Sunday, September 12, 2010

Ghost Hunter Targets Ripley's Oldest Museum (Dustin Pari)

Lee Speigel

AOL News

(Sept. 9) -- If you're in the mood for a good scare, you might want to head down to St. Augustine, Fla., the oldest city in the United States and home to the first -- and oldest -- Ripley's Believe It or Not museum, Castle Warden.

Both the city and the museum are reputed to be haunted.

In fact, The Atlantic Paranormal Society, or TAPS -- the real-life ghost busters of the Syfy Network's popular "Ghost Hunters International" series – have been to Castle Warden and other eerie spots around St. Augustine, searching for signs of a real haunting.

Dustin Pari, one of the TAPS members, will lead a paranormal investigation at Castle Warden on Sept. 24.

"Just walking around the place, by itself, it's a very well-known attraction. It's amazing the things that you see. If you turn out the lights, and walk around there in the dark, waiting for other things to happen -- it really sets the stage for a good evening," Pari told AOL News.

Castle Warden is a historic mansion, built in 1887 by millionaire William Warden. The building, which resembles a medieval fortress, became a hotel in the 1940s, where Robert Ripley was a frequent visitor.

The building was acquired by Ripley's heirs after his death in 1949, and in December 1950, it opened as the original Ripley's Believe It or Not museum, housing many artifacts from Ripley's personal collection of amazing oddities and curiosities from around the world.

At Castle Warden, Ralf Ingwersen is the director of ghost tours, where visitors are invited to hop on board black-painted sightseeing vehicles known as the Ripley Ghost Trains.

"The Ghost Train Adventure is a nightly, 90-minute investigation where we go around the city on a train and make various stops along the way. We tell them stories, and we stop at a place called the Spanish Military Hospital, a building from the 1700s that TAPS has investigated in the past," Ingwersen said.

But if it's the bizarre and odd you're looking for, Ingwersen maintains, Castle Warden is the place to visit.

"There's everything from an Abraham Lincoln life mask to a vampire slaying kit to the erector set Ferris wheel that's two stories high that took a guy 17 years to make -- it's pure insanity at every turn."

On the truly freaky level, Ingwersen adds that visitors to Castle Warden often report hearing mysterious voices or catching glimpses of apparitions in the labyrinthine, four-story, 25-room building. He said that some claim to smell smoke from a fire in the 1940s that killed two women who were in the building when it was a hotel.

"Now we get into the paranormal, where sensitives and psychics consistently come into these rooms and they keep getting these same premonitions and feelings that something terrible happened in that building. So that's one of the reasons why we think it's haunted."

Those are among many cases of ghostly occurrences that have been reported at Castle Warden, according to Ingwersen.

"We've had various people that have called the police because right up there on the third floor, they'll see a woman at a window, screaming. That window's been boarded up since 1950, but they see her screaming."

Enter the Syfy Network ghost hunters.

Pari explains why his upcoming investigation of Castle Warden won't be shot as part of the "Ghost Hunters" TV series.

"We do private events like this just so we can have interaction with the fans, and also with other fellow investigators, to exchange ideas and techniques about investigating. We do these things all across the country as a way to further the knowledge of the field and also to interact with the people who support us all the time."

Pari admits he's sometimes a little timid about the places he and his fellow ghost hunters end up.

"I don't like long hallways, I don't like walking down prisons where all the cell doors are. I'm not a guy who even watches horror movies -- I don't like when things pop out. That kind of stuff freaks me out pretty easy. I'll take small steps and make sure I look in each doorway before I go by it."

That's a little weird, considering his line of work: investigating possible real ghosts.

"Yeah, but these things usually appear slowly," Pari said. "They kind of build over time, so you get a chance to steel your nerves, you know?"

In St. Augustine, the ghost hunters' most solid piece of evidence for a possible haunting occurred at the lighthouse, where Pari said they saw an apparition.

"We heard a woman's disembodied voice, and saw some shadow movement, and when another investigator and I were on our way up the lighthouse, we could actually see her standing there, pacing back and forth on the top level, and then it just collapsed into a ball of light and was gone."

Pari says he's usually very skeptical when it comes to reports of hauntings.

"I approach everything in this life very skeptically, especially in this field. I think it's good for people to come in as nonbelievers, rather than people who are so open-minded that they'll accept anything put in front of them.

"Sometimes, you have to have that experience for yourself to really change your mind on it all. You know, it's like seeing is believing."

Judge for yourself. If you'd like to be part of the investigation of the Ripley's Believe It or Not Castle Warden in St. Augustine on Sept. 24, or at the Ripley's museum in Orlando, Fla., on Sept. 25, tickets and information are available through TAPS.

The spirits await.

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