Investigate A Haunted House With A Real Team Of Female Ghostbusters

Five female paranormal investigators, a minivan full of ghost-hunting gear, and one haunted doll

The FPI team brought a “haunted" doll with human hair on their hunt
Jul 12, 2016 at 10:31 AM ET

As the Fay family prepares for a short weekend getaway, they load the minivan with an ice chest full of refreshments, a box of granola bars and chips, camcorders, a haunted doll, and eight aluminum briefcases filled with ghost-hunting equipment.

“Alright girls, here’s the recon,” Linda Fay says from behind the wheel, “We’re going to the Saxon Manor in Brooksville. Frank Saxon was a Civil War hero and he built this house for his wife, Tululu Hope in 1877. People think he might still be there.”

Linda is the matriarchal leader of Female Paranormal Investigators (FPI) a team of ghost hunters based in Tampa. Linda claims she’s been able to see spirits ever since her deceased mother visited her at the age of eight. But she kept this ability a secret until seven years ago, when she finally came out as a clairvoyant. To Linda’s surprise, the family embraced her sixth sense.

Her sister and daughters started joining her on ghost hunts. Eventually, paranormal investigation turned into a full-blown family hobby, as some of the other women realized they also sensed spirits. On a typical hunt, Linda is accompanied by her sister, Marilyn, and her twenty-something daughters, twins Kendal and Kelsey, and Kaitlyn, affectionately considered the skeptic of the group (the oldest sibling, Keegan, is currently away, getting a graduate degree in psychology). The family came up with a name, a uniform (purple and black), and a YouTube channel. The FPI team investigates the homes of people disturbed by mysterious sounds, appearances, or bodily harm, but sometimes they reserve entire evenings in empty buildings that have a reputation for being haunted. They’ve been looking forward to investigating the Saxon Manor for months.

“We’re a close-knit family. We all love scary movies, we all love hanging out together, we love traveling,” says Kaitlyn. “So it’s the perfect hobby as a family.”

The modern era of ghost hunting began with three sisters in 1848. The Fox sisters inadvertently conjured the Spiritualist movement when Maggie, 14, and Kate, 11, started communicating with dead people through a series of raps and knocks that seemed to emanate from the walls of their cottage, 35 miles outside of Rochester, New York. Their older sister, Leah, became the duo’s manager, booking sold-out seance rooms and parlors from New York City to St. Louis. By the 1870s, several female mediums became national celebrities, perhaps realizing the trade was a rare means for a women to gain economic independence. Many prominent spiritualists eventually became suffragettes. In fact, Victoria Woodhull got her start as a spiritualist and Wall Street broker before she was the first female candidate for United States President.

In 1882, six years before the Fox sisters revealed that their entire act was a hoax, a journalist and a physicist founded the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), an British organization dedicated to studying paranormal activity using scientific methods. The club included renowned chemists, physicists, and a Nobel laureate, many of whom helped establish the model of the modern ghostbuster.

But during the heyday of Spiritualism, another form of sorcery was also mystifying western civilization. Between 1860 and 1890 the United States issued 500,000 invention patents. Technological wizards of the Gilded Age invented the phonograph, photography, electrical lighting, and the telephone. “The idea that you could pick up a device and listen to someone across the country and speak to them in real time was magic,” said Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of Skeptical Inquiry and a science-based paranormal investigator who is renowned (and detested) in the ghost-hunting community for debunking several hauntings. “At the time when there was a lot of credulity and public interest in ghosts and disembodied spirits, the telephone and radio waves and the telegraph were also coming into existence. To the general public, it was all mixed in. So, to many people, it was plausible that someone could invent a telephone to the dead.” (That group even included Thomas Edison, who spoke of trying to make a “spirit phone” to communicate with the dead.)

These inventions played prominent roles in both hoaxes and investigations and influenced how the world viewed ghosts. Spirit photographers would capture ghosts in photos (often with the aid of double exposure) and mediums would often “speak” to ghostly voices that were actually transmitted radio waves.

This may be why many of today’s ghost hunters view paranormal activity as a sort of energy that can be quantified through tech. One of the most popular methods of searching for ghosts is through the use of electromagnetic field (EMF) meters (which inspired the Psychokinetic Energy (PKE) meters in the “Ghostbusters” universe). “Ghosts have changed as technology changed,” Radford said. “Victorian-era ghosts were these unseen denizens of cold, dark, dank dungeons that clanked chains around in the dark. Now ghosts are a spike on a piece of gadgetry.”

As the FPI team pulls up to Saxon Manor in their minivan, they’ve brought only a fraction of the armory Linda has back home at her FPI lab, where she reviews footage captured on investigations, tests new tools, and makes her own gadgets. The shelves of this converted office are overloaded with gear, both technical and mystical—EMF readers, Ouija boards she’s modified with recorders and sensors, Tarot cards, thermal imaging cameras, crucifixes, night-vision goggles, motion-activated dolls, and lots of devil’s toy boxes—mirrored cubes meant to capture spirits.

Here at the Saxon Manor investigation, the FPI clan relies heavily on robots. As most the family surveys the interior of  the house, Kaitlyn stays outside and tries to film apparitions in the upstairs windows with the help of a quadcopter video drone. People can scare off these spirits, the team believes, but perhaps ghosts will be less timid around an unmanned aircraft.

Inside the house, the twins prepare ghost-baiting “spirit stations” and night-vision camcorders. They arrange one such station in front of a window where the groundskeeper told them he often sees a little blonde girl. To lure the child from hiding, they set up a ghost-hunting tool called BooBuddy—a teddy bear that asks questions and (according to the manufacturer) reacts to temperature and EMF changes by lighting up and saying phrases like “It’s cold in here” and “Do you want to play with me?” in a (often unsettling) childish voice.

In another upstairs room, the team places a different, far-less technical doll. Linda picked this one up at her last investigation, at an Opera House-turned-antique store in Arcadia, Florida. The century-old doll is made of wood and sports tresses made of real human hair. “[The store owner] had this haunted doll for five years and no one would buy it, she says. “I told him, ‘Oh, I’ll buy it.’ Maybe in a haunted location she’ll do something again.”

In between the doll’s legs, Linda places a REM pod, a device which screeches whenever it detects EMF. On the other end of the room, the team sets up a Kinect motion sensor. Originally developed by Microsoft for Xbox gameplay, the motion sensor capability of Kinect devices can be used in a variety of ways. FPI connects the Kinect to a laptop so that when someone steps in front of the motion sensor and blocks the thousands of projected lasers, their figure appears on the screen as a wire skeleton. They record the whole operation to catch any ghosts that might flit by.  

Finally, they attach another camera to a remote-control car on the second floor, so that they can drive it around and possibly capture something that might not come out in their presence.

All the camera feeds are all connected to a TV monitor downstairs, where they have set up FPI central command.

FPI is just one of thousands of paranormal investigation teams that have formed since reality shows like “Ghost Hunters” on the Syfy channel and “Ghost Adventures” on the Travel Channel popularized the hobby about a decade ago. “Most of these people don’t have a science background, but these TV shows gave them a template on how to act and what to do. The whole ‘everyman’ idea that a couple of plumbers can go out and try to prove life after death opened a door to the average person,” said Sharon Hill, a geologist who researches paranormal and pseudoscience culture. “I get angry when these groups say what they’re doing is science, because it gives the general public, especially kids, a really wrong impression of how to do science.”

In 2010, Hill studied 1,000 websites for paranormal investigation teams and found that while most of them use a lot of scientific jargon, hardly any of them apply scientific methods. “There isn’t any academic umbrella that’s shielding them, so they can just go into people’s houses and wing it and whatever works for them is what they use,” she said. “I worked hard for six years to gain a Bachelors and Masters degree in science. I don’t take kindly to people who think they can just grab gadgets and pretend to be a scientist.”

FPI admits they’ve taken inspiration from reality shows, but they’re more enthusiastic about the “Ghostbusters” reboot. “We’re really happy they came out with a female ‘Ghostbusters,’ because we think it will shed light on female paranormal investigators,” Linda says. “This is a predominately male industry, as far as investigators… We’ve investigated with several males and they don’t think we can handle it. And that’s fine. It doesn’t bother me one iota because I know what we can do. They might be a little jealous because we have all the equipment.”

Throughout the evening they use dozens of pieces of equipment to try to engage with spirits. The goal is not to trap or remove ghosts—FPI just wants to uncover proof of their presence and get to know more about them. The team tries to lure spirits out with trigger objects that might appeal to one of the ghostly inhabitants—a Confederate coin, a bullet from the Civil War, cigarettes, a vintage pocket watch, toys. Once they set out the bait, they use various devices to try to solicit a response. “You never know on an investigation which gadget spirits are going to communicate with,” Linda says. “One investigation may be the Ovilus, the next investigation it might be the Spirit Box. We continuously bring out equipment to solicit responses and we see which one is the most successful for that evening.”

For this investigation, the Spirit Box doesn’t help. This handheld tool sweeps through every radio frequency (much like if you could quickly rotate a radio dial cycling through every station over and over again)  searching for ghostly voices in the white noise. These voices often sound like blips snatched from DJs, commercials, and songs, but sometimes, the words line up to form a phrase or a sentence, which can sound like a ghost struggling to communicate with the world of the living, especially if that’s what you’re after.

After minutes of voiceless white noise, the team moves on to the Ovilus, developed by robotic engineer-turned-paranormal detection developer Bill Chappell. Chappell hit it big when his creations were featured on “Ghost Adventures” and over the last decade, Chappell’s company Digital Dowsing has sold dozens of different machines, like a digital devil’s toy box and a God Helmet that gives wearers the sensation of being watched. But Chappell’s most popular machine is the Ovilus, which responds to EMF triggers by reading out selected words from a limited, pre-programmed dictionary. As Linda holds up the Ovilus and asks questions of the spirits in the room, the device responds sporadically, “MORGUE… DOOR… SUICIDE…MAIN ROOM….MARY… CHAIR…TOUCH YOU…ELECTRIC…DIED… BY YOURSELF…DOLLS…EVIL.”

The results can be eerily precise—like when the team is in a room alone with a supposedly haunted doll, but every word from this curated database also reads like it came from a horror story or a detective game.

And sometimes, the investigation does play out like a game. If something seems to work, if one of the multitude of gadgets says or does something that confirms a sensation or hunch, then the team will follow the trail.

The major breakthrough comes towards the end of the night with the help of technology that is already in millions of American homes. It’s Kaitlyn, the skeptic, who catches it. She is standing in front of the laptop synched with the Kinect. The laptop shows the outline of Linda, who is sitting cross-legged a few feet from the haunted doll. Linda tries to lure out the little girl with several toys and a music box playing Beethoven’s “Für Elise.”

“Do you want to play a game?” Linda says into the darkness.

Then it suddenly appears on the screen right in front of Linda’s green avatar—another green skeleton, a mysterious figure that seems to be four feet tall. But in the actual room, there is no one standing in front of Linda.

“Now mom, you’re the only one that’s been moving for a while on this thing, but there’s something that’s, like, as tall as you are sitting, in front of you, and it’s not Kendal.” Linda keeps her calm and asks the presence to touch its head. On the screen, a faint line extends up from the side of the figure, as if following Linda’s directions.

Now the team can pack up and head back to FPI headquarters. They’ve found their ghost.