Many times when homeowners call me to help, they think I can just wave a magic wand, (but) it doesn’t work that way.— Dusty Smith, paranormal activity investigator
In the 2011 film “Dream House,” the married protagonists, played by Rachel Weisz and Daniel Craig, move to a cozy home in New England. It has everything they want... and more: Their new abode comes outfitted with a paranormal presence that makes living there only too disturbing. “Dream House” is hardly the first Hollywood film to show innocent people moving into a spooky house, but for some people the scare is real. These homeowners believe they have experienced, or currently live with, an otherworldly entity. Establishing that you have ghosts may be the simplest aspect of a haunting; getting rid of them — or trying — is a whole other matter.
The Ghost Hunter
Doris “Dusty” Smith at times has brought her work home with her. This doesn't mean a stack of files to check, but a haunting spirit with a new focus: her.
Smith is a ghost hunter, to put it in simple terms, and has been since the 1990s. She established the nonprofit Daytona Beach (Florida) Paranormal Research Group Inc. in 1997. With her investigative team in tow, she has assisted homeowners along the East Coast in their attempts to cope with strange, sometimes dangerous specters.
“We go in if people have or think they have a ghost or other entity,” Smith said. “The first time we go out we do a lot of information gathering, then do historical background research.”
Smith said she invariably finds a significant history to the property, one that includes multiple instances of death, suicide or even murder. The people who buy the property are rarely aware of this history.
Smith’s most amazing case involved a home in Deltona, Florida. It was built on top of ground sacred to the Native Americans who lived in the area more than 100 years earlier. The couple, Edd and Beth Dunnam, moved to the rented home in June 2001 and shortly thereafter began to experience strange occurrences: kitchen cabinets that would suddenly all open simultaneously, weird banging noises, a shower that would run on its own and, ultimately, visible apparitions. Smith wrote a book about the experience, "Dread and the Dead Filled the Dunnam House," in 2005 (PublishAmerica). The Dunnams’ story was also featured in 2006 on the Discovery Channel’s weekly series, “A Haunting.”
“It was a pretty active piece of property,” Smith said. “It was in a subdivision, a nice neighborhood, but a little research revealed that it was the site of an old moveable Spanish fort (and) a Native American sacred settlement was there. In later years, a woman had died in the house, a man was murdered in the house across the street, and a child was accidentally killed in the street in front of the house.”
Smith said Edd Dunnam contacted her after he saw the ghost of a man who was dressed in a red flannel shirt smoking a cigar. Dunnam claimed he could even smell the smoke.
The unnerved Dunnams sought help on the Internet and found Smith. Her research showed the murder victim who had lived across the street was friends with the lady who owned the Dunnam house. He visited her to play cards, and he liked to wear red flannel shirts — and smoke cigars.
“The Dunnams were my first really serious case," Smith said, "because it wasn’t just a ghost; they had all four types of hauntings going on simultaneously.”
Haunted House Types
The first of the four different types of hauntings is “residual entity,” which Smith describes as a memory or past event that imprints on space and time and replays over and over just like a film. An “intelligent haunting” is the most common. It is the ghost of a person who may or may not know he or she is dead (“Most don’t,” says Smith). This ghost throws things, exhibits the temperature differentials, mostly to cold, and is both visible and invisible. A poltergeist may be the most famous because of the so-titled 1982 Steven Spielberg film about a family moving into a haunted house. It is a German word meaning “noisy ghost.” It combines active and noisy spirits, as well as a form of telekinesis caused by a heightened hormonal state. The last of the four is a demonic haunting, which — as Smith says — “Needs no explanation.”
The process of exorcising spirits varies by type, Smith said, but it essentially comes down to commanding the presence to leave in a nonthreatening way or through an intense, ritualistic “cleansing” ceremony.
“It doesn’t always work and sometimes people may just have to live with it,” Smith said. “Many times when homeowners call me to help, they think I can just wave a magic wand, (but) it doesn’t work that way.”
The Dunnam investigation involved audio and video recording equipment that ran 24 hours a day, temperature monitors to detect rapid changes, and screening the air for abnormal electromagnetism. Smith said she was able to produce evidence across the board of the haunting, including photos and audio recordings.
“In one tape, there was what sounded like hundreds of voices, almost like a cocktail party,” Smith said.
The Dunnams did not live happily ever after in the Deltona house. Smith said that although she spent eight months working with the family, trying to push the paranormal forces out of the house, she did not succeed.
“Toward the end it got worse and worse,” Smith said.
When the Dunnams’ baby was seemingly attacked in its crib by a gray shadow, Smith said, she told them, “Enough is enough. You all need to get out of the house.” They ended up moving to a new town and have lived free of further hauntings, although Edd Dunnam — who now is employed by Smith's research group as a field investigator sensitive — has since been struck by lightning three times, according to Smith.
“Isn’t that the strangest thing!” she said, chuckling. “He’s just some sort of magnet.”
Smith may also be a magnet for paranormal activity. Personal experience with the supernatural occurred early in her life and she adopted the motto, “Be an open-minded skeptic.”
As a young child, her late great-grandfather’s rocking chair rocked in the attic above her room. At 17, Smith bought her first home. While in her bathroom she would hear a girl’s voice say “Thank you.” Doors would consistently slam when she was alone in the house. She went to the local library and researched the address. She discovered a young woman had committed suicide in the home’s laundry room in 1964.
She also believes something she encountered at the Dunnam house followed her home. “Whatever it was, it was not in a good mood,” she said.
She describes the entity as a shadow that appeared on her front doorstep and agitated her dog. When she opened the door to confront it, her porch light exploded.
“It didn’t just go out, like a light bulb does — it literally shattered,” said Smith.
Also, Smith’s television set went on the fritz exhibiting a vertical line running down the middle. She took it to several different repair shops but no one could explain it, she said.
According to a 2005 random nationwide poll conducted by CBS News, nearly half of Americans interviewed — 48 percent — said they believed in ghosts. Twenty-two percent of respondents said they had personally seen or felt the presence of a ghost. Even more —- 78 percent of Americans — say they believe in life after death.
There are plenty of alleged paranormal investigators out there, some of whom have their adventures documented on TV shows. Skeptics have reason to find purported evidence dubious. Documented evidence on websites such as paranormalinvestigators.com show photos with glowing “orbs” in homes where the owners report hearing odd noises or voices and other strange phenomena. Where some eyes see bizarre orbs, others see simply dust or camera anomalies. The CBS poll results showed that many who believe in ghosts also do not believe that the existence of ghosts is provable. Of those questioned, 87 percent said science will never prove an afterlife exists. Only 8 percent felt that science can demonstrate proof.
Smith, motivated by her personal experiences, developed an interest in science, but she found dedicated academic pursuit in the paranormal field to be extremely limited. In college, she studied science and psychology, which comes in handy in her current field.
“When working with people (experiencing hauntings), I find a lot of times I am nursemaid, babysitter, psychologist all rolled into one,” Smith said. “These are scared people who just want to live in peace.”
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