If you’re here,” said Ron Holcomb patiently in the eerie silence of the dark Journigan House dining room well past the witching hour, “turn on the flashlight.”
The hopeful group of ghost hunters sat expectantly around the glass-topped, red-table-clothed table — not 20 feet from where the restaurant’s owner Jimmy Johnson had already told them the body of a long-missing woman might well lie encased in concrete.
The flashlight flickers on, flares, steadies and shines steadily in the darkness.
“Good. Thank you,” said Ron calmly, a computer tech for the state who, in his spare time, with a group of skeptical true believers runs down rumors of ghosts in historic Arizona sites. On the table sat two twist-top flashlights, a temperature and electromagnetic field detector, a beach ball and two little toy cars sitting expectantly on a dusting of powder.
“We don’t want to hurt you,” added Rick Cercone, a retired Army helicopter pilot and high school teacher working on his Ph.D. in paranormal science who brings a fondness for gadgets and a methodical persistence to the group. “We’re parents. We just want to communicate.”
The pause filled up the poignant darkness of the home-turned-restaurant, built in the 1920s, with its long accumulation of dark tales and historic events. Johnson had primed the amateur team with tales of the strange sounds, shadowy figures, whispered voices and chilling touches that have unnerved cooks, waiters and managers. Now, the nine-person team from Phoenix Scientific Paranormal Investigations (PHXSPI.com) hoped to make contact here, as they feel they’ve done at supernatural hot spots throughout the state.
Last Saturday as snow drifted down outside, they had set up eight infrared cameras and sound recorders to keep sleepless vigil over every room in the place from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. It will take a month to review all the recordings for telltale blobs of light or whispered voices. But in the meantime, the ghost hunters wandered from room to room, attempting to make direct contact.
“To show us that you’re still here, we now want you to turn off the flashlight,” said Ron.
The silence stretched taunt.
“Please, just turn off the light,” said Rick.
The light flickered. Fades. Brightened. Faded to black. It was a slender flashlight you turn on and off by twisting the top. The team set the flashlights down just a fraction of a twist from turned on to make it easy for the spirits to communicate.
“Good. That’s good,” said Rick.
Now the pair worked to coax information out of the assumed specter — not at all discouraged by the lack of a response from the motion sensors to detect electromagnetic fields, motion and temperature changes. Rick also had nothing showing on his motion picture camera, although it recorded both infrared and ultraviolet emissions.
“Are you a man?” asked Ron, wondering whether it might be “Mel,” who Jimmy said was a former owner who had died alone in a little room upstairs. Reportedly, witnesses sometimes still see him on a midnight stroll down Main Street.
“Are you a woman?” asked Ron, wondering whether it might be the mysteriously missing wife of a former resident who Jimmy swore was likely buried in a mysterious block of concrete poured for no evident reason in the water-heater storage area.
“Are you a child?” asked Ron, wondering whether it might be the child several employees have reported seeing or hearing — and who Jimmy swears is the unnamed girl on one of the historic pictures that lines the wall.
“Are you neither man, woman or child?” asked Rick, perplexed.
The flashlight flickered back on. Ron and Rick exchanged startled looks in the glow of the flashlight. “Now turn the flashlight off again,” said Ron.
After a minute, the flashlight flickered off.
They repeated the sequence of questions with the same result — neither man, woman or child.
Well, that’s how it goes in the ghost hunting business: Never quite know what to expect — even in a seeming hot spot like the Journigan House, whose employees wear T-shirts with a ghost and the logo “Got Spirits.”
“I know they’re here — and they’re not mean,” said Johnson. “But they throw stuff around to piss you off.”
Just about every employee it seems can recount some sort of experience: Pans flying off the shelf; shadowy figures leaning against the bar; odd sounds in empty rooms, sudden chills in the air; footsteps in the night; lights that turn on and switch off when you yell at them; voices from nowhere; a child’s handprint in the morning on the mirror cleaned at night in the women’s bathroom.
Manager Kevin Mystrom said one night after he closed up he saw the shadowy figure of a man in a cowboy hat leaning against the bar, which vanished when he turned his head. He’s heard footsteps in the empty restaurant, seen pans fly across the kitchen and received messages on his cell phone with his “ghost detector” app. One of the ghosts is an old man who loves hot chocolate — another is a child who loves cranberry juice, he said.
“I can’t wrap my mind around it ... I was a skeptic when I started, but I’m a firm believer now.”
So is his daughter, Megan, who didn’t believe in ghosts at all until she saw the shadow figure herself — and heard all the whispers and footsteps after hours when she hung around with her dad. “It’s just too weird,” she says now.
So the PHXSCI team members had high hopes after the restaurant closed last Saturday night and started setting up their gear.
Two couples really started the group, which now has about a dozen members.
Lori and Dave Stockton showed up on Saturday. Dave’s a paramedic, Lori teaches CPR. They also brought their son, Brandon. Lori said she’s “sensitive” to the spirits — and sometimes can sense them. On Saturday, she had a strong feeling around the concrete block that might contain the body of a woman who went missing in the 1930s. She had those feelings before Jimmy told her about his theory. “Someone was choked,” she said. “Someone pushed her in. She is weeping, but she can’t. She’s in there and she wants people to know,” she said haltingly.
Ron and his wife Jeanne, a teacher, are the second founding couple of the five-year-old group, which has investigated the Tombstone Cemetery, Jerome’s Grand Hotel, Flagstaff’s Monte Vista Hotel, the Birdcage Theater in Tombstone, the Vulture Mine in Wickenburg, the old jail in Globe and other sites.
Also with the team Saturday were Jeanne’s sister, Karen Schaeffer, and Schaeffer’s daughter Sakah, 15.
The long evening yielded unsettling, but vague evidence of something strange in the haunted restaurant.
During the almost six-hour investigation, team members managed three extended flashlight-mediated conversations.
However, at least initially, the motion, infrared and electromagnetic detectors found nothing. Nor did they notice movements of the beach balls or other “trigger objects” they arranged in key locations — although someone has to watch all of the video to make sure.
They did find a smudge in one of the tabletop dustings of flour that looked a lot like a child’s fingertip — but odd markings in the smudge made them wonder whether perhaps it was actually the wheel of one of their toy car “trigger objects.”
They thought they heard footsteps on the stair up to Mel’s old room.
They also thought maybe they heard voices in a device that turns radio waves into static, which some investigators maintain ghosts can manipulate to speak.
The bottles of liquor on the shelf outside the room where Mel supposedly died set to rattling at one point, but the team concluded that was probably the heater kicking on and vibrating through the floor.
The peak moment came when the whole team drifted into the command center in front of the big fireplace off the bar to compare notes — and stare at the nine camera feeds on the oversized computer screen.
Suddenly, everyone heard a muffled, metallic thump — maybe coming from the kitchen — like a giant mixing bowl being rocked on a hard floor.
Ron headed into the kitchen with his infrared camera, but found nothing amiss.
Everyone gathered again, trying to agree on the sound — and the source. About 10 minutes later, they all heard it again.
Shortly after that, two flashlights sitting on a table near the computer monitor turned on. That triggered an interrogation by Rick and Dave, with muddled results. The flashlights went on and off — more or less on command — for about 10 minutes, before they lapsed back into darkness.
Still, the team has hours of sound and video recording to review — looking for that smudge of light, the whispered voice, and the restless beach ball.
“We’ve got a lot of data,” said Rick happily.
“A lot of times we don’t hear anything while we’re sitting there,” said Dave, with a full set of paramedic shifts in the Valley ahead. “It’s only when we analyze the video that we find something.”
As for night manager Kevin Mystrom, who shuts the place down and opens back up all alone, he has all the evidence he needs.
“I made a deal with them,” he said seriously of his heart-to-heart talk with the spooks. “During the night, please don’t grab me. And so far, they’re sticking by it.”