Seeking Truth 

Idaho ghost hunters search for the unexplained

What happens when we die? It's a question as old as humanity itself, so it's of no real surprise that stories of ghosts permeate cultures around the world.

Whether the spirts are helpful, harmful or just frightening, ghosts have captured our imaginations. Some people are content to share the occasional ghost story, relegating the idea to quaint fantasy. But others feel an unexplainable draw to the paranormal, a desire to answer that age-old question and to prove for themselves whether ghosts are real.

Such is the case for the Idaho Spirit Seekers, a group dedicated to finding the truth for themselves—whether that truth is paranormal or decidedly normal.

"It's a passion," said Marie Cuff, executive director of ISS. "Even more than just seeking evidence, it's being able to help people who may be experiencing things in their homes and they may be afraid to talk to other people about it—even family members who are close to them—because they're so afraid that people are going to think that they're crazy."

Cuff took over the group in 2003, and since then, ISS has grown from a handful of members to more than 100, with four teams in Idaho, as well as others in Oregon, California and Montana. The Boise team has 34 members.

The group is in the midst of a makeover, changing its name to the International Paranormal Reporting Group and adding clubs in London, as well as either Germany or Romania.

"I don't think even I expected it to take off as fast and as well," she said.

Cuff and her teams are contacted by those who feel their homes or business are haunted and are looking for some kind of explanation or help. The Boise group is out on a case nearly every Friday and Saturday night, volunteering their time and expertise to give clients peace of mind or some kind of validation.

The club doesn't charge for any of its services and is supported by the team members themselves. Cuff put $31,000 into ISS last year alone.

On a recent Saturday night, Cuff and four other ISS members led a few inquisitive BW staffers through the darkened halls of the Boise State communications building. For decades, students have reported strange goings on in the building, once home to the student union and later a theater. ISS has enjoyed a working relationship with the university for years, earning enough trust to be allowed into the building with a simple request.

Pausing in the attic, two investigators patiently explain their equipment and the process. In the near darkness, one investigator asks questions to any unseen entity that may be listening, hoping to catch something the human ear can't hear on a digital recorder.

The investigation proceeds methodically, with team members taking measurements of electromagnetic fields and temperature, as well as recording the entire event with cameras and a DVR.

In the past five years, Cuff has gathered a group of investigators with surprisingly diverse backgrounds, ranging from law enforcement to psychology. Each member must go through a lengthy application and interview process, as well as classroom and field training.

Even more surprising is the fact that not every team member is a believer. In fact, Cuff said some are skeptics and have never experienced anything they would dump into the paranormal category.

"They're skeptic in the true sense of the word, in that they believe the possibility is there, but they want proof," she said.

The one factor that brings them together is the paranormal. "They all have an interest in the research and they all take it very seriously. It's not just a hobby," Cuff said.

She prefers to call what ISS does paranormal investigation, rather than ghost hunting, although that's what the public usually calls it.

"When you look at somebody and say 'paranormal investigator,' you either get a blank look or they think more along the lines of UFOs or cryptozoology [the study of animals whose existence is not proven]," Cuff said. "Ghost hunting is more defined for what we do. But I don't feel like we're really hunting anything. We're seeking evidence."

Cuff said ISS investigates from a scientific standpoint, looking for proof of the paranormal. "[We] always look for the logical explanation first. You have to rule all of those things out to be taken seriously in this field, and to have your evidence stand up to the critics or the skeptics," she said. "If you're going to put it out there, you should expect for it to be torn apart."

Each case ISS investigates is unique, and Cuff stresses that the direction is tailored to fit the client's needs and beliefs. But most just want some kind of validation for what they're experiencing.

Sometimes, the team finds that a client's experiences may be a symptom of a deeper psychological issue, and Cuff has referred some to counseling. While she said this isn't often the case, it's a factor investigators have to be aware of.

Regardless of the site, ISS always obtains permission to investigate and Cuff rails against thrill-seekers who sometimes break in to a location and hurt the reputations of legitimate groups.

The entire paranormal field has suddenly become part of popular culture, thanks to mainstream TV shows like SciFi's Ghost Hunters, A&E's Paranormal State and others. Cuff even recently helped film an episode of the Travel Channel show Ghost Adventures at the Old Idaho State Penitentiary. Cuff was interviewed about a personal experience she had while investigating the site with a television news crew. The episode is set to air on Dec. 5.

Cuff has mixed feelings about the newfound popularity.

"There are some shows out there that I don't think are beneficial to the field," she said. "They're great entertainment. They're Hollywood. And then there are some shows that I think are very good for the field, and I think have helped the field a lot. [It has] helped to let the general public to know that there are people out there who can help them and that's really important," Cuff said.

ISS is part of the TAPS Family of paranormal investigators, a group made famous by Ghost Hunters. The organization provides a support network for similar groups, and Cuff does work with the TAPS Family Radio, is a TAPS liaison and also serves as the U.S. ambassador for the World Wide Paranormal Reporting Center, an international database of experiences.

But despite the growing public awareness of groups like ISS, Cuff said some people still lump anyone interested in the paranormal into the crazy category.

"There are some [people] still out there that expect the seances and the Ouija boards and the creepy, scary stuff, so they're surprised when they show up and we're normal," she said.

Skeptics come with the territory, but Cuff won't be dissuaded.

"I don't care what they think," she said. "I know that I'm an educated individual.

"There's a difference between a skeptic and a cynic. I will debate and discuss all day long with a skeptic, because they have an open mind ... they just want proof and good proof. Me, too. That's why I'm in this field. [For] a cynic, it wouldn't matter what you said."

Cuff has no doubt that ghosts exist. She also thinks that paranormal activity is more common than widely accepted.

"I think we're just so busy with our daily lives in general that we don't pay attention to what's going on around us," she said.

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