Monday, October 19, 2020

Guest Post: Telling Ghost Stories to Skeptics, Part 2, by Scott Markus

Note from Amelia: Welcome back Scott Markusfellow author and storyteller, tour guide, podcast host, presenter, investigator, and friend. I had the honor of being interviewed on Scott's podcast, The Fantastic Story Society, in 2019. For the past week and the next two weeks, Scott is sharing his perspective on the art of storytelling, particularly the delicate art of ghost-storytelling to skeptics, while sharing a few of his own ghost stories along the way:

This is the second in a series of three posts that center around telling ghost stories to skeptics and the lessons I’ve learned in the process as a storyteller and tour guide. In these posts, you hear some real ghost stories and the sometimes outlandish ways people attempt to pour cold water on them.

Asking about “Orbs” / Bachelor’s Grove / Setting a Trap for the Over-Believer

The American Horror Story house in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Scott Markus. 
When I was running the LA Hauntings Ghost Tour company, some of my favorite experiences would be when a private group bought out the whole tour for themselves. That way, I would be able to customize the tour to meet whatever interest that group had. Several years ago, when the show American Horror Story was new, I had a birthday party group to lead around and they wanted to stop by the main house that was the focus of Season One.

Sometimes, however, the worst part of being a tour guide is doing a private tour where the decision-maker of the group wants to go on a ghost tour, but no one else in the group wants to. In this case, there was a birthday girl who loved ghost stories, dragging around a dozen friends who just couldn’t wait to get to the bar. One of the friends was a very outspoken skeptic who did not hide the fact that she really didn’t want to be there.

While everyone else got out of the van to take photos of the American Horror Story house, she decided to stay in the van and ask me what I perceived to be a “gotcha’” question.  She asked me, “What do you think about orbs?”

As I’m sure you know, orbs are a very common phenomenon that appear as floating spheres in still images and video taken at haunted locations. The problem with orbs is that there are countless ways that these anomalies can appear on camera. They pop up as bugs, dust, smoke, rain, snow, and even during high humidity. However, it appears as though sometimes orbs are present when an actual paranormal event happens, too. Therefore, you can’t dismiss all orb images as false positives. You have to take each image or video clip on a case-by-case basis.

I believe a photo or video containing an orb is not evidence in and of itself, but if that moment is captured while something else significant is going on, like an EMF detector going off or even a personal observation of feeling watched at the same time an orb appears on camera, then that orb image has significance to me.

I conveyed this while also telling her a story about when my cousin and my mom were visiting the famously haunted Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery in Midlothian, Illinois. At one point, they thought they felt a cold spot but didn’t want to leap to any conclusions, so they found me to report this. By sheer luck and coincidence, someone took a photo of them as they were walking away from that cold spot. When the film was developed, you could very plainly see an orb was floating in the air behind themright where they thought they felt that cold spot! To me, this is one of the most outstanding orb photos I’ve ever seen, because it’s paired with the personal observations of two people.

This is not an uncommon question to have to address, so I am fairly well rehearsed with this response. I feel that it’s level-headed and practical. I realize any response that gives credibility to orb images will not jive well with a skeptic, but at least this response doesn’t come off as someone who is overreacting to every little thing.

In my years running this tour company, I had only gotten one negative review ever. And that review came from this person. To my total surprise, the review stated that I didn’t give enough credibility to orbs as paranormal phenomena!

Lessons to Take Away from the Experience

Scott’s cousin and mom, with a mysterious orb, at Bachelor’s Grove
Cemetery in Midlothian, Illinois. Photo by Scott Markus.
I think the biggest lesson here for me was to not pre-judge someone’s motivations based on knowing very little about them. I knew this person was a skeptic and she was fairly confrontational in her tone and body language, but taking the mindset that she would be “out to get me” was not helpful. Just because someone claims to be a skeptic, doesn’t mean they’re a non-believer in everything. Maybe this person was actually interested in and excited about orbs, but I leaned too hard on playing it safe.

 Also, I wouldn’t change anything about the content of my message, since I spoke my mind to what I truly believe. However, I was likely not confident in my tone and language, as I may have been trying too hard to play it safe. (If you'd to see more of me celebrating or debunking paranormal photos, orbs and otherwise, check out this video:

I always believe it’s great to ask people, “What do you think?” But I don’t believe I did that here. Who knows, it could have led to a pretty interesting conversation. As paranormal investigators, we go out of our way to try to listen to any communication from a deceased person we hope is in the room with us; however, it’s good to extend that common courtesy to the flesh and blood people we’re actually conversing with as well!

Intense Gettysburg Hauntings and the Intensely Absurd Skeptic

One of my favorite stories to tell when people ask me about a real ghost story I’ve experienced centers on my first-ever visit to the Gettysburg Battlefield on my birthday in 2012. I always point out that it was my birthday to show that this event happened in December, and not a high tourism season, a time when a reenactment would be likely, or even on the anniversary of any of the fighting, which took place over July 1-3, 1863.

If you haven’t been there, the Gettysburg battlefield is an absolutely must-visit location for every American. The three-day battle was the bloodiest engagement of the Civil War and ended up being a turning point in favor of the Union’s eventual victory.

Today, you can go to the Visitor Center and purchase a guided tour on CD to listen to as you spend the day driving around the different significant locations throughout the battlefield. Yep, this is how I spent my birthday!

Near the end of the day, we found ourselves at the sight of “Pickett’s Charge.” This was effectively the site of the Confederate’s last-ditch effort to break through Union lines, led by Maj. Gen. George Pickett and two other generals under Robert E. Lee’s command. Around 12,500 Confederate soldiers charged across three-quarters of a mile of open fields, forcing Union forces back behind a small stone wall. It was this stone wall, poetically, built by slaves, that allowed Union soldiers to repel the Confederate advance. This area is known as the “high watermark” of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The Confederacy never got any further north than this location.

The site of Pickett’s Charge on the Gettysburg Battlefield
in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Photo by Scott Markus.
I was here with a group of five people, but by the time we got to this later stop on the tour only one person still wanted to get out and look around with me. After taking our time to breathe in the history of the area, we paused for one last moment of silence before heading back to the car. That silence was broken by the unmistakable sound of three cannons firing, one shot after the next, in the distance! Of course, I was standing there with a video camera in my hand… On pause.

I began rolling after the fact, but nothing but silence followed. At first. After a very long beat, we again decided to return to the car, except I continued to roll on my camera just in case. Soon, the booms of distant cannon fire filled the air again. Quickly, it was joined by the lighter “pop” sounds of gunfire. The amount of artillery fire built and built until you could not hear individual sounds anymore… It was just a cacophony of noise.

Fortunately, the location of where the sound was coming from, was where we had just come from. So, we knew there were no events or reenactments going on in that location. Also, it was late in the day on a drizzly, cold December evening, so there were really no tourist events happening anywhere while we were in town.

When we got back in the car and hit “play” on our guided audio tour, we were amazed to find out that the origin of the fighting at Pickett’s Charge began in the same location we had heard the canon and gunfire sounds. It was also the largest barrage of artillery fire the world had ever seen up to that point…and we were able to witness what it sounded like!

I was recently at a family function and a family friend was excited to talk to me about ghost stories.  This is one my favorite stories to tell because it is so amazing and, in truth, maybe the most exciting event I have ever witnessed.

Upon telling the story, a third wheel (of course) rolled up and threw a lot of “what if” scenarios my way. “Are you sure there weren’t speakers underground?” “Maybe there were speakers hidden inside of trees.” “You can’t be sure that the monuments around Gettysburg aren’t rigged with some sort of electronic devices.”

These are all claims or questions that I could not dismiss out of hand, because, I admit, I didn’t take metal detectors to the trees and I didn’t use ground-penetrating radar to look under the surface of the battlefield on a hunt for speakers. However, I tend to enjoy when skeptic takes this approach. When their “explanations” are this far-fetched, they actually make a supernatural answer seem grounded and logical.

Lessons to Take Away from the Experience

While I am never out to “prove” anything, it’s not uncommon for a skeptical person to try and prove my story false. This actually works in the storyteller’s favor, as I have the lone advantage of being the person in the conversation who actually observed the event, while they are throwing “Hail Mary's” from the sidelines. And, in this case, there’s video to confirm my observations. Meanwhile, the naysayer has to grasp at increasingly outlandish leaps of logic to try to cast doubt on the event.

It's the nature of having a paranormal experience. With or without evidence, every element of a paranormal story will always be left to interpretation. I’m always impressed by how Travis Walton, the famed alien abductee, whose story inspired the movie Fire in the Sky, recounts his experience. He doesn’t know if it was aliens, or the government, or something else altogether. He just knows his scattered memories and the results of numerous investigations into his story, but he doesn’t try to assign any more meaning to things than that. A “just the facts, not the conclusion” approach.

It’s important to stay centered, remembering that you are just telling a story, not trying to win an argument, which can keep everyone on civil footing. I think even skeptics will give you the benefit of the doubt, believing that you are being honest if you aren’t pushing too hard with an air of trying to prove a point. They may think you are mistaken, but they won’t think you’re lying. Small victories.

In my next installment, I will talk about one of Hollywood’s most famous ghost stories, which I feel privileged to have been able to witness firsthand.  I’ll also relay one of the rarest types of story in my arsenal…one where a skeptic becomes a believer!

Scott Markus has been researching the paranormal for more than half his life. He is a published author, having written the historical/paranormal book, Voices from the Chicago Grave. His work in both production and the paranormal includes two documentaries on the unexplained and running He has been interviewed multiple times for Travel Channel’s Mysteries at the Museum and founded the LA Hauntings Tour Co., which lead people through haunted Hollywood and downtown LA.

“Telling Ghost Stories to Skeptics, Part 2,” Copyright 2020 Scott Markus

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