Shooting the Dead:
Interview with a Paranormal Photographer
Originally Published in Crimespree Magazine #30, May 2009
by Blake Crouch
On a brilliant October day in 2005, one month prior to starting my third novel, ABANDON, I accompanied Michael Richard on what you might call a ghost hunt. The location was an old hotel in Durango, Colorado-the Jarvis Suites-where for two hours we strolled the quiet halls with a master key, touring rooms, closets, and one very unsettling basement. Mike is a photographer, and his subject is the paranormal.
It wasn't anything like I had expected, and I was initially disappointed. We went in broad daylight, and Mike's only equipment was a Pentax K1000 camera, a roll of infrared film, and the kind of psychic hardwiring Hollywood makes movies about. No, I didn't hear any voices suggesting that I "Get oooooouuuuuuut." Trust me, I would have listened. Didn't see any waves of blood come pouring down the hallway or feel any frigid drafts that made my breath steam. A reporter for the local paper tagged along with us, and he clearly thought the whole enterprise was bullshit, which made for an interesting mix, with Mike obviously a true believer, and me somewhere in the middle, trying to keep an open mind. Did I sense anything? I don't know. I'm tempted to say I experienced a "heaviness" in certain rooms and certainly in the basement. A kind of emotional weight sitting on my chest. But in hindsight, I'm wary of exaggerating a feeling that may have been imagined or desired, just as I don't want to summarily dismiss what might have been an honest to God paranormal experience. I can live with the uncertainly.
What I did come away with was a feeling of legitimacy. This wasn't the over-dramatized bilge you see on the SciFi channel. Mike's approach was calm, empirical, and based upon a desire to help and to heal. Above all, I was searching for inspiration for my new book, ABANDON, which features a paranormal photographer who visits a ghost town that vanished in the Rocky Mountains in 1893. Mike turned out to be a treasure trove, and following the shoot, I took him to lunch and turned on my tape recorder...
BLAKE: You think it's a bunch of crap? The thermometers and "ghost detection" equipment you see online?
MIKE: It's garbage. If you can't feel it being there, then you don't belong in the business. You're wasting your time.
BLAKE: What do you call what you're shooting? I want to get your perspective.
MIKE: I call it the paranormal.
BLAKE: Do you think of it as spirits or ghosts or...
MIKE: I think of it more as spirits than ghosts.
BLAKE: I think I saw it just going with you, but how can you tell when paranormal activity is high? It's a feeling for you isn't it?
BLAKE: Can you describe it as best you can?
MIKE: Sometimes it can be a heaviness. Sometimes it can be an electrifying energy in the room, like your hair standing up on end. Or cold chills. Sometimes it's a real good feeling, like a warmth, and you want to stay there.
BLAKE: It stayed with me the whole time I was in the hotel, and it's gone now. Hard to explain. It doesn't make sense, but it's just like a pressure. I felt a pressure on my chest from the time I went down to the basement until now.
BLAKE: Do you do any historical research into the places that you shoot to get a sense of what went down there to make the activity so high?
MIKE: Most of the time I have a workbook I bring with me. I've been in Jarvis Suites many times so I didn't bring it. But without guys like that reporter around, it would've taken me hours to shoot the Jarvis. I draw a map of the room, mark where all the light switches are, heating ducts, air conditioning, eliminate all possibilities for error. It's pretty intense.
BLAKE: So say you're going to try to capture some activity in a ghost town way up in the mountains, at 12,000 feet, with no manmade sources of energy. What would you take, aside from the backpacking gear? Would you just take your camera?
BLAKE: That's it? Wow. And you'd have it well-researched and have a sense of-
MIKE: I'd research the building and what was there before.
BLAKE: Is it important what was there and what happened? Do you find that intense emotional experiences definitely result in paranormal activity?
BLAKE: Do you consider yourself psychic?
BLAKE: What am I thinking right now? No, I'm just messing. You almost have to be psychic to some degree to be able to do this.
MIKE: Well, yeah, you have to have a feel for it, otherwise you're wasting your time.
BLAKE: What's your belief in the state of souls after death?
MIKE: I think we all go back to heaven as we perceive it. I definitely believe in reincarnation. I had a friend who was hypnotized and she spoke perfect Chinese under hypnosis, and she didn't speak a word of Chinese. Come to find out, she'd been an old farmer in China.
BLAKE: What are these spirits? I'm curious what you think they are. How they got to this point. Are they in limbo? Is this their heaven?
MIKE: It's not their heaven. People are stuck here. They have unfinished business or they don't want to go. Scared to go to the other side.
BLAKE: Do you believe in angels and demons?
MIKE: Angels, yes. Demons... somewhat. I believe in good and evil because without the evil you can't see the light.
BLAKE: Do you think you've ever encountered any angels or demons in anything that you've shot?
MIKE: One, yes.
BLAKE: Really? What was that like?
MIKE: There was this old church building up in Golden, Colorado. We were in the back hall of the church and the young minister with us, he says "Well, you tell me when you feel the presence and I'll get rid of it, show you how it's done." I said, "Well, it's here right now," and he said, "By the power of Jesus Christ I command you to leave." Suddenly a chair flew across the room and he flew out the door.
MIKE: Scared the hell out of him. He quit the church and everything.
BLAKE: Wow, that's cool. Well, not cool. Terrifying. Did you feel this evil presence?
MIKE: It wasn't really evil. It was just a very strong presence. Didn't like the church at all. Come to find out, the building was an old folks' home. It had been converted into a church.
BLAKE: Do you view paranormal photography as art?
BLAKE: What's the most bizarre thing you've ever seen?
MIKE: Probably the graveyard shot in Cologne, California. The guy coming up out of the grave.
BLAKE: Now how did you get that shot? Did you sense that he was coming up?
MIKE: I was called by the sheriff's office out there, because there had been quite a bit of activity, and they wanted to know if I could investigate it so they could get it stopped. So we went out there and really didn't see a whole lot but we knew there was a presence around us. We took a bunch of shots at random and called it a day. We got the film back and it was like, okay, we did get something.
BLAKE: What makes certain places hotspots for...
MIKE: The paranormal?
MIKE: Some people say it's like Native American burial grounds, but I don't buy that. I think it can be sacred ground, but that's a big difference.
BLAKE: Then is it just strong emotion that fosters this paranormal environment? What these spirits went through?
MIKE: Right. Emotion is a living thing. It's a mind thing. It's alive.
BLAKE: Is it always necessarily a bad thing in terms of violence? Could it be intense love?
MIKE: It could.
BLAKE: But probably there's a peace that comes with that.
BLAKE: Well, that gets into the thing of, is this energy really a spirit, or is this energy, you know, for lack of a better word, the emotion that has been left in their wake?
MIKE: The imprint.
BLAKE: Yeah. You know how you can stare at a bright light for ten seconds and then look away, you'll still see the image.
MIKE: Right. Exactly.
BLAKE: Do you think these spirits just occupy certain places or could they be anywhere?
MIKE: They can go anywhere, because they're total mind. Scientists agree that if we used 100% of our brain, or just 90% of our brain, we'd have telekinesis power and everything else. Total knowledge.
BLAKE: Do you think most paranormal photographers are genuine?
MIKE: I think they're looking for the glory. I'm not interested in the glory of it. I like going into situations like this, and if there's a spirit, like the little boy on the tricycle, I try to talk to him and help him go on, and no one would know about it. You don't take glory in it. You just do what you got to do.
BLAKE: What do you think of the haunted house people on TV?
MIKE: You mean Ghost Hunters? Friend of mine sent me a segment of a guy in a sheet. You could tell it was a man in a sheet, and they claimed it was a ghost. But people want that. They want the thrills. But not me.
BLAKE: You do this because it's your calling.
MIKE: Right, it's my passion. I do it because I want to help people to the other side. Or I want to prove beyond belief.
BLAKE: So one aspect is the photography. The other is clearing a house, or helping someone on. What would you do if you went back to help the little boy?
MIKE: Probably end up spending the night there. Stay up all night long and get him to come to me through a meditation process or seek him out. Physically seek him out.
BLAKE: Because he's clearly drawn to people. He keeps coming up and-
MIKE: Right, asking them if they want to play. And then he disappears.
BLAKE: Do you scare easily?
BLAKE: Do you scare at all?
BLAKE: What scares you?
MIKE: Not being in control of myself or in control of the other people who are around me on shoots. I don't mind someone like you because you're grounded, but somebody like that reporter could get hurt.
BLAKE: How so?
MIKE: Just not being careful. Not paying attention to his surroundings.
BLAKE: But it's not the spirits that frighten you?
BLAKE: Tell me about the different kinds of spirits.
MIKE: Depends on their background, where they're coming from.
BLAKE: Sometimes they're aggressive, or nice, or friendly?
MIKE: Very seldom aggressive.
BLAKE: What is it usually?
MIKE: Confusion. Being lost. The only time it gets aggressive is like, if you have a religious fanatic with you or something like that, and they will get aggressive toward them, but not toward me. I try to stay neutral. I really do. I think it's funny, because once you say you're dead, your beliefs aren't really there because reality sets in.
BLAKE: Well, you're free of whatever you believed when you were living, and now you know.
MIKE: Now you know the truth.