Paranormal in Pioneer Square

By Chris Kissel September 28, 2009


Saturday night, on a tip from a Seattle Times article, I went to Pioneer Square to see a team of ghost hunters from the Northwest Paranormal Investigation Agency (NWPIA) check out the basement of the apparently haunted Central Saloon. When I got there at 10:30, though, I thought I’d missed all the Scooby-Doo action.

The bar was overrun with the same middle-aged, mostly-male Seahawks fans that usually fill up Pioneer Square this time of year, most of whom traveled from Seattle exurbs like Everett and Tacoma or even from Spokane on charter buses, to spend the weekend drinking and watching football.

On the stage, an awful nü-metal band gave shout outs to the Seahawks fans in the house, and their fans raised their fists and jutted their fingers in response—rock and roll! Further back, at the bar, a neon Harley-Davidson sign cast an orange glow over the solemn faces of the men and their drunken, heavy-lidded companions.

Luckily, though, the ghost hunters were just setting up—although nobody at the bar seemed to notice. I poked my head into their white van (their NWPIA logo was emblazoned on the side), told them I was here to see what they were up to, and they were more than happy to let me go down to the basement with the team.

The members of the group—who, like the Seahawks fans, were from the the Seattle/Everett/Tacoma megalopolis and had also made a kind of pilgrimage from rural Washington to Pioneer Square—were mostly unemployed right now, including Bert Coates, who owns the ghost busting agency and was running the operation from behind a monitor inside the van.

Coates, a friendly guy in his late 30s early 40s, was annoyed that Saturday morning's Times article had made his ghost hunting operation look like a two-person affair (the team actually has a membership of about 22), but he said they did get one thing right—he started the business because of a deep-seated fear of what would happen to him after he died. “That was then, though,” he said. “Not anymore.” Coates explained that he had once seen a “full-bodied apparition.”

I had to walk down a wooden ramp with a flash light to get to the pitch-black basement which seemed to be cluttered with spare tables, ladders, empty kegs and electrical shit.

The two ghost busters—Jacque Scappini, a twenty-five-year-old stay-at-home mom (her husband is also on the squad) and Chris Doolin, a big guy with a round, Irish face, a surgical technologist from Bellevue—were sitting in the far back corner, behind a green night light and a web cam. They were streaming  video back to the van, and out onto the internet.

“We’ve had some experiences down here already,” Jacque said when I pulled up a chair next to them. “We heard footsteps a little earlier.”

“Yeah,” said Chris. “We thought it was you coming, but it wasn’t.”

Could it have been the Seahawks fans clomping around upstairs, clearly audible through the ceiling? It could have been, they admitted.

Chris said he became obsessed with the idea of hunting ghosts at the age of 12, when saw a shadow move across his room and stir the towels on his towel rack. Jacque said she was compelled by videos of previous ghost hunting jobs she watched on the NWPIA’s Web site.

The NWPIA members brag about their science-based methods. First, they check the haunted area for things like exposed wiring, which they say can cause “dark thoughts” and hallucinations in certain areas of the house. I missed this part of the job, and now, step two,  we're sitting quietly in the black basement, waiting for evidence of ghosts we could record with the cameras.

Jacque said she thought they might be lucky tonight. “When I stand here, I feel a presence,” she said.

The NWPIA sees their main job, Chris said, as assuring people that “they are not a freak.” Not to mention assuaging their own existential worries—after all, the Central Saloon hadn’t asked them to search the basement—they’d volunteered when they heard the bar might be haunted.

After waiting with them for a half and hour behind the glow of their webcam light, I made my way back to the NWPIA van. I shook the Coates’ hands, thanked them for the opportunity to go with them into the basement, and bumped my head on their monitor on the way out.

Back inside the saloon, Doug Karlson, a short, stout Seahawks fan from Spokane, was telling everyone seated near him at the bar that he believed the ghost hunting was important for people who are nervous about the afterlife. “I been agnostic my whole life,” Doug was saying over the blaring band. “Now I’m an atheist. And that’s real hard to say.”

The ghost hunters stayed in the basement until about 2:30 am, but they didn’t find any conclusive evidence of ghosts.

They’ll be back at the Central Saloon this Saturday.
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