The crematorium in the basement lies dormant. In this spot, where countless bodies were burned, the atmosphere is cold, quiet and bone-chillingly eerie. The air is heavy with the history of souls who spent their last earthly hours in the 113-year-old Lehi building, which was a bank, a mortuary and a hospital before its owners abandoned it 20 years ago.
Now, the spooky landmark is being used as a Halloween attraction — a haunted house called the Haunted Hospital. And some believe the spirits of souls who died there still may be lingering around today. The building is a hotbed of paranormal activity, say Lehi-based ghost hunters April Greenawalt and Courtney Ward.
“The place is just thick with activity,” Greenawalt said.
The women have investigated the hospital several times over the past month, searching for proof of otherworldly beings. Greenawalt and Ward, both amateur ghost hunters, use tape recorders and cameras in hopes of documenting the paranormal.
Both women are members of the Utah Ghost Hunter’s Society, a Midvale-based organization that provides dozens of Utahns with information about potentially haunted areas throughout the state.
It may sound like something out of a fantastic ’80s movie, but ghost hunting is gaining popularity throughout the United States. Nationally, there are hundreds of chapters of ghost hunters, in places as disparate as Alabama and New York.
The New Mexico-based International Ghost Hunters Society has 15,000 members in 87 countries. Its mission is to educate and train novice believers in the art of ghost hunting, said owners Dave Oester and Sharon Gill. They offer home study courses that give information on what ghosts sound like and the best places to hunt for them.
But some say ghost hunting is little more than a ludicrous enterprise that preys on the gullible and downtrodden.
“Some do it for profit, and I hate to say it, they are taking advantage of people’s emotions,” said Mike Rivers, Utah director of the American Atheists. “There are no such things as ghosts, just like there is no such thing as a deity.”
Rivers said he has offered to go with other ghost hunters on their investigations and has been turned down because ghost hunters believed he wouldn’t be in the proper frame of mind.
“I keep an open mind, but not so open that my brains fall out,” he said.
He thinks people believe in ghosts because they want to believe, and many ghost-hunting operations may be scams aimed at getting money from people who want to connect with their dearly departed.
But Troy Taylor, founder of the Illinois-based American Ghost Society, said he considers anyone who charges for ghost-hunting services to be sleazy. There are 600 members of his society scattered throughout the country. The purpose of the organization is to train people who want to become ghost sleuths, he said. There is a $45 membership fee for one year, which includes manuals that teach how to ghost hunt.
Greenawalt and Ward don’t charge for hunting. They’ve mainly learned the craft from watching other ghost hunters. Unlike some, they aren’t seeking to put displaced spirits to rest. Rather, they want to recognize and remember the souls of people who have died. These spirits want to be heard, Greenawalt said.
“People used to go and visit graves, but on some of them you can’t even read the name,” Greenawalt said. “I feel like these people need visitors and recognition. Why should we forget someone’s name because they died?”
Greenawalt and Ward hunt ghosts as a hobby and as a way of answering questions about the paranormal they have had since childhood. As a youth, Greenawalt says she had an imaginary friend, a young man who used to play with her — whom she is now convinced was a ghost. The feeling she gets when ghosts are around is like someone just walked into a room. She feels as though she’s not alone, even though she can’t see anyone.
“It’s like the wind,” she said. “You can’t see it, but you know it’s there. I am not clairvoyant. People are born with intuition, and I have always been sensitive to a presence.”
The pair first became involved in their unusual hobby after they contacted ghost hunters a year ago to go through their parent’s house in Highland, which had been the location of a number of unexplained occurrences. Lights would go on and off with no one touching the switch. Doors would open after they were closed. Greenawalt once saw unexplained people in her room.
She contacted two ghost hunters from the Utah Ghost Hunter’s Society, who came with a tape recorder, hoping to get what is called electronic voice phenomena or EVP — ghosts talking on the tape. Sure enough, they heard voices, and since then, both Ward and Greenawalt have been hooked on ghost hunting.
Usually, they are armed only with a 35-mm camera and a tape recorder — ghosts apparently don’t like digital cameras because they don’t show up in those type of pictures, Greenawalt said. In addition to the former Lehi Hospital, the women have investigated cemeteries in Lehi, Eureka and American Fork several times.
Nine out of 10 times they get some proof of the existence of ghosts, either a whispered name on an audio tape, or an orb of light in a photograph, Greenawalt said.
By contrast, former Utah Valley State College student and co-director of the Atlantic Paranormal Society Grant Wilson said that in about 80 percent of the cases he and his partner Jason Hawes investigate, they disprove existence of paranormal activities.
The Lehi ghost hunters say their spookiest encounters have been at the former Lehi Hospital. Two months ago, building owner Todd Vincze asked the pair to investigate unexplained occurrences. Since their initial visit last month, the women have gone to the building weekly to try to document ghost sightings.
Ward is a ghost hunter who sometimes can physically feel the paranormal, she said.
“I will get physically sick,” Ward said. “We explain it as a physical reaction to ghosts.”
Others also claim to have seen ghosts at the former hospital.
“I have seen images and faces; I have heard whistling that I can’t explain,” said Vincze, the building’s owner.
Until Vincze bought the building three years ago to restore it to its 1891 appearance, the former hospital had been vacant for 20 years. Vincze has been raising money for the building by selling engraved sidewalk bricks. Turning the building into a haunted house with a $7 admission fee is just another way to raise money, he said.
Vincze even plays a ghost at the Haunted Hospital, which will be open nightly for one week after Halloween. The ghost hunters’ “proof,” such as whispers captured on tape recordings, and what he has seen himself, has been enough to convince Vincze of the paranormal, he said.
But evidence of ghosts is notoriously easy to forge, Rivers said.
And a cynic might suggest that a story about spooky spirits would drum up publicity and excitement about a haunted house just in time for Halloween.
Indeed, the old hospital has a rich folklore associated with it, including a tale of a doctor who went crazy and killed a nurse by hanging her from a flagpole on top of the building.
Richard Van Wagoner, a Lehi historian who has researched murders in the city dating back to 1890, said he has never heard of a nurse being murdered at the Lehi Hospital. He believes the story is probably being told as a promotion for the haunted house.
“I think it’s to get the kids all scared, and I would be shocked if you came across evidence of a murder,” he said.
Regardless of the actual events, Greenawalt is convinced there are spirits all around — in part, she says, because of her LDS faith.
Spirits and faith
Some local religious leaders are divided on whether ghosts and spirits still roam the earth. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are counseled to avoid attempting to contact evil spirits, said John P. Livingstone, an associate professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.
Spirits who chose to follow Satan before the earth was created still may be lingering around, he said.
“Latter-day Saints believe there are evil spirits that are constantly trying to get us to follow our more human instincts or appetites and passions, as opposed to the Holy Ghost,” he said.
As for Mormons chasing down ghosts, leaders discourage it because there is a chance the spirits contacted may be evil, Livingstone said.
“Chasing down ghosts, while it may seem relatively harmless or fun in a social sense, Latter-day Saints would likely not want to participate and would feel like they were crossing over in a darker realm of spirituality,” he said.
But Greenawalt said that, as someone who is LDS, she prefers to know what kind of spirits she is dealing with.
“I would rather know what is evil and what is OK,” she said.
Other religions discourage ghost hunting for the simple fact that they don’t believe in spirits.
Scott Helferty, interim pastor at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Provo, said Episcopalians do not believe in ghosts or spirits in a physical form. Evil does exist, but it’s personified by bad will in the universe that manifests itself in how people act or cause destruction, he said.
“We tend not to look at the devil as a cartoon figure with a tail,” he said.
As for those who ghost hunt or believe in spirits and ghosts, he thinks a doctor’s help is necessary.
“I would say they need to visit therapists, seriously,” he said. “It generally can be adjusted with medications. I think seeing ghosts would be a result of someone’s imagination and not the reality of the cosmos.”
Greenawalt said she doesn’t care if people believe her or not. She said she is simply telling the world about what she has personally witnessed.
“The only person I am out to convince is myself,” she said. “I am completely open to the possibility that I am completely wrong. But I might just be right.”
Elisabeth Nardi can be
reached at 344-2547 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Elisabeth Nardi, Daily Herald