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On The Cover: Searching for Spirits

 by Liz Rajchel
 published on Thursday, October 26, 2006

Pumpkins, graves and ghosts, oh my! While the sheet-spirit is obviously a fake, some people, like Mesa ghosthunter Debe Branning, believes ghosts are real./issues/arts/698494
Katie E. Lehman / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Pumpkins, graves and ghosts, oh my! While the sheet-spirit is obviously a fake, some people, like Mesa ghosthunter Debe Branning, believes ghosts are real.
 
Ghosthunter Mark Christoph investigates the old Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells, Texas. This room was once a spa. /issues/arts/698494
Photo courtesy of Debe Branning
Ghosthunter Mark Christoph investigates the old Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells, Texas. This room was once a spa.
 
Ghosthunters Debe Branning, Kenton Moore, Nikki Wheeler and a guest outside the old school house of the Vulture Mine in  Wickenberg, Ariz./issues/arts/698494
Photo courtesy of Debe Branning
Ghosthunters Debe Branning, Kenton Moore, Nikki Wheeler and a guest outside the old school house of the Vulture Mine in Wickenberg, Ariz.
 
Branning says this photo, taken at a cemetery in Pirtleville, Ariz., shows an ectoplasm, the smokey cloud a spirit takes on when it tries to manifest into a full apparition. /issues/arts/698494
John Lamarca / Photo courtesy of Debe Branning
Branning says this photo, taken at a cemetery in Pirtleville, Ariz., shows an ectoplasm, the smokey cloud a spirit takes on when it tries to manifest into a full apparition.
 
Members of the MVD Ghostchasers Team (Mark Christoph, Chris McCurdy, Shiela McCurdy, Kenton Moore and Debe Branning) at the Sears-Kay Ruins near Cave Creek, Ariz. /issues/arts/698494
Photo courtesy of Debe Branning
Members of the MVD Ghostchasers Team (Mark Christoph, Chris McCurdy, Shiela McCurdy, Kenton Moore and Debe Branning) at the Sears-Kay Ruins near Cave Creek, Ariz.
 

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The MVD Ghostchasers are who you're really gonna call for haunted houses, spirit-infested spots and any other ghostbusting needs in Arizona. This team of ghosthunters brings "Ghostbusters" from the silver screen to real life.


Debe Branning leads a double life.

By day, Branning is a receptionist at the Anasazi Animal Clinic. But at night, the 5-foot mother of two takes on the paranormal as the director of MVD Ghostchasers.

Branning, a 53-year-old Mesa resident, first plunged into the paranormal when she worked at the Mesa Motor Vehicle Division 15 years ago. Branning and a few other women who worked at the MVD wanted to take a weekend vacation with a creepy twist. That's when they found themselves in the midst of moving shadows at the Gadsden Hotel in Douglas for a bit of ghost hunting.

Branning says the group smelled phantom cigar smoke and heard footsteps in the basement of the hotel. They also felt someone brushing up against them in a dark hallway.

After that eerie trip, 15 MVD Ghostchasers were born, seven of whom are still active today. This high-tech team pairs gadgets like infrared thermal scanners, remote cameras, tape recorders with old-fashioned psychic intuition to find ghouls in businesses and residences around the Valley.

And unlike their money-motivated counterparts in the movie "Ghostbusters," the MVD Ghostchasers provide their services free of charge. "If we can find a neat picture or get something on film or on tape, it's worth more [than money]," Branning says. "We want people to feel comfortable about having us come by and do it. They don't want some hokey person to come and mislead them."

Branning began her profession as a ghosthunter while working at the MVD, but she says her passion for the paranormal stemmed from experiences she had with her grandmother - after she passed away.

"After she passed, she would start leaving me messages," Branning says. "If I was feeling really sad or depressed, I could always feel her touch my head."

Branning's associate team member, psychic Mark Christoph, 41, says he's seen ghosts more times than he can count.

As a member of the often-dubbed "Scooby-Doo" entourage, Branning says searching out spirits is a profession that gets her adrenaline pumping.

"I always [compare] it to skydiving. It's dangerous but not," she says. "It's the thrill of it and hoping you actually get to see something."



Paranormal problems

Since its conception, MVD Ghostchasers has investigated about 80 businesses and residences in Arizona. It has also been featured on local radio talk shows, television specials and in magazines, Branning says.

While she says much of her clientele is reached through word of mouth and acquaintances, Branning met Carmen LaMarca five years ago as an advertiser on Carmen's company's Web site (WholeLife Publishing, Inc., a publisher of directories focused on natural, holistic and alternative therapies).

LaMarca, a 47-year-old Gilbert resident, says Branning and the Ghostchasers helped her get to know the two young ghosts living in her house.

"We found out we have a little boy named Bobby Brown who was 7 when he died of dysentery," LaMarca says. "The night that Debe came we also learned that his little brother Christopher [who had died at the age of 4 a short time later of dysentery] was also there."

While she always believed in the supernatural, LaMarca says it wasn't until the investigation was conducted that she had the opportunity to experience it for herself. On top of witnessing the unexplained movement of objects, she says she even had the opportunity to participate in a conversation with the boys via Ouija board.

"We asked both of the boys if they wanted to go 'home' to their parents," LaMarca says. "Bobby chose to stay because 'he was having fun,' and Christopher was afraid and wanted to join his family, so we lit a white candle for him in the room for him to find his way."

LaMarca says she later retrieved Bobby and Christopher's death certificates confirming the information they learned during the investigation. She discovered their family once owned the land where her property is now situated, and while the boys' parents traveled to California, Bobby died after drinking water from the canals on their farm.

LaMarca says she recommends Branning and the MVD Ghostchasers to friends and family who may have a paranormal problem. "The one thing I really respect about her work is that they really try to find other reasons for what is seen or experienced," she says. "They don't just jump around and say, 'It's a ghost,' without being able to discredit any other possibilities first."

And LaMarca still gets an occasional visit from Bobby. "We still get to know that Bobby is around once in a while. His favorite trick is to hide something from you that you just put down."



Keeping it professional

When MVD Ghostchasers began, Branning says there were only three or four ghost teams in the entire state. Today she estimates that there are about eight in the East Valley alone.

Branning says she believes ghost hunting is more mainstream than ever, due in part to the rise in paranormal reality shows on television, like "Most Haunted" on the Travel Channel. She attributes the movie "Ghostbusters" to kicking off the ghost hunting phenomenon.

But the Ghostchasers still encounter some criticism, despite their paranormal popularity. "I still get some flack from super-religious people. Ghosthunters have equipment now that can record voices from beyond or take their picture," Branning says. "Many years ago, religious groups thought the microscope was evil because we could see things we hadn't been able to see before."

Christoph says he has met very few people who try to keep ghost hunting professional. "Most of the time they are just goofing off," he says.

That is why Branning and the rest of the team take ghost hunting very seriously. Because of the nature of her profession, Branning says anyone phoning in about a phantom must pass a list of requirements in order to have an investigation take place. This includes making sure they are not alcoholics, on medication or fresh out of rehab. All customers are also subject to a background check.

In his experience, Christoph says he has encountered his fair share of phonies. "Unfortunately ghost hunting attracts a lot of nut burgers," he says.

From people submitting pictures of themselves posing as ghosts in floral sheets to photos of stuffed animals that they have tried to pass off as gremlins (imaginary creatures), Branning says she has seen it all.

And sometimes it's not ghouls going bump in the night that can leave one petrified. In one case it wasn't the presence of a spirit haunting one family's residence; rather, it was the prior owner's acquaintances.

"The people that rented the house before were really into drugs, so [the new owners] were hearing noises at night, but they were just the drug people coming to get drugs, [unaware] those people weren't living there anymore," Branning says.

Phonies aside, Branning says she has encountered more than a few spirits whose eagerness to make contact has taken a toll on her physically and emotionally. While ghost hunting in Bisbee, Branning says she was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of nausea and felt a strange energy running through her body. The next day she recalled waking up with the worst headache she had experienced in ages.

"Later on that same day things were coming up in the mirror," she says. "It was like it was someone else's face. It wasn't a mean spirit or anything, more like a young person with a stupid-ass grin on their face."

The spirit remained with her days after she visited Bisbee, leaving her devoid of energy until it finally disappeared after much persuasion on her part, she adds.



What is a ghost?

Branning says she believes ghosts are essentially residue, or leftover energy from happy and sad times.

Like people, Christoph warns that ghosts can lie, cheat and steal, embodying the form of a child when in reality they are something much more sinister. "A ghost can't inhabit a place without permission, and if you're playing with a Ouija board, you're basically saying, 'Hey, come fuck my life up,'" he says.

But Branning adds that in all of her years ghost hunting, she had yet to encounter demons or the devil. "[It] seems some religious people think about demons and devils a lot more than I have," she says. "I find that strange."

In one ghostly encounter at the Old Spaghetti Factory in Phoenix, an apparition revealed just how human she was by insulting Branning, as heard in an electronic voice phenomena clip captured by the team.

"I had just gotten back from a cruise so I was really tan and the room was dark. We think we were in the [presence] of the lady of the house, and she didn't like people of color upstairs in her house, so she said," Branning says.

Branning quit her job at the MVD in September 2002 so she could pursue ghost hunting more freely.

Even though Christoph says that in this line of work he has been poked, punched and hit by spirits, he remains wary of what he sees or hears. But he adds that he's not out to prove anything to anyone.

"I know they exist because I've been seeing them my whole life," he says. "I'm just doing this to find better ways to document them."

While Branning admits she has become more skeptical in the past couple of years, she says she has a message for disbelievers. "Keep an open mind and keep your eyes open because you never know," she says.

Branning and Christoph agree that seeing is believing.

"My mom was a big atheist until my stepdad died and funny things started happening," Christoph says. "She went to bed one night and she heard the footsteps come down the hallway, felt the door open and close and the bed shake like someone got into it. That pretty much converted her."



Sleeping with ghosts

In her book "Sleeping With Ghosts: A Ghost Hunter's Guide to Arizona's Haunted Hotels and Inns," Branning gives a guide to some of the state's most ghoulish haunts. The book, released by Golden West Publishing in 2004, can be ordered through any major bookstore chain. Here are Branning's top five favorite haunts:



1. Gadsden Hotel - Douglas

Branning says she's seen more paranormal activity in the Gadsden than in any other hotel in the state. In addition to feeling chills and smelling phantom cigars and perfume, she's seen shadows on the walls, boot steps in the basement, items disappearing and reappearing in another place, mysterious lights and even "full apparitions."

1046 G Ave.

(520) 364-4481

hotelgadsden.com



2. Noftsger Hill Inn - Globe

This inn used to be a school, and Branning says sometimes you can hear voices of disembodied schoolteachers talking to an unseen class. "Small children's shadows move along walls and old chalkboards, and there are lights near dawn that dart about the building."

425 North St.

(877) 780-2479

noftsgerhillinn.com



3. Bisbee Grand Hotel - Bisbee

Branning says there's a ghost of a woman in the building, probably a past owner or maid. "Recently we were in one room where it was very cold. We walked into the hallway and noticed a light had turned on. The ghost touched one of the ghost team members so that she could pass by," Branning says.

61 Main St.

(800) 421-1909

bisbeegrandhotel.com



4. Hassayampa Inn - Prescott

"The ghost of Faith roams the hotel in search of the husband who deserted her on their wedding night," Branning says. "Faith will turn the TV and lights on in the middle of the night. I have felt her sit down on the edge of the bed. There is a night watchman who appears in the bar area."

122 East Gurley Street

(800) 322-1927

hassayampainn.com



5. Monte Vista Hotel - Flagstaff

Branning says there is a room where a chair is always found sitting near the window as though someone is waiting a dear one's return. A ghost team member saw a ghost walk through a closed door, and "tools and paint supplies were thrown around a room during renovations whenever the workman left the area."

100 N. San Francisco St.

(800) 545-3068

hotelmontevista.com



If you go...

Currently Branning and the MVD Ghostchasers host workshops four times a year for those curious in dabbling in the spirit world.

Branning says the workshops are hosted at different haunted or potentially haunted locations around the state, including hotels, jails, courthouses and, of course, cemeteries. The workshops typically cost $15 and welcome a crowd of about 30.

Most of the money collected from these workshops is donated to the group's favorite charities like Bisbee Boys and Girls Club, Globe Arts Center, Phoenix Cemetery Association and PAWS.

"Some stay, some say it isn't for them, and some spawn their own [ghost hunting] teams," Branning says.

Branning says there will be a ghost hunt in January, but doesn't yet know the date or location. For more information about the Ghostchasers and upcoming workshops, visit mvdghostchasers.com



Reach the reporter at elizabeth.rajchel@asu.edu



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