CAPE MAY - No sooner had the ghost hunters walked in the room than the EMF detector started going haywire.

Now, wires and other materials in the walls also can set off the electromagnetic meter - fields of electrical energy lighting up the display from a lonely green bulb to a blinking sea of red - but beyond that, the meter only went crazy at a specific spot, right at the foot of the bed.

The dresser? Nothing. The chair by the window? Barely a pulse.

"Maybe we need to change the batteries," said a cautious Sherman Taylor, of Millville, a newly-minted paranormal investigator and the leader of the small group of five surrounding the bed in Room 76 of the Inn of Cape May.

Mike McFadden, of Philadelphia, flicked the lights on and off, testing whether it was the ceiling light that caused the dirsturbance. No dice.

For minutes, nobody moved. Slowly, a reporter began to walk toward Tracey Guilfoy, of Northfield - and the red lights suddenly stopped.

Physical presence, however, is not the only possible manefestation of a paranormal entity. Sometimes, recorders pick up EVP - electronic voice phenomena - unearthly voices gone unheard by those who were there, only to show up after the fact.

Debi McFadden, recorder in hand, started asking a series of questions of whomever -or whatever - was joining them in the darkened room.

"Are you waiting for someone?"

Nothing.

"Are you a boy?"

Nothing.

"Are you a girl?"

Nothing.

Slowly, everyone leaned in closer.

"Are you here?" she asked.

The red bulbs flashed wildly.

Seekers of the paranormal

The commute, more than anything, led Mike Morrison to want to start up his own paranormal research society. The Northfield resident, along with Joan Malec, of Cape May, had been a member of a similar group out of Philadelphia, but the hourlong commutes at 4 a.m. were taxing his nerves.

Besides, Morrison said, there were easy pickings closer to home. Author Craig McManus, he said, has called Cape May "the most haunted city in the United States, bar none."

So it was that Morrison, Malec and Louise Sinn started up CAPRS - pronounced "capers" - the Cape Atlantic Paranormal Research Society Inc., this January. CAPRS is a nonprofit educational organization, seeking 501c3 status, so all of their investigations are free of charge to any home or business owner concerned about, say, the occasional 19th century spirit flinging dishes in the kitchen.

Another service they offer - discreetness. The group has confidentially investigated a hotel and restaurant in Cape May and homes in West Cape May and Absecon, an understandable service in a world where people may feel uncomfortable calling in experts to seek out poltergeists.

'Once you've experienced something ...'

L'aura Hladik, author and founder of the New Jersey Ghost Hunters Society, gave Friday night's introductory lecture at CAPRS' Haunted Halloween Weekend at the Inn of Cape May. As an original 1894 Victorian hotel, it did not need much decorating to get people in the holiday mood on the night before Halloween - although the fake spiderwebs, tilted picture frames and eerie lighting did not hurt.

The "Ghostchick" went through the basics. Those weird orbs in photographs, she said, are 99.9 percent likely digital flaws or light reflecting off a speck of dust. Avoid taking photos on rainy, foggy nights, lest you mistake mist for a legitimate paranormal image. Do not forget about sounds, smells or sudden drops in temperature.

Of course, many there had already sensed something they could not explain - and they were not even trying.

"Once you experience something, you've got to keep going," said Jennifer Lackovic, of Downingtown, Pa., who spoke of dorm rooms in Savannah, Ga., haunted by not one but two ghosts. "Otherwise you've got to deny everything."

Besides Lackovic and her mother, Sharon, deputized researchers included Linda White, of Somers Point, who recalled seeing a misty figure walk up the stairs when she was 8 - who turned out to look just like her deceased grandfather. Tara Modrak, of Little Egg Harbor Township, often would hear the resident ghost while living in Sea Bright, Monmouth County - hear but not see, as she gave the ghost an ultimatum about not wanting to lay eyes on him.

But what are ghosts, really?

"My take," Hladik said, "is that every person has a soul or spirit. The body is the vehicle used to move around the earthly plain. When someone dies, the essence gets released - and if it remains earthbound, that's something known as a ghost."

Why stick around? Ghosts, she said, may either be confused, have unfinished business, want to right a wrong or may be trapped here when a loved one just cannot let go. Then there are poltergeists - manifestations of telekinesis and psychokinesis - and "residual hauntings," traumatic or habitual events that repeat themselves over and over like a loop.

At this point, the tension was broken by an unbeliever over at the bar, who started to sing the Ghostbusters theme - "I ain't afraid of no ghosts!"

Now, if this were a movie, right around now the doors to the hotel would mysteriously slam shut, the lights would suddenly go out and the doubters at the bar would be the first ones to be impaled by something. But instead, the would-be paranormal investigators split up into teams of four or five, about to see for themselves if the fourth and fifth floors were as ghost-ridden as they say.

Can you hear me now?

So it was that Taylor, Guilfoy and the McFaddens ended up in Room 76, watching entranced as the EMF meter flashed red into the otherwise pitch-black night.

Was there a presence in the room? Was something trying to communicate? There seemed no logical explanation. And that's when the truth was discovered: The media was interfering. Literally.

It turns out that a reporter's cell phone, much to his horror, emits disturbingly large amounts of electomagnetic fields. It would be less scary if it were actually haunted.

Pondering whether "my cell phone set the ghost meter off" would be the most awkward way to bring up a CT scan for brain tumors to a doctor, the group made its way upstairs to the fifth floor. There, a group led by CAPRS member Jennifer Goudie, of Upper Township, was having better luck, with shirts tugged by no one and flashlights turning on by themselves.

Goudie - described by Taylor as "a ghost friggin' magnet" - has always seemed to attract the most spirits, Taylor said, to the point of practically having back-and-forth conversations with EVPs that have shown up on digital audio. Although if ghosts really discriminate by limiting their best encounters to the young and female, that would just confirm the worst ghost stereotypes.

So the offical evaluation of the Inn of Cape May's hauntedness is a mixed bag. As for Guilfoy, who arrived downstairs too late to see the apparition chasing people around the first floor, she was circumspect about her first ghost-hunting experience.

"It was what I expected," Guilfoy said. "I don't think you're (always) going to get a lot of things. But every once in a while, you'll get something - and that'll be it. And you won't be able to stop."

Contact Steven Lemongello:

609-272-7275

Contact CAPRS

For information on CAPRS, the Cape Atlantic Paranormal Research Society, call 800-493-0711 or visit http://www.caprs.com/">www.caprs.com

CAPRS' mailing address is P.O. Box 891, Northfield, NJ 08225.