SALEM - The spirits that have been whispering inside psychic Nancy Garber's head for the last few hours are now changing so quickly, it's as if someone is haphazardly spinning her mental radio dial. Garber's focus ping-pongs around the parlor of the 17th-century Hooper-Hathaway House, searching for a clue as to which of the 22 people gathered in the room she should be addressing.
The pressure is on. Best-selling fiction author Heather Graham has organized the spirit communication session - commonly referred to as a seance - to publicize a new book. She's crossing her fingers for a message from her mother or sister. Meanwhile, Fox 25 News is taping from the corner. And Garber keeps getting distracted by the occasional click of a camera.
It's a tough audience to be working: Graham is there on this recent Thursday night with family, a cadre of publicists and journalists, employees from The House of the Seven Gables, and two women who won tickets to the event from a radio station. All are first-timers at a seance. Some seem to be holding in their skepticism. Others appear to be reining in their hope.
The question tonight: Is Garber for real? Everyone is searching for a sign.
Garber, who holds a master's degree in counseling from Northeastern University, is pulling words and images from an elderly gentleman chatting with her from "spirit." Garber looks thoughtful as she asks publicist Lauren Kulberg if she has been looking at paint colors for upcoming home repairs.
"I am expecting, so I am looking at colors," the pregnant Kulberg says.
"Mint green?" Garber asks. Kulberg nods. But the medium isn't done. The gentlemanly spirit is murmuring about a handmade cradle.
"You're freaking me out," replies Kulberg, who says she thinks the spirit might be a deceased grandfather who was in the cradle business.
Garber's knowledge of a recent sighting of three wild rabbits also stuns Marleah Stout, a senior manager in public relations at Harlequin Enterprises. The details were given to Garber by the spirit of a heavy-set woman who wore support stockings and was known for her baking.
"We've been talking about rabbits for days," Stout says. She and a friend spotted the bunnies while on a trip to Arizona. The spirit, Stout adds, is probably her aunt Edna, whose butterscotch pie - which she was just recalling - was mouth-watering.
Perhaps another believer in the beyond has been born tonight. There are more and more every day, experts on spiritualism say.
Lelia Cutler, president of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches, said no one keeps a great handle on the number of people who believe in life after death and the ability to talk with spirits, but membership in her organization numbers about 2,000 across the United States. She attributes the growing number of people open to exploring the supernatural to a proliferation of pop-culture portrayals of physics and seances - both in TV shows such as "Ghost Whisperer" and "Medium," and in books like Graham's.
The author went into this session with casual hopes for a message from spirit. She's lost her father, mother, and sister.
"I would really love to have something that proved that there was more and that the people who you loved who passed on might be there," Graham says. "I can't sit here and tell you that there are ghosts or that there's anything beyond, but I don't know anyone who can tell me that there's not."
Some skepticism among newcomers is good, especially because of the kitschy spookiness with which Hollywood often portrays the otherworldy, said the Rev. Charlotte Gordon, president of the National Spiritual Alliance of the United States of America.
"People with blind faith . . . you know, they walk off the cliff and destroy themselves," Gordon said. "I personally think it's healthy to be skeptical. . . . In my mind, that is the mark of a true seeker."
It's not clear how many people in the Hooper-Hathaway House this evening are convinced, though more than a few have been surprised by the things Garber knows.
Even the jaded journalists don't seem immune.
Fox reporter Keba Arnold already has made several phone calls home to confirm details Garber relayed about a grandfather about whom Arnold knew little. And Fox cameraman Dan Earle's deceased relatives and friends keep flitting in and out of Garber's head with messages.
In fact, Earle's grandmother is so insistent, she's horning in on the messages Garber is trying to convey to Graham from the spirits of the author's classily dressed mother and lipstick fanatic of a sister.
Eventually, the ghost of Earle's grandma seems to win. She won't be the last message of the night, but Garber says she wants to talk about her super-secret homemade sauce recipe now.
"Someone makes it - it's too watery," Garber tells Earle, who looks a tad fazed by all the messages he's getting.
"It's my Dad," the cameraman replies with a slight smile. "It's never quite as good."
Erin Ailworth can be reached at email@example.com.