In The Knickerbocker hotel in Linesville, Pa., broadcast to whoever was watching on the Internet, Danielle Dilisio of Warren was sitting in a chair, trying to convince something in the room to touch a glowing green sensor on the floor.
She held two dowsing rods in her hands, asking yes or no questions to a room that was empty except for herself, teammate Tammy Rush and whatever otherworldly presence happened to be stomping through the aether at that moment.
A spitting autumn rain hit the windows of the hotel as Dilisio in a soft voice tried coaxing the ghost to touch the sensor, which she said would light up even though the thing in the room didn't have a corporeal form to speak of. She also asked questions and looked to the dowsing rods for answers.
Tribune Chronicle photos / Bill Rodgers
Cindyjo Dailey and Bill Anderson investigate an old children’s room at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Linesville, Pa. The bowling pin and blocks are sitting in a white powder, which the ghost hunters say would show evidence if something started moving them.
"Do you mind that I'm sitting in your chair?"
The rods crossed. It minds.
Dilisio asked if it wanted her to move. She received a noncommittal answer from the rods - they drift apart.
Then Warren City Councilman Al Novak, D-2nd Ward, clomped up the wooden stairs of the hotel with a flashlight in his hand.
Members of Paranormal and Supernatural Seekers - a collection of friends, co-workers and family members - sought to find evidence that one of the Knickerbocker's guests from the 1880s was running up an enormous hotel bill in limbo, and they were willing to pay for the chance.
But PSS and members of another Trumbull County ghost hunting group - Paranormal Researchers Of Northern Ohio - each indicated their reasons for doing homegrown ghost investigations similar to shows on cable television were a little more complex.
"We're all really good friends ... It beats hanging out in a bar," said PRONO co-founder Ian Shaffer of Vienna.
PRONO spends their weekends hunting for things like deceased, shotgun-toting, backwoods people in rural Ohio cemeteries, but the other customers sitting near them at the Mocha House in Warren wouldn't know it from looking at them. PRONO wasn't along for the Knickerbocker hunt, but they had their own plans to check out some reportedly haunted cemeteries a little closer to Halloween.
The group of friends laughed about the time they were searching for the aforementioned rural spirits when a rusty truck flew up the dirt highway in the dark, causing all of them to jump on top of each other like a Scooby Doo bit.
The entire group had a very upbeat attitude even though some of their subjects drifted to legends of suicides and grisly accidents in the northeastern Ohio region. Their Web site has a picture page showing the members clowning around in old houses and dark cemeteries.
Back at the hunt, Knickerbocker caretaker Peg Knickerbocker turned off the light, and Novak stood near the downstairs dining room where Steve Dailey was setting up the group's audio/video equipment. Novak was holding a handheld videocamera and talking toward the middle distance at nothing that could be seen.
"We're all friends here. We're here to visit you and see your home. We believe in you," he said.
Novak said he has been doing this as long as he can remember.
He has a picture showing something looking like a wispy puff of smoke floating in front of his son in the former Turner school building in Warren shortly before it was torn down. The picture, he said, is the closest proof he's ever captured of a ghost.
Novak said he had heard that Turner was haunted, so he investigated it, walking through the building and telling all of Turner's resident ghosts that the school board was going to tear their building down and that they needed to move to another city building. He suggested the Packard Music Hall.
In the hotel, a sign on the door cautioned people to be quiet as there likely was a ghost hunt in progress. The hunts, bolstered by cable ghost hunting shows such as ''Paranormal State,'' is publicity for the hotel.
The Knickerbocker's Web site boasts of the paranormal hunts it hosts. It also has Web cams streaming live video to the Internet. Peg Knickerbocker said there are at least 10 people watching footage of the hotel's empty hallways at any one time.
The hotel looks the part - antique children's toys with paint flaking off are crowded into the corner of a chilly baby's room, old stuffed birds spread their wings in the dark and investigators are encouraged to check out the cellar with a dirt floor. Ghost hunters also kill the lights before starting an investigation, a move Cindyjo Dailey said was mostly for heightening the mood.
"I think half of it is just to set the ambiance,'' she said. ''In all reality, you could do this at any time of the day.''
Groups pay to rent the hotel for the night, Knickerbocker said.
"The money isn't flowing in from it, but it helps keep the lights on," she said.
Novak thinks the city of Warren could cash in too.
Novak said he has made a hobby out of looking for "shadow people" in the old historic places of Warren. People would like to take tours of Perkins Mansion and hear of the haunting legends there, he said.
But for others involved with the two groups, the trips were a more personal thing, one that some of the members agreed didn't communicate well to those not involved in the hunt.
PRONO member Bill Wilkes is a self-described urban-legend junkie who, because of a famous campfire story, can't get into his car at night without first checking out the back seat. As a member of the group, he said he gets a thrill out of actually visiting reputedly haunted sites and experiencing the legend for himself.
PSS member Steve Dailey said the trips were like a personal religious experience. He watched feeds from the group's cameras while Cindyjo Dailey walked around the upstairs of the Knickerbocker hotel with a modified radio scanner which she claimed would allow the spirits to speak through the fragments of speech riding the airwaves. As he scanned the cameras for suspicious-looking shapes, Dailey said he was a Baptist who squared his ghost hunting hobby with his faith.
"You have to have a grounding in faith to do this," he said.
But the couple hasn't been to church in a while. Steve would like to go back but he's afraid someone in the congregation would find out about the hunts and try to make them stop.
Dailey said he has some important questions about the afterlife that he hopes the hunts can answer.
"When my aunt and uncle died, they both said they saw my grandmother (standing in the room with them). How did that happen? That's what fuels my fire," he said.
While some of the other group members wondered why, if there were such a thing as ghosts, what made them stick around places like the Knickerbocker or the diner they investigated in Warren or the Civil War battlefields, where they spent a vacation walking around with temperature gauges and electromagnetic field readers.
Steve Dailey, though, wonders what it was like for his grandmother to wait at the gate for the members of his family.