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Talking to people who talk to the dead


"I don't know if you've ever had the experience where your eyes are shut but you can still see through your lids?"

            Lydia Samuel-Hanselman is telling the story of one of her scariest encounters with a spirit. Late one night, several years ago, a figure approached her bedside and attacked her. As it closed in on her, its form changed from that of a man into a foul-smelling beast. "Like a wild wolf dog," she says.

            She said a prayer to rebuff negative energy and the spirit disappeared. She wonders now if the spirit could have materialized from negative energy absorbed into an onyx necklace she had been given the day before, or if maybe it was an attack from a student of hers she had pegged as a psychic bully. But whatever it was, she overcame it.

            "And I've never been afraid of anything since."

            Samuel-Hanselman is a wife, a mother, and, when time allows, an artist. She lives in her Rochester home with her husband, two small dogs, and a cat with one milky eye. The dogs bark at the cat, the cat hisses back, Samuel-Hanselman works on the computer in her study, takes calls from her daughters, and knits the brightly colored hats and scarves that create a cushy pile on her living room couch. And, for the past 30 years, she has been actively talking to spirits, convincing many of those who are earthbound that it is time for them to leave.

New York State has a rich history of communication with spirits. It was in 1848 when the Fox sisters, two teenage girls living with their parents in Hydesville (near Newark), communicated with a ghost living in the walls of their home. Soon, they had become ambassadors of Spiritualism --- a religion that believes in the ability to communicate with spirits --- and were amazing Rochester audiences with their demonstrations.

            Even before that, in 1844, William Johnson of Laona, (south of Buffalo) received messages from a spirit in front of a crowd attending a lecture he had organized. The manifestations led to the formation of a Spiritualist group in Laona and eventually the establishment of the Lily Dale Camp, still an active center for Spiritualists.

            But while open about their belief in and communication with spirits, Spiritualists are not eager to discuss ghostbusting in particular. Aloma Carter, pastor at Rochester's Spiritualist Church of Divine Inspiration, says that in her 13 years with the church she has only received two or three calls from people experiencing hauntings. In each case it was the person, not the house, who was troubled. "They usually were experiencing a traumatic break of some kind," she says. "I'm not saying that spirit does not manifest itself. But I've not known spirit to manifest itself in one particular house."

            Kristin Miller-Blazak, a local energy worker, says that there may be "people who do [ghostbusting], but they don't want to be identified." There may be a fear of appearing crazy, or just weird, she says. There are other aspects of Spiritualism that people would be more willing to talk about, she says. Energy healing, for example, or past-life regressions.

"I had a very good friend whose mother died suddenly watching the Johnny Carson show," Samuel-Hanselman remembers. The dead woman started appearing to her daughter in the evenings. In the mornings the kitchen would be in disarray, "as though she had been trying to fix breakfast like she had always done."

            Samuel-Hanselman went to her friend's house. They put a picture of Jesus by the head of the couch to appeal to the dead woman's religious nature. Samuel-Hanselman reassured the spirit that her family would be all right without her, "that she would be able to participate and observe all the weddings and all the happy occasions, but that she should go home. The angels and Jesus were going to take her home."

            Then Samuel-Hanselman and her friend joined hands and said a prayer, opened the circle of their arms wide, and saw the spirit go up in a shaft of light.

            And that is her approach to ghostbusting. No hocus pocus, no vacuum cleaners strapped to her back, no protective coveralls. Very simply, Samuel-Hanselman believes in the Golden Rule --- and she takes it with her to the metaphysical world.

            "If someone is trapped in a well," she asks, "are you going to scream and yell at them? No. You're going to do everything in your power to get them out."

            "To clear an earthbound spirit," she continues, "You go in with a sense of compassion, of unconditional love."

            There was the time she helped a woman clear her house of the (dead) previous owner. Who, despite the fact that she liked what the new owner had done with the place, really had to go home. Then there was the time a family was being haunted by a poltergeist, which made knives fly up and stick themselves to the ceiling. Or the time a departed mother was hanging around her daughter's apartment in Greece, trying to scare off an unsavory boyfriend.

            "You know how a ballerina will make herself light so you can lift her up?" Samuel-Hanselman asks. "Well she was doing everything in her power to make herself heavy so the angels couldn't lift her up." She laughs. "I had to visualize bubbles of effervescence."

            Over the years, Samuel-Hanselman has cajoled and soothed and sent away spirits from somewhere between 30 and 40 houses. She never charged anyone a dime, and she never kept records. When she performs a house cleansing she is providing a service, she believes, and a very personal one. And some clients are shy about maintaining contact. There was one woman she helped who she tried to make friends with, but the woman was fearful and evasive, and eventually Samuel-Hanselman stopped calling.

            Remembering this, Samuel-Hanselman just shrugs. She has always tried to respect people's privacy.

The growth of Samuel-Hanselman's experiences with other worlds is deeply tangled with her own strong sense of spirituality, which over the years has taken a number of forks. She was born in the Belgian Congo and lived there with her family until she was 8 years old. She went to Catholic missionary school, but was brought up in the Jewish faith. From age 4 or 5 she knew she was different from her mother and sister: She just had a sense that she was the only one in the family who could remember her past lives.

            As a wife and mother in her 30s living in Rochester's suburbs, she thought maybe she was going crazy. At her kitchen table she could smell smoke from fires happening miles away; she dreamt the Sharon Tate murder the night it happened; her dead mother-in-law appeared in her bedroom. So she began to read books on psychic abilities and mediumship. She went to Lily Dale Camp and spoke with a vision of Jesus. Startled, she started to study more seriously and eventually became ordained in the Spiritualist Church. And, at age 64, she has recently started going to temple again.

            Her role as a ghostbuster grew slowly, out of a need. People would come to her, scared or confused by what was happening in their homes. She did some reading, consulted her spirit guides, and here and there began to go into homes to see what she could do. Sometimes, the call was close to home.

            "My mother was what we call a haunted person," Samuel-Hanselman says. Ghosts seemed to follow her: They were with her for summers in Rochester and for winters in Florida. A string of particularly strange events got her to call her daughter for help. Her upstairs hallway was filled with cigar smoke; pillows were pulled out from under her; she was thrown from one side of the bed to the other.

            Samuel-Hanselman went to her mother's house and sensed two spirits: one belonged to Albert Skinner, Monroe County's sheriff from 1938 to 1973. The other was Skinner's friend, also a particularly difficult patient of Samuel-Hanselman's mother during her nursing days. "'You were the last person to be with him, to show him any kindness, and he is lost,'" Samuel-Hanselman told her mother. "We had the angels take him home."

At retirement-age, Samuel-Hanselman doesn't go into people's houses anymore to help the spirits who may be trapped there. But she is teaching others.

            Ten years ago she founded the One Universe Resource Service, a nonprofit educational organization that sends out a newsletter and organizes talks on topics like mediumship, healing, metaphysics, and spirituality. She also teaches a 10-week course (whenever she has enough students interested at one time) called "A Practical and Spiritual Approach to ESP and Healing." She covers topics like automatic writing, mediumship, clairvoyance, and what she calls "Ghostbusting 101."

            She teaches her students the four ways to cleanse a house: with water, fire, earth, or salt. She teaches them the surprisingly sedate cleansing rituals: declaring divine order, insisting on only positive energy, sprinkling sea salt, sweeping it up, sprinkling it again. They learn to carry a symbolic candle and say the Lord's Prayer in every room of the house.

            Most of all, she teaches them the power of positive thinking. Last November, Samuel-Hanselman was sending out her seasonal newsletter, and she made a wish. Wouldn't it be great if City Newspaper would write something about her organization, she thought, to tell the community about its services?

            "I sent that message out the end of November," she says, "And here you are." So she wasn't surprised to get a random call from the newspaper? "Of course I was," she says, beaming. "I'm always in awe."

J. Burkhart isn't so much in awe as he is resigned.

            "I don't make this shit up," he says. "Because this shit is just too weird to make up." He and his colleague Cindy Lee conduct psychic readings and investigate haunted houses under the group names of Mystic Solutions and Rochester Paranormal ( They investigate anywhere from 50 to 85 cases a year. Twenty to 30 of those calls are within Monroe County, but they'll also go to Central New York or Pennsylvania when the need arises.

            They don't always find that unconditional love is all they need to deal with a spirit.

            "My approach is more mano a mano," Burkhart says.

Both he and Lee agree that she covers the mediumistic end of things, and he the scientific. Or, as Burkhart says, his is the "Batman" approach. Because while he relies quite a lot on photos and audio recordings to determine whether or not a house is haunted, he also is the backup for Lee, to handle the rare violent cases that outstrip her defenses as a medium.

            He cites the time he went to a house for an investigation and found a woman, in the nude, speaking in octaves below human reach. In cases like that he calls on his abilities as a pagan priest, which give him some methods of self-defense against the spirit world. He can call spirits to him so "it's like going in there with a gang," he says. "You can't deal with spiritual entities unless you have a strong spiritual foundation."

            But, he says, "Spirits are a fact of life. You deal with them the same way you deal with people. Some are going to be belligerent; some are going to be more cooperative. Though nine times out of 10 we try to create a cooperative atmosphere."

            The first step is for Burkhart and Lee to use their psychic abilities to determine if a spirit is in a home. They will research the house's history to determine why a spirit may be living there. And, with photographs, blown up and filtered with digital software to enhance the image's clarity, they can usually show the homeowners what they are living with.

            Then the homeowners decide if they want to do anything about their haunted situation. To Burkhart, his photographs offer uncontestable proof of spirits' existence. But commonly, many homeowners decide they'd rather not know. "Most people take the philosophy 'If I don't believe it, it can't hurt me,'" he says.

            But they founded Rochester Paranormal for the people whose eyes have been --- maybe forcibly --- opened. Burkhart remembers a woman with several small children living in an apartment that was "screamingly haunted." The TV would turn itself on and off and the family continually heard crashes and other noises. The landlord didn't offer any help.

            "There are many, many people who have had experiences," Burkhart says. "And they have nowhere to turn, because people won't believe it." Lee and Burkhart believe, and they could be a haunted person's best advocates. They will go to court, with photographs and testimony, if someone is trying to get out of a haunted house or apartment.

            Though it may be better to just deal with the problem head-on.

            "Spirits are like us," Lee says. "They can go anywhere they darn well please. People will say 'I'm going to move because my house is haunted.' But then they'll call up and say the same thing is happening. Well, that's because the spirit chose to move with them."

            She and Burkhart have accepted the friendly spirits that live in their own home. Both of Lee's dead grandparents, for example, supervise her household chores. If it's something mechanical, she will feel her grandfather looking over her shoulder. If she is cooking, her grandmother is usually watching the ingredients she uses. And spirits will often open doors to help their elderly cat get from room to room. Burkhart often hears doors opening and will turn around "to see that it's just me, five cats, one dog, and a bunch of ghosts," he says.

            "I'm very much a realist," he says. "I don't turn it into some whimsical, new-age concept. It's more every day."

            Sounding like a psychologist, Burkhart patiently guides visitors through the pages of photos on his website, asking what they can see. Sometimes it's nothing, sometimes it's fuzz, sometimes it's something indescribable. Or inexplicable. "Can you see the face? Those eyes over my shoulder?" he will ask.            "The tragedy of it is," he continues, "that just from having this conversation, you become open to it."

            Burkhart has inspected some of the photos from previous City Newspaper articles on the web, as well. In one photo taken just last fall in a Victorian-era house, he spotted a spirit. If you look at the shadows cast by a doorway, he says, you will see it: the entity of a small child, simply standing there, looking out with its small eyes.

Never had an experience with a spirit? Don't be too sure. "How about you thought about someone and all of a sudden the phone rings and it was that person?" Samuel-Hanselman asks. "Or you might have a feeling of unease within your being, and then you find out that someone in your family or someone close to you at that time was going through a crisis?"

            That's just the spirit world, she says, brushing up against us.

            Burkhart says the same: "Have you ever been someplace and heard your name? Have you felt like someone touched you? Have you ever felt a patch of cold?" he asks.

            "Well, say hello to the paranormal."