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Home Archives Confessions of a Novice Ghost Investigator: Investigating Alcatraz

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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 — then wait a second while it loads.)

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.

Ghost Investigators
Heading to Alcatraz.
Scott Gruenwald
With Scott Gruenwald
Approaching The Rock

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.

Ranger John
Ranger John
Me with Ranger John
Me with 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!)
The Escape Hole
The Escape Hole
One of the paper mache heads
One of the paper mache heads
Ranger John
Scott Gruenwald
Billy Idol wuz here…

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.” Mamma Mia!

The Recreation Yard
The Recreation Yard
photo by Layla Halfhill
Photo by Layla Halfhill

After the tour, Ranger John talked a little bit more about how he didn’t believe in ghosts and then sent us on our way. Finally, the investigation had begun and we were free to roam Alcatraz.

I spent the first few hours tagging along with Scott Gruenwald, Terry Campbell, and Todd Wolfe from Wolfe Manor Live. We went to the hospital wing, various cells (including “The Birdman’s” strangely humongous cell), through the hallways, and out along the perimeter of the prison. We spent a couple hours tooling around every corner of Alcatraz. And caught nothing. All we experienced were some feelings of unease and dizziness in a solitary confinement cell (go figure!) No EVPs, no sounds, no sights. Well, that’s not entirely true. I’m pretty sure we caught some people having sex. The three of us were randomly standing around outside by the public restroom when we noticed what suspiciously sounded like someone imitating James Brown acapella-style. After a few minutes, TWO people (who shall remain anonymous) very awkwardly walked out, bright red, and straightening their clothes. I can tell you this: Stumbling upon someone getting busy is a lot like hearing a disembodied voice. It’s really hard to PROVE, but you know what you heard. Major difference: It’s a bad idea to ask the voices if they need help.

The Birdman's cell - Photo by Layla Halfhill.
The Birdman’s cell (Photo by Layla Halfhill).

Cell block A - photo by Layla HalfhillAlthough seeing Alcatraz at night was worth the trip alone, I was admittedly becoming a little frustrated. It was already past 3:00 AM and nothing was happening. Everyone we ran into said the same thing, “Cool place, no action” (except for those two people).

And then something happened that very rarely occurs in California. It started to thunder and lightning.

And the place went crazy.

Some would say we’re all highly suggestible. That it was the movie-like novelty of a thunderstorm in an empty prison that made “activity” suddenly start popping up. Surely as it got later in the night, our senses started to go a little wonky, right? Maybe so. And yet, there is a theory about thunderstorms that some believe lends credence to the phenomenon. They say that when lightning flashes, it ionizes the air. Zaps it full of energy if you will. Some people believe that ghosts use energy to help manifest themselves. So do the math: More energy = more ghosts. I am not a scientist. I couldn’t even tell you if lightning actually ionizes the air. No clue! But I do know that from that point on in the night, reports of activity went from nil to full throttle. People experienced voices, being touched, shadowy figures, and doors opening and closing of their own volition. I am always a skeptic when it comes to other peoples’ stories. How can I know if what they experienced is true? People are prone to flights of fancy and imagining whatever it is they want to see. Luckily for me, I experienced some of it myself first-hand. And I got it on audio tape. (Well, my friend Layla did, but dangit I was there.)

I will be the first to admit that these audio clips prove absolutely nothing. Most of you don’t know me. You don’t know what kind of person I am; whether I’m flighty or of high or low moral character. I could have faked this or I could simply be mistaken. First off, I am completely inept at everything that involves anything beyond basic 2009 computer skills. I can type and I can look up stuff on the Internet. That’s what I’ve got. A friend of mine makes my Web page for me. I’m a computer-tech lightweight. Secondly, when we were audio-recording we would play it back every two minutes or so just so we could have the moment fresh in our mind. That way, if a voice appears on tape that is not ours, we can say “Hey, we were all sitting several feet away from the recorder. Nobody made that noise!” Thirdly, I really couldn’t care less about proving anything to anybody. I write this article for fun. I love paranormal investigating but ultimately it’s a selfish thing for me. I want to know if there’s life after death. You can believe whatever you want, but I’m doing it to prove something to myself. So contriving “proof” is of absolutely no value to my goal. And finally, there’s some people that would say these three recordings aren’t that great anyway. Fair enough! So let’s get on with it.

Bug Room and Surgery Room - Photo by Layla Halfhill.
The hospital wing hallway that lead to the Bug Room and Surgery Room (Photo by Layla Halfhill).

Audio Clip #1 – The Bug Room

The “Bug Room” was where the prison guards would throw someone who needed to cool down. It was for prisoners having a fit or a mental breakdown or in one case, a faked coma. Roughly the size of a walk-in closet with tan tiles lining the wall, it was basically a padded cell without the pads. At this point I had met up with my friends Layla and Grant from LA Paranormal, Terry Campbell, and a nice woman whose name I don’t remember. We were all sitting on the floor of the Bug Room in a half circle with the audio recorder sitting two-to-three feet from us in the center. Nobody was in the same area of the prison that we were in. The tape was rolling. We were all talking calmly and quietly and it seemed like a very uneventful couple minutes. Until we played the tape back. I invite you to make your own decisions, but this is what I hear: In the background, you’ll hear Grant talking about whether we should close the half-open door or open it all the way. Then, directly into the microphone there is a loud, breathy voice like an exhale that I believe says “OP-EN UPPPP!” Then I hear an “Ouch.” Then I say, “Close the door,” followed by a voice that was not one of us saying, “Get out! Get out!” Listen closely with headphones. You can actually hear the pronounced “t” at the end of the second “Get out!” Click here to hear the clip. This is a room where people were often held down, drugged and kept for weeks on end if need be. “Open up”, “ouch” and “get out” are all things that make sense in this room. You will just have to take my word that those noises you hear are not us.

Audio Clips #2 and #3 – The Surgery Room

The Surgery Room - Photo by Layla Halfhill.
(Photo by Layla Halfhill).
The Surgery Room.

After the bug room, Layla, Grant, and I met up with Mark and Debby Constantino in the hospital wing hallway. I was really anxious to get into the Surgery Room, mostly because I’d heard it was active and also because I was deprived of the game Operation as a kid. (Operation was actually the first time I was ever skeptical in my life. One Christmas when I was seven years old, “Santa Claus” left me Operation and my sister Hungry Hungry Hippos. I was overjoyed! Until my dad stood up and said, “Santa made a mistake!” and switched our presents. I quit believing in Santa Claus right then. Man, I could have grown up to be a doctor! Instead I just get mildly hungry whenever I see marbles.)

Politeness is important when doing a paranormal investigation. You don’t want to just storm into someone’s EVP session unannounced and contaminate their data. It’s always nice to make sure a room is unoccupied or ask permission to join. That’s what made my entrance into the Surgery Room so strange. I was the first to reach the doorway. I looked in and saw a dark, six-foot figure standing in the room. This wasn’t one of those “I think I saw someone” moments. My brain didn’t even register that it wasn’t a person. There was a man in there. So, you can imagine my surprise when I entered the room, began to quietly ask, “Do you mind if we…” and (you guessed it) it was completely empty. For a second I contemplated that I saw my reflection in the glass pane behind the surgery table. But this figure had appeared in front of the surgery table, blocking out a good portion of it. So I quickly alerted my friends to hurry up and gather around the surgery “table” so we could start doing an EVP session. This is what I hear on tape: At first there’s a soft bell ringing like something from a buoy maybe. Then Layla says, “We know you’re here, Mike saw you,” and then immediately afterward and perhaps overlapping with Layla, you hear a sharp breath. Some people who I’ve played it for think it’s saying, “Shut up,” but I don’t hear that. Then you hear us remark on the voice and Layla theorizing that it followed us from the Bug Room. Once again, you’ll just have to believe me that nobody was near where the sound came from. Now, on a purely technical level, this doesn’t qualify as an EVP. An EVP is when a “ghost” uses the white noise of an audio recorder to form words. That’s why it often sounds robotic or scratchy. It’s usually not audible to the human ear outside of the recording. And it almost always shows up on only one recorder (because in theory it’s only manipulating one.) This voice showed up on both mine and Layla’s recorders. And we all heard it in real time. That would put this in the category of a disembodied voice. Click here to hear the clip

The Constantinos were nice enough to email me this next clip that occurred a couple minutes after the previous one. It only showed up on their recorder. Mine was completely devoid of EVP in this room. Layla had asked the spirit(s) why they had allowed me to see them. Then you hear, “This is what happened. Everybody talked bad.” Note the sound quality difference in the Constantino’s recorder with the previous one. There’s has more white noise in it, which gives the ghosts more to work with in theory. What may a poor recording device for a normal purchaser actually works great for paranormal investigating. Click here to hear the clip. Unfortunately, the response really doesn’t make much sense in the context of the question. Were we talking “bad?” Not really. (How does one talk “bad?” Is that like in the Michael Jackson video? “You ain’t bad! You ain’t NOTHING!” Too soon?) I can’t really make rhyme or reason of this one, but it’s interesting to me nonetheless. It definitely waited for the question to finish before it started talking, so maybe I’m missing some kind of meaning? Some other EVP that we got in the Surgery Room said, “I’m not playing” (several times) and “Let us sleep.” (These were recorded on the Constantino’s audio recorder. Those two are very busy people and as of yet they haven’t had the time to crop them into sound clips. Please check out their Web page below for updates.)

And just like that, the night was over. Time flies when you’re investigating and the sun was just starting to peek over the horizon. Soon the view of the city that surely drove the prisoners mad would be visible. I promised myself I’d stay up all night and now it was technically daytime. I decided that I had indeed conquered the night and earned the right to get some shut-eye. As I found an open cell and stretched out on the single cot, two things occurred to me. 1) This bed was more comfortable than my own at home. I’m 31-years-old and I sleep on twin mattress that is less comfortable than a display mattress in a prison. Oh, the shame. 2) I guarantee the Boy Scouts didn’t have the guts to sleep in a cell by themselves. Take that, troupe #47!

My cell
My cell goodnight

That morning, as we walked to the pier for our return boat home, I was filled with a strange sense of gratitude. I had done what many men in the past could only dream of. I slept in an Alcatraz prison cell and walked out a free man.

No, I wasn’t a Boy Scout. I was Mike Brody — Badass paranormal investigator.

Until Ranger John handed us our parting gifts for taking the tour:

Frickin’ Boy Scout badges!

Alcatraz Badge.

For further reading on the Alcatraz investigation and good people in general, please check out these Web sites:

LA Paranormal (Layla & Grant) –
Gian Temperilli –
Mark & Debby Constantino –
Wolfe Manor Live (Scott, Terry & Todd) –

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