Ghosts and haunted houses aren’t just reserved for Halloween. Orlando’s rich history dates back to 1838 when the U.S. Army built Fort Gatlin near the present-day Orlando city limits to protect settlers from attacks during the Seminole Wars. This long history means spooky stories abound in the area.
Strange happenings are rumored at the Orange County Regional History Center and businesses in the Church Street Station area of downtown Orlando. There’s also the story of George, who is said to be the ghost of a Disney cast member at the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. Mike Damsel, the founder of RIP Hunters Paranormal Investigations in Orlando, investigates real-life hauntings to find valid evidence backing the claims or to debunk them.
Southwest Orlando Beginnings
Intuitive his whole life, Damsel found himself facing his future career as he was performing contracting work in 1996. He was called to a home to prepare it for a renovation, emptying rooms and ripping up carpets.
“As soon as I walked in there was a heavy, negative feeling,” he remembers.
Damsel was nervous. He knew whatever was in that house didn’t want him there. As he continued working, the feeling became stronger.
“I would take strips of carpet outside and I would feel fine,” he says. “Then I would go back in and feel that heaviness.”
At one point during the job, Damsel found a bloodstain beneath the carpet in the master bedroom. Those strong, negative feelings suddenly made sense; someone didn’t want him to discover it. Then there was a knock at the front door.
Damsel opened it to find a nicely dressed man who told him that Damsel had been pondering something and he had the answer. He handed Damsel a pamphlet that said, “You are surrounded by evil and you must protect yourself.”
He went outside and looked down the street, but there was no one there. So he strapped his ladders securely to his truck and headed home on I-4. While the incident was unnerving, he mostly felt curious about what happened.
During his drive home, Damsel asked for a sign that he was meant to investigate paranormal activity for a living. Immediately, the ladders came loose and began to drag behind his truck. When he pulled over to fix them, he noticed the ladders were not tied, as they were when he left the job site.
“They were tied under instead of over, as if someone had re-tied them,” he says.
When Damsel got home, his girlfriend said he looked white as a ghost, so he shared his experience and showed her the pamphlet. She screamed. She was reading a book and had just gotten to the exact same passage that Damsel read on the pamphlet.
“I took that as the message,” he says. “I was meant to do this.”
Tools of the Trade
Knowing he was on the right career path, Damsel employed the best team of mediums and investigators he could find. They use the most up-to-date and sensitive equipment available. Items range from a portal spirit box that uses radio frequencies to communicate with spirits to a $10 flashlight that allows them to use their energy to turn it on and off.
“We immediately try to debunk all evidence,” says Damsel. “We aren’t just looking for one answer from a spirit. We are looking for stacked evidence.”
RIP Hunters has investigated Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition on International Drive and hosts monthly investigations at historical locations in Sanford via a meet-up group. The chosen locations have documented paranormal activity and offer the public a chance to witness the team in action.
During each investigation, Damsel and his team ask the entities questions. He notes that these questions must be asked in specific ways to get them to communicate.
“They mostly want to get a message to a loved one or let them know they are okay,” he says. “Basically, I’m here to help people.”
Spirits in Winter Park
A memorable RIP Hunters investigation involved two men. One was terminally ill, and his partner of 20 years had a hard time admitting he may die. To protect their privacy, we’ll call them Tom and Jerry. The couple had paranormal activity in their home for weeks with Tom seeing and hearing spirits.
Damsel brought in a medium and investigators who began asking the spirits questions in the presence of the couple and their family. He believes they weren’t just spirits but instead they were angels preparing for Tom’s death.
In the first 10 minutes of the session, Damsel didn’t get any response. He thought it might be because Tom’s sister was in the room, so he asked her to step out. There was still no response, but there was still one other woman in the room.
“I thought, because of the men’s lifestyle, maybe the spirits don’t want to say anything in front of women, so I asked her to leave,” Damsel says. “As soon as she walked out the door all our equipment lit up.”
The team reviewed the evidence and determined the spirits were at the house to help Tom pass. Jerry had not yet come to terms with Tom’s death.
“I talked with Jerry and told him, ‘You need to tell Tom you are OK with this,’” Damsel says.
Nearly a week later, Tom was in the hospital. He was part American Indian, and part of that culture is the belief that a wolf comes for a person in their time of passing.
“I saw a wolf coming for Tom in the hospital room,” Damsel remembers. His wife Ana, a medium and respiratory therapist who participates in many investigations, explains that the team was able to capture an image of the wolf on camera at the hospital. “As soon as Jerry accepted the situation, Tom passed.”
Jerry held a memorial service at the couple’s home. Damsel remembers the mediums sitting by the pool among a crowd of about 100 people.
“Tom was there too, enjoying himself,” Damsel says. “There were a bunch of spirits walking around. It was a beautiful and moving moment.”