Things to do in V.C. when you’re dead

Ghost hunters say their recordings prove that spooks abound in Virginia City, and they think they know why

Photo Illustration by David Jayne

On the hillside below the boardwalks of Virginia City’s bar- and shop-lined main street, St. Mary’s Art Center stands in isolation, overlooking the desert ranges of Storey County. The long gravel drive leads up to the symmetrical brick building with a white, weathered porch.

Inside, intricate detailing and patches of peeling wallpaper, cracking plaster and water-stained ceilings speak to the building’s age. Erected in 1876 as a hospital and orphanage, and run by the Catholic Daughters of Charity, it is today believed to be home to one of Virginia City’s most famous ghosts: the White Nun.

Visitors have reported hearing the wheels of hospital gurneys rolling down the halls. Overnight guests have claimed to have felt a motherly presence tucking them into bed at night. Others say they have caught sight of the White Nun, who allegedly lost her life in a fire that broke out in the psychiatric ward, haunting the downstairs.

And where there are ghost sightings, there are ghost hunters.

Tom Butler strokes his greying beard as he leans over his Toshiba laptop, in a long, second-story room flooded with sunlight. The room once served as a community ward. Lisa Butler, her brown hair efficiently short, looks over her husband’s shoulder as he plays an audio clip. A green line measuring inflection, much like the mechanical scribble of a polygraph machine, makes its way across his computer screen. The clip sounds like the voice of a child.

“They get sick,” it says.

It is a child, but not human, say the Butlers.

The Butlers are internationally recognized experts on electronic voice phenomena. Both left the corporate world and its solid financial rewards to explore the immaterial world. The trained mediums now head the American Association of Electronic Voice Phenomena. They study recordings of communications from the dead, author books on the subject and make the occasional guest appearance on radio’s talk-show-of-the-strange, Art Bell. It’s a seven-days-a-week job.

“It’s clearly hard to talk across the veil,” says Tom.

Most EVP recordings fall into a Class C category, he explains, which means they are hard to make out. Through computer technology, the Butlers attempt to amplify or filter out sounds in Class C recordings in hopes of turning them into rare, easily understood Class A types.

“Studies have shown that paranormal voices are actually made from background noise, what’s referred to as a ‘thickening of the background noise,’ “ Tom explains. “One of the things about EVP is that you can frequently recognize the voice. They say things that are appropriate to who you think is speaking; you can recognize it as a male or female, whether it’s a group of people or a single person, a child or adult.”

“It’s very much like having your ear up against the wall and having someone talking on the other side,” adds Lisa. “You might have trouble making out everything they’re saying, but you know it’s someone talking.”

On a previous visit, the Butlers scattered sets of two and three recorders throughout the building. Human voices are picked up on all recorders; ghosts’ are not.

“We don’t have any instances of a ghost appearing on simultaneous recorders,” maintains Tom.

He plays the soundtrack of a paranormal voice recorded near the front entry. It sounds flat, almost robotic: “Doctor called Hedmund.”

“Notice there’s a peculiar cadence to it. You can tell an EVP right off the bat,” Tom says with excitement.

“It takes energy for them to do this,” he explains, with punctuating hand gestures. “It takes energy to get the voices through, so usually the voices are only three to four words, two to three seconds long.”

Photo By David Robert

A one-word soundtrack was recorded in the chapel:


EVP experimenters trace the idea of recording voices from the “other side” back to light bulb inventor Thomas Edison.

While it is unclear if he had any such designs himself, Edison told Scientific American that one day there would be an apparatus “so delicate that if there are personalities in another sphere who wish to get in touch with us in this existence or sphere, this apparatus will at least give them a better opportunity to express themselves than the tilting tables and raps and Ouija boards and mediums and the other crude methods now purported to be the only means of communication.”

Today, the “delicate apparatus” is any recording device. Ghosts have even been known to leave messages on answering machines, Lisa says.

So, if there are indeed earthbound souls brushing shoulders with the living, why are they still here?

Paranormal investigator, author and historian Janice Oberding, who often teams up with the Butlers on haunting investigations, attributes the large ghost population in Virginia City to the high sudden-death rate during the Comstock years from the 1860s to the early 1900s.

“Some of these suicides were incredible,” Oberding says. “Like a man and wife would have a fight, he’d run down to the basement and slit his own throat. I have a theory that, because they didn’t have the forensics we have today, a lot of those suicides were actually murder.

“They didn’t investigate. One man went to the hotel and shot himself three times. Now that’s kind of weird.”

In St. Mary’s, she explains, other forces may be at work.

“I think it’s because it was a combination hospital-orphanage. And that to me is very strange,” says Oberding. “I think the children probably weren’t very happy here, and the people in the hospital probably weren’t very happy. [Between] a lot of the sadness of the orphans and the death in the hospital, there’s just something sad about this building.

“The White Nun is the most common ghost associated with the place, but I think there are others. I think there are children.”

The Butlers also have theories on how souls get chained to the earth. Money. Love. Attachments of any kind—to a house, to drugs.

“If they’re attached to drugs, they might hang around if you do drugs,” says Lisa, broadening the term “living vicariously.”

In other instances, an individual—such as young child uneducated about death or someone who died suddenly and traumatically—might not know he or she is dead. And, according to parapsychology, some spirits are afraid to cross for fear of judgment, an eternal sentence to hell.

“The near-locale, stuck entities are considered an aberration of nature, in the sense they’re not supposed to get stuck,” Tom says. “They’re supposed to go on. It’s a malfunction and needs to be fixed.”

For a better understanding of the after-life, or even to rescue a lost soul, the Butlers believe developing the lines of communication is key.

“Right now we’re with EVP at about the same place that the radio industry was at the very early days of Marconi, when we were just discovering that there was such a thing as radio,” Tom says. “We’ve got a long ways to go.”

“It will be interesting to see where we are 50 years from now,” contemplates Lisa.

Maybe in a half-century, people will be able to communicate with the White Nun as though she were on a cell phone in the next room: "Can you hear me now?"