I’m standing in Ash Cave — the biggest recess cavern in the state — and holding a Geiger counter.
It’s night, so I can hear the waterfall but not see it. I also can’t see most of my companions or the guide who brought us here.
If it were day, or if I had more light than a few lanterns scattered throughout the cavern, I’d be able to see the series of cliffs that lead to Pulpit Rock, which towers over the cavern.
Pulpit Rock is so named because pastors used to stand on it and preach to their congregation who would gather on the cavern floor below. (Tecumseh supposedly spoke there once.)
But there are no churches tonight. In fact, during the dark ages, people were burned at the stake for what we’re doing.
We’re on a ghost hunt.
Pat Quackenbush is a skeptic by nature. He’s a naturalist for Hocking Hills State Park in southern Ohio and quick to tell people that a shrieking noise they heard is more likely a barn owl than a phantom.
But he’s also heard his share of ghost stories. He’s heard about the dead mother who shouts the name of her lost son near Rose Lake and the spectral Oldsmobile with a flat tire that patrols Ash Cave. He’s even seen a woman wearing a 1920s dress who joined one of his Ash Cave tour groups and mysteriously disappeared.
“Not to scare you, but she likes groups,” he warns.
He’s not kidding either.
Quackenbush works with the Haunted Hocking Hills group investigating ghost stories in the area. They’ve searched Old Man’s Cave, Ash Cave, Conkle’s Hollow, the Moonville tunnel and Rose Lake. The hunts lookfor different energy types that might indicate paranormal activity. This means they scour the supposedly haunted areas with everything from electromagnetic field detectors to dousing rods (better known as divining rods.)
Hence, my Geiger counter. I’m searching for nuclear energy and finding nothing.
A few of my companions get excited when a compass shifts suddenly atop Pulpit Rock. They think it’s a ghost. Quackenbush suggests that it’s more likely the iron oxide in the cavern. Just to be safe, he snaps a photo with his camera, which is customized to take photos in infrared.
Hocking Hills has its share of scary stories. The Moonville tunnel is thought to be haunted by a brakeman who was struck by a train in the 1800s. Ghost stories about those who fell to their deaths in Old Man’s Cave proliferate. Conkle’s Hollow is thought to be haunted by its namesake, William Conkle, and the Shawnee who lived there before him. The now closed asylum in nearby Athens is supposedly still visited by posthumous patients.
The Haunted Hocking group formed to investigate some of these stories. They spend a lot of their time debunking myths — Quackenbush told us about one time he identified a pair of “fairies” as flying squirrels — but they’ve also seen some things they can’t explain.
Vortices rising from a lake, compass needles spinning like a top, unseen voices shouting the name of a child who died in the same place half of a century earlier — the Haunted Hocking group document the phenomena on their Web sites and let people draw their own conclusions.
The Geiger counter doesn’t register anything, neither does the EMF, but the magnetic tools — the compass and divining rods — have some minor reactions inside Ash Cave.
“No ghosts,” I snicker.
“Not tonight,” replies Cole Quackenbush, Pat’s 14-year-old son. He’s as certain about ghosts as my little sister is about Santa or Richard Dawkins is about evolution. Other people on the Haunted Hocking team are more skeptical, like his father.
As our tiny group returns to the parking lot, we walk slowly and close together. It’s not just because it’s raining either. The slightest noise stops us, and we search the trail, looking for a woman in a pale dress.
“Scared?” Cole teases me after one such stop.
We didn’t see any inexplicable floating orbs or hear any disembodied voices while scouring Ash Cave. This isn’t a skeptic-turned-believer story. I still don’t believe in ghosts.
But if I were to ever meet a ghost, it would probably be in the dark of Ash Cave on a rainy, cold October night.
I know I wouldn’t be the first.