‘Spook Cave Ghost Hunt’ offers insight into paranormal investigation

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Paranormal investigator Chris Nielson shows off some of the devices utilized during one of the “Spook Cave Ghost Hunts.” During these 4.5-hour nighttime tours, attendees investigated what Nielson has found to be some of the more active spots on the 90-acre property. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Spook Cave—the name alone elicits a certain level of paranormal interest among the visitors who flock to the popular northeast Iowa attraction each year. 

Originally a 6-inch hole at the base of a bluff in rural McGregor, along Bloody Run Trout Stream, locals often heard strange noises coming from the opening, giving it the name Spook Hole. In October 1953, a local man, Gerald Mielke, asked the property owner if he could dynamite into the bluff to discover the source of the noise. After dynamiting back 60 feet and making his way through a natural crawl space, Mielke entered the cave, finding that water falling over rocks and ledges was responsible for the spooky noises. For the next two years, he explored the cave, finally opening it to the public on Labor Day 1955.

“There’s so much history, and kind of a local mythology about the place,” said Chris Nielson, who’s worked at Spook Cave and Campground since 2017. Some of the stories—the unexplained experiences—at the site may not be simply myths, though.

“Within the first year, I knew there was something up,” Nielson shared. “I’ve been poking at it, experimenting over time, and eventually I was like, ‘This is a fairly active location.’” And it seemed like a natural place to hold a paranormal investigation.

This fall, Nielson organized a series of “Spook Cave Ghost Hunts,” welcoming small groups on 4.5-hour nighttime tours to investigate what he’s found to be some of the more active spots on the 90-acre property.

“But we’re not necessarily hunting anything,” he explained. “It’s more so checking out what’s there and making a connection. I want people to shed some of those pre-conceived notions on what a paranormal investigation actually is.”

Nielson has 10 years of experience in the field. He started his research at just 16, during the rise of the paranormal investigation television shows, but his interest dates back much further.

“When I was about 8 years old, I saw a little boy on the foot of the stairs at my grandparents’ house and, obviously, he wasn’t actually there,” Nielson recalled. “It’s always something that’s just stuck with me. It’s just a natural fascination.”

In 2011, he teamed up with his dad on investigations and also formed a group, All Out Paranormal, through which he checked out haunted places, made house calls and began working shows, expos and conventions. In 2017, Nielson continued traveling and investigating, but on a more individual basis, as the Paranomad. That’s when he found Spook Cave.

“Originally it was the job that brought me,” he said, “but I think I was supposed to end up here.”

The spot is, admittedly, no Villisca Axe Murder House or Waverly Hills Sanitorium, but that’s a good thing, Nielson quipped. Spook Cave’s more relaxed vibe can ease people into their first paranormal investigation.

The first stop on the Oct. 26 tour, beginning at 6:30 p.m., was the Spook Cave lake. The area was once the location of the small town of Beulah, which, in 1896, fell victim to a horrific flash flood that killed 19 people. 

“We can essentially be where this sudden, traumatic moment happened,” Nielson said. However, it’s not about focusing on the tragedy, but being aware that this sort of situation leaves an imprint in the area. “As we’ve done investigations down here, we’ve gotten some pretty intelligent responses through some of the techniques we use.”

Nielson took time at this location to familiarize attendees with some of the paranormal investigative tools. One of the most popular is an ITC, or instrumental trans-communication, device. 

“It’s basically as close as we can get to having an actual conversation with these spirits,” he explained. Through a device, in this case a cellphone application synced with a speaker, attendees can hear spirits’ audible words. 

“With events like this, I like using more of the devices that have that immediate gratification,” he added.

Other tools include an EMF device, which gauges spikes in electromagnetic field that may signify spirit manifestation, and a REM pod, an antennaed gadget that uses an electromagnetic field to detect other beings. 

Nielson also relies on traditional EVPs, or electronic voice phenomena, which he described as a spirit imprinting themselves on an audio recording device. He’ll listen to the recordings after an investigation, to see if they picked up anything notable. It’s the same with any video or photographs he’s captured. 

“I’ve done investigations where I’ve snapped well over 1,200 pictures, and you have to go through individually, one by one. ‘Oh, is that something, zoom in. No, it’s just a dust particle in the air,’” he said. “But sometimes it’s very clear that it’s a photographic anomaly that looks like a humanoid shape.”

In all investigations, though, Nielson said an individual is his or her own best tool.

“I always let them know that no gizmo or gadget is going to be nearly as effective as what we can feel as people,” he stated. “I subscribe to the idea that everyone is born with that sixth sense, and over the years we learn to put filters up, learn to rationalize, even to the point of it being an irrational explanation to something you can’t explain.”

After the stop at the lake, the group headed to the Spook Cave store to warm up. Nielson again brought out his bag of tools, and the ITC device picked up on some activity. The store was created using two different one-room schoolhouses, and it appeared one of the former teachers was trying to make contact.

A benevolent spirit like this might be overlooked in some of the paranormal television shows, which often rely on “click bait” content to draw in viewers, but Nielson said they’re some of the experiences he enjoys most.

“I approach [the spirit] more as it’s not a what, but a who. They’re people, they just don’t have that meat suit anymore,” he remarked. “The big thing that gets lost with some of the TV shows is just trying to make a genuine connection and have a conversation with somebody.”

The next stop was the Spook Cave game room. The original intent was to conduct the investigation in the building’s “creepy” basement, but Nielson later moved it upstairs to cut down on the both the attendees’ and spirits’ claustrophobia.

“Whoever is in there, I’m pretty sure it’s just a few of the guys who were part of the dam-making process that was used to build Spook Cave lake,” he said. “It feels like a bunch of dudes sitting around, playing poker.”

Just by sitting around and having a conversation with the help of the ITC device, the group was able to draw out details like what brought the men to area (for one, it was a woman) and what alcohol they enjoyed drinking (Black Velvet).

The final two hours of the night took attendees into Spook Cave itself, which Nielson said has been known to be a fairly active, haunted location.

“It’s such a cool dynamic to actually take people inside, in a boat, to a place where claustrophobia might be a factor and you have to adjust,” he said.

Much of the time was spent near the back of the cave, where Nielson turned off the lights, plunging those in the boat into completeness darkness. The goal is to send people into sensory deprivation mode. 

“People are prone to picking up more things when you shut one sense off,” he explained. “There are voices we hear throughout the cave. Some of it is farther off in the distance, and people could confuse it for water.”

“But long before people started using electronic equipment, people actually used the sound of dripping water to work as an ITC device,” he added. “They call it a water EVP.”

In fact, after long minutes sitting silently in the pitch black, the rushing and gurgles do begin to take on human sounds. Nielson quizzed those in the boat about what they heard. The answers were varied. Some thought the noise sounded like children, while others distinguished an adult male inhabitant and another an adult female.

Next, Nielson took it a step further. Leaving the lights off, he donned a pair of noise cancelling headphones and instructed those in the boat to ask questions of the spirits in the cave. Then, rather than speaking through a device, the spirits spoke through him instead. The experiment, known as the Estes Method, yielded a number of responses. The spirits, through Nielson, correctly guessed the number of female occupants in the boat, remarked on how handsome one of the male attendees was and even alluded to the flash flooding tragedy at Beulah.

Nielson said real-life experiences like this are important, and it’s why he’s focused much of his energy lately on educating the public.

“The problem with paranormal research is that it’s always been like a pseudo-science, because it technically is. It’s not something that’s repeatable,” he said. “But I feel the next big step is to get as many people at least aware of it as possible, so it’s not as sneered at.”

It’s even better if people have fun along the way.

“I want them to have an interaction and have a good time while doing it,” he shared. For the most part, he thinks that’s what the spirits want too.

If you would like to learn more about Nielson’s personal experiences, findings and experiments, head to his website, www.theparanomad.com, or find him on social media @theparanomad.

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