As a young child, Judy Ward didn't set out to connect with ghosts. They came to her.
Ward's first experience with paranormal activity happened around age 9 or 10, during a sleepover at a close family friend's house.
"They were in an old, three-story Victorian home in Williamsburg, Indiana, and things kept happening and happening inside that home that we couldn't explain," she says.
Instead of vowing never to return, one night during another sleepover Ward, her friend and her friend's little sister decided to host a séance.
What happened next shook the then fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders to their cores.
"The chandelier in the room started to move, the TV came on by itself, we heard feet stomping up the stairs and doors kept opening and closing on their own," recalls Ward. "That night, the three of us ended up in bed with their mother."
- Courtesy The Athenaeum Foundation
"To do a good paranormal investigation is a lot like fishing," Judy Ward says."Sometimes there's a lot of waiting, so you have to be quiet and patient."
Nearly 50 years later, Ward is still hunting ghosts.
"I wanted an answer to the why and how," she says.
Each year Ward packs up her ghost-hunting gear and heads over to the historic Athenaeum building to be one of 50 participants in the annual Ghost Hunt Fundraiser hosted by UnseenPress.com. This year's event will be held this Friday (Sept. 26).
Believers, nonbelievers and those that are just plain curious will gather inside the 120-year-old building for an overnight experience, where participants seek to connect with spirits that are said to dwell within the downtown landmark.
"There's a wide range of people coming for the paranormal investigation," says Sara Carolin, operations and events manager at the Athenaeum Foundation, Inc. "I think what interests people is the idea of something like that [connecting with ghosts]is happening. There's the fascination with something they're not familiar with, and sometimes they leave with their minds changed."
Ward, however, has always been a believer.
This year's fundraiser will be her fourth time participating in the ghost hunt, but her first time as a tour leader along with UnseenPress.com founders Nicole and Michael Kobrowski.
What keeps Ward coming back are the experiences she's had at each event. She and other participants have connected with several spirits inside the Athenaeum, according to Ward.
There's the ghost of an 8-year-old German girl who loves to dance.
The spirit of Peter Lieber, one of the German founders of the Athenaeum, also roams the halls.
And there's Dr. Helene Knabe, the German-born doctor who taught and worked inside the Athenaeum, and whose murder has yet to be solved. Lore has it that the second-floor auditorium inside the building is where autopsies and medical classes were conducted during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The cadavers were said to be stolen bodies obtained by grave robbers.
Then there are the experiences that simply cannot be explained.
"Once, in an area inside the Athenaeum's YMCA there was a lone Christmas decoration just swaying wildly while the others were completely still," says Ward.
Yet the most personal experience for Ward so far was when she heard a loud "ssshhh-ing" sound in her right ear during one of the Athenaeum's Ghost Hunts.
"What you don't know is that I'm deaf in my right ear," she says.
Husband-and-wife duo Nicole and Michael Kobrowski are experienced paranormal investigators who have led countless ghost tours and walks in their business UnseenPress.com, which has been hosting paranormal events throughout Indiana since 2000.
The couple started the Athenaeum's Ghost Hunt Fundraiser in 2012 after hearing countless stories about the paranormal activity happening inside the building. The tales came from waiters and waitresses who work at the Rathskeller restaurant, which is connected to the Athenaeum.
Nicole has always believed in paranormal activity. Michael, however, admits that originally he did not.
"My wife dragged me into it," says Michael, with a chuckle. "But hearing about her stories and experiences, I started feeling things that I didn't expect.
"When we went on our first investigation [together], I had a really strong, intense bad feeling, and I'm not really that sensitive."
Since then he's been hooked.
The Ghost Hunt at the Athenaeum isn't about turning nonbelievers into believers or about confirming what those who already believe to be true.
"On a personal level, I just want to connect with those that have messages for us," says Ward, who cofounded the Hoosier Paranormal Society with her partner and conducts her own paranormal investigations.
- Courtesy of Judy Ward
A flashlight and balloon are two of the props used to communicate with ghosts during a session in the upper ballroom/auditorium. The flashlight did come on by itself shortly after the session began.
During the Athenaeum's Ghost Hunt, participants use flashlights, video recorders, digital voice recorders and other devices to document what they see and hear during the night. Everyone is encouraged to bring his or her own equipment, but Ward says there's one item that is not permitted.
"We don't allow Ouija boards," says Ward, who will lead a group through 14 rooms inside the Athenaeum throughout the night.
"During [the ghost hunt], we keep our minds away from negative thoughts, and we don't provoke the spirits because it's disrespectful. When we do get evidence of paranormal activity, we thank the spirits for that."
Although, according to Ward, the spirits have revealed themselves during past ghost hunts at the Athenaeum, she wants those who have never participated before to understand that sometimes things don't always happen when you want or expect them to.
"To do a good paranormal investigation is a lot like fishing," she says. "Sometimes there's a lot of waiting, so you have to be quiet and patient."
Athenaeum Ghost Hunt Fundraiser
What: An annual fundraiser for the Athenaeum that takes participants on a paranormal experience through 14 rooms inside the historic building with experienced guides. The event is limited to 50 participants.
When: This Saturday, Sept. 26, 2014. The event runs from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.
Where: The Athenaeum, 401 E. Michigan St.
Cost: $50 per person. Proceeds are used for the Athenaeum's general operating fund.
Info: (317) 655-2755, www.athenaeumfoundation.org. Register online; space is limited. Participants are asked to bring their own equipment.