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Checking Things That Bump at Night : San Diego's Own Ghostbusters Scope Out Bizarre Phenomena

July 15, 1989|CATHERINE M. SPEARNAK

SAN DIEGO — Slime makes Kay Sterner cringe.

It's not that she's afraid of the make-believe psychomagnetic goop that threatens to drive Manhattan residents crazy in "Ghostbusters II." And it's not that she's afraid she'll succumb to its supposed diabolical powers.

No, Sterner is concerned that anyone would create the idea of slime at all, or make fun of the discipline she and other members of the Spring Valley-based California Parapsychology Foundation have devoted much of their lives to.

"They are distortions of the truth and they hurt people . . . especially young people who are impressionable," the parapsychologist said about the recently released movie.

For Sterner and her colleagues who investigate bizarre psychic phenomena in San Diego County, parapsychology is not to be taken lightly, as Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Co. do in the movie.

Yet, as much as Sterner bristles about the movie, there are some noticeable similarities between the ghostbusters of New York City and the parapsychologists of San Diego County.

First of all, they believe in psychic happenings. They live to investigate these strange occurrences. And they want to help people who cross paths with ghosts, or other mysterious phenomena.

But, if you call on Sterner's services, don't expect her to come clad in the baggy brown jumpsuit and high-top sneakers preferred by her celluloid colleagues. Sterner's ghost-busting garb is her everyday wardrobe: double-knit pants, white button earrings and a beige blouse dotted with tiny red and blue flowers.

Hates to Be Called a Psychic

And don't expect the wisecracking affability of Murray's character, Dr. Peter Venkman. Sterner pointedly tells you over and over again that she hates to be called a psychic. If you mispronounce a word, she won't hesitate to correct you.

Should you question her credentials, she'll note that she has a doctorate from UCLA in education and psychology, has helped members of the British royal family with psychic endeavors and was once among the most sought-after parapsychologists in the world, shuttling from the United States to Europe to perform experiments. She has taught accredited courses in parapsychological research at San Diego State University and other colleges.

Many people who call the California Parapsychology Foundation to report unusual happenings are terrified. About two months ago, Sterner and another parapsychologist visited the Rancho Penasquitos home of one such family, whose members reported pots and pans flying around their kitchen, cabinet doors slamming of their own volition and furniture rearranging itself in the living room. They even heard voices.

Such psychokinetic activity is nothing to be afraid of and often happens to families with children in puberty, according to Sterner. The explosion of energy that occurs during those years is usually the culprit that triggers the activity, she said, especially among children of parents who are psychic.

This investigation, however, wasn't wildly adventurous. When the team went to observe the Rancho Penasquitos home, they saw nothing as dramatic as what the family had reported. That's not unusual . . . ghosts generally don't appear on command.

"When we get there, usually nothing happens," Sterner said. "The children are all quiet and on best behavior, sitting with their hands folded."

She tried to assure the family that the weird occurrences would eventually stop, but they insisted on moving.

Strange Footsteps

Perhaps Sterner's best-known accomplishment in parapsychology is her purported discovery of spirits and ghosts haunting the Whaley House in Old Town.

In 1963, docents working in the historic two-story mansion began reporting strange occurrences. They heard footsteps in an upstairs bedroom and piano music in the parlor. Sometimes they smelled cigar smoke or perfume.

Sterner investigated and concluded that several of the Whaleys, a turn-of-the-century merchant family, still inhabit the home in spirit. Without knowing the history of the house or family, Sterner accurately recounted incidents that had occurred on the property. Her findings were later substantiated historically, according to museum director June A. Reading.

The staff at Whaley House still hears the sounds, and, on occasion, visitors to the house report whiffing Thomas Whaley's cigar.

One recent day, a telephone call dragged Sterner off the flowered, velvet couch in her Spring Valley home that houses the parapsychology foundation. The caller was a woman who thought she had seen a ghost superimposed on a movie she was watching on television.

Associates Help Out

Sterner talked with the woman for about 15 minutes, took her name and phone number, then promised to have another foundation member check it out. She turns such tips over to one of five or six core group members, who include a La Jolla tax attorney and a young federal budget analyst who, probably to Sterner's dismay, says he loves and even envies the fictional Ghostbusters.

"I think everyone has had experiences that defy empirical reasoning," said Kris Sorenson, a University of San Diego graduate whose studies in philosophy led him into parapsychology. "There is something out there that's going on . . . ."

That something is no more than the psychic energy everyone is born with, parapsychologists maintain. Whether it's labeled intuition or precognition, psychic ability or simply a gut feeling, everyone has the power to tune in to the "inner voice" that can guide them toward good experiences or away from bad ones.

"We need to have people understand how truly remarkable we all are," Sterner said. "And that we all have these powers to a degree."

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