangs the trail camera in a corner. It will snap a picture if it detects movement and uses a flash undetectable to the naked eye.
We all enter the stall to begin an attempt at conversing with whatever spirits might still be in the vicinity.
Ryan hands control of the EMF detector to Dave and it flashes to red, but only Dave and I see it. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, there is no electricity running to the building, there are lights, but they’ve likely been cut at the breakers due to non-use.
To be sure, Dave has Ryan wave his flashlight next to the meter and there is no response, just a steady green light signifying it is on.
Ryan introduces all of us and begins asking a series of questions.
“Is there anybody here?”
“What is your name?”
“Are you male or female?”
“Can you tell us how you died?”
“When did you die?”
“Can you make a noise to let us know you are here?”
“Did you die from a hanging?”
In the distance, a dog begins barking, deep and throaty. But there’s no other response.
“Do you like it here?”
“Can you make a noise?”
“Make a noise if you’d like us to leave you alone.”
There are no more lights other than the green of the EMF and the red of Ryan’s handheld voice recorder.
Ryan places a pair of small flashlights in the mud floor and asks if the spirits can turn them on. Nothing happens.
We leave because Ryan wants to go and check out the other stall where he got the tickle earlier. I ask Dave what his response was when he saw the lights go off before we began.
“The first thing I do is feel the air around me. I look around and I move my hands looking for a cold spot. It’s usually a cold spot,” Dave says.
When I ask if he felt a change in temperature this time, he says, “I’m not sure, I think I did, but I’m not sure. I didn’t get a response again, so maybe it was the meter warming up.”
I’m just glad there was someone else who saw it light up.
Researchers and scholars theorize and agree that ghost stories serve two primary functions in humanity’s larger narratives. One possibility is that they provide alternate histories to the records on hand. More frequently, they are used to impart lessons.
For example, if someone ends up hanging themselves in a horse stall while attempting satisfy primal urges, the lesson is don’t be somewhere doing something you shouldn’t. Bad things might happen.
But, there’s another possible function of the well-worn ghost tale. And it actually makes me think of that poster in Mulder’s office. We don’t know what happens after we die. Religions make use of this lack of knowledge to prompt and prod congregants to be on their best behavior before they slough off the mortal coil. It’s almost a scarier prospect to think, maybe, there aren’t ghosts. That when we die, that’s it. Ghost stories keep the options in play, and we draw comfort in knowing that we haven’t been able to prove or disprove the existence. It’s why we want to believe.
Ryan goes through the same routine, minus the trail camera which is left in No. 71, at the other stall. Dave thinks he sees a black mass move down the alley between the stalls, but there is no audible communication from the spirit world.
Outside, Dave begins taking pictures, but his flash doesn’t fire on two of them. He checks his battery power and finds it half-drained. Then one of his hearing aids goes dead. He replaced the batteries in both devices before heading out earlier tonight.
“Sometimes they draw the energy out of the batteries in an attempt to communicate,” says Ryan.
We walk away from the area and Dave’s hearing aid starts working. The camera battery reads full. We drive back to our meeting spot to debrief with the other team members and trade tales of our findings.
It’s been a fruitful night already. Donnie tells us about the race track.
“I asked, ‘Can you make a noise?’ I had a rock thrown at me. I heard it hit a barrel, then a toilet flushed,” Donnie says. “The bathrooms were unlocked and I went in and there’s no one there.”
Jen smokes an e-cigarette with a strawberry-scented nicotine liquid. When she exhales, it smells like cotton candy, which is equal parts appropriate and eerie given the setting. She tells us about what she felt at the horse arena.
“I picked up on a male and he was nice. His family liked to come and watch the horses,” Jen says.
She says the energy in the race track building is pulsing and negative.
“I could feel it right away,” she says. “They (the spirits) say it’s something to do with two lights in the distance that can be seen from the door of the race track structure. ” She points them out and says, “They say something bad happened by those lights.”
They shine in the distance over the roofs of the stable buildings.
We split up again. This time, I go with Donnie and Randi to the Americraft Building where members of the team saw a figure pass by offices shortly after arriving.
The size of the main showroom is deceptively small when packed with visitors and subdivided by vendors, but it’s cavernous when empty. Footsteps make spiraling echoes as we cross the main floor to get to the upstairs offices.
In the office space, Donnie begins scanning the hallway with a digital EMF. Rather than lights, this one signals increases in the electromagnetic fields with increasing numbers. Most of the space reads with a baseline .5, but it climbs rapidly as he passes by a photo of Oregon Gov. Tom McCall.
“A picture shouldn’t read that high, but it might be a power line in the wall,” Donnie says. The LCD is holding at 5.6.
Donnie enters the office on the other side of the wall and discovers a map of the fairgrounds. He holds the EMF meter over the Americraft Building and traces a path up to the horse stalls we left a few minutes before. The readout increases the closer he gets to the stalls and peaks at a 1.9 over the stalls. This elicits a smile.
We continue our path to an open space on the opposite end of the hallway, and Randi holds a lighted EMF detector while Donnie turns on his recorder and begins asking questions.
“Did you die on this property?”
“Did you work here?”
The EMF lights up to yellow.
“Can you make it turn orange?”
It runs up to yellow.
“If you’re male can you make it turn orange?”
It lights up again, to yellow.
There are no more responses, but Randi keeps the meter turned on. As we begin to talk about moving on to another building, it lights up to orange repeatedly, like chirping, before going silent once more.
As we walk downstairs and back out to the showroom floor, the hair on the back of my neck shoots to attention, a chill runs down my back. After that, I can’t stop looking back to the office windows on the second floor, even after we’re back outside in the cool night air.
We reconvene with the other RIP team members for a tour of the children’s theater building and then on to Columbia Hall.
Dave and Ryan went to the arena and Dave gets pictures that he says contain several figures including a clear head and torso. I see anomalies in the photos, but nothing I could ascribe a shape to.
We make a loop of the theater building through the dark spaces that would be off limits during events, but I don’t see the shadow Donnie and Ryan claim to be chasing.
As we go to leave, Dave doubles over in pain. He says it feels like someone pinched him on the shoulder.
We regroup in a circle and turn on recording devices for the questioning, but nothing audible speaks to us. Dave pulls his shirt aside and there is a small scratch on his shoulder, but I chalk this one up to his own fingers as he pulled his at his collar.
“I’m just glad you weren’t having a heart attack,” says Donnie.
In Columbia Hall, someone, it’s difficult to determine whether it was a bystander or one of two criminals, was shot and killed in a botched robbery.
This time, Ryan pulls out a “ghost box,” which is basically a small AM/FM radio that scans at high speeds to create white noise. It’s doing its thing, which reminds me of the way they gave Bumblebee his voice in the Transformers movies, and Ryan begins asking questions.
While there are tinny squawks and beeps, there’s nothing that would be discernible without slowing it down.
“One of them keeps saying he wanted to do it. The other says he didn’t have a choice,” Jen tells me on the way to check out a far corner where I swear I saw a shadow move.
I had assumed it was Donnie or Dave making a loop of the interior but, after the ghost box is silenced, they come up from behind me. From the opposite side of the room from where I saw the shadow move.
It’s getting late, just after 11:20 p.m., but the RIP team plans to stay until the wee hours of the morning, the witching hours. Bed is calling me and it has a sweet, soothing voice of a place I’m familiar with, not the cool caverns of the too-silent fairgrounds.
On our way back to the established rendezvous point, I walk a little faster to catch up with Randi.
“So, what do you feel when you see those lights go off like they did in the office?” I ask.
“It’s like a rush and exciting. I hate when they stop answering because it’s like an untold story,” she says.
Until there are earth-shaking breakthroughs in the way we analyze paranormal activity, that’s probably the way it’s going to remain. The night has done nothing to shake my stance on wanting to believe, although I’m far from convinced. Somewhere, in all of the excitement, I arrived at another possible function of the ghost story,: they serve to scare us, which itself is a reminder that we’re alive.
A week later, I can’t stop thinking about those little LED lights. I saw them light up, repeatedly, and I wasn’t the only one.