By Dan Harkins
DELAND - The once-posh Putnam Hotel, right across West New York Avenue from City Hall, is imposing enough as it is.
Add the true crime residue that's bound to accrue over the course of nearly a century in a slowly declining, six-story hotel and boarding house, and the ghost hunt is on.
At the helm of this one is Mike Damsel, founder of the three-year-old R.I.P. Hunters - Research and Investigations of the Paranormal. He and his Sanford-based group have had the chance to pore over purportedly haunted structures all over the region, from an old Sanford firehouse to ancient St. Augustine.
He's walked these hotel halls on four different occasions since July 2011. He rattles off several incidents, in room after room, where he and a dozen others in the core group have set up full-spectrum cameras and voice recording equipment to capture EVPs, or electronic voice phenomena.
All images lead via cables back here, to the nerve center in the middle of the fourth floor, where a monitor displays a grid of all the video streams. A quiet, distanced view of former crime scenes.
"Since we've been here before," Mr. Damsel says busily, "we kind of know where to focus, where we've had success before."
He points just down the hall from here.
"A lot of activity," he says, has been gauged all over this place.
Room 414: A man committed suicide and wasn't discovered for four days.
Room 127 (on the fifth floor): From afar, a man supposedly witnessed his lover - an actress from the Athens Theater next door who was staying at the Putnam - getting flowers from another man. Later, he kills her in this room, then himself, before learning the other man was her long-lost brother.
Room 313: A pregnant woman plummeted to her death from the window, right onto the back stoop of the hotel.
In the bedroom suite, a circle of chairs faces a corner, the location of séance-like rituals that group members claim can often send their equipment into crazy fits and eerie feelings rushing through them.
Mr. Damsel vows no tinkering is involved and believes it's no coincidence these rooms are where paranormal anomalies tend to be occurring.
Back at the nerve center, other members are readying more equipment to record those anomalies.
Sharon Morris of Winter Springs unloads several silver suitcases packed with this device and that. The K2 for magnetism. The Mel meter for fluctuations in temperature. The handheld lasers to verify true movement.
"First, we rule out what is being caused by natural sources, like a lot of electrical current or an open window," said Ms. Morris, who believes her deceased father communicated with her from the grave. "That helps us focus in. A lot of people don't believe in this, but I do, in positive and negative energy, and how it can be left over from past lives."
Michael Cofelice of Maitland has been studying ghostly phenomena since 14 and now brings his disbelieving 16-year-old son, Chris, along on RIP Hunters hunts.
"I'm not sensitive at all," his father said. "I'm more on the science side. But I believe Chris is sensitive."
His son rolls his eyes, smiles. No comment.
Others have concrete plans. Like Louise Miller, a Daytona Beach retiree, who was scouring the Putnam with three types of full-spectrum cameras. Down dark hallways she took aim again and again in hopes of being the one to finally land undeniable photographic proof of ghostly phenomena.
"That's my goal, to capture something on film," she said. "I'm gonna try my hardest to capture something. I haven't done it yet, but I feel I've gotten close."
That would prove to disbelievers, she said, what she already knows to be true: that ghosts do exist or else she wouldn't have been touched by an unknown presence the way she was at earlier investigations, like the one at the former Green Cove Springs Jail.
"You can't really explain it unless you've felt it," she said. "But once you do, you just know."
Few would deny the historical weight felt on your shoulders here. The first Putnam, built of wood, burned down here in 1917. It was replaced in 1923 with this Mediterranean-style former postcard model, designed of concrete and steel by a famed architect, William Carpenter, who moved his family to DeLand to design and build this and a lot of other buildings around the world.
According to historical records, the place was a swanky meeting place for the well-heeled and tapped in for much of its life, then gradually turned into a boarding house with many rooms now expanded into apartments and two rowdy bars on the first floor.
In recent years, the upper floors have become a repository of old furniture and boxed-away memories.
In charge of clarifying the view through all this paranormal residue are sensitives like Dipika, a medium from Sanford who is one in a long line of sensitives hailing from East India.
"I learned this from my mother and she learned it from my grandmother," Dipika said. "And so on. Many people would think of this as something I do, but it's really just something that I am. ... I see my job in things like this as being here to help people find their way."
Mr. Damsel posts later on R.I.P. Hunters' Meetup.com page that "the Putnam never lets us down. It was full of activity and a couple of wild sessions turned up some great stuff."
He promised to post video and sound recordings later for the group's 425 Meetup.com members, 34 of whom came to the Putnam Hotel hunt.
Suggested admission: $30 per head.
For more information about future R.I.P. Hunters meetings, go to http://www.meetup.com/riphunters/ or email email@example.com.