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Four years ago, a team from the Sci-Fi Channel's "Ghost Hunters" took a nocturnal swing through Raleigh's Mordecai House, hoping to catch its famous spook on film. They found indigestion instead.
"I'm not feeling well at all," said lead investigator Grant Wilson. "But I don't think it is anything paranormal. I think it is called Buffalo Chicken Salad."
This is the sort of thrill-seeking, bumbling, half-witted grope in the dark that makes specter-searching the butt of jokes. And in August, the Mordecai House will get its haunts evaluated by trained experts armed with fancy gadgets -- not Scooby snacks.
So many ghost nuts call the city's antebellum mansion asking for permission for a sleepover that the Mordecai House offers an exclusive two-year contract to one lucky team. The winner gets no money -- just two nights a year alone in the dark with whatever unearthly beings come floating out of the walls.
And the winner is ...
Part-timer Kimberly Puryear interviewed four applicants, in some cases more than once, before picking Raleigh-based NSPIR, which stands for National Society of Paranormal and Investigation Research. They seemed the most professional, measuring electronic voice phenomena and energy field disruption.
"We DO NOT use Ouija boards, conduct séances, cast spells, or use other "mystical" means to conjure, summon or manifest spirits," NSPIR's Web site explains. "Our approach to every investigation is done in accordance with scientific principles, and in a respectful and professional manner."
To George Matthis, NSPIR's co-founder, having to apply for a spook-hunting job is unusual, but understandable.
It's not just the number of people who want to trek through the Mordecai House, where Mary Willis Mordecai Turk has been spotted wearing a gray, 19th century dress, and a piano is said to tinkle without any visible player.
It's the variety of conclusions. Two ghost crews can look at the same evidence and while one says "Spooks yea," the other says "Spooks nay." When NSPIR makes its first foray in August, it will be building on work from Mordecai's last ghost contractor, which included pictures of glowing orbs often interpreted as spirits. But to Matthis, orbs are bunk.
"Orbs could be dirt or dust in the air," he said. "It could be too many things."
As a child, Matthis would watch the skies for UFOs, and he wrote a high school term paper on the possibility of space beings. During college in Wilmington, he made lots of unsuccessful trips to see the ghostly Maco Lights along a set of railroad tracks. He's hunted haunts on the U.S.S. North Carolina.
What the hunt is all about
The way he sees it, NSPIR's reports present a tantalizing maybe more than a definitive yes. After 30 years of ghost inspections, he reports only one brush with the "holy grail" or a full-blown apparition caught on film, and even that floating figure is questionable, he said.
"I think everyone is curious to a certain degree," he said. "Most people wonder what's going to happen to them when they die. Maybe in a way that's what we're trying to tell them. Maybe they still stick around to watch after family, or they have some reason for not wanting to go."
As part of the contract, NSPIR makes a presentation during the Haunted Mordecai event in October. So Matthis will show you the video of his ghostly night, and explain what data NSPIR's various gadgets have captured.
If you're lucky, he may catch a shot of a fluttering gray dress, or the sound of tinkling ivory keys. What he won't catch is an upset stomach. Ghosts don't communicate with lightweights.