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ESSAY / Here for the Boos / Krissy Eliot

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Last summer, for my boyfriend’s birthday, I signed us up for a ghost hunt in New Orleans.

I’d never experienced any paranormal phenomenon, but my fascination with scams was definitely outside the bounds of scientific understanding. And since it was my boyfriend Jordan’s absurd idea to make the long trip from beautiful, breezy Berkeley to spend his birthday in the, “Oh wow, I’ve been outside for two minutes and need another shower” heat of Louisiana—I figured it was my turn to plan something just as ridiculous—namely something I could make fun of.

I Googled and found what claimed to be the “number one ranked ghost tour” in New Orleans, with a whopping 98 percent of previous guests giving it five stars.  The website provided absolutely no description of what activities the hunt would include, but said it took place in the dead of night, that I’d get to keep all my spooky recordings, and that it was $50 a person. SOLD.

The night of the hunt, Jordan and I were lounging in a bar, already connecting with some spirits by way of sugary beverage, when we received an elaborately illiterate text message from the ghost hunt company. It warned us that the start time was “10pn,” if we arrived “to drunk” we’d be “asked 2 leave,” and that the ghosts were “dying to meet” us.  It was gonna be a shit show. I could hardly wait.

Our meetup spot was in the French Quarter on Royal Street, one of the less-wasted streets in New Orleans, with 18th century brick buildings and iron-lace balconies. We slogged through the boggy heat until we reached a more residential area, dropping the remainder of our drinks in the garbage and chatting casually about “just how drunk are we?!” 

Up ahead, we spotted a group of people on the sidewalk, silhouetted by the glow of the moon. One of the figures talked authoritatively to the rest of the group in one of the most flamboyant southern accents I’d ever heard in my life—think Queer Eye for The Straight Guy with a deep drawl—and appeared to be the leader.

As we got closer, I noticed he looked like what girls call “heroin chic” a term I’d use figuratively if he didn’t seem to have just tied off. He had a ghoulish face with cheeks so sunken that he resembled the skull on his shirt, and for a man of 6’2”, he was at least 50 pounds underweight. He wore skinny jeans, a choker, and a muscle tank that didn’t cover his nipples. He had bloodshot eyes and a nice set of yellow teeth. 

“100 bucks says that’s the guide,” Jordan said into my ear. “Yeah, your hundred bucks,” I thought, as I’d paid with his credit card.

“Welcome to the ghost hunt,” he said. “My name is Matthew Dave. I’ll be your trusted guide.” Because nothing says trustworthy like a guy with two first names. 

He explained that we were entering a “very haunted house” and that if any of us were too afraid, to turn back now. A woman in her late 50s said, “Wait! Please, I have to say a prayer,” and then proceeded to whisper it under her breath while we all stood waiting for her to finish. 

“That’s all right, of course, pray,” Matthew Dave said, starting the night off with the first of many unbelievable declarations, “I’m a Catholic myself.”

He then led us down a three-foot-wide alley between two brick two-story homes. Beyond them was a big brick house, with a wide and weedy courtyard out behind. We followed our effeminate guide through the front door, bumping into each other as we filed into the darkness. Without AC it was even hotter inside than out, entombing us in 105 degrees of velvety-thick humidity.  Only a little bit of moonlight seeped in through the windows, and though I’d obviously never been there before, there was a distinct and familiar smell, a unique fusion of dust, desperation and male sweat. Wait, are we in a… Matthew Dave switched on the light.

Yep. We were in a band house.  A 70s/80s wannabe rock band house, no less—something I recognize far too well from making many a dating mistake over the last 29 years. 

We were standing in a large room with a fireplace and a split wall. On the left side there was a circle of chairs, and on the other, there was a filthy off-white leather couch and a black spray-painted coffin being used as a coffee table. There were psychedelic posters, anarchy and satanism symbols graffitied on the wood walls, thrift store-worthy oil paintings, and an inordinate number of cattle skulls. A crapload of music equipment had been moved to the perimeter of the space, with guitar cases stacked on top of boxes and a drum set covered with a frighteningly oil-stained sheet. A drunk roadie in the corner would have really complimented the motif. On the fireplace mantel, there was a tribal statue of a small man holding up a tall man’s gigantic penis. For posterity, Jordan and I took a picture kissing in front of it.

We all sat in the circle of fold-out chairs along with Matthew Dave, who bragged that he was a seasoned ghost hunter, having trained under the well-known spiritualist: Steve (no last name mentioned). For years, Matthew Dave grew immeasurably as a spirit guide thanks to Steve’s invaluable tutelage, only to later discover that his mentor had a secret hobby—too dark even for Matthew Dave’s tastes: “I found out Steve was filming rape porn,” he said. “We’re no longer speaking, of course.”

Of course.

Matthew Dave explained that he wasn’t merely a paid guide at this residence, but that he and a group of his friends all rented the house together—so we were basically getting a tour of their home.

He explained that that the house was haunted by many ghosts, and each had a backstory that he’d surmised from communicating with them. One of these ghosts was Chloe, an abandoned child with an affinity for playing with a yellow bouncy ball, which she would move of her own accord. He tossed the yellow ball into the center of the circle and all of us stared at it, waiting. A few minutes passed.

“Chloe?” Matthew Dave said to the ceiling. “We’ve got a ball for you to play with. Don’t you want to play with your ball, Chloe? Chloe?”

She didn’t.

Matthew Dave insisted that he and the others that lived there all had seen Chloe move the ball, and they even had footage of it. Footage he never offered to show us. He then gave the disclaimer we’d all been waiting for.

“The spirits can sense it when you don’t believe. They won’t show themselves,” he said. “If there are any non-believers in here, then you can blame them for not having an encounter tonight.”

Well, fuck. It was my fault then. I was certainly a non-believer.

I couldn’t believe I was there, for instance. I couldn’t believe how much I’d made Jordan pay for tickets. I couldn’t believe that Matthew Dave brought up rape porn. Was I soiling everyone’s experience by being so incredulous? These thoughts nagged me for a hot 30 seconds, and then I had to pee.

“Watch out for Kurt,” Matthew Dave warned me as I got up to piss. “He’s a pervert spirit who likes to pinch girls’ butts, especially when they’re on the toilet.”

Unable to let that comment lie, my boyfriend, the comedian, claimed publicly that he was going into the bathroom with me for protection. 

“Touch my girlfriend’s naked ass and prepare to die twice, Kurt!” my boyfriend yelled as I dribbled over the toilet, trying to hold my breath against the stench of something rotting. Sniggers could be heard outside the door as I pulled my underwear up. My butt remained untouched. This ass ain’t good enough for you, Kurt?

With a relieved bladder and wounded ego, I rejoined the group to gear up for the hunt. Each person was responsible for a different piece of ghost hunting equipment: spectrum camcorders, MEL Meters, voice recorders, spirit boxes, EM pumps, laser grids, K2 meters, you name it. I grabbed a camera because it was familiar, and Jordan snagged a MEL Meter, a doodad that simultaneously measures temperature and electromagnetic fields (EMF)We weren’t provided with any bull-shit-o-meters, but fortunately, I always keep mine with me. 

Now that we had gadgets to play with, it was time for Matthew Dave to turn off the lights and school us on the art of talking to a ghost, which, as it happens, requires as much finesse as that of an awkward pick-up artist. He compared talking to a spirit to trying to chat up a stranger in a bar.

“You walk up to them and say, ‘Hey, what's up? My name is Matthew Dave. What's yours?’ And then you give them about 15-20 seconds to answer back,” he said. “Give a little, get a little.”

15-20 seconds? Is this spirit having a stroke? Granted everyone is just about fuckshit wasted on Bourbon Street, but if I asked someone to identify themselves and it took that long to reply, I’m not sure who would be crazier—the person too inept to know their own name, or me, who stuck around to find that out.

To show how much of a pro he is at ghost bar-style liaisons, Matthew Dave put the mack down first. 

"Hello, spirits. This is Matthew Dave. Although I'm 44, I still miss my mom and dad,” he said to the ceiling. “My mom especially. Her name is Karen. What was your mother's name?"

Killin’ it with that mommy-issues line, MD. We wait awhile. No response.

"My favorite food is Boudin sausage,” he said. “Do you like Boudin sausage?"

What a nightmare. Is this how people get picked up in New Orleans? You’d think one of the main benefits of the afterlife would be never having to endure this again.

I was listening to this in the dark, suppressing giggles like a 15-year-old boy in the back of health class when suddenly Matthew Dave turned to me. 

“Krissy, would you like to speak to the spirits?”

“What?” No. I really didn’t.

Not because I was afraid that I might actually communicate with a ghost, but because I hadn’t thought at all about what to say. Up until that point I had considered myself a fly on the wall, a plucky commentator whose only job was to be a wisecracker in the style of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I never intended to seriously participate and thus become the butt of the joke. I could feel Jordan struggling to contain his laughter. The beads of everyone’s eyes glinted expectantly at me in the darkness and I knew there was no going back.

“Eh-uh-um…” I said, linguistically flailing. “I'm Krissy. I wanna know, uh, if you, erm, like hanging out here?"

And then we sat there in silence for 15-20 fucking seconds, and the only thing otherworldly in that room was my level of humiliation.

"Um, if you like hanging out here… rattle something,” I said, wanting to die and give these people a real ghost to talk to. No response.

For the next half an hour, the 12 of us then went around the circle, asking questions and getting no readings on any of our thingamabobs. I’d popped zits that were scarier. Utterly bored, Jordan aimlessly pressed buttons on his meter, while I recorded the whole thing on my camera, looking at the room in the grayscale of full spectrum mode. While an Australian girl asked a question about how a ghost died, I turned the camera toward Matthew Dave, who was seated right beside me—and I froze.

Matthew Dave was strangely slumped down in his chair, chin to his chest, not moving. Fuck? Is he dead? I thought, until I saw his chest softly rise and fall. Nope. Probably just a smack-induced siesta.

I showed the camera screen to Jordan and we laughed really hard. I think it was an actual snort of mine that caused Matthew Dave to suddenly sit up in his chair, very alert. Then, in an authoritative voice, he uttered the proverbial horror movie words, “I think we should split up.”

He took six group members upstairs, leaving Jordan, me, the Australian girl, and three others behind.

Before going off with the other group, he taught us how to play what’s called the “number game” with the ghosts—and it’s every bit as lame as it sounds. Basically, everyone goes around the circle and slowly says a number and a ghost is supposed to chime in and say the next number. We did it twice, then we cycled through the alphabet-like a bunch of kindergartners.

That’s when the Aussie decided to pull out the Ovilus, a ghost communication device roughly the size of a Texas Instruments graphing calculator—supposedly capable of translating electromagnetic field fluctuations into words that show up on the screen.

The Aussie went first, asking if the spirit in the room was named Johnny, a ghost Matthew Dave had described earlier as being a depressed drunk.

“Johnny, are you there? Is that you?”

“Yes,” said the Ovilus.

At first, everyone was serious—asking questions about whether Johnny liked living there, if he was sad, or happy, how he died. There was genuine concern. And then Jordan’s and my skepticism spread quicker than the Zika virus.

"Johnny, if you have my 50 dollars, can you say yes?” Jordan asked.

"Yes,” said Ovilus.

"Johnny, do you think Jordan should commit suicide to be funny in the afterlife?” I asked.

"Yes,” said Ovilus.

Then everyone else jumped in. 

"Johnny, have you ever seen heroin done in this house?"

"Johnny, what’s your Twitter handle?”

"Johnny, is this device basically an electronic magic 8-ball?"

"Johnny, do you get a cut of the money?"

"Johnny, has Matthew Dave told us any lies tonight?"

“Yes,” the Ovilus responded.

“HELLO EVERYONE!” Matthew Dave chirped, popping in from the back door and scaring the shit out of us. “It’s time for the teams to switch out. Y'all come upstairs with me—where you can meet Philip,” an angry ghost.

We followed him out back to the courtyard, which would actually have been really nice if it hadn’t been overgrown with weeds. There was an historic stone fountain full of moldy brown water, and a tall wooden fence around the perimeter of the wide yard with lush green trees hanging over the top. The other group had just come down the winding black steel stairs at the back of the house that led to the top floor entrance and were walking around in the dark with their flashing devices, oohing and ahhing. I stuck my butt out a bit as we walked around, hoping Kurt would change his mind.

According to Matthew Dave, they’d “seen some major action upstairs.” I asked what happened. “The meters were going off!” he said. They must have been true believers.

We all walked up the staircase in a line: me, Jordan, the Aussie, and the rest. Just as we entered the upstairs an acrid stench flooded our nostrils.  A dead body, perhaps? It was truly horrific. “Oh my God! Johnny! Was that you?” the Aussie exclaimed. “Did you make that fart?”

Upstairs there was a kitchen to the left, and to the right was a bed with music equipment crammed into a corner next to it. Long blue curtains hung from the window by the mattress.

Matthew Dave gestured toward the curtains and began telling us about how some fraternity dudes once tried to piss off Philip and things got ugly. While Matthew Dave and the rest of the group were downstairs, he heard tormented screams and crashing coming from above. He ran upstairs to find the young men on the bed trapped by the blue curtain which had come off the wall. He had to beg Philip to release them, which he finally did. 

“I guess they got what they wanted,” Matthew Dave said. “If you want to agitate the ghosts, go ahead, but you'll pay the price, not me." The standard $50 per person cost of the hunt, of course, with ghost agitation clearly running us an extra fee.

He led us to the kitchen where he claimed he was standing in a “vortex,” a swirling column of spirit energy that can’t be seen with the naked eye. He said he could tell it was a vortex because it was a few degrees cooler in that spot than the rest of the upstairs. 

He beckoned Jordan to stand right behind him and monitor the temperature on the MEL Meter. We were about to see Matthew Dave work his magic.

“Phillip!” he said. “Can you make the temperature go down even more?”

Jordan stared at the MEL Meter and began counting down temperatures, and the hair on my arms stood up. Was it actually working? Was a ghost really dropping the temperature as commanded? Was I actually the tool in this scenario, and Matthew Dave a master of the craft?

“87.4, 87.3, 86,” Jordan counted down. “85, 83, 82, 81...”

“Stop there, please, Phillip,” Matthew Dave said, looking pleased. He asked if the ghost could make the temperature go back up to 82. A few seconds passed.

“Oh my God,” Jordan said, “the temperature is 90!”

Matthew Dave gasped. “You’re kidding me,” he said. “I knew I felt something standing near me. I just knew.”

Matthew Dave and the rest of the group talked excitedly amongst themselves, while Jordan casually took my hand and told me that he faked the whole thing; the temperature hadn’t changed a degree. “Also, remember when I farted in that Australian girl’s face when we were coming up the stairs earlier?” he said. The bastard had tricked us all.

That’s when Jordan’s MEL Meter started flashing out of nowhere, legitimately spooking him and giving him a taste of his own medicine. “Does that mean the spirit is next to you?” the Aussie asked excitedly, running over to look at his device.

“I don’t know, it could be! I—oh,” Jordan paused, then let out a relieved laugh. “It was just this button I pushed accidentally.”

For the final event of the night, the two groups of six were reunited in the living room where it all began. Matthew Dave introduced another ghost communication device called the Spirit Box, something that looked and sounded to me like a broken radio with a lot of reverb on it (which, I later learned, was a totally accurate assessment). As the Spirit Box scans AM/FM radio signals, ghosts can supposedly manipulate and create words from audio remnants. Turns out ghosts can’t just pick a station and have a proper, single-channel conversation with us, but instead are forced to communicate across several stations with static nonsense. The box let out a series of “BLURT!” sounds as the radio scanned each station for a fraction of a second.

“Burt? Burt, is that you?” Matthew Dave asked.

“BLURT! EHP! UH!” the Spirit Box confirmed.

After about 45 minutes of Matthew Dave talking to the broken radio, it was about 12:30am. He shut it off and announced that the hunt had ended. 

“Have y’all had enough?” he said.

More than enough. It was undeniable that all of us had encountered a distinct presence that night: of disappointment. The only true whiff of death we got was my boyfriend aging a year. Everyone dropped their equipment like sacks of dead bodies and made a beeline for the door.

Doing some quick math, I surmised that at $50 a pop, the hunt reaped $600 a night. The whole hunt lasted four hours. If you ran that shit five nights in a row, you’d only have to work 20 hours a week to make a comfortable $3,000.

“When we first moved in here, we didn’t know this place was haunted,” Matthew Dave had said to us at the start of the hunt. When what he clearly meant was, “When we first moved in here, we didn’t know how to pay our rent.” 

With our newfound pickup artist skills, we headed off to the bars.


Krissy Eliot is a professional writer, editor, and former sex columnist for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and Bay Area Reporter. She blogs about weird things like cryptids, the paranormal, and her life at www.hotalien.com, and she keeps examples of her journalistic work at www.krissyeliot.com. She's currently writing a book about Bigfoot.