As the sky grew dark and the threat of rain mounted, a small group of paranormal investigators and enthusiasts ventured into an East End cemetery with hopes to contact and document denizens of “the other side.”
Erica Popino, lead investigator of the Holtsville-based Island Ghost Investigations, also known as IGI, and founder of the Paranormal Activity Study Team, or PAST, had planned to investigate Good Ground Cemetery in Hampton Bays a week earlier, but inclement weather delayed her public ghost hunt until an evening in late June.
Beginning at about 8:30 p.m., and armed with flashlights, digital audio and video recorders, and infrared cameras, six ghost hunters walked along rows of tombstones attempting to document evidence of the afterlife. The group spent the evening switching between respectful silences—interrupted only when calling upon the dead—and lighter moments of social chatter, laughter, and talk of paranormal theory and real-life ghost stories among friends.
“PAST is a group of 100 people,” Ms. Popino said, explaining her paranormal social network, at the same time peering into the landscape of graves and thick darkness around her—the orange glow of Hampton Bays creeping above the horizon. “Island Ghost Investigations has nine [members]—that’s a private group,” she said, adding, “We tend to do more serious investigations.”
Clearly passionate about her work, Ms. Popino’s IGI group helps people on Long Island with their haunted homes and businesses free of charge, whether the claims turn out to be legitimate or not. But PAST is something quite different.
“We do monthly public ghost hunts,” she said during a phone call last week. Ms. Popino, a 42-year-old single mother of two, said the Hampton Bays investigation was a PAST event, adding that while she’s heard no specific claims of ghostly activity, Good Ground Cemetery is a safe outdoor area on Long Island where novices can learn without their inexperience adversely affecting a family or business in need of their services. While PAST is a social network, it’s also a learning group for “newbies”—people who are ghost enthusiasts rather than seasoned investigators, she explained, remarking, “There are a lot of thrill seekers out there.”
Ms. Popino was joined at Good Ground by two IGI members, Mike Taylor and Diane Kinstel—a couple who met during a PAST event at the Fire Island Lighthouse—as well as PAST member and Southampton resident Peggy Vetrano, Southampton ghost hunter Lars King, and his girlfriend, Jen Hershon, who was out for her first investigation.
As she readied her digital video camera in a parking lot near Good Ground, anticipating the evening ahead, Ms. Hershon said she was nervous that fear might set in. But as the investigation progressed, she appeared relaxed and fit easily with the group.
“This, to me, is a walk in the park,” the more seasoned Mr. Taylor said, explaining that of the many investigations he’s conducted, encounters with “the other side” in graveyards are generally the most benign.
“I find you don’t get scared until afterward,” Ms. Popino said, noting that in the midst of a paranormal experience she’s focused on the matters at hand. Later, she explained that showing fear while investigating is not an option. IGI seeks answers about the afterlife, but the group is also dedicated to helping comfort and reassure the haunted people who call upon them for help.
When she was young, Ms. Popino, like many in the field, had a terrifying encounter with a spirit. At age 15, she said, she awoke in the middle of the night to find what appeared to be a young man standing over her, smiling. Ms. Popino struggled unsuccessfully to move or scream, and after a brief but seemingly endless pause, the entity “vaporized.” It was her first brush with a hidden world that she’s sought to understand ever since.
“I’ve been doing this since high school,” she said, though she acknowledged that IGI has been active only since April. Ms. Popino and her colleagues were in another group for a couple of years, but after it disbanded they formed the team they have today.
In a short period of time, IGI has managed to conduct numerous investigations all over the Island. In addition, Ms. Popino and Mr. Taylor regularly appear as guests on WRCN radio’s morning show with DJs Dave and Glenn for a live segment called “Dead Time.” The DJs joined IGI shortly after they recorded their first segment. Ms. Popino was also asked by Newsday to be featured in a monthly paranormal video and recently appeared on the popular paranormal podcast “The Ghost Chronicles.”
Ms. Popino said she welcomes the attention and recognition for her years of hard work.
Moving to a secluded area of Good Ground Cemetery, farther from Montauk Highway and the sound of passing cars, the group sat in a circle and began speaking directly to any ghost that might be around to listen. Mr. Taylor explained that he hoped to record an “EVP,” or electronic voice phenomena.