Under the dim glow of a waning moon, a carefully laid string of lights intended to detect spirits by their electromagnetic signal suddenly lit up. For a split second, the old stone bridge off Mission Road is bathed in purple light before falling into darkness again.
“Was that you that ran past us and made the lights go off, Toby?” called out Jennifer Gonzalez, addressing a spirit. Nearby, her companions watched for further indications of ghostly activity. One, an apprentice in the group, wore a large pair of earphones connected to a listening device.
These are the Ghoul Gals Paranormal, a paranormal investigative team based in San Antonio. “Toby” is the nickname they have given to what they say is the spirit of a little boy they have met on previous trips to the so-called “Devil’s Bridge,” and who may or may not have died in a car crash nearby.
The Ghoul Gals are, as far as they know, the only female paranormal investigative team in Central Texas, and one of the few in the country, aside of course from the all-female crew of the recent Ghostbusters remake.
“Even the movie franchises know that women can do it just as well as men can,” said Sydney Reyes, one of the team’s founding members.
On weekends, this group of a half-dozen women take late-night trips together to explore abandoned jails, cemeteries, old homes, and shops. They get together once a month to go over their findings, plan future ghostly explorations, and watch movies — most recently Hocus Pocus, a 1993 film about teenagers finding witches in Massachusetts.
“As an all-women paranormal team, we can feed off each other,” Reyes said. “We can tell when someone’s not right with one another, when we need to back off or go to another room in a house.”
To their many followers, who they call their “ghouls and goblins,” the pitch on their Facebook page is simple: “Do you ever feel like you might have something in your home or business and would like some answers? We can help.” They don’t charge for their ghost-detecting services, saying they merely want to hear these spirits’ stories and, if they can, help them find peace.
They’re part of a new breed of ghost hunters that, without the commercial backing of reality television producers, reaches fans through social media, where they livestream their expeditions. The Ghoul Gals’ Facebook page has 2,621 followers, and their TikTok account has another 1,133.
But don’t call them experts.
Though Reyes said they all boast a high amount of sensitivity to paranormal energies (Reyes said she comes from a line of curanderas, or folk healers), there are no experts in a field where “so much is unknown.”
“That’s why we’re called paranormal investigators, because we’re trying to help build scientific credibility that these spirits are in fact real.”
According to a 2019 YouGov poll, 45% of Americans have at least some belief in ghosts, and rates are higher among women and people identifying themselves as Republicans. More than one-third of Americans report having personally felt the presence of a ghost or spirit.
Ghost hunting is a burgeoning hobby in San Antonio as it is across the country, doubtless helped by the proliferation of ghost hunting shows like “Ghost Hunters,” which premiered on the SyFy channel in 2004 and has generated countless imitators.
The Ghoul Gals split off last year from the Midnight Paranormal Society, one of a few local paranormal investigative groups alongside others like the San Antonio Dead Seekers and Beyond Believe Paranormal that they sometimes collaborate with.
A number of tourism attractions and event venues cater to these groups and others that are less formally defined. For example, Victoria’s Black Swan Inn charges $50 per person for “open investigation” nights, or $500 for a team to reserve the entire venue and grounds. Ghost tours in San Antonio regularly top national ghost tour lists.
At the “Devil’s Bridge” not far from Mission San Juan, Reyes, Gonzalez, and Connie Aguero — on her first outing as an investigator-in-training — sought for hours to communicate with “Toby.”
Despite an early outburst of activity on the string of lights, it saw little action the rest of the night. Nor did the plethora of other equipment the team had brought, including a laser pointer that projects a grid pattern, intended to capture any skulking silhouettes, or a toy truck that loudly plays a children’s song when moved. “You can use it for any kind of spirit, but children are more attached to it,” Reyes explained.
Instead, the only tool any spirits seemed to engage with was a motion sensor light. The Ghoul Gals determined this was because it was blue, and Toby’s favorite color is blue. At one point, Gonzalez said she felt a small presence hold her hand.
As this reporter left the scene of the investigation, I called out into the darkness myself. “I liked meeting you, Toby, but I’m leaving now.” Almost immediately, the motion sensor light blinked.
Pushing it, Reyes said, “Toby, can you blink again to say goodbye?”
The light blinked again.