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Confessions of a Novice Ghost Investigator is Mike Brody's monthly humor column on the paranormal.

It feels weird to share bragging rights with the Boy Scouts.

Let me explain.

This fall I was given the rare opportunity to do an overnight paranormal investigation of Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco Bay, California, with two dozen ghost enthusiasts, including EVP experts Mark and Debby Constantino, Peter James’ co-author Gian Temperilli, and the boys of Wolfe Manor Live: Scott Gruenwald, Terry Campbell and Todd Wolfe. There would be no tourists. Just two rangers, our group, and the most famous prison in the world.

Now, taking a tour of “The Rock” is not an exclusive event. Anyone with a few bucks and some time on their hands can take a ferry off the coast of San Francisco and walk the halls of the prison that housed Al “Scarface” Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Robert “The Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud, and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis. But what is NOT a common occurrence is getting to spend the night and sleep in a cell. Unless you were one of the aforementioned prisoners… or the Boy Scouts. Apparently, they’ve been there a lot. I can’t for the life of me imagine why the Boy Scouts would spend the night in a former military and federal prison. Maybe learning how to make a prison shank and tunneling with a spoon completes their achievement sash? If so, I would highly recommend not messing with San Francisco Boy Scout troupe #47. They’ll cut ya. Luckily, those crafty street-urchins weren’t there that weekend.

In retrospect, I could have used their help. Because once I got off the train from the San Francisco airport I got fabulously, stupendously, inexcusably lost. Here’s a tip to anyone visiting The City By the Bay: Bring a map. What I thought would merely be a brisk walk to my hotel turned into a three-hour, six-mile ordeal of bag carrying, sweating, and weeping as I struggled up the hills. Hills! I can’t believe they call those things HILLS! They are mini-mountains. The Roman God Vulcan makes his forge in at least six of them I’m convinced. It wasn’t until I swallowed my pride and called my friend Sarah for directions that I finally made it to the hotel. (For a mapped course of my trek, click here:

Fortunately for me, we wouldn’t be meeting up at the pier until 4:00 PM the next day. I spent the remainder of my first day resting, putting Band-Aids on my hooves, and giggling every time a trolley went by. (They really have trolleys! It’s like Mr. Rogers Neighborhood without the creepy hand-puppets.) At first I was a little worried about how I was going to locate my group of paranormal peeps on a busy wharf. Which brings me to my second tip: Never worry about finding ghost people by the ocean. Just look for the cluster of 25 pale people all wearing black. Either you’ve stumbled onto the most poorly planned Cure concert ever, or you’ve found your group. PHOTO 2 & PHOTO 3 (caption: Scott Gruenwald) PHOTO 4 & PHOTO 5 As our boat shoved off, we met the two rangers that would serve as our guides for the night. First there was Ranger John, a tanned and talkative Shooter MacGavin from Happy Gilmore-type who loved to flash his pearly smile and remind everyone that he’d swam San Francisco Bay, been on the Travel Channel, and didn’t believe in silly things like ghosts. Then there was Ranger Roger. (Ranger Roger! Oh how I longed to find a walkie-talkie so I could say, “Roger, Ranger Roger”.) Ranger Roger was a spritely 70-year-old trainee (that’s right – trainee) who was in better shape than me. Dude was straight out of the movie Cocoon. PHOTO 6 (Ranger John) & PHOTO 7 (Me w/ Ranger Roger) Ranger John and Roger laid the ground rules for the night as we readied for the tour: There would be no drugs. No crossing any roped off area. No drugs. No soda or candy in the prison, because the sugar would attract rats. Do not give any drugs to the rats. And for the love of god, no drugs. Perhaps their paranoia about drug-use was a result of living in a town where at any moment you may see a woman in a sun-dress with hairy armpits and peace signs painted all over her and a Cat-In-The-Hat hat sauntering down the road looking through a kaleidoscope? (True story. I saw it on Haight-Ashbury.) So with a tear in my eye, I dropped my crack, LSD, and black-tar heroin into the trash can. There must have been a lot of bored rats that night.

The tour was amazing, although quite long. It lasted until 11:00 PM, a full two hours after the last boat of regular tourists had left. I can’t really go into the specifics of the whole tour, otherwise I’d never get to the investigation. But a quick recap…

High points:

  • The catacombs of the basement Citadel that predates the federal prison.
  • The escape holes and the decoy paper mache heads from the famous “Escape from Alcatraz”.
  • The grenade explosion pockmarks in the cement from the “Battle of Alcatraz”.
  • Blood-red Native American graffiti from the “Indian Occupation” of the late 60’s/early 70’s that makes anybody look like Charles Manson if they stand next to it.
  • A demonstration of prison doors slamming shut which I recorded and put on YouTube.
  • And my personal favorite: Billy Idol’s signature scratched into the wall after filming a music video there (Ranger John was still pissed. Damn hippies!)

PHOTO 8 (The escape hole) & PHOTO 9 (One of the paper mache heads) PHOTO 10 (Scott Gruenwald) & PHOTO 11 Low point:
Being forced to put on rubber gloves and pick up trash in the Recreation Yard for 45 minutes, which was probably a carry-over from the Boy Scout tours. But wait, how much junk can there in an abandoned prison yard? Oh, just about the same as your average San Francisco highway. Soda bottle caps, batteries, pieces of rope, chicken bones, even needles (no drugs!) have been found scattered across the island because of the sea-gulls. Those damn things are the B-52 Bombers of birds. Actually, I take it back. This was a highpoint. I spent 45 minutes pretending to pick up trash in the exact spot where Sean Connery uttered these famous words in the 1996 film “The Rock”: (put a click here?) Mamma Mia! PHOTO 12 (The Recreation Yard) & PHOTO 13 PHOTO 14 (photo by Layla Halfhill)

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