Talking Head for the Undead 

Loyd Auerbach has turned the study of all things ghostly into a thriving business. Even though all some clients need is a good placebo.

Loyd Auerbach sees dead people.
No, wait. That's not quite right. Loyd Auerbach has been pinched by dead people. He has been patted on the back by them. He has smelled their cigar smoke. He has taken their photos, recorded their movements with electronic devices, asked them questions, and gotten answers. At one point, he says, a dead person walked right through him, a sensation that he describes as "tingly, in a good way." But he has not, as of yet, actually seen any of them, and frankly this seems to leave him a little chagrined, even though Loyd Auerbach is certainly not one of those people who has to see in order to believe.

Auerbach is one of the few people in the world with an advanced degree in parapsychology, and one of an even more select few who run ghost-hunting operations from their dens. In formal terms, Auerbach's den is known as the Office of Paranormal Investigations, from which he oversees a team of about six Bay Area ghost hunters, many of them affiliates of the extremely unusual and short-lived parapsychology master's program at John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, where Auerbach used to teach.

The program's untimely demise, however, has done little to slow Auerbach down. In his several decades as a paranormal researcher, he has turned the study of all things ghostly into a thriving business, and his media savvy has made him into something of a talking head for the undead. He has written four books about the supernatural and markets his own line of seminars, videotapes, and ghost-story cassettes. He frequently serves as a consultant for sci-fi TV shows and news programs wanting the downlow on the unexplained. Electronics retailers looking to push certain models of electromagnetic meters used on ghost-hunting expeditions like to drop his name. And since Auerbach also enjoys performing sleight of hand at parties and hosting séances -- something of a sideline to the ghost-hunting business, which itself is a sideline to his part-time day job as a consultant for LexisNexis -- he has also recently adopted the stage name "Professor Paranormal," which has a more impressive ring to it than "Loyd" does.

Today, as Auerbach prepares to lead a ghost- hunting team through the USS Hornet, he believes he stands a fairly good chance of seeing something spooky. According to local legend, the World War II naval carrier now docked at Alameda Island is haunted by the spirits of dozens of prankish sailors. "It's unusual to have this many at all, but we're dealing with, essentially, a city," Auerbach says. Part of the Hornet's draw for the departed is said to be that it was the site of good memories and youthful camaraderie. The ship's old-boy charm attracts the living, too. "The ghosts are hanging out, just like the docents, guys who used to be in the Navy," he says.

Auerbach's ghost-hunting method is based upon correlating as many forms of documenta- tion as possible, including cameras, machines, and people's sensory perceptions. Accordingly, each member of the team assembled for today's excursion has a particular strength. Neva Turnock, one of Auerbach's seminar students, is along to lend her abilities as a psychic. Pam Heath, an investigator who has been working with the Office of Paranormal Investigations for seven years and has degrees in medicine and psychology, claims to be psychically sensitive, but also has brought along a small black box called a TriField meter. It measures the electromagnetic fields in both natural and man-made objects, and ghost hunters use it to look for unaccounted-for energy sources. Auerbach is carrying a black duffel bag filled with his own selection of equipment including a variety of electromagnetic meters, a small videocamera, a Polaroid camera (known among ghost hunters as more reliable than digital or 35 mm film), and a fluorescent light for detecting static electricity.

Ghost-hunting lore is rife with electronics that malfunction and tapes that are wiped blank in the presence of supernatural phenomena, so the tour gets off to a promising start when a reporter's tape recorder stops working once it gets within a few feet of the Hornet. But the only dead things affecting the machine turn out to be its batteries, which are replaced. The group makes its way into the bowels of the ship, heading for the medical bay, where Auerbach says he has previously witnessed paranormal stunts, including unexplained dancing lights showing up on video and a ghost performing on demand. On that occasion, Auerbach says he asked the ghost to move a hand over to the TriField meter. The needle jumped. Then Auerbach asked him to move it away. The needle went back to zero. It went on like that for quite some time.

But today, there are no disembodied wise guys, and the needles on the two meters Auerbach has set up around the room stay resolutely at zero, even when members of the ghost-hunting party try a little wheedling out loud. "If they don't want to cooperate, they don't want to cooperate," he says as everyone finally gives up their cajoling efforts. Luckily, according to Heath and Turnock there are plenty of ghosts in evidence elsewhere on the ship today, although most of them turn out to be markedly shy. In the chapel, both women sense a kindly, older presence, who nevertheless wishes we'd leave. The Polaroid pictures Auerbach shoots of a petty officer's bunk, where Turnock says she is getting a very strong impression of a sad and angry young man, show nothing unusual. In the pilot's mess, where Turnock says she senses a genial, class-clown type, it's impossible to get any readings because the low-hung fluorescent lights are putting off such strong signals that they overload all the TriField meters. And when the group reaches the sailors' sleeping quarters, Turnock is immediately overcome with nausea. "I think I'm going to throw up," she says, clapping a hand over her mouth and heading for the nearest bathroom.

Both Auerbach and Heath agree that they've felt this happen before, and interpret it as a signal that human visitors are not welcomed by whichever spirit is in residence that day. "There was a spot that several of us could not even walk into right off the hangar bay," Auerbach says. "We got waves of nausea just walking in there."

The ghosts hanging around in the ladies' room, however, turn out to be much more receptive to the female ghost hunters. "They may be dead, but they haven't forgotten," offers Heath, who says she has frequently encountered ghosts in the women's bathroom, formerly the ship's engine room. "They tend to be polite, though. They don't enter the stalls, but they do love to watch women put on makeup in the mirrors."

Turnock, who is standing with her hands palms up in front of her, gazing fixedly at the wall ahead of her, says she sees a very young man. Heath moves her TriField meter in front of Turnock's hands. The needle jumps up from the zero position almost to the five mark, a fairly high reading. Then Heath waves the meter behind Turnock's back, and the signal disappears. "It was off the scale a minute ago," Heath mutters. This is a good sign -- it means whatever is affecting the meter isn't evenly distributed throughout the environment. But a check for possible signal sources reveals that Turnock is standing awfully close to a wall-mounted fuse box, which could be causing the high reading.

The rest of the team suggest that she try to get the ghost to move away from the fuse box for another reading. "I'm asking him to walk with me," Turnock murmurs, heading towards the row of sinks on the other side of the room.


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