Ghost Hunting and the Paranormal

Common interest is sometimes not so common. Take, for example, the American Ghost Society. Founded in 1995, the organization boasts more than 600 members, mostly ghost hunters and ghost enthusiasts. Troy Taylor, ghost hunter and author of 33 books, including his most recent, The Ghost Hunter's Guidebook, put together the society's first conference in 1997 in Decatur, Ill. He has since moved it to his home base in Alton, Ill.

Originally, the conference was to be held at a local hotel, but plans fell through so the meeting was moved to his bookstore, which turned out to be a great location because it not only reduced overhead, but the old building, with a haunted history, provided the perfect atmosphere.

“I never really believed it [was haunted] even though this is my business,” Taylor admits. “It seemed too good to be true, until things actually started to happen.” At a conference reception a few years ago, he recalls, people were conversing in the back when all of a sudden, books started flying off the shelves.

Then there's Bill Washell, founder of Maine's Paranormal Research Association, based in Lewiston. Washell, who specializes in voice phenomena — he records spirit voices electronically — has been bumped, heard chains rattle, seen apparitions, and had a sleeper sofa slide across the room toward him in his experiences as a ghost hunter. He got into the field at the age of 18 when his recently deceased mother appeared before him in his bedroom to tell him everything would be OK.

At the group's inaugural conference, the 2003 New England Ghost Conference held in Salem, Mass., Washell had a close encounter of a different kind. “While we were doing our conference, this little old lady was walking up and down the hall, blessing the hall,” he says. “She would follow us everywhere we'd go and bless that spot.”

The association's second annual conference will be held August 6 to 8 at the Parkwood Inn, Brunswick, Me., and is open to the public. “The goal for our conference is to bring something different and unique into our area,” Washell says.

That strategy has worked well for Taylor's American Ghost Society, which Alton now welcomes with open arms, after some initial apprehension. The local Holiday Inn, the biggest hotel in town, even blocked rooms for the event this year for the first time.

“We kind of went from being that oddball thing that nobody talks about to being embraced by the community,” says Taylor, who was surprised to win an award from the tourism board in Alton. “I think they finally woke up and said, ‘Hey, these ghost people are spending a lot of money in town.’”

Jugglers Convention

Sandy Brown — the festival director for the volunteer-managed International Jugglers' Association — knows all about juggling several tasks at once. That's because Brown, for 17 years, was a professional juggler who went by the name of Sandy Brown, Juggler Renowned. That was then. Now she is a licensed physical therapist in Kansas City who doubles as the person in charge of putting on the annual convention for a 2,000-plus member organization that is anything but ordinary.

IJA's 57th annual convention, held this summer at the Buffalo (N.Y.) Convention Center, attracted about 1,200 members. “It's a very colorful festival,” says Brown. “Things are flying through the air, people are on unicycles. You just see some unbelievable things.”

As one might imagine, very high ceilings are a necessity to accommodate the shows, competitions, workshops, and demonstrations that make up the bulk of the program. And because the group puts on a variety show every year, access to a performing arts center is mandatory. This year, the world-famous Flying Karamazov Brothers were the guests of honor, performing at both the convention center and a nearby theater.

One of the group's most unusual requirements is that IJA members must have 24-hour access to the center. “People will be in there throughout the day and throughout the night,” says Brown. “Juggling never stops. Jugglers don't sleep.”