If you've ever watched one of television's many ghost hunting-themed reality shows, you've probably seen a cast member whip out his or her trusty EMF detector, a staple of the paranormal investigator's toolbox.
EMF stands for electromagnetic field, and EMF meters are typically used to diagnose wiring issues and other electrical anomalies. The (shaky) rationale behind the use of these devices among paranormal enthusiasts is that the presence of a ghost is said to produce unusual spikes in their readings. Fancier models can retail for close to $300—on the other end of the spectrum, you can download a free EMF-detecting app for your phone—but when we found the Ghost Meter EMF Sensor available for only $19.95 on Amazon, we couldn't resist.
We took the ghost meter out for a test drive on 13 of New York City's most infamously haunted locations, just in time for Halloween.
A note about about the meter
Here are three actual lines from the documentation that accompanied the ghost meter, presented in no particular order:
- "If you search www.google.com and look for 'ghost pictures' or 'ghost hunts' you will finds [sic] thousands of clubs and ghost pictures worldwide!"
- "Have a paranormal party… These parties are exciting, great get togethers and they really unite all scared members! A real ice breaker!"
- "Conduct paranormal surveys (comes with instructions). You may charge for those services or do them for pleasure!"
Contrary to what that parenthetical would lead you to believe, there's very little in the way of instructions provided, and absolutely no mention is made of the 9V battery the meter requires to function. The text does note that ghosts can bring about "electromagnetic anomalies," which you'll observe by the "strong, erratic fluctuating readings" registered on your meter at haunted locations. Consistent readings are more likely the result of EMFs emanating from power lines or wiring.
What the ghost meter's packaging lacks in useful information, it makes up for with not one, not two, but three advertisements for unrelated fringe products: a radiation-free computer, a skincare line with none of the "TOXIC INGREDIENTS" typically found in one's home, and an unspecified "innovative technology from Asia" with pain-relieving capacities, personally endorsed by "the inventor of the meter." It also comes with an Associated Press article about a ghost sighting in the UK, reprinted in full, without commentary.
I cannot recommend this purchase highly enough.
The haunted locations
1. The Belasco Theatre
111 West 44th Street
The Belasco Theatre dates back to 1907, when it was opened by David Belasco, an actor and producer who lived in its penthouse apartment. In the decades since the so-called Bishop of Broadway's death in 1931, performers have spotted a mysterious figure watching from a balcony.
The Belasco's most recent production, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, closed in September. The next won't premiere until February. For now, the lobby is dark and deserted. But is it haunted?
…maybe? The ghost meter certainly picked up on something, but the reading was relatively stable.
Ghost meter reading: 2.4/5
2. The Algonquin Hotel
59 West 44th Street
In the '20s, this official NYC historic landmark hosted the luncheons of the Algonquin Round Table, a brilliant and notorious assembly of writers, actors, and other luminaries, including Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woolcott. Some say they never left.
To the dismay of the guests in the lobby, the ghost meter immediately began to beep loudly, its lights flashing. The needle jumped around the red section of the scale, between 2 and 5 milliGauss, but never quite came to a rest. Interesting.
Ghost meter reading: 4/5
3. The Campbell Apartment
15 Vanderbilt Ave
Tucked away in a corner of Grand Central, this high-end cocktail lounge once served as the opulent office of financier John W. Campbell and, later, as a railroad jail. The owner is reportedly convinced that the Campbell Apartment is haunted, and staff members have spotted a ghostly couple enjoying a drink when the bar was closed. Nevertheless, the ghost meter wasn't impressed.
Ghost meter reading: 0/5
Grand Central's Main Concourse, which is itself historic, gorgeous, and occasionally spooky, didn't register any unusual activity either.
Ghost meter reading: 0/5
4. Trinity Churchyard
This centuries-old cemetery in the heart of the Financial Distract is the final resting place of both Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Eliza.
Visitors have heard laughter when no one else is around, a phenomenon that's often associated with actor Adam Allyn (who died in 1768), whose headstone is inscribed "comedian." Lady Cornbury, the wife of an early 18th-century governor of New York, is thought to steal small objects she finds in the graveyard. Neither of them seemed to be in action the afternoon we visited.
Ghost meter reading: 0.7/5
5. Fraunces Tavern
54 Pearl Street
This restaurant and museum is said to be the oldest building still standing in Manhattan. George Washington dined here, more than once. One of the galleries upstairs holds a lock of the first American president's hair and one of his teeth. Fraunces Tavern invited a group of paranormal investigators to visit the building in 2013, and the team captured multiple eyebrow-raising EVPs (electronic voice phenomena).
Inside, the ghost meter's needle suddenly swung all the way to left, past zero, to a negative reading. With the device's minimal instructions, it's unclear how to interpret this result: Is Fraunces Tavern super haunted? Super not-haunted? Or was the meter just on the fritz?
Ghost meter reading: ???/5
6. Merchant's House Museum
29 East 4th Street
This beautifully preserved home was built in 1832. It reopened as a museum in 1936, complete with original furnishings and belongings of the Tredwell family, who occupied the house for nearly a century.
Supposedly haunted by the Tredwells' youngest daughter, Gertrude, the Merchant's House Museum offers candlelight ghost tours throughout the year. (Its website features an endorsement from the New York Times, calling it "Manhattan's most haunted house"—which is odd, because the actual New York Times article in question seems to quote that phrase from the museum's own press materials.)
Perhaps the ghost meter would have encountered some more intriguing energy during one of those tours, but outside the front door, all was quiet on the paranormal front.
Ghost meter reading: 0.2/5
7. St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery
131 East 10th Street
This Episcopalian church, the city's oldest site of continual religious worship, has towered over the East Village since 1799. It's also a well-respected venue for dance, poetry readings, and performance art, frequented by the likes of Martha Graham and Allen Ginsberg.
Reported paranormal activity here includes sightings of Peter Stuyvesant, the peg-legged Netherlander who governed New Amsterdam before the British renamed it New York. Stuyvesant died in 1672 and was buried in a vault on the property, which was then the site of a chapel built by his family.
The church's high-ceilinged sanctuary was peaceful, and the ghost meter paid it little mind.
But in a small utility room that led to St. Mark's main space, the walls of which are lined with electrical panels (a reliable source of electromagnetic fields), the device fluctuated wildly, with the needle ultimately landing beyond the scale's maximum reading of 5 mG.
Ghost meter reading: 5+/5
8. House of Death
14 West 10th Street
This West Village brownstone has seen more than its fair share of claims of paranormal activity, including a ghost cat and visits from one-time resident Mark Twain. In 1987, a real-life tragedy took place within its walls: criminal defense attorney Joel Steinberg killed his six-year-old illegally adopted daughter in their apartment.
Here, like at Fraunces Tavern, the ghost meter produced a suspicious negative reading.
Ghost meter reading: ???/5
I posted a question about the meaning of such far-left readings on the ghost meter's Amazon listing. The seller, Technology Alternatives Corporation, promptly got back to me with a response that, while well-intentioned, possibly left me even more confused:
All movements of the needle are to the right. The true zero is the most left position. If there is a 0.0 milligauss EMF reading, the needle will find this left-most place. Sometimes an active needle will go way left because of the natural sway or movement for a fraction of a second. In general, any way left position of the needle is in effect a zero. …It is not an important reading … the most important readings are unpredictable and erratic needle jumping behavior, that is paranormal behavior.
I don't believe I was moving the ghost meter at the time—especially because, in both cases, I took a series of photos that captured the needle holding steady in that position—so let's call this reading a zero.
A really spooky zero.
9. Hangman's Elm
Northwest corner of Washington Square Park
According to legend, this 110-foot tall elm was used for public executions during the Revolutionary War and through the early 19th century, although historians dispute whether that's actually the case. Hangings or no hangings, it's still believed to be the oldest tree in Manhattan. The ghost meter hardly registered anything at all here, which isn't terribly surprising, considering the park is probably as far from electric wiring as the device has been all day.
Ghost meter reading: 0.1/5
10. One if by Land, Two if by Sea
17 Barrow Street
This romantic restaurant was once the carriage house of Aaron Burr. The vice-president (and shooter of Alexander Hamilton, whose grave we visited at Trinity Churchyard) is just one of 20 ghosts a parapsychologist has claimed to sense on the premises. The ghost meter did perk up nearby, but its steady reading suggests the EMFs in question were of boringly non-paranormal origins.
Ghost meter reading: 2.6/5
11. White Horse Tavern
567 Hudson Street
This literary landmark was a favorite haunt (so to speak) of poet Dylan Thomas, who died shortly after downing a great deal of whiskey at his customary corner table, which has become the epicenter of reported paranormal activity in the tavern ever since. The White Horse later became an epicenter of the counterculture of the '50s and '60s, hosting James Baldwin, Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, and many more larger-than-life figures.
The ghost meter had little interest in the first room of the tavern, but in the second room—approaching Thomas' table, which stands in front of a portrait of the writer—it went nuts.
Ghost meter reading: 5+/5
12. Hotel Chelsea
222 West 23rd Street
The Chelsea Hotel has housed a long, long list of famous musicians, artists, and writers, with Dylan (both Bob and Thomas), Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin among them. It's also where Sid Vicious' girlfriend Nancy Spungen was found stabbed to death in 1978. The Chelsea is currently under renovation, to reopen under new ownership next year—but that doesn't necessarily mean the spirits of Thomas, Spungen, and other former residents who've been spotted by guests are going anywhere. The reading at the hotel wasn't the highest of the day, but it was noticeably unstable.
Ghost meter reading: 2.4/5
13. The Dakota
1 West 72nd Street
This Gothic-style luxury apartment building, built in the 1880s, looms imposingly over Central Park West. John Lennon lived there for seven years before he was murdered outside its entrance. Yoko Ono, his widow, still resides in the building and says she's seen the ghost of her late husband in their home. Lennon himself reported encountering a "crying lady ghost" in the halls of the Dakota.
Are either of them still around? The meter doesn't seem to think so.
Ghost meter reading: 2.7/5
Based on our readings, there are two locations I'd recommend seeking out (or avoiding, depending on your personal tolerance for spirits or spooks) above all the rest: the Algonquin Hotel and the White Horse Tavern. That dark, creepy room in St. Mark's would be up there, too, if the less-than-supernatural source of its EMFs wasn't so obvious.
But take all this with a grain of salt, and not just because—friendly reminder!—there's no scientific evidence that ghosts exist at all. The strongest indicator of paranormal activity (high but unpredictable EMF levels) we found that day wasn't in a haunted house, haunted hotel, haunted bar, or haunted restaurant: it was on the R train.
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.