One day when Bertie Denby was 17, she spent the afternoon at a friend’s house. The friend’s older sister had a guest as well – a self-professed psychic, a woman who claimed to see spirits wherever she went. Bertie and her friend began to play with a Ouija board, something they’d done several times before. When she saw what they were doing, the psychic began to lecture the two friends on how important it was to not let just any spirit through – the wrong kind of spirit could hurt them.
Bertie and her friend asked the woman to sit and help them weed out the harmful spirits. “Concentrate on contacting a good spirit, and imagine yourselves enveloped in a white light for protection,” the psychic said.
They complied. The planchet began to move. “Who is it?” Bertie asked the psychic.
“A lonely young man,” she replied. “A good but lonely spirit.”
Once she was sure the spirit would not harm the two girls, the psychic left. Bertie and her friend continued to talk to the spirit through the Ouija board.
“What’s your name?” they asked him.
“How did you die?”
Bertie was shaken. A good friend of hers named Michael had drowned in a car wreck a few years before.
Driven by curiosity, the two asked if they could talk to him again in the future. He said yes.
The afternoon conversations with Michael continued. “Where are you?” they asked. “Can you describe it?” He answered that he was in something like a maze. “Can you see our futures? Will you tell us?” He could, but he wouldn’t. “Do you look the same?” He didn’t know, because he couldn’t see himself.
Since it was 1989, they asked the obligatory “Did you go to Madonna’s house?” Yes, he had gone to Madonna’s house. “Do you go to your house?” He answered that he spent a lot of time at his house with his mom because she was so sad.
“In the afterlife, do you ever see the girl who was driving the car when you died?” No, he said; she never left her house because she was angry and scared.
The more Bertie talked to the spirit, the more convinced she became that it was her deceased friend.
Her confirmation came out of the blue one afternoon when the Ouija board spelled out, “Bertie, I am Michael.”
“I began to cry, because I believed him,” Bertie recalls. “It was the way the planchet moved. It just made sense. It felt like the way he would move it. I know that sounds corny, and some, if not all, skeptics would say I was naive and gullible.”
But then something happened that proved beyond a doubt to Bertie that the spirit was in fact her friend Michael. One day, some of her friends who were four or five years older than her came to her house to hang out. They shared Bertie’s curiosity for the unknown, so she told them about her experiences with Michael. They begged Bertie to call him, so she hauled out the Ouija board. An hour later, Bertie left for work, lending her friends the board so they could keep talking to Michael at their house.
Bertie received a call from them at work. “What kind of car did Michael drive?” they asked.
“What kind of car did he tell you he drove?” Bertie replied, curious about what they would tell her.
“A black Trans Am,” they said. Bertie was shocked – that was right. There was no way they could have known that – they didn’t attend high school with Bertie, and they had never met Michael while he was alive.
The experience cemented Bertie’s belief in the paranormal, a passion she has since channeled into founding Austin–based Ghost Hunters of Texas with her friend Rhonda Pointer. Rhonda is more skeptical than Bertie about the existence of ghosts, having never had a paranormal experience herself. “I have trouble believing in things I cannot sense with sight, sound, touch, or smell,” she says. However, she keeps an open mind – she does believe in the possibility of the paranormal.
An investigation with friends piqued her interest in ghost hunting. In November 2006, Bertie invited Rhonda to accompany her on an investigation at the Davis Cemetery in Leander, Texas. “It just sounded like something fun to do on a Friday night,” Rhonda says. “During this investigation, I captured some interesting electronic voice phenomena, or EVPs, on my digital voice recorder that I could not explain. Because I couldn’t explain these EVPs, yet I did not believe they were necessarily evidence of paranormal occurrences, I wanted to gather actual, undeniable proof.”
A shared desire to learn more about the paranormal using scientific investigation methods led Bertie and Rhonda to a local paranormal meet-up group to find others who might be interested in helping them. It was there that they gained two more members, Pam and Noah Counts, and the Ghost Hunters of Texas were born.
Now five members strong, the group does not aim to prove or disprove that ghosts exist, but rather “to investigate paranormal phenomena using objective research and scientific-oriented data collections methods in a professional and caring manner.” Adamantly not a business, they investigate the paranormal purely for their own personal education and for the satisfaction of helping others. For example, people often send them emails with strange photos or questions about abnormal activity they’ve witnessed, and the Ghost Hunters try to help the people to the best of their ability – for free.
Although the Ghost Hunters do as much from their computers as they can, they prefer to go into the field and conduct investigations themselves. Their equipment is not super-fancy or extravagant: four digital cameras, a couple of digital voice recorders, a digital video camcorder, a Sony Hi8 camcorder with night shot, compasses, and electromagnetic field detectors (also called EMF detectors or magnetometers), which are used to measure the direction and magnitude of a magnetic field in order to detect a ghost’s magnetic energy. But the most useful pieces of equipment are the digital voice recorders, which capture EVPs. “The best piece of evidence is EVPs. They are easier to catch than video footage. We have caught some interesting EVPs that speak for themselves, literally,” says Bertie.
The course of an investigation depends on its location, but one thing is constant: the Ghost Hunters document as much as they possibly can. First they interview the client about what exactly they’ve seen and explain to them how the investigation will be conducted. The client or a member of the client’s family normally goes along so they can learn to not be afraid. Because every location the Ghost Hunters investigate is different, they take videos of the buildings and property as a baseline to compare later videos to. If anything odd pops up on a video filmed at night, all they need to do is look at the video filmed in daylight to check to see if the abnormality could be the result of a light, reflection, or anything else along those lines. Around 10pm they set up the equipment, split into teams of two, and begin. Lights are out and everyone is silent during an investigation. “Less talking helps with EVP work, and the lights being out puts off less electromagnetic energy,” explain Bertie and Rhonda. After several hours of recording and searching, the investigation concludes around 3am or later.
If they capture anything out of the ordinary and unexplainable, they tell the client and put the information on their website for others to discuss in their forum, which includes threads like “Anyone know a good demonologist?” and “Smells at haunted locations.” Their site includes links to several YouTube slideshows of evidence (check out their YouTube site) they’ve gathered as well as a page of ghost-hunting terminology, like “astral body” (the body that a person occupies during an out-of-body experience) and “ignus fatuus” (a phosphorescent or spectral light that that is alleged to be an indication of death).
It was at a Ghost Hunters investigation at the Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana, that Bertie had her most exciting encounter with a ghost. “I felt something around my left knee, and when I looked down, nothing was there, but I saw my jeans depress, as if something was leaning on me. It was a bizarre feeling. One other person saw what I saw, so that was validating. It was not a malicious feeling. I didn’t feel threatened by it.” She had another startling experience at the Davis Cemetery investigation: “I felt a wave of sickness, like I was suddenly going to get sick. The feeling lasted about 20 minutes. Someone stated that I was being followed by a woman who died giving birth. It was her sickness I felt. Whatever it was, I was fine when I arrived, then felt sick, and felt fine again.”
For now, the Ghost Hunters of Texas are content to continue their investigations and gather evidence. “I do believe emerging technology will eventually make it possible to prove or disprove,” says Rhonda.
“Don’t be afraid of the unknown,” says Bertie. “Be open-minded and curious. Knowledge is power.”