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Ghost Hunter Turns ESF Students into Believers

John Zaffis gives lecture, leads ghost hunt in Oakwood Cemetery

John Zaffis

John Zaffis is no stranger to unexplained phenomenon; in fact, he goes looking for it. Zaffis, a renowned ghost hunter and expert on all things paranormal, shared his knowledge and experiences of the unknown with more than 100 students in Marshall Auditorium Oct. 13. His lecture was followed by a ghost hunt in Oakwood Cemetery that turned many skeptical students into believers.

The lecture covered a broad range of topics including poltergeists, ghosts, psychic photography, EVPs or electronic voice phenomena, exorcisms and demonic possessions. Zaffis, who has more than 37 years of experience in the paranormal field, showed the audience photos of what he believed to be spirits or ghosts and played recordings of people who were thought to be possessed by evil spirits.

He explained that many movies about paranormal activity are actually based on real cases. Zaffis worked with the real-life Parker family whose experiences inspired the 2009 film, The Haunting in Connecticut. During his nine-month investigation of the Parker house, which was once a funeral home, Zaffis said he experienced events so frightening that he almost abandoned his career in the paranormal field. He also played audio of Anneliese Michel's exorcism, the inspiration for the 2005 film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

"When you deal with exorcisms or you deal with those types of possessions, it goes beyond anything you comprehend or understand," said Zaffis. "You witness and experience things that are just so out of the ordinary, so bizarre and so crazy, it just doesn't go into anything we understand. Scientifically you might as well forget it, there's no way we can line any of it up."

Although Zaffis claimed that he doesn't get scared by the unexplained happenings he's experienced, he urged the audience to use caution when dealing with the unknown.

"You have to be very careful when you start doing these types of things," said Zaffis. "You have to keep an open mind especially when you get involved in the paranormal field. You can't rule anything out."

The turnout for the event was greater than expected said Laura Crandall, director of Student Activities. She credits the turnout to the uniqueness of the presentation.

"I think its very interesting and neat to experience," said Crandall. "It's not something that you typically have. You can book a comedian or a game show or a coffee house, but you're not really going to run into someone who does this type of thing often."

Kim Case, a freshman landscape architecture major, said she was drawn to the event after seeing shows about paranormal phenomenon and hearing stories about the unknown.

Others attended the event after personal experience with the unknown. Steven Fleitas, a freshman forest health major, said he was interested in hearing Zaffis speak because his family is very spiritual and believed their house was haunted.

"My parents had a priest come to bless the house," said Fleitas. "I heard voices. I know it sounds ridiculous, but you never know, you have to keep an open mind."

Zaffis lead a group of more than 40 students into Oakwood Cemetery, where he attempted to contact spirits through a scanning AM/FM radio and white noise generator, known as a ghost box.

"Can you tell me how many are with us right now?" asked Zaffis.

"Seven," said the voice on the radio.

After an hour of questions by both Zaffis and several students, the voice on the radio said his name was Tom and he died in a fire as a student here when Dwight Eisenhower was president. He claimed to have two children at the time of his death and said he was still here because the true story of the fire was never told. Throughout the "communication" the voice could be heard saying "hot," "smoke," and "incinerator."

At the end of the session, Zaffis urged the students to see if they could find information about any fires on campus in the past.

A review of historical news articles revealed some similarities between an incident in 1959 and the information Zaffis had elicited from the voice on the radio: According to articles in the Syracuse Herald-Journal Jan. 6 and 7, 1959, there was a fire on South Campus Jan. 6, 1959, in which seven Air Force personnel studying at Syracuse University died, including Sgt. Thomas Merfeld, a married father of two.

The barracks where the fire occurred was located at the site of the present-day baseball field on South Campus. Witnesses described it as a "raging blast furnace," and one headline called the tragedy a "mystery holocaust." Despite investigations by the city of Syracuse, fire officials, arson specialists and military intelligence teams, the cause of the fire was never determined.

Six of the victims were identified immediately after the fire, but a team of military specialists spent days trying to identify Merfeld. His wife filed a $300,000 lawsuit against the city and university on the grounds that her husband's death was caused by "negligence, recklessness and carelessness of the city and Syracuse University" in the building and construction of the living quarters.

"The results of that ghost investigation were pretty eyebrow raising," said Nicholas Lee, a sophomore landscape architecture major. "I want to believe. It could be chance, but there's still a lot out there that we have no answer for."

-By Jessica Lynn Siart ES '12