Hunting season at the Pump House

Photo by Chris Lacroix.

On Saturday, ghost hunter Robert Bess and the Foundation for Paranormal Research (FPR) put on quite a spectacle at the Pump House, Richmond’s beautiful stone castle on the Kanawha Canal.  In a press release dated February 21, FPR advertised the event as such:

“The foundation’s founder Robert Bess, along with his technical containment team, will demonstrate the real existence of ghosts and other worldly entities by actual capture and containment of real ghosts using the foundation’s inventions and techniques. An explanation of the equipment, the theories, and practical applications etc will be given before the event. The environment will be fully lit and fully visible. This is a rare opportunity for skeptics and non-committed believers, etc.”

According to FPR, the main “attraction” would be the Parabot, Bess’s invention which claims the ability to actually catch ghosts.

Over 100 people showed up and crowded the enormous room on the first floor of the Pump House, waiting expectantly in the dark.  The apparatus in the center of the room — presumably the Parabot — was a box large enough to hold a person, with a Tesla coil located inside and another Tesla coil behind the box. A Jacob’s ladder was affixed to the top of the structure, and green neon lights ran down the length and dotted the bottom of the box. The Parabot’s double front doors were wide open.

Photo by Chris Lacroix.

Onlookers were unable to understand Mr. Bess’s brief introduction because of the echo-y, unfocused sound in the cavernous room.  Unsure of Bess’s objectives or how the equipment worked, we watched as the lights were dimmed and attentions focused on the large box in the center of the room. Loud, didgeridoo-laden music and strobe lights were cued.

Over the next hour or so, Bess and his associates pumped a smoke machine into and around the Parabot, while the Tesla coils snapped rhythmically and produced tiny bursts of lightning-like electricity. Twice an alarm sounded, and the doors to the Parabot were closed.  There were excited shouts from Bess and his crew, and then the doors were re-opened and the smoke-pumping continued.

Photo by Johnny Hugel.

Paranormal investigation is a field in which it’s difficult to separate the “serious” from the “silly,” and I think that ultimately both types can be equally pointless.  Judging from the press release and the theatrical nature of the ghost hunt itself, Bess and FPR seem to be more into attention-grabbing publicity stunts than the collection of any real data. According to FPR’s website, they were able to draw some conclusions from what appeared to be nothing:

“The 3 Mile Lock Experiment took place filmed live by NBC with over 145 witnesses testified to the experiments unvailing results. 2 very identifiable entities were capture and contained with in the chambers force fields,then shortly released.”

I’m not sure if by “unvailing” they mean “unfailing” or “unavailing,” but either way if we are to judge FPR by the coherence of their website, they’re already in big trouble. And neither I nor the roughly 15 people I talked to after the event saw anything identifiable being captured.

Here are the only conclusions I was able to come to from the experiment:

  • I still have no idea what the Parabot is technically supposed to perform.
  • Tesla coils are cool, and those snapping noises they make are strangely satisfying.
  • A Jacob’s ladder, though its only real purpose is to demonstrate electrical properties, looks cool and should be affixed to the top of all scientific inventions.
  • Apparently all you need to “catch” a ghost are: plexiglass, neon lights, electrical supplies, didgeridoo music, a smoke machine, and plenty of fog juice.

Yet if we’re judging this event just on entertainment merit, Mr. Bess and his crew receive good marks.

Photo by Johnny Hugel.

The event also brought a lot of people out to a forgotten Richmond landmark, which is never a bad thing. For those of us who explored the Pump House while we were there, the potential of that huge, empty building was our real excitement for the day. It looks like a lot of work is going on to clear out and restore the stone structure, and some hasty-looking displays have already been set up to provide a basic level of information to the wandering public. As attendees enjoyed the sunny, expansive dance floor, conversations about future parties and dances and weddings floated up to the rafters

Full of merry voices again, the Pump House seems to have come full circle. Even if there is still a ghost (or two) inside.

Photo by Chris Lacroix.

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Tess Shebaylo

Tess Shebaylo is a freelance writer, crafter, history geek, and compulsive organizer. She works at Tumblr and lives in Church Hill with her daughter, Morella.

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