BREAK ON THROUGH TO THE OTHER SIDE
By ANDREW MCGINN
The footage looked to be straight from prime-time cable TV. (Pick a channel, any channel; they’re all the same anymore.) The ectoplasm-green tint of the video and the sight of a young woman feeling her way around a spooky old basement in the dark were dead giveaways.
This was a paranormal investigation.
“Is there anybody here who would like to speak to us?” the woman asks into the ether.
The reply, if any, is hard to make out, but the woman presses on, assuming there is, in fact, an unseen guest among them.
“How old are you?” she asks.
What happens next depends almost entirely on whether you believe in the existence of ghosts.
In 2005, right around the time ghost-hunting reality shows started sucking Americans into their TVs, a Gallup survey revealed that three in four people hold at least one paranormal belief. Of those beliefs (stuff like ESP and old-fashioned demonic possession), 37 percent believe that houses can be haunted.
At the time, the venerable Gallup company probably never dreamed that one day, paranormal investigators would be scouring the boyhood home of its namesake in hopes of making contact with the other side.
That video footage?
It was shot last month on a digital video camera with night vision by new Jefferson resident Mike Daves at the Gallup House, the historic childhood home of internationally famous pollster George H. Gallup.
The investigation by the Central Iowa Ghost Society (CIGS) is technically still under review, but Daves, 48, is convinced that something paranormal is going on within the eight walls of Gallup’s octagonal boyhood pad on South Chestnut Street.
“There is activity there,” Daves explained matter-of-factly.
“I don’t think it’s demonic,” he added, which surely will bring a sigh of relief to local tourism advocates. “They just want to be recognized.”
Paranormal investigation — most people call it “ghost hunting” — would seem to almost be more popular than golfing as a recreational activity anymore, thanks to the popularity of the TV shows and the availability of inexpensive digital cameras and such “scientific” gadgets as the K-II EMF Meter for detecting electromagnetic fields.
You, too, can begin communicating with disembodied souls via the white noise generated by a $69.90 P-SB7 “Spirit Box” — basically, a handheld radio that scans through the frequencies — just as fast as Amazon Prime can get you the package.
Daves and wife Billie Johnson-Daves relocated to Jefferson in June for her job as marketing manager at Wild Rose Casino.
A native of small-town Iowa herself, Johnson-Daves, 52, loves how progressive Jefferson is for its size.
But, arguably, what they love most about Jefferson is how close they are now to their fellow paranormal investigators in Norwalk-based CIGS. No more driving three and four hours from Armstrong, near the Minnesota border, to investigate a haunted school in Manilla or an undisclosed home right here in Greene County whose owner has asked for the services of a “metaphysical removal team.”
Oh yeah. For real.
“He wants entities removed from his place,” Daves said.
The stated mission of CIGS is “to contact the other side and make intelligent connections with any spirits.”
They’re also looking for a few new investigators to join the team. (Just visit CIGS on Facebook and shoot the group’s founder, Dave Milby, a message.)
Skeptics, they say, make great paranormal investigators.
“It’s made me more of a believer,” Johnson-Daves said. “But I’m also more of a skeptic.”
Just like mushroom hunting or deer hunting, ghost hunters love finding those places that haven’t yet been over-trampled by people carrying K-II meters in the dark. Ask Mike Daves about investigating the infamous Villisca Ax Murder House — the site in southwest Iowa of grisly murders in 1912 — and you get a sharp thumb’s down.
Not long after moving to Jefferson, the Daves came to see the octagon-shaped house on a hill down the street from them as potentially being an untapped wellspring of supernatural activity.
Built in 1901 by the Gallup family, the fact that it was the boyhood home of a man who became a household name virtually guaranteed its spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
After decades as a private residence, the 10-room house has since been renovated and is available to book for overnight stays.
Its unique architectural style peaked in popularity around the Civil War, championed by phrenologist Orson Squire Fowler for its ability to “cure all evils.” Phrenology was a popular movement — long since debunked as pseudoscience — that claimed that different parts of the brain, along with the shape of the head, determined an individual’s personality.
Fitting, then, that a practice also derided by skeptics as pseudoscience — paranormal investigation — would eventually find its way to the eight-sided house.
In the video shot there last month by Daves and CIGS, what they call a “light anomaly” occurs in the background after the question, “How old are you?”
“I hate calling them orbs,” Daves said, practically through gritted teeth.
“Nine times out of 10,” Johnson-Daves continued, “it’s dust.”
Pete Russell, the most recent innkeeper at the Gallup House, is among the skeptics.
“Until I see the proof,” Russell said, “I don’t believe there’s anything there.”
Russell has admittedly spent a lot of time alone in the Gallup House.
“I’ve had a couple of guests say things have happened,” she explained, “but I can tell you how they happen.”
For one, the attic door doesn’t latch.
Daves said he really had to sell Russell in order for CIGS to conduct an investigation there.
“We’re more scientific,” he told her. “We don’t disrespect.”
Each investigation starts with a prayer.
Daves gives major props to Russell.
“That place,” he said, “is immaculate on the inside.”
Other times, people contact them.
“We don’t charge,” he said. “We’re here to do a service.”
In August, CIGS ventured to Nebraska to investigate what they termed the “Lincoln suicide house.”
There, Daves finally realized his special talent. While others on the team have sharp eyes or sensitive ears, he found he has an almost supernatural sense of smell.
At one point, he was hit by the smell of what could only be described as the aroma of stinky feet.
Turns out Daves was standing directly where a barefoot young woman was found hanging.
Another time in the house, he detected a smell of gummy bears — only later did he learn that had been her favorite candy.
“I’m 48, smoked for 39 of it and I can still smell dead people’s feet,” Daves beamed.
A native of Fairmont, Minn., just miles from the Iowa border, Daves came to paranormal investigation after his service in the Army.
“I had a lot of questions from when I was over in Iraq,” he said.
Joining the National Guard in 1989, while still in high school, Daves deployed in 2005 with a combat unit, and spent the next 16 months running security for convoys in and out of al-Asad.
When a 20-year-old soldier in his unit was killed in an ambush, Daves began thinking more about life’s greatest mystery.
“What’s next? What’s on the other side?” he wondered. “But, most of all, why? He was 20 years old. Never even had a girlfriend. He was just a clean-cut kid.”
His curiosity is what keeps him on the trail of the supernatural.
It’s what inspired him to make a four-hour drive while still living in northern Iowa to Malvern, south of Council Bluffs, where CIGS spent the night at Malvern Manor, a place featured in 2017 on the TLC series “Paranormal Lockdown.” (For the record, Daves and his wife aren’t fans of the TV ghost-hunting shows. “They’re all Hollywood,” he said.)
Malvern Manor, which started out as a hotel and became a nursing home, was only Daves’ second investigation.
“I made the comment that there was nothing there,” he recalled. “It was, no pun intended, dead.”
Just then, he said he felt a burning sensation on his arm. Pushing back his sweatshirt sleeve, he was astonished to see a newly formed scratch that was bleeding.
“That was, at the time, the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” Daves raved. “My first paranormal experience.”
Other investigations aren’t so exciting.
“There are those people, they want so bad to have something,” he said.
At one place, he said, someone was convinced their dearly departed grandmother was still among them.
A persistent thumping noise turned out to be a tree branch hitting the side of the trailer. And the smell of Grandma’s perfume was traced to something equally harmless.
“Grandma smelled like an air freshener,” Daves said. “Better than mothballs.”
Similar to how couples used to play Bridge with other couples, Johnson-Daves got involved in paranormal investigation primarily as something to do with her husband of more than 10 years, although she was already apt to believe in the existence of ghosts.
They vowed on New Year’s Eve 2008 to be together “until death do us part” — but even then, there’s no guarantee they’ll part.
“Let’s say I stay around because I’m worried about her,” Daves said, describing one of the reasons a spirit might linger. “OK, she knows that’s not true. I’d be worried about my dog.”