Man Seeks Ghost

Rockcliffe “Rocky” Montez, armed with a digital video camera and EMF sensor, leads the ghost-seeking charge through the halls of the Church Bistro and Theater, 1150 South Alamo Street.

“Everybody’s got a ghost story,” Rockcliffe Montez assures me, smiling. We’re standing in his bedroom in the Alta Vista home he shares with his family, and I assent with a swift and vigorous nod, neglecting the kneejerk counterpoint that has popped up in my head like an expectant slab of toast:

I don’t have one.

I keep this to myself, though, and keep nodding. I agree with him, after all — admittedly, I haven’t gotten shoved off the Tracks or high-fived the Donkey Lady lately, but that doesn’t quite prove, say, that you haven’t. And I’ve spoken with enough obliging coworkers, classmates, and acquaintances to conclude that a reasonably substantial percentage of sound-minded, otherwise pragmatic folk will, if pressed a little, reveal or recall at least one experience that they’ll unflinchingly classify as a spectral encounter — voices from empty rooms, inexplicably rearranged household items or furniture, even full-bodied supernatural “visitations.” Indeed, my own mother will tell openly of the time she and a friend, teenaged participants in a sleepover séance, each felt a separate, unseen hand come to rest gently on her back at precisely the same time — Mom got it on the shoulder, her friend near the kidney — while attempting to contact a young cousin who had succumbed to meningitis a few years earlier. (Which tale, in conjunction with the notably troublesome results of Ouija-board hanky-panky set forth in The Exorcist and the like, helped birth in me a resolution to never come within split-pea-soup-spitting distance of such attempts at communion.)

Montez’s room doubles as a control center, of sorts. An impressive battery of reserve monitors, digital audio and video recorders, and other surveillance apparati neatly surmount desks and shelves; a TV screen flickers with a halted frame of infrared video; a small regiment of black cases, stacked upon a hardwood floor, conceals more goodies: walkie-talkies, an electromagnetic-field detector, an infrared thermometer, night-vision cameras. Montez, who’s 28 and goes by “Rocky,” isn’t playing James Bond. Try something closer, rather, to Pete Venkman: At the moment, we’re reviewing footage from a recent “ghost seeking” (officially: my first, his third). And truly, by session’s end and over the next couple of days, thanks to the accumulated “evidence” of one short night, I’ll be forced to earnestly reconsider my ghost-story tally.

Ghost Seeker matriarch Elvia Martinez-Montez checks for anomalies in an upstairs hallway.

I should back up a bit, though; let’s meet the family.

“What comes natural to us, other people will say, ‘Oh, no, you’re kidding. It’s not true,’” says Elvia Martinez-Montez, 60, mother to Rocky and his older brother Roland, 35. “And you have to expect that. We’re not trying to make believers out of anyone; We’re trying to help people that are in trouble.”

Elvia and sons spend much of their time as the creative and administrative backbone of the Red Curtain Dinner Theater, which regularly mounts Elvis-themed shows and horror-comedy musicals at restaurants around town. The “help” to which she refers, however, is the avowed goal of the trio’s second love, the 10-or-so-member paranormal-investigation outfit and passion project they’ve named Ghost Seekers of Texas. The team, which includes the three Montezes, a rotating stable of recruited volunteers, and the aforementioned trove of ghost-detection trappings, offers site or home evaluations via overnight vigil, with an eye toward delivering a “haunted” or “not haunted” verdict — all entirely free of charge.

“If they’re in trouble or they want help or they want people to see `what they’ve seen`, it’s not feasible to charge,” Rocky says.

Instead, he says he plans on editing footage from the group’s outings into free, web-based episodes, and aiming for internet-advertising revenue.

Following an inaugural “seeking” at the Montezes’ own house (inciting symptoms: unexplained whiffs of cigar smoke, eidolic-little-girl sightings), the Ghost Seekers accepted their first true assignment in October, spending a night at Pat O’Brien’s bar downtown. (Highlights: screeching noises, a sound like faint organ notes, an apparent incorporeal voice — all recorded — along with Roland’s report of an untouched door that slammed shut behind him.) For their third outing, I went with them.

But again, I’m getting a bit ahead of things. How, ultimately, does one get into the ghost-busting game?

First, presumably, it helps to get your terms straight.

“We’re not ghostbusters,” Elvia specifies. “We’re ghost seekers.”

Ah. The difference? Aside the careful kinder-gentler-verb derivation, Rocky says the Seekers’ ambitions rest more with analysis and acknowledgement than with any notions of hunting, trapping, or expelling.

“When people have claims of paranormal activity, we want to go in and try to make sure that everything can be explained, and it’s not a pipe rattling in the floorboards, and it’s not the AC,” Rocky says. “We want to make sure that everything is taken care of. And then, once that is decided, we want to say, ‘Here is your proof.’

“What really started it is, I guess when I was about 6, we had a house in Helotes that was pretty haunted,” he continues. “We believed, but not quite whole-heartedly … that house made us really believe.”

Elvia and Roland nod their agreement.

“Well, it was such a bad experience; I get shivers when I think about it,” she says. The next few minutes are entertainingly revelatory: The three launch into an inevitably collaborative story session, interrupting seamlessly and enthusiastically, elaborating where they judge it necessary, and generally removing any doubt that they are, indeed, a family.

Elvia: “The worst thing that happened that threw me off was that a stationary door — I don’t know if you’ve ever seen those closet doors that are heavy, and they’re sitting on a track; there’s no way — you can shake them, and they’re not going to come out — ”

Rocky: “The mirrored — they’re real heavy.”

Elvia: “It lifted up, by itself, and hit my daughter Bridget. She took 12 stitches.”

Rocky: “She was sitting on the vanity, plucking her eyebrows or something. And it actually, the only way to get those doors off is if you lift them, and then pull them off, and then kind of — this came off the track and hit her, smack on the head. It fell from end of the room and hit her.”

Elvia: “Well, you’d think we’d pack up and leave with that, but we stuck it out a year. I didn’t want to lose all that money. But in the end, we had to leave, because it just escalated. Everything, from the TV going on by itself — and you’re pulling that plug on that TV, and it’s still going on, and it’s changing channnels — ”

Rocky: “Yeah, and changing channnels, not in succession, either. It would change channels, like 54, 38, like that.”

Roland: “The doorbell ringing, and you’d run, and you’d look through the peephole, and you’re looking out the peephole, and it’s still ringing — ”

Rocky: “It was pretty rough.”

Still, the Montezes remained. Until:

Roland: “What I saw was, at the time, I thought, my two sisters walking up the steps. And I said, you know, ‘No big deal — there goes Celeste and Bridget.’ Then, they turn into their room, and it just got bright. Everything got bright. So they started screaming. So we ran in there. And we’re all four kids, huddled together, and we see a – a ball. Of light. Suspended. So it floats its way into the bathroom. So we close the door.”

Elvia: “They’re hugging each other, and I knew that they were terrified. And I — and I’m the mother, you know, and I’m supposed to be the strong one … When I opened the door, there was a big ball of light, suspended in the middle of the bathroom. So I looked at it, shut the door, and I know this sounds dumb, but I said ‘You know, I think it’s a light`ning` bug.’”

Rocky: “And then it would blink, and then slowly dissipate, dissipate, dissipate, and finally, just gone.”

Roland: “And then she turned around and she asked us what happened exactly. And I start to say, ‘Well, I saw Celeste and Bridget walking up the steps.’ And they say, ‘We didn’t walk up the steps, we were asleep.’ So that’s when I started hiding behind `Rocky`.”

Rocky: “And that was kind of the final straw.”

Elvia: “Yeah.”

Rocky: “And that’s when we, I mean, we’ve always believed in stuff, but that is when we, you know, `knew` it to be true.”

Fast forward 11 or 12 years — during which time the Montezes have stored away enough “experiences” to last several campfires — and the Ghost Seekers have accumulated a membership.

“You have to have a very balanced mind going into it,” says Rocky. “If you get people in there that believe, like, every bump and noise is paranormal, it’s not good. So, you have to kind of weed out a little bit. We have some people that are very dedicated.”

Among them, the final roster for the third seeking: Besides the Montezes, the team consists of their 15-year-old niece/granddaughter Tori; freelancers Polly Cox (bartender), Kym McKinney (tax filer), and Jason Braun (graphic artist); and Tori’s friend Amber. Also along for the ride are site staff member Tom Nagy, Current photographer Antonia Padilla, and one heretofore ghost-story-less cub reporter. Our destination: The Church Bistro and Theater at King William, built in 1912 and formerly the Alamo Street Restaurant and Theater, née the Alamo Methodist Church.

This ain’t no Kumbaya: Five Seekers and a fraidy-cat reporter conduct a séance.

“Everybody knows the building’s haunted,” says Nagy, who has been on the building’s four-member staff since 1990. “That’s the first thing `customers` say, is they want to see Miss Margaret.”

Miss Margaret, it will not surprise you to hear, is the affectionate name given to perhaps the best-known of at least four “friendly” spirits who reportedly inhabit the Bistro and Theater, which has been visited by paranormal groups from across the country and boasts citations (albeit under its Alamo Street handle) in a number of books and websites dedicated to haunted U.S. and Texas locales. Margaret, who purportedly appears in elegant Victorian dress during stage productions, is believed to be the earthbound spirit of deceased actress Margaret Gething, who lived nearby on Guenther Street.

“I’ll never forget that odor,” says Victoria Sotello, now general manager for 25 years, recalling a mysterious perfume scent she thinks may have belonged to Margaret. “I followed the smell and it went all the way up to the theater, and I said, ‘Oh, my God’ … I mean, it was just one of those odors from way back, like rosewater, or something a little old lady would wear.”

A second alleged entity, an 8-to-12-year-old boy named Eddie, has earned a reputation for mischief — an inured Sotello, among others, recounts a litany of “little things”: lights and ovens turning on and off, levitating tableware, playful shoves into the refrigerator.

“I’m always going, ‘Oh, Eddie, can you please leave me alone? I’ve just got a long day today,” she says, laughing a bit. Most accounts mention two more residents, a mannered elderly couple who frequent the stage and bell tower; The Bistro’s website suggests at least another: a night-owlish former actor named Alvin.

Any Seeker’s/ Hunter’s/Buster’s “holy grail,” Rocky says, is a “full-body apparition.” He admits, though, that he’s never encountered one, and that such things are exceedingly rare. More likely are somewhat subtler traces: “orbs” (circular photographic irregularities, attributable to everything from reflective dust particles to the gathering of energy by a manifesting phantasm), electronic voice phenomena (or EVPs; typically short captures of voices or voicelike sounds on electronic devices, generally inaudible until playback `White Noise, anyone?`), partial apparitions … even smells.

Some "orbs" captured by Kym's digital camera.

Which, mere minutes after lights-out — the seeking’s official beginning — is precisely what I’m picking up.

We’re downstairs, in the near-pitch-black dining room. It’s about half-past midnight, and our team, consisting of Rocky, Elvia, Tori, Antonia, Tom, and myself (yep — we’ve decided to split up into smaller groups, like they do in horror movies), has chosen the room nearest the notoriously “active” (and regrettably blocked-off) kitchen to begin our vigil. And my nostrils are already twitching. I’m hesitant, almost a bit annoyed: I’m the reporter, fer cryin’ out loud, the supposed skeptic — it won’t do at all for me to play the gun-jumping eager beaver. And yet, there it is: an unmistakably perfume-like scent, a potent, sweet-smelling combination that absolutely was not there a moment before. I sniff for a moment, wavering, as fragrant insistence wars with my reluctance to be the rube. I sniff louder and look around, unable to believe that I’m the only one detecting it. Finally, I crack.

“Are you wearing perfume?” I whisper to Elvia, seated next to me.

“No,” she whispers back.

“OK.” Hmm.

“We’re not allowed.”

I begin to sniff again, loudly and pointedly. This time, Elvia catches on. She gives a couple of sniffs, then turns sharply.

“Rocky. Smell that?”

The three of us, now, are sniffing the air like basset hounds. After a moment, Rocky speaks.

“I think that’s a normal smell.”

In my head, I respectfully disagree. He turns now.

“Tom, do you want to … ?”

Tom raises his head and inhales once.

“That’s the air freshener.”

Rube, present-and-accounted-for. It’s on a timer, too, the little bastard — which explains, of course, oh-so-neatly, how the scent came from seemingly nowhere. The remainder of the dining-room vigil passes more or less without incident; so, by all indications, does the rest of the night. Kym’s digital camera snags all manner of orbs, which are interesting, and even eerily in step, occasionally, with the bleating of Jason’s EMF meter, but considerably less than mind-blowing. The meter goes wacko, but we realize eventually that it’s most likely responding to an overhead light fixture. I think I hear a whisper in the theater, but by that time it’s well-nigh three in the morning, and my mind-state is such that I probably couldn’t be sure anything had happened if a ghost had flown up my ass and made me do the “Shake, Señora” number from Beetlejuice. I even break my no-séance rule by the end of the night — risking guilt, trauma, and that thing about your mother doing that one thing in that one place — all for naught, far as I can tell. But it’s OK, I realize. I couldn’t really have expected more, right?

And then, there’s the phone call from Rocky. And then, I’m standing in his room. And then, he’s proving that it ain’t over ’til it is.

Exhibit A — a small, briefly moving orb caught on infrared digital video — is amusing and worth a look, if in no way conclusive. In the theater, Kym turns to snap a photograph; an instant before she does, an orange-sized, translucent ball of light appears in midair, floats laterally and upward for a moment, and vanishes. Tough to explain, perhaps, but too brief to be really impressive.

Exhibit B is much, much better: Immediately after the orb disappears, Kym takes her picture and Roland walks into frame, descends a smattering of steps, and goes to join Polly and Kym in the converted pews that serve as audience seats. As he sits, a barely audible but unambiguously male and human voice that doesn’t seem to come from anyone onscreen intones something that, Rocky contends, sounds like “Dear Lord.” The phrase is, to me, unintelligible; it is, nonetheless, definitely a voice.

Exhibit C, for me, blows A and B out of the water. It’s another voice; much clearer this time. As Jason drags the EMF meter down a darkened upstairs hallway, Kym following with her camera, Polly steps over to me to ask a question. As Jason and Kym continue down the hall, leaving me alone with Polly, I answer something like “Maybe. Yeah, right, right, right,” and ask her what she thinks. Kym laughs, and then, in a quiet pocket, a whispered male voice for which I honest-to-God can in no way account says, very directly, either “I know,” or “I don’t know.” The only male voice within close enough range — the words sound like they’re spoken directly into the microphone — was mine, and I certainly didn’t say it. The only other explanation I could summon was an altered tape; though it sounded too clean to have been edited together and the Montezes swore they
didn’t touch it, I couldn’t allow myself to be completely sure.

Until I found the same thing, more clearly, on my own digital audio recorder. The one I use for interviews. The one I kept running in my pocket most of the night. The one that never once left my possession.

I ask Rocky later if he believes that the Church Bistro and Theater is haunted. He says yes. He also believes that his house and Pat O’Brien’s are haunted — and he’ll get a second shot at the latter, as the Seekers have been invited back for a follow-up. As for myself, I don’t think I’ll be joining another séance anytime soon. And I still haven’t slapped hoof with any semi-equine babes or dusted for wheat-flour fingerprints on my bumper.

But brother, I think I got me a ghost story.

For a free Ghost Seeking at you home or place of business, contact the Ghost Seekers of Texas:
Ghost Seekers hotline: (210) 531-6759

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