It was a dark weeknight in 1999 and Dustin Benner was alone working late.
Around 10 p.m. he began closing up the office, ready to go home. He flicked off the lights inside the old school in Bozeman where he worked and darkness flooded the vast building. Only the red glow of the fire alarm radiated through the long, silent hallway.
Suddenly, something at the far end caught his attention. In the soft red glow that reflected off the tile floor, he saw a little girl dressed in a school uniform. She stood there silently for a moment before slowly disappearing down a stairwell.
The experience stayed with him for the rest of the week. Ever since he was a kid he had an interest in paranormal activity, but he’d never encountered anything like that before.
“If you asked me five minutes before that experience if I believed in ghosts, I would have told you no,” he says today.
A few days later, Benner was walking through the old building when he came across a history exhibit. It featured historic photos of classrooms and students from the 1920s. Benner immediately recognized something. The students were wearing the same uniform as the apparition.
That discovery reaffirmed the events from that night. It also set Benner’s life on the course he would follow through today, as one of Montana’s go-to ghost hunters.
Benner is co-founder and director of the Montana Paranormal Research Society, a group of volunteers based in Billings who travel the state investigating things that go bump in the night.
Armed with high-tech equipment, including electromagnetic field meters and digital camcorders, Benner and his team respond to reported haunted houses and other possible paranormal activity. At least once a month the group receives a request for service. Their schedule has grown even busier in recent years since being certified by The Atlantic Paranormal Society, a group made famous by the popular television show “Ghost Hunters,” which follows a team of investigators that responds to paranormal phenomena across the nation.
In Montana, the paranormal research society’s main goal, Benner says, is to help anyone who is tormented by curious noises or perceived spirits. The group has also become active in raising funds to preserve historic buildings across the state.
Benner estimates that 95 percent of the time the reports he and his team investigate end up being something explainable, like old pipes or clogged vents.
“But then you have that 5 percent when you start to get into interesting things,” he says.
Ghosts have made a comeback in America.
Their haunting presence is no longer dismissed by a large segment of the population and their popularity has led to several television shows and a year-round crop of Hollywood films.
Multiple surveys, including one by Pew Research, estimate that 35 to 45 percent of Americans believe in ghosts or that spirits of dead people can exist. That percentage has exploded in the last few decades, when only 15 to 20 percent of Americans bought into supernatural experiences.
“Back in 1999, it wasn’t something you spoke about with different people because they thought you were crazy,” Benner says. “It wasn’t as widely accepted as it is today.”
Hollywood has enthusiastically embraced ghost fever. Horror or suspense movies now emerge year-round with major budgets, sometimes becoming blockbusters. For example, the three “Paranormal Activity” movies have combined to earn more than $577 million.
The television series “Ghost Hunters” is in its ninth season on the Sci-Fi channel, and past seasons have attracted up to 3.1 million viewers on a weekly basis. The show has inspired multiple spinoffs.
Karen Stevens, who is a member of Benner’s paranormal research society, has written three books on ghosts, including her latest, “Glacier Ghost Stories,” which was published in May. In the 103-page paperback, Stevens shares supernatural tales and mysteries that she has gathered from Glacier National Park. She writes about the park’s lodges being haunted and the tale of an apparitional mountain man who reportedly wanders the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
“I’ve always been interested in ghosts because I grew up in a haunted house in Minneapolis,” Stevens told the Beacon. “Back in the day, nobody would admit to seeing ghosts and if you told somebody you had an experience, they would recommend you see a shrink. Nowadays it’s much more accepted. You can hardly turn on the television without seeing a program about ghosts.”
Benner was a ghost hunter before the term was even mainstream. He founded the paranormal society in 2005 along with two other friends. The group has developed a cult following in many ways; nearly 2,000 people like it on Facebook and follow the group’s efforts.
He says he always tries to find the logical explanation behind a reported paranormal event. That 5 percent of the time when it’s unexplainable? Well, Benner leaves it as that — unexplainable.
“I never tell anyone, ‘this is a ghost,” he says. “Do we know what a ghost is? As of right now science can’t prove it. What did I see that night back in ’99? It certainly looked like a little girl and she had the uniform of the photo I saw. But what caused that? I don’t know. Just because we don’t have an explanation for it, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
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