Catch the Spirit
Vermont ghost hunters trail a scent in South Starksboro
Bryan Hallett in the McDonough kitchen
Every October, when Caitrin McDonough was growing up in South Burlington, her dad would rent scary movies and take her for walks in graveyards. Such activities were fun for a while — before she moved to South Starksboro and met real ghosts.
It all started in September 2004, after Caitrin’s mother, Noreen, purchased a 136-year-old white house near the Jerusalem Cemetery. First a bed started shaking. Then Caitrin’s sister thought she heard a friend in a room, but the friend wasn’t there. Another night, when 14-year-old Caitrin was watching TV in the living room, a reflection of a person appeared in a darkened window. “No one else was home,” she recalls, “so it freaked me out.”
Last month, Noreen McDonough saw an ad in Seven Days:
IS YOUR HOUSE HAUNTED? Let us check it out for free. The Vermont Spirit Detective Agency: “The Private Eye For Those Who’ve Died.”
She responded to the ad and, via email, explained her situation. A couple weeks later, the detectives, who are based in Burlington, visited the McDonough place and decided Caitrin’s claims merited further investigation.
On October 17, Matt Borden, front man for the Vermont Spirit Detective Agency, was eating cheesy macaroni, salad and apple pie in the McDonough’s post-and-beam kitchen. At the table, ghost hunter Mike Efendiev, 31, calibrated the video cameras, digital recorders and electromagnetic meters that record ghost talk — what paranormal investigators call “electronic voice phenomenon,” or EVP.
Outside the window, a tire swing rocked from a tree.
Borden said a typical night of ghost hunting produces a workweek’s worth of audio-visual footage. Certain ghosts, he explained, will speak without prompting, while others respond to questions.
Borden began soliciting ghost stories back in July, when he placed the agency’s first classified ad. Twelve people have responded so far. As of last Thursday, the detectives had traveled to Burlington, Barre and Jeffersonville in search of spirit communication and other signs of paranormal activity. But they have yet to record any evidence.
While it’s safe to assume that the founders of a ghost-hunting business do, in fact, believe in ghosts, Borden and Efendiev approach the phenomenon more like scientists, relying on the evidence on a case-by-case basis.
As Borden explains it, spirit detection is not a means of authenticating ghoulish fantasies. “Some people want it to be true so badly,” he said, “that I kind of think they’re imagining things.”
Indeed, Efendiev said, some clients refuse to take no for an answer, even from professionals. “Some people out there,” he said, “no matter what you tell them, no matter what you prove, they say it isn’t the case.”
Efendiev, who wore a white baseball hat and jeans, is a chatty guy who shares an apartment with Borden’s girlfriend and fellow spirit detective Gloria DeSousa.
Borden met DeSousa two Thanksgivings ago at a friend’s house in Burlington. They didn’t talk about supernatural matters during their early courtship because, as DeSousa explains, “It’s not the kind of thing you normally bring up.”
But, after DeSousa told Borden about her spirit premonitions — for example, while living in the woods outside Middlesex, she could feel her dead cat crawling across her crotch — the lovers became partners in ghoulishness.
In June 2007, at DeSousa’s suggestion, they visited Lily Dale, a town outside Buffalo where ghosts have reportedly been talking to the living for more than a century. “We didn’t really find it very believable,” DeSousa recalls, “but it was worth the drive.”
Last summer, she and Borden went to East Bethany, New York, for a ghost-hunting investigation at a former sanatorium. The event featured celebrities from the popular television show “Ghost Hunters.”
Efendiev, a Unicel shipping-and-receiving supervisor whose mother thinks her New Jersey house is haunted, is also a big “Ghost Hunters” fan. He had checked out the sanatorium in East Bethany, too, and afterward joined Borden and DeSousa as a partner in the newly formed Vermont Spirit Detective Agency.
Efendiev said he and his fellow detectives are honing their skills in preparation for ghost hunts at larger sites. Their dream job? An investigation of Vermont Police Academy headquarters in Pittsford, which Borden read about in a book by the Burlington ghost-story collector Joseph Citro.
The agency’s ad in Seven Days attracted not only customers but freelance collaborators. One is Bryan Hallett, an eager ghost aficionado who graduated from the University of Vermont this spring. In September, Hallett’s girlfriend and classmate, Megan Laliberte, saw the Seven Days ad. Hallett emailed Borden, who invited the couple to join a ghost hunt in Barre. Now they are official members of the team, and Borden lets Hallett use his digital voice recorder to document electronic voice phenomena.
After dinner at the McDonough house, Hallett and Efendiev did a preliminary “sweep” of the place to see if their electromagnetic readers detected non-ghostlike materials, such as copper wiring, which can set the equipment’s sensors off. Then the spirit detectives and the McDonoughs gathered around the kitchen table. Borden explained that, if a ghost appears during a hunt, you should motion to the camera with a discreet, double-fisted thumbs-up. “We don’t want to interrupt,” Efendiev said.
While Borden calibrated live images from four strategically placed surveillance cameras, DeSousa, Efendiev and his mother Janet — she had driven up from Jersey for the occasion — walked to a nearby red barn with Caitrin McDonough and a few of her friends. Meanwhile, Hallett and Laliberte mounted a narrow stairway to Noreen McDonough’s slant-roofed second-floor bedroom. The group in the barn prepared to listen to noises coming from Hallett’s recording devices.
Hallett set up his equipment as Laliberte stretched out on Noreen McDonough’s bed. “It is 8:50,” Hallett said into a recorder. “We are in Noreen’s bedroom in South Starksboro, Vermont. It is 10-17-08, and this will be our first EVP session of the night.”
Something — tree branch? squirrel? — scratched at the window. “Is there anyone here in this room with us?” Hallett said after a pause. “If you are here with us, can you give us some sort of sign?”
Caitrin McDonough isn’t the only one who sees ghosts near Jerusalem Cemetery. One night this summer, a woman who lives across the road saw a blond World War I soldier with a canvas bag and a canteen standing at her bedside. The woman, who did not want her name published, recalled that she turned to her husband and said, “Get up! Somebody’s in the house!” The soldier vanished.
Documents obtained at the Starksboro Town Office suggest the soldier was Milton Elliot, a dairy farmer who once owned Noreen McDonough’s house. Born in 1897, Elliot fought in the war during the fall and winter of 1918. Thirty-seven years later, he purchased 70 acres near the Jerusalem Cemetery for $5000 and moved into a house down the hill; Noreen McDonough’s place might have housed his farmhands. After Elliot’s death in 1962, his widow and son sold the land to a younger couple.
Joseph Citro, a Burlington novelist and self-described “supernaturalist,” doesn’t think the ghost was Milton Elliot.
Visions of ghosts seen at night or the early morning should be interpreted with care, he explained in a phone interview, because people are more likely to dream at those hours. Besides, he wondered, how does the woman know it was a World War I soldier, as opposed to a soldier from a different war? And even if ghosts of dead people exist — Citro isn’t convinced they do — why would they wear clothes? “There’s just too much that’s illogical about it,” he concluded.
Citro is equally skeptical about the Vermont Spirit Detective Agency. Modern-day paranormal investigators are basically conducting 19th-century Spiritualist séances, he explained — and that popular practice was never validated by science.
It’s not that paranormal investigators are “crazy,” Citro added. The Vermont Spirit Detective Agency is one of at least three such agencies in the area. According to Citro, they reflect the “resurgence” of popular interest in the supernatural as reflected by a host of new horror movies and spooky TV shows.
“I think people are feeling tense and insecure right now, for political and other reasons,” he said. “Historically, when a population becomes insecure or frightened, they look beyond.”
By 10 p.m., Matt Borden and Megan Laliberte were sitting in a drafty hallway near the kitchen waiting for something unusual to happen. Bryan Hallett and Caitrin McDonough were watching video feeds in the living room. Caitrin’s mom, Noreen, was eating apple pie on an adjacent loveseat. The family dog wandered in and fell asleep.
As the computer screen flickered, Hallett told a ghost story. Not long ago, he began, a friend of his father’s felt the presence of a war-painted Native American on the edge of Hallett’s father’s backyard in Peru, New York. What was up with that? Hallett’s father said he didn’t know, but that, for some time, he had been seeing the devil’s face in his bedroom.
The more Hallett’s father pondered his friend’s theory, the more he realized that the devil’s face was probably the Native American’s face. Hallett’s father sold the property a few months ago, but Hallett is planning to conduct further research.
“That stuff is hard for me to believe,” Hallett said. “I’m looking for the undeniable stuff you catch on camera.”
With that, the young ghost hunter returned his gaze to the computer monitor. His girlfriend’s eyes were shining back at him — via video feed — from the infrared darkness of the hallway. Caitrin McDonough yawned. Blue light from the monitor filtered across Noreen’s lawn. The tire swing was still swaying under a gibbous moon.
Borden and his colleagues stayed at the McDonough’s until after 1 a.m. A few days later, while reviewing audio-visual footage from the South Starksboro ghost hunt, he heard garbled whispering. But, he cautioned, it’s too early to know whether the voices belong to ghosts or the spirit detectives themselves.
“We’re going over the evidence now,” he said. “We have some pretty good software.”