Monday, September 24, 2007

Minnesota men find travel niche in haunted places

Minnesota men find travel niche in haunted places

Matt Erickson stepped into the third-floor motel room with several other wary travelers just before midnight. Some turned on digital recorders to capture "electronic voice phenomena," known to aficionados as EVPs. Others snapped photos, seeking the fleeting image of a spirit.

Erickson's throat began to constrict. "I started coughing and choking, but as soon as I left the room, it stopped," he said. "Then I found out a guy had committed suicide in the room by cutting his own throat."

Strangely enough, that was exactly the kind of thrill Erickson hoped for during his vacation in Warwick, R.I., last December. The carpenter from Thief River Falls had joined 85 people from around the country for the unusual weekend, which was organized by two Twin Cities men who have staked a claim on a heretofore unexploited travel niche: Group ghost hunting.

Dave Schrader of Circle Pines and Tim Dennis of Burnsville are leading groups as large as 220 people on trips to haunted hotels, spooky cruise ships and, this year, an abandoned prison.

Their booming paranormal vacation business didn't happen in a vacuum. In the past three years, TV lineups have become rich in supernatural offerings. At the moment, at least a dozen shows serve up ghosts, hauntings and mediums in one form or another.

It was against this backdrop that Schrader and Dennis started their online weekly radio show in January 2006.

In the span of a year, weekly two-hour broadcasts of "Darkness Radio" made them celebrities among fanciers of otherworldly mystery. The show features interviews with the stars of the TV shows, along with demonologists, mediums and authors.

The locations include the Queen Mary cruise liner, docked in Long Beach, California ; the La Quinta Inn in Warwick, R.I., reputedly haunted by former guests who committed suicide there; and the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colo., famous as the setting of "The Shining." Travelers pay between $180 and $250 to attend the weekend events, not including transportation or lodging. Schrader and Dennis pay TV celebrities and paranormal experts to give talks and join in on nightly ghost hunts. So far they've run four trips and have four more scheduled in 2007. Trips to haunted castles in England and a former insane asylum in Kentucky are in the works.

"We've been blown away by the numbers," said Schrader. "For the first trip to the Stanley last year we sold out in three weeks: 220 tickets. We have 240 paid already for the next one."

The success has led Schrader, 39, to close his small marketing firm to focus on Darkness Radio and the travel business. Dennis, 36, works as the operations manager for the Davidson Media Group, which owns two radio stations in the Twin Cities. Dennis produces the show, which streams live from 10 to midnight on Sunday nights at

Schrader and Dennis said they have had experiences that make them curious about what happens to people after they die and that make them open to the idea of hauntings.

"I count myself as a skeptical believer," Schrader said. "But not every bump in the night is a ghost; sometimes it's just the pipes knocking."

A lot of other Americans share the Darkness Radio perspective: The most recent Gallup Poll to examine the issue (June 2005) reported that 37 percent of Americans believe in haunted houses; 16 percent are unsure. and 46 percent don't believe in them.

That so many Americans are believers isn't surprising to Jason Hawes, costar of Sci Fi's reality show "The Ghost Hunters." Hawes is a star attraction on many of Darkness Radio's trips.

"There's always been an interest in the paranormal, but it wasn't always something people talked about," he said. "All these shows have given people permission to admit their experiences and talk about them."

Those who have taken the vacations aren't shy about sharing their stories.

Tracy Petsuch, a property manager from Coon Rapids, took one of the trips to the Stanley Hotel. She collected an EVP (and played it for a reporter; behind a lot of static, a ghostly voice seems to be saying "call me dead man"). She also heard footsteps running up to her hotel room door. When she opened it, no one was there. "I just say it's fun," she said. "I can't blame someone else for not believing because nothing happened to them."

Matt Erickson, the carpenter who went to Rhode Island, said the best moments of the trip were sharing meals and downtime with the celebrities from "The Ghost Hunters" and "Darkness Radio."They're all real down-to-earth guys," he said.

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