Apparently even spirits have a better sense of direction than me.
The sun was just beginning to set as I pulled up to Hillside Cemetary. For a moment, I felt the slight breeze and fooled myself into thinking I was about to have a relaxing Tuesday evening.
Then Michelle Davidson got out of her car with a cigar box full of tools to communicate with the dead, and I remembered exactly what I had gotten myself into.
She fixed her pink-streaked hair that was pinned away from her face, smiled and said, "You ready?"
I was not.
Davidson had always been interested in the paranormal, but it wasn't until she stayed at a well-known haunted hotel in St. Augustine where she finally experienced it for herself. Thankfully, her first encounter at St. Francis Inn was more "Casper the Friendly Ghost" than "Paranormal Activity 3."
"That night I was having dreams that a spirit was talking to me," she said. "He was telling me all the pranks he was pulling on people. He would set the alarm clock off on people in the middle of the night, and he thought it was really funny."
She said she woke up that morning "with a heaviness" and saw an apparition of a Confederate soldier. After that, she had encounters at nearly every historic place she stayed. Davidson soon became inspired to write the book, "Florida's Haunted Hospitality," where she had sleepovers with spirits in over 15 different haunted hotels and inns.
Because you know, that's what everyone likes to do with their Friday nights.
Since her book, Davidson has only upped her ghost-hunting game. Her toolkit holds an electromagnetic field (or EMF) meter, a pendulum and a set of dowsing rods. There was not, as I expected a "Ghostbusters" proton pack.
We walked among the hundreds of graves, looking for some sort of signal from the EMF. The light stayed green (meaning there were no electrical charges around us), but Davidson said she "felt a pull" to the grave of Vincent Shofner. She got unusually quiet walking towards the man's tomb and apologized for getting emotional. I think it goes without saying that taken on the feelings surrounding other people's deaths is bound to get a little depressing.
"I sense that he died from an overdose," she said, eyes closed and kneeled in front of his heavily decorated grave. "He shouldn't have died."
According to Davidson, she said people stop from crossing over usually because they're attached to someone, something, or they feel like there's something left they still have to accomplish. She did an investigation at the Live Oak Inn where the staff said they were having a hard time remodeling. After speaking with the spirit who was still living in the inn, she uncovered the easily fixable problem.
"It was his old parlor where he had played card games," she said. "It was stacked to the ceiling with chairs, and he was feeling claustrophobic. After I did a cleansing and talked to him, things got rolling, and they got the inn opened."
After meandering around the cemetery for a bit — something I don't recommend doing after the sun goes down — Davidson said it was my turn to try out a tool. She gave me the dowsing rods, L-shaped metal rods that started as a practice in the 15th century to find ground water, buried metals and other objects without the use of scientific equipment.
Basically, you just hold the rods out with straight arms and hope for the best. When Davidson did it, she asked the spirits to show us where we parked our car. Spookily enough, the rods rotated to the direction of my Corolla. When I did it, the rods just rotated in towards each other, most likely because I don't have enough upper body strength the keep a steady hand for more than 10 seconds.
Walking back, Davidson explained that while there are scary spirits, most are just regular people who aren't ready to say goodbye yet. She hopes by being able to communicate with them she can help find closure for both those who are alive and dead.
"I want people to be aware that there is life after death, and there are stories to be told," she said. "Preserving history and people's memories is really, really important. And that's what I'm trying to do."