Ben Podger hunts demons. Ben says one nearly threw him off a second storey. Another nearly possessed him. Ben is an ex-CFA-now-civil-construction-worker-cum-psychic. He says paranormal pretenders get up his goat.
Welcome to the world of paranormal investigation. It beggars belief.
Within 24 hours of the death of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, American YouTube celebrity and self-proclaimed spirit magnet Steve Huff videos himself contacting the Other Side via a Panasonic voice recorder. He asks if Hawking has crossed over. The recorder emits a static muffle that Huff translates as a “YES!”.
Or there’s actor, investigator and buff bro Zac Bagans, who challenges the dead to fight him in abandoned asylums on the US television series Ghost Adventures.
Oh, and Ed and Lorraine Warren, whose 30-year exploits as paranormal probers prompted mega Hollywood malarkey with movies like The Amityville Horror, The Conjuring, and Annabelle.
But Ben Podger is different. Ben says he put himself out there in response to a crying public need, and in 2013 co-founded the Northern Melbourne Paranormal investigative team with a mate.
They are now four and operate out of Badger Creek, Victoria. Ben says his team is called in to resolve people’s problems with the afterlife, and the afterlife’s problems with becoming the after-afterlife.
Also demons. They vanquish demons.
Ben says demons are not of this world, so works to kick ‘em out. Household spirits just need a helping hand. He says most don’t know they’re dead, so he explains it to them, most say “yep no dramas, I’ll move on then”.
When in the CFA Ben says he often dealt with the deceased. But had to explain to his superiors and workmates that, for him, attending to the dead came hand-in-hand with attending to the apparition of the dead. That they weren’t to worry if he was chatting to thin air.
Whether they believed him or not Ben doesn’t know, but they accepted him.
The other members of Ben’s badass bunch — whose stories include being called “stupid bitches” by snarky spirits — choose to remain anonymous. They do not run tours, and they do not make bank.
Ben says they observe a “no-profit-no-charge-doing-the-right-thing” protocol. They are big believers in debunking first, and are not in the game for money or fame.
Northern Melbourne Paranormal’s outfit is modest. They have 495 Facebook followers. Zac Bagans’ Ghost Adventures has over 3 million, and posts “face-to-face” encounters with evil spirits almost daily.
Ben says he has been psychic since he was a kid. His parents remember bizarre behaviour, like playing as a pre-teen with relatives that had passed, knowing the date of their passing.
He would tell his parents he had lived in the early 1900s, describing his house in detail, who he had lived with, what he had done.
Then his sixth sense “went away for some reason”, and didn’t return till he was 17. When it did, Ben began training with psychics, and with a demonologist, learning to identify demons and exorcise them. If Ben can’t sense a presence he works with a psychologist because, he says, the unexplained can often be explained as a “mental issue, or something like that”.
He says his team works with equipment too, video cameras and voice recorders are the norm but so are devices like the K-II EMF Meter, which detects spikes in electromagnetic energy; a white noise generator, which filters out background noise in case the dead choose to speak; and the “Parapod”, which senses electric fields and vibrations.
This last device is the invention of Craig Taylor. Craig is an electrical assembler at an agricultural sprayer manufacturer in Miner’s Rest, outside Ballarat.
Craig runs WD Paraproduct on the side, designing and building equipment practical to the field of paranormal research. He does this with a 3-D printer. Other products include the Spookometer and the Spirit Candle. Most stock is priced between $40 and $70. Craig says he is often snowed under with orders.
Craig, unlike Ben, isn’t blessed with a sixth sense. Indeed, he says he is “as sensitive as a brick” when it comes to the sniffing out of spirits. So he builds products that might do the job, adding the caveat that nothing can record a ghost.
The darker side of the dark-side industry is that there are those who prey on people’s gullibility, Craig says. He doesn’t tell people what to think, he says, but encourages them to make their own conclusions.
Craig urges consumers of his products to go slowly, and opt for the explainable before seizing on the unexplained. A sneeze from a second storey can set a sensor off, or a switched-on phone might spark static.
Craig says he first dived into the vast paranormal realm now available online around 2003. All the bizarre, out-of-the-ordinary stuff he loved as a kid was there to explore. So, bugger it, why not?
He started by poking around the nuts and bolts of the industry, then investigating homes, then roping in his partner, Chelle, and their friend Nicole. They formed Western District Paranormal, and Craig launched his product line while Chelle initiated Alternate Perspective, a consultative service for paranormal posses who need help discerning the paranormal from the psychological.
There are 20 registered paranormal teams listed in Victoria on the Ghost Hunters of Australia directory, and Chelle says that there are many more in the trenches, working their butts off and helping the phantom afflicted.
But the industry isn’t regulated and Consumer Affairs has no data on it.
Ken Greatorex is the secretary for the Victorian Branch of Australian Skeptics, and says he suspects complaints are few and far between, that ghost hunting is regarded by most Australians as a bit of harmless entertainment. Where claims of the paranormal extend to ‘talking to the dead, peddling dangerous quack remedies and similar activities that prey on the vulnerable, there is greater cause for concern”.
Janelle Portelli is also a member of the Skeptics. She says the playing with paranormal isn’t entirely batshit, just a bit anomalous. Mostly it consists of humans trying to make sense of pain and grief.
She was herself a paranormal investigator but became disillusioned when she witnessed a self-proclaimed medium exorcise a woman plagued by a “dark entity”, but who was suffering borderline personality disorder. The medium had declared the woman in danger, that she must fight for her soul, but then dismissed her as “crazy”.
Janelle was deeply uncomfortable with what looked like an “ego rub” by the medium, at the expense of a vulnerable individual. She became a sceptic.
Craig and Chelle describe themselves as “sceptical believers”. It’s a mindset that is common in their community of supernatural snoopers, they say.
Chelle describes herself as sensitive, rather than psychic. She says she feels when places are “icky” or “urky”, that she is sometimes sceptical and sometimes scared.
But the online community is much more hardcore. Chelle says the field attracts the wanna-be famous, and that the famed coterie are vicious to anyone who challenges the para-status-quo.
Craig publically debunks so-called photographic evidence of the paranormal on social media when it has been tampered with by apps like Ghost in Photo or Ghost Effects. He’ll do this on his Western District Paranormal page, or his WDParaproduct page, even though this has brought him under attack, including physical threats.
It’s a murky world online, Chelle says. The monomaniacal can be merciless trollers, and their targets are minimifidians like Craig and Chelle. The couple have had to engage lawyers, privatise their pages and censor their scepticism.
Chelle is a qualified clinical psychologist, specialising in childhood development in cases of parental abuse and negligence. She has no patience for paranormal pretenders — Craig calls them morally bankrupt — that exacerbate problems for families and children.
Chelle says she consulted on a case where a child was seeing a man in a hat. The apparition was visible only to the kid. Chelle asked some questions and learned the parents were on the verge of separation when the ghostly apparition appeared. She figured the kid was sensing some not-so-paranormal tensions so created a diversion by making up some paranormal ones.
The family was referred to a psychological service and the supernatural spectre skedaddled.
This is the model of what Chelle asks of the league of paranormal investigators. To nut out all mental, emotional and family based dynamics before making renegade claims of the phenomenal.
Expanding peoples’ sensitivities and capacities to see, feel and understand alternate experiences is a future Chelle envisions, one Ben is living, and one Craig, doing his bit to “keep the bastards honest”, is fighting for.