Feature

The secret life of a ghost hunter

Far from the staged spookiness of cable TV, part-time paranormal investigator Dan Sturges pulls back the curtain on a decade spent searching for spirits

When we meet for the first time at a midtown Barnes & Noble, paranormal investigator Dan Sturges is dressed in loose-fitting blue jeans and a short-sleeve shirt that exposes his thick arms and tattoos. His right forearm features a portrait of his beloved late dog Gus, and another of the Bruce Springsteen lyric "Learn to live with what you can't rise above." Sturges, 48, is a burly guy with blue eyes framed by pale blonde brows and lashes, a bald, shiny head, and a pink complexion that makes him seem slightly overheated.

While investigating, Sturges, who lives in Inwood, on the northern tip of Manhattan, likes to travel light, but this wasn't always the case. When he first started dabbling in the paranormal business, he was all about the gadgets. He had a digital video recording system, cameras equipped with night vision, and a $3,000 microphone that recorded subhuman hearing frequencies. Then, he says, he started thinking with a level head. "You realize ghosts don't have a voice box and that they don't have a tongue to manipulate sound waves, so why are you buying a $3,000 microphone?" he asks rhetorically. "It's not going to capture sound waves that aren't being made."

On a recent investigation, his work bag contained a slightly smaller inventory: a laptop, some EMF meters ("To pick up changes in the electromagnetic fields," he explains), small speakers, a few voice recorders, two flip video cameras, and some dirty gym clothes.

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Sturges believes that ghosts — or apparitions, as they are called in his circles — are very likely real. He lives for investigating historical haunts like the Merchant's House Museum in NoHo, which comes complete with a colorful family of fact-checkable spirits, and the Bartow-Pell Mansion, a 171-year-old landmarked country house in the Bronx. However, he's picky when it comes to taking on clients from private homes. "If I think things are a little sketchy or I feel like the story is being embellished, I'm out," he says.

After the TV series Ghost Hunters debuted in 2004, wannabe ghost busters were all the rage. But real-life investigations are often a snoozefest compared to what you see on television, and many of the teams soon tired of waiting around for spirits that never showed. Sturges didn't. For him it wasn't just about the thrill of the ghost hunt — it was about discovering when and why supernatural phenomena occur. This earned him street cred with research and science-based organizations like the Parapsychology Foundation in Manhattan, which has supported the study of dream telepathy, poltergeists, the effects of hallucinogenic drugs on psychic ability, out-of-body experiences, and other psychic phenomena.

Sturges speaks about what he does as if it were an ordinary blue-collar job, like plumbing or carpentry. When asked if he can pick up on psychic phenomena, he shrugs and answers: "I think that everybody does on some level. When you walk into a room where there was a big giant fight and the tension's so thick you can cut it with a knife — that's picking up energy. When you watch two people meet for the first time and you're like — they're totally going to hook up. Or when you know you're going to hook up with somebody — that's energy. You just know."

"We all have a little bit of an ability," he continues. "Some people just have it more. It's like cable TV and basic service versus premium service. Everybody's got basic — you need basic. But some people have HBO. Some people have Showtime. Some people have all of it plus internet and On Demand."

Sturges is quick to note that he himself does not posses extraordinary powers. "I have basic. I've been in a room where people have been watching a ghost and having a conversation with a spirit, and they go, 'Don't you see that Dan?' And I go, 'No I don't.' I wish…But I've had experiences. And every couple of months, HBO has a free weekend, right?"

He looks at me and grins.

"Maybe that will be this weekend, where we'll get stuff for free."

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As a teenager growing up in Long Island, Sturges loved playing football, acting in plays, lifting weights, exploring Civil War history, and listening to a really good ghost story. If an abandoned house made the hair on his arms stand up, he'd grab a Ouija board and a case of beer and talk his friends into performing a séance. He also managed to get a job at an old movie theater which many locals believed to be haunted. Sturges persuaded the owner to let him camp out overnight.

"I didn't know I was doing a paranormal investigation," Sturges tells me. "I just wanted to see a ghost."

"Did you see one?" I ask.

"No!" he responds, laughing. "It was a drag."

In fact, Sturges would have to wait decades to see his first and only ghost: a little girl phantom who showed up on laundry day in his own house. But through the years, he hung on to the hope that something like that just might occur, so he kept on looking. As a kid, he was into UFOs and the Loch Ness Monster the way other boys dug toy cars and G.I. Joes. His feisty, pint-sized Irish grandmother would regale him with stories about Nessie, Scotland's legendary creature of the deep. He thought it was just so cool that people could see something they couldn't prove, that this thing might be swimming out there without anyone really knowing for certain. Later, spirits would tease him with their same elusive, fantastical mystique.

"For me it's just a great search," Sturges says. "I don't think I'm going to be the one to prove the survival of consciousness after bodily death, but I like being one of the people who are looking for the answers."

Read the rest of this story at Narratively.

Narratively is an online magazine devoted to original, in-depth and untold stories. Each week, Narratively explores a different theme and publishes just one story a day. It was one of TIME's 50 Best Websites of 2013.

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