Homing in on the paranormal

The Fairfax Station home that the Virginia Ghosts & Hauntings Research Society recently investigated looks nothing like the traditional haunted house of fiction. The immense two-story, 11-room wood-and-stone dwelling has nary a Victorian nor Gothic beam in its contemporary body. But to the family who lives there, what the house looks like is irrelevant. They are sure the place is spooked, and they want proof.

Jane, 45, who shares the house with her husband and two daughters, said strange things began happening soon after the family moved into the newly built home two years ago. The family agreed to tell their story if their address and last name were not published, to protect their privacy and property.

“It started with just really unusual things,” Jane said. “About 10 minutes after we took a shower, the shower would come on by itself, just for like 15 seconds, and then shut off.

“One night my husband and I – it was the middle of the night – we were sound asleep, and all of a sudden we hear a click, and the VCR turned on and started rewinding. We hadn’t even been watching a movie that night.”

At times, members of the family said, they have witnessed phenomena such as phantom footsteps, voices whispering from the surrounding woods on the five-acre lot, unexplained knocks on walls, doors opening on their own and a front porch swing moving violently from side to side in the still night air.

Clifton, 22, the oldest child, who lives in a Fairfax townhouse, said he has seen and heard much of the ghostly stuff when he was spending the night in the house – something he now refuses to do. One night in the finished basement was particularly harrowing, he said.

“In the middle of the night, I woke up,” Clifton said, a student at George Mason University. “It sounded like it was about five to 10 voices all at once saying, ‘We’re going to get you.’ It started off quietly … and it got louder and louder. It was pitch black, I couldn’t see a thing, and I jumped up swinging … trying to protect myself. I felt threatened. I popped on the lights; nobody, nothing.”

Jane said she turned to the Internet for help only after her youngest daughter, 7, started playing with an unseen friend whom her daughter claimed had come out of a wall in the basement.

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“In light of everything else that had been going on, that really made me a little concerned,” she said.

Enter the Virginia Ghosts & Hauntings Research Society, which agreed to look into the Fairfax Station house. The society also has investigated such Virginia sites as Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria; a Circuit City store in Woodbridge; private homes in Leesburg, Herndon and Alexandria; and a historic inn in Fairfax City.

Overall, the society has investigated about 75 claims of hauntings in Virginia; such reports usually increase as Halloween approaches.

The society was founded three years ago by Bobbie Atristain, 27, of Richmond. She is an Internet systems administrator with an interest in the paranormal. Growing up, she said, “I experienced a lot of unexplained things. I saw things like shadow people. I just wanted to find out why this happens and what exactly it is.”

Inspired by the work of the Ghosts & Hauntings Research Society of Toronto, Atristain sought the Canadian group’s help in establishing a similar organization of amateur paranormal investigators throughout Virginia. Society members – with about a dozen in the core group – are not “ghostbusters” and do not exorcise or “clear” spirits, emphasized Brian Bradley, 29, of Centreville, the society’s regional director.

The group’s scientific adviser, Mark Gibson, 36, of Springfield, said, “The (society) exists to attempt to document any occurrences of what commonly might be called the paranormal. We try to document such activities with multiple media: cameras, various electrical readings and by getting multiple lines of evidence converging at the same time and place.”


Through those methods, Gibson said, “We think we can make a credible attempt to document if something paranormal has happened.”

A society investigation typically begins when a person solicits the group through its Web site www.virginiaghosts.com, Bradley said. “They will send us … their story saying what they’ve experienced, what they’ve seen, what they’ve heard and felt. We’ll establish an e-mail dialogue with them and try to get some additional information.”

If the story sounds credible, Bradley said, the society conducts what it calls a “pre-investigation” of the location by studying land records and satellite photos, the history of the area, and whether there are high-tension power lines nearby that might interfere with the group’s electronic equipment. Bradley, a site planner with an architectural firm, said the society then sends investigators to the site.

Taking a cue from paranormal investigations she had seen documented on the Discovery Channel, Jane said she was comforted when she found the society’s Web site.

“I wasn’t looking for somebody to conduct a seance,” she said. “I really wanted to stay away from that. I really wanted this to be a legitimate scientific investigation.”

Jane supplied the society with historic information from a neighbor. “The neighborhood was built in ’67 or ’68, and my father did the original land development,” the neighbor said. “About 200 yards (away from the future site of Jane’s home), they found an old tombstone from a Civil War soldier while they were out here working.”

Research by the father led to the discovery that at least nine soldiers had been buried there and later re-interred in Richmond. The neighbor said he and his father now believe it is likely that the soldiers had camped there and that some had died from disease or wounds they suffered at one of the battles of Manassas. The grave sites were between the historic battlefield and the site of Clara Barton’s hospital in Fairfax Station.

After the most recent investigation, on Oct. 10, Gibson and Bradley said they could not find evidence of anything unusual, either in the house or woods. However, Gibson said, that does not mean there is not something there.

“The one big word to describe this hit-or-miss activity is ‘timing,'” Gibson said, who by day is a study director at the National Academy of Sciences. “Just from a statistical point of view … what are the odds of a team of investigators who are in (a supposed haunted building) for four to six hours documenting a very sporadic event? The answer is, probably pretty low.”

Gibson said he is not one to jump at shadows. “I am a trained scientist with degrees in science, not in parapsychology,” he said. Gibson describes himself as the society’s “uberskeptic” but said, “Perhaps due to my experiences in the (Virginia society), I am not as skeptical as I used to be. I guess I should say that I kind of wanted to believe because I had such an interest in it. But the scientist in me, the skeptic in me … made me want to explain away anything I’d ever seen.”

Gibson said he doesn’t ever expect to witness a full-blown apparition.

“If I’m ever in a situation or investigation where I see a, quote unquote, ‘ghost’ materialize in front of me . . . I’ll be happy to write up, ‘I saw a ghost in this investigation,'” Gibson said. “I personally don’t see it happening, but if it does, I’ll be happy to drop that word.”