St. Cloud is home to a specialty store that provides ghost hunters the tools of the trade.
ST. CLOUD — Shawn Porter, a tattooed 36-year-old Central Florida native clad all in black, sips on coffee from a stout Harley-Davidson mug in a back room of his ghost-hunting retail store.
From behind thick-rimmed black glasses at the GhostStop, Porter and his tour manager explain what wannabe investigators might find on their Friday night tag-along with Porter and his ghost-hunting buddies.
"You could hear a voice. You could hear a growl. You could hear any number of things," explains Phil Costello, 36, who is heading a special Halloween tour of the St. Cloud Chamber of Commerce building, where workers report experiencing unexplained noises and shadows.
Welcome to the world of modern-day ghost hunters.
The tools of the trade, the two explain, are electromagnetic-field readers, voice recorders and even a gadget called a "ghost box" that supposedly allows paranormal beings to communicate via text messages on a cellphone-sized screen.
Porter — a self-proclaimed "skeptic" and "geek at heart" — is quick to explain that none of his devices can prove the existence of a ghost.
Many were adapted from technology meant to detect movement, changes in room temperature or radio frequencies. Some of the items he invented himself, and some technology — such as the "ghost box" — he can't fully explain. None of that, however, has halted his or fellow so-called paranormal investigators' fascination and use of the flashy devices to document encounters with unexplainable phenomena.
"Is there a way to test that it's actually finding a ghost? I wish there was," he said. "I think that's why we do what we do. [It's] to try to find that validation for ourselves."
Porter began his ghost-hunting-supply business in 2006 after being laid off three times in one year from advertising jobs. He's a bit of a rarity in the ghost-hunting world because he's managed to make a living from the field. Most so-called investigators have day jobs and don't charge to investigate sites plagued by unexplained, creepy sounds or shadowy figures. Porter does not charge for his investigations either, but for a small fee, folks can tag along to see how it's done.
In the GhostStop, one might find devices such as $20 cellphone antennas designed to pick up changes in electromagnetic fields that many believe indicate the presence of a ghost. One can also find a $28 scope that projects green laser dots into a room to detect movement or a $189 "shadow detector." Other devices such as cameras to detect thermal energy and signal the presence of a spirit cost $1,180 to $5,000.
Many of the devices are arranged in darkened rooms and sit activated for hours during investigations. Porter and his team might use a voice recorder while asking questions to see whether a ghost is present and see what feedback they might get on an electromagnetic reader. Sometimes they might catch a shadow zipping across their camera lens, or someone may feel an unexplained touch from some invisible force in the darkness.
Porter and other self-proclaimed paranormal investigators credit TV shows such as "Ghost Hunters International" with propelling their practices and gadgets into popular culture.
A growing number of Americans stepping away from traditional religion and looking for spiritual encounters might also fuel the interest, says psychologist Andrew Nichols who studies psychic phenomenon in a field known as parapsychology.
Nichols is an original ghost hunter, having done more than 600 investigations into supposed hauntings and poltergeists during his 30-year career.
"They want to experience things for themselves that they've been told all their lives cannot be," Nichols said.
According to a Pew Research Center study of Americans' religious beliefs, 29 percent of those studied said they have felt in touch with someone who was dead, up from 17 percent a decade earlier. Another report from the same group also found 74 percent of adults believe in the afterlife, while 68 percent believe angels and demons are active in the world.
Porter, interestingly enough, is not among those. Porter — who is quick to say his practices are scientific and logic-based — believes "types of energy" exist that he can't explain.
"I've had experiences that I can't quite yet explain with logical means," he said. "But I'm not necessarily going to say it's a ghost just yet."
Nichols says people would be better off trying to understand supposed ghostly encounters by studying the people who experience such events rather than relying on questionable gadgets touted as being "scientific." Joe Nickell, a longtime paranormal investigator and author of the book "The Science of Ghosts," contends that many ghost hunters' supposed findings can be explained by physical actions or equipment anomalies. Their work, he contends, is even "fundamentally anti-science" and "misses all the points."
Porter acknowledges that the ghost-hunting field is rife with a variety of perspectives. So much is unproved, so much unknown, and he admittedly is no ghost expert, but business, meanwhile, is good. Porter ships his gadgets as far away as Australia and the United Kingdom. He plans on hiring two extra employees for the holiday season and says he's been able to make a living from something he loves doing.
"I just find it hard to use the word 'professional' when it comes to a field like this," he said.
At the end of the weekend investigation, Porter and Costello relax alone in the Chamber of Commerce upstairs boardroom. At about 1:30 a.m. — three hours into their work — what sounded like footsteps rattled a empty downstairs room. The two scrambled downstairs but failed to find a source. They thump an upstairs door, rattled shutters but failed to recreate the sound. Whatever it was — like much of what Porter finds — remained unexplained.
"Maybe one day we'll have some really awesome proof that will really help validate what we're doing," Porter said. "But at this time there's nothing that really solid."