The Secret Life of a Ghost Hunter
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, forty-eight, 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.
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.”
* * *
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.”
Before taking up the big search he went to college, followed by the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, where he took a gamble on acting. Even though he was a “snobby theater guy,” he soon realized the only way to make a living was by acting in commercials. Over time, that life grew disenchanting.
“At auditions they’d be like, ‘Bite into this hamburger and make believe it’s a steak, and that it’s the greatest steak you’ve ever had, and now smile and be goofy,’” he says. “I’m a big guy, and they’d say, ‘Let’s see you dance.’ And I used to say, ‘No, you’re not going to make an ass out of me.’”
After about twenty years, Sturges stopped doing commercials and got a job working for a high-end security firm. When asked what this involved, he turns evasive. “I would just keep an eye on things and not get involved, but be involved in not getting involved. It’s all very kind of cloak-and-dagger stuff.”
A Civil War history buff, Sturges loves driving up and down the East Coast to visit all of the old battlefields. In 2004, when he was still a working actor, Sturges reserved a haunted room at a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, which he later read was “the most haunted room in the most haunted bed and breakfast in the most haunted town in the country.”
“I was staying in the most haunted room ever,” he says. “It was really cool.”
After knocking back a few drinks at the bar, Sturges bumped into a paranormal group that was investigating the hotel. “They said, ‘Hey man, what room are you in?’ When I told them I was staying in the Sara Black room, they were like, ‘Holy shit, can you let us in?’” He spent the whole night watching eagerly as the group went about recording potential ghost activity, which they called electronic voice phenomena, or EVP. He admired how friendly they were, how they all had each other’s backs—quite a change from all the egocentric actors he knew. By the time he arrived back in New York, he was eager to find a team of his own and see some ghosts. He also realized a way to reinvent himself. “Actors are always looking for the interesting role or the interesting part or the interesting play—they’re looking for that interesting something,” he says. “I was thinking I would rather just be an interesting person.”
He soon teamed up with Dom Villella, a stay-at-home dad from Brooklyn with a basement full of electronic ghost-hunting gadgets and a group of his own, which he founded, called Paranormal Investigation of NYC. Later, Villella would go on to earn a Ph.D. from an online school, the University of Metaphysical Sciences.
“I thought he was this paranormal guy who knew everything, but he was just like me!” Sturges says. “He knew as much as I did, we read the same books. You soon figure out that nobody has the answers.”
For Sturges’s first investigation with the team, the group went upstate to an old house complete with a graveyard out back. Villella began to film in a darkened bedroom, and says he felt “this energy” shoot right through his shoulder. And then he saw it—a white image that seemed to walk to the back of the room, stop, turn and disappear…right into the wall. When they rewound the video, Sturges saw what looked like a white shadow crossing into the camera’s view, then funnel into nothing out of frame.
Sturges believes that the shape was paranormal, but not necessarily one of the late ladies or gentlemen of the house. “A UFO does not mean a spaceship from another planet, it’s an object that’s unidentified and flying,” he says. “When we say paranormal it’s the same idea—it’s something that was beyond normal occurrence and we were unable to explain it.”
And even if it was an apparition, Sturges says you can’t get hurt by a spirit, other than by running into a door or tripping down the stairs because you’re scared of something that you don’t really understand. He doesn’t believe in demons or evil boogeyman or any of that other “crap.” After all, no spirit has ever tried to harm him, even when he’s invited them to take their best shot.
He told the client not to worry. If she really did have a spirit in her house, why not just enjoy it?
* * *
Sturges's work with the group put him in the spotlight more than any commercials ever had. In 2005, his team investigated the Ed Sullivan Theater for The Late Show with David Letterman. (“Hey look, is that a ghost?" asked Rupert Jee of Hello Deli fame. Sturges didn’t miss a beat. “That’s a chair,” he says.) Guest appearances followed in 2006 on DaySide on the Fox News Channel, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, and Sci Fi Investigates, as well as a story in the Daily News about the group and a New York Times profile of Villella. With the publicity came more calls, followed by more investigations.
With the exception of the occasional pizza that clients would throw in to thank them, Villella and Sturges did everything for free. Neither man felt good about charging for something they couldn’t prove, and both work pro bono to this day. Besides, it was never about getting rich. For Sturges it is about searching for what’s unknowable—the answer to the age-old question of what happens when we die.
One of his most memorable moments came during an investigation of a Lenox Hill townhouse. Nothing seemed to be awry—at first. But when the team shut off their recorders, Sturges says the place “just exploded.”
“I’m the guy who goes ‘Bullshit!’ when somebody says, ‘Oh my god, somebody just touched me.’ Bullshit! Ghosts don’t have a finger. But I turned around laughing because I thought Dom and Dan (Tisher) were in the room whispering in my ear, and it turned out they were in another room. And then I hear Dan downstairs talking to me, and I’m like ‘Who are you talking to? I’m three floors up man!’”
But for the most part, the calls and investigations were becoming as predictable and boring for Sturges as auditioning for a fried chicken commercial. Usually, nothing much out of the ordinary happened. And when it did, it had more to do with the psychological issues of people who were calling to ask for help with boogeymen.
“We had a guy who thought he was a werewolf,” Sturges says about a call he received that never progressed into an investigation. “He was afraid that he was going to hurt somebody, and he wanted me to spend the night and watch him. And I said, ‘Well dude, if you think you’re going to kill somebody, then I’m not coming anywhere near you!’”
Then there was the infamous investigation on April Fool’s Day, 2006. After the team arrived at the site, they set up their cameras, let them roll, and stepped out for a bite to eat. When they came back, it was as if a bunch of ghosts had thrown the séance of the century—all of the pictures in the apartment had been turned upside down. After reviewing their footage, however, the team realized that the culprits were not spirits but one of the occupants and her boyfriend, who had played a practical joke.
It was the “haunting of a bathroom rug” case that made Sturges seriously consider striking out on his own. “The guy would wake up in the morning and it would be in a different spot,” Sturges remembers. “I would look at Dom and he’d go, ‘What? I can’t say no!’”
Sturges declined to investigate that case with the team.
Between acting auditions and a full-time job at an employment agency, Sturges couldn’t afford to play therapist and chase empty leads. In the end, he and Villella went their separate ways, and Sturges turned his attention to historical investigations. Villella stuck with private investigations, but says he started turning away the would-be werewolves and haunted carpets as the group became more selective. “What I respect about Dan is that he’s not one of those guys who assumes that something’s paranormal,” Villella says. “More often than not, there’s another explanation."
* * *
On a March evening, I join Sturges at the Merchant’s House Museum to watch him in action. The building is a narrow, nineteenth-century, red brick landmark with Greek Revival parlors, creaky wooden floors and preserved Victorian furniture. Some also say that it comes with a host of hand-me-down spirits. According to one of the board members, Anthony Bellov, the legend goes something like this: In 1933, one Gertrude Tredwell died in the house at the age of nearly ninety-three, in the same bed in which she was born. More than a year after her death, neighbors reported seeing an elderly woman run outside and shoo children away—even though the house was empty. The neighbors said the woman “matched Gertrude to a T.” Since then, there’s been a steady stream of ghostly sightings, followed by tourists who are drawn to the museum’s nineteenth-century funeral reenactments and candlelit ghost tours.
Downstairs in the vestibule, Sturges rolls his eyes and tells me the psychics are late, as usual. “But they’re psychics, so I guess they would know if they were missing out on something,” he quips. I follow him up a steep staircase and into what looks to be a mix of an office space and storage room. There are high bookshelves with three mannequin heads, a copy machine, shuttered windows, a stuffed green frog and a glass jar with what appear to be small ivory bones inside.
“We put that in the middle of a table and had a séance one night,” Sturges says, pointing to the jar. “And all those bones in there were bouncing around.”
“Really?” I ask.
Beneath the jar at the end of the long wooden table sits Bellov, who has the sly, curious look of a man who hopes to find a friendly ghost hiding out underneath his bed. Across from him sits Lisette Coly, her twenty-six-year-old son George, and a self-described “cranky psychic” named Diana Navarro. Coly, sixty-three, is the president of the Parapsychology Foundation and, according to Sturges, the closest thing to paranormal royalty that there is. Her grandmother is Eileen J. Garrett, the famous Irish medium and parapsychologist who co-founded the Parapsychology Foundation in 1951.
The conversation in the room turns to a “horrible” pilot—Sturges’ description—that he once starred in alongside a medium he works with. “Eventually Richard and I started lying, just to amuse ourselves,” he says. “I told everyone I saw Richard levitate.” The pilot is one of two that Sturges filmed after leaving Villella’s group. Neither was picked up as a series.
Sturges would jump on the chance to have his own show, but for now he’s sticking with his day job, which leaves investigations for the weekend. He also squeezes in ten minutes here and there when he can to review hours of audio recordings taken from the sites—a task as tedious as it sounds.
It’s places like the Merchant’s House that help keep things interesting. Sturges has heard enough here to convince him that the house is haunted, including footsteps, and a spectral girl whispering on audio: “I am not afraid.” Sturges also says his medium collaborator once had a “nice talk” with Gertrude.
Today, Sturges splits us up into groups and instructs the psychics to write down their impressions. Then he gives the rest of us the drill.
“If you hear somebody outside laughing and talking, say ‘I hear people laughing and talking,’ so that I don’t think it’s something in the room and have a heart attack.” He pauses and adds: “I’m not one of those guys who gets feelings. I’ve had, like, anxiety attacks all day today. But I cooked myself dinner last night, so it might have been that too.”
Sturges leads some of us up the long staircase to the servants’ quarters, his frame casting a bulky shadow on the walls. We find ourselves on a landing with what appear at first glance to be a posse of gigantic, floor-to-ceiling ghosts. On closer inspection, it turns out to be a pile of old furniture covered in ancient, moth-bitten white bed sheets.
“With any luck I’ll pick up on something, but if not will you still love me?” Coly asks Sturges.
“I’ll still love you, just not as much,” he responds.
Sturges takes off his glasses, rubs his head, and leads us into a narrow room. “This would be the servants’ bedroom,” he says. There are two narrow beds with metal frames, vaulted ceilings and a single window that lets in the late evening light. He walks over to the bed on the left and props up an EMF meter.
“My name is Dan,” he casually informs the spirits. “Can you tell us what years you worked in the Merchant’s House?”
A horn honks from somewhere outside.
“Can you tell us if the Tredwells were nice people to work for, and if they were, can you go over and wave your hand over the little blue box on the pillow on the bed right underneath the window please?”
We stand around and shift our weight.
“Can you put the meter on the other bed?” Coly asks, knitting her brows. “Because I feel pulled to this bed.” She walks over and stands next to it. “Do you want my verbal impressions?”
“Yeah,” Sturges says. “Talk.”
“I see a girl in a gray uniform with a sort of chignon bun. And I have an impression that she belonged to the bed with the plaid quilt.”
“Is this a place memory you’re getting?”
“It’s not an apparition, no.”
Apparently, not all hauntings are created equal. Place memories, Sturges explains, are more like the echoes of things past, like a movie on rewind. An apparition, on the other hand, is consciousness without a body, like if you get hit by a bus but the essence of who you are survives. Sometimes it’s also referred to as an “intelligent haunting,” which means that the departed is able to interact with their environment.
“We can invite the girl,” Sturges says. “And you know, we’re not limited to asking just the Tredwells. Maybe Eileen Garrett wants to pop in and say hello.”
“Georgie, do you want to ask?” Coly says to her son, who is hiding out on the landing.
Georgie glances at me and rolls his eyes.
“Well,” Coly says. “If Eileen Garrett is here I would like you to help us with this, since this is my virgin voyage here, dear. So any assistance, if you’re around, would be very much appreciated.”
According to Sturges, even a very haunted house can have an off night if the spirits have somewhere else they’d rather be. And if they do decide to show up, the psychics on the investigation need to be tuned into their premium cable channels in order to pick up on them. “Psychics can’t always be on point and hit it out of the park,” he says. “Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever and shot like thirty percent from the field, you know?”
We walk back downstairs and into the bedroom in which Gertrude Tredwell died. The room is softly lit with lofty ceilings, a red and gold canopy bed, a gigantic armoire, a couple of hard-backed chairs and a marble mantelpiece with an old wooden clock. Sturges walks over to the mantelpiece and sets the EMF meter down.
“Most of the stuff that happens in the house is attributed to Gertrude,” Sturges says. “She was the last family member in the house and died in the bed she was born in—which probably isn’t true. But it’s cool. And why not? A white lie isn’t a bad thing.”
Outside, a siren wails. Sturges walks over to one of the long windows and crosses his arms.
“This house is on the East Village ghost tour route,” he says. “And they stop and talk a lot about it.”
“Does that draw in the spirits?” Coly asks.
“No, but I’ll tell you what did happen. We were in here doing an investigation, and somebody was standing over by where George is and said, ‘I just heard the name Tredwell.’ And I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ And sure enough there was a tour out there.
“I said, ‘All right, let’s have some fun.’ So we started flashing the lights on and off up here, and then we were rattling the shutters, and I started putting my hands up against the glass and I was shaking the glass, and sure enough we were peeking out and everybody was like, freaking out.” He scrunches up his face and opens his mouth wide in imitation. “They’re all pointing and going, ‘Flash the lights if you can hear us!’”
For a moment he seems wistful.
“We were flashing the lights on and off, and they were all clapping."
* * *
Leonora Desar is a freelance writer with a passion for profiling ordinary people with extraordinary stories to tell. Her writing has appeared in Psychology Today, Parenting magazine, and amNewYork, and on Yahoo! Shine, MSN Living, and WomansDay.com.
Alison Brockhouse is an artist and photographer based in Brooklyn, NY.