Reporter's Notebook

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:51

    VERNON-You don't usually bring a camera to a bar. But I did last Saturday night. I was there for a different reason than the crowd that had downed their last drinks and left at closing a few minutes earlier - because The Vernon Inn is said to be "the" spot to be for Vernon's unfinished-business-after-death crowd. That's right, I came to find ghosts. The Inn was built in 1833 and was one of Vernon's main public houses during the town's early days, a place where a traveling salesman could get a room for the night and locals could get something to eat and drink. Located on Route 94 just north of Routh 515, it was for years the site of town council meetings. In 1936, there was a fire that resulted in a casualty and necessitated extensive rebuilding. Today, it's a restaurant and tavern. The rooms upstairs are now apartments. So let's see: old, a "tragic" fatality happened - what does that tell you? "Hotbed of paranormal activity." In fact, people who live and work there say that sometimes televisions change channels by themselves, lights go on and off, people suddenly get very cold, and things go bump in the night. In February, a crew of serious ghost hunters - my word, not theirs - spent the night there and experienced some strange things. Tonight, they're back to look further into the affair. That's how I came to be there with a camera, following the the North Jersey Paranormal research group (NNJPR) to bust my own ghosts. Now, I don't know what I believe in, but I do know what I don't believe. I'm superstitious about a couple of things, and I have as much fun as anyone else thinking about the supernatural, maybe more. But as soon as you cross from fun speculation into the flakey-with-extra-butter New-Age "I can't wear yellow because I also have on blue and the energies will clash" stuff, I'm outta there. But after talking to Mark Johnson (the group coordinator), I didn't feel an ounce of suspicion. I mean, the guy's running a non-profit group that doesn't even charge for investigations and never uses the word "ghost" in their reports. I interviewed him on the phone a few days earlier, and during that conversation a little bit of un-doubt crawled out of its cave in my brain for a second. It translated to, "I gotta go check this out." When I got there, I was wondering how the whole investigating deal goes down; how exactly do you find a ghost? Where do you look? What if you see something? Do you just sit there and look at it? Or do you run screaming from the room? I figured it out quickly; it isn't that hard. Walk around, take lots of photos and recordings, and analyze what you find. We started setting up around 2 a.m. The first thing Mark did was take out his EMF (electromagnetic field) meter and take some readings, just like Dan Aykroyd would do, but without the plutonium backpack. The meter detects abnormal levels of activity that might come up when there's a unknown presence. Then I heard what would become my favorite words during the investigation: "Hey guys, come here for a second!" He was getting a reading. But he soon discovered it was from wiring in the ceiling. "Aw, you got me all excited and now it's nothin' but some #^&*% wiring?" I soon learned you don't go running around bug-eyed. You have to chill out and wait for something to happen. Mark says that the more people are present, the less "activity" shows up. It seems that asking spirits to "perform" is not a good idea. When I heard that, I thought of a blob of ectoplasm appearing in front of the video cameras and lecturing the researchers: "This ain't no stinkin' freak show you know! Jeeze, what, were you born in a box? Didn't your momma teach you not to stare?" The researchers made teams and split up. Mark and Chris Rogers took the kitchen areas and I went with Raul Malave, camcorder-keeper, and Mike Mittentag down to the basement. Any house from the 1830s is going to have a crazy "spooky" storage basement, and the Vernon Inn did not disappoint. But the first thing I thought when I got down there - surrounded by crates of Bud and rows of kegs - was, "Wow, that's a lot of beer." There's a liquor storage room, too, right at the bottom of the stairs that's kept locked for obvious reasons. A bartender said the door has scared a few of the women who work at the bar with its random rattling. He said he sometimes finds the door violently rattling and shaking like there's someone on the other side trying to get out, although why you'd want to break out of a liquor locker isn't clear. I was hoping it would rattle for us, but it didn't. But in the first hour Raul got a picture in the back corner of the cellar that showed a floating orb (a dot of invisible clear light that shows up only in photos). I figured there wouldn't be too much activity after that because who wants to do a double performance? So I went upstairs to check on the kitchen crew. Not much was going on there, either. Chris and Mark were standing in the dark running a camcorder and taking pictures. I was listening to stories about other investigations they've done when Raul called on the walkie-talkie with that "somethin' freaky just happened" tone in his voice. He said they just heard a weird "bang" noise, and could we come downstairs. In the basement, he and Mike described what happened, and Mark went upstairs and asked the bartender and the others who were still cleaning up if they dropped anything or were banging bottles around or anything. They all said no. Attempts at recreating the sound by slamming doors and stomping didn't work, so we left that one as "unexplained." Later on, when Raul was alone checking out the the stairs that lead to the upstairs apartments, he heard a laugh right next to him. That one probably got me interested, but later we found out that it was just laughter sneaking through the wall from the bar area. We did get a "sudden chill" in the cellar, but that turned out to have snuck in through a leaky window. Then there was a "cat noise" everyone heard that sounded pretty genuine until we realized it was the extra-screaky swinging doors between the bar and kitchen. The video tapes were more interesting. One showed a flying orb in the dining room that still has me wondering. And Mark, after listening to audio tapes he recorded, said he heard a faint voice whispering Daaaaaa or Duuuusss, but we really couldn't be sure because of the dishwasher and cleanup noises in the other room. That was about it. No apparitions. No chairs flying through the air. Nothing that would crack the prime-time line-up on Fox, or even Spike TV. It's hard to not get excited when everyone's looking for ghosts in a place that's said to be haunted. At the same time, you don't want to get all riled up and see things just because you want to see them and not because they're really there. How hard is it to imagine a quick unusual flash of light out the corner of your eye, right? "We try to go in with very scientific minds," Mark told me. But I personally didn't capture anything on film and hardly anyone else did. And I wanted to see action, maybe an apparition shouting, "Hey, I'm a ghost!" Something subtle like that. I had fun doing the investigation, and I'm really intrigued by what NNJPR does. But most of the evidence we found that night was (to me at least) inconclusive. But everyone in the group agreed that "this place was hoppin' tonight." I guess to someone with less knowledge of what's a lot and what's not, it was more like "well, it was somethin' all right."