What It's Really Like To Be A Female Ghost Hunter

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
When the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters came out in 2016, certain, overwhelmingly male parts of the internet weren't happy about it. Not only did the movie brush up against a cherished piece of pop culture, it also challenged mainstream ideas of who, exactly, "ain't afraid of no ghost."
From the original Ghostbusters film to Supernatural to Ghost Adventures, pop culture would have us believe that paranormal investigators are always and only men. But a real-life team of women ghost hunters has been working steadily in the American South for years — way before Kristen Wiig even touched a proton pack. One member of that team spoke with Refinery29 about her experiences with the paranormal.
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Margaret "Maggs" Williams grew up visiting cemeteries, taking rubbings of tombstones, and having minor brushes with ghosts — "thinking you hear something or see something," she says. It wasn't until 2009, when she and her sister took a ghost tour of the Old South Pittsburgh Hospital in Pittsburgh, Tennessee, that she decided to make the paranormal part of her everyday life.
They were sitting on a long bench with the rest of the tour group when the guide pointed out a few odd specks of dust in the air right by Williams. "As soon as he said that, the bench made this horrible cracking sound," she says. It broke. Everyone screamed. Williams and her sister met fellow paranormal enthusiast Sue Olsen on that tour and decided to start a ghost hunting team with her. Their name? The Bench Breaking Broads.
Since their inception, the Broads have added two more core members to the team — both of them women. All five work day-jobs and have families ("none of our husbands want any part of it," Williams says). Ghost hunting is a passion they share and, if they had the time and means, they'd make it their full-time pursuit. "If we don’t do at least one a month, we all kind of get bitchy about it," she says with a laugh.
The Bench Breaking Broads are available to investigate historical sites and private homes in southern Kentucky, Tennessee, northern Alabama, and northern Mississippi. Read on to learn more about what makes their team work.
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illustrated by Tristan Offit.
"Hunter" might be a bit of a misnomer.

When asked whether she and the rest of the Bench Breaking Broads investigate hauntings with intent to get rid of any spirits they find, Williams answers with an immediate "No." They aren't in the business of ghost-busting, she explains. Rather, they investigate historical sites and private homes in order to learn about the people who once lived there — and, ideally, ease any tensions between those spirits and the currently living.

Williams recalls one particularly "active" home they visited, which belonged to a man who'd had a traumatic past: "He’d seen his father be killed at his sister’s wedding. He saw one of his brothers killed by a gang," she says, adding that, in addition to his father and brother's spirits, the Broads encountered those of his deceased grandmother and mother in his home, too. "[They] were trying to come to him and say that they were proud of him. After we found out who it was, everything calmed down... His wife says that he’s almost like a changed man. He loves that he’s being looked over by these people. That made us feel good," Williams says.
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illustrated by Tristan Offit.
You need as much equipment as you want.

The Broads arrive at an investigation site with several cameras, including a Go Pro and a remote-controlled car to strap it onto, an electromagnetic field (EMF) meter, flashlights, and various motion sensors — but Williams says their most indispensable gear are their cell phones. And really, she says, if you have a smartphone, that's enough to get started as a ghost hunter. After all, an iPhone can be a voice recorder, video camera, and still photo camera, plus Williams says there are a few good apps out there. "That’s all your really need," she says.

If they're stopping by a cemetery or particularly old building, Williams says they'll bring along a copper dowsing rod, too. Easily the most esoteric piece of equipment in the Broads' bags, a dowsing rod is a very old ghost hunting tool thought to be able to detect the kind of low-frequency sounds that spirits supposedly make. "I think [using dowsing rods] helps the older entities feel more comfortable with communicating with you, because they actually know what those are. They’ve seen them before in their lifetime," she explains.
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illustrated by Tristan Offit.
Your most important tool is your gut.

Williams shares one particularly spooky anecdote about an investigation at Kentucky's notorious Waverly Hills sanatorium, in which she and the rest of the Broads got in over their heads. The trouble started when the team got in touch with one of the resident ghosts and ignored her warnings not to go into the hospital's basement. "We went anyway, because we don’t listen," Williams says. It wasn't long before Williams sensed a change in the air.

"I just got a gut feeling that something was wrong," Williams says. "I saw a black shadow in our laser lights and I felt a pinch on the inside of my arm. I was halfway across the room before my sister and everybody else noticed. I was like, 'We’ve got to go,' so they snatched up everything, and we all went hauling up out of there."

When they made it back upstairs, Williams found bruises and marks on her arm where she'd felt something pinch it. "It looked like a puncture mark from where someone was either trying to give me blood or take it," she says. So, let this be a lesson to any budding ghost hunters: If something feels wrong, go with that feeling.
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illustrated by Tristan Offit.
The team’s values matter.

The Broads stick to a few, clear-cut rules during investigations, two of which have to do with the team's overall safety. "We don’t have anything to do with anything evil or negative," Williams says. "We don’t want to open ourselves up to that." If someone contacts them about a malevolent spirit, she's more than happy to connect them with a team who deals with such hauntings. She adds that, as an additional precaution, they pray before and after each investigation.

The other "rule" that Williams mentions is a testament to the team's integrity. "We absolutely never charge for anything," she says. "We feel that if you’re going to charge for something like that, then maybe you’re not being so truthful with evidence."
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illustrated by Tristan Offit.
All-women teams are rare, but they make a difference.

Williams says though she isn't in touch with any other all-female ghost hunting teams, this set-up works well for the Broads. Not only do they get along well, but she believes that their gender has helped them have more interesting encounters.

While investigating the Buchanan Log House in Nashville, they first made contact with the matriarch's spirit, rather than that of Mr. Buchanan. "We were very non-threatening," Williams says. "If we’d had guys with us, I don’t think she would have come out."

Eventually, Mr. Buchanan joined his wife and reached out to the broads, but only after years of visits — and, Williams believes, after seeing how they treated his beloved.
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