With time, my attitude has changed, so that now I'm a bit of a skeptic when it comes to the paranormal (though I'll admit you couldn't pay me a million dollars to spend the night in a place where people have reported ghostly activity). I still like reading about "real-life" paranormal stories, though, and that's how I discovered Amberrose Hammond's books.
Since graduating from Grand Valley State University in 2005 with a degree in English, Hammond has written "Ghosts and Legends of Michigan's West Coast," about creepy goings-on along the Lower Peninsula's western shores, and "Wicked Ottawa County," about historic scandals and crimes in, well, Ottawa County. Her third book, another entry in the "Wicked" series, is slated for release in the spring of 2014. Hammond has also taken part in several paranormal investigations, and maintains a website, "Michigan's Otherside," that provides details about mysteries, legends, and hauntings in the Great Lakes State. Hammond was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions I emailed to her. Read on to learn more about the paranormal in Michigan from one of the state's foremost experts on all things spooky.
On your webpage, you say that you've been interested in the strange and unusual since you were a kid. Did you ever imagine, back then, that you would make your living from researching and writing about the paranormal? How did it all begin?
"Growing up, I always had an extreme interest in unusual and paranormal topics. I soaked up shows like 'Unsolved Mysteries' in the 80s, B-rated horror movies on Saturday nights, and could always be found with a book on ghost stories or something more esoteric in my backpack. It wasn’t until years later, in October 2000, that I was thinking about ghosts and how none of them live in Michigan; at least it seemed that way. Whenever I picked up a book on haunted locations around the U.S., it never featured too much about the great state of Michigan.
"So one night, I consulted the oracle that is Google and it delivered. I started finding all kinds of neat stories and paranormal experiences from people. There wasn’t nearly the amount of info available on the Internet today, but it was enough to get me hooked. By my searching, I was also introduced to the early paranormal investigation teams in the state, which leads to the next question on the list!"
You helped found The Great Lakes Paranormal Research Organization. Are you still involved with that group?
"In 2000, there were just a handful of paranormal investigation teams in the state. West Michigan Ghost Hunters Society at the time was hosting public investigations at the now-infamous Nunica Cemetery. [Ed. note: See the "For more information" section at the end of this interview to learn more about Nunica Cemetery.] I joined them on a few ghost hunts and was immediately hooked! I joined The Great Lakes Paranormal Research Organization in 2001 after some friends formed it, and researched and investigated under that name until 2006, when I developed the concept of 'Michigan’s Otherside' and started to use that name, as my interests within the paranormal were changing."
What goes on during a "typical" paranormal investigation? (Though I realize there probably isn't any such thing as "typical" when it comes to the paranormal!) What is the team's goal, what are the methods they use to investigate, etc.?
"Any paranormal investigator of course wants to stumble upon what they feel is genuine paranormal activity and document it. Ultimately, the goal of any paranormal team is to try and rule out the mundane first. If a client reported that he or she was hearing a spooky sound in the attic and the investigators actually discovered a family of raccoons living up there, they just found a mundane solution. Problem solved. No ghosts.
"But...if all possibilities are exhausted and the sound of footsteps is still heard in the attic at the same time every night...well, maybe...just maybe...there’s something paranormal going on.
"Many teams employ a variety of equipment when they investigate, the 'big three' being cameras, video recorders, and audio recorders. The gadgets and equipment can add up from there depending on how much extra cash you have. The standard paranormal investigation usually starts with a request. The client feels something 'strange' is going on in his or her home or business, and is interested in having someone come out to verify that 'they are not crazy.' A telephone or face-to-face interview will usually happen before a full-blown investigation to determine what exactly is going on and, in some cases, rule out an investigation. There are times when the interview process can expose mental illness, drug use, or other things that make people believe they have paranormal activity going on, but in fact don’t.
"If the interview shows a need for an investigation, the date will be set and the team will show up and do a sweep of the house, checking things out, looking for those 'mundane' causes. Also, if possible, background research is done beforehand to get an idea about the history of the location.
"There can be a lot that can happen during an investigation depending on what equipment is brought in. Or sometimes a whole lot of nothing. It’s always wise to keep the owners in the same room or have someone with them at all times to make sure they are not trying to trick anyone. That has happened before, when people want their place to be 'haunted,' either to get on TV or to create a business, such as the popular 'haunted bed and breakfast.'
"After the investigators feel they have gathered enough audio, video, photos, or other data, they pack up and spend a couple of days going through it. If they find something strange, they will share it with the owners and determine if more investigations are needed.
"So here’s the question: What’s the real point of an investigation?
"One of the reasons I pulled back from doing actual home investigations is because I cannot, in good faith, tell someone their house 'is' or 'isn't' haunted, because what exactly is a haunting? We really have no proof or definitive answer yet. It’s all just theories and very often based on belief systems and religious ideas of the afterlife.
"A home is someone’s safe haven and I do not feel right telling people, 'Yep...you have an unseen squatter in your house.' That’s just freaky. Plus, it can actually mess with someone’s mental wellness, which is something not many budding paranormal investigators take into consideration.
"But on the other hand, most homeowners who experience something just want to know they are not crazy. A good paranormal team can sometimes give an owner peace of mind. They can experience the same thing to verify what the owner has been noticing. They may also be able to suggest clergy or other spiritual people to cleanse a house if that is what will provide some peace.
"Sometimes, the homeowners totally dig it when they find out they may have a 'ghost' living in the house. Like the question asked, there’s nothing 'typical' about the paranormal."
What investigations stand out in your mind as being especially interesting, creepy, etc.?
"There are two that stand out. One was when I actually saw a possession, and another was when I physically saw something with my eyes for the first time.
"The possession investigation took place at a store in Norton Shores in West Michigan. It was a brand-new strip mall not more than a few years old. I wrote about this story in 'Ghosts and Legends of Michigan's West Coast,' and it was the only story that wasn’t 'historical' in nature in that book. It was just disturbing. It wasn’t anything out of 'The Exorcist' by any means, but witnessing something in which you instinctively knew something wasn’t right with the person involved, along with other factors during the investigation, made for a very unforgettable experience.
"The other investigation that stood out was at an old New England cemetery in Cape Cod. We were visiting our friend Dave, who runs ghost tours and a paranormal team in Cape Cod. He was so excited to bring us to a particular cemetery in the area at night because some of the common things they would see in this place were strange blue floating orbs.
"We set up equipment to try and capture these mysterious things, and when nothing seemed to want to happen, we packed up and just stood around talking under a huge full moon.
"All of a sudden, that’s when these tiny, glowing blue lights started floating toward the outskirts of the cemetery.
"'That’s it! Those are what I was telling you guys about!' said Dave. We all just stood there with our mouths open, watching these unexplainable lights move through the cemetery, no equipment capturing any of it, and then they were gone.
"And that’s pretty much how it works in paranormal investigation. It comes when you are least expecting it, and least-prepared."
How did your work writing "Ghosts and Legends of Michigan's West Coast" come about? Did you approach The History Press, or did they approach you?
"The History Press puts out a lot of fantastic topics on Michigan and the entire United States. I recommend their books to everyone. I was approached by them in 2008 about writing a book for their "Haunted America" series, and after I gave them my ideas and sample writing, they approved. The book came out in September 2009. I had always wanted to write a book, so the opportunity was a welcome surprise and created other opportunities for me as well."
Did you ever get "creeped out" when you were working on the book, or while you're writing for "Michigan's Otherside"? Do you have to write with other people in the room, with the lights on, etc.?
"I will admit that ghosts do not freak me out anymore. I’ve become an open-minded skeptic over the years and look at the subject of hauntings and other paranormal topics a little differently than when I got started. TV and movies will have one believing paranormal activity is around every dark corner, but it’s not. In my opinion, it’s actually quite rare to encounter something that could be considered genuine paranormal activity.
"But speaking of night lights, there is one thing that freaks me out that has caused me to sleep with the lights on.
"The very idea of aliens is downright creepy to me, and most likely Hollywood interpretations (namely, the movie 'Fire in the Sky') have made the worst impact on me over the years. I shudder when I think about some of the scenes in that movie. I was at the Michigan Paranormal Convention in 2012 and the man who the movie was based on, Travis Walton, was there. Needless to say, I stayed far away from him."
"Wicked Ottawa County" isn't about the paranormal...how did your work with that book come about?
"As a collector of the strange and unusual, I have quite the array of odd articles and history from all over. During the research of my first book, I had stumbled upon some interesting murder stories and history. I had been admiring the 'Wicked' series that The History Press put out. It delved into really old true crime about specific areas. Great books for the local history enthusiast! So when my publisher wrote me and asked if I had any ideas in the think tank, I told them I’d like to write 'Wicked Ottawa County,' which is where I live. They thought it was a cool idea too, so that’s how that book was born. It was a nice change to start writing about something other than the paranormal. My third book will be in the 'Wicked' series as well."
What kind of responses do you get from people when they find out what you do for a living?
"I still have a day job, but when I tell people what I do on the side, the majority of the time they have a story to tell me---some ghostly thing that happened to them or someone they know. Some even have an old crime story related to their family to share. There are the rare occasions where people give you a look like you just told them you were best friends with the devil and ate babies as snacks, but they are few and far between, and are becoming more rare these days.
"There are so many paranormal TV shows and books out there now that the idea of the 'paranormal' has become part of this decade’s pop culture and people are just getting used to the topic."
You mention on "Michigan's Otherside" that the number of paranormal research teams in Michigan has significantly increased in the past decade or so. Why do you think that is?
"Interest in the paranormal exploded after the Syfy channel's 'Ghost Hunters' debuted on TV and was a total hit. Pre-'Ghost Hunters,' I would tell people, 'Yep...went on a ghost hunt last night. It was pretty cool…'
"They would just look at me like I was the biggest dork in the world and ask me if I talked to Casper or when I would be moving in with the Addams Family.
"Post-'Ghost Hunters,' the scenario is now more like this:
"'Yep...went on a ghost hunt last night. It was pretty cool…'
"'You did? Ohmygod! Do you ever watch 'Ghost Hunters?' Do things in the show really happen like that? I get so scared watching that show but I love it! In this one episode...Grant and Jason…' blah, blah, blah
"And that’s about the time my eyes glaze over and cross.
"The start of those shows prompted thousands of people to get together, form groups just like on TV, and seek out paranormal investigations in their area. The paranormal was 'cool' and part of pop culture now. The majority of these copycat teams mimicked the shows, complete with matching t-shirts, decals on their cars, and a mindset that everything they ventured out to do would be exactly like they had seen on TV.
"Therein lies the double-edged sword in this situation.
"The shows increased awareness about the paranormal to a new height. The New Age section at Barnes & Noble used to be a few shelves, and now it’s a huge area with lots of topics to browse. The Internet is overflowing with websites and blogs on this topic. TV shows haven't slowed down, and 'Ghost Hunters' is still going strong.
"Some of these new teams inspired by TV shows actually went on to be great paranormal teams. They quickly learned it wasn’t like TV at all, but they still had a passion for the subject and continued to pursue investigations and research.
"However, there were many other teams that formed and just made the serious people shudder. They all claimed to be 'scientific,' but if asked, no one in the team could tell you about the scientific method or what the equipment they bought actually did and the theory behind it. They just bought some gadget on TV, walked into the homes of strangers who stupidly invited them in, waved their equipment around, and said things like, 'You have ghosts for sure,' or worse, 'You have a demon here.' There has been a recent trend where people have taken up as demonologists, and just about everything they encounter is...wait for it...yep, a demon.
"I’ll stop myself here because I can get on a dangerously long rant on this topic. So in a nutshell, that was one of the major reasons for the explosion."
Any advice for budding paranormal investigators?
"Learn all you can. I have told people through the years that to be a solid paranormal investigator, you really have to be a jack-of-all-trades and spend some time reading about photography, sound, video, physics, electrical systems, interview techniques, mental illness, religious beliefs, etc. The list really never stops.
"I have some short and sweet paranormal advice on my website at this link to check out:"
"My favorite place to visit in Michigan is actually Mackinac Island. I love the history, the vibe of the place, the lack of cars, having an excuse to indulge in large quantities of fudge, and, of course, its ghosts! For years, it was a spot in Michigan we always dreamed about investigating. History and hauntings go hand-in-hand, and Mackinac is full of awesome history.
"Thankfully, our friend Todd Clements started 'Haunts of Mackinac' ghost tours on the island, and of course, landed Mackinac Island on what else? The TV show, “Ghost Hunters.”
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For more information:
The story of Nunica Cemetery:
Paranormal enthusiasts consider this cemetery, located in Ottawa County east of Spring Lake on M-104 near the I-96 exit, as one of the most haunted cemeteries in Michigan. Various paranormal phenomena have been reported there, including cold spots, orbs, and apparitions. Here's more information from "Michigan's Otherside":