Norm Gagnon isn’t a "Scooby-Doo" kind of ghost hunter.
Founder of the paranormal investigation team Supernatural Entity Anomaly & Cryptid Hunters (SEARCH), Gagnon has little time for campfire stories and big dogs that talk. He takes his work seriously, exploring the strange, ghostly and paranormal all the way from Alexandria to Fairfax.
"I'm not into folklore, urban legends, campfires," said Gagnon. "I want the facts. I do research."
The Springfield resident and graphic artist, whose favorite ghost movies are "Ghostbusters" and "Ghost," knows about the supernatural. He knows how to get rid of harmful spirits and can describe the difference between an orb and a poltergeist. Amateurs take heed: he can tell a fake from a mile away.
"Everybody is catching orbs these days," said Gagnon. An orb, he said, is a spirit or otherworldly energy taking the form of a glowing ball. It can show up in photographs, he said, but most of the time, the "orbs" people catch on film are actually ordinary objects like dust particles, raindrops or insects.
"People always go out into graveyards to have a picnic, and they take photos and see a streak," he said, "It's usually just a moth that flew by."
The orbs Gagnon has caught on film have no alternate explanations: a blue streak above a colleague's head in a dark, haunted house; three spots of red light in an Alexandria restaurant. Because of the position and situation in which he took the pictures, said Gagnon, the orbs could not have been the results of dust, or reflections or premature film exposure.
GAGNON HAS all the necessary tools to look for ghosts. He carries with him an electromagnetic meter, digital and 35mm film cameras, casting plaster for curious footprints, electric voice phenomena recorder, magnifying glass and compass. These all fit into a black photographer's vest retooled for optimum investigating, with extra pockets and LED lights attached to the shoulders. Gagnon likes to have his hands free when he's investigating, especially since most of his work takes place in the dark.
"[Malevolent ghosts] always attack at night for some strange reason," said Gagnon. "Well, I can give you a good reason. Because it's scarier."
When Gagnon and the SEARCH team receive a call from someone experiencing strange phenomena, the first thing they do is to rule out all "real-world" explanations. Gagnon has his own scientific procedural consultant, Jeremy Cheron, a New Orleans native and physics student who goes with Gagnon on investigations to check the accuracy of his scientific process.
To Cheron, heavy-duty equipment such as a thermocompass (measuring air temperature with an infrared beam), radiation detector, and separate meters for electronic and magnetic fields are especially important when investigating the paranormal. A sudden spike in temperature could just be a natural change in air pressure, he said, and a high electromagnetic reading often happens because of a nearby power line.
"At one [ghost watching] event I went to in New Orleans, every time people experienced stuff was after a rain," said Cheron. When it rains, he said, radon gas comes up from the topsoil, and that is what people were detecting on their meters.
A large part of paranormal investigation for Gagnon is interviewing people affected by ghostly activity, using techniques from his days as a private investigator. According to Cheron, SEARCH is also one of the first groups to do a full chemical analysis of a site's soil.
It is critical to research the history of a haunted house or site, said Gagnon. He once investigated "Miss Lucy," a 19th century ghost said to haunt a Manassas hotel. After some research, said Gagnon, he discovered the hotel had in fact been built in the 1940s.
CHERON ADMITS that the paranormal gets a little more glamorous when the Halloween month is at hand. Gagnon receives more calls for help — and, unfortunately, more prank calls — in the days around Halloween than any other month.
"I think people start thinking of those kinds of things more, just like how they say people are nicer during Christmas time," said Cheron. "It's a perfect time where everyone can get scared."
Gagnon researches regularly for other area ghost watching groups, such as D.C. Metro Area Ghost Watchers (DCMAG). Northern Virginia, with its Civil War battlefields and proximity to the country's political scandal epicenter, is a hotbed for ghostly activity, said Al Tyas, founder of DCMAG.
"There have been wars and death, and a lot of negativity around here," said Tyas. Untimely death is the main cause of ghosts, he said: people may feel they have unfinished business, or not even know they are gone.
A few years ago, Tyas investigated the Bailiwick Inn in downtown Fairfax, after hearing stories of guests seeing a man dressed like Abraham Lincoln in the dining room, or children seeing strange people their parents could not.
Jenny Colbertson of the Bailiwick Inn had not heard of many ghost stories, but said housekeeping staff have reported feeling strange in some of the rooms.
"I've heard of people getting spooky feelings in certain rooms because the rooms are older than others," said Colbertson.
Chris Mock, who has worked at the inn for nearly 14 years, said a guest related seeing a woman figure on the ceiling one night.
According to Tyas, Old Town Alexandria is another supernatural hotbed.
"There was a time where Old Town Alexandria was mainly bars and brothels," said Tyas. "It was really a seedy area. A lot of fights and negative things would take place, people would get murdered."
One of Gagnon's most successful investigations took place in an Alexandria restaurant. A manager saw a painting levitate, said Gagnon, and glasses would slide down the bar by themselves. One bartender reported seeing a handful of ice picked up and thrown at the wall, but no one was there to do it. He located a poltergeist, he said, wrote a report, and got rid of the ghost.
"I enjoy helping people. I enjoy investigating as well," said Gagnon. "Just having a well-documented case is worth the whole adventure, I guess you could say. "
For Gagnon, ghosts are part of the spiritual world, and for this reason, he said, he relies on the Bible and other ancient texts for historical and spiritual guidelines. People should be careful how they are opening themselves up to the spirit world, he said, telling the story of a young girl who would wake up in the middle of the night with scratches on her back. After he conducted an investigation, he found the girl’s family members had been dabbling in black magic. It had opened the family up to demonic forces, he said.
"The Bible has everything you need to know about angels, demons and witchcraft," said Gagnon. "It's a guide to make you stay away from these things so you will not get harmed. It's like a Boy Scout manual that says, 'Don't stick your head in the fire, or you'll get burned.'"
"These creatures date from before mankind was created," he said. "Not too many people on this Earth know totally about their attributes and the way they think."