Area ghost hunters

The experience was surreal ­— but not necessarily haunting.


Vindicator Staff Writer

NEW CASTLE, Pa. – It’s hard to know what you believe in until you’re forced to either accept something, or realize it may not be true.

As a 24-year-old Mahoning Valley native, there are some things I believe in that others could view as nonsensical. For example, I will always have hope that the Cleveland Browns will someday return to the glory years I was barely old enough to experience.

But I’m not quite sure I believe in ghosts – even after I may have experienced some this past weekend.

I was approached a few weeks back with an invitation from the Sparks Spirit Hunters of New Castle to go on a ghost hunt. I had met the founders of the group, Jim and Jared Sparks, during a previous story so I decided to attend in the spirit of Halloween.

The Sparkses, a handful of others and I spent a dark and stormy Friday night at Hill View Manor, an abandoned building on Ellwood Road. The structure was built in 1925 and was converted into a nursing home in the 1970s.

“This was the Lawrence County Poor Farm, and indigents and the mentally retarded would come to live here,” Jared Sparks said. “There are a lot of stories of neglect and bad situations.”

He added that he saw figures moving across the windows as soon as they arrived.

I got that uneasy “What are you doing here?” feeling as soon as I set foot in front of the building.

While I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as a coward, I have been described as “jumpy.”

I’ve been known to flail uncontrollably when I’m startled by the sound of my phone ringing. With all the lights on. In broad daylight.

That said, I was curious and willing to spend my evening looking for paranormal forces in a cold and unwelcoming building.

I arrived shortly after 6 p.m. and the last few minutes of daylight were fading fast. I greeted the Sparks, along with Hill View Manor experts Candy Braniff and Gary Cangey, and watched as they set up thousands of dollars worth of equipment. Everything from security cameras and DVR systems to digital voice recorders and infrared sensors was placed in the long, dark hallways of the facility.

I was armed only with a notepad, pen and enough skepticism to keep me sane.

Things were pretty slow for the first hour or two.

A tour through the building by Braniff and Cangey brought to light some of the more colorful elements of its history. We were shown the embalming room – complete with stained blood on the floor – where bodies were treated before burial in a cemetery out back, which Braniff says has more than 200 bodies.

We saw the “marble room,” which served as the morgue since the room would stay the coldest during summer.

We were told about each of the rooms said to have paranormal activity, including vivid stories of some of the former – and current – inhabitants.

The structure shows signs of decay and has the sights and smells of a run-down, abandoned, possibly haunted building. Piles of paint chips line the hallways and rooms and the paint that remains on the ceilings falls in pieces, forcing you to quickly turn around and analyze your surroundings.

After the tour, the groups split up and headed off. My group went to the third floor, which Jim Sparks said had a lot of activity on a previous visit.

Walking in complete darkness in such an ominous atmosphere is surreal enough. But random noises and temperature changes only added to the paranoia.

Can I prove that the noises were spirits and not paint chips falling, or just the natural noises of an old building? No.

But I can tell that your natural curiosity and senses are heightened and every noise or sense that you would otherwise ignore is brought to the forefront of your consciousness.

After several failed attempts to contact a spirit directly, Jim Sparks suggested a technique designed to maximize our ability to experience something: five minutes of silence.

The exercise is exactly what it sounds like; five minutes of total silence where all electronics are turned off and minds are cleared.

The only problem is, my mind starts to wander when it’s open.

I’d be a liar if I said I heard anything other than my own breath slightly quicken or if I felt anything other than my own pulse.

When the clock read midnight it was time for me to pack up and leave. I thanked the Sparkses for the experience and wished them well.

But before I left the site, I sat in my car and thought about it all.

The way I felt when I was inside the building was unlike any I had ever experienced. It wasn’t necessarily a fear, but more of an anticipatory alertness. I didn’t hear, see or feel anything that I could directly consider a spirit or supernatural force, but there was an eerie sense that we weren’t the only things inside.

Do I believe there are ghosts, or spirits, or whatever you want to call them? I don’t know.

Will I listen when the Sparkses talk about why the technology doesn’t lie and watch as their excited faces describe personal experiences? Absolutely. And I’ll probably believe every word.

I can’t say for certain I now know more about the supernatural. But I can say that there are certain things that just don’t feel right when you’re in that kind of environment.

I respect what I felt and am not foolish enough to believe there wasn’t something – an energy, force or maybe even a being – that was in the same place as I.

Jared Sparks said he was still reviewing the video and audio equipment – one of the pains of recording activity all night – but was confident they had something. He noted one interesting issue Friday night was his walkie-talkies randomly turning on and off.

I didn’t see any ghosts as they are often described. Didn’t hear any screams, moans or slamming doors. But I don’t think I left Hill View Manor without seeing anything.

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