The ominous, 112-year-old Dr. Phillips House stares down at me like a bully in the school lunchroom. It's 10 p.m. on Friday, May 12 and I'm going ghost hunting with a group of local amateur paranormal investigators who call themselves White Light Investigations. The group chose to investigate the historic inn, 135 N. Lucerne Circle East, after reading Internet rumors that the place was haunted. David Messina, the general manager of the bed and breakfast, welcomes us with open arms.
"I've worked here for nine years," Messina says. "I've never personally seen anything, but I've gotten some guest complaints about strange things happening in their rooms."
Standing on the street, I point my digital camera toward the house for a quick photo. When I look down at the picture screen, chills go up my spine. "I think I just took a picture of a ghost," I say to one of my fellow ghost hunters.
"What are you talking about?" he says, taking my camera and inspecting the image.
I point to a tiny circle floating near a bedroom window on the second floor. "See that white ball? That's an orb. These white circles are supposed to be the energies of spirits. Or at least that's what the ghost hunters say on the web."
To be sure, I snap another photo. No orb. Before I can jump into my car and make an escape, two vans pull up. David Edwards and his team of paranormal investigators climb out, holding boxes of electrical equipment and head toward the house. Edwards started White Light Investigations in January with a group of friends and family. They don't charge for their services, but they do accept donations.
The Dr. Phillips House, one of the oldest homes in Orlando, is only the group's second investigation. Originally built in 1893, it was extensively renovated by citrus mogul and arts supporter Dr. Philip Phillips, and he and his wife Della moved into the house in 1912. There is no known history of death on the property. Today, it's a beautiful bed and breakfast inn, and a popular place for weddings.
White Light's first investigation was Jan. 22 at the Annie Russell Theatre at Rollins College. Edwards says he wanted to follow up on the longtime rumors that it was haunted and that the photos are amazing. "There were orbs everywhere, sometimes dozens in just one photo."
There were also drastic temperature changes there, accompanied by strong electromagnetic field readings, according to Edwards. White Light supplies clients with investigation reports, but they usually don't definitively state that a site is haunted. Rather, they catalog findings such as photographed orbs, EMF readings, temperature changes, voices or apparitions.
THUMP IN THE DARK
As we cross the enormous wooden threshold, we're confronted by a portrait of an old man in a top hat, hands on his hips, staring back at us. Edwards directs us into the first room on the left of the foyer. He unpacks his gear: a hand-held tape recorder, a video camera with night vision, two EMF detectors and a digital camera.
Edwards, by day a reservationist for Marriott Hotels, has a slight frame and a small tattoo on his right earlobe. His voice is rarely louder than a whisper. "We have to be quiet, there are two people renting rooms here tonight," he says. "But other than that, we have access to nearly every room in the house, even the wine cellar."
The other members of the group are Tom Wright, a chemist, and Charles Lufcy, a private investigator and painter. Marybeth Wright, the group's clairvoyant, normally accompanies them, but she is sick tonight. Edwards says Wright can sense when a spirit is in the room. He also says she can tell the sex of the spirit, and whether it's aggressive, happy or sad.
"We're going to split up into two groups," says Edwards. "After we're done investigating each room, we'll come back to this room and look over what we've got on our recorders."
I hold an EMF detector against an electrical outlet on the wall and watch as it shrieks and flashes a red light. I move away from the wall, and the detector falls silent.
"[The EMF detector] will go off if whenever it detects energy. If it goes off for you, we'll go ahead and take some photos to see if we can get any orbs on camera," says Edwards.
We head toward the winding staircase on the left side of the foyer. As we stare at the paintings on every wall, the lights begin to flicker. We rush down the staircase and find Edwards still getting situated near the front door.
"Did you just hit the light switches?" I ask anxiously. "The lights just flickered."
"No," he says. "I haven't been near any of the light switches."
We all stare at each other and smile, refusing to verbalize our fear that ghosts are playing games with us.
"Let's go down to the wine cellar and set up the video camera," says Edwards.
The cellar is dark and muggy, and it smells musty. At the top of the stairs, Edwards flashes a few pictures. Two orbs can be seen to the right of the staircase. At the bottom of the stairs, chairs are piled on top of each other on the right side of the room. To the left, old boxes and random trinkets sit undisturbed, covered in a thin layer of dust. Someone flips off the light switch.
"Most of what we do is done in the dark," explains Edwards. "Orbs can be seen by our cameras better in the dark."
I wave my EMF meter in the air. Suddenly, there's a series of loud knocks. The noise is coming from a small closet to my left. I peer through the glass door of the closet, and see nothing.
"Did you guys hear that?" I ask.
Edwards interrupts. "Let's leave the video camera down here and go upstairs. When we're all done, we'll come back down here to see if we caught anything on camera."
For the next hour I snap photos - some with orbs and some without. But the spookiest part of our evening won't begin until nearly midnight.
We walk up two more flights of stairs to try our luck in one of the bedroom suites. Within minutes, a fellow explorer's EMF detector starts beeping while he's standing next to an antique armoire. We open it and find only phone books. There are no electrical outlets around. The beeping starts off slow at first, then gets faster.
On the other side of the room, the EMF detector goes off when it gets near a footstool at the end of the bed. "Uh, I'm not trying to freak anyone out, but my tape recorder is turning on and off by itself," I say. For the next few minutes, the detector beeps and my recorder goes off and on. I'm contemplating making a run for it when Edwards walks in. "All of our electronics are going crazy," I explain. He stands across the room and snaps a half-dozen photos.
"There are two orbs right next to you," he says excitedly. I take a picture with my camera. A bright orb is floating over a small set of stairs leading to the hot tub behind me. The beeping suddenly stops, then starts again. I scan for outlets but we're in the middle of the room, away from the walls.
"There's an orb in the doorway - looks like he's heading out the door now," he says. When we pass through the doorway, the EMF detector beeps briefly. The hair on my arms is standing up. I scurry down the stairs without looking back.
Downstairs I find Messina, the general manager, bagging trash and cleaning up. I tell him what happened upstairs and he smiles.
"We have this one corporate guest who is a regular here - he stays in Room 6 at the top of the stairs. He's from England, and he tells me that his house is haunted." Messina pauses. "He says he's never seen or felt anything like he has in Room 6."
"What has he seen?" I ask.
"He didn't say. He just says he feels it. Then we had this couple staying in Room 4. They were both in the bathroom getting their stuff together to leave and they walk out to find a baby's sock sitting in the middle of the bedroom floor. It wasn't there before they walked into the bathroom. No one visited that room either," he says.
As I head down another hallway in front of the dining room, it dead-ends into a set of bathrooms. A large antique china cabinet stands against the wall, and I move closer to look at a set of glass kettles. My EMF detector goes off when it touches the wood of the cabinet.
Edwards hears it from around the corner and comes over to see what's happening. I move to the center of the room and hold the detector directly over my head with a straight arm. The detector screams. For the next 10 minutes it appears as though I'm chasing an invisible man. The beeping starts and stops in different parts of the room. Then Wright's EMF detector begins to beep too.
"Are we setting each other off?" he asks, and we touch equipment. No beeping. I put my hand over my head, and the beeping resumes. Both of us are picking up strong signals. Edwards starts snapping pictures.
"Leigh, you've got two bright orbs right on your shoulder," he says. I get goose bumps. After 20 minutes of random beeping, we eventually get tired and call it a night.
The next day, I examine the pictures. Out of more than 100 photos, 32 of them contain orbs. A photo from the cellar shows an orb that, when I zoom in, looks like a human face. Another photo shows a hazy, transparent object standing in a bedroom doorway. The videotape in the attic was too dark to show anything on-screen, but loud humming and knocking sounds continued throughout the taping.
In situations like the one I experienced, it can be hard to separate the observer from the observations. So I consulted an expert, Hoyt Edge, Ph.D., a professor of philosophy at Rollins College and co-editor/author of Philosophical Dimensions of Parapsychology and Foundations of Parapsychology. Edge has studied parapsychology for 30 years and says human psychology plays a big part in a ghost hunt.
"If someone is doing a paranormal investigation, oftentimes they are anticipating an outcome," says Edge. "Now does [the psychology of the investigator] explain everything? No. But these types of spooky situations can really get someone's imagination going."
He adds, "[After my years of study,] I can't say that I believe in ghosts. But I definitely believe there is something to parapsychology. I've seen plenty of things in my life that I can't fully explain. But just because I can't explain it doesn't mean there's not a logical explanation for it."
I left my first night of ghost hunting with mixed emotions. The fact that our pictures showed orbs almost exactly where our EMF detectors were buzzing made me think. And the orb that looked like a human face didn't help. But maybe my mind was just playing tricks on me.
Until I see a glass of water floating down a hallway by itself, I doubt I'll be truly convinced. I do know one thing: Ghost hunting is a cheap thrill you won't soon forget.