Telling Ghost Stories to Skeptics (communicating with people who don’t agree with you)

One of the things I love most about ghost stories is that they are a way to unite people.  When I was just starting out in the late ‘90s, I would frequently come across the stat that about 1/3 of Americans believed in ghosts.  It wasn’t long before I was going from library to school to whoever wanted to book someone to tell stories, giving speeches.  For a while I’d start my speech by asking my audience, “Who here believes in ghosts?”  I found it amazing that even here, an event about ghost stories, that ratio remained: only about 1/3 of the audience believed in ghosts.  I ended up finding comfort in that.  Whether you’re a believer or not, everyone likes to hear a good story.

I should take this moment to mention that, inspired by Amelia Cotter’s weekly storytelling sessions at the beginning of quarantine, I started telling ghost stories every Wednesday night over at  In addition to telling themed ghost stories each episode, I also have a question of the week for the audience, which isn’t anything paranormal and more importantly, it’s never anything political.  One of my big goals in life lately is to remind people that we all share in a million human experiences and that we’re far more alike than we are different.  Loving ghost stories?  That’s almost universally a human experience.  Almost.

That said, not every occasion of telling a ghost story to a non-believer has gone smoothly.  Though extremely rare, sometimes a skeptical listener actually is there with ill-intent.  In all cases, there was a little lesson to learn.  So, I’m going to share with you a couple of my own ghost stories, how certain people attempted to get in the way of each story, and, hopefully my pain can be your gain if you ever find yourself in a similar situation.

Paranormal Investigation at the Tribune Tower and the Party Pooper
When you’ve spent the majority of your life visiting haunted places, you tend to get invited to parties as the unofficial (unpaid) entertainment.  At one party, the hostess was an avid fan of ghost stories.  During a lull in conversation, I was asked to talk about a recent adventure I’ve had.  The timing was good because I had just had the unreal experience of having the run of one of Chicago’s most iconic skyscrapers – the Tribune Tower.  You can view the edited video of our investigation here:

The Chicago-area stand-up comic Patti Vasquez has long been a good friend of mine and when she got her own show on WGN Radio, we found more ways to have adventures together.  She’d usually have me on her show around Halloween where I’d tell stories and take calls for an hour.  One time, she lined it up so we could investigate the building her late night show wrapped for the evening.  It was around 2am once her show wrapped.

Located right in the heart of Chicago on Michigan Avenue, we began our paranormal search in the “showcase studio.”  It’s a “Today Show”– style street-level studio with big wraparound plate glass windows. The production team had recently lost one of their crewmembers to a heart attack and still wondered if famed broadcaster Bob Collins, who died years earlier in a plane crash, might be in hanging around after death in this space. The studio seemed very peaceful, still and quiet, so we eventually moved on to other parts of the building. There is a meeting room, which is where Chicago Tribune reporters would take important interview subjects to conduct their hard–hitting pieces. According to the team, this is the room where many a big name was brought to their knees, their corrupt careers brought to light. This seemed to be the most active location on our night. We experienced cold spots, voices that came over the spirit box and perhaps an actual voice in the room, to go along with some small EMF hits. Based on what he heard about the room, there could be a lot of emotional energy left behind.

As another aside for what might make this location haunted, the Tribune Tower is incredibly unique in that its ground floor, inside and out, has artifacts embedded in it from around the world.  There’s a piece from the Great Pyramid, a rock taken from the site of the lost colony of Roanoke, pieces of the Taj Mahal, the Parthenon, Angkor Wat, Lincoln’s tomb, Notre Dame Cathedral, and, more recently, a piece of the World Trade Center Tower wreckage.  There’s more than a hundred more pieces including small rock samples taken from the site where Christ was born.  If you can go along with the idea that a place can hold a spiritual energy charge, the Tribune Tower has gathered energies of unique sites from all around the world to this one location.

We talked to the overnight security team to find out if they have any stories and they pointed out to locations that they did not like to patrol. One was a stairwell very high up in the building. It was exciting to view this location, because we could see very quickly that the EMF readings were extraordinarily high here due to the wiring. Hi EMF can affect our perception to the point of feeling uncomfortable or paranoid. I believe we found a practical reason to rule out that location being haunted.  However, we fully understand why the security team did not want to spend more time here than they needed to.

My favorite part of the night was when the security guards took us to the floor they find the most unsettling. According to them, there was a suicide on this floor and a negative entity remains. You can actually see in the video I posted on YouTube that the security guards bring us up to this location, but before we could ask many questions, they had already abandoned us… getting out of Dodge as soon as possible!  Sometimes I find human reactions to things to be some of the biggest ‘evidence’ of a haunting.  I didn’t see anything paranormal, but you could see their fear and that was significant to me.

So, back to me telling this story at a party…

The woman who was sitting next to me couldn’t have been less interested in hearing it. She certainly had the option to get up and walk away and I wish that she had. However, in staying, she took it upon herself to roll her eyes and loudly scoff at every statement. She would try to put me on the spot and call me out on minor details like, “well, what floor was it?” Always striving to tell an honest story, I responded,” I don’t remember off the top of my head, but it’s in the video, which is published on YouTube, if you really want the answer.” At this, She found another opportunity for a big eye roll and a gesture around the room as if to say, ”See, I told you this was all a lie.”

First off, how does this prove anything? I could’ve said any number in response to her question, and she wouldn’t know any different.  Had I confidently said a number, would that have proven to her that the story was true?  Of course not. Just for the record, it’s the 24th floor.

I never take the approach of “trying to prove something” while telling a story. I simply approach it like a journalist would approach a news story. I state the facts, interview witnesses, research, and try to be clear in my descriptions. This woman’s pushback was so strong that the natural instinct for me as the storyteller was to elevate to her level of intensity in argumentative way. Fortunately, that’s not my style and I tried to be the bigger person by ignoring her and simply addressing everybody else in the room who was interested in the story. However, the heckler completely undercut everyone’s enjoyment.

Lessons to take way from the experience…
For the most part, I’m happy with how I handled things, but there was still room for improvement. If you’re dealing with someone who is aggressively against you and taking an active role in belittling you, it’s good to not feed that energy. Stay true to the story you were going to tell and focus on the people are having a good time.

That said, I think I should have called out the uncomfortable situation live, as it was unfolding. “Why are you acting so mean?” I have to imagine that calling out her behavior in an innocent way would have ended the situation immediately. Hopefully I will not have a take 2 to test this option in the future.

Asking about “Orbs” / Bachelor’s Grove / Setting a Trap for the Over-Believer

When I was running the LA hauntings ghost tour company, some of my favorite experiences would be when a private group bought all out the tour for themselves. That way, I would be able to customize the tour to meet whatever interest that group had.   Several years ago, when the TV show “American horror story” was new, I had a birthday party group to lead around and they wanted to stop by the main house that was the focus of season one.

Sometimes however, the worst part of being a tour guide is doing a private tour where the decision-maker of the group wants to go on a ghost tour, but no one else in the group wants to. In this case, there was a birthday girl who loves ghost stories, dragging around a dozen friends who just couldn’t wait to get to the bar. One of the friends was a very outspoken skeptic who did not hide the fact that she really didn’t want to be there.

While everyone else got out of the van to take photos of the “American Horror Story” house, She decided to stay in the van and ask me what I perceived to be a “gotcha” question.  She asked me, “What do you think about orbs?”

As I’m sure you know, orbs are a very common phenomenon that appear as floating spheres in still images and video taken at haunted locations. The problem with orbs is that there are countless ways that these anomalies can appear on camera. They pop up as bugs, dust, smoke, rain, snow and even during high humidity.  However, it appears as though sometimes orbs are present when an actual paranormal event happens too. Therefore, you can’t dismiss all orb images as false positives. You have to take each image or video clip on a case-by-case basis.

I believe a photo or video containing an orb is not evidence in and of itself, but if that moment is captured while something else significant is going on, like an EMF detector going off or even a personal observation of feeling watched at the same time an orb appears on camera, then that orb image has significance to me.

I conveyed this while also telling the story where my cousin and my mom were visiting the famously haunted Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery in Midlothian, Illinois. One point, they thought they felt a cold spot but didn’t want to leap to any conclusions, so they found me to report this. Buy sheer luck and coincidence, someone took a photo of them as they were walking away from that cold spot. When the film was developed you could very plainly see an orb was floating in the air behind them – right where they thought they felt that cold spot! To me, this is one of the most outstanding orb photos I’ve ever seen, because it’s paired with personal observations of two people.

This is not an uncommon question to have to address, so I am fairly well rehearsed with this response. I feel that it’s level-headed and practical. I realize any response that gives credibility to orb images will not jive well with a skeptic, but at least this response doesn’t come off as someone who is overreacting to every little thing.

In my years running this tour company I had only gotten one negative review ever. And that review came from this person. To my total surprise the review stated that I didn’t give enough credibility to orbs as paranormal phenomena!

Lessons to take way from the experience…
I think the biggest lesson to learn here for me was to not pre-and judge someone’s motivations based on knowing very little about them. I knew this person was a skeptic and was fairly confrontational in her tone and body language, but taking the mindset that she would be “out to get me” was not helpful. Just because someone claims to be a skeptic, doesn’t mean they’re a nonbeliever in everything. Maybe this person was actually interested in and excited about orbs, but I leaned too hard on playing it safe.

Also, I wouldn’t change anything about the content of my message, since I spoke my mind to what I truly believe. However, I was likely not confident in my tone and my language, as I may have been trying to hard to play it too safe.

I always believe it’s great to ask people, “What do you think?” But I don’t believe I did that here. Who knows, it could have led to a pretty interesting conversation.  As paranormal investigators, we go out of our way to try to listen to any communication for a deceased person we hope is in the room with us, however, it’s good to extend that common courtesy to the flesh and blood people we’re actually conversing with!

Intense Gettysburg Hauntings & the Intensely Absurd Skeptic

One of my favorite stories to tell when people ask me about a real ghost story I’ve experienced centers on my first ever visit to the Gettysburg Battlefield on my birthday in 2012.   I always point out that it was my birthday to show that this event happened in December, and not a high tourist season, a time when a reenactment would be likely, or even on the anniversary of any of the fighting, which took place over July 1-3, 1863.

If you haven’t been, the Gettysburg battlefield is an absolutely must-visit location for every American. The three day battle was the bloodiest engagement of the Civil War and ended up being a turning point in favor of the Union’s eventual victory.

Today, you can go to the visitor center and purchase a guided tour on CD to listen to as you spend the entire day driving around the different significant locations throughout the battlefield. Yep, this is how I spend birthday!

Near the end of the day we found ourselves at the sight of “Pickett’s Charge.”  This was effectively the site of the Confederate’s last ditch effort to breakthrough Union lines, led by Maj. Gen. George Pickett and two other generals under Robert E Lee’s command. 12,500 Confederate soldiers charged across three-quarters of a mile of open fields, forcing Union forces back behind a small stone wall. It was this stone wall, poetically, built by slaves, that allowed Union soldiers to repel the Confederate advance. This area is known as the “high watermark” of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The Confederacy never got any further north than this location.

I was here with a group of five people, but by the time we got to this later stop on the tour only one person still wanted to get out and look around with me. After taking our time to breathe in the history of the area, we paused for one last moment of silence before heading back to the car. That silence was broken by the unmistakable sound of three cannons firing, One shot after the next, in the distance! Of course I was standing there with a video camera in my hand… On pause.

I began rolling after the fact, but nothing but silence followed. At first. After a very long beat we again decided to return to the car, except I continued to roll on my camera just in case. Soon, the booms of distant cannon fire filled the air again. Quickly, it was joined by the lighter ‘pop’ sounds of gunfire. The amount of artillery fire built and built until you could not hear individual sounds anymore… It was just a cacophony of noise.

Fortunately, the location of where the sound was coming from, was where we had to just come from. So, we knew there were no events or reenactments going on in that location.  Also, it was late in the day on a drizzly, cold December, so there were really no tourist events happening anywhere while we were in town.

When we got back in the car and hit ‘play’ on our guided audio tour, we were amazed to find out that the origin of the fighting at Pickett’s Charge began in same same location we heard the canon and gunfire sounds. It was also the largest barrage of artillery fire the world had ever seen up to that point… and we were able to witness what it sounded like!

I was recently at a family function and a family friend was excited to talk to me about ghost stories.  This is one my favorite stories to tell because it is so amazing and in truth, maybe the most exciting event I ever witnessed.

Upon telling the story, a third wheel (of course) rolled up and threw a lot of “what if” scenarios my way.  “Are you sure there weren’t speakers underground?” “Maybe they were speakers hidden inside of trees.” “You can’t be sure that the monuments around Gettysburg aren’t rigged with some sort of electronic devices.”

These are all claims or questions that I could not dismiss out of hand, because, I admit, I didn’t take metal detectors to the trees and I didn’t use ground penetrating radar to look under the surface of the battlefield on a hunt for speakers.  However, I tend to enjoy when skeptic takes this approach.  When their “explanations” are this far-fetched, they actually make a supernatural answer seem grounded and logical.

Lessons to take way from the experience…
While I am never out to “prove” anything, it’s not uncommon for a skeptical person to try to prove my story false.  This this actually works in the storyteller’s favor, as I have the lone advantage of being the person in the conversation who actually observed the event, while they are throwing ‘Hail Marys’ from the sidelines.  And, in this case, there’s video to confirm my observations. Meanwhile, the naysayer has to grasp at increasingly outlandish leaps of logic to try to cast doubt on the event.

It is the nature of having a paranormal experience. With or without evidence, every element of a paranormal story will always be left up to interpretation. I’m always impressed by how Travis Walton, the famed Alien abductee, whose story inspired the movie “Fire in the Sky,” recounts his experience. He doesn’t know if it was aliens, or the government, or something else altogether. He just knows his scattered memories and results of numerous investigations into his story, but he doesn’t try to assign any more meaning to it than that. A “just the facts, not the conclusion” approach.

It’s important to stay centered, remembering that you are just telling a story, not trying to win an argument, which can keep everyone on civil footing. I think even skeptics will give you the benefit of the doubt, believing that you are being honest if you aren’t pushing too hard with an air of trying to prove a point. They may think you are mistaken, but they won’t think you’re lying. Small victories.

Before jumping into one of my favorite personal ghost stories I’ve experienced, I want to point out that one of my very best friends is an atheist. He doesn’t believe in anything spiritual and, by extension, doesn’t believe that ghost stories are fact-based.   To keep the friendship going, we pretty much just avoid the topic.   However, we were recently around a bonfire and the whiskey was flowing, so we decided to get into it.

To my surprise, when we really articulated our beliefs, sure, there were some differences, but they were much smaller then I expected. Mind you, I have also come into contact with skeptics who believe that everyone who’s ever had any sort of paranormal experience is either 1) lying or 2) mentally unstable. Fortunately, this great friend of mine is still a great friend of mine so he does not match that type of skeptic.

I believe there are a number of different types of paranormal phenomena, coming from a number of causes. I believe many are part of earth science or biology that we just don’t understand yet, but I do believe there is a spiritual life after death element for conscious hauntings. Naturally, he does not believe in conscious hauntings, but his problem with “the paranormal” is that he doesn’t believe anything on earth is unexplainable. There may still be some mysteries on earth, but science will be able to solve them all in time. 

When you look at it through that scope, we are very nearly on the same page. I doubt serious future scientific projects and university studies will ever strongly focus on investigating the paranormal, but if they did, I think science could teach us a lot. Until then, it’ll just be up to us, our investigations and our less-than-scientific toys to go out into the field and record as much data as we can observe.

The Hollywood Sign’s Tragic Tale and the Open-Minded Skeptic

Most of you may have heard the story of the failed actress who committed suicide by jumping off of the Hollywood sign, back when it still read “Hollywoodland.” There is a lot more to the story, and I always feel a sense of obligation to tell a more complete version of Peg Entwhistle’s life and death.  Even the recent Netflix series “Hollywood” missed the opportunity to tell her story more fully.

Peg Entwhistle wasn’t simply an actress who couldn’t hack it in Hollywood so she killed herself. She was actually an established and successful Broadway actress on the East Coast, who inspired Bette Davis to get into acting.  She decided to try to take her career to the next level and try her hand at Hollywood. At this time, actors were leaving the stage for the screen in rapid succession, to the dismay of the theater companies they were leaving behind.  Trying to make that transition to the screen essentially put actors on a sort of ‘do not hire’ list within the world of theatre.  There’s speculation that when Peg got her small film role, it effectively prohibited her from being able to return to her life on stage. It was movie industry or bust for her.

 Also, she was going through a very messy divorce, one that got more nasty by the day and dragged on, even after the divorce was finalized.

It is true that she was cast in, and almost entirely cut out of an RKO Studios film titled “Thirteen Women.”  It should be noted that Peg is still in the film while Woman #12 & #13 were cut from the film entirely (how did they not rename it to “Eleven Women”?).

One night in 1932 she left her uncle’s house on Beachwood Drive, telling him that she was going to walk down the drug store. Instead, she embarked on 4 ½ mile hike up into Griffith Park where she reached the Hollywood sign and located a workman’s ladder was propped up against the 50-foot-tall letter H.

Taking one last look down onto Hollywood, ironically with the RKO Studios Headquarters (currently the Pantages Theater) directly in front of her, she leapt to her death. Also, what’s usually not reported accurately, is that she did not die instantly. The fall was approximately 150 feet into a wooded ravine that resulted in a crushed pelvis, which left her immobilized and dying slowly.

What’s commonly observed over the last 90 years is the vision of Peg on her death march up Beachwood Drive, through Griffith Park and to the Hollywood Sign.  Even people visiting the Griffith Observatory have looked along the mountain’s ridge to the Hollywood sign where they see a figure take a suicidal leap. Authorities are called, search and rescue crews arrive, but no body is ever recovered.

I told the story to a skeptical friend in Los Angeles as an example of a residual hunting. I explained that the concept isn’t that this woman is continuing to kill herself over and over again, but for whatever unknown reason, the intensity of her emotional turmoil has somehow scarred the land where this event took place.  Today, countless unsuspecting bystanders are able to catch a glimpse of the replay of this event. To my surprise, my skeptical friend said, “I can see that.”

In the span of one story, this person went from being a non-believer regarding everything paranormal, to being fully open to one of the most popular types of haunting – the residual haunting.

To continue on with my own experience here, there’s a great group called GHOULA (for Ghost Hunters of Urban Los Angeles) that conducts all sorts of paranormal meet ups throughout Southern California.  Each September, on the anniversary of Peg’s suicide, they organize a hike up to the Hollywood sign. I partook in the event in 2013.  While I didn’t believe there was a conscious haunting at this site, I figured, since I was heading up there anyway, I might as well bring along some ghost hunting gear!

While a number of small things happened throughout the night, there is one moment that still blows my mind. We waited for most of the group to retreat back down the mountain at sunset. All that remained was myself and three other people. By sheer coincidence, one of the members of our small group worked at Warner Bros. Studios, which is now the studio that owns the rights to “Thirteen Women.”  Attempting to appeal to the driven actress, during an EVP session, I mentioned, “Our friend here works at Warner’s. It’s still a big production company doing huge pictures. Would you be interested in meeting more people that work at Warner Brothers?”

Nearly immediately I thought I heard a whisper, but could not make out any words. Upon playback of the audio you can clearly hear a feminine voice say, “Yes.” Unlike most EVP evidence, this didn’t sound like a whisper or a hard-to-make-out raspy hiss. This was clearly a voice firmly saying “yes.” 

But that wasn’t all! For the next minute and a half you can hear someone slowly breathing in and out, as if their lips were nearly pressed against the microphone of the recorder. All of this is on video, and you could see that the recorder was held at about waist level in the middle of our group – no one was near the microphone.  The vocal EVP and somewhat unsettling breathing was not picked up by any camera mics, just the voice recorder.

Amazingly, Peg Entwhistle’s biographer, James Zeruk Jr., who was in the process of working on a book about Peg’s life (not a paranormal book at all), reached out to me and, without solicitation, said, “that was absolutely Peg’s voice you captured.”  His book, “Peg Entwistle and the Hollywood Sign Suicide: A Biography,” was released shortly after this investigation.  The investigation video can be viewed here:

Lessons to take way from the experience…
While a lot of the previous “lessons” involve making the best of a bad situation or knowing how to not get mired down in someone else’s chaos, this wonderful story shows me that sometimes people might assign themselves to a specific affiliation, but actually don’t have strong convictions behind it. In fact, they are actually completely open to taking in new information and making new decisions.  The lesson here for me is to remember that as much as I am open to having my mind changed and having my viewpoints challenged, there are other people out there who are still excited about learning and growing as well.

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