Coffee drinkers poured into Starbucks on East Arbors Drive, turning each empty table into a private island of conversation.
Jason Porter sat alone in the secluded corner cove preferred by those who desire a little more quiet.
Porter, whose stocky New England accent, weathered jeans and thick meat-hook hands suggest a gruff Maine lobsterman, drew a sip of his black coffee, glanced over the crowd once more, then decided to address the elephant in the room.
“A lot of people think we are weirdos,” he said.
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Four years ago, the 34-year-old Kannapolis resident launched the Carolina Paranormal Society, an organization that investigates ghosts and spirits using methods that members say are scientific.
Where most go looking for a ghost, the Carolina Paranormal Society first looks to disprove it through another, more common explanation.
“A lot of teams use psychics and that sort of mythology,” said Porter. “We stick with science. We debunk first. Where a lot of people are going to prove there’s a ghost there, we are trying to prove there is not a ghost there.”
CPS members don’t engage psychics, hold séances or use Ouija boards. Instead, they carry packs of high-tech, Class A sound recording equipment that measure high and low frequency sounds, and specialized infrared cameras that pick up images that may pass unnoticed to the human eye at first glance.
Saw ghosts at early age
Porter began seeing and sensing ghosts at an early age, starting with his deceased grandmother, who would change the TV channels. Since then, he’s seen countless more spirits – even a Civil War soldier – but not always where you might expect to find them.
“The theory is, a ghost can attach itself to a person, to a house, to a piece of property. It doesn’t have to be in an old location,” said Porter. “We’ve all had ghosts follow us home. You can go to Wal-Mart and pick something up.”
Porter knows skeptics exist. He has watched plenty of people read his baseball cap, which bears the group’s logo, and then avert their eyes.
But they haven’t sat in the basement of an old abandoned hospital at 2 a.m. and seen flashing green orbs appear every time a female investigator sang “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.”
“It responded every time she sang,” he said.
”I think that ghosts, spirits, whatever you want to call them, they’re out to communicate with us,” said Mat Owens, general manager of the group. “I think that if you have that open-mindedness, they’re going to come and seek you out.”
Grandma in the mirror
Most members, like Owens, are drawn to the paranormal because of early experiences.
Owens remembers a sleepover at a friend’s house during which he saw an elderly lady standing behind him in the bathroom mirror.
“I was 10, so I yelled,” he said. “There were no women in the house.”
The friend’s father pulled out a photo album right then, in the middle of the night. He thumbed through the photos like a series of mug shots. Owens stopped cold when he saw a snapshot of the person in the mirror. She was the father’s mother.
Although some may balk at the idea of apparitions, the number of skeptics is slowly decreasing. A 2007 survey conducted by the Associated Press found that one in three Americans believe in ghosts.
Another survey two years later, conjured by CBS News, found the number had risen to nearly one out of every two Americans.
Many want to join
Last year, 158 people contacted CPS to investigate their private residences or businesses. Owens guesses many of those people worried they would be thought of as weird, too.
“They want us to come out and help validate,” he said. “They want to know, is this their imagination, or are they really seeing something?”
Much like clients, Porter hasn’t had any trouble finding ghost hunters, either. Membership for CPS has never been low: The not-for-profit organization has 17 members at present.
Many more want to join in, as evidenced by the number of people who showed up at Starbucks for the organization’s first-ever open interview session.
The session was set up to meet potential new members. Porter and a group of others in the club placed advertisements around town, encouraging anyone interested in joining the society to show up at Starbucks between noon and 7 p.m., no appointment necessary.
At 12:02, a middle-aged couple – the man sporting a thick, dark mustache, his wife twirling her long, black hair – walked up to Porter and timidly introduced themselves.
At 12:13 a woman in her late 30s, her auburn hair upswept to reveal twinkling golden hoop earrings, sat in a chair while two other organization members interviewed her.
“Do you have a criminal record?” they asked. “Any hospitalization for schizophrenia?”
‘The right way’
The answers to those two questions, among others, moved her down the line to wait for the next group of interviewers. She sat, her legs crossed, her foot flicking back and forth nervously like a rattlesnake’s tail.
“If you have people on the team that don’t mesh well, you can’t research properly,” Porter said. “We’re just looking for people that are willing to learn our ways, not buck the system.”
Tara Mead, 29, an investigator for the group, peered over at the potential recruits and sympathized. Mead, a receptionist in South Charlotte, went through the same interview process a few months earlier.
“Of course I was nervous. I thought I had bombed it,” she said.
Mead had researched several local paranormal groups before deciding to pursue this one.
“It’s a very well-respected team. I wanted to start out investigating the right way.”
The doors slamming, the creaking floorboards and the shadows on the walls: 90 percent of it can be explained away using technology and science, said Porter.
It’s the other 10 percent that keeps them taking cases on.
“We don’t know why they come and go. Maybe they miss their family,” he said of ghosts. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”