The 'haunted" feel of their property was palpable, humming just below reality like the low sound of a hornet's nest deep within interior walls. Judy seemed the main target of the taunting. Untraceable voices, doors that opened mysteriously by themselves, and the smell of smoke from a phantom cigarette permeated the site.
When Donnie and Judy first moved there, the property already had a storied past. Vernon Parish District Judge Nathan Brey, a former owner, was murdered there years before. Donnie had lived for a while in one of three homes on the grounds with his former wife, now deceased.
Disquieted by the unexplained phenomena, the Smythes turned to Louisiana Spirits, a paranormal investigations outfit that looks into alleged hauntings with debunking as its primary goal and utter skepticism as its mantra. Based in Alexandria and headed by founder Brad Duplechien, the Louisiana Spirits team hastened to help the troubled couple. On this particular night, Duplechien and another team member, in a kind of ghostly stakeout, sat motionless and alone in the darkness of the unoccupied home that Smythe had shared with his first wife. Duplechien brought his standard equipment night-vision cameras, electro magnetic field (EMF) readers, recorders and IR sensors. A veteran paranormal researcher, Duplechien had never experienced an actual supernatural event. Asked if he has any psychic abilities, he replies: "I like to say that I am as sensitive as a bag of hammers." Nevertheless, Duplechien and his co-investigator, the only two people in the house, suddenly felt the floor vibrate as if someone was walking down the hall. The sound of disembodied chatter began issuing from one of the bedrooms and traveled down the hallway as the vibration of footsteps got closer. Duplechien instinctively snapped his camera in the direction of the sounds. The subsequent photograph showed a large black shadowy mass hovering in the area where the footsteps were heard. In the bedroom, the smell of tobacco smoke drifted through the room, accompanied by high electromagnetic field (EMF) spikes. The two ghostbusters became dizzy as they lost their equilibrium. Video recordings taken in a subsequent visit to the home clearly catch a door moving by itself. For once, the possibility of drafts, structural anomalies or fraud was discounted completely by Duplechien and his group.
'After that," he says, 'I was hooked."
The Smythes were relieved to get independent validation of their mental health. Now they often have guests over to get a taste of the psychic activity. Judy later dabbled in psychic investigations.
The young man with the unusual hobby " Duplechien never charges for an investigation " is decidedly well grounded. A former deputy sheriff, he currently works as a federal correctional officer at the penitentiary in Pollock, La. The father of one child and another on the way, he is in his last semester of college.
Duplechien credits his eight years in law enforcement with keeping his investigations of the supernatural focused and balanced. He researches and writes the histories of the sites he investigates, maintains a clever Web site (www.laspirits.com) and spends hour after hour watching evidentiary videos of rooms and listening to tape recordings from investigations " all meticulously executed in the process of proving or disproving a haunting. He painstakingly records the findings of each investigation on the 'LaSpirits" Web site. The majority of his posted reports proclaim that no conclusive evidence of a haunting can be found.
Duplechien's rational approach isn't always the standard in 'ghost-hunting" societies. According to Duplechien, the popularity of TV shows like Ghost Hunters, seen on the SciFi Channel, draws people into paranormal societies for the sole purpose of seeking fame instead of delving into objective investigations. Although he attracts a great deal of media attention himself, Duplechien doggedly remains true to his credo of skepticism; Louisiana Spirits has debunked more reported hauntings than it has verified. Duplechien calls this hard work, and he says the time spent awaiting 'real" cases can be tedious.
'It's like watching paint dry," he notes.
It isn't always problem-free, either. Clients' credibility " and their reaction to news that no paranormal activity can be certified " is factored into some investigations. 'We have never had clients become openly upset," Duplechien says. 'But you can definitely tell some get disappointed, especially those running a slow business, hoping that if activity can be found their business would get a boost. When I deal with people like that, I worry, not knowing if I have to deal with tainted evidence because of an overzealous client."
People who ask for his help aren't the only ones who come under Duplechien's professional scrutiny.
'When I was just starting out in this field," he recalls, 'I was part of a disbanded group called South Louisiana Ghost Hunters (SLGH). We had obtained our biggest investigation at the time, Oak Alley Plantation. We were trying to make a good impression. The founder of SLGH at the time claimed to be a "sensitive' and used a spirit guide. She certainly added theatrics toward the end of the night. She fell on the floor and began convulsing, stating that she had been taken over by a slave who had lived on the property. All we could do was hang our heads in shame, figuring they would never allow us back in the plantation."
He was wrong.
Oak Alley, located in Vacherie, has a longstanding reputation for being haunted by a woman in a black antebellum costume. She is known as the Lady of Illusion. The plantation owner invited Duplechien back after SLGH disbanded. In subsequent investigations, Duplechien's cameras have caught vaporous mists of ectoplasm snaking amid the fine antiques of the exquisite River Road plantation.
Invite Louisiana Spirits into your home to seek out a haunting and you will receive a signed statement that absolves you of any blame should an injury occur to a team member " and a promise that the investigators will pay for any damages that might befall your property. Although he had never experienced a paranormal incident until the Smythe investigation, Duplechien claims he has been interested in the paranormal since he was a boy.
'Both my grandmothers and my mom seem to have had experiences with the paranormal several times," he says. 'My dad's mom would tell me stories about her deceased husband "visiting' her at night. My mom and her mom would tell me stories of déja vu and dreams coming true."
Last year Duplechien's team created a stir when it investigated Shreveport's historic Municipal Auditorium, scene of the Louisiana Hayride, where Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash once performed. After a night in the historic venue, Duplechien's team deemed it certifiably active. Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP) recordings caught a voice saying, 'I love Johnny Cash," and the sound of someone clapping amid the empty audience chairs. Duplechien swears he heard coins dropping near him while he was alone in the upper level.
Most of the time, he brings a team to the task. He says he has to screen new team members carefully. 'Most people think we're a fly-by-night group that meets once every two months in a cemetery," he says, apparently unaware of the pun. 'When I tell them how much work is involved, they never get back with us. Common sense and analytical abilities are all you need."
Of all the historic places and private homes Duplechien has investigated, the Holy Grail of the paranormal loomed ahead of him, far from the Bayou State: the infamous and abandoned Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Louisville, Ky. Considered the most haunted location in the country " and notorious for the 'Shadow People" frequently spotted there " the sprawling former tuberculosis hospital opened early in the 20th century, when the disease had reached epidemic proportions in the United States. Thousands of patients reportedly died there.
Macabre legends of the hospital's supposed medieval practices sprang up like zombies. Before he began his official investigation, Duplechien began his research, looking to verify or debunk some of the wild talk of medical atrocities. He found no evidence supporting the legend of 63,000 deaths at the sanatorium. Another late-night tale from the crypt held that the bodies of the dead were taken into the 'Draining Room," hung from a pole and then systematically cut from the sternum to the pubic region " for the purpose of draining all infected fluids and blood. This would lighten the corpses, according to legend, thereby making it easier to transport the bodies through the 'Death Tunnel," a dark, sloping, 530-foot-long underground chute.
Duplechien, checking hospital records, found no evidence of such a practice; the story was no more than a lurid urban legend long connected with Waverly. In actuality, the 'Draining Room" housed a transformer.
'I don't want to seem macho," says Duplechien, 'but there isn't a lot in this field that scares me."
Waverly Hills would prove to be the exception.
'I was eager to find a logical explanation for the infamous "shadow people,'" says Duplechien. 'However, when I saw it with my own eyes, it wasn't quite as easily explained as I wish it was! What I witnessed was the silhouette of a young girl, approximately 8 to 10 years old, in a dress, with long hair, walking from one side of the hall to the other. When I initially saw it, I thought I was imagining things, but four other members of my group saw the same thing. She wore a ponytail."
Duplechien recounted how, when walking past patient rooms down the cavernous halls of the former hospital, 'the shadow people" appeared to stick their heads out of the doors at the sound of the team members' approach, rather like patients looking for a visitor.
At one point, Duplechien and another investigator were absolutely alone in the massive hospital that once cared for children as well as adults.
'We went up to one of the floors that was completely empty. I tossed a ball into the room for children to play with," he recalls. 'We descended down a flight to one floor below and suddenly above us, there was like the sound of a stampede " the sound of playing children running back and forth where no one had been before. I'm a father, and I know the sound of children playing. That was one moment when I truly became frightened. We were the only two in that whole building."
The laughter of children resonates on EVPs recorded that night, as do voices that claim, 'They ignore us all," 'Walk it out," 'Put that ball down," and 'Oh, Jesus."
Duplechien admits that he feels a little let down now that he has investigated the ultimate challenge " Waverly. Often the butt of smirks in a crowd when people learn what he does, Duplechien is just as often taken aside privately by some of the same people who smirked at him, and they quietly confide they are having paranormal experiences of their own.
If new owner Nicolas Cage grants him permission, the self-effacing ghost hunter who wears many hats would like to investigate the Lalaurie House in New Orleans' French Quarter. A longtime staple of haunted New Orleans legends, this mansion is reputed to house the spirits of slaves who were tortured by Madame Lalaurie and her physician husband. The slaves were said to have been chained in the attic in the mid-19th century when a fire broke out and burned them alive. Firefighters on the scene were reported to have heard the haunting screams of the slaves who were engulfed by the flames " screams that some say can still be heard today.
Duplechien also aspires to take his group to Loyd Hall bed and breakfast in Chenyville and to the venerable Hotel Bentley in Alexandria " two other Louisiana landmarks that are said to be haunted.
'In 10 years," he predicts, 'the explosion of this fad of ghost hunting will be over, but I'll still be at it. It isn't a game to me."
Jeanne Frois is a freelance journalist based in New Orleans.