The Camera Salesman & The Ghost Tour

Carl Evans grew up in Columbia with two parents who told him ghosts weren’t real. Once, in 1974 as a 6-year-old boy, Evans woke up in his late grandfather’s study in Springfield to an open closet door that was closed when he fell asleep.

Evans’ brother, who is 14 years his senior, would say, “That’s grandpa. That’s his ghost going in for cigars and whiskey.”

No such thing, his parents would say. “It’s an old house, the doors shift.”

Today, Evans looks back and says, “As a child, it made a lot of sense. When you are scared your parents come up with all kinds of stuff to divert your attention. It’s environmental conditioning, which has rational purposes for thinking through things. Of course my brother could have opened the door too.”

At 38, Evans still doubted the existence of ghosts as he walked the winding ghost tour path in New Orleans. Another part of him – his right arm to be exact – held up a camera, keen on catching something, perhaps the spirit of a young girl, a slave who fell to her death after her owner chased her off the balcony because she wasn’t pleased with the way the girl had been brushing her hair; this according to the spunky, curly-haired tour guide who had just told him so. Standing outside of 1140 Royal St., at the fabled New Orleans’ haunted mansion, the LaLaurie, Evans pointed his camera toward the second-story balcony and windows looking for the ghost of the girl, or something. Anything.

Two years before Evans embarked on the ghost tour, a professor at the University of Missouri walked into Columbia Photo, where Evans is assistant manager of camera sales. The professor, whose name Evans can’t recall, told Evans about a ghost tour he gave on parts of the University of Missouri campus. The professor described unlocked doors in Ellis Library that tour-goers feel resistance to when trying to open them. He told Evans a tale of when a “big, tall, stalky guy” belonging to the group fell to the floor before his fellow ghost chasers. No one on the tour saw what it was that pushed him to the floor but it was something. It was a ghost. Evans listened intently to the professor as he spoke but his only thought, he recalls with a smile, was “These people have wild imaginations.”

The professor suggested that Evans take the tour. Evans politely accepted the professor’s card, placed the card in a drawer and told his wife about it. He either threw away the card or misplaced it. He didn’t believe the professor. There was no reason to keep the card, no reason to go on the tour.

Two years after that conversation, Evans and his wife would leave Columbia for Metairie, La., not too far from the haunted French Quarter, to visit his sister-in-law and her family. As Evans packed his suitcase in Columbia, the professor and his tales of the unlocked door and the big, tall, stalky guy who fell invaded Evans’ mind. He thought maybe with his camera he could catch something.

He thought, “I’ll take this thing and use it and see if they’re full of bologna.”

The Haunted House

The first point about the LaLaurie Mansion is that Delphine LaLaurie and her husband, Lenord LaLaurie, plagued the slaves they owned to such a state of harrowing pain that death was their only ally. The story goes like this: Lenord was a physician and both were socialites who hosted lavish parties in the Royal Street mansion. The jubilant parties, her beautiful gowns, the live music – this prevented even the LaLauries’ closest friends from realizing the couple’s maliciousness. They had everyone fooled until April 10, 1834, when a slave working in the kitchen intentionally set it afire.

The stench was the first thing to reach the firefighters at the door on the third floor. One slave sat with scalp removed and brain exposed, two sticks stuck into it. One lay in the corner, dead after undergoing a sex-change experiment. A boy was found with his mouth sewn shut, no tongue, another with the muscles in his face exposed, his skin gone and replaced by a hoard of insects. One slave was found with no arms and no legs, another with his intestines no longer inside him, affixed to the floor. One woman was found in a crate, her bones broken and reset to fit inside.

The following day, a reporter for The New Orleans Bee would admit in his front-page article that language would be too inadequate for the finding. “We shall not attempt it, but leave it [rather] to the reader’s imagination to picture what it was,” the reporter wrote. “These slaves were the property of the demon, in the shape of a woman, whom we mentioned in the beginning of this article.”

The front-page coverage of the event wasn’t enough for the police to take custody of the LaLauries; they worked the same social circles. Outraged former friends of the LaLauries’ formed a mob to lynch the couple only to find that they’d escaped town, never to return to New Orleans again. It’s uncertain where the LaLauries spent the rest of their lives; the mansion would never again have a steady owner. When Evans pointed his camera at the mansion in 2006, actor Nicholas Cage owned it. In 2008, the house on Royal Street was put on the market again.

The Winding Ghost Tour

The tour began with several hotels on a 30-minute winding path so as to evade any lingering spirits. Evan’s video captures the bubbly, 20-something, camp-counselor-like tour guide playing question-and-answer with her group. Evans and his wife would later admit boredom.

“This is lame,” he recalls thinking. “The only thing we were thinking about was that we were with our family and we were having a good time with them,” he says. The tour guide had told an earlier story of one of the hotel’s alleyways that became filled with a filthy pile of body parts, as doctors would toss away Civil War soldiers’ useless limbs. “If you took a bullet, you were pretty well gonna take something off. Does anybody know why?” the tour guide asks in Evans’ video.

“They were running out of boots?” Evans snickers.

“It was easier,” someone suggests.

“That was one part,” the guide says encouragingly. “But it wasn’t the fun part …”

Meanwhile, Evans’ toyed with his 6 megapixel, Sony camera with a built-in camcorder and night vision lens. As the guide chatted about the LaLaurie house, Evans alternated the two features.

Evans’ video captures everything in infrared light. As he directed it left, right up and down, Evans located nearby light sources – the one porch light on the balcony, the headlights of passing cars – and he knew that the glow of these lights could cause a light flare and easily be mistaken for something unnatural in his footage.

“I was looking for fallacy,” he says. “I wasn’t looking for positive.” His video shows the occasional flashes of tour-goers’ cameras against the mansion and Evans says those flashes could have produced trailing lights, but no other lights would be in his way, he thought. Even more, there was no substantial surface that would have allowed for the camera’s infrared beam to bounce off and produce the image that Evans would see in his stills later that night, the cause for the beginning of what Evans cannot explain.

Spirit Orb Aftermath

At first, Evans and his wife, Rebecca, laughed when they saw it – an odd circular shape that shines green in the photo because of the infrared light that captured it. The orb appears perfectly symmetrical with squiggly lines going round and round, looking as if it were powered by some unknown energy source that would make the Energizer Bunny squirm. Evans refers to its center as its “nucleus.”

After the tour, and the winding walk back to the beginning, Evans and his wife took a seat on a curb before they hopped in the car to go back to Metairie. She nudged Evans when she found it.

“Look at this,” she said. Now she recalls, “They told us before the tour started, ‘You may hear things, you may capture orbs,’ and you’re like, ‘Yeah, okay. This boosts business for tourism. Yeah, right.’ But it’s like, the tour wasn’t interesting until it was over,” Rebecca says.

That night, they settled in at Rebecca’s sister’s house, imported the image to her computer and stared. They didn’t know what to make of this squiggly lined orb.

“It can’t be an orb,” Rebecca blurted. But the obvious lack of any light source weakened her conviction. The image would further peck away hers and Evan’s original orb belief, which they tried to dwindle down to nothing but an irregular camera flaw.

The orb only meant the epitome of camera faults – light reflections, flares and such – until Evans returned to Columbia and saw that he had captured it on video as well. Perplexed by the still image, Evans would stand at his home DVD player and slow the video down to a frame-by-frame sequence to see the glowing green orb, flash in and out of the screen’s lower right corner.

“I knew the street went left to right in front of me,” he says. “I was parallel to the street. Then this flash of light came at me in the video then goes to the right. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, like they are now when I’m talking about it.”

Evans reeled over how his camera saw the orb. He could explain none of it. Perhaps there were traceable lights or reflective surfaces. But then again, “this cynical, rational thought takes over and it’s like, ‘Ah, whatever, it could be a bouncing light of a window or a mirror or something.”

This time, Evans showed his wife the video image. “You can almost rationalize it,” she says of the photo, “until you see it in motion on video. I was there and I know no light source was coming at me. I know it had to be something.”

That night, after the orb grazed his own television screen, Evans set up his video camera once more, this time with its infrared light directed in his living room.

“I was creeped out,” he says. “My imagination was, something hitchhiked back to my house and now I got a spook running around my house.” Perhaps he’d capture it again. He was unsure, but mostly, he was spooked.

Before showing his coworkers at Columbia Photo, Evans burned both stills and video to a DVD disc. Skeptical or not, his own colleagues who spend their days explaining how and what makes cameras work best, could only shake their heads and announce, “that’s weird.” Kim Humphreys, Columbia Photo’s office manager, says of the photo: “It’s kinda unusual. I’m one of these people who are skeptical,” he says. “But after talking to Carl, and as long as I’ve known him, he’s not a kidder and he doesn’t derive much without fact.”

In a quest for answers, Evans then turned to Sony. As a Sony buyer for Columbia Photo, Evans e-mails the company often; only this time he attached his still photo of the orb to ask what fault in the camera caused the image. On behalf of his customers, he needed to know. Sony e-mailed Evans back without an explanation, except to say that they had seen nothing like it in testing.

Shortly after Evans returned from New Orleans, the professor coincidentally returned to Columbia Photo. This time, it was Evans’ turn for show-and-tell; the professor listened intently. After seeing the orb, its squiggly lines and nucleus, the professor asked Evans for a copy of it. Evans refused.

“I’m still thinking of somebody to contact,” he says, and then he retracts, as he’ll often do when you’re just about to take him for a believer. “Maybe it’s nothing,” he says. “Maybe it’s some process of the camera. But nobody can explain it.”

This is the kind of dialogue that occurs in Evans’ mind between him and himself. It’s a perpetual argument over where to place the blame for capturing the image. Sometimes it’s the camera’s fault. Other times it could be the light. But without a light reflection, it returns to being the orb. Maybe it’s the girl who fell. Or maybe it was just the camera.

Nobody explains the orb like Pat Linse (“pronounced Lindsay without the d or y”), the co-publisher of Skeptic magazine and co-founder of the Skeptic Society in Los Angeles. Alien saucers? She debunks them, as merely hubcaps thrown in the air. To crop circles, Linse says, “There’s nothing dumber.” Her explanation is the way grain lands irregularly after heavy rain at the season’s end. Linse says she receives at least one orb picture per week from readers hungry for answers and overly neurotic that she’ll steal the image and make a break for the nearest network news program.

“We get this stuff all the time and too bad for these people,” she says. “First of all, they want to copyright it because they think it’s worth millions and it’s kinda sad because you have to give them the bad news.”

Her explanation for orbs is this: “It’s a double exposure or a lens flare. “It’s a photographic thing that most people don’t know about it. They just don’t apply their knowledge because it’s just an extreme case.” Although Linse hasn’t seen Evans’ video or still image of his New Orleans orb, she feels sorrier for him when she learns that he makes a living working with cameras. The bottom line for her is more about people and their relationship with the paranormal.

“It really says more to having a hunger for a message from beyond,” she says.

Sidney Smith, the owner of Haunted History Tours of New Orleans, refers to the LaLaurie Mansion as a hotbed for paranormal activity.

“Some people see it, feel it, experience it. Others don’t experience anything,” he says. Smith has owned the company since 1994, and attests to knowing more than 200 cases of tourists fainting while standing outside the LaLaurie Mansion. The tour never ventures inside the house. “A few of those have had to go the hospital afterward,” Smith says. “Some people will be on the ground in fetal position outside the LaLaurie house and of course we don’t warn them ahead of time. People take up things in their photos that weren’t there before and that holds true to all over the French Quarter.”

When asked if he believes in spirit orbs, Smith says, “It’s not a matter of what I believe. Some people have more sense to paranormal activity than other people. Other people attract it like a magnet.”

Until Hurricane Katrina swept its devastation through New Orleans, Matthew Yaddoshi spent seven years as a tour guide for Haunted History Tours. He says he never saw so many strange things in his life as consistently as he did while working there.

“Orbs on film are not exactly surprising to me anymore,” he says. “I became rather used to those. The more interesting situations were when fully charged lithium ion batteries in professional cameras suddenly discharged at the LaLaurie Mansion and became useless. This happened in both still cameras and video camcorders and in most cases the owners claimed they had fully charged their batteries before attending the tour.” In some cases, Yaddoshi says, the cameras resumed operating minutes after leaving the LaLaurie site.

Linse doesn’t immediately refute Yaddoshi’s statement. “Now that’s a claim that can be tested,” she says.

For Evans and the orb, it’s a continual game of tug-and-pull. He weighs on its legitimacy as much as it weighs on him. He’ll admit he’s skeptical. This is why he races through all the possible explanations that lead him only to a maybe, and that maybe teeters between a faulty camera mechanism and the orb. But then again, “Your imagination takes over and you think that could have been the slave girl.”

In another moment’s flash, he’ll wrestle with what he was told as a boy. “When you’re young,” he says, “Your parents tell you that there’s no such thing as ghosts to calm you, to make you feel secure. I don’t know what I believe anymore. I just don’t know how to explain it.”