JOhn Wornall HouseCourtesy of the John Wornall House
Hunting the Haunters
By Joe McCune
My experience with things that go bump in the night has pretty much been limited to reading Stephen King stories with a willful suspension of disbelief. I can get on board with a car that tries to kill people (Christine) or a clown who rips limbs off kids (It) or even a laundry machine that’s possessed by evil spirits (The Mangler). It’s not that I actively disbelieve in the paranormal, but I’ve got a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to the subject. (OK, so I had sort of an out-of-body experience as a kid, lying in bed and watching my other self move around the room, but maybe I just had a fever.)
Television shows like Ghost Hunters—so cheesy that it’s camp—haven’t exactly changed my view. But I give King the benefit of the doubt, so it’s the least I can do while watching a real paranormal investigative team in action. On a recent Thursday evening, I tag along with Kansas City Paranormal Investigations (KCPI) members at the John Wornall House Museum in Kansas City.
Dayna Smith has been actively seeking out the strange and unusual in our world for seven years. Three years ago, she founded KCPI to, as the group’s website states, “use honest documentation, rational reasoning, and research” to investigate and interpret the world of unexplained phenomena. To that end, it records everything during an investigation with voice recorders and often use still cameras and video recorders, too. Alcohol and drugs are strictly prohibited when KCPI is performing an investigation; Dayna is a teetotaler.
The Wornall House was built in 1858, three years before America was torn asunder, three years before the Union and the Confederacy made Missouri one of the most hotly contested states during the four-year Civil War, three years before the house became a battlefield hospital for the North and South during the Battle of Westport. The house stood in the middle of a 500-acre estate when it was built, but today Kansas City surrounds the structure that the Jackson County Historical Society bought in 1964 and restored to its antebellum appearance.
I meet the group at 7 pm at the Wornall House. As the sun slowly sinks and the house fills with shadows, guides Phyllis French and daughter Madeline Best give us a tour. They have stories to tell. Phyllis says she once felt a hand going down her back while explaining a dining room feature—but there was no one behind her. Madeline says the front door, which closes tightly, kept blowing open when she was outside. And they both say they were downstairs when they heard someone (something?) walking in an upstairs bedroom.
Group members seem intrigued and excited by the stories, asking questions and mapping out a plan of attack. Before KCPI gets down to business, investigator, linguist, and tech support specialist Jan Schoeler explains why they read a prayer.
“We don’t know for sure what we’re going to encounter when we go into a home or a location,” he says. “And sometimes when you do this, you can actually open a portal. You know, you’re not going to get exactly the spirits that you expect to find. You can bring something else completely different, dangerous or not dangerous, so you have to be careful with that. This is a precaution. Just to make sure. “So everyone bow your heads or whatever you’d like to do. St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, Prince of the heavenly host, by the divine power of God, cast into hell Satan, and all evil spirits who roam throughout the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.
“Have fun you guys.”
The first group activity is using a ghost box to listen for spirits, or in paranormal lingo, electronic voice phenomena (EVP). Basically, the ghost box is an aluminum foil-wrapped AM/FM radio that’s been rewired to flip from one station to another in rapid order, sort of like a police scanner for the dead. The theory is, somewhere within the static between stations, the device can pick up and broadcast disembodied voices saying a few words or a phrase.
We sit scattered around in the upstairs hallway while Stephanie Turbiville holds the ghost box. She turns it on, and it starts cycling through all the AM stations it can pick up. Dayna begins speaking, entreating the house’s spirits to show up: “John Wornall … Confederate … Union … hospital … home … If there are any spirits in this house that are willing to communicate with us this evening, will you please come forward and speak with us? We might be able to hear you.”
“John Wornall, are you here?” Jan asks.
Sitting there in the near-dark, uncomfortable on the hardwood floor, I want to hear something. And wanting to can make you—well, me—believe you hear it. About 10 minutes into the session, I think I hear something that sounds like a malevolent character in a horror movie, a guttural noise that is, well, ominous. The others pick up on it, too, and mark the spot in the recording. Mostly, though, what I catch are pieces of a Royals baseball broadcast. They’re playing Detroit, and Tigers starting pitcher Max Scherzer
is in the process of going six and two-thirds innings, giving up one run with two strikeouts in a 3-1 victory.
“ — outside on a (garble) pitch that — ”
“ — run scores.”
“That’s only the second strikeout for Scherzer.”
After the ghost box session, I follow Chris Johnson and Jan for the next few hours. Group members have left voice recorders running in every room, hoping to pick up EVPs even when the rooms are unoccupied by the living. The lights are off, and the glowing electronic equipment the guys tote around illuminates the rooms. The hardwood floorboards creak and groan as we creep around the upstairs rooms.
“Mr. Wornall, are you up here in this bedroom with us?” Jan asks.
“This was your bedroom after all, was it not?”
Jan asks lots of questions.
Jan carries an electromagnetic field detector (EMF), which has a baseline of 0.0. If it gets a reading of 2.0 or higher, it might mean there is a presence in the room. It also records temperature in degrees Fahrenheit and has an antennae that goes off only when it’s touched. He also has a sort of full-spectrum device able to pick up wavelengths undetectable by the human eye. Chris carries a small camera that’s turned to the video camera function.
Basically, there’s a lot of standing around, asking questions and waiting for something—anything—to happen. Chris says he sees something falling from the bed. “It looks like rain,” he says. I couldn’t see it. Chris tries to provoke Wornall: “We heard you were a traitor. Is that true? Were you really a traitor? You harbored the North and the South.” Jan joins in: “In my opinion, a person that can’t choose a side like that is a coward. Were you a coward, John Wornall?”
If he were, John Wornall isn’t saying. Jan says he saw a shadow appear and disappear in the hallway: “Look! Look! Look!” he says. “On the right-hand side. Who’s down there, who’s walking across that door?” I’m pretty sure a passing car I see outside the house is the culprit, but I don’t know whether to say anything. After a few minutes of exploring the shadows, Jan and Chris move on to other matters, like white light showing up around Jan’s feet as Chris sees it through the video camera. I couldn’t see it.
Following our room explorations, we move into the hallway and landing where we conducted the ghost box, Chris with his camera, Jan with the EMF and a voice recorder. I’ve got a notebook, pen, and voice recorder. Nothing much happens, so we move down to the kitchen. In the kitchen’s northeast corner, Chris gets high readings on the EMF: 4.0, 5.0, 6.9, 7.8, higher and higher. “Fourteen?” Jan says. He says high EMF levels can cause nausea, vomiting, and feelings of paranoia and can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
The air conditioning and heating unit is in the cellar below the kitchen, noticeably noisy. The readings fall the closer Chris gets to the floor and the unit below, but they rise as he goes up the wall: 21.0, 24.8, higher and higher, past 45 and 50. The numbers are nearly unprecedented, Jan and Chris tell me.
I figure it’s got to be the AC … but then my pen goes missing. Not just missing as in misplaced, missing as in gone. As in, vanished and can’t be found. I could swear I had it right here—right here in the kitchen—a minute ago, but now it has disappeared. With a penlight Jan loans me, I search the room. It’s not on the kitchen table. It’s not on the floor below the table. It’s not in my pockets. It’s not anywhere. Of course, I didn’t bring a backup. Jan keeps asking if someone, some spirit, needs to talk to us. Chris loans me a pen. When my time ends with the guys, I search the porch for my pen and come up empty.
The night’s final activity is another ghost box session in which guides Phyllis and Madeline are invited to join. It lasts nearly 30 minutes, with various KCPI folks throwing out questions and asking the spirits to speak to us. “Mark that,” members say when they hear something that isn’t part of a radio broadcast.
“Did you hear that?” Jan asks.
“That was me breathing,” Stephanie says.
Besides the ungodly static, I mostly hear what seems like a circular saw and the soundtrack to an old-time Looney Tunes cartoon. Or maybe it was just classical music. And although I don’t hear anything paranormal during the final ghost box or throughout the rest of the night, KCPI does a postmortem on its investigation, analyzing the various materials collected throughout the evening. They find several of what the members believe, upon later analysis, to be EVPs.
On one, Robin Burge finished speaking in the kitchen, and another female spoke up and said, “Come back home.” Also in the kitchen, Robin is talking and the team detected a voice under hers. They can’t be certain of what it says, but they say it is an EVP. Carlina Barrett, Josie Harmon-Kemp, and Ronie Lathrop are going through the parlor when a male voice says, “Bitch.”
In another EVP, Carlina, Josie, and Ronie are walking through the master bedroom. Carlina announces that it’s 10:30, and there is an EVP that says, “Help me,” “rat,” and “stew.” And when everyone was gathered in the hospital room, Jan and Josie heard walking or tapping on the staircase. It’s not an EVP, but it was captured on recording. After the final ghost box session ends, it’s nearly midnight and I’ve got a long drive home. The KCPI members pack up their gear and pose for a group picture on the back porch.
And although I looked all over, I never did find that pen.