It was late afternoon on one of the most beautiful days of fall, and still nearly 50 people, young and old, descended the stairs leading to the darkened basement of the Hailey Library on Saturday to hear Marie Cuff speak.
In the dim lighting created by the PowerPoint presentation in the front of the room, the usually benign storage space of the library resembled a morgue.
In the dark, with Cuff relating evidence of paranormal activity around the Northwest, common file boxes resembled the brass-handled file drawers that conceal the dead and the screech of a chair chafing against the concrete floor made many jump.
Cuff was not going out of her way to scare people this day—quite the opposite. Her goal as executive director of the International Paranormal Reporting Group, she said, was to provoke open-minded discourse on the subject of the paranormal. That activity is generally defined as "unusual experiences that supposedly lack a scientific explanation, or phenomena alleged to be outside of science's current ability to explain or measure," she said.
And, as the group's motto promotes, "What can't be explained, must be explored."
Cuff said she is frequently invited to speak on the paranormal and has been seen on a number of ghost story television shows and the Travel Channel. She consults with various historical societies around the region and gathers stories in her travels that are being compiled for a book.
After explaining the two main types of ghosts, intelligent—those that can communicate—and residual—those like "the lady in white that drifts right through you," she said most spirits are not to be feared, and most likely are hanging around because they have some message for the living.
She moved on to discuss the high-tech equipment used in today's ghost hunting.
Technology has helped reveal more of the not-so paranormal than that that is. Things like glitches in cameras can make people see what are commonly called "orbs" but are nothing more than lint or movement.
She then showed the crowd several video snippets from investigations and played eerily clear voice recordings collected with special gear.
Each example was presented with only the location revealed until the crowd had seen it or heard it and reacted. Cuff let the audience describe what they saw before indicating more about what the team discerned.
A shadow moved across a room behind an overturned table at the Get Inn in Gooding. In its previous incarnations, the ominous structure had been a ward for people with tuberculosis. The image, her team reasoned after reviewing their evidence, was a small child dragging a blanket through the area that once was a holding room for patients who'd died when a flu epidemic swept through.
In another, a door opens without casting a shadow and no one behind it in the kitchen of Oregon's famous Geyser Hotel, the site of a suicide and an accidental death of an impatient worker hit by a moving dumbwaiter.
She shared the stories of Dinah, a young woman who killed herself after being stood up for a dance and finding out her date took another girl. She is said to haunt students at Boise State University working in the old music hall, which is now the computer lab. Her name is a nickname given her by a person who claimed they heard the song of that name tinkled on a nonexistent piano after he demanded that she identify herself.
"But ghosts don't perform on demand," she said, and that's why investigations can last up to seven days at a time, or involve repeat visits. Sometimes, they yield nothing of what the client reports. "So far though, we don't have any scientific proof that they don't exist and until we can rule out all other possible scenarios, we go in with an open mind and no agenda."
She said she has felt a spirit run its fingers through her hair and utter "pretty" while investigators were on duty at the Old Idaho Pen in Boise, and has seen "Boo" written by an invisible scribbler.
Whether such things titillate or terrify is personal, Cuff said. And it's not her place to persuade one to feel either way. Her job, she said, is to bring peace of mind, problem solve and sometimes be a firm dose of reality.
"Ninety-five percent of our investigations end up with a logical explanation for the activity," she said.
Cuff said the possibility of a real demonic presence, possession or prankster is rare, but she does not deny their existence.
The sweet-faced detective had a no-nonsense approach both to believers and nonbelievers, and zero tolerance for amateur ghost hunters.
"What you see is what you get. I leave it to you to decide. But as investigators, we have to be conscious of people's beliefs and respectful of their situations," she said. "We always remember that they have to live with what we find out and leave them with that information. We may not be able to solve their problem, but we can try to help them understand it."
Investigators like those working for the International Paranormal Reporting Group are mostly people who want to help people, history buffs and truth seekers. Any funds they raise go to support historical preservation efforts or other charitable causes. They investigate for free.
Paranormal activity has been reported throughout history, and thousands of sane, normal, law-abiding people have claimed to have had experiences with it. Thanks to technology, and in some cases because of it, people are experiencing more and more. Excess electromagnetic energy thrown off by computers, alarms clocks and other household items, for example, can actually cause visions, delusions and other sensory changes.
The news that children under the age of 8 are most attuned to the spirit world got one woman in the audience particularly stirred up. Cuff said young children see in a different light spectrum and therefore can see things adults can't.
"Pay attention to your kids and your pets," she said. "They have very open minds."
After the talk concluded and the lights came on, the woman who had been so charged by Cuff's remarks about children revealed to Cuff that she had a granddaughter who said she had three "friends" around her. One of these was one that the child wanted to go away. The grandmother admitted it unnerves her and the mother more than it does the child, especially since it seemed the "friends" had followed the child through a change of residence and over two years.
Cuff said such a situation could have a lot of explanations, but encouraged the woman to contact the team in Twin Falls to pursue it. She also suggested that rather than feel anxiety for her granddaughter, she see the characters as "spirit guides" for an intuitive or sensitive child.
Another woman brought a computer with photographs she said were evidence of an apparition from the inside of actress Demi Moore's Hailey house known as the Doll House. Cuff gave the woman her card.
Cuff said the group has wanted to do but never accomplished any investigations in Blaine County, in part, she theorizes, because it would threaten property values. She said that unless ghosts are seen as an asset by the person or place they share with the living, people are afraid of being labeled crazy Several attempts to get in to the Sun Valley Resort to chase Hemingway's ghost down have been cancelled, she said.
Cuff said anyone who does want an investigation should be cautious about who they invite in to their homes.
"We are never going to knock on your door and say 'We heard you have a ghost,'" she said. "But if you are a commercial operation and we hear about it, you might get a letter."
Once an investigation is concluded and the client is briefed on the results, it is up to the client to choose how to proceed.
"We find out what they want to do, coexist, bless the house. The majority of the time, once you can tell a person they aren't crazy and what it is that's going on, even if we can't tell them who or why, they are more than likely happy to just coexist."
Jennifer Liebrum: firstname.lastname@example.org