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I. The Candle Incident
PAUL: In July 2012 Michael and I were weary and mosquito-bitten but very excited as we returned to his cabin from four days of fieldwork in the swamps of St. Lawrence County, New York. We had developed a rapport with two witnesses who were experiencing potential Sasquatch activity. They lived within two miles of each other along the St. Lawrence River that divides New York from Canada. Each was unaware of the other’s experience.
The history of reports in this region dates back to 1604 when French explorer Samuel de Champlain explored the St. Lawrence River. (He lends his name to Lake Champlain and even to Champ, the lake monster supposedly in it. I should be so lucky.) He recorded in his journals stories of a giant, hairy humanoid creature the local Indian tribes called “Gougou.”
We had interesting experiences to discuss, audio to analyze, and a lot of general information to process. We were looking forward to replacing some of the calories we’d lost in the field with several Amy’s® frozen pizzas while sorting out all that we had taken in over the last ninety-six hours.
As we entered the cabin, Michael matter-of-factly noted that a candle on the woodstove was burning. It took me a few seconds to wrap my mind around the point he was trying to make. We had just walked in the door. He hadn’t lit it. It wasn’t the fact it was burning. It was the fact it was still burning.
I have been an investigator with the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO) since 2005. I met Michael on the 2006 BFRO expedition in Whitehall, New York, but it wasn’t until afterwards that we struck up direct conversation. Initially, the two of us seemed to float in a unique boat when compared to some of the other attendees. We agreed the stories of others were impressive, and we both were well aware of the circumstantial evidence that exists within the Sasquatch community—casts, unclassified hair, footage that is interesting yet inconclusive. But we needed more before we declared a belief.
Mike accompanied me on my first solo overnight expedition. As the years went by, our friendship maintained and grew after we discovered we shared other interests. Over the years, as Michael invested more time in spirit research, we continued getting together for trips to the woods to look for monsters and share notes on our respective investigations. We were interested to find out how much our paths had in common.
But there also are some differences in our fields. A significant one is the dividing line between ourselves and the subjects we pursue. Conducting field research and investigating Sasquatch reports is indeed a risky business, particularly considering that much of our fieldwork is done at night. Whether we are crossing dilapidated wooden bridges over frigid mountain streams in wintertime, stumbling in the dark in the heart of bear country, or sharing the woods with hunters in the middle of spring turkey season, there are risks. But once we emerge from the forest, we are finished. The remote areas where we investigate alleged Sasquatch sightings act as a buffer zone between us and the subjects that we seek. While we sometimes experience “being followed” on our way out of forests as we return to the jeep, once we are on the road, the game is over.
Not so with Mike’s work as it relates to potential spirit activity. We often had discussed the possibility of him taking his work home with him, a matter in which he may have no say. But I had never had a firsthand experience of anything that remotely resembled ghostly activity. Not until I stood staring at that candle.
Michael: I remember the look on Paul’s face as he stood looking at the candle and his mind processed the data. I had seen that look on the faces of clients and members of my team, and they had similar reactions to Paul’s: “What the fuck?” For me, this was nothing new. Sometimes objects move on their own. Sometimes voices speak without anyone there to utter the words. Sometimes candles light themselves. This is the world I live in.
I manage a paranormal investigation team called Scientific Paranormal (SP). It’s affiliated with The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS), the team behind the Ghost Hunters TV show. The TAPS Family teams do the work in the trenches, the work outside TV. If you contact TAPS with a case in our area, which covers a large part of New York State and occasionally spills over state lines, we will get the report and call to help you out.
As one who spends his nights intentionally prowling around haunted locations, I am often asked whether anything ever follows me home from an investigation. There are spirits around us all the time and activity in my house is not uncommon. It comes with the job. So when activity is occurring, it’s hard to say whether it has anything to do with an investigation or whether it’s just the locals. Still, it does happen from time to time. That’s the nature of the endeavor. While no hairy primate, besides Paul, has ever followed me home from the woods, I do occasionally have hitchhikers from ghost investigations. Sometimes, spirits at a location will seize the opportunity of someone paying attention to them and follow investigators home in hopes of communicating.
Unfortunately for these spirits, I am not very sensitive. On one occasion, a spirit who apparently had followed me from a case got frustrated and followed a friend of mine home after she and I met for dinner. She reported that shortly after she got home that night, she suddenly felt exhausted and collapsed on her bed. As she lay there, unable to move, she heard the voice of a young girl talking to her. It sounded very similar to voices I had captured at the investigation. Apparently this spirit was frustrated at trying to get through to me and moved on to someone more receptive. Such are the perils of being friends with a ghost hunter.
So the possibility that one of these spirits felt the need to resort to lighting fires in order to get my attention was not inconceivable to me. But first we had to consider the more mundane possible explanations. This is the way we work. Even in a location that has legitimate paranormal activity, not everything that happens is paranormal. One of the most difficult but important parts of our job as investigators is separating what may be paranormal from what probably is not.
Paul: At the risk of speaking for both of us, I often do. Going in, we look for the obvious and rational explanation first. If Mike is contacted by a client who claims to hear loud banging in her walls and is certain that the ghost of Fortunato is desperately trying to escape, and there is a direct correlation between her first experience and the first chilly night of September, Mike may ask her to turn off her heat, wait a while, and turn it back on again. If Mike suddenly hears old Fortunato banging away, he feels quite confident that what his client hears is the percussive sound of heating ducts, and that old Fortunato remains sleeping peacefully.
Likewise for the witness who has contacted me after hearing strange vocalizations from the woods behind his house. We default to owl or coyote before jumping to hairy, yet-to-be-discovered monster.
So, facing this mystery of the candle, we did not want to jump to conclusions. We took a step back and considered the possibilities.
Four days prior, I had driven up to Mike’s cabin in Central New York. We spent the night as is customary for us: we had dinner, loaded up Mike’s jeep with our gear, and then settled down to discuss strategy as well as all things new in our respective fields of pursuit. We then got some sleep before setting out the next morning.
Mike was adamant he had blown out the candle before we had turned in. Considering I had slept eight feet from it and find it extremely difficult to fall asleep without complete darkness, I am sure he’s right. There’d be no way I could’ve drifted off to sleep without getting up and blowing out the candle.
Michael: To put things in context, I don’t own a TV or have Internet at my house. While I have electricity, it has always been my habit to light my house with candles and oil lamps once the sun goes down. Once all of these are blown out, the house is dark. It would be very difficult to fail to notice that a candle was still burning.
Paul: Even if we considered the remote possibility that we’d somehow left it burning all night, the candle was sitting atop Mike’s Jøtul® woodstove, which is only a few feet from the door to the garage—a door that we would have entered and exited several times the following morning traveling from the cabin to the jeep as we loaded our gear and prepared to leave for the expedition. There is no way we would have passed by that candle multiple times the morning we left and not blown it out. We passed within three feet of it.
Living in a cabin, one becomes understandably maniacal when it comes to the ritual of extinguishing open flame before leaving—a ritual both of us are quite familiar with. My obsessive-compulsive disorder demands I shut off lights, confirm the stove is off, and check that the fireplace is well contained. Mike is the same way. You don’t live in a house of logs while disrespecting fire.
Furthermore, even if we had left it burning, there was no way a candle that stood a mere few inches high by a couple of inches wide would continue to burn after four days. Even if it were large enough to sustain a flame for that long, it would have been burned down significantly, with wax that had liquefied and then hardened underneath as evidence. But there was none.
Coincidentally, my wife had worked for a large candle manufacturer only three years earlier. I decided to get some expert testimony. I called her from the cabin and relayed the details of our experience, asking her if it would be remotely possible for a candle four inches high by two-and-a-half inches wide to burn for more than eighty hours and continue burning with very little wax liquefied as a result. Her answer was simple: “No.”
Michael: The possibility I considered was that the candle flame had burned so low at night that we did not notice it. Perhaps when I blew it out, the wick did not extinguish fully. Suppose it was barely an ember and burned like that for four days. Maybe our opening the door when we entered fed it enough oxygen to make the flame light up again. It was burning brightly when we saw it. This seemed to me to be the only natural possibility. The problem with the theory was that there was an open window about ten feet from the woodstove the whole time we were gone. There was certainly no lack of oxygen available for the flame. So it’s difficult to imagine how this could have worked. Either the breeze from the window would have blown it out, or made it burn brighter and burn out long before we returned home.
Paul: Judging by the size of the candle and the lack of wax, we came to the conclusion it had only been burning for a few hours at the most.
So Mike and I discussed the next possibility: someone had come to Mike’s cabin, unannounced, and felt the need to light a candle for us and do nothing more. But Mike’s cabin is in a rural area and, at that point, he had lived there only one month. He had not yet met anyone from the neighborhood. There certainly would be no reason for any of them to enter the cabin, uninvited and unannounced, without good reason. They also had no knowledge regarding the fact he would be away for a significant length of time.
Michael: I live alone, and at this time, even my beloved cat, Tinne, was not at the house. She was staying with my family, an hour-and-a-half’s drive away, until I got fully moved into the new house. No one had any idea I was away, and even if they did, they would not know when we were coming back. Paul and I did not know when we would return. It depended on how things went up in St. Lawrence. So if someone wanted me to find a lit candle when I came home, he or she would have to guess pretty well on the timing of lighting it. Someone would be going pretty far out of his or her way with very little chance of timing it so we even saw the candle while it was lit.
Paul: When we considered the possibility of someone playing a joke, the subtlety of their actions confounded us. Hell, rearrange the furniture, involve mannequins or scarecrows, or toilet paper the trees, for God’s sake.
So we came to the conclusion we almost certainly had not forgotten to blow out the candle. Even if we did, it could not have burned for all that time. Nor did we think someone went to Mike’s cabin, broke in, and left everything undisturbed save for lighting a small candle.
As we settled down for the evening with the candle still burning (we didn’t want to appear ungrateful), we discussed other possibilities. We were well trained in not letting mystery dilute rational thought as we considered as many conceivable scenarios as possible.
I was in mid-sentence when I heard the unmistakable sound of Mike’s screen door opening, and then the gentle bang as it shut, a sound so recognizable that you could play me the audio with my eyes closed and I would immediately identify it. I continued with my train of thought, expecting someone to appear within seconds, thereby solving the mystery of the candle incident.
When no one materialized I looked at Mike with eyebrows raised. Mike shrugged it off, and said something to the effect of, “It happens.”
Perhaps our candle lighter acknowledged that it was time to leave now that we had arrived?
Michael: The screen door has a hinged latch on the outside that holds it shut. Once it is closed, the wind does not open it. At times, the wind has gotten strong enough on the hill where I live to blow through the screen and force the inner door open. But the screen does not open.
Paul: In any case, I don’t recall much wind that early July evening. As I slept less than ten feet away from our phantom candle, I faced the large window in the corner of the cabin, and specifically remember a large moon smiling down. It was a clear night. There was no sign of stormy weather that would produce significant wind to blow the door open.
Mike and I refuse to fill in the blanks, though our lack of a rational explanation does point to potential paranormal activity. We find ourselves between a rational explanation and definitive phenomenon. We often reside in this gray area. We’re comfortable there.
While I often had considered the spirit element, I was never directly confronted with the possibility until this experience. I have been a guest at Mike’s cabin on many occasions and feel very much at home there. I’ve had subsequent experiences since what we have come to call “the candle incident” that, while subtle, lead me to strongly consider the possibility there is something or someone there, aside from Mike and me, that generates energy. Whether it be the sound of feet walking across the wood floor while I’m certain that both Mike and I are in bed, a faint and barely audible sound that could be interpreted as whispers, or simply the feeling of being watched, at the risk of sounding sophomoric or cliché, I can refer to the energy as a “presence.”
Every so often I try to communicate telepathically to anything or anyone that may be floating around Mike’s cabin—a paranormal icebreaker, if you will. When I do so, I’m half joking and 100 percent serious. I was never much for fractions.
It goes something like this: “Dear ghosts and spirits, You guys are welcome to sleep beside me, float around me, and make faces at me behind my back. You are welcome here. I come in peace. Feel free to haunt Mike’s house as long as you like. Just please don’t reveal yourself to me. I’m just a simple man hunting undiscovered hairy apes, and couldn’t possibly handle any other mysteries, so please—no offense—but no face-to-face meetings. I wish you all the best.”
Then I’ll try to offer something spiritual, “Namaste.”
That night after the candle incident, when I lay down to sleep, the possibilities flooded my brain, making sleep difficult. I ran the incident through my mental catalog to find a match, to reconcile the experience by association with something similar I’d already logged in the past. I wasn’t uncomfortable. I didn’t feel threatened. This was simply new territory for me.
Michael: What Paul’s brain was telling him was simply that it was not possible for this candle to be sitting there burning on the woodstove. It was almost inconceivable that we had left it burning, and even in that remote case, it was seemingly impossible that it could still be burning when we got back from our trip. It was almost equally unlikely that anyone had been there to light it within the few hours before we came in. But the only apparent alternative—that some sort of nonphysical entity or force had the ability to set a candle on fire and knew when we were coming back from our trip—also was impossible for him to believe. His brain was telling him that what he was seeing could not happen. Yet there it was. His reaction to this experience was a softer form of a phenomenon he and I have both observed repeatedly in our experiences with witnesses to paranormal events.
Paul: The psychological impact upon the witness fascinates us almost as much as the subject itself. Our function is not only to prove or disprove the activity, but to ease the witness across the line between what they know and a new and potentially frightening reality. What is most distressing for some is that the introduction of something long dismissed as legend, superstition, or impossibility causes a significant shift in the psyche. Once you introduce the possibility of the previously unreal, you cannot make space for it in your own personal catalog. Everything shifts. The newfound information demands it, and the mind goes about the business of doing so in an almost violent manner.
Michael: In the following pages, we will relate the experiences of many people who have witnessed the impossible, including ourselves and people we’ve assisted over the years. We will discuss some of our theories about how and why these experiences impact the witnesses at such a deep level. We also will discuss the role of investigators and how we can help these witnesses process their experiences so they can get back to their lives and rediscover peace of mind.
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