South Jersey Ghost Catchers Club follows the paranormal

Michele Christy (second from right) and Emily Hasselman buy cookies from members of the Ghost Chasers' Club (from left) Justin Leach, John Taitt, Marina Mollica, and Alex Salvatore at Gloucester County College.
Michele Christy (second from right) and Emily Hasselman buy cookies from members of the Ghost Chasers' Club (from left) Justin Leach, John Taitt, Marina Mollica, and Alex Salvatore at Gloucester County College. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 02, 2013

SEWELL Buying ghost-shaped cookies Thursday from the Ghost Chasers' Club didn't mean - ha-ha - that you believe in ghosts.

But for the students selling those cookies at a table in Gloucester County College's student center, disembodied voices and sourceless shadows and floating lights are no laughing matter.

"I started it last fall," founder and club president Justin Leach said shortly after lunch. "I figured a lot of people have had paranormal experiences that they're afraid to talk about or can't explain."

Around the table, five other undergraduates nodded. A few glanced at one another. No one was smiling.

"So," said Leach, a 19-year-old television and film major from Mantua, "we look for answers in the field."

The "field" can be a graveyard, but the club's preferred sites for investigating the paranormal are buildings reputed to be haunted.

And so it was that a half-dozen members found themselves in March at the stone Burlington County Prison in Mount Holly. Now a museum, it is old, gray, and creepy, with an otherworldly feel even in daytime.

But at night - well, let 19-year-old John Taitt tell the story.

"As soon as we stepped inside, it felt like something was there," said Taitt, of Mantua, a freshman communications major. "This anxious, heavy feeling. I thought it was my imagination at first, but -" and he just shook his head.

They first visited a holding cell for prisoners charged with murder, then scattered, with some exploring in groups and some alone.

About two hours into the tour, "I was going up the stairs to the second floor," said Taitt, "and as I shined my flashlight on the wall, this shadow of a hand comes up" in the circle of light.

"It looked like it was holding something, like a shank or an old-fashioned knife. I just freaked out. I ran up the stairs, yelling" to join the others.

"My hair's standing up just remembering," Taitt said, plucking at his wrist. "I'm telling the truth, too."

The shadowy hand has become a favorite part of the lore of the group, most of whom describe themselves as conventionally mainstream religious.

"It's not like we're going around celebrating demons with Pentagrams," said Michelle Schuster, 19, of Woodbury Heights.

Leach said he was raised Catholic and considers himself Christian, but still wears a gold medal of St. Michael outside his shirt.

"I believe in heaven and hell," he said. "I just think there's something in between."

And to hear it around their table, it seems that something comes in many forms.

Marina Mollica, 19, of Williamstown, recalled the club's visit a month ago to Olde Stone House Village in Washington Township.

"Three of us were standing on the ground floor of this one house," she recalled, "when we heard this humming, like a young girl humming a tune. It filled the whole room for about a minute. Everybody stopped talking."

Such encounters could be dismissed as the by-product of youthful imagination.

But the Ghost Chasers' Club's adviser, library archivist Anna Kehnast, said she had "a lot of personal experiences" of the paranormal, starting when she was a young waitress at the Riverview Inn in Pennsville.

There, she said, patrons and staff regularly saw "chairs moving and glasses just falling off the shelf. I saw it myself," she said.

Kehnast, who was wearing a raven-colored witch's hat she bought in Salem, Mass. - it included a veil with embroidered spiders - was with Mollica and the others on their tour of Olde Stone House Village.

While sitting alone in one of the old kitchens, she said, "a light the size of a tennis ball suddenly appeared" about a foot off the floor "and went 'whoosh' about four feet" and disappeared. "It was like seeing a little comet."

Their storytelling was interrupted every now and then by students asking to buy the ghost-shape sugar cookies at two for $1.

"I know about ghosts," said 18-year-old Tyree Vaughn of Deptford. Raised a member of Jehovah's Witnesses, Vaughn said he believed demons could disguise themselves as deceased family members to deceive people.

"I wouldn't want to look for ghosts," he said with a laugh.

Club member Dustin Irby, 20, of Glassboro, said he, too, came from a devout Christian family that did not view ghosts as playthings. But since sixth grade, he said, he has had "many experiences" of voices and "seeing stuff," some of which were "uncomfortable."

Irby joined the club, he said, to learn more about the paranormal.

Cameron Planchard, 25, an astrophysics major who sometimes joins the club's investigations, takes a skeptical view. "I've had unexplained encounters in my life," he said. "But as a physicist, my first instinct is to seek a scientific explanation" for ghostlike phenomena.

"Is it dust particles on a lens? Light reflecting in a strange way?

"Ghosts are an interesting hypothesis," said Planchard, who plans to earn a doctorate and work in suborbital spaceflight. "But they've not been verified."


Contact David O'Reilly at 856-779-3841 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

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