By Olga Kharif To the right person, it would be downright eerie. Electronics equipment -- electromagnetic-field detectors, white-noise generators, infrared motion sensors -- jumping off store shelves for no apparent reason. Groups of otherwise sensible people paying good money to spend a night in a soon-to-be-closed movie theater. Folks on the Internet trolling for brass dowsing rods and crystals that ward off negativity. This is the lucrative business end of the paranormal.
Skeptics may scoff at ghosts and UFOs, but the profits some businesses are making off the spirit world are no mere phantoms. Scores of small businesses, selling ghost-hunting equipment, ghost investigation services, and even ghost counseling, are booming outside of their prime season, Halloween. Several companies recently introduced new devices billed as ghost detectors. And a cable TV show dedicated to ghost hunting is conjuring up viewers for the Sci-Fi Channel.
TV TIE-IN. The business is thriving thanks to enthusiasts such as Justin Faulk, an electrical engineering student at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. The 21-year-old has been a ghost hunter for three years, prowling abandoned buildings, haunted houses, and cemeteries. Faulk owns $2,500 worth of ghost-detecting gear, including equipment designed to check for changes in electrical fields that might indicate either the presence of UFOs -- or defects in home wiring.
Faulk says he recently took his gear out to an abandoned hospital that's said to be haunted. He walked into empty rooms with peeling paint that invoked intense feelings of fear. He saw pebbles tossed across a narrow hallway from an unseen source -- but no definite signs of ghosts. "In most haunted places, there are no knives flying out of the cabinet, like in the movies," laughs Faulk, who is thinking of going into business making ghost detectors himself.
How big is the paranormal market getting? It's hard to tell, as most businesses in the field are small, privately owned, and don't report revenues. But owners say they're getting a boost from the reality show Ghost Hunters, which debuted on the Sci-Fi Channel last October and has been renewed for additional episodes. In the program, two plumbers moonlight as ghost hunters. The Sci-Fi Channel said the show was attracting 1.4 million total viewers six weeks into its run, a 37% increase over the time slot's previous occupant.
REVENUES COME TO LIFE. The paranormal boomlet is such that some small businesses are actually starting to make a decent living at it (previously, most ghost hunters investigated for free, and home owners who hired them were warned that real ghost hunters wouldn't smoke or drink during their overnight quests).
Alamo City Paranormal in San Antonio, Tex., -- said to be one of the most haunted regions of the country -- claims to own $80,000 worth of special ghost-detecting gear and charges $50 and up for its investigations. It also offers para-counseling services (that's where a counselor talks to, say, a child who believes there's a ghost living under her bed), as well as popular ghost tours of downtown San Antonio, haunted, the story goes, by the spirits of hundreds of soldiers who died in the 1836 battle of the Alamo.
Between 15 to 20 ghost seekers show up for nightly San Antonio tours, which run an hour and a half and cost $10 for adults, reports Martin Leal, Alamo City Paranormal's owner. A favorite part of the tour, Leal says, is when the tourists get to play around with the ghost detectors for 20 minutes or so. Leal says revenues, which have been flattish for years, grew 21% in 2004. He's now trying to take his association of a dozen local companies charging for ghost-hunting services, called the American Alliance of Professional Ghost Hunters, nationwide.
DIFFERENT MOTIVES. More serious amateurs can hang onto the detection gear longer during numerous ghost-hunting overnighters, offered by the likes of Bump in the Night Tour Co. in Illinois, run by two authors of ghost books. Lured by the possibility of spending a sleepless night watching for spirits in a haunted movie theater, a witch cave, or a cemetery, enthusiasts flock to these tours, so most of them sell out months in advance.
Then there's all that equipment. There's science, albeit shaky, behind the devices on offer. UFOs might disturb an area's electromagnetic field, some believe. Ghosts can cause fluctuations in magnetic fields, radio waves, or light. Much of the gear that ghost hunters use measures these things -- but hasn't been designed specifically with ghosts in mind. However, they add scientific credibility to the pursuit. ("You don't believe in ghosts? Look at this magnificent magnetic-field readout. Look at this beautiful pie chart. Would technology lie?")
Many of those selling the gear for the paranormal market are believers, while others are skeptical about everything except the bottom line. At Hamburg (N.J.)-based Abate Electronics, orders for detectors had doubled from 2003 to 2004, to about 300 units, says owner Frank Abate, a retired Air Force engineer who claims to have seen a UFO and have had an out-of-the-body experience. His devices, priced at $29.99 and up, depending on features, can sound an alarm when detecting changes in the magnetic field, just so you don't miss a ghost wafting by. Its light indicator starts flashing, too, which "is fun for the kids," he says.
"FUN-LOVING ENGINEERS." Considered the Jaguar of ghost detectors is AlphaLab's TriField Natural EM Meter, selling for around $300 and measuring magnetic, radio-wave, and electric-field changes. The company, which sells about 200 such detectors a year, is considering making a detector that can draw an image based on the changes in the electromagnetic field it's detecting, says CEO David Lee, who has a PhD. in physics. Lee says he doesn't believe in ghosts but is undecided on the existence of UFOs.
In April, a Japanese company called Solid Alliance released a purported ghost detector complete with embedded memory and lights that flash in a different pattern depending on what the gadget has detected. Douglas Krone, CEO of Solid Alliance's U.S. distributor, Dynamism, is a bit unsure whether the device, selling for $119 and up, is for real or a joke: The Japanese inventors wouldn't tell him how it works.
To be safe, Krone clings to his healthy skepticism: "It's just a small plastic toy made in China," he says. "They're just fun-loving engineers who love to dream up stuff." Yet, Krone says, he's been inundated with inquiries from ghost hunters and paranormal magazines.
SENSITIVE INSTRUMENTS. Indeed, lots of skeptics choose to pooh-pooh the high-tech readouts. The James Randi Educational Foundation in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., run by the magician known for his debunking of paranormal claims, offers a $1 million reward to a person who proves the existence of the paranormal. Over the years, Randi has been all over the world testing applicants. He claims to have disproved all self-proclaimed mediums and even Uri Geller who, under Randi's watchful eye, couldn't bend his spoons.
"People move into old houses, they hear creaking noises at night, and they say they have a ghost," says Randi. "But it's simply an old house."
It's the high-tech equipment of the ghost hunters that Randi has no patience with, though. "These sensitive instruments will react to anything: Your cell phone, the fillings in your teeth, a lightning storm hundreds of miles away," he says.
But that's not stopping people such as Faulk, the Oklahoma State student, who has been hard at work designing a better, ghost-specific detector that he hopes to start selling later this year. "The market isn't huge, but the people who are [ghost hunting] will appreciate it," he figures. "I'm not going to retire at 25." However, if the ghost business maintains its uptrend, he might be wrong about that. Kharif is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in Portland, Ore.