Inside the Clarke Museum, registrar Art Barab bolted the main door. Office manager Carly Marino walked into another room and clacked off all of the lights. It was about 8 p.m. on Nov. 1. The day after Halloween. The day before All Souls Day. Outside, a full moon hung low over Old Town in Eureka; through vents in the old museum's walls we could hear a faint mingling of car swish, laughter and footsteps.
On the main floor of the museum in the old wing, mannequins were poised for surrey rides, teas and piano recitals, sock hops and cocktails. In the Native American wing, a bear dance costume hid in the shadows of the balcony, overlooking encased tools, baskets and other old memories in the room below.
In the basement at the bottom of the stairs, in the dark, four of us crouched: Justin Maietta and Simone Smith of the Humboldt Area Paranormal Society, Marino and me. The cool, still air was a little musty. Before we'd turned off our flashlights, we had walked through a narrow corridor, past the crude child's coffin sticking out from a high shelf like a small diving board, into a room with white cloth draped over shelves and, on a table, a blue velvet gown spread out as if in readiness for its owner.
Down here, some claim, the spirit of a Chinese girl, or very young woman, has been heard weeping. Some say she was a prostitute when this was a Chinese community. Maietta, in the dark, asked the girl ghost to give some sign that she was here. We listened, stifling our breathing. Though we'd moved farther from the outside wall, we could still hear the traffic noise through the vent.
After no detectable response, Maietta placed his flashlight on the floor by the stairs and said, "I have a little toy here for you."
It probably should have felt spooky. But this spirit-outing inside the Clarke was turning out to be a little boring. Clinical. The members of HAPS approach such "investigations" coolly, like detectives.
Before querying the possible spirit, Maietta (who founded HAPS in 2010) and Smith had taken a reading of the room's temperature (60 degrees), swept a device around the room to detect electromagentic frequencies (nothing unusual, just the expected spikes around wires), and turned on a digital recorder which, they said, could pick up sounds our own ears wouldn't hear.
After a couple more attempts to elicit a response, we stretched, stood up and flicked on our flashlights. On a yellow Walkie Talkie, Maietta and Smith talked with the others in their group -- Shawn-Tabitha Smith (Simone Smith's sister), Jeff Gupton and Richard Griffith -- who were similarly querying possible spirits elsewhere in the museum.
We regrouped, and I joined Gupton, Shawn-Tabitha and Griffith on the second floor in the former washroom (when the museum was a bank), now storage for paintings, mostly. There, the spirit of a woman is said to have been heard weeping and pacing, still distraught after all these dead years over a lecherous banker. Once she even, supposedly, knocked a picture down. Persistent questioning -- Gupton, a former cop, sounding business-like -- yielded seemingly nothing.
Then I went with Maietta and Simone Smith to the Victorian Home room where twice, supposedly, psychics had detected a presence, possibly stirred by someone tinkling on the piano. They had set up a laptop computer to record video of the room; its fan whirred and its screen cast a glow that threw candlestick shadows on the walls and glinted off the gilt mirror. Maietta spoke into the velvety room: "Can you play the piano for us? It'd be great."
The mannequin girl standing in front of the piano remained fixed, smiling and staring.
"That mannequin creeps me out," Simone Smith whispered.
Maietta chuckled softly, then said, "I'm definitely feeling a bit of a draft, a pocket of cool air around me."
Before the night at the Clarke, I'd met with the HAPS group inside Ramone's coffee shop. They're a friendly, mostly young and stylishly dressed bunch. Griffith, a 23-year-old business major at Humboldt State University, was actually in a bow tie and suit; he said he was on his way to his job as stage manager for the Humboldt circus on campus. They brought some of their recording equipment to show me. They told me how reports of the paranormal sometimes mention cold drafts, and how spirits are thought to be detectable energy. And they assured me they do not, actually, really believe in ghosts much, if at all.
"I don't believe in an afterlife in general, so ghosts seem unlikely to me," said Griffith, adding he joined the group "by accident." He was watching an episode of "Ghost Hunters" on TV, and he wondered what these spirit-pursuers were like in real life. When he saw Maietta's call for people to join HAPS, he jumped.
Gupton likes watching "Ghost Hunters," too, and like Griffith was pleased when he found out there was a paranormal group here. A freelance video game writer, Gupton, at 42, is the oldest in the group. He's pretty much a believer, he said. He's wanted to ghost hunt ever since he saw the movie Ghostbusters in 1984.
The Smith sisters joined for mixed reasons. Shawn-Tabitha, a 22-year-old photographer and wildlife major at Humboldt, said they'd spent a week with their dying grandmother this past May.
"You could feel, when she passed away, how the energy went away," said Shawn-Tabitha. "I want to know where it goes."
"The day she died, three of us saw fast-moving shadows in the room where she was," said Simone, who is 24, an artist and a "rogue taxidermist" (she stuffs road kill). "Our nurse friend saw it, and my mother and I saw it."
Simone, who was already friends with Maietta and joined the group first, said she's a "huge skeptic." Yet, when she was a teenager she often would awake in the night thinking she saw a man standing next to her bed. She wonders about "shadow people."
Shawn-Tabitha hasn't had such experiences. "So I want to go about it scientifically," she said.
And the fellow who started the group?
"I'm a skeptic-skeptic," the 30-year-old Maietta said. "I don't have an ounce of belief in it."
Maietta, who goes to College of the Redwoods, said he has friends and family who've had paranormal experiences. He hasn't -- but he's always been curious. On the HAPS Facebook page he writes: "Our mission is to find and or debunk evidence of Humboldt County's paranormal hotspots through the use of specialized equipment and scientific measures."
OK, sure: You could, if you wanted to, find plenty to debunk these debunkers and their Radio Shack methods. But so what? They're having some fun.
"I can spend 10 hours researching a property at the historical society or in the Humboldt Room in the library, or at the Clarke Museum," said Simone, gleefully.
Weeks after the investigation, Simone Smith and Gupton came to the Journal office to share some of their findings.
Their video camera had picked up nothing visual. But its audio, and a digital recorder, had both picked up a few tiny knocking sounds in the second-floor old washroom. They followed some of the direct questions that demanded the spirit knock in answer. And there were very faint short breathy sounds recorded when no one was in the room. A sigh and a sniff. An exhalation.
It seemed like thin stuff.
"Most of us felt there were some interesting things there that night, so it's nice to get some validation," said Smith.
"Richard wants to go back and debunk everything," said Gupton.
"I think we all do," said Smith.
Gupton said the Clarke Museum folks want the group back, too. Maybe closer to midnight. "It's the witching hour," he said, "when the veil is thinner between this life and the afterlife, it is believed."
Plus, he added, there's a lot less outside noise that time of night.