Wednesday, October 24, 2012
The first time I ever see Paula Hayes Westbrook, she is smoking a cigarette with one hand while holding Tia, her little Chihuahua, with the other. She keeps Tia safely nestled in between her black sweatshirt and long dark hair—helping to filter out the chill coming off the Mississippi River on an early Saturday morning in Greenville in November of 2011.
I nod, say hello and introduce myself.
“Hi, it’s nice to meet you,” she replies. Her voice is a smoking melody with a touch of twang. She describes her accent as a “gumbo” of sorts—her voice rich and deep with her Louisiana hoodoo roots and peppered with dialects ranging from South Carolina to the Black Hills of North Dakota.
Westbrook stands with the other ghost hunters outside the Greenville Inn in the chilled, moist Delta air. They seem to stomp their feet a lot, shifting around in the cold. I look around and realize that almost everyone is smoking—which explains why this paranormal powwow of sorts is being held out in the parking lot.
“Cheryl was unable to make it,” Westbrook says. Cheryl Mitchell is her friend and co-coordinator of the Southern Paranormal and Anomaly Research Society, known as SPARS. David Childers and Rob Hood from the Vicksburg paranormal group TruthSeekers are here along with a variety of “family” members—“that means your kin and the ghost hunters,” someone tells me.
Karen Parker and I join the circle. We are there to help with the fundraiser, The Delta Paranormal Project.
“OK, listen up. We have a meeting across the street at the Visitors Bureau with the casino people to discuss advertising and helping us out in any way they can,” Westbrook says.
Wesley Smith and Lisa Winters from the Visitor’s Bureau show up, but the casino people never do, nor does a group that was going to be a main beneficiary to the fundraiser. Nor did they call or return calls. Apparently, not everyone is keen on the idea of ghost hunting in the Delta.
But the Convention and Visitors Bureau know a good thing when they see one. They applaud Westbrook for filling up the entire Greenville Inn with students in 2011 for her Ghost Hunting Academy. They love tourists who spend money; therefore, they love Westbrook. She has taken on the mission to help revitalize Greenville’s downtown, which is quite a drive from her home in Picayune.
They even allow Westbrook’s paranormal investigation teams to use many of the old buildings around town for ghost hunting. That includes the visitors bureau’s office inside the Armory building, the old Dixie Democrat building, the Old #1 Firehouse Museum and even the Courthouse.
Westbrook’s crew shares the latest results of its investigations of the Visitor’s Center after our meeting. Over the last year and a half, they have found unidentifiable shadows, numerous EVPs (electronic voice phenomena) and a man speaking in the armory, via a Ghost Box device. This man’s voice called two of the investigators by name.
Seeking the Light
Westbrook works at the Kmart in Mandeville, La. She is a floater of sorts, working in departments from pharmacy to layaway. Her hours are crazy, which probably works well with her hectic schedule. Most Kmart shoppers would probably be shocked to know that the nice lady who helps them find blue-light specials is one of the most influential women in the world of paranormal investigations.
The Shreveport, La., native has been a professional ghost hunter since 1985. Westbrook created many paranormal groups over the years. At one time, she was the founder and leader of the second largest paranormal group in the nation with chapters all over the South and Northeast in the United States, in addition to Norway and Wales.
In fact, Westbrook is one of the original TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society) family members. And she knows how to bark orders and take control of the situation and stand with the best of them—even the movie director Victor Salva honored her by giving up his director’s seat to Westbrook during the filming of a scene from the movie “Haunted.”
I thought Salva knew Childers and Westbrook—who, along with Westbrook’s friend Mitchell, went to Los Angeles to be on “My Ghost Story” on A&E and Bio channels—but that wasn’t it. Salva was filming in Greenville when he heard about Westbrook and her Ghost Academy last year and came by for a visit to check out her work. Before he left, Westbrook told Salva, “You see where I work, so next time, I see where you work.”
He kept his word.
Lure of the TAPS Logo
If you turn on the television at almost any time of the day or night, you will see the cable channels flooded with ghost-hunting marathons. The vast majority of these shows feature an all-male cast. Why? Because ghost hunting is a macho field with black shirts and lots of gear hanging off belts making hunters look like they’re members of a SWAT team.
After sitting down among a sea of black shirts, many of them emblazoned with Delta Paranormal Project on the upper left front and a TAPS logo on the side sleeve, I, too, realized the lure of the TAPS logo. It is the Holy Grail for most ghost hunters. I am sure non-TAPS members will disagree, but it does makes you easily recognizable and associates you with the highly successful “Ghost Hunters”—SyFy’s longest-running reality series. It stars Jason Hawes, the founder of TAPS. “Ghost Hunters” has produced many spin-off television shows, books, radio shows and the TAPS Institute—formerly known as TAPS Academy.
The TAPS paranormal investigators are changing the way millions view ghost hunting and paranormal research. And many people are taking them quite seriously.
TAPS affiliates, known as TAPS family members, answer many of these requests for help and must behave in a professional and discreet manner. Client privacy is part of the TAPS protocol.
Going to the home of a terrified family is different from hunting for ghosts at a cemetery and putting your video up on YouTube. The clients are people under duress, and they have asked for help. Sometimes, the information revealed can put others in danger as well—not from the dead, but from the living. It can cause relief for many but can also lead to new disturbing revelations. Counseling and tact are part of the TAPS protocol as well.
Westbrook and her team do not charge for a client’s paranormal investigation. These investigations can go on all night, and the amount of data to sift through, study and analyze is staggering. And the work isn’t glamorous.
Evangeline and ‘Dark Shadows’
Westbrook grew up in Evangeline Country—St. Martinville, La.—the land made famous by a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem.
“My grandmother was French Acadian, so I was speaking Cajun French at home. It is a mixture of Spanish, French and Indian,” she says. “But in school we were taught conversationalist French. We would even sing nursery rhymes in French about Evangeline sitting by the tree.” Evangeline means “like an angel.”
Westbrook’s middle name, however, means something quite different.
Her mother gave her a middle name from the late-1960s “Dark Shadows” soap opera. She named her Josette, after the unfortunate girl who fell in love with the vampire Barnabas Collins and committed suicide off Widow’s Hill. Josette went through bouts of being hexed, cursed and disfigured. She turned into a vampire herself and finally became a ghost who haunted the Collins’ home.
“You could say I was destined from the beginning to be in the paranormal,” Westbrook says with a laugh.
“My mother was involved in dark hoodoo—pretty serious stuff. She was delving in the black arts to try to get the better things in life.”
Hoodoo is different from Voodoo. Voodoo is a religion; hoodoo is performing magic spells—black magic—that can be very dangerous.
“She divorced my dad and started marrying for a living—working her way up the social scale. We would come home and find black candles all over the room. We would find other ritualistic stuff all through the house,” Westbrook says.
“I used to be scared to death of shadow people. I would lock myself in the bathroom ‘til daylight. It was a standoff: My mother thought I was schizophrenic. I now realize that she was envious of my gifts. I was like my grandmother and aunt who could talk to spirits and hear things.”
Westbrook describes a pivotal moments: “One night, my dad and I woke up to the sound of glass breaking and chains rattling. Our little dog ran to the spot where the noise was coming from, and he started digging a hole right though the cement foundation. We starting looking at old property tax files and found that there was an abandoned well under our house,” she says.
“When she started dabbling, I guess my mother opened up a portal. I was picking up on the dark things that she was bringing in. The floodgates opened for me.”
Westbrook began automatic writing—communicating with spirits—and she started making predictions that came true. “I predicted Reagan would be shot but survive within the next six months—and it happened,” she says of the former U.S. president.
Her father, a NASA mechanical engineer, realized she wasn’t “crazy,” but had “the gift” of seeing and hearing things. “My father tried to help me and my sister discover our talents. He read a lot of books by Edgar Cayce, early ghost hunters and psychics. My sister, Marcy, wanted nothing to do with any of this stuff; she was not into it at all. For me, it was as natural as slipping on a pair of shoes,” Westbrook says.
Her father wanted to help her learn how to shut it off—to protect herself, Westbrook says. She, though, took a different tactic: “I decided it would be best to go after them before they came after me. The control that I got then helps me today. I have a good relationship with my spirit guides. They intercede and relay the information that I need.”
She doesn’t channel or do automatic writing anymore because it is dangerous, she says: “One time that I channeled, I got an attachment on me for seven years. Some of us are attractive to the other side because of our light, and they don’t want to let us go.”
The Ancient Ones
Even though Westbrook attended a school for gifted students in Shreveport, she dropped out her junior year and received her GED. “I was trying to leave my rough childhood behind me. I was running away from my past,” she says. By age 20, she had already married and divorced. “I took off to California on the back of my boyfriend’s Harley. We ran out of money in Phoenix.”
There, she went to college and became a respiratory therapist. She also became a professional ghost hunter. “The first time I ran into something demonic (was with) a Muslim family in East Texas. For them to call me, you know something is wrong,” she says. “When I was performing the walk-through, a little girl walked right in front of me—plain as day.”
“So I was like: let’s see if I can clean this up for you. At the time, I was as skeptical about demons as Joe Blue. So I am cleansing this house—I always did a Christian cleansing—and I demanded (the demon) to show itself to me. All of a sudden, it sounds like a pig is scratching at the door. The door opens, and the noise goes up into the attic—it sounded like even more animals up there,” she says.
“I tell (the family), ‘Get out now! I have the thing caught up in the attic but you have to leave now. I don’t know how long it will stay up there.’ They were already moving out; the family had called me because they didn’t want anything to follow them to their new home.”
“Everything was going fine, until the family remembered that they forgot something at the house and went back to get it. Two of the family members ended up with bacterial pneumonia and were put on ventilators for several months,” she says.
As a respiratory therapist, Westbrook worked at the Indian hospitals on the Navajo reservations and with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
“I felt a deep connection there and took an interest in their cultures—especially the Navajo,” she says. “I got a lot of insight—the Navajo culture resonated with something inside me, maybe connecting with my own Indian heritage that I never really had explored. My grandfather on my mother’s side was one-half Choctaw. He had a rough life. He was a recluse who lived out in the woods and made moonshine.”
“Working with the Navajo, I learned about earth spirits and the ancient cultures and the Anasazi,” Westbrook adds.
The Navajo named the Anasazi—meaning “Ancient people who are not us.” These “Ancient Ones” were more advanced than any other Indian tribes and their sudden disappearance—just like the Maya—has raised much speculation among archeologists, scientists and paranormal researchers.
In fact, the Anasazi is what first drew Westbrook to her new husband of eight months, David Westbrook. “We met online on a forum. Basically, both of us were making fun of all the single losers online. Of course we were single as well,” she says with a laugh. “But it got us talking, and he knew about the Anasazi and had his own ideas and theories. You could say, he had me at Anasazi.”
David Westbrook did not officially join the Delta Paranormal Project family until they were married. “Paula was the only founder of SPARS. It was undue stress on her (with) people thinking she might be favoring me if I was a member. I did not want people to look negatively on her. But when it became Delta Paranormal Project (with) four founders, it was different. I became a member,” he says.
A Skeptic among Us
It might surprise some that Westbrook considers herself a skeptic and is deeply religious. “My best friend in high school was Jewish, and her father was a rabbi; I went every Tuesday and Thursday to confirmation school at the temple. For years, I followed a kosher diet. I observed the dietary law. I was looking for some kind of religion that could help me. Our Christian roots are in Judaism, and if we would understand our own roots, we would understand our own religious beliefs as well,” she says.
Westbrook was raised Catholic, and her husband, David, is a Baptist minister. She has gotten away from traditional religion, though. “I am not an atheist. I do believe in God and the war of heaven and hell. I believe in angels and devils,” she says.
While at client’s investigations, she seems more like a priest performing an exorcism or a village monk helping a lost soul to the light. A rosary hangs from her Maroon Dodge Caravan’s rear view mirror, and she will still pull out the holy water if the situation warrants.
Westbrook’s beliefs and philosophy on life have morphed and matured from years of working with those who have crossed over and those who are still stuck in limbo.
“We have to get a better handle of what we call the paranormal,” she says. “We need to understand physics, dark matter and the time continuum. Ghosts could actually be a rip in time—just a different dimension. We may have a situation here of actual physical beings stepping from one parallel reality to another. Nothing ever stops and never ends.”
“One day, we will probably realize that what we are seeing is not really paranormal at all.”