Ghost Hunting: How to Find East End Spirits on Halloween

Oliver Peterson investigating Eastern State Penitentiary
Oliver Peterson ghost hunting at Eastern State Penitentiary, Photo: Colleen Peterson

Every year around Halloween, as chilly October winds blow and the blood moon rises, many East Enders look toward our long-dead spirits and share stories of those terrible things that go bump in the autumn night.

It’s a terrifying proposition for most to imagine, let alone encounter, wayward souls residing in our homes and businesses long after their bodies are interred. But for some, the promise of an afterlife in heaven or on earth offers great comfort—something more than a flick of the switch and infinite blackness as our light dies.

Still, no matter what people believe, or fear, almost everyone loves a good ghost story. It’s for this reason that I’m asked nearly every October to write or speak about investigating the paranormal. Over the better part of a decade, I’ve given a number of interviews on the topic, written about a dozen articles and spoken at several venues.

For me it never gets old, and Halloween’s got nothing to do with it, outside of providing an opportunity to share one of my great passions. Let’s face it—regular folks don’t want to hear about ghost hunting at Christmastime or during the heat of the Hamptons summer.

So here we are again. This year, I’m speaking at Wölffer Estate Vineyard as part of their “Wölffer Wednesdays” series from 6–7 p.m. on November 5. I plan to discuss my methods and experiences, and allow time for guests to ask questions or share their own ghost stories—you’d be surprised how many people have them, especially on the East End.

For those who can’t make it, or simply want to go out and make your own way, here’s some basic info to start ghost hunting, just in time for Halloween night.

Haunted Eastern State Penitentiary
Haunted Eastern State Penitentiary, Photo: Oliver Peterson
The Truth of the Matter

Before investigating, understand that it’s typically quite uneventful—you’ll spend hours sitting quietly in the dark, observing and recording your environment. Then, you’ll relive those hours while reviewing audio and video recordings in real time, hoping to catch a disembodied voice or visual anomaly. Mostly you’ll catch nothing. And if you are lucky enough to find something, it usually ends up having a completely rational explanation. I’ve experienced this disappointment many times, and it’s no fun, but this diligence is what separates true investigators from thrill seekers.

Still interested? Good. Read on.

Know your camera—what appears to be a ghost at a historic local church investigation is actually the result of a long exposure
Know your camera—what appears to be a ghost at a historic local church investigation is actually the result of a long exposure, Photo: Oliver Peterson
Tools of the Trade

A flashlight and a digital camera are the first tools any would-be investigator should add to their kit. Both of these are common and quite useful. A flashlight is essential for moving around safely in the dark and, while ghost photos are rare, a camera will document your experience and keep track of things, such as placement of objects over time. For example, photographing a room throughout an investigation could reveal that an object moved from one spot to another during a period when no people were around to move it. Digital cameras also see the infrared spectrum (look at your TV remote through the viewfinder), and some believe spirits appear there, just beyond what the human eye sees. Just make sure to understand the settings so you won’t mistake long exposures, a blurred hand strap and other quirks for spiritual activity. I’ve seen more than one published book claim to have pictures of a “vortex,” when they are quite clearly shots of a dangling camera strap blurred by motion.

Not everyone has one, but a digital audio recorder is probably the best tool for collecting ghostly evidence. Recording an investigation, along with asking direct questions, can result in disembodied voices with no logical source. Called Electronic Voice Phenomena (or EVP), these voices can be very compelling, especially as responses to specific questions. Typically, I use more than one recorder. If possible, I will place several in key spots throughout a location, and carry another with me—all of them recording at all times, from the moment I get through the door. The handheld recorder can also be placed on a table while asking direct questions. These “EVP sessions” can feel odd at first, since you’re essentially talking to no one, but they can produce some very compelling evidence.

Try placing the recorder down, gathering your group in one place and talking to nearby spirits. Use a clear, natural voice and speak respectfully, asking questions like, “What is your name?,” “Is this your house?” or “Why are you here?” Feel free to get creative and consider the history of your location, along with anything you may have learned about the ghosts alleged to reside there. Just be wary of yourself and others whispering and any odd environmental sounds, which could be confused for EVP later. Try noting these sounds as they occur, stating clearly into the recorder things like, “That was Bob whispering,” or “Someone was just yelling on the street.” This will save you a lot of headaches and the disappointment of false positives.

A video camera can also be used to document an investigation or odd moments, like lights turning on and off or doors opening and closing. If possible, try finding one with an infrared feature, such as Sony’s “nightshot,” so you can film in the dark. This can also work to find your way in pitch darkness, even without a flashlight. Bring extra batteries for everything and, for more extreme or dangerous locations, possibly a few glow sticks. It’s not unusual for fully charged batteries to suddenly die when spirits are in the room. I once had my camera battery drain and my watch battery die at the same moment, which was pretty cool, but it could be a problem in an abandoned building or similarly dangerous place.

Additionally, environmental measurements, such as temperature, electromagnetic fields, humidity and more can be taken with various tools available at a wide range of prices. These are helpful, and popular on TV, but until you’re sure ghost hunting is for you, they’re not worth the investment.

Those who get hooked will find the cost of new gadgets, books and traveling to haunted locales almost unavoidable. If ghost hunting is definitely for you, here are some options:

K-II EMF Meter in action
K-II EMF Meter in action, Photo: Oliver Peterson
Advanced Tools

The most common gadget you’ll see, beyond those listed above, is an EMF reader. These handheld devices measure electromagnetic fields, which can cause certain people to experience anxiety and even hallucinations, possibly leading them to believe their home is haunted. Some also believe that ghosts emit or affect EMF, so unusually high readings, massive swings from high to low or fields showing a deliberate path of movement could be attributed to spiritual activity. Prices for these range from about $12 up to $300 or more.

Certain readers, like the popular K-II EMF Reader (pictured above), have a series of lights that change according to EMF levels. These, or readers with lights and alarms (like the CellSensor), can be used for questioning ghosts—asking them to activate the lights when an answer is “yes” and leaving them off when the answer is “no.”

I have found that EMF readers and thermometers can work well together. It’s difficult to explain naturally why the temperature would suddenly fall at the same moment the EMF spikes. To best gauge a room’s temperature and find small, sometimes moving pockets of cold, use a thermocouple thermometer, which measures the ambient temperature. Fancy infrared (IR) thermometers look cool on TV (especially the gun-shaped ones), but they measure surface temp. People will believe they are finding a “cold spot” in the air, while the IR thermometer is actually hitting the cold glass window 10 feet away. I now use the Mel Meter, which combines a thermocouple thermometer, EMF reader and flashlight in one handy device.

Beyond this, intrepid paranormal investigators can get all sorts of custom devices, including “ghost box” radios, the Ovilus EMF-based word interpreters, laser grids, motion detectors, decibel readers, white noise generators and much, much more. These are all great to experiment with, but sometimes even just your eyes and a simple pen and paper can be enough to enjoy investigating—simply interview, observe and write it all down!

To learn more, pick up a book on ghost hunting, and while you’re at it, check out one of the many books about Long Island’s most haunted locales. I recommend highly Kerriann Flanagan Brosky’s Ghosts of Long Island and Ghosts of Long Island II. The books are well researched and not sensationalized, and they paint a good picture of our region’s most famously haunted places, including several local spots.

We have lots of exciting haunts to investigate on the East End. Do your research, and never trespass or disrespect the places you visit. Remember, it’s important to take certain things seriously in this field, but it’s equally important to have fun!

Walking alone at Eastern State Penitentiary
Walking alone at Eastern State Penitentiary, Photo: Colleen Peterson