The ghost hunters show up at the Wayside Theatre in Middletown, Va., during the September run for Unnecessary Farce, a screwball comedy, and before opening night of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. They are looking for “George,” the so-called “colored usher,” who worked in the ’40s at Virginia’s second-oldest professional theater.

George, the story goes, lived and died on a porch just off the second floor that was dismantled during a theater renovation a few months ago. Now George is possibly hanging out at a balcony in an upper section—seat CC1—where he used to sit and watch performances after showing people (black only, this was during segregation) to their seats.

Theater types claim George, or some other ghost, is hanging around in other places as well. The stories they tell involve ghosts lurking among the dress racks in the costume room and creepy feelings of being followed on the stairs.

“Sound is not trustworthy in this booth,” says Wayside actress Thomasin Savaiano, the hunters’ tour guide, as she escorts them to the hub of the operation over the stage. “[The monitor will] shut off everything, and it’s entirely rearranged in the morning.”

The scene that follows is familiar to anyone who’s watched the plumbers-turned-spirit-catchers on the Sci-Fi network’s Ghost Hunters or those earnest Penn State kids on A&E’s Paranormal State. The place empties out, and the D.C. Metro Area Ghost Watchers haul out their A/V equipment (seven cameras wired up to a central command center next to the snack shop) and wait.

True to TV, they also try talking to the ghost, telling him to move a spindle on the sewing table—”It’s a very light spindle…” This is where the woman of the group, Jan Cunard, comes in. She’s the flirt.

Cunard, who’s in her 60s and volunteers as a commissioner for the Prince William County Historic Preservation Committee, grabs the mic and starts teasing George that he hasn’t been a good host to the men in her group.

“You know, we hear you’re very nice,” she sort-of purrs. “You are talking to ladies. They always appreciate a good-looking man.”

The coaxing continues for several minutes until everyone in the room swears the spindle slightly rocks from side to side.

Unlike her colleagues, who possess backgrounds in investigating or technology, Cunard was a client first. Her friend, the county’s historic preservation director, commissioned the Ghost Watchers to do a sweep of the historic Brentsville jail in Prince William. Cunard had spent more than a decade working to restore the jail and wanted to oversee the process to make sure they didn’t interfere with her efforts. Watching the group work made her want to be a part of its investigations.

“I arranged for them to do several other sites here in the county before they asked me to join the team last March,” she says. “Since I’ve always been a skeptic on many subjects, I try to figure out what the normal things are that are happening and prefer to debunk as much as I can and then concentrate on the things that I or other team members can’t explain.”

Having Cunard on board has, according to the others, shown results.

For example: In August when the group returned to the Brentsville jail on the anniversary of a famous murder there, investigators reviewed their recordings and claim an angry spirit can be heard calling Cunard a “whore” after she talked about a former prisoner’s wife getting remarried. On its Web site, the group posts an audio clip, attributing it to the jail, where someone can clearly be heard saying, “Get out of here.”

Previous cases around the D.C. area have produced more anecdotal creepiness. At the Christmas Attic store in Old Town Alexandria, the group’s lead investigator, John Warfield, a retired Navy officer who’s now a part-time physical therapist, alleges a ghost grabbed his hair, a reported signature move for that spirit.

But in Ellicott City, Md., a number of calls came up completely empty. At the Judge’s Bench Saloon, Maryland law wouldn’t allow the investigators to come in after closing, meaning they had to explore the place when it was filled with drinking customers.

“That’s not exactly how you want to do an investigation,” Warfield says.

For nearly every case—including the one at Wayside Theatre —an obvious shadowy figure doesn’t show itself that night, nor do the supposed ghosts regularly or audibly respond to questions asked of them. Results take time to decipher.

Warfield will spend hours going back over audio and video footage for rare moments that could yield “proof.” As of press time, he was still analyzing the Wayside evidence. Warfield has become so dedicated to the hunt, he now uses his physical-therapy income to fund the ghost watchers. Even though they charge nothing for their services, the cameras and wiring add up.

Much of the equipment and process is familiar to another member of the group, John Rossi, a former cop and psychologist who joined six months ago. Ghost hunting is lot like fishing, he says, adding it’s also a lot like being on a stakeout.

“You wait and wait and wait,” he says. “Sometimes you get lucky. A lot of this work is sitting around and hoping for something to happen. But I’d pick this over bad guys any day.”

(photo by piccadillywilson)