Insights from a local paranormal investigator at Laurel Hill Cemetery and… beyond…
On a warm spring night in East Falls my wife Mary and I joined around thirty skeptics and believers at Laurel Hill Cemetery to search for ghosts with the Free Spirit Paranormal Investigators and Laurel Hill tour guides. Armed with digital-magnetic field detectors and electronic voice recorders we went from grave to grave, asking questions, hoping to see or hear proof that ghosts exist.
A branch moved. A pinwheel shifted. Signs of paranormal activity? Or just the wind. For two hours, through occasional rain, carefully avoiding gopher holes that could swallow half a leg, the roar of motorcycles along Kelly Drive below us, we hunted. We learned about the lives of the locals buried there, including the story of Mary Peterson, who, when she died in 1912, asked that her heart be taken out of her body to be buried near her first husband, while the rest of her body was buried near the second. But still, no proof of ghosts.
Different cultures around the world have always believed in ghosts. The Aztecs celebrated the Day of the Dead 3,000 years ago, the Bible has ghosts, and almost every family has a version of a ghost story. Even without concrete evidence, polls suggest that there are many of us who believe in ghosts. According to a HuffPost poll, 45% of Americans believe that the dead can make some kind of appearance and 28% report having seen a ghost. This corresponds to a 2000 Gallup Poll that showed that 31% of Americans believed in ghosts, while in 1978 only 11% of Americans believed.
While this increase in belief may have something with more ghost hunting shows on television and the amount of supernatural content in our popular culture, my guess is that it also has to do with our increasing dissatisfaction with reality. A 2015 Pew Report indicated only 19% of Americans said they trusted the Government — and this is before the Trump era. In 1958 that number was 73%. Our trust in religion and the media have also decreased. Not only is our trust in these institutions waning, but the real horrors they have inflicted upon the world are far scarier than what most ghosts could ever imagine.
Philadelphia itself can be a spooky place. We not only have Laurel Hill Cemetery, but Eastern State Penitentiary and Fort Mifflin just down I-95. Even University of Pennsylvania formed its own Humanities workshop called “The Penn Ghost Project.” Indeed, the most convincing paranormal experience I’ve ever had happened right here in Philadelphia.
On a hot July night seventeen years ago, in a first floor apartment on Christian Street across the street from a funeral home that was being gutted (to make room for an art gallery), the room suddenly went ice cold. Mary blew a smoke ring that turned parallel to the floor and didn’t break until it almost reached the walls. Something lifted her arm that night. The next morning I saw what looked like the form of a five-year-old boy run through the apartment.
I asked the neighbors about it. They said a five-year-old boy died on his tricycle in the backyard a few years before. We had nightmares. More ghosts came. I broke the lease and moved out.
But even before I saw that ghost, I believed. Dead grandmothers, relatives, friends and professors would visit me in both dreams and memories. I see them still, in both the past and the present, often times with the message that things are going to be just fine. So even though we didn’t see any ghosts at Laurel Hill that night, I came away with the sense that there is a communal desire to believe that things don’t end when we die and that there are ghosts among us, perhaps waiting patiently, for that perfect moment to show us that something we’ve believed in for so long is actually real.