Is there life after death?
This is perhaps the most fundamental question of the human condition. Is consciousness a phenomenon that is created by the brain and ceases to exist at the moment of death? Or does consciousness transcend the limitations of matter? Does some aspect of awareness, of sentience, continue after the body ceases to function?
It is a question for which I have my own opinions. And I recently decided to explore this question deeper by participating in a three-day special investigation into a "haunted hotel" with the team from SyFy Network's hit reality series "Ghost Hunters."
Human beings have struggled with the question of life after death since we first became self-aware. Arguably it is the fundamental question that has given birth to all of the world's religions. Over the centuries, the vast majority of human beings have chosen to believe that life does not end with the cessation of physical activity. But what exactly happens past the point of death is the subject of much speculation and religious controversy.
Some believe that we each have a unique soul that will pass on from this life to another reality, perhaps to be judged by our Creator. Others hold the notion that we return to this world cyclically to live life in new bodies.
While the beliefs about an afterlife are rich and varied throughout the world, there is a common underlying principle that consciousness can and does persist beyond the limits of material form. And there is also widespread belief that here in this world, conscious entities exist that do not possess physical bodies, but can nonetheless interact and perhaps even communicate directly with flesh-and-blood human beings.
In most cultures in the world, such "spirit beings" are divided between those that are non-human in origin, and those that may be the remnants of human beings whose bodies have died, i.e. - ghosts.
The recent success of the movie "Paranormal Activity" has resurrected the old Christian notion of "demons" that torment and sometimes possess human beings. A similar notion of djinn - invisible, non-human spirits that share our world - exists in Islam. But most commonly in the West, we think of such invisible forces as "ghosts" - the spirits of those that have died but remain present in this world.
I remember the first time I saw a ghost.
I was thirteen years old, a 7th grade student at Pershing Junior High School in Brooklyn. I was heading home after class. In those days, my family lived in a tiny apartment shared by my two sisters, my parents and myself. I usually got home first, as our apartment was a few blocks away from my school. And today, we had been let out early (around noon) due to a special event at the junior high school.
I did not expect anyone to be home - my sisters should have been in school and my parents at work. So I was surprised when I opened the door to our place and immediately saw a small child standing in the middle of the living room. The child had short black hair and was dressed in ruddy brown clothes that looked unusual, more like a Native American tunic than the jeans and t-shirts I was accustomed to.
For a moment, I thought the child was my little sister, who was eight. Perhaps she was playing dress up, although why she would be wearing Native American garb, I didn't know. But I was surprised that she was home before I was, since her school was farther away and she did not have a half-day as I did. Perhaps she had stayed home sick.
I called out to the child who I assumed was my sister. But instead of turning to me, it ran ahead, racing through the living room and turning right into our small bathroom. Thinking my sister was acting very strange, I ran after the child to see what was wrong. And then I froze.
The bathroom was empty.
I stepped back as if I had been slapped. My heart racing, I turned to check the other two rooms in the apartment, the living room from which the child had run, as well as the adjacent bedroom.
Nothing. I was alone in the apartment.
I would have dismissed the Native American child as a product of my imagination had I seen something from the corner of my eye for an instant. But I had looked straight at it, had watched it move, run forward and then turn to the right. The entire episode had lasted several seconds, too long to be considered a momentary flash of confusion.
When my sisters and parents arrived a few hours later, I told them what I had seen. They weren't sure what to make of my story, but they all told me they had never seen anything unusual at the apartment.
I would later learn this was not true.
My younger sister, who is now a journalist and the mother of two children, told me earlier this year that she had indeed seen the same thing in our home on other occasions - a child running and vanishing inside the bathroom. But she had realized how frightened I was by the incident and had decided not to share with me her own experiences.
Since that first strange incident, I and other members of my family have had numerous other experiences of what appeared to be paranormal phenomenon. When we moved to a house in Old Bridge, New Jersey, there were several incidents where my mother and sisters saw an elderly woman walk through our home and vanish. I never saw the entity myself, and tried to dismiss their accounts (as they had dismissed mine), until a friend who was visiting from college asked me if my grandmother was living with us. When I told him that my grandparents had all passed away, he became uncomfortable. Apparently he had seen an elderly woman in the guest bedroom where he had been staying.
We finally decided to move out of that house after my brother-in-law, a true skeptic who scoffed at such stories, came running up the stairs terrified one night. He had gone to the kitchen to get a late night snack. As he entered the living room, he said that all the hairs on his neck stood up. When he looked up, he caught his reflection in the mirror on the living room wall.
An old woman was standing right behind him, staring back. When he whirled in surprise, she vanished.
I am sure many readers will have similar stories and experiences. I am often surprised by how prevalent such brushes with the paranormal are, and how little we talk about them with others. In American society today, discussions of personal experiences like these run the risk of ridicule and mockery. Unlike our ancestors, who lived in a world where spirits, ghosts and demons were part of the fabric of reality, we are taught today that such incidents are illusory, and we question the sobriety and possibly the sanity of those who share them.
And yet even if our society chooses to pretend that paranormal activity is non-existent, people continue to have these experiences and long to find others who will take them seriously and perhaps help them to understand this phenomenon.
It is that hunger which has made the SyFy reality series "Ghost Hunters" a huge success. The show follows the activities of Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, two men who have dedicated their lives to scientific investigation of the paranormal. They are the founders of The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) and have spent the past two decades investigating reports of hauntings and paranormal activities.
Unlike many such groups, TAPS does not seek to prove the existence of ghosts. Instead, they seek to debunk and disprove claims of paranormal activity, with the belief that only evidence that survives rigorous deconstruction is worthy of being considered as possible proof of the existence of the paranormal. Their commitment to such an approach gives them an air of professionalism in a field that might otherwise attract kooks and dreamers.
The show "Ghost Hunters," which premiered in 2004 on SyFy, has become a huge ratings draw and has made Hawes and Wilson into celebrities, a position that they are clearly uncomfortable with. One of the reasons that many viewers are drawn to the pair is that they are simple family men dedicated to helping people, not hucksters seeking to cash in on the credulity of others.
Plumbers by trade, they are salt-of -the-earth figures who exude decency and empathy for those who are experiencing frightening and unexplainable phenomenon. Jason and Grant are the kind of people that I would have liked to turn to when I saw a Native American spirit running through my apartment in Brooklyn, or the ghost of an old woman was frightening friends and relatives in my house in New Jersey. And like many fans of the show, I had hoped one day to meet them and find out more about their own experiences investigating the paranormal world.
And then one day, I got the chance.
A few weeks ago I was able to attend a special event with the Ghost Hunters team at the Stanley Hotel in Colorado, the infamous hotel where Stephen King was inspired to write "The Shining." The hotel was built in 1909 and has over the past century earned the reputation as being one of the most haunted locations in the United States.
The Ghost Hunters team had investigated the hotel on two occasions, one of them broadcast live, and each time a variety of strange and inexplicable events were recorded on camera. They were now organizing a weekend retreat where fans of the show could investigate with the TAPS team and see for themselves whether any paranormal activity could be detected.
When I learned of the opportunity this summer, I rushed to apply for a slot on the investigative team. Unfortunately, the event was booked solid and I was forced to sit on the waiting list. As the date of the event drew nearer, I resigned myself to missing out on this remarkable opportunity to see for myself what the Ghost Hunters were truly about.
But, as fate would have it, there was a last-minute opening on the wait list and I suddenly found myself on a plane to Colorado. The Stanley Hotel is located in Estes Park, a two-hour drive from Denver, in one of the most breathtaking corners of America. As I drove past herd of elk into the snow-capped mountains, I could understand why spirits might choose to linger in this remote and stunningly beautiful locale.
Arriving at the Stanley, I was delighted to immediately meet several of the TAPS investigators I had watched on the Ghost Hunters show. Britt Griffith, a fellow Californian, was friendly and open, as were Amy Bruni and Kris Williams, the female investigators that many men in the audience had crushes on. They were surrounded by fans that acted as if the Rolling Stones had walked into the room. There was a bustle and excitement that made the air feel electric.
And then a hush fell over the crowd in the hotel lobby as Grant Wilson, one of the two lead investigators, arrived to check in. I was able to briefly introduce myself to Grant, before he was surrounded by dozens of fans taking photos and inundating him with their own paranormal experiences. Later that weekend, I was able to have dinner with Grant and was delighted to see that he really was what he appeared to be on television - a gentle soul who cared deeply for his profession and his clients.
Having worked as a writer-producer in Hollywood for nearly a decade, I was prepared for a certain level of pretense exuded by celebrities from reality television, but I was delighted to find that Grant, Britt, Amy and Kris were down-to-earth and serious about their jobs. They hoped that events like these would open up the public to the reality of their work and make paranormal investigation an activity that would be embraced by others with the same level of care and responsibility.
The weekend was filled with fascinating seminars by other well known paranormal investigators. Jeff Belanger, the founder of GhostVillage.com and a bestselling author of books on the paranormal, spoke on the history of ghost stories in American folklore. Britt Griffith led a talk on the scientific equipment needed to document evidence of the paranormal, ranging from cameras to digital voice recorders and electromagnetic field detectors.
Kris William gave a fascinating talk about her own experience researching her family history over the centuries. She explained the methods by which she found information on long-deceased ancestors through public records, and spoke of how such research can be helpful to paranormal investigators trying to understand what might have happened in the past at a particular place that would inspire a haunting.
Mark and Debby Constantino, a married couple that specialize in capturing EVPs (electronic voice phenomenon), played some of the disembodied voices they have captured over the years on digital recorders - spirit voices that converse directly with investigators asking questions to any entities that may be present in the room.
Perhaps the most amusing voice recording the Constantinos shared was one where they were asking the spirit in a haunted locale to show evidence of its presence by moving objects or making a sound. A grumpy male voice speaks through the electronic static and clearly says: "I ain't doing that shit." Apparently even ghosts can lose their patience.
While some of the talks were light-hearted and fun, Adam Blai was deathly serious as he spoke of his experiences working with the Catholic Church to exorcise demons. Adam spoke at length about how exorcism is not just a medieval practice but is very much a real phenomenon today, and of the dark and terrifying forces he and his colleagues have been forced to confront in his work.
Adam was careful to say that most situations where people believe a loved one is "possessed" are actually the product of schizophrenia or other medical disorders. But schizophrenia does not explain instances such as the time when a housewife in the Midwest with a high school education began shouting at the exorcists in a variety of languages, including Latin and Eastern European languages she had no familiarity with.
Adam's talk was sobering, and I was touched by how much respect he showed other religions. A devout Catholic, he nonetheless understood and accepted that people of all religions can have such demonic experiences, and that their best means of warding off evil entities may be found in the practices of their own faiths. As a practicing Muslim, I found such openness refreshing, and I went up to Adam after the talk.
He greeted me as a spiritual brother and we chatted about the similarities between Catholic demonology and Islamic ideas of djinn - invisible spirits that are capable of possessing human beings. I have written about the djinn in my novel Mother of the Believers, which is a historical look at the early days of Islam. But djinn are still a living part of Muslim cultures today. Indeed, exorcism of djinn is very much part of modern Muslim societies, and I have met Muslims from West Africa and Europe who work to defeat such forces.
It was truly a remarkable moment, where a Catholic and a Muslim could meet in the Stanley Hotel in Colorado and discuss ways we could defeat demons together.
While the talks were fascinating, I was eagerly anticipating the night's events. We would be going in small groups to different "hot spots" at the hotel - rooms where paranormal activity had been documented in the past. I carried a digital camera as well as a K-2 meter, a device that detects changes in electromagnetic fields. If the K-2 meter were to light up and no natural electrical source was in the vicinity, it could be evidence that a spirit entity was nearby. The Ghost Hunters team has used the K-2 meter in the past to communicate directly with spirits, a kind of electronic Ouija board that would light up in direct response to questions they asked. I hoped that my K-2 would become active over the course of the night.
The first several rooms I investigated with the TAPS team were uneventful. We would spend about 45 minutes in a specific locale with the lights out, attempting to catch any sound, voice or movement that might be paranormal. I started off with a group in the Concert Hall, a stately building separate from the main hotel. The hall was reputed to be haunted by the spirit of a homeless woman who had lived secretly in the building and had passed away.
We spent most of our time inside of a darkened bathroom, using our K-2 meters and digital recorders to see if we could communicate with her spirit. There was an instance where I thought heard a voice inside an empty bathroom stall. Others claimed at that moment that they had heard a growl in the same vicinity. But we were not able to capture the sound on our digital recorders, and the K-2 remained quiet, so I dismissed the incident as the product of our collective imagination.
After a couple of hours where nothing tangible seemed to happen, I was a little discouraged. But then I decided to approach the night as if I were playing a fun parlor game. Even if nothing paranormal happened, I should at least enjoy the experience.
And then we entered Room 1302, which is reputed to be one of the most haunted sites in the Stanley Hotel. Indeed, Ghost Hunters had broadcast a remarkable incident during TAPS' first investigation of the room. Grant Wilson had been sitting at a heavy wooden table in Room 1302 conversing with his team members, when the camera captured footage of the table rising off the floor by itself and crashing to the ground.
Arriving inside the room, I immediately went to the same table. It was heavier than I imagined, and it took several of us working together to physically raise the table a few inches. Although some skeptics have claimed that the Grant must have raised the table with his legs, I discovered that would have been physically impossible.
Intrigued, we sat down to a do an EVP session supervised by Mark and Debby Constantino. Using voice activated digital recorders, we asked questions of any spirits in the room and then immediately rewound and played back to see if we had caught any voices.
And we did.
The Constantinos are a gregarious couple with very strong personalities. We smiled as we heard them bickering at the onset of the session. And then as we listened to them argue with each other, a male voice came up clearly through the static saying:
"I hate you. I'm angry."
My eyes went wide. The words were clear as day and had not been spoken by any of us in the room.
Suddenly the fun was gone and there was deathly seriousness to our activity. The Constantinos seemed shocked by the words, and some people in the room were afraid. What was in here with us?
To calm the others, I suggested that perhaps the spirit had no malevolent intent. It did not sound threatening. In fact, it sounded as if it was merely observing in a detached fashion. Perhaps the spirit in 1302 had noted the bickering between husband and wife and given its interpretation of their argument.
Other questions quickly followed. Several times the male voice could be heard in response but the answers were hard to discern. But as we pressed on with questions, we noticed that several K-2 meters (including mine) began to flash wildly, indicating that the electromagnetic energy in the room was increasing.
And then one of the group members asked if the spirit had a pet. It was perhaps a silly question, but no more so than "Do you know that you're dead?"
We played back the digital recorder. And this time a female voice responded with one word:
So there was apparently both a male and female presence in the room, and the lady at least had once had a cat.
My turn came. I asked the spirit a question I had been waiting for my whole life:
"Do you believe in God?"
As a believer myself, I was intrigued to see what a denizen of the "other side" might have to say on matters of faith.
We replayed the tape. The male voice answered. But it was garbled and impossible to understand.
Disappointed, I then asked:
"Are you trapped here, or free to leave?"
We played back the recorder and listened. This time the male voice was clear:
"Free to go."
I felt a chill go down my spine. I had asked a specific question to a ghostly entity. And it had responded directly to me. That incident in room 1302 shattered any lingering doubts I may have had that the Stanley Hotel was haunted.
But the night was not over. We went to room 401, where the Ghost Hunters had caught remarkable camera footage of a closet door swinging opening and closing by itself, and a glass shattering without any explanation.
Grant Wilson was there and I was excited to actually investigate the room with one of the TAPS leaders. Room 401 was reputed to be haunted by the spirit of Lord Dunraven, a local aristocrat, who had been known as quite the ladies man in his time. There were even reports that women in that room would sometimes feel an invisible hand pinch their butts.
Several women in our group decided to see if they could bring out the ravenous Lord Dunraven with their charms. They took turns sitting inside the closet, waiting to see if Lord Dunraven would try to take spiritual advantage of them. But only one woman in my group claimed to have an experience inside the tiny closet - and it was with the spirit of a lady. After a few minutes inside, our volunteer cried out and we opened the door. Shaken and pale, she emerged, saying that she had been sitting with her head bowed when a woman's voice inside the closet had sternly said to her:
"Lift your face."
Since I had not heard anything, I cannot confirm whether what she experienced was real. But I then asked loudly whether Lord Dunraven would prefer that the men leave and the women stay in the room with him.
Instantly, the K-2 meters in the room began flashing. They had been quiet since we arrived, but now they lit up with manic intensity. Clearly the ghost of Lord Dunraven had no interest in having any rivals for the ladies' attention.
Grant laughed and shepherded the men out of the room. If the spirit wanted only the women to stay, we had to respect its wishes. The women remained in the room alone while we stood in the darkened hallway, but they reported no further activity.
From there, we went to Room 217, the infamous room where Stephen King stayed in 1973, a visit that would inspire "The Shining" one of the most terrifying novels of all time. I looked with trepidation at the old bathtub, which is the setting for one of the most frightening moments in the book, when the corpse of an old hag, drowned and decomposing, emerges from the tub to torment the living. To this day, I am unable to watch the cinematic version of that moment in Stanley Kubrick's famed adaptation.
The room was rumored to be haunted by the ghost of Mrs. Wilson, a maid in the early years of the 20th century. Mrs. Wilson is reputed to be a bit of a neat freak and has been known to tidy up the room when she feels it is cluttered. According to legend, Stephen King had arrived in 217 with his wife and had left his luggage in a corner before stepping out. When they had returned, they found all their clothes unpacked and neatly folded away. But none of the maids in the hotel said they had touched his things.
We attempted to communicate with Mrs. Wilson by using our K-2 meters as electronic Ouija boards. We asked her to light up the meter to let us know she was there, but no response. Other questions went similarly unanswered.
I was actually fortunate enough to be staying in the adjacent room, 219, and so I asked Mrs. Wilson if I made too much noise next door and disturbed her.
Every single K-2 meter in the room lit up instantly.
Again, I was shocked. The spirit had apparently chosen to address me alone out of the entire group. And it had used the opportunity to complain about my noisiness!
The night culminated with a 2 am investigation of an old tunnel running beneath the hotel, cut right into the mountainside. During the "Ghost Hunters" live investigation of the Stanley Hotel, Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson had been down in the tunnel when they (and the live audience) were able to clearly hear a little girl's voice calling out to them and laughing. It had been a chilling sound, and one that I was nervous about hearing myself.
Amy Bruni led the investigation into the tunnel, which was the creepiest place I have ever been in - a combination of natural cave and dank cellar from a horror movie. I was at the back of the line and fell behind the others for a second. And then I heard a sound that I will never forget.
I heard a little girl crying in the dark space behind me.
Immediately I called out to the others in my group, but they had heard nothing. I cursed my failure to bring a digital recorder with me. But even though I don't have evidence of that event to share with others, I know what I heard, and it chills me to the bone to this day.
I returned from the Stanley Hotel with more questions than answers. I had several personal experiences that I could not explain. Who was the man in 1307 who was "free to go" yet chose to stay among the living? Was it really Lord Dunraven and Mrs. Wilson that had attempted to communicate with me from across the veil of death? And why was there a little child sobbing in the dark crawl space cut into the mountain side? The latter made me particularly sad. The idea that child's soul may be trapped in some limbo between worlds fills me with great sorrow.
To skeptics, of course, these questions are all nonsense. Everything I have written here is either evidence of chicanery or credulity. At the end of the day, I can only report what I experienced personally, and let others make their own judgments.
Is there life after death? Human beings have always believed so. And modern scientists and quantum physicists have made some remarkable discoveries that suggest that maybe our ancient wisdom is true. That perhaps consciousness is the fundamental building block of reality.
If that is so, perhaps we have been looking at death the wrong way. Instead of the material world being the essence of reality, and the conscious mind just a byproduct of chemical reactions in the brain, maybe it is the other way around. Perhaps it is the mind that pre-exists as an energy field that organizes matter. Perhaps matter is the byproduct of the mind, and death is simply the mind shifting to a level where matter is no longer needed.
Those who are open to learning about what science has to say on the power of mind over matter should read some of the following books: Lynne McTaggart's seminal books The Field and The Intention Experiment (mentioned in Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol), as well as Dean Radin's excellent works on scientific studies of the paranormal, including The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena and Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality.
And for those who wish to learn more about Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson and their experiences at TAPS, I highly recommend their books Ghost Hunting and Seeking Spirits. These books contain many of their experiences with the paranormal that are not related on the television show, and are a rollicking fun read.
After everything I have seen and experienced in my life, and my experiences at the Stanley Hotel with the Ghost Hunters, I personally have no doubt that there is a wondrous spiritual world all around us that we are only beginning to experience and understand.
The idea that there are ghosts and spirits among us may trouble some people. But to me the existence of such entities is a welcome clue, a signpost to another reality. Ghosts are the echo of who we are, and an invitation to discover who we might become beyond the veil of death. And in following the breadcrumbs they lay for us in this world, they lead us to a place that is far more magical than we can even begin to imagine.