Peering into the Paranormal

By Jon Roe

The Calgary Association of Paranormal Investigations is probably more normal than you’d expect from a group of people who go into places and look for ghosts. If you notice something strange and ask them to investigate they come to your house, sit down, ask a few questions, walk around your house, explain what they saw and think is going on and leave. Pretty simple.

“Well, CAPI is a science-based organization; if you look under Wikipedia [for] proto-science, that’s where we fall in,” said Tom Davis, executive director of CAPI. “We are using scientific [protocols], a lot of which we developed ourselves and we follow those protocols in each and every investigation.”

The organization was founded in 2001 by Davis and Jay McMahon, who is no longer with the group. McMahon’s young daughter was experiencing strange things and McMahon was looking for ways to explain it to her without telling stories or dismissing her experiences outright. He had joined a Calgary-based, now defunct investigation group, but after realizing they were only interested in sitting around graveyards, he decided to found his own group. McMahon told Davis and together they founded CAPI, Aug. 1, 2001.

The group’s first big investigation ended up being a ghost-busting experience in a way when they went to the Deane House, Sep. 29, 2001. Fort Calgary’s Deane House has a long, sordid history–one that the team found out was mostly unverifiable and unsubstantiated. Stories of murders, people being pushed down stairs by mysterious forces and suicides were all proven false excepting one murder-suicide that happened in 1971.

Ghost Stories of Alberta, a popular book by Canadian author Barbara Smith, detailed these various incidents. McMahon and Davis had used the book to help them find information about local paranormal activity, but when McMahon contacted the author to find out where Smith had heard the information, he was surprised by her answer.

“We were researching the Deane House–everything that she mentions in her book, all these suicides, deaths, people falling down stairs and a murder suicide–the only thing we could confirm 100 per cent was a murder-suicide in 1971 when it was still a boarding house,” said Davis. “Every other story, there was nothing. Nothing in the newspapers. Nothing in the police records. Nothing. We asked her, where’d you get your information? [She said], ‘I talked to an assistant chef who was working there and he had heard some stories.’ [We asked her], ‘well did you check your facts?’ [She responded], ‘well do you realize what the name of the book is? Ghost Stories of Alberta.’ So she didn’t have to check her facts.”

Davis admitted that CAPI had hoped they could find out that the stories in Smith’s book were true and that the book would be a very good resource for the team. What they found was that most of it was false and they instead looked into the true history and evidence behind the various historical hauntings in Calgary mentioned in Smith’s book, including the Cross House in Inglewood, the Lougheed House and the Rose and Crown pub.

Methods, evidence

Before going on their first investigation, Davis and McMahon researched methods on the internet and in the library.

“There’s a lot of information on the internet,” said Davis. “A lot of it is bad information, but there’s some good information. We took the best principles we could find on a lot of these websites and books and incorporated them into the protocols that we developed ourselves.”

The point was to create a standardized way of collecting information while going on an investigation. They use their equipment consisting of cameras, compasses, electromagnetic field detectors and thermometers the same way in every investigation to create a consistency in the data they collect.

“I will use, for example, the compass in the same manner in every single investigation,” said Davis. “So when I’m getting any readings from that compass, I know that the data is consistent throughout all investigations so that we can look at our body of information and start to generate theories.”

The compasses and electromagnetic field detectors detect variations in the electromagnetic field. Reading through their reports, a consistent characteristic of buildings with high paranormal activity is high EMF variations.

Sometimes the EMF variations are inexplicable. In an investigation in a house in Martindale, the team had swept the second floor with the compass and found no extreme compass variations. The homeowner had invited CAPI because he felt that an entity had followed him from another city. Incidents like weird smells in stairwells, items being moved and a sheets being ripped off of a roommate’s bed while he was waking up had been occurring for the last eight years.

“The compass is probably the most sensitive [tool] as far as electromagnetic variation,” said Davis. “But we always sweep an area with our electromagnetic field detector [which] has to be very close to a electromagnetic or electrical source for it to register anything on its graph.”

A CAPI member discovered something very strange on the second floor: an inexplicable spot in the middle of an empty room that registered in the middle ranges on the EMF detector. They changed the batteries and got the same result.

The team concluded through the investigation that there was paranormal activity in the house because of these instrument measurements and because the house registered with one of their psychics. The psychic had a strong feeling of a red-haired man with a connection to the homeowner.

Sometimes, the EMF variations have logical explanations. CAPI was called to a house in Pineridge after the homeowner had experienced a few strange events: a toothbrush went missing, a toy was repositioned in a child’s room under a minute after it was placed and a toonie showed up for a lost tooth that was not placed by the homeowners because they had no idea the child had lost one.

“Where we were in the back bedrooms of this home and we found these very large areas, almost circular, where we were getting very similar readings [to the Martindale house] with our EMF detector,” said Davis. “In this case, we were also getting variations with our compass.”

Chris Visser, one of CAPI’s assistant directors, looked out the window to find high-tension power lines. He walked outside and found that as he walked closer, the power lines maxed out the EMF detector.

“We determined that in those back rooms, where we were getting those readings, that it was more than likely that it was excess power coming off those power lines,” said Davis. “It made us suspect whether or not the activity that these people were experiencing were because of the high-tension power lines and all that excess energy coming off them and maybe playing with their minds. There’s been some research that suggested that high-tension power lines that leak a lot of electrical energy can have an affect on people’s perceptions and brainwave activity.”

These findings helped CAPI develop a theory. In the report on the Pineridge investigation, Davis theorizes about the relationship between high EMF readings and paranormal activity.

“Spirits need energy to interact with our dimensional plane,” Davis wrote. “They get this energy from many sources–electrical devices, excess energy from groups of people and moving water. It’s possible that whatever presence is in this home is tapping into the power from these lines thereby creating the activity.”

Beyond the compass and the EMF detector, the team always brings digital cameras with them on investigations. But the digital cameras can be hit and miss as far as evidence goes. As Davis readily points out, in the late-’90s and the early-’00s there was a proliferation of photographs showing energy orbs as evidence of paranormal activity, but these early cameras were subject to distortions in the photos due to dust.

“Older digital cameras were the cause of the dust-orb phenomena,” said Davis. “Mostly it was dust orbs. Every digital camera manufacturer has a web page that explains it. Modern cameras have software in them that eliminates false energy orbs. When we get an actual energy orb with a digital camera, we know that it’s genuine.”

CAPI’s investigation reports on their websites include photos; most of the photos are of orbs picked up at the location and the rest are of strange or noteworthy elements of the environment. The orbs, tiny, strange, light-coloured balls that show up in the photographs, are energy, according to Davis.

“Energy orbs tend to be, I don’t know if they’re out of phase with our three-dimensional universe, or if they’re just moving so fast that we don’t notice them,” said Davis. “[That’s why I] think we capture them, because we’re taking that nanosecond of time and space. The reason I call it an energy orb because, much like a water droplet in space, it’ll form a sphere because that’s the easiest form it can take. It’s very similar with either energy from a spirit or from a living being that is randomly generated to form in front of us.”

Though Davis has seen and tried to take pictures of full-figured apparitions, they have always showed up as orbs when the photos are developed later.

The team tries to bring video cameras when they’re available and often the video may offer up evidence upon review through strange sights or sounds. Electronic voice phenomena have appeared on reviewed tapes in the form of speech or even sounds.

“The strangest thing [we picked up] wasn’t a voice,” said Davis. “Down at Fort Macleod at the Empress Theatre they have a little hallway [with] a little round hole where the original projector used to be and I’m just walking around with the video recorder, video documenting it and I picked up the sound of a projector. Because we were able to go back a couple of other times, we checked to see if anything was loose in the ceiling [or there was] a fan. We were actually able to replicate that phenomenon and it was only when you stuck the video camera through that hole. When you were on the other side where the seats are, nothing. It was bizarre.”

Beyond the material goods the team brings, some of their members have skills that help detect activity. Psychics are used by CAPI and often help the team conclude there is paranormal activity in a place.

“We have two members who are psychics, but they’re not your typical Sylvia Brown, shyster psychic,” said Davis. “They’re psychics that are very skeptical even of their own abilities. They go into a location and get impressions of things and they want to back it up with some sort of fact.”

But when starting an investigation, the team tries to clear up any non-paranormal explanations first through their questionnaire and interview with the client. Davis emphasized several times that not everything experienced out there by people attributed to the paranormal is, in fact, paranormal.

An investigation, Marlborough

The team has had a wide range of normal and paranormal experiences in a variety of places, but for the most part, the investigations are typically mundane. Reality paranormal investigation shows like Most Haunted depict a paranormal investigator’s life as one of walking into a psycho-paranormal freakout everytime the team is called out on an investigation. For CAPI, that’s not always the case.

However, the team has had its share of bizarre and disturbing experiences, including an early 2006 visit to a house in Marlborough. The team was called to a woman’s house after her daughter, who was living in the basement suite with her boyfriend, experienced a bone-chilling attack.

“The daughter was getting ready for work one day, her boyfriend was taking a shower,” said Davis. “He heard her scream [and] he came running out, found her up against the wall probably six inches off the ground, her face turning blue. As he approached her, she slumped to the floor and was starting to regain her colour and able to breathe. They were both very freaked out, dressed, left [and] basically never came back.”

The mother called CAPI and a three-member team began a standard investigation. After several hours of a few strange EMF disturbances, which may just have been bad wiring, and an inexplicable bedroom temperature variation, the team was ready to go, hands empty of evidence.

“I’m starting to pack up my things and [I say], ‘I’m sorry, this happens quite often. It’s a hit-and-miss kind of proposition,’” said Davis. “I’m sitting in this chair, I’m looking across the living room area towards the bedroom door which had mirrors on it and I notice something walking behind me. Everybody is in front of me and nobody sees anything. So I tell Chris [Visser], ‘start taking pictures of me.’ He tries to take a picture of me–he can’t take a picture of me. Tries again, the batteries die. I give him brand new batteries, he puts them in, he tries to take a picture, he gets a picture off, doesn’t get anything in it. Tries to take another picture, can’t get another picture. Tries to take a third picture, the batteries dead. I give him another set of batteries.”

Visser went through four sets of batteries in an hour and while he was having problems with his digital camera, Davis decided to reload his 35 mm camera with film. One of the pictures Davis takes showing Visser messing around with his camera shows two small red dots.

“One picture I honestly believe looks like two little red eyes right next to Chris’ head,” said Davis.

So they started the whole investigation again and found a different apartment. In the report, the client’s daughter said she saw a small child who was very scared standing in the doorway leading to a storage area.

“We start taking new readings in different locations,” said Davis. “Let’s focus on this really bizarre little cupboard or closet. There’s some writing on the door. We try to photo-document this writing and it’s not really working for us. It’s always fuzzy and blurry we also notice at the same time that there’s a greasy handprint at the bottom and it’s almost like a child’s handprint.”

While Davis and another team member, Ryan Dowson, examine the strange cupboard, Visser has to go to the bathroom.

“Ryan and I are trying to photo-document the door, I’ve got my 35 mm camera in my one hand, at my side,” said Davis. “I feel something go through me from the living room area into this storage area. I turn around as fast as I can, snap a picture off and tell Ryan [what just happened.] Right next to this storage area is where the bathroom is. [As Chris finishes] he feels something come right through the wall right behind him and stop. He turns around, can’t see anything and he takes a picture because, of course, even though he had to go to the bathroom, he came prepared. [He] didn’t get anything in it, it was very bizarre.”

At this time, the three CAPI members and the clients, the homeowner, the daughter and the daughter’s friend, all start thinking dark thoughts about each other.

“We’re talking like… go there,” said Davis. “Think the worst thoughts you can think about another human being and what you would do to them. Afterwards we were saying, ‘why were we even thinking this? This isn’t anything like us.’ I can’t remember who it was but somebody on my team said, ‘we need to go.’ Within about five minutes we were gone.”

Though Davis didn’t mention it when I talked to him about the incident, the online report describes a disturbing impression a team member received.

“Each team member felt quite uncomfortable in the shower stall and uneasy in the rest of the bathroom,” Davis said in the report. “This may have been due to the darkness in the shower and the closeness of the bathroom itself. In this shower stall, Ryan felt ‘very uneasy’ and kept getting ‘visions of a young man inappropriately touching a young girl.’ This was a very disturbing feeling that he continues to struggle with.”

My investigation, the Unicorn

After hearing the Marlborough story, and relaying it to anyone who would listen, I didn’t know what to expect after asking to go on a paranormal investigation to the Unicorn, a Stephen’s Avenue bar. When I asked Davis in our initial interview how often those kind of strange, ultra-paranormal events occurred, he admitted that most of what CAPI does is fairly mundane.

“Hollywood would have you believe that whenever someone who’s in the paranormal research field goes into a place it’s always Poltergeist or it’s always Ghostbusters,” said Davis. “Those are movies. They’re there for entertainment or to show you the special effects, or whatever. Most times we go into a place it’s really boring. We go in, we find a really nice home, really nice people [but] we’re not able to record anything.”

I arrived at the Unicorn at 10 to 2 a.m. on a Sat. night. There were a few patrons left in the bar, finishing up their last drinks and getting ready to head into the night while in the back corner of the bar, through a doorway and up a short set of stairs, a large CAPI team was asking their client questions about herself and her experiences.

The client had worked at the Unicorn since 2001 and had always had an uneasy feeling while in a women’s bathroom in the back of the bar. The Unicorn has two sets of washrooms, two by the stairway that are easily accessible, two that are down a dimly lit hallway in the back corner of the bar.

The bathroom has had ongoing plumbing problems and the stall doors were consistently broken. The client had also experienced blowing on the back of her head.

With the typical range of questions answered, from, ‘have you ever tried to communicate with it?’ to, ‘have you ever felt like it has followed you home?’, the team began wandering around the bar getting impressions.

I followed Davis on a tour with the client to the aforementioned washroom and around the bar. The back washrooms are creepy if for no other reason than that they are tucked away–a few of my friends who frequented the bar had no idea they existed–and, at least in my experience, rarely used. The inside of the women’s washroom, though worn, seemed normal. The investigative team agreed; most of the investigators didn’t feel anything out of the ordinary with the back washroom.

The stories of why the place might be haunted were collected from the staff members. There were two possible explanations for the women’s washroom. Either an on-duty waitress hung herself in the washroom in the middle of her shift, which seemed a like it would be hard because of the internal structure of the washroom–mostly a lack of good places to hang yourself–or a biker’s girlfriend shot herself after being beaten up by her boyfriend. None of the staff could pinpoint an exact date, but guessed it was the late ’70s or early ’80s. Most had anecdotal stories about strange experiences or things that happened to former employees or current employees who weren’t present. Some had no idea the place was even suspected of being haunted.

After a few hours of investigation, the team had collected little else besides orbs, an old man smell in the entrance to the loading dock and a few impressions. Most of the members agreed that the back women’s washroom didn’t feel out of the ordinary at the time, but the other women’s washroom did.

The team talked it over with the client who seemed happy that CAPI was willing to come down to the bar and spend their time investigating her experiences. After reading the online reports on CAPI’s website, this seems like the standard response. People often feel crazy when they experience things that are out of the ordinary and are glad to be taken seriously.

Myself, after spending a few hours with CAPI taking pictures with a camera, I felt a little unconvinced of the whole orb phenomenon. Though they checked their cameras on the manufacturer’s website to make sure they have software that addresses the dust orb phenomenon, they were still taking a lot of pictures with flash. Light bounces off everything and there are likely as many non-paranormal explanations for strange light reflections off of dust in the air, water vapour or shiny surfaces, as there are orbs in the CAPI website’s photos. I approached Davis at the end of the investigation with my skepticism but his faith in his digital cameras and the orbs stayed. He noted that they have picked up orbs with film cameras as well as digital. I pointed out those could be attributed to weird exposures in the film or other factors.

The best evidence the reports offer are experiences from clients and the team members themselves while on investigations. The photos seem like a secondary element that may or may not have anything to do with paranormal activity.

Davis said the report on the Unicorn will be out sometime in November and will likely include any findings by the team into the various haunting back stories given by the staff.

I left the Unicorn not entirely convinced that it was haunted but with a bit more of an appreciation for a favourite drinking spot with a long history.

A Paranormal Investigation Investigation

CAPI’s website, ( is rife with stories detailing intriguing experiences of team members and clients. Though none of it is the kind of solid evidence a skeptic would be looking for, there’s lots to look at and consider.

In all of this, what may be most important is that CAPI does not charge money for its investigations. The website asks clients to consider a minimum $50 donation, but donations are rare and, as Davis describes, pleasantly surprising. CAPI isn’t in it for the money. As Davis himself will note, a lot of paranormal stories are just that: stories. They’re entertainment, they get people scared, people enjoy it and someone makes money off it–like with Ghost Stories of Alberta and Most Haunted. What CAPI does is ask questions, when asked, about events that may not have a ready explanation.

CAPI is looking for the truth–which may be out there somewhere–and they’re looking for answers and explanations in the very same way Jay McMahon wanted for his daughter when he founded the organization with Davis six years ago.

“We’re a science-based organization, we’re all volunteers, including myself, and we really enjoy doing it,” Davis said.

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