The Indiana Repertory Theatre’s main stage is downright chilly. It’s silent and empty. I fold my arms and curl my fingers into my sweater for warmth as I walk down an aisle toward the stage. Abruptly, the air dramatically warms up.
Chills go down my spine.
The theater is dark except for a single light bulb dangling above the set for Pride and Prejudice.
“That’s a ghost light,” Megan McKinney, IRT’s senior marketing and public relations manager, explains. Her voice resonates through the empty, quiet theater.
Ghost lights in theaters are bare bulbs left aglow when actors, crew and audience have gone. It’s technically (and legally) a safety measure taken so no one falls off the stage or engages in any other accidental act of Laurel and Hardy proportions.
According to superstition, ghost lights ward away sojourning spirits believed to linger in the blackened domain of unlit theaters.
Both supernatural and practical purposes are fulfilled at the IRT on this night where McKinney is leading the Ghost Trackers on their second ghost hunt through the elaborate Spanish Baroque downtown landmark.
Ghost Trackers, founded four years ago by paranormal enthusiast Mike McDowell of Crown Point, now has over 10 chapters in the state with 50 members in the local branch, five of whom are on this hunt.
Lorri Sandowsky, the co-director of the Indianapolis Ghost Trackers chapter, opens her 007-looking aluminum briefcase outfitted with high-tech, ghost-catching gadgetry all nestled into black foam, form-fitted compartments. Everyone on the hunt has a role related to these gadgets.
“This is the IR thermometer,” she explains of a hand-held tool commonly used in the food service industry to measure food temperature. “You just point its red laser and push the trigger. It will tell you what the temperature is at a certain place, so when someone says they feel a cold spot, you can actually verify it with this.”
Extreme changes in temperature, called cold spots, are one common way ghosts are said to manifest themselves.
“You can’t do everything 100 percent scientific when you’re dealing with the spiritual world,” Sandowsky clarified. “We look for all other reasonable answers first” to eliminate a ghost theory. “What’s left is what we think is something like paranormal activity.”
I turn to McKinney. “Is it typical for the air to go cold to hot in here?”
“This theater is impossible to regulate temperature in because it’s such an old building,” McKinney says. “Plus, when we are doing shows, when the lights are on, the heat just skyrockets.”
Sandowsky picks up another hand-held tool, an electro-magnetic frequency (EMF) detecting device.
“That’s what I want!” McKinney says. “These light up when something’s near by. So if I was holding this and it went off, I would want everyone to start taking pictures around me.”
Sandowsky explains that the EMF will signal with light and sound when energy activity in the atmosphere is detected. “Ding-ding-ding!” she sings, mimicking the electrical whirl of the EMF.
“Scientists know there is magnetic energy that runs around the earth,” she adds. Moon cycles strengthen geomagnetic fields thereby increasing ghostly activity during the new and full moon.
“Some people think that spirits might be … sucking energy out from around you,” Sandowsky continues. “That’s why temperatures drop, that’s what triggers the EMFs to go off and that’s when we take pictures,” she explained.
Orbs (hovering, milky spheres) are another form of ghost manifestation not generally visible to the naked eye, but best caught with digital imagery. The team takes many pictures, immediately eyeing the results on the viewing screen of the camera, seeking out images that contain orbs.
“Not all orbs are orbs,” Sandowsky points out quickly. “They could be dust. They could be water spots or rain. That’s why we take so many pictures from every angle possible when energy is detected.”
Following a hunt, the group will correlate their data, like paranormal archaeologists, and determine if in fact anything detected was unexplainable and thereby possibly paranormal. Sometimes only after the haunting do they have evidence that a haunting took place.
Our group proceeds through the main stage theater. The darkness creates a heightened awareness of sound and self. Everyone drifts between the red cushioned seats, down the aisles and to the stage focused on their gadgets, waiting for something to happen. The collective quiet and intense meandering is like a performance itself.
Frenzied beeping from an EMF breaks the silence.
“When you guys were here before,” McKinney announces, “I remember telling you that there are a lot of power lines under the seats because when we are having technical rehearsals people … have to have a little light.”
She stops, puzzled, and continues, “But then we kept capturing all the orbs still around there, so it makes you think that maybe it isn’t just the power cords.” The coincidences are uncanny.
Sandowsky, the voice of reason, reiterates, “We look for logical reactions to the EMF, like, is there a power line running through this area. You want to discount that first and once you do that, then you may have paranormal activity.”
“This area doesn’t seem the slightest bit scary,” McKinney says, leading the group off the elevator into the low-ceiling, fourth floor lobby. No employee has reported a specific ghost encounter here, only what she describes as “the occasional fourth floor creeps.”
“You’re going to get creeped out once in a while in the building,” McKinney says, “but we really don’t feel like the building is haunted.”
“We’ve got some orb activity,” a member of the group says. Camera shutters sound.
“There is one story,” McKinney continues, as the group pursues the investigation. “Between our building and Embassy Suites there is an air duct. I think it’s a true story, but it’s way before my time. Somebody fell between the two buildings and landed in the air duct. He wasn’t found for a day or two and that part of the building is, well … It’s creepy anyway because it’s the basement and it’s real loud because of the air conditioning unit.”
“The chandelier is swinging,” another member of the group says in a refrained, but freaked out voice.
“Where?” Sandowsky asks. “Take pictures.”
“Is there somebody here right now?” Another member of the group asks. We turn on our digital and tape recorders to try and capture EVP (electronic voice projection), which is a disembodied ghost’s voice and other paranormal manifestations.
Sandowsky hands me the IR thermometer and instructs me to point the thermometer toward the swaying chandelier and pull the trigger.
“The temp is 76,” I report, then point the gadget to another chandelier. “That’s at 70 degrees,” I say, then check the temperature of the floor: 69 degrees.
The chandelier stops and the other starts to sway. Its temperature goes from 70 to 74 degrees. We start evaluating where air conditioning and heating vents are located. There’s no draft.
“If it was a truck driving by, they all would be moving,” McKinney says of the nine like chandeliers in the room. “And we would feel it.”
The second chandelier stops.
“This is very exciting,” Sandowsky says, “but we’ve got to eliminate. When you take away the normal, what’s left is the paranormal. I can’t 100 percent say that this is paranormal, but I would mark this most interesting.”
“You can describe a ghost a lot of different ways,” Sandowsky says as we make our way outdoors to where the man allegedly fell to his death.
“Careful of your step,” McKinney instructs as we step into a tight outdoor space that’s like an alley enclosed on all sides by five-story brick walls. Cameras click away.
“There’s a lot that goes into this,” Sandowsky explains, “because there’s a lot of personal opinion. We even disagree in the group about what ‘ghost’ means. One theory is that ghosts choose where they want to go — a place where they were happy, or worked,” or where they died. Ghosts are said to inhabit theaters as prevalently as battlefields and cemeteries. They could be stuck, unaware of their own death. Maybe they’re souls or residual energy. Perhaps both or neither.
“Some say the ghosts don’t understand where they are,” Sandowsky continues, “so they just stay where they last were. There are different theories and we let people believe their own beliefs.”
She elaborates, “We have people in our group of all different religions, ages and you would get a different answer from each of them. We have skeptics in our group, which is good. They keep us grounded, honest and on our toes.”
“How do you tell a bad ghost from a good one?” I ask.
“We’ve never encountered anything evil,” a member of the group replies. “So I’d say the majority aren’t bad.”
Sandowsky interjects, “The majority of the paranormal activity that we experience is sound: a knock, a scratch, a door slamming. That’s typical. Most hauntings are going to be footsteps, maybe lights that go off, the light switch doesn’t work, maybe you think you’ve misplaced your keys. Basically what they’re doing is reminding you that they’re there.
“We were at a private investigation in a home a couple of years ago. The power to the home was turned off and we were the only ones there.” Unlike a “ghost hunt,” an investigation involves turning off electricity, air conditioning, etc. so they can be ruled out if activity is detected. “You could hear hangers in the closet clinking together. A lot of it has to do with sounds.”
“Why do you want to go backstage?” I ask the group as we trek through the building in the dark.
“We started there last time and got good EVP,” a member tells me, then adds, “The EVP sounded like someone was trying to interact with us.”
EVPs typically sound whispery on tape. “It takes so much energy to speak,” Sandowsky explains. “Think about how they have to pull together to make that sound.” Ghost Trackers use new tapes for every EVP so that nothing previously recorded can seep through.
IRT employees have recorded what they believe to be EVPs during staff meetings. Their sound technician affirms that they are creepy, though they have yet to be evaluated by a sound program that isolates the voices for analysis.
“EVP can be gotten at any time,” Sandowsky says. “And these folks have had more success when they’re just letting their tape recorder run. We once had a meeting at Denny’s and picked up EVP.”
Sandowsky initiates a formal EVP capturing session by instructing us to stand in a circle and synchronize our tape recorders.
A Ghost Tracker member commences with questions for potential ghosts.
“It’s 20 ’til 7. We are at the IRT in downtown Indianapolis. Is there anyone here?”
“What year is it?”
“What’s your name?”
“Did you die here?”
“Did you work here? Who’s president? Do you have any children? Are you angry that we’re here or do you have something you want to say? Does anyone want to speak to us?”
As a group we remain silent except for cameras clicking.
“I was surprised we didn’t get more orbs,” Sandowsky says of the hour-long hunt through the IRT as we restore the gadgets to their cases and gather our coats. “When you first join the group and experience an orb and EVP for the first time, you get excited and have to tell yourself to settle down. The more you do it, the more you learn. It’s different every time.”
That’s precisely the lesson learned upon evaluating the photos, EVPs and EMF data to substantiate potential paranormal activity. The most important tool of all was an open mind.
Where some members got orbs, others didn’t. Where one tape recorder picked up possible EVP, the other tape recorders weren’t on. Data collected fell within the suspicious realm while other events, like the swaying chandeliers, were definitely unusual.
Void of ectoplasm, apparitions and poltergeists, there was evidence gathered, even if meager, that there is something supernatural in the air at IRT that is beyond what our senses can perceive. Ghosts.