May 30, 2016 9:11 am
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Imagine, if you will, four people locked into a dark room hidden on the upper floor of a decommissioned prison notorious for its restless spirits. As they attempt to speak to the ghosts that inhabit the walls, one of the would-be paranormal investigators, a former inmate, takes on a stern tone and begins to taunt the entity in the windowless room. As the scene plays out in the muted tones of night vision cameras, one of the ghost hunters suddenly clutches his back. As the investigators rush toward him, he complains of a burning sensation while lifting his shirt, revealing three fresh red claw marks running across his spine. It appears he was attacked by a ghost.

No, I’m not giving you a play-by-play of the latest episode of Ghost Asylum. Believe it or not, I’m recounting exactly what happened to me last month, far from clipboard carrying producers or enraged men in tiny Tapout shirts. It’s an experience that has had me aggressively reconsidering my opinions on the paranormal.

I never believed that ghosts could hurt you

Ohio State Reformatory

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My brush with the more touchy-feely side of the supernatural happened in Ohio State Reformatory, a historic prison known for being a set piece in The Shawshank Redemption andCon Air, but more recently as a favorite location of reality television shows like Ghost Adventures. Interestingly enough, the whole reason I was at OSR was in support of the Nick Groff Tour, a cross-country ghost hunting tour featuring Nick Groff, who not only starred in, but Executive Produced a decade of Ghost Adventures.

I won’t go into too much detail surrounding the event (Dana wrote a detailed breakdown of the evidence we captured at Ohio State Reformatory, including video footage of the actual “entity attack” itself), but its been almost a month since an invisible appendage reached out from the darkness and left its mark on me, and I’ve still been fairly quiet about my side of the whole thing. The only reason for that is, to be perfectly honest, I’m still pretty rattled by the whole ordeal and have needed some time to process it.

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You see, I’ve been actively chasing down the strange and the unexplained for nearly two decades. While instances like this are few and far between, in that time I’ve heard disembodied voices whisper in my ear, watched books levitate and fly through the air, and even dragged a man out of a haunted church after a pair of invisible hands choked him to the ground. Heck, Dana and I have a few pieces in the Traveling Museum of the Paranormal that often remind us they’re haunted. My point is, I’m no stranger to weirdness. But in 18 years of active paranormal investigation, nothing has ever physically hurt me. Not once. In fact, before that night at OSR, I’d only been physically touched by something I couldn’t explain once, and despite that being one of the most personally terrifying things to ever happen to me, it didn’t hurt a bit.

I was always of the popular mindset that ghosts can’t hurt you, believing that the stories of scratches from an unseen force were just fodder for reality television, the product of an overactive imagination, or a forgotten brush with a rusty nail in an abandoned house. That’s not to say I didn’t want to believe it. Even as I was dragging a documentary camera man out of the Church of the Damned in 2003, I couldn’t shake the thought that maybe he wasn’t being attacked by a ghost, but was having an allergic reaction, or an asthma attack, or maybe even playing it up for the camera. The hand-shaped welts on his neck said otherwise, but I remained skeptical.

Now, I’m not so sure anymore.

Pushed and scratched by a ghostly hand in the dark

Greg Newkirk after being pushed by a "Ghost" in Ohio State Reformatory

When I was standing in OSR’s windowless room, I felt someone rush past me, pushing me out of the way like they were in a hurry. Thinking that it must have been one of the 200 other people exploring the prison on the Nick Groff Tour, I turned around to apologize, only to find my back to the wall. As my brain tried to comprehend whatever glitch it had just experienced, I began to feel an intense burning sensation in the middle of my back, the kind of burning you feel when your older brother winds up and slaps your bare skin as hard as he can. Once I mentioned it to the group, Michael Humphrey, the former OSR inmate we were exploring the prison with, turned to me and said, “I bet you got scratched… lift up your shirt.”

I couldn’t see the marks myself, but the gasps of the three others in the room was the only confirmation I needed. It appeared as though I’d been attacked by a ghost. As I ran my fingers over the raised, irritated skin on my back, I can remember yelling something to the effect of “no fucking way” over and over again. While the conversation in the room intensified, I found myself mentally rewinding the night’s previous events. Had I scratched an itch and forgotten about it? No, I wouldn’t have taken one good scratch and called it good. Had I leaned up against a jagged piece of drywall? A quick check of my jacket and shirt nixed that idea. In fact, the only physical touch my back had experienced was the feeling of someone rushing by, pushing me out of the way.

The subtle difference between natural and supernatural

Nick Groff and Greg Newkirk discuss a ghost attack at Ohio State Reformatory

Later that night, after I reluctantly joined Nick Groff on stage to display the strange marks to a hushed and horrified audience, I was sipping coffee at a Denny’s with John E.L. Tenney, a long-time anomalistic researcher and good friend, when he mentioned that he had experienced something almost identical at Whispers Estate the previous year. In fact, the entire encounter was captured on camera in Destination America’s Ghost Stalkers. First he was pushed, then came the burning sensation, then the scratches.

In his own research, Tenney has found that it’s a common chain of events, one that might help in distinguishing truly unexplainable scratches from parlor tricks and production flair. The most distinguishing piece of evidence being the fact that the scratches aren’t actually scratches, but welts.

John Tenney scratched in Whispers Estate

When someone is scratched by a stray nail, a girly-fight, or their own hand, there’s often the tell-tale remainder of white, ashy skin flakes and traces of blood, but in the case of “supernatural scratches”, the wounds seem to fit a different set of criteria. They’re free of blood, lack the powdery remainder of skin cells scraped off by fingernails, and appear as something much like burns or welts. Even more interesting is that the scratches disappear shortly thereafter, usually within hours of their appearance. These kinds of criteria aren’t simply limited to scratches either, but manifest as many other physical marks allegedly inflicted by supernatural forces.

Upon closer inspection, marks left by “ghosts” don’t conform to wounds left by physical force. They more often appear to have been left by energy, like stray electricity moving through the air, leaving behind burns and welts in its wake. To the untrained eye, the differences could easily go unnoticed, but for someone who has been keeping score as long as Tenney, it’s obvious. As he often says, what you think is weird is weirder than you think.

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Sure enough, the marks on my back seemed to fit the criteria for the truly strange, and by the time we’d left Denny’s, they were but faint streaks of red. An hour into my drive home, they had completely disappeared.

Reassessing my disbelief in the “harmful ghost”

In the weeks that followed, my “ghost attack” at Ohio State Reformatory gained a lot of attention, partially because it’s a truly creepy story with lots of evidence to back it up, but also because of my background as someone historically skeptical of paranormal attacks. In fact, I’m of the mind that half of my friends wouldn’t believe me if I hadn’t spent so many years yammering on about how fake I thought these kinds of things were, and I don’t blame them a bit. Fortunately, I don’t just have an established background to back me up. My experience occurred in plain view of three others, including a stranger, with two cameras rolling through the entire event.

Greg Newkirk and Michael Humphrey in Ohio State Reformatory

I’ve since received dozens of emails from others who had experienced their own ghostly attacks, some of them sharing disturbing images of their violent brushes with the supernatural, half of them startling because they were so similar to mine, the other half startling because they appeared to be self-inflicted. The most popular communications, though, were the ones that warned me of demonic attachment.

As someone who grew up in family of Baptist ministers, I’m no stranger to the belief that anything unexplained is the work of the devil. I was once told by a Sunday School teacher that both Bigfoot and flying saucers were tools of distraction employed by none other than Satan himself, and that all ghosts were demons set out to lead people astray. I like to think that these used to be fairly fringe beliefs held by only the most religious, but today’s entertainment trends have done a good job of convincing ghost hunters that every tickle must be a demon trying to possess them.

While I understand and appreciate the concern shown for me, for the record, I don’t believe that whatever happened to me was the work of some malevolent force. I’ve been in a few rare, terrifying situations where I’ve believed beyond the shadow of a doubt that whatever was in the room with me wanted me dead, and the experience at OSR was nothing like that. There was no air of evil, no feeling of dread, just a lot of confusion. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve run as fast as I can out of locations where I felt threatened, and I’ve done it more than a few times, but in Ohio State Reformatory, I was more interested in logically breaking down what I’d just experienced than I was in running for my life.

While the “ghost attack” definitely hurt me, I don’t get the impression that it was intended to do anything other than get my attention.

What really happens when ghosts attack?

Greg Newkirk's back after being attacked by a ghost

So, what happened to me in the windowless room? The short answer: I don’t know, but it was something weird. The long answer is that it’s complicated.

Before the crowd on the Nick Groff Tour was set loose into the prison, there was a big question and answer session with the crowd. After one audience member raised their hand and asked if the people on stage, comprised of Nick Groff, Tenney, Mark and Debby Constantino, and Johnny Houser, thought the physical encounters with the supernatural were actually demonic, John E.L. Tenney had a response that has continued to stick with me.

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What if you were an entity, human or not, that was trapped in a location for years, maybe centuries or more, and in all that time you’ve finally mustered up enough energy to reach out and let the living know that you’re still there. Maybe you can’t control it and it simply manifests as a set of red welts on a ghost hunter’s skin. That doesn’t make it demonic, it makes it contact.

I couldn’t tell you whether or not Tenney’s theory is the case with my experience, but it’s a compelling argument against the belief that “supernatural scratches” are the work of malevolent spirits.

Still, there are other schools of thought that these events might be psychosomatic, caused by the mind of the subject so wrapped up in the thought they might get scratched, that the marks actually manifest by the power of sheer will. Some even believe that entities can trigger this psychosomatic event at will as a way to bridge the gap of physicality between realms of existence. As someone who, like I mentioned earlier, never in a million years believed a ghost could physically hurt you, I’d be more apt to fall into the latter category.

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I’ve spent a solid month coming to terms with what happened to me that night, and I’m no closer to knowing what I experienced than I was sitting at the Denny’s several hours afterwards. What I have learned, though, is that it only takes one experience to change your mind about what’s possible when it comes to the paranormal, and that’s the kind of experience that keeps fresh batteries in your flashlight and a full tank of gas in your car. After all, it’s these kinds of opinion-changing, in some cases even life-changing, experiences that push us to seek answers to the unexplained.

Can ghosts hurt you? If you had asked me for the first 18 years of my investigations, I’d have said “probably not, at least not directly”. After Ohio State Reformatory, my answer is, “I think they can, because I experienced it”. The real question now, for me at least, is if they even mean to in the first place.

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This post was written by Nadia Vella