Bowling for Spectres, at Asbury Lanes

A recent uptick in reported spirit unrest led Asbury Lanes manager “Juicy” Jenn Hampton to call in the experts — Kathy Kelly and the team at Haunted Jersey Shore — to investigate the secrets that lie behind the barstools, urinals and pin machines.

There’s the lost and troubled soul who tends to lurk around the men’s room — an entity who, by some accounts, might possibly be a patron who perished in a motorcycle accident on his way home one night. Then there’s the spirit behind the bar — one whose taste for more immediately tangible spirits remains strong enough for the staff to pour him a placating drink as a way of keeping the peace.

As for whoever or whatever dwells in the shadows back behind Lane 3 — well, the smart money says it’s best not to ask.

Asbury Lanes is many things to many people — retro rec room rock club; atom age cocktail lounge/ snack bar; NJ’s undisputed capital of burlesque and sideshow culture. A place for film screenings, art openings, dance-offs, garage sales, fundraisers and weddings. To say nothing of (sex toy) Bingo and (straight/gay) bowling. But as a nearly 100 year old building, its walls have seen many more layers of history than just the usual accumulation of band flyers and stickers.

Late into the night and long after Last Call, when the buzz from the evening’s raucous good times has dissipated and the pinsetters have gone silent; when the barstools have been turned up and the grill has been scraped down, this place of music and good times and laughter has been known to take on an altogether different vibe — a feeling of unease amplified by the drips and flickers of the curmudgeonly old wiring and plumbing, by the enormity of the space (it’s almost a whole city block from the front steps to where the far lanes fade into dim and dark) and by the solitude of the setting (it’s the last outpost on a once-swinging block; surrounded by bulldozed lots, boarded up apartment houses and skeletal, abandoned condo projects).

This is the time, it’s said, when whispered conversations and the barking of dogs echo from unoccupied stalls; bottles are found broken in ways that bottles never really break; locker doors slam shut and, somewhere out there in the shadows, you can hear a (bowling) pin drop.

Enter Kathy Kelly — businesswoman, history buff and, yeah, experienced ghost investigator. As owner of the ever-fascinating downtown destination Paranormal Books & Curiosities (and its adjoining Paranormal Museum), the pleasant and entirely pragmatic proprietress created a must-see shop that sits at the cross-dimensional nexus of attested-to Fact and the finest, funnest storytelling Fiction. As conductor of a successful series of local ghost tours in Asbury Park, her excursions have been noted for their exhaustive research — as well as a genuine affinity for the human experience that marks the Victorian attics, melancholy midways and storm-savaged jetties of this beleaguered old town. And, as a charter member of the crack investigative team known as Haunted Jersey Shore, she’s absolutely what comes to mind when Mr. Ray Parker Jr. asks that synth-drenched musical question.

Having just moved into an address a scant few blocks away from the fabled Lanes — an address, as detailed in these paperless pages previously, that’s acquired its own nationwide reputation for paranormal activity — we took Kelly up on her invitation to look in on a recent Ghost Investigation of Asbury Lanes; a prospect sweetened and ultimately sealed by the promise of pizza and the allure of adventure. So it was that we spent nearly five hours of a Monday night inside a closed nightclub; an interval that included occupying a pitch-dark men’s room with three women we had just met, and spelunking deep into one of the most creepy-cool, behind-the-scenes places we never thought existed.

Sure, the walls are festooned with some swingin’ skull-themed art — but inside the atom-age retro lounge at Asbury Lanes, the creepy stuff is more than just skull deep. (Photo by Skulladay)

Granted, there are more glamorous places to spend a summer night than leaky bathrooms and greasy maintenance crawlspaces — but then again, this is neither a theme-park thrill ride nor a well-scripted tour. As practiced by the Haunted Jersey Shore team and their paying guests, a Ghost Investigation is more like a private eye’s solitary stakeout, crossed with a bleary-eyed, late-night shift working at a parking garage or drawbridge. And, unlike the nightrider trespassing that the editors of WeirdNJ are so often accused of exacerbating, you have to be asked in.

“Jenn (Asbury Lanes manager “Juicy” Jenn Hampton) invited me and my group here in 2007,” recalls Kelly of an interlude in which the unseen weirdness at the Lanes was reportedly beginning to outstrip that of the patrons and the featured entertainment. “My first investigation here is what convinced me to open my store in town.”

“I had been coming to Asbury Park pretty frequently before then, but I realized there was enough history — dark history — to make this town my base of operations.”

“It’s also hard not to fall in love with the Lanes,” she adds. “It’s such a unique blend of the mundane and the out-there — I investigate here three or four times a year; probably about a dozen times since that first one.”

According to Kelly, the Lanes is also one of the most ectoplasmically active places she’s ever visited — but regardless of results, the whole Ghost Investigation experience is a study in patience; one that comes without the jump-cut edits and post-production FX of the Ghost Hunter-type TV shows. We made the observation — and Kelly wholeheartedly agreed — that it can be a relaxing, “contemplative” break from the media static we so often surround ourselves with — the sort of feeling that draws other people to plein-air painting, say.

After reviewing the eccentricities of the building’s lighting set-up and handing over a set of keys, Juicy Jenn bids adieu, leaving a group of eight that includes Kathy and one of the tech-savvy fellow members of Haunted Jersey Shore, as well as a married couple (Nicole and Chris from Bradley Beach) who have apparently participated in these endeavors many times — and who wouldn’t miss this for the world, despite Nicole’s evident pregnancy. Also present are four other sign-ups from various places in NJ (one from as far away as Vernon) — and us, playing the devil’s-advocate role of wisecracking reporter.

“It’s not easy communicating with the dead,” says Kelly in her introductory remarks at the outset of the excursion. “It’s a game of subtleties — your best pieces of equipment are your five, six, seven, eight senses.”

That said, there are many different pieces of hard equipment involved in a professional ghost investigation — including several stationary video cameras, feeding into a multiple-monitor “command center” just like on TV. Other equipment could be found laid out on top of the club’s pool table, such as flashlights, digital audio recorders, EMF meters, heat sensors, and — for reasons unexplained — a big red-and-white megaphone. There are also some unrecognizable electronic devices that will evidently come into play at a later point in the proceedings.

Splitting up into two non-competing teams, the participants begin the investigation at one of three designated haunt spots in the building, which beneath the 60s architectural accents (both real and retrofitted) and the kitschy-kool pop art (including a display of numerous “Skull-A-Day” creations by Noah Scalin) offers up some truly forgotten and “forbidden” corners — there’s a narrow storage space near the front entrance that appears to house some 1930s vintage movie posters among other things, and the makeshift “dressing” area behind the center-lanes stage dissolves into something of an elephants’-graveyard for abandoned band gear and fab 50s furniture.

While our stakeout sessions inside the darkened pissoir and the uncharacteristically peaceful cocktail lounge (where, many years before the rebirth of the Lanes as hipster hangout, we would have a beer with David Johansen, Wreckless Eric and others who played next door at the old FastLane club) were uneventful, we got to listen in as the more experienced team members asked some simple questions — Do you have something you want to say to us? Are you sad? — of the rumored regulars. Standard operating procedure dictates that silences be employed, the better for any entities to make their auditory mark — and such potential distractions as WiFi signals and the constantly running toilet in the back stall are, according to Kelly, “constants against which spikes in our data are measured.”

After almost a couple of hours, it’s time for our team to enter the heart of darkness as it were — the seldom-seen region behind the actual alleys of the automated lanes. Accessible only via an incredibly narrow passageway further complicated by propped-up tables and other detritus, it’s a long, dark, dank and dirty space — somehow both unsettlingly large and uncomfortably claustrophobic at the same time — tricked out in vintage machinery and makeshift catwalk; lined with bins and boxes of old springs, gears, washers and other carefully-sorted components that would probably be very difficult to round up from scratch.

It’s a place that exists far from the light and life of the nightclub and of the city at large; a place where nobody — probably not the building owner, and certainly not the Fire Department — can hear you scream, or for that matter even knows you’re there. One of those rare spots, in fact, that feels even creepier with the lights on than in pitch blackness.

A quick check with the flashlight tells us that we’re positioned directly at the back of the infamous Lane 3 — the “Mean Lane,” as it’s called; a place upon whose polished hardwood at least three(!) people have reportedly dropped dead of heart attacks. Coincidence? Perhaps — but definitely fuel for the legend of the “unpleasant, territorial” presence that many folks insist is embedded back there. It’s an atmosphere described as having earlier been palpably “tense and oppressive”  by Chris, who accompanied our group — and who attempted to “relax” the spirit by speaking of some people that such a person might have known decades ago. That, and a conversational tangent on the glories of the Keansburg go-go bar Pumps Plus, may have served to lift the aura of distrust and tension from the scene — although one of our party cut her hand when she tripped over a bowling-lane gutter on the way back to the nether regions of the building.

Where the playfully ironic decor ends, the dark shadows of the infamous Lane 3 beckon the  adventurous. (Photo by Noah Scalin)

After the hot spots are staked out and readings are taken, it’s time for the assembled group to convene inside the lounge for a session featuring the Frank’S Box — a device that scans all available audio frequencies (AM, FM, shortwave) with the intent of providing a vehicle by which a disembodied spirit can “form words” through snippets of broadcast speech and sound. While one member of the party swears that the device (aka “Ghost Box”) was the source of a Eureka moment for him — it “said” his name, as well as that of his long-lost biological father and the word “dad” — Kelly describes it as “kind of a mediumistic device…like a Ouija board, it depends on the person using it.”

Our own brief time spent listening to the random jumble of signals on the Frank’s yielded several identifiable snippets of The Happenings singing “See You in September” — an inscrutable message from the Other Side?

Kelly’s own preference would appear to run toward the “Obelisk,” a frequency scanning device in which a loud-and-clear digital “voice” reads off words that “jump out” from the sonic static. Our session inside the lounge went like so: “James.” “Necessary.” (“Necessary? What’s necessary?”) “Rabbit.” “President.” (“We’d all like to tell the President something.”) “Science.” “Tired.”

Significant impressions from the spirit world? Totally random shit? As Kathy Kelly sees it, “I believe that there’s a personality component with everything…we get different results, from the same places, based on who’s in attendance.”

“When believers are present, we tend to have big phenomena…and when we’re all just sitting back, we have low readings.”

For the Haunted Jersey Shore tech team, it was on to countless hours spent reviewing the collected materials for electronic voice phenomena (EVP), orbs or other irregularities (we have the notion that the camera pointed toward the snack bar may have revealed a mysterious figure in a Hawaiian shirt, cagily copping another slice of pepperoni). For us, it was back up the street to our (quiet since the first few nights we lived there) new home — and for Kathy Kelly, it was back to the store, a series of scheduled seances, the summertime walking ghost tours, and a special project in which she was asked to participate in a South Jersey taping with TV’s Cake Boss (“It’s weird to me — they’re making a cake to attract the Devil”).

Kelly, who maintains that “I don’t believe in the supernatural…I believe in the supernormal,” will be conducting her next local Ghost Investigation on the evening of Monday, August 8 — this time inside the considerably smaller space of Plan B on Cookman Avenue — one of our favorite Asbury Park restaurants, and a building that was apparently the site of a grisly murder at some point in the past. There’s also a big trip planned to Eastern State Penitentiary in Philly on August 26; check here for details on reservations, cancellations and more.